Synthetic biologist Dr Rachel Armstrong has designed an artificial cell programmed to form a limestone reef that would shore up the crumbling foundations of Venice. Could these microscopic agents succeed where the might of civil engineering has so far failed?
Venice is a city at the mercy of the sea. Its foundations are crumbling under its weight in a slow surrender to the soft lagoon floor, and the extreme tides that flood low-lying parts, such as St Mark's Square, yearly pose a constant and threatening reminder that the city exists on borrowed time. But Dr Rachel Armstrong, a doctor, researcher and teaching fellow at the Bartlett, believes she has found a way to stop the rot.
She proposes an artificial limestone reef, to take root among Venice's foundations and stop the existing piles of petrified wood from sinking into the salty marshland beneath. The basis for this intervention is not architecture or engineering, but science and, more specifically, an extraordinary biological agent known as a protocell.
"Being next to the sea is the most hostile environment for any architecture to be placed," says Armstrong, "and so far the way we've been dealing with the future of Venice has been to use the technologies of the 20th century." She refers to the controversial MOSE project: "Seventy-eight mechanical gates that will stand like King Canute and hold back the advance of the lagoon." The scheme has attracted criticism for its cost, delays and the damage it will do to the local ecosystem.
Dissatisfied with what she saw as a mechanical solution to an organic problem, she began thinking about how to apply her protocell research to the problem of shoring up Venice. "A protocell is a small oil droplet moving in a field of water," explains Armstrong, whose fascination with this branch of synthetic biology led her back to full-time research in 2008. "It came out of life sciences and had no practical value as yet. But when I saw it shedding a skin, I realised it was an architectural proposition. Essentially this agent is distributing matter in time and space." The cells, which are not living and contain no DNA, nevertheless display life-like qualities: they act socially, respond to their environments and can be programmed to lay material traces.
For Venice, Armstrong designed protocells with the ability to make limestone from carbon dioxide – the skins they shed form a mesh-like framework as the basis of the reef. Their activity is directed to the city foundations by making them photosensitive. Armstrong explains: "If we were going to do a controlled release of these into the water, they could be made to seek out the darker, lower energy spaces underneath the city. When they reach their lowest energy point, that's when they would start to create the skins that become the reef."
To deal with Venice's perpetually flooded building stock, Armstrong suggests protocells could be programmed to create "a sponge-like material that forms a protective casing" around rigid architecture. She envisages "a material that thrives and blossoms when it gets wet ... [allowing] water to nurture and feed a building material rather than destroy it".
For Armstrong, Venice is just one protocellular adventure. She's been developing other species, honing their individual traits as if they're performers in some kind of biological circus. Some excrete pigments, some make crystal skins and others can store electrical energy "like a little organic battery", she says, demonstrating with video clips of amorphous blobs dancing around each other in a dish. "It depends how you design your protocells, but you can get them to behave in different ways. Essentially they're all the same hardware, but if you put different software in there you get these incredibly different products."
And can they multiply? Armstrong says not. "It's a self-limiting chemistry. They're not alive, they won't reproduce. They have a set lifespan, after which they become inert. They're not going to proliferate and take anything over."
The notion of an uncontrollable limestone reef that spreads like a malignant cancer underneath one of the world's most romantic cities is one that would delight science-fiction fans and horrify conservationists in equal measure. But Armstrong, a sci-fi author herself, is adamant that there is no real risk of it happening. "We wouldn't just start throwing things into the lagoon. You wouldn't do it without any telemetry or measurement of the ecological impact, but we'd have done a lot of work to understand this before we ever did a Venice-sized intervention," she says.
Armstrong defends protocell technology and the work of her fellow synthetic biologists from the concerns that were raised in the 1960s by developments in nanotechnology – the manipulation of subatomic matter – that unpredictable new materials were being created. Nanotechnology also raised fears about releasing toxins into the environment. Armstrong recognises the potentially devastating effects of protocell technology falling into the wrong hands but "You can't prevent people from being Machiavellian," she says. "I wouldn't be as blasé as to say there is no concern. I know that we need to design with our eyes open."
The sense of fantasy implicit in Armstrong's protocell research deters people from regarding it as a real-world solution. For architects and designers of infrastructure, it's hard to embrace a built proposition that doesn't involve concrete or steel but that's exactly what Armstrong is asking us to do. "When we talk about systems in architecture, we tend to revert to machine iconography," she says. "With the protocell system, we don't need to. It doesn't have parts; it's not an object." It may act more improbably and organically than any architecture we know, but it represents a chance to replace the outdated practice of designing buildings as environmental barriers with a more constructive and harmonious approach.
In Venice, it's clear who's losing the battle between man and environment. Ditching the machine solution – those mammoth King Canute gates – in favour of Armstrong's tiny protocell saviours, could be the metaphor for a global biological revolution. She urges designers to work alongside scientists in a united endeavour – the same kind of "Renaissance approach to the mixing of disciplines" that helped the Venetians make their city great in the first place. "I know utopias are unfashionable, but it's not just a one-person or one-technology campaign," she says. "It's about bursting out of the paradigms that have so far restricted us. It's a completely different way of looking at the world."