Computational Colloids

Challenges of interdisciplinary research

28 Nov , 2016  

One of the main challenges in this project is the different disciplines, practices and spaces that come into play. The ultimate goal of Computational Colloids is to produce a genetically modified organism that is sensitive to pressure changes. This is particularly relevant in the context of foundations, where building produce pressure on soils volumes. Moreover, several building pathologies are connected to soils changes that compromise their bearing capacity. When embedded in a soil matrix, the organism would respond by synthesising a new biological material, which binds the soil particles together, improving its mechanical response. Development, however, requires an assortment of people, practices and spaces to mesh and operate together. Genetic modification, for example, is carried out in a micro-biology laboratory at the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology.

Testing the organism directly in soil, however, presents a host of challenges difficult to navigate in early development processes. Instead, we have developed a model of material proxy: materials which behave similar, and are easier to work with. In our case, hydrogels have proved a useful proxy for soils, given its microscopic structure and mechanical behaviour under pressure. Using hydrogels, we have been able to test the organism under pressure conditions. However, development of different hydrogel composition, and study of their response to pressure is carried out across campus, in the geotechnics workshop in the School of Civil Engineering, which is equipped with pneumatic pressure chambers which enables us to control force exerted onto volumes of hydrogel to study their response and draw equivalents to the behaviour of soils.

The diversity of practices, spaces and people presents interesting design challenge though. We are currently constrained in the amount of experimentation we can do on how the modified organism reacts to a gradient of forces—we can only work with it within the controlled conditions of the microbiology lab. The equipment to control and exert pressure, however, is in the geotechnics workshop—and it’s always tricky to move 10-ton equipment across departments!

For the last month, I have been working in the design of a portable device that will enable us to test the effect of a range of pressures on the genetically modified organism and, in the current phase of development, will operate as a form of physical demonstrator. Connecting pressure sensing with material synthesis involves a complex set of genetic manipulations and mechanisms which need breaking down into smaller functional units. The first phase of the project involves generating the sensing circuitry of the cell, and connecting it to a bioluminescent gene. This way, instead of synthesising material, the modified organism will glow in response to pressure. In this context, the device will be operational in the sense of enabling researchers in the microbiology lab to test the organism. In addition, the device will enable a more tangible demonstration of the work in progress, showing non-expert public the operation of a microscopic technology.

The design requirements for the device are straightforward, revolving around two components. First, it should integrate a chamber, capable of containing a volume of hydrogel whilst being pressurised. In addition, it should be manufactured in a translucent material, which enables seeing the luminescent effect as pressure is applied. The chamber is to be located inside a rig which enables exerting even pressure onto one of the faces of the hydrogel volume. The integrated device should be relatively portable, produced in materials which can be easily decontaminated to be used in the controlled conditions of a microbiology laboratory, yet robust enough to produce the range of pressures to which the modified organism responds.

Upcoming posts will touch on the design of each components, and strategies implemented to bring both together. To close this one though, I want to reflect on the role that design in bridging the challenges of transdisciplinary research. On a superficial level, the demonstrator helps in making visible the differences in practices, spaces and, more generally, epistemology. Each discipline involved in the project—synthetic biology, engineering, design—has a specific set of principles and practices it follows in acquiring and formalising knowledge. The form factor and materials of the demonstrator contrast these in a physical instance. More fundamentally though, designing the demonstrator has helped us interrogating the design context of the overall project. In addition to being a technology that consolidates foundations, what other contexts can the technology operate in? In this context, the demonstrator ascribes a materiality to a microscopic technology, which suggests other ways of thinking about the genetically modified organism in a design context.




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