BioBranding

 

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WHAT IF BUSINESSES COULD ONE DAY EMPLOY ENGINEERED BACTERIA TO DELIVER A SPECIFIC BRAND EXPERIENCE?

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Little bit about branding –

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Businesses have long been using several tools to capture the mind share of their customers and nurture brand loyalty. This whole practice of “branding” is a method to ensure that the values which a particular brand represents are communicated clearly and are easily relatable. When consumers adopt a certain brand they are largely buying into the whole idea of what the brand represents than merely buying goods and services for their individual value and function.

Over time, branding has gotten increasingly subtle! It is not just about product and logo design or celebrity endorsements. Brand designers look into very subtle details where the brand narrative could slip and lead to incongruence.

An important emerging tool which brand designers employ is scent! Scent is one of the most powerful of human senses and is closely tied to our emotions. Scent can bring back vivid memories from the past and trigger complex emotions. Brands use this strategically in their brick and mortar stores so customers feel happier and spend more time leading to extended brand recognition and higher value perception.

 

Bacteria and the gut-brain-axis

Human silhouette digestive system and intestinal flora - illustration

Science has successfully proven a strong bi-directional link between the gut microbiome and its effect on our mood. Although we haven’t been able to pin-point any specific moods attributed to different strains of bacteria but we do know that it affects on a broad spectrum ranging from feeling pleasant and feeling depressed.

We also know that our own individual microbiome extends 10 feet into our surroundings and there is always a constant exchange of bacteria between our bodies and our environment.

Additionally science is now discovering that each individual also carries his own signature of bacterial strains and perhaps could one day be used in forensics.

 

So how does this come together?

It is a highly plausible speculation that in future, brands could use engineered bacteria to deliver either the product or a specific experience! In-fact it may even be happening at present, even though unknowingly. Not in the sense that we have a variety of branded pro-biotics available on the shelf but more of an outcome of different process that brands have put in place to streamline the business and the brand.

The questions here are of ethics and control.

How much control do brands have to exert influence? And how effectively can you exert counter control to keep brand behavior in check?

How ethical or unethical is invasive branding really?

what branding strategies or products could fall on the spectrum of acceptable vs unethical?

 

Lets look at some future scenarios of how bacterial branding may pan out –

Invasive and threatening
McBiome

McBiome

McDonald’s food was recently accused of wiping out gut bacteria of a kid who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 10 days. But what if McDonald’s some day started planting engineered microbes into their food and restaurants? When these microbes are ingested through a cheeseburger they bring a sense of deep inner joy and pleasure but “the programmed cell death” function engineered into the microbes kills them in a few hours creating a gut-biotic-vacuum putting you in a depressive state and make you crave for more Mc Cheese burgers. The scary thing is the relationship between McDonal’s food and the McBiome could be interdependent. The McBiome could make you crave for a specific molecule which is patented by McDonald’s and can only be found in McDonald’s food!

 

Non invasive and beneficial
Sephora beauty guarantee

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What if beauty brands like Sephora populate the brick and mortar stores with healthy skin bacteria. One could easily image a brand campaign where Sephora asks its customers to simply walk into their stores and walk away with a replenished skin microbiome in 20 minutes!

 

Invasive and beneficial
CLOSE-UP, Long lasting freshness

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What if Close-up launches an oral hygiene product which cleans your teeth, gives you a fresh breath and also leaves you with a healthy oral microbiome. This would be in the interest of Close-up’s brand positioning of being the Tinder of toothpastes! Their tagline is “Make your move”. We do know that there is a link between oral microbiome and sexual performance. The oral microbiome produce nitric oxide which lowers blood pressure and increases blood flow to the genitals, making you last longer in bed!

 

Non invasive but threatening
Microbial fishing

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We know that each individual has a unique microbial signature at a given time. Businesses could exploit this fact to fish out and profile your unique microbiome and sell this data to companies for a more relevant and tailored product.

 

 

 

 

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Gene drives for the Ganges

The Ganges or the Ganga as its known in India is both an important symbol in Indian religious culture and a major source of water (over 25%) and supporter of local economy. It is considered and worshiped as a mother goddess in form of a fair-complexioned beautiful woman wearing a white crown with a water lily, holding a water pot in her hands, and riding her pet crocodile.

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Moreover she is a symbol of fertility, abundance and purity and will even wash away your karma. The ultimate dream of every Hindu is to die in the holy city of Benaras and have his ashes dispersed in the Ganges, doing so is an easy shortcut to moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death). Even the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, the poster boy of secularism had asked to have his ashes dispersed in the holy Ganges.

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In reality the situation is quite ironic. The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Throughout its 2500 km route the Ganges passes through several big cities which dump lethal amounts of pollutants and fecal matter in the river. The fecal bacteria is 10-15 times more than the permissible limit. The river is flooded with heavy metals from pesticides dumped into it from industrial and agricultural activities.

Apart of pollution, the Ganges also suffers from a very hampered ecosystem due to river pollutants and increase in hydel power plants in the upper parts of the Ganges. The Ganges river dolphin, one of the only 3 freshwater dolphins left in the world is now a severely endangered species with only about 1,800 left in the entire Ganges-Brahmaputra rivers.

Dead turtle on a polluted stretch of the Ganges River, Varanasi, India.

Efforts to clean up the river have been undertaken since the past 3 decades but have yet to be fruitful. The Modi government had allocated a budget of 3 Billion dollars for the clean Ganga campaign but we are yet to see any results.

The govt has proposed a two fold plan of action, to clean the river of it’s contaminants and to rejuvenate it by restoring the ecosystem.

Another lesser known issue which has severely affected the river ecosystem is of invasive species. Foreign invasive species of fish and certain crops has damaged not only the ecosystem but also the local economy which is heavily dependant on fishing and farming. The most invasive and dangerous of this is the red bellied Piranha. This fish is native to the Amazon river basin and is alien to the Ganges ecosystem. Researches have speculated that it could have been introduced to the Ganges through boats carrying the fish for aquarium trade.

This is the space where Gene drives could play a role.

What if Gene drives could rejuvenate the dying dolphin population in the Ganges.

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The Ganges river dolphin is a carnivore which can feed on invasive fish species to curb their increasing population. What if we can identify genes which result in birthing fraternal twins and drive it through the dolphin population to produce a pair of male and female dolphins? Dolphins have a gestation period of 9 months which makes it rather unsuitable for gene drives but if we can double the reproduction rate for every gestation cycle, results can be achieved much faster. Of course there will have to be way to mute the gene drive after a few generations to avoid over population.

Gene drives could also be used to curb the increasing red belly piranha population.

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The red bellied Piranha breeds every year during the monsoon and lays thousands of eggs which mature in a matter of two weeks. This would be a very effective species for implementing Gene drives given their rapid breeding cycle. You could introduce Gene drives to produce only male offspring thereby curbing further increase in the population due to a lack of female mates for breeding.

The life span of a red bellied Piranha is 10 years. This is where increasing predator dolphin population come into the equation. The dolphins can pray on the remaining male piranhas thereby wiping out the entire species in a few years time.

Synthetic biology_3

For the third class we did a quick mind mapping exercise to come up with directions for the final project.

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I’m happy with some of the directions that I got. The top four –

1. BioChips
As a speculative design exploration, I’m trying to ask if we can engineer integrated bacterial circuits. What if a piece of DNA was exposed to conditions that will make it randomly mutate every time it tries to repair itself? Could such a setup be used to make a true random number generator? can we design a transistor with engineered bacteria which responds differently to voltage? What would biological versions of common electronic/electrical components look like?

2. Designer baby vs prolonged death
Genetically enhanced humans is a topic that often comes up when discussing bio technology. I can’t decide which is more grave, designer babies or its evil twin, prolonged death. I am more terrified of the latter. Through this speculative exercise I wanna try and answer questions like what is the optimum age to die? And in that case, what is the most pleasant way to die if death is far removed from natural biological processes? What kind of products and services will evolve around it? how will it change our mourning rituals?

3. Scavenger DNA
Can we engineer our DNA or gut bacteria to help us digest plastic?

4. Embodied brand experience
Smell is often regarded as a powerful branding tool. It creates a more enriched and memorable experience which helps in brand recall. But what if the future of branding lies in engineered bacteria? The gut-brain-axis is a well researched and proven subject concerning a link between gut microbiota and the brain/mood. Could environmental microbiome be engineered to deliver a specific brand experience? Do businesses have the right to invade our body and mind to get us hooked? Where do we draw the line?

Synthetic biology_2

For second week of class we visited Genspace for an introductory workshop on CRISPR.
It was exciting to see the lab and do some gene tinkering. I was quite amazed when the instructor mentioned that you only need three main things to run a basic biolab, something to mix, something to separate and something to chill! Also it’s a given that you’d need a microscope to marvel at your creations and various other paraphernalia.
I couldn’t help but think of the Indian concept of jugaad¬†being so relevant in this space. I was instantly reminded of this hand-held blood centrifuge designed by Manu Prakash at Stanford. Who also happened to have designed the Foldscope. The readings were a good refresher on some research I was doing on DIY microscopes last semester. I think I even remember seeing someone make a microscope using a drop of water as a lens.

Also can’t help but mention how inspiring was George Church‘s side project on storing digital data in DNA! It is very interesting to marry computer science / information technology and synthetic biology. Could we engineer a computer clock based on cell divisions? or a random number generator based on genetic mutations? what about the eerie similarity between blockchain and DNA?…DNA as currency?

 

 

Synthetic biology

For my very first class of Citizen science: Biotechnology we had to blindly pick chits from a randomized pool of topics which would be our subject of research for this course. I picked synthetic biology, or rather it picked me!

After spending an entire day watching simplified Youtube videos and reading popular science articles on synthetic biology, I can finally claim to have gotten my head around the subject and some of the jargon necessary to understand and communicate it. I feel I am now equipped to take on more serious literature and scientific papers.

Any discussion around synthetic biology and/or genetic engineering seldom takes place without touching upon ethics and necessary regulations around the technology and of course “designer babies!”. I am more interested in speculating on parallel applications of this technology than to really have an opinion on it’s ethics and practical concerns. After all the motivation behind synthetic biology is ethically positive, at least in the realm of therapeutics and nourishment rather than enhancement! The reality is that there are certain urgencies which are far more grave than the unclear ecological implications and potential risks with this technology. It is tempting to attack these urgencies with a piece of tech that shows promise than to fully think through its implications. But is it even possible to fully think through its implications without implementing it? Who would have imagined the internet when the first transistor was engineered?!

I am also pondering over how this technology could reflect in design and in-turn in our day to day life of using products. If we circumvent all the sensational “hot topics” around this technology and imagine a regular day in future, maybe 70 years from now, where synthetic biology is mainstream and has already proven to be immensely successful in treating several diseases; A future where men never go bald and everyone on the planet has enough food, what would our mundane day-to-day life look like? If biotech creates a market for new materials then how would it impact manufacturing and advertising and how will these new methods affect the way our everyday products look and function. What would our toothbrush look like? or the humble bar of soap? what kind of underwear will we be wearing? how would we redesign kitchen tools to work with new forms of food? how will it alter some of our everyday rituals like skin care and hygiene or using contraception?

These may not be very glamorous topics to discuss but certainly very important. The mundane everyday life is the grand reality for most of us and is directly related to a person’s sense of well-being. I may explore more along this track through the semester.