Last month, researchers at MIT’s Mediated Matter group unveiled a novel approach to space-suit design and fabrication. Entitled “Wanderers: Wearables for Interplanetary Pilgrims,” the group’s exhibit at EuroMold in Frankfurt, Germany, displayed a series of 3D-printed garments designed to house life-sustaining microbes. The synthetically engineered organisms could, hypothetically, keep the garments' wearers alive in otherwise-uninhabitable environments.
MIT research assistants William Patrick, Steven Keating, and Sunanda Sharma describe their project—led by the group's founder and director, MIT associate professor Neri Oxman—as an "astrobiological exploration." Notably, the work demonstrates a captivating intersection among synthetic biology, additive manufacturing, and apparel design. The colorful garments were generated using computational algorithms developed by Deskriptiv and are each intended for use in different scenarios.
According to the project statement: "Each wearable is designed for a specific extreme environment where it transforms elements that are found in the atmosphere to one of the classical elements supporting life: oxygen for breathing, photons for seeing, biomass for eating, biofuels for moving, and calcium for building."
As a radical new concept for clothing, I would like to take this proposal seriously—if not for interstellar travel, then at least for extreme planetary environments. However, the prototype garments clearly offer minimal coverage, as seen on otherwise naked models, and the project could benefit from showing at least one comprehensive anatomical version.
Another consideration concerns the line between biomimicry and bio-engineering. The interplanetary wearables are intended to support living organisms, but the printed plastic housings are clearly biomimetic—not bio-designed—and would remain inert, petroleum-based objects. Given that scientists are already printing with human tissue, these vasculature molds could instead be composed of living materials (or at least life-derived substances such as keratin or chitin). To function as protective cladding, the molds might then self-assemble into configurations that resemble protective skins rather than exposed organs.
Perhaps I am being unfair. As works of art, the Wearables are as thought-provoking as they are hauntingly beautiful, and I commend the team for that. As works of science, however, there is more to be done. I support the parallel advancement of art and science in this exploration, which will lead to a truly groundbreaking contribution.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.