Research and Precedent Designs
Beginning this project on designing with living material, I was tasked to choose an organism to research on. I recall learning about the basic functions yeast undergo and how it is applied to food production in GCSE Science, and wanted to learn more about yeast. Yeast is a microorganism that is used for a wide range of purposes, that include: producing cheese and wine, studied and researched to inform the human body’s cell division cycle, and used to create drugs that fight cancer. Yeast is also utilised in producing biochemical commodities such as ethanol, and R&D work is in progress to increase ethanol yield through the development of synthetic biology.
I also researched into existing designs that featuring biological material, including collection of garment made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast by Suzanne Lee of BioCouture, and Maurizio Montalti’s homeware collection made from mycelium. Quickly concluding from research, there appears to be a narrative building upon humanity’a dominance over microorganisms, specifically how they’re being utilised for our own benefit. If microorganisms are to play a more vital role in manufacturing consumer goods, then it is plausible for consumers to critically review, or at least be aware of, our lopsided relationship with microorganisms.
I envisioned creating some sort of storage device/furniture, incorporating elements of preserving bacteria that includes freezing and incubating in a freezer or autoclave respectively, but quickly abandoned as bacteria will grow in room temperature and there are alternatives to impede bacteria’s growth. Ideas were sketched out to think of that artefact that provokes my previous thought on humanity’s relationship with microorganisms. At first, I thought of an incubator-cum-freezer home appliance allowing users to grow and archive bacteria. However, the bacteria needs a purpose, perhaps something that the user can build emotional attachment towards the agar plates, for instance, a memory, that is transcribed to the microorganisms by the user, creating a sort of “biological photo” or memento of a memorable moment in time.
Development work took place extensively at the ASCUS lab. First we began with growing bacteria in agar plates, then finally sealed them by sandwiching them with two microscopic slides and an extra layer of agar. However, that method did not work and I developed customer petri dishes from the vacuum former, to also transition away from the laboratory vernacular found in lab equipment. A small sample of sizes and shapes were trialled to find the right size for my custom petri dishes. Square dishes with rounded corners were chosen in the end, as they faintly resemble the size of a square image. The custom dishes were made using polystyrene sheets and vacuum formed.
Storage/shelving unit is also designed in conjunction, so dishes can be stored. This process incorporated design affordance considerations, hinting how the users should store dishes, depending if they’re growing or sealed. The shelf was made using MDF, wihich upon refelction, perhaps is not the most suitable material, as it was spray painted white, which does not appear to be a good visual match with the transparent petri dishes, and its angular form.
Sealing Custom Agar Dishes
Next I brought the custom dishes to ASCUS and grew bacteria from swabbed material samples. A number of small test tubes were hacked to fit in cotton buds to swab materials, which is a very useful tool to be swabbing material on-the-go. A range of samples from various locations in Edinburgh, to the bottom of my shoe was swabbed hoping for a visually appealing and successful petri dish. The bacteria need at least a week to grow into something that is easily perceptible to the eye. All the work is done to simulated completing the process at home. Once the bacteria has grown to the user’s requirement, he/she can seal the bacteria (impending their growth), or continue to let them grow. Sealing the bacteria involves pouring a layer of plain agar over the previous, ensuring the bacteria won’t find sufficient nutrients for growth.
Once there’s enough agar, push the 3D printed lid gently into the dish, the liquid agar will emerge, which is normal. Let the agar in the dish set before applying nail varnish on the sides to secure the lid against the square dish.
The back of the lids have a small insert in the centre for the dish’s leg, which allows the dish to be displayed once the leg is inserted. The shelving unit is designed to separately place dishes that have growing bacteria from dishes that have sealed bacteria. As bacteria needs to be placed flat when grown, such dishes need to be placed face down and stacked vertically, unlike the sealed dishes that are stacked horizontally, slight resembling disc albums.