Course Blog

Materials with a life-cycle

Algae bottle – Ari Jónsson, 2016

Pollution by ‘immortal’ materials
Many materials produced nowadays, such as plastics, take hundreds of years to decompose, meaning even a mundane object such as a plastic bag will outlive its owner by multiple human lifetimes. This is contributing to the increasingly worsening issue of anthropogenic pollution [1] – we are leaving behind trails on this planet that cannot be erased, both in the form of waste and obsolescent objects (products that have passed their ‘useful’ lifespan but are still physically present e.g. old laptops, phones…).

There is therefore a need in creating materials that do not outlive us and pollute our environment, but rather are biodegradable or fully recyclable once their useful lifespan has passed. Using biological materials to work towards this goal seems self-evident in terms of sustainability and biodegradability.

Planned obsolescence in nature – the Hayflick Limit
We discussed the principle of planned obsolescence in nature, and found one of the most comparable biological phenomena to be the Hayflick Limit. Herein, Leonard Hayflick discovered that human cell cultures (fibroblasts) were not immortal, but had a certain lifespan – they can only divide a finite amount of times before they stop dividing and die. Not only that, cells can ‘remember’ their own age – even when single cells are transferred to younger cultures, they continue to divide and die according to their own age [2]. Hayflick therefore proposed there had to be a certain cell division counting mechanism. It was later elucidated that the limit to cell division was caused by an increasing shortening of telomeres (ends of chromosomes) since these cannot be fully duplicated during replication [3].

Biodesign project goals – introducing mortality into materials
In our project we wish to address the need for materials that do not outlive us by applying the principle of the Hayflick Limit / planned obsolescence to a substance which causes its decomposition after it has fulfilled its purpose / ‘lifespan’. A conceptual piece resembling our interests was developed by the Icelandic designer Ari Jónsson – he developed a water bottle (pictured above) based on algal agar, which only retains its form while filled with water. Once emptied and discarded, the bottle naturally collapses and is readily biodegradable [4].

We are currently hypothesising about working with living materials that can either undergo exogenously or endogenously (e.g. by genetic engineering) triggered cell death after a determined time frame, or whether we could work with already ‘dead’ biological materials that begin to decompose after their usage. In every case, for full biological degradation, factors such as the requirement of decomposing organisms must also be taken into account. Working in the framework of materials that cease to exist after their usage also requires us to conceptually consider what actually determines the usefulness and ‘life’ of a material, and if (or how) one gets to decide when something becomes obsolete.

[1] Lavers, J.L. & Bond, A.L. (2017) Exceptional and rapid accumulation of anthropogenic debris on one of the world’s most remote and pristine islands. PNAS 114: 6052-6055
[2] Shay, J.W. & Wright, W.E. (2000) Hayflick, his limit, and cellular ageing. Nature 1: 72-75
[3] Allsopp, R.C., Vaziri, H., Patterson, C., Goldstein, S., Younglai, E.V., Futcher, A.B., Greider, C.W. & Harley, C.B. (1992) Telomere length predicts replicative capacity of human fibroblasts. PNAS 89[4] Morby, A (2016) Ari Jónsson uses algae to create biodegradable water bottles.