A riddle: What's made from 190 feet of 3D-printed tubes, is filled with photosynthetic bacteria, and is designed to help us explore other worlds in space?
Why, it's the Mushtari, a 3D-printed wearable embedded with microorganisms and designed to emulate the human gastrointestinal tract. It's the latest concept from designer and MIT professor Neri Oxman, whose work in MIT's Mediated Matter design research group involves the blending of natural and constructed environments.
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Oxman recently presented the Mushtari at the TED 2015 conference in Vancouver, Canada. As part of a series titled "Wanderers: An Astrobiological Exploration," the wearable is one of several concepts Oxman is developing designed to explore ideas of symbiotic spacesuits that could help humans survive on other worlds. "Mushtari" is Arabic for "huge" and is a reference to the planet Jupiter.
The wearable is intended to host living microorganisms -- a co-culture of photosynthetic cyanobacteria and E. coli bacteria -- that fluoresce in darkness and can produce sugar or biofuels when exposed to light.
"Such functions will in the near future augment the wearer by scanning our skins, repairing damaged tissue and sustaining our bodies -- an experiment that has never been attempted before," Oxman said in her presentation.
In other words, the Mushtari is a kind of conceptual blueprint for one part of a symbiotic spacesuit that could provide nutrients for its wearer, while providing protection against harsh environments and generating energy. Or something. The details are a little tricky.
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"The wearables are designed to interact with a specific environment characteristic of their destination and generate sufficient quantities of biomass, water, air and light necessary for sustaining life," according to Oxman's Material Ecology website. "Some photosynthesize converting daylight into energy, others bio-mineralize to strengthen and augment human bone, and some fluoresce to light the way in pitch darkness."
If the idea of a living bacterial suit seems crazy, it really isn't. In fact, I'm pretty sure my sixth grader has something like this growing on his little league shirt right now. I'll keep you posted.