Synthetic animals will save the planet

A recent project by designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg proposes that bioengineered creatures be released into the wild to save endangered species and clean up pollution. And she's already designed four organisms to do it, including soil-scouring slugs and seed-dispersing porcupines.

All images: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Synthetic biology is not a new concept. Craig Venter proposed the idea a few years ago, and recently a Stanford research team created the first complete model of a living organism. But what Ginsberg is proposing — at least at a conceptual level — is something a bit more...macro.

Her new project, called Designing for the Sixth Extinction, is intended to spark debate about how artificial animals could be used to solve environmental problems. She suggests we should go about "rewilding" in order to "preserve or maintain a state of nature using synthetic organisms that are designed to save other species."

To that end she's proposed four artificial organisms, including a puffball-like self-inflating antipathogenic membrane pump that would live on oak trees and release spores that treat sudden oak death:

Synthetic animals will save the planet

A porcupine with sticky rubber spines that would disperse the seeds of threatened plants:

Synthetic animals will save the planet

A slug-like bioremediating device that leaves an alkali trail that neutralizes acidic soil:

Synthetic animals will save the planet

And a biofilm that grows on leaves and absorbs pollutants and viruses — safely removing them when the leaves fall in the autumn:

Synthetic animals will save the planet

Many of these artificial organisms will be designed and monitored by corporations —and they'll to so to clean up their own messes.

Here's the spec for the acid neutralizing slug:

Synthetic animals will save the planet

Marcus Fairs from the design website Dezeen recently caught up with Ginsberg for an interview. Here's a taste:

Marcus Fairs: So in this scenario, how do these creatures come into being?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: They've been invented in a laboratory; designed, tested and released. So I've designed them to work in closed ecological ecosystems. Under the patent applications you see that each one has a kill switch designed into it so it can only copy itself a number of times and then it dies.

Marcus Fairs: So they can't take over?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: No. The idea is that we would have this perfect synthetic nature existing, one to save the other and whether that's actually possible is up for debate.

Marcus Fairs: How plausible is this?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: There's a scientist who I showed this to and she said it's already happening. It's happening not at the level of organisms but with bacteria; the concept of releasing things into the wild to preserve nature. She said you're too close to reality.

I'm not proposing this as the future but it's meant to highlight these questions. It's a vehicle to highlight these questions as a design project and now the idea is to take it back to scientists and start the conversation going.

Synthetic animals will save the planet

Read the rest of the interview at Dezeen.