Elise Elsacker

At the dawn of the third millennium, our societies are experiencing major environmental disruptions caused by the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels and raw materials. Exactly fifteen years ago, Paul Crutzen and his colleagues recognised the dazzling passage in another geohistorical era: “The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of this planet.”[1]. In other words, human activities are overriding the natural cycle of the terrestrial system. Yet, a high-order conceptual framework of Earths’ evolution, including the Anthropocene, was missing until now. For the first time in history, researchers have developed a mathematical model describing the impact of human activities on the earth: the climate is changing 170 times faster because of us[2]. And while some, myself included, were still trying to cope with the shock, a new question arose: how can we guide our societies into a new era of production which is no longer based on the extraction of raw materials and fossil fuels? Should it be the scientists and politicians only who decide what to do next? Or could we rather organise a form of ‘citizen science’, in which the civil society is actively involved asserts itself as an innovative and fundamental source of change?

In search for those answers, I got involved in the open bio lab ReaGent in 2015 and received a biotechnological training by other members, focussed on the development of biomaterials. Since then, we have been experimenting a lot with living organisms, in an empirical and creative way, to investigate their application potential. We became a movement of citizen scientists that hack biology, often referred to as biohackers. Citizen science is “a form of research collaboration involving members of the public in scientific research projects to address real-world problems.”[3]. The main idea is that citizens can produce scientific data of equal value as the data collected by the scientists. Do-It-Yourself biology emerged in Europe around 2011, such as La Paillasse in Paris or BiologiGaragen in Copenhagen. In Belgium, it started in 2013 with DIYbio in Nivelles, followed in 2015 by ReaGent in Ghent, and in 2016 with Open Biolab in Brussels. These labs are often built in basements or kitchens and provide mentorship to citizens with little or no formal training. DIY biologists contribute to biology and life sciences from outside the university, whilst benefiting from extensive research training from academia and corporations.

As a matter of fact, this bottom-up attitude enabled me, as an architect, to build up confidence in a completely different scientific field: microbiology, and more particularly the study of mycelium (the white root-structure of mushrooms). The highly-trained members of the bio lab considered me as equal. Thanks to this equality and cross-disciplinarity - the key factors for radical innovation -, I received a FWO-SB fellowship earlier this year to conduct an innovative research at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels with my two promoters, Prof. Dr. Ir. Arch. Lars De Laet (Architectural Engineering) and Prof. Dr. Ir. Eveline Peeters (Microbiology).

Driven by a fundamental need to change architectural design approaches, my research is centred on cultivating living organisms on by-products of agriculture. These living materials are composed of a natural reinforcement, such as agricultural plant residues fibres, and fungal mycelium. The mushrooms’ roots acts as a complex and resourceful three-dimensional network, similar to a woven fabric, binding natural fibres into lightweight yet durable composite materials which are fully compostable and suitable for various industrial applications, for example in the building sector. The main goal of this research is to engineer the heterogeneity of the living matter, allowing variations in thickness, strength, and flexibility within a single fabrication process. Therefore, we analyse the morphological and metabolic growth principle of filamentous mycelial microorganisms and associate it with the production of bioinspired man-made tissues and composite materials. The classification of those processes of biological optimization processes allows us to understand the key factors that determine the growth, and properties of living materials suitable for lightweight architectural structures. Eventually, we will apply novel robotic additive manufacturing techniques in order to develop innovative lightweight architectural elements made with biologically grown composites. By combining the use of computer-aided 3D printing fabrication with the use of abundant natural materials, sustainable products and building elements can be manufactured using little energy and under mild conditions. This technique has a wide range of applications, such as bio-degradable temporary pavilions, emergency shelters, building skins, insulation, interior elements and furniture. This research engages a strategic transition towards a circular bio-based society, providing a sustainable response to environmental issues and wasted resources in the building sector.

Besides this PhD project, I was rewarded a grant by VOCATIO in April 2017. The foundation honours 15 promising persons having a vocation, passion or life calling per year. The appointees receive a donation of € 10.000. VOCATIO stimulates young and brilliant social engaged persons, artists, physicians and scientists, who are actively contributing to the development of our society since their childhood and who will play a key role in their domain.

Hence, this grant will support my life-project called Magma Nova, which enables me to go a step further in those new developments by creating an interdisciplinary mobile lab. At the crossroad of different scientific fields, this project is rooted in the biological adaptability of materials, architectural design, and additive fabrication technologies. We aim to design solutions for openness and sharing. To do so, we will unite diverse groups of stakeholders (individuals, organizations, and universities) to discuss the technical options of biologically grown design. This approach is hybrid since the questions and problems raised are not merely scientific questions, but do also have ethical, political and economic implications. Therefore, a part of the VOCATIO grant will also be invested in the development of an open-source education platform to make the information accessible for all levels of society. Furthermore, Magma Nova organises workshops, masterclasses and lectures on living bio-materials, supporting the emergence of a new generation which understands this new sense of materiality.

I have the feeling that the actions of peer biohackers and citizen scientists are driven by a sense of empathy and urgency. Accurately observing subtle social and environmental changes encourages us to define what others might require to overcome the challenges to come. It is an emotional awareness that can be perceived as contradictory to the hard sciences. But as a matter of fact, this skill underlies the reasons why we refuse to be a ‘passive’ audience waiting for top-down scientific solutions. Instead, we try to actively contribute to the understanding of biologically grown organisms and thereby reconnect man-made design to natural and sustainable strategies. We are exploring new boundaries and we want you to be part of it! Join us on www.MagmaNova.com.

[1] Crutzen PJ (2002) Geology of mankind — The Anthropocene. Nature 415: 23.

[2] Gaffney, O., Steffen, W., The Anthropocene equation. The Anthropocene Review, pp 53-62, Vol.4, Nr.1, 2017, doi:10.1177/2053019616688022

[3] Wiggins, A., & Crowston, K. From Conservation to Crowdsourcing: A Typology of Citizen Science, 2011.

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