Project

Totems

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The Mediated Matter Group

 The Mediated Matter Group

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Biodiversity on planet Earth is under momentous threat, with extinction rates estimated between 100 and 1,000 times their pre-human level. The Mediated Matter group has been in search of materials and chemical substances that can sustain and enhance biodiversity across living systems, and that have so far endured the perils of climate change. Melanin is one such substance illustrating biodiversity at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels.

Biodiversity on planet Earth is under momentous threat, with extinction rates estimated between 100 and 1,000 times their pre-human level. The Mediated Matter group has been in search of materials and chemical substances that can sustain and enhance biodiversity across living systems, and that have so far endured the perils of climate change. Melanin is one such substance illustrating biodiversity at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels.

Why melanin?

Melanin, a natural pigment found in most organisms, is a marker of evolution. It is known as the "universal pigment" found in skin, hair, and eyes, as well as in feathers and wings. It has been found in fossils from some 160 million years ago and today can be chemically synthesized with modern techniques.

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Mediated Matter

It represents unity in the diversity of life.

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The Mediated Matter Group

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Mediated Matter

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The Mediated Matter Group

What were your research goals?

Our project seeks to address and speculate upon designers’ ability to chemically synthesize the "pigment of life"—literally and metaphorically—and program its interaction across scales and species. The technical goal is to understand, explain, and predict how melanin can, along with other derivative pigments, be generated on demand; the environmental and human factors involved in its creation; and how its formation can be tuned or even reversed to sustain and perpetuate diversity on our planet. 

Where does the melanin for this installation come from and how is it extracted?

In preparation for this project, we studied the biosynthesis of melanin in the natural world and then translated the process into a set of chemical design protocols in our lab. Melanin substance was created in two ways. In one, a reaction between an active chemical, the enzyme tyrosinase—which was extracted from the Agaricus bisporus mushroom—converts a protein building block, the amino acid tyrosine, into melanin and its precursors. These pigments can be deployed in liquid or powder form to create unique, environmentally sensitive inks that are printable in two- or three-dimensions. 

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Mediated Matter

In another method, pigment is extracted from bird feathers and cuttlefish ink, then purified and filtered in a series of steps.

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Mediated Matter

In addition to chemical methods, melanin can also be obtained through different species of microorganisms. The genes for melanin production can be engineered into bacterial species, such as Escherichia coli, and thereby controlled over space and time in response to changes in the environment. For instance, the coloration could deepen as the sun reaches its peak each day, providing protection from solar radiation.

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Mediated Matter

Embodiments

We have developed methods for the design of structures that can contain biological substances across scales (micro to macro) and phases (solids and liquids). As part of the basic research underlying Totems, we created a series of spherical objects featuring a single connected channel filled with liquid melanin. These "orbs" display a wide range of colors and therefore absorption spectra, from light to dark. The channels have been computationally "grown" to create pockets with channel diameters ranging from millimeters to centimeters. 

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Mediated Matter

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Mediated Matter

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Mediated Matter

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Mediated Matter

In an age when we can engineer melanin, who owns biological color? What are the biological and cultural implications of these new capabilities? What are their promises and their perils? This research investigates the long and crucial intersection between culture and nature by questioning the dichotomy between the societal and biological roles associated with designers’ abilities to engineer melanin’s expressions within and across species. Through this investigation, we question our ongoing relationship with biology and natural history.

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The Mediated Matter Group

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The Mediated Matter Group

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The Mediated Matter Group

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The Mediated Matter Group

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Research Team

Sunanda Sharma, Christoph Bader, Rachel Soo Hoo Smith, Felix Kraemer, Joseph Kennedy, João Costa, Joseph Faraguna, Hans Martin Pech, Susan Williams, Natalia Casas, Prof. Neri Oxman

Acknowledgement and support

MIT Media Lab, NOE LLC, Design Indaba, STRATASYS, Ltd., Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Estée Lauder, GETTYLAB