Just above FabCafe, located in the design mecca of Shibuya in Tokyo, the MTRL coworking space is hosting the first Biohack Academy in Japan. This intensive DIY biology program caters just as much to engineers and scientists as to designers, amateurs and artists. Makery went to meet the budding biologists.
Tokyo, from our correspondent (words and photos)
“Biospaces and fab spaces are converging,” says Georg Tremmel, co-founder of the veteran BCL collective (since 2004) and the newly formed BioClub Tokyo above FabCafe. In anticipation of the future biolab, an open lab that will be permanently located in the upstairs MTRL coworking space, BioClub is hosting Japan’s first BioHack Academy (BHA), based on the successful model of the Fab Academy, in order to attract future biohackers.
The third BHA, and the first in Asia, takes place from March 6 to May 8, 2016, simultaneously with the course held at Waag Society in Amsterdam, which initiated the program in spring 2015. In Tokyo, 10 participants watch the streaming video of the weekly lectures in real-time and meet in real-space every Sunday.
So far, the local biohack students have learned how to build prototypes of machine-tools, how to work with bacteria, and are preparing their final projects (eight are in progress) for the BHA group exhibition at FabCafe on May 28. Preview of prospectives.
In vitro mushroom and bacteria mask
Masato Takemura wants to realize his dream of growing in a lab the rare matsutake mushroom, by creating favorable conditions similar to those of its natural environment. The mushroom’s symbiosis with a very specific tree has made the gourmet fungus an expensive delicacy.
Kana Nakano, the artist behind the playful prostheses of Neurowear, is experimenting with various edible solutions (agar-agar, potato starch, bonito soup…) to cultivate bacteria from the skin on her own face, including the infamous Staphylococcus aureus. Her final goal is to make a mask that incubates only the good bacteria for a clean face.
Poodle DNA and lab cheese
Saki Maruyama, a happy poodle owner, is exploring the purported visual similarities between pets and their owners by comparing the 99% of DNA that she shares with her dog. She plans to expose the results of her research by visualizing the differences in DNA through an adjustable slider on a tablet disguised as a mirror.
Halfdan Rump, the electrical engineer currently leading the TechRice project, is trying out different bacteria kits, adding milk and the rennet enzyme to curdle into cheese. Although his original idea was to make blue cheese, so far he has been more successful with cottage cheese.
Yuta Toga, media artist, and Yuki Hanamure, a classical Japanese painter, are cultivating distinctly colored (purple, yellow, orange) fungal bacteria in separate compartments in order to create a living mosaic. For them, each compartmented bacterial culture is like a discrete square in a stained glass window, or a single pixel of a digital image. As the bacteria grow slowly, a time-lapse video will document the multi-hued evolution of their living artwork.
Teruya Enomoto, a PhD biology researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, is working with his biologist wife, Naoko, on making artificial cells. They are trying to define what distinguishes life from death in the process of apoptosis (programmed cell death in multicellular organisms), in order to visualize and explain the pivotal signal to non-experts. They believe that the better people understand synthetic biology, the more educated decisions they can make about controversial issues such as GMO and regenerative medicine—and eventually do it themselves at home.
Why are they here? “The academic world has a limited communication network,” Naoko explains. “We have few opportunities to share our research with the general public. Besides, people from other professions have lots of ideas. We want know how biotechnology can spread to other fields and collaborate on high-tech projects.” Needless to say, the pro biotechnologists have been in high demand at BHA.
“Synthetic biology started to become a big topic about 10 years ago,” says biologist, media artist and bio-artist Georg Tremmel, who is overseeing BHA in Tokyo. “So engineers and computer scientists have been coming to biology, trying to treat it as an engineering discipline… It’s not. (…) Biology is the next new (old) media.”
For this professional researcher in cancerous systems at the University of Tokyo, the off-campus BioHack Academy is the best introduction to what the biolab is all about. Permanently located in Shibuya, the biolab will offer two points of entry: on one side, a space reserved for more advanced labwork; on the other, a more casual kitchen, where amateurs of cheese, sake and other fermented yeast products can eventually eat their concoctions.