Buildings are not unlike a human body. They have bones and skin; they breathe. Electrified, they consume energy, regulate temperature and generate waste. Buildings are organisms – albeit inanimate ones.
But what if buildings – walls, roofs, floors, windows – were actually alive – grown, maintained and healed by living materials? Imagine architects using genetic tools that encode the architecture of a building right into the DNA of organisms, which then grow buildings that self-repair, interact with their inhabitants and adapt to the environment.
Living architecture is moving from the realm of science fiction into the laboratory as interdisciplinary teams of researchers turn living cells into microscopic factories. At the University of Colorado Boulder, I lead the Living Materials Laboratory. Together with collaborators in biochemistry, microbiology, materials science and structural engineering, we use synthetic biology toolkits to engineer bacteria to create useful minerals and polymers and form them into living building blocks that could, one day, bring buildings to life.
In one study published in Scientific Reports, my colleagues and I genetically programmed E. coli to create limestone particles with different shapes, sizes, stiffnesses and toughness. In another study, we showed that E. coli can be genetically programmed to produce styrene – the chemical used to make polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam.
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