Andrea Ling

Andrea Ling

Andrea S. Ling is an architect, artist, and researcher working at the intersection of design, fabrication, and biology. While undergoing her Creative Residency at Ginkgo Bioworks in 2019 she created artefacts that exhibit designed decay. Looking at how we can design waste that we can live with, having some sort of functionality or desirability. To organise decay she used enzymes, fungus, bacteria and other biological agents as ways of decomposing and composing matter simultaneously.

Specialising in biologically derived and biodegradable polymers, she creates objects which are grown, and ecological. While studying as a research assistant at MIT Media Lab, Ling was introduced to chitosan. This material is a structural polysaccharide found in insect and crustacean shells as well as in fungal walls. She also uses cellulose (a structural polysaccharide found in plant walls) and pectin (a polysaccharide found in fruit skins), which with chitosan are some of the most abundant biopolymers on the planet. Each material is also water soluble and has short decay times, which is why they work well for her research. All of these materials are processed into forms or used as feed for microbes. Although they can be engineered to have different characteristics, they are made to biodegrade with ease. Each material, even if part of the same object, does not require vastly different end-of-life processes to decompose. Also, when they decompose they can then become part of the nutrient cycle.

By designing decay Ling is able to dictate how the material can return back into the environment and give energy back to the system that initially designed it. She is able to mediate the process through species selection, control of environmental conditions and nutrients used. Her work continuously looks for self-renewing forms and mutability to allow for renewal at the end of life.

While at Gingko Ling worked on 3 parallel streams of research. Each looking at decay as a fabrication process:

Using enzymatic degradation of bioplastics as a means of transforming material.

Using different species of Streptomyces bacteria to colonize cellulose and bioplastic substrates in order to transform them. The Streptomyces genus encompass a group of common soil bacteria that are capable of facilitating biodegradation but are not considered robust decay agents. They leave evidence of their metabolic activity with the release of vibrant pigments, transforming the materials they colonize.

Using different types of fungi, including Aspergillus niger (black mold) and Trichoderma viride (green mold) in co-cultures to transform and degrade different materials. Molds are much more powerful and resilient decay agents compared to Streptomyces and would rapidly colonize any substrate we provided.

Synthetic biology is the act of programming organisms into tools of our making. But we must continue to question this extractive capitalist system as biological systems have limits. Biology’s currency is energy and matter, of which there is a finite amount. Ling declares that nature “cannot be controlled the same way we can control industrial mechanisms. And it cannot be raped without any provision of return, for without nurture and restoration, the system will collapse. But if tended to, in return, biological systems can provide a far more robust system of growth, renewal, and system longevity that extractive systems are not capable of.”


Andrea S. Ling
Gingko Bioworks