Research team: Sunanda Sharma, Christoph Bader, Rachel Soo Hoo Smith, Felix Kraemer, João Costa, Joseph H. Kennedy Jr, Nitzan Zilberman (curation). Undergraduate researchers: Joseph Faraguna, Sangita Vasikaran, Sara Laura Wilson. Prof. Neri Oxman.
Biodiversity on planet Earth is under momentous threat, with extinction rates estimated at between 100 and 1,000 times their pre-human levels. The Mediated Matter Group has been in search of materials and chemical substances that can sustain and enhance biodiversity across living systems and have so far endured the perils of climate change.
Melanin—a naturally occurring chemical chain that gives all living things their pigmentation—is one such substance that can sustain and enhance biodiversity at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels.
Melanin's Age in Millions of Years
A biomarker of evolution, melanin is the color of life. The substance that defines the color of skin, hair and eyes is at once ancient and modern: melanin is found in fossils dating from the Mesozoic Era, and today can be chemically synthesized with modern techniques. It is one of the most resistant, heterogeneous, and pervasive pigments found across the kingdoms of life. In addition to its critical role in providing protection from ultraviolet radiation, it serves a wide variety of functions: mechanical protection, energy harvesting, cell growth, metal binding, thermal regulation, and protection from oxidative stress.
An identifying feature of all living organisms, melanin represents unity in the diversity of life on earth and is clearly linked to biological survival throughout the ages. Its value for human health and culture across regions and environments is priceless. Today, it is considered by some to be more valuable than gold, and its impact—in the age of climate change—is key to human survival on Earth.
Melanin can be synthesized through a reaction between an enzyme from a mushroom, called tyrosinase, and the protein building block L-tyrosine. The pigment can be extracted from bird feathers and cuttlefish ink amongst other sources, then purified and filtered in a series of steps.
The genes for melanin production can also 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, its coloration could deepen as the sun reaches its peak, providing protection from solar radiation.
Over the past year we developed methods for the design of structures that can contain biological substances across scales (from micro to macro) and phases (solids and liquids). As part of the basic research behind Totems, we created a series of spherical objects featuring a single connected channel filled with liquid melanin. These spheres display a wide range of colors and absorption spectra, from light yellow to dark brown.
The channels within these spheres have been computationally ‘grown,’ 3D printed and biologically augmented to create pockets for the liquid melanin to reside, with channel diameters ranging from millimeters to centimeters.
The installation designed for the exhibition, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival as part of the XXII Triennale di Milano exhibition (2019), features a column-based demonstration of melanin production on an architectural scale for deployment in specific environmental contexts. It is comprised of a totem—a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of the Tree of Life.
The research at the core of this work fuses digital fabrication, design computation and chemical reaction dynamics, resulting in a ‘chemical totem’ that illustrates how the process for melanin formation can be embodied inside a product.
Within each structure, ‘a biological totem’ is initiated with the introduction of tyrosinase, an enzyme that is light-sensitive, leading to color formation that continues over the span of a day, deepening as the sun reaches its zenith and easing into lighter hues as the sun sets.
In parallel, we have developed an architectural proposal for an environmentally responsive, melanin-infused glass structure.
It is designed to contain multiple types of melanin, naturally obtained on site and biologically synthesized at the Lab. It provides UV protection during the day while enabling stargazing at sunset.
The installation 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.
The architectural proposal is part of a long-term project initiated by Ravi Naidoo of Interactive Africa and was first introduced by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group at Design Indaba, 2018.
Collaborators & Contributors: Natalia Casa, Eric de Broche des Combes (Luxigon), Kelly Egorova, Osvaldo Golijov, Gianluca di Ioia, Dechuan Meng, Hans Martin Pech; Prof. Christopher Voigt; Susan Williams; Stratasys, Ltd; Front Inc; Bodino; MIT Media Lab
Acknowledgments: NOE, LLC.; Design Indaba; The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Estée Lauder; GETTYLAB; The XXII Triennale di Milano; MIT Media Lab
Designed for Broken Nature: Design Takes On Human Survival, XXII Triennale di Milano, 2019, organized by Paola Antonelli 3D printed by Stratasys Ltd.
All images and videos courtesy Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, unless indicated otherwise