Synthetic Fashion, Artificial Food

It is not unknown of that life science technology and in particular synthetic biology offers promising solutions to pressing global challenges. For example, the production of biofuels in microbes could be a sustainable alternative to fossil-based fuels (see also my post below). However, the potential benefits of synthetic biology and its related fields don’t stop there. In fact, “SynBio” might have the power to impact almost every aspect of our lives from design and architecture to nutrition and cuisine. Here, I will focus on advancements on two particularly interesting areas: fashion & food.

London-based fashion designer Suzanne Lee explores the potential of synthetic biology to grow biomaterials for clothes. In her scheme, microbes metabolically produce cellulose, the biopolymer most known for its structural function in plants. After several steps of downstream processing, she then uses the biomaterial to tailor real wearable clothes. Though still in its technological infancy, this idea offers a great route to reduce animal and environmental damage. Check out her inspiring talk here on

Another concept that sounds futuristic but might have a lasting impact on society if feasible is artificial meat. Dr. Mark Post from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands is using tissue engineering to create what is sometimes also called in vitro meat. This term should not be confused with meat substitutes based on wheat or soy, but means real animal tissue with the exception that it’s grown in a cell culture dish. Again, the technology is still limited by many technical challenges, which has led the New York Times to speak of the “$325,000 burger”. However, the scientific concept has been proven and a first public tasting is about to happen soon.

Food and fashion are just two examples of how synthetic biology could impact our future society. Even though many ideas are still in their technological (and sometimes conceptual) infancy, I think they highlight quite nicely how our future might look like. Suppose these schemes really work – efficiently and cheap. What would be your opinion? Would you like to eat an artificial burger or be dressed in a leather jacket produced by microbes? I think the potential of these new technologies is very exciting and that they offer huge potential for sustainability and animal welfare. And the transformation would not need to induce a 100% change to e.g. only tissue-engineered meat. I am actually a fan of good burgers (preferably with cheese and bacon) and would not mind getting a “real”, i.e. conventional, burger for special occasions. But if I think of all the cafeteria-food in the world, I don’t see why synthetic meat, which spares the life of many animals, would not do just as well.

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Filed under Environment, Science, Synthetic Biology, Technology


Neuroscience is really going big.

Two efforts that exemplify this trend have recently gained considerable attention in the scientific as well as popular media. Although different in academic focus and continental location, both projects aim at unraveling the mysteries of the human brain. The results could lead to breakthroughs in understanding the mind or consciousness. They would also be highly relevant for treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

The first project is “The Human Brain Project”, which focuses on creating a realistic computer model of the brain and its connections. It is part of the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative of the European Commission and will be funded with up to 1 billion Euros for 10 years. The idea behind the FET projects is to fund decidedly risky and ambitious projects with out-of-the-box ideas. Opponents of the project bring up that the data available so far is not good enough for building such a model.

In contrast to this theoretical effort, the “Brain Activity Map Project” – announced by the Obama administration earlier this year – wants to measure the activity of all neurons in the human brain. The project aims at ultimately mapping the functional connections in the human brain at the single-cell level. This calls for the development of a range of non-invasive experimental techniques as well as appropriate computer power for data analysis. Furthermore, “brain observatories” are planned in different parts of the country. The whole project which connects scientists from many US institutions is expected to cost $ 3 billion for 10 years, around the cost of the human genome project.

I think both projects are really cool. They are ambitious, difficult and risky for a fact. On the other hand, the returns would be huge and the infrastructure needed for the projects’ realization is only possible through such highly collaborative and concerted efforts.

For me, the potential benefits are nicely illustrated by the success of the human genome project. After its completion ahead of schedule in 2003, it has re-shaped important areas of basic science and is about to revolutionize medicine. To add on to the fuss, every $ invested in the project so far has returned $ 140, as reported in the New York Times. Questions?

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Boston and Philly 2013

Last week, I came back from a short but productive, inspiring and fun East Coast trip! I presented my research at the Biophysical Society 57th Annual Meeting and hoped to catch ideas through many great talks and posters on site. While I will write about the conference in a separate post, I here reflect on my personal impressions.


The Charles River

Having just come back to Germany from a 9-moth academic stay in Boston in the summer of 2012, I started the trip by revisiting this city. It was great visiting many places I’d been a regular at last year. One such place is Darwin’s LTD in Cambridge, which serves great sandwiches and lattes in a relaxed bohemian atmosphere (Go there if you’re in town!). Every time I’m in the Boston area, I am also impressed by the high number of athletic people around, who are running along and across the Charles River in spite of all weather conditions.


Center City, Philadelphia

After a seven-hour bus ride via Newark, NJ, I found myself in the streets of the 5th largest city in the USA. During the six days in Philly, I started to get a feel for the city. I think there are a number of interesting differences to Boston. First, I noticed that Philly has a much more urban flair than the MA capital. With a seemingly larger and more dense downtown business area as well as the adjacent typically 3-storey brick house area, I got the impression of walking through a smaller version of New York. The same feeling was evoked by studying the people, who – compared to the Boston student and business crowd – appeared to be a bit more on the artsy and Hipster side. In the notorious area around South Street, a lot of gentrification is happening right now with many coffee shops, bars, etc. on the rise. One potentially not so pleasant fact about Philly is its higher rate of crime and a more dangerous feel to its streets. The edge and the “cool” of these neighbourhoods go hand in hand.


The Reading Terminal Market

By the way, a favourite and can’t-miss-when-in-Philly is the Reading Terminal Market (RTM), which luckily is located right next to the Convention Center. Among the things I tried were the local Cheasesteak, burritos, great Southern food (gumbo, Lunch Po Boys,…) as well as superb coffee and fresh cookies. A lot of what is great about the diversity of American food could be found right here!

When I left the US again for Germany, I felt lucky to have spent one and half weeks of professionally and culturally enriching time on the East Coast.

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Of Bugs and Biofuels – Can synthetic biology transform renewable energy?

The world has an energy problem. And a carbon problem. Amidst the debate about the various forms of renewable energy and efforts to reduce carbon emissions, one new technology strikes out which promises to deal with both of these major global issues. This blog should give an introduction of what biofuels are and especially focuses on an innovative new route of production by photosynthetic bacteria.

Biofuels or bioenergy is “fuel derived from biological sources”. Biological sources or “biomass” is “any organic material coming form any form of life or its metabolic products”[1]. Fuels such as ethanol, hydrogen or diesel can all be derived from biomass and if so, get the prefix “bio” (e.g. bio-ethanol). Generally, biofuels have the following advantages over fossil-based fuels:

1) Biomass is not limited as are fossil-based fuels.

2) Organisms used for bioenergy production fix carbon dioxide from the air and incorporate it metabolically into fuel molecules thereby reducing the carbon footprint.

3) Biomass is available worldwide.

At first, biofuels were produced in edible crops. Examples are ethanol from corn in the USA or from sugar cane in Brazil. The obvious problem with this is that the bioenergy crops compete with food crops for arable land as well as fresh water. This creates socio-economic tensions, particularly when energy crops are located in the developing world. Biofuel Crops have been shown to be a major player to increase global food prizes. In fact, an increase of 75% has been proposed. According to an article by the Guardian increasing prizes of fuel and food have been termed “the first real economic crisis of globalization” [2].

Steps towards a solution to these problems are reflected in the second generation of biofuels which use biomass derived from non-edible crops or agricultural waste. An example is ethanol obtained from breaking down lignocellulose, which is the structure-forming component of plants. Despite many efforts, this process still faces many technical challenges.

As of recently, one completely new way of producing biofuels has received considerable attention, for example in this New York Times article. Going beyond plant-based approaches, engineered photosynthetic bacteria are used to produce the third generation of biofuels.

Photosynthetic bacteria or “cyanobacteria” can be grown in bioreactors and thus do not compete with food crops. Because these organisms offer some unique advantages over other microorganisms such as micro-algae (faster growth plus relatively easy means for genetic modification), these bugs are now a major subject of scientific investigation and industrial exploration.

Academics in the life sciences are currently looking for novel and more efficient means to rewire their metabolic pathways to yield high quantities of fuel molecules. Government funding has catalysed these synthetic biology efforts recently, especially in the US. On the other hand, several start-ups such as Joule Unlimited (Cambridge, MA) already explore their commercialization.

Albeit the hype, at this stage, the use of cyanobacteria for biofuel production is still debated. One major point brought up by critics is that, although modified bacterial strains that produce fuel can be created with relative ease, overall success is often compromised due to reasons like product yield or problems with scale. Plus, as for now, no efficient bioreactor for scaled cultivation of photosynthetic bacteria has been developed. Still, many companies are making ambitious claims for producing large amounts of biofuel.

It remains to be seen if cyanobacteria will one day be economically competitive enough to solve the world’s problems of climate change and the limitation of fossil fuels. Personally, I think that the interplay of the current scientific and industrial efforts is very exciting. Cyanobacteria just make the biofuel scene even more intriguing to follow.

[1] Quintana et. al. (2011) Renewable energy from Cyanobacteria: energy production optimization by metabolic pathway engineering. Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 91: 471-490

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March 18, 2012 · 9:34 pm

self-titled debut

A few weeks before arriving in London in September 2010, I read an article by TimeOut about the Dubstep scence in London. This deep, slow and minimalistic kind of electronic music was born in South London in the early 2000s. One representative of this scene, Kevin Martin, said it was “obvious” that this style originated in London, “because it has that mutant, urban explosion of ideas with a sense of complete alienation at its core”[1]. Within six months of living in London, I witnessed both – An exceptional creative spirit and a feeling of estrangement. But, which one dominates?

Getting around London takes long. If you are not fortunate enough to live somewhere at least near the centre, commuting times of 1 hour to work or university are the norm. This still seems bearable compared to a good 2.5 hours for a night-bus ride from East London – famous for its vibrant art scene and nightlife – to a flat in the (not-so-wild) west. At daytime, a ride on the tube passes rather quickly with people looking at their newspapers, books or feet. In contrary, a ride on the night-bus always promises weird surprises. I recently witnessed a 1.5 hour long shouting session after an English lady had accused some Spanish girls of speaking in a language she didn’t understand, subsequently telling them to leave “her” bus. Hasta luego…

South Kensington

Diversity is a good thing and London offers much of it. Whereas, in South Kensington, you are moving through an area full of flags from foreign embassies, gourmet wine and cheese shops as well as some of the most valuable real estate in the world, it is hard to walk only a few metres in Brixton without being offered “skunk” from every side. This vast diversity is both fascinating and alienating. The places I feel at home, often seem like oases in a diffuse, urban landscape.

One of the key strengths of London is its huge intellectual scene rivalled by few other cities on Earth. In total, there are 40 “higher education institutions” in London. Among them are many famous, traditional as well as relatively new universities. Whereas some of them cover a broad range of subjects ranging from humanities to natural sciences (UCL, King’s College, Queen Mary University), others are more specialized (Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine; London School of Economics and Political Science). Thus, there are interesting events to choose from on a daily basis ranging from talks about the future of energy resources to discussions of Schopenhauer’s influence on Tolstoy.

Street Art and Life near Brick Lane , East London

One could get lost in this maze of science-related events, were it not for what is collectively referred to as “the arts”. For works of fine art from Jan Vermeer to Damien Hirst via Andy Warhol, there are the big players like the National Gallery and the Tate-s. In addition, there are countless small galleries across the city. One worth mentioning is the tiny orange dot gallery in Bloomsbury, which until recently showed an exhibition totally devoted to photos taken with the Hipstamatic iPhone app. However, parts of London like Shoreditch are museums or galleries in themselves due to their high concentration of street art in places like Brick Lane or Redchurch Street.

Many other blogs, such as “The London Music Blog”, deal with the music scene in London and the list of acts coming out of this city is endless. My personal account is that it is simply incredible and unlike anything I have witnessed before or elsewhere. Every day and in every format imaginable – think (often free) small gigs in pubs like the Camden-based Lock Tavern, medium sized performances in KOKO and big concerts in Shepherd’s Bush Empire. With its population of 8 million, there seems to be an audience for almost every kind of music. It comes as no surprise that many highly original acts originate here again and again – from the Clash to the xx or Caribou.

Barbican tube station

Just south of Hyde Park, on the Royal Albert Hall, there is a mosiac frieze meant to depict “The Triumph of Arts and Sciences”. These are strong words. They also happen to describe my London experience quite accurately. It may not be the easiest thing to live here, but in the end, it is just worth it. And with certainty, long monotonous transport rides inspire artists and scientists alike- just listen to THIS tune by a London-based musician.


Filed under Cities, Personal Experience