When walking in a beautiful field of grass, it’s understandable if a factory is the last thing on your mind. But grass, in addition to being pleasant to look at, is a wonder of precision manufacturing and chemical synthesis. Through subtle biochemistry, grass weaves sunlight, sugars and minerals into fibrous tissues, complete with the ability to replicate themselves until one blade covers a landscape.
If you want to know the best way to make a Ferrari, you go to Maranello, Italy and watch them being built. If you want to understand how grass is made, there’s nowhere to go but the organism itself, the best expert in the known universe at making grass. This applies to pretty much all multicellular life, and as science and industry learn new ways of working with biology, it also offers a helpful frame for thinking about how humanity meets its needs.
Let’s imagine an impossible machine. It produces a delicious protein — in fact, it’s made of delicious proteins — and the whole thing runs on grass. Humans are clever, so we’ve worked out ways to convert various organic molecules into all sorts of stuff, through chemistry and leveraging microbes like brewer’s yeast. A biotechnologist might suggest filling a big steel tank with a model organism like E.coli, editing its genes to convert sugars into proteins. That’s a solution, but nature didn’t design these microorganisms to create protein — more than protein, you mostly get more E.coli, and it’s a lot of work for a problem any farmer knows how to solve: get a cow.
From a systems perspective, cows are amazing, and again, better at what they do than any machine humans could build. With only grass and water as inputs, they produce nutritious milk and whole cut protein, as well as more of themselves. With a cow, a bull, a field of grass and a stream, you could bootstrap your way to a herd. Cattle are way ahead of Teslas when it comes to ‘full self driving’, and when a cow gets a dent, it can heal itself. Seeing the amazing abilities of a living system as solutions to our problems is something I call ‘cowness’. You could also call it ‘grassness’, or ‘bee-ness’ or ‘anything else-ness’ — when nature has an answer to problems that humans seek to solve, its solutions are usually better and more sophisticated than anything we can invent.
Through biotechnology, science and industry are finding new ways to leverage the abilities of living systems, mostly single celled organisms for now. For instance, companies like Colorifix are ‘editing’ bacteria to produce sustainable dyes; Loliware and Sway are making plastics out of seaweed. But these aren’t examples of ‘bacteria-ness’ or ‘seaweed-ness’, and more an example of how science is finding new applications for living systems. But there are still many opportunities to leverage what evolution has already figured out. In Poland, for instance, clams and other shellfish are wired with sensors to help gauge the quality of local water supplies. Why would we try to outdo what nature already does best?
One key issue is scale. Today, scale is crucial for any product or solution to make a difference, and nature has its limits. With cows, we see this clearly in factory farming and all its environmental and ethical consequences. But in part, that’s a monoculture problem: we’ve decided that meat and milk only comes from a narrow set of animal sources. We’ve also decided that the same kinds of meat and milk have to be consumed the world over. A ‘cowness’ perspective might prefer to work with what already thrives in a given region; a certain source of protein will make more sense in one place or culture than in another, and where a living being comes from is just as important as what it does. For instance, leveraging the nutritional profiles of crickets, and their incredible ability to reproduce, seems to offer one truly scalable way of meeting nutritional needs on a growing planet (if the west can get over their squeamishness). It’s also an example of ‘cricket-ness’ changing the way we view the world and how we get what we need. Such perspective shifts can and should also inform the way we make what we need, and over time it could help bring us into alignment with the planet we live on.
Let’s take one more example: water pumps. There are a number of techniques for drawing moisture from the air or water up from underground, but nothing does it quite like a tree. The ‘tree-ness’ of a tree — the things it does better than anything we could design — include building and reproducing itself, drilling itself deep into the ground, purifying water and operating in a distributed model, all powered by the sun. They are also incredible movers of water. I grew up on a maple farm, so I’ve spent countless hours putting thousands of plugs into the side of maple trees, a pretty unsophisticated way of extracting their stored moisture. But it drove home just how good these beings are at channeling water. Instead of digging deeper wells, wouldn’t it make more sense to draw moisture from the living pumps that are already doing it?
Water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes), despite having shallow root structures, will transpire around three times as much water from a pond as normal evaporation. Try digging a 100 foot well, and you’ll find new appreciation for the fact that a Shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca) can sink its roots 230 feet underground. What potential is there for plants to be applied as water pumps? In a desert environment like where the Shepherd’s tree grows, one could imagine capturing the water with something like an air well. In more humid environments, like China, plants are being tested to cycle water out of contaminated landfills. The upshot here is that we can either retrieve water by digging and extracting, or by leveraging the latent abilities of plants.
To put it in crude terms, evolution is perhaps the greatest designer, and biology the greatest manufacturer, that the world ever will know. It makes sense for humans to defer to its genius at every opportunity. For a long time before technology, that’s what humans did, because there simply wasn’t another option. The things humans make and use today, while by definition originating from Earthly resources, are processed to the point of being almost abstract from nature. Even as technology and scientific understanding advances to tinker with the inner workings of living things, we can still benefit from what nature does better than we ever could before. In fact, gaining a deeper understanding of how living things work could enhance this relationship.
Finding and working with a new organism’s ‘cow-ness’ often comes down to finding new ways of building life support systems — with single-celled organisms, these take the form of liquid bioreactors, big fermentation tanks; for more complex organisms, like trees, we could imagine building systems around trees that support their ways of life, while also channeling the water from leaves to a spigot. Part of working with nature is to operate within its limits, and with respect for it, not just to treat it like a raw resource, but as a living thing that shares our planet with us, and could be our partner in the business of living here. This should be at the heart of working with biology to design or build anything that humans use. It’s also a timely message, as humans now understand enough about how nature works to know that we must meet our needs in balance with its processes. Maybe that starts by looking for more ways to leverage what it has already designed. There is still so much ‘cowness’ to be discovered and utilized, as long as we don’t forget to look for it. The possibilities are as endless as the variety of life on Earth.
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