Can Biology Fix It?
Natsai Audrey Chieza
Design Entrepreneur & Change-Maker
A tree is a miracle. As children we had an intuitive understanding of that miracle, unaware that its name was biology. While we played with the leaves, we were also quite incidentally exploring their nature: noticing their fine veins, the sap that dripped from them when torn, the holes chewed by a hungry insect, the tiny black dots that would later hatch into aphids. Sometimes we took the leaves home, pressed them in books or simply put them down and forgot them; they dried out and changed their appearance, rustling when we returned to them. As children we were often closer to nature and its fascination than we would ever be later in our adult lives. In the world of adults, trees are quickly relegated to the status of mere decoration, with the sole purpose of inspiring rapturous praise of green and leafy streets. In urban settings, trees are often hemmed in by rigid architectural corsets of concrete and steel. And, indeed, so are we—dissociated from the true force that, together with chemistry and physics, brings motion, vitality and cohesion to the world: biology.
Eleven years ago, when Natsai Audrey Chieza stood in the office of John Ward, professor of synthetic biology at University College London (who I just googled and found, grins Natsai), the fascination of nature once again struck her like a bolt of lightning.
It was this moment that made her into the prestigious designer she is today, laying the foundations for rethinking the entire fashion industry: with bacteria that dye textiles. And that moment began with a cactus.
But first things first. Natsai starts to tell her story from the beginning: In the final years of my architecture studies, I was writing my dissertation on fashion and architecture. It fascinated me to see that all the metaphors of fashion are shared with architecture, and I realised very quickly that obviously we’re all building spaces to protect the body, to shield the body or to house the body in some shape or form—just at different scales and with different materialities. Natsai was so enraptured by the possibilities offered by different materials that after graduating in architecture from the University of Edinburgh, she moved to London and completed an MA in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins College. There, at the interface of technology, materiality and culture, Natsai found the freedom to contemplate and explore the system behind architecture, textiles and fashion, particularly under the influence of dramatically advancing technologies (Such a thrilling time, but well, this was eleven years ago! she recalls with a laugh). Digitalisation was gathering pace and gradually expanding the concept of smart to take in textiles. Natsai finally chose synthetic biology as the focus of her material studies. I was really interested in synthetic biology as an area of focus where engineers and molecular biologists were coming together to say: ‘Nature has all this incredible variability. We’re developing tools to be able to engineer living systems on a molecular level. What are we going to make with them?’ The issue of what to make with them in terms of materials immediately led Natsai to ask a major question: What is the role of a designer in a future where the technological underpinning for the materials we use is alive?
Natsai started to build a body of work around design and biology. When she finished her studies, she was absolutely certain that she did not want to remain in the speculative realm of this design field. I wanted to understand, in a very practical sense, what it means to grow a living system and to try to make something with it.
Back to Professor John Ward’s office. Natsai contacted him to ask whether she could use his laboratory—and with it, his wealth of knowledge—and a collaboration sprang up that would unfold and develop over the years. Not long after we’d met, I started working with an organism that he shared with me: Streptomyces coelicolor. Seeing an army of Petri dishes containing bacteria swimming in nutrient solution and producing pigments, Natsai asked where the bacteria had come from. Ward pointed to his cactus plant. Recalling that moment, Natsai is transported back to the past with an excitement that has remained undiminished. That blew my mind! Because suddenly that question of provenance was right there in front of me. So many things were buzzing in my mind: Those future materials—they don’t just come from nowhere, they are tied to wider ecosystems. There’s a system at play. Yes, you can grow this organism, it can produce a pigment, and that’s a molecule. But then this molecule is tied to a deep network of human and nonhuman interactions. I found that so exhilarating.