Bixels is a STEAM education product playing with the intersection between computation, physics, biology and design. It teaches how to produce, integrate and interact with different fluorescent proteins. Bixels makes biological tools and materials accessible and affordable to a wider audience.
We are increasingly seeing the hybridization of biology with technology. Such hybrid products and services have begun to enter our everyday lives. Examples include, the bio-fabrication of human tissue for surgical repair and personalized medicine emerging from the rise of computational biology. The intentional blend of the natural and digital worlds will permeate our society and disrupt our traditional notions of technology.
This hybridization has demanded a new kind of cross disciplinary design-thinking which includes common fields of science and engineering, while also being more inclusive of the arts. We now have the ability to manufacture biological components that can act as interfaces (inputs and outputs) with our environments. These advancements offer new experiences that will fundamentally change the way we interface with our world, our bodies and each other.
However skills, tools and knowledge in this area are often not accessible to the general public. We are here to change that, with education and public engagement as our goals. This is how the idea of Bixels was born.
Bixels allows you to design, create and interact with your personal 8x8 bio-pixel display, such as making pictures, gifs and a variation of simple games - while learning about the basics of how to program with DNA and to build a biological circuit in comparison to traditional code and electronic circuits. In addition it demonstrates the possibilities of interacting with biological materials through physics and material explorations.
We decided to use gamification to allow a wi(l)der range of applications and explorations of biological interfaces. Therefore, Bixels -a biological pixel- is built in form of an 8x8 cartridge that works as a digital display. Each fluorescent pixel is programmed using DNA. For example, we use a DNA circuit to produce green fluorescent protein (GFP), the same material that give jellyfish their colour – this protein is already used in lab experiments…. but we thought that it can be used for more.
The underlying LED matrix allows you to excite different fluorescent proteins (make them glow) through different light wavelengths in combination with filters. We designed it in a way that you can turn on/off bio-pixel through a simple app.
It is built with cell-free technology. Our cell-free technology pulls the molecular machinery (or transcriptional/translation TXTL machinery) outside of a cell meaning there is no regulation or restrictions to use outside a lab. This extracted billion year old processor is responsible for reading DNA and writing proteins. While games consoles use code to program, cell-free uses DNA.
DNA >>Transcription>> RNA >>Translation >> Protein
Bixels believes in the potential and need for STEAM education products and curriculums. Bixels is therefore integrated in a STEAM curriculum using gamification as base. Bixels is a primitive DNA programmed bio-display that enables you to play tetris and other retro classics while teaching physics, computation, biology and digital fabrication. The curriculum around Bixels uses the example of Pixels, which have their origin in photography and are enabled by combining chemistry, physics and art. Today Pixels are defined as the basic unit of programmable color. Bixels builds on this and teaches about
- Biology through teaching about fluorescent proteins, their origin and how to produce them
- Physics through teaching how to visualize fluorescent proteins with light waves and optical filters
- Computation and electronics through teaching how to interact and control them through programming LED arrays and their color
- Digital Fabrication and Design through teaching how to integrate the proteins into and with different materials for future products and manufacturing methods
For us the open ended and do-it-yourself nature of the project was important. Some kits can be very restrictive and limiting but we wanted that everyone can add their skills to the project and evolve it further. Nevertheless Bixels doesn’t want to address just makers and hackers and positions itself between a product and an educational tool to enable people to get started without particular skills.
We will reveil and add son a full curriculum how to use Bixels in class or workshops.
Bixels is inspired by common lab equipment and activities within biological laboratories and designed as product to allow a wider audience take place in those explorations.
Nevertheless, we love its roots and its community. Bixels can be as well used as a transilluminator and simple plate reader in a lab environment. Those are lab equipments which allow scientists to visualize if their experiments worked.
We built our prototypes from the start with support from our community and our story all started with a biodesign challenge with Genspace NYC at the Royal College of Art, in April 2017. The purpose was to create a curriculum which makes biology more accessible. Our first tests were just made of an old transilluminator -sponsored by the Plant Science Department in Cambridge- some lasercut, and 3D printed parts. This encouraged us to make Bixels into a truly accessible and affordable way to become a bio-hacker and start the learning journey!
Our vision is to take biology out of the test tube. We can create sensors and tools using DNA circuits that compliment or replace electronics. Cells contain the world’s oldest processors with DNA as its assembly code... Our product breaks these processors out of the cell and puts it in the grasp of makers, creatives, hackers, and designers. We want diverse people creating diverse projects and expanding the community of biomakers.
We are a small band of enthusiasts who want to re-build the perception of what biology can do, and for who. Our team is assembled from specialists in design, biochemistry, computer science, robotics and physics with the goal of using biology to create products for consumers, designers and creatives.
We are building Bixels from the beginning with our community.
Royal College of Art: First Bixels Workshop, March 2017
Before starting at Bio I have always felt lost in what more core is as a designer always looking for the future but never being sure as to how to translate my vision....it made me see my sense of place and given me an opportunity to push my work in boundaries I could never have imagined! Bio captures the here and now and shows this alternative future allowing to loo beyond what a handbag is but what it could be. - Alice Potts, Fashion Design Student
Global Community Biosummit: Bixels Workshop
Bixels is a hands on cross functional STEM educational experience combining Hardware and Electronics and Bio-Tech. Previewing the device was great I would recommend for teens interested in any of the three disciplines. Simple design, and clear instructions help you put together the Bixel device. The biological components are robust and easy to mix. I would also recommend this to remake as a resource constrained lab for a gel illumination device. - Eric Harness, BioCurious.
Ars Electronica: Bixels – Bio–Displays with Cell Free Technologies
Cambridge Synthetic Biology meetup: Science Makers: Programming with DNA
Risks and challenges
We are constantly improving our bio and electronic parts. And our products are first examples for using biology as a tool.
Biology in combination with electronics are challenging. At the moment we have slight differences in performance from product to product.
- (50 days)