- The Genetic Creation of Bioluminescent Plants for Urban and Domestic use
In 2000 the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Barcelona initiated a postgraduate research specialization called Genetic Architectures at its school of architecture, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura (ESARQ). I founded and currently direct the Genetic Architectures program and was also ESARQ's founder and first director. Our Genetic Architectures program applies two academic approaches: 1) scientific genetics (researching biologically useful plants, trees, etc.) and 2) understanding digital generation, production, visualization and fabrication as a genetic process involving computation and genetic algorithms in collaboration with science, bioethics and engineering for experimental architectural research.
In the first phase of applying genetics to architecture we considered introducing luminous protein into the DNA of vegetation. Various natural bioluminescent color possibilities exist, as witnessed in fish, glowworms and algae or from certain jellyfish such as Aequorea victoria from the northwest Pacific Ocean. Since the 1962 discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP) in Aequorea, hundreds of studies have developed in a snowballing effect. The GFP gene from Aequorea can be easily combined with the genes of other species, as Fernández Vaquero, a scientist at Castilla-La Mancha University, has noted: "In 1992 Aequorea's GFP cDNA sequence was determined, demonstrating that its hetrologic expression in non-jellyfish organisms produces fluorescence without any cofactors" . With such properties, and its easy availability, Aequorea's GFP became the cellular marker most used in genetic research. Yet, while geneticists consider GFP a working tool, I see it as a fascinating potential component in the application of genetics to architecture.
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It is clear that world consumption of electricity must be radically reduced. For example, Barcelona, with a small area and very high density, spends 10 million euros annually just on the maintenance of its street lights (repairs, repainting, etc.), in addition to the actual consumption of electricity. Barcelona's scenario may be multiplied by cities globally, pointing out the critical need for alternative energies addressed by our research. I have no doubt bioluminescence will substitute for artificial lighting as part of a solution to these problems (Fig. 2).
Like much in conventional medical research, genetic research for architecture requires precautions with special emphasis on avoiding accidents and contaminations. We are setting strict procedures for testing in hermetic environments, breeding plants without pollen, while we investigate naturally occurring plant GFP in chloroplast in order to avoid pollination problems.
From the beginning this research has been conceived as architectural and urban. Today, our seven GFP lemon trees (and their implications) with living, luminescent leaves (published here for the first time) present infinite possibilities (Color Plate D). As we acknowledge the pioneering work of genetic artists such as Eduardo Kac , we may envision evolving science, architecture and design collaborations in which genetics becomes integral to architectural research and production.