Collaborations Welcome | Bacteria at Work

Among the serendipitous synergies that have sprouted at 33 Flatbush Avenue is an ongoing collaboration between the design and research firm Decker Yeadon and Dr. Oliver Medvedik of Genspace, a new community biotech lab. Their work focuses on water quality, an issue that is a central concern to millions of people in the Global South.

Sipping water in parts of the developing world—provided you can find it—is a gamble. In places like Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, the odds that you’ll get sick are particularly high. Wells, dug deep with the intent of avoiding microbial disease, often expose individuals to toxic levels of arsenic. This slow but effective killer causes cancer, skin disease, and birth defects, and is pervasive due to bad geological luck (arsenic seeps naturally from certain forms of rock) and industrial pollution. Finding a cheap and reliable way to test water for contamination is an ongoing challenge.

Peter Yeadon, who teaches at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is working with Kim de Mora (University of Edinburgh), Gautam Mukunda (Harvard Business School), and Matthew Owens (Lumin Sensors) to create a small detection device that puts living, genetically engineered bacteria to work. In the presence of arsenic, these microbes change the acidity of the water, causing a dye indicator to change color—somewhat like miniaturized detection dogs trained to bark at the smell of explosives. To achieve this, the team is harnessing recent advances in synthetic biology, a growing field that involves reconfiguring standardized pieces of DNA like Lego blocks, to assemble organisms that perform special functions.

Yeadon explains, “The scientists and Lumin Sensors were looking for a designer to advance their synthetic-biology biosensor research into a working device, so I took it into RISD and had the industrial design students in my Nanovation Studio work on developing kits.” That student exercise evolved into an earnest effort to develop design ideas for the device. Although the solution has been proven in concept, new constraints have emerged that require additional lab and design work.

For this, the BioSensor project will rely on the help of Genspace. The biotech lab has a mission of education through “discussion and teamwork,” rather than formal lectures, and has acted as a conduit for several recent and ongoing collaborations across disciplines like architecture and biology, making it a kind of Bio-Bauhaus. The Harvard-trained Medvedik, who leads scientific program development for Genspace, will provide the lab space and expertise needed to create precisely the right bacteria to live and work in a device. The research from this project may predict future biotech innovations, pointing to new approaches to some of the world’s most fundamental problems.

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