At the 2018 Biodesign Challenge, you could get your hands on sculptures with air-purifying microorganisms. (Photos by Jackson Krule)

Young Biodesigners Unveil Clever Ideas for a Cleaner World

Student competitors turn jellyfish, microorganisms, and even hair cells into useful things.

A t the 2018 Biodesign Challenge Summit—part art opening, part science fair—students from around the world showed how living organisms can be building materials that make the planet a greener, healthier, more artful place. The projects were in various stages of development, some more conceptual than others. But as the contestants showed their stuff to teachers, friends, reporters, and judges at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, all of them had a palpable sense of idealism and possibility. Here are some highlights.

Aerolis

These organic sculptures, from a team at Ghent University, purify urban air and are shaped by local conditions: they bend in the direction of strong wind. They are made of polymers seeded with the protein biotin, which binds to a range of microorganisms. These microorganisms, in turn, degrade volatile organic compounds and other pollutants. The sculptures are study enough to withstand wind and rain, which would make them ideal pieces of art near sewers, subway grates, and other public spaces.

Mycommunity Toilet

A group from the University of British Columbia won the Biodesign Challenge with a toilet that efficiently converts solid human waste into fertilizer. Its key element is a box tank made from mycelium, a mass of thread-like structures that fungi use to take in water and nutrients.

In the front is a green cup that funnels urine into a plastic jerrycan (since urine is usually sterile, it is easier to dispose of safely than feces). When someone poops into the mycelium tank, fungi and bacteria begin to convert it into compost. Individuals add sawdust or banana leaves after each use to keep the tank full of oxygen for the microorganisms to thrive. When the tank is full, it’s not necessary to dump its contents. Instead, it can be buried in the ground, where composting continues and the mycelium grows and provides nutrients for plants.

The team says Mycommunity Toilets might prove useful in refugee camps, where conflict frequently occurs around washroom facilities. Low-cost toilets that families could use closer to their living quarters might minimize the opportunity for crowded conditions to escalate into violence.

Pulmo Plastic

As the oceans become warmer and more acidic, biodiversity declines and jellyfish proliferate. So a team from New York University offers a way to turn jellyfish into useful products: biodegradable plastics.

Jellyfish contain the structural protein collagen. Collagen can be converted to gelatin, which in turn can be mixed with vegetable glycerin to form materials that have some of the properties of plastic. The team intends for Pulmo Plastic to find use in bags, rings for six-packs and other disposable items.

Mycterials

Much as the Mycommunity Toilet team uses mycelium as a structural material, other biotechnologists hope to use it to make walls and furniture. But how will they direct its growth? A group from the University of Edinburgh adds iron particles to mycelium and then controls and shapes it using magnets. They used a robotic arm at the Biodesign Challenge to show it’s possible to build with mycelium remotely.

Kerasynth

A team from Maryland Institute College of Art plans to use tissue engineering to produce vegan wool for dresses, coats, and other garments. The wool fibers would be produced by hair-follicle germ cells embedded within collagen; a network of microfluidic channels would deliver nutrients and remove wastes from the cells. The students can produce small amounts of wool this way now, and this dress is an example of what the team hopes it can create down the road, using fibers harvested from this system.

Plastomach

Living in this pouch, alongside the colorful bottle caps and parts of water bottles and laundry detergent containers, is pearl oyster fungus. It’s there because it has been shown to eat both low- and high-density polyethylene, common plastics that otherwise end up in landfills or in the ocean. The inventors of this “plastomach,” from Rutgers, cut the plastic into small pieces and embedded them in layers of wood chips and mulch, which were also used to nourish the fungus.

This system is able to break down only small amounts of plastic. However, the team argues that if every household had a plastomach, it might begin to make a dent in the plastic problem, while serving as a daily reminder to minimize plastic use. The system would be low maintenance, periodically requiring new wood chips and a spray of water. Harmless amounts of gases produced by the plastomach, such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen, are released from a vent in the top of the pouch.