Neri Oxman, an American-Israeli designer, and professor at the MIT Media Labs research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA where she leads a group of researchers in Mediated Matter. Her designs outcomes are known for their art and architecture that bring a unique blend out of biology, computing and material engineering. She coined the typology “material ecology” to define her work and research on placing materials into context involving environmental design and digital morphogenesis. The aesthetic and feel of the materials are a trademark that includes bright colors and textures that vary over the composition over an object resulting in designs worn or touched that have influences from nature and biology. Oxman’s works with tools like 3D printing and fabrication techniques that bring out details of the structure into reality. Museum of Modern Art and Boston’s Museum of Science have added some of her works to their permanent collections. 

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Neri Oxman ©


Introduction:- The project is an installation the showcases melanin in a different light we’ve never seen for the pigment protects our skin from the harmful UV radiation of the sun, however, this pervasive and heterogeneous substance is found among all living organisms in the planet, plant and animal kingdom; a maker of evolution known as the “Universal pigment” found in skin, hair, eyes, wings, feathers of birds and insects, seeds and fruits. Also found in fossils dating back 160 million years to being chemically synthesized today. The functions of melanin are diversely ranged: energy harvesting, cell growth, metal binding, thermal regulations and protection for oxidative stress. The pigment links with biological survival from historical to current climate change scenarios and is considered by some more valuable than gold.

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Image 2 – Each liquid pigment can be studied using different analytical techniques, including UV Vis spectrophotometry. Different compounds have specific peak absorbances, which can be used to distinguish them and verify the presence of a particular substance.   ©

Concept, Material and process:-  The team begins investigating in this era where one can engineer melanin, questions who owns the organic colour and the implications of cultural and biological capabilities? The aim for the installation is to understand, explain and predict the crucial intersections between culture and nature by studying the dichotomy between societal and biological roles to engineer melanin within and across species so designers can adapt and better frame the relationships between natural history and biology. The outcome would help generate melanin on demand keeping in mind the environmental and human factors involved in its creation.

To design chemicals in the laboratory-based on a study conducted regarding the biosynthesis of melanin in the natural world, a set of protocols placed in creating melanin pigment. One method converts the amino acid tyrosine; a protein building block by reacting it with the enzyme tyrosinase extracted from the “Agaricus bisporus mushroom” into melanin in liquid or powder form to create environmentally sensitive inks that are printable in two and three dimensions. [Seen in image 3 below] 

The second method involves the extraction of melanin pigment from bird feature and cuttlefish ink; followed by the purification and filtration process [seen in image 4 below]. The genes for the production of melanin to engineer into bacterial species, such as Escherichia coli which controlled through recombinant gene circuits over time in response to change in the environment. For example, the coloration deepens as the sun reaches the noon of each day to protect from solar radiation.

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Diagram demonstrating the enzymatic reaction that yields melanin of two forms: eumelanin (brown-black) and pheomelanin (red-yellow). ©
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Feathers contain a wide range of melanins, which can be extracted through chemical breakdown and subsequent filtration as seen in the diagram. The pigments have a variety of functions, from strength and durability to coloration. ©e
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A bacterial strain engineered to interact with 3D printed material for the production of different volumes of melanin . This strain was engineered by Meng & Voigt at the MIT Synthetic Biology Center. ©


The laboratory at MIT developed methods for the design of structures to handle biological substances from micro to macro scale in liquid or solid-state. Totems began with creation of “orbs” featuring a single connected channel filled with liquid melanin with a range of colours. This spectrum from light to dark showcases the computational ability to create pockets within the channels ranging in diameter from millimeter to centimeter. The goal to offer a deeper insight into this pigment and its role for supporting life on earth in the age of synthetic biology demonstrated by experiments based on melanin synthesized by engineering and wild-type bacteria.

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Melanin incorporated into designed products, such as a 12cm sphere shown here. The internal geometry and material distributions of each piece are computationally grown, 3D printed through high-resolution multi-material and finally augmented with melanin. © 
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The generative growth process uses geometric rule-sets to create pattern formations seen in biological processes and allows it to evolve towards particular performance criteria. © 
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Forms are physicalized using a multi-material 3D printing process leveraging volumetric material that is interpreted to high-resolution material deposition instructions to generate intricate cavities, patterns, and channels in the spheres. ©
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These channels are filled with five different hues of melanin, drawn from different sources -cuttlefish ink, mushrooms and bird feathers. ©

An architectural scale installation produced for “Broke Nature” consisted of totem; a spirit being or sacred object or symbolic emblem of the Tree of Life. This large-scale model embodies a process of melanin formation that fuses research between digital fabrication and computation of design along with chemical reaction dynamics. Each structure; a biological totem initiates with the introduction to tyrosinase, an enzyme that dominates the color formation for one day and deepens as the sun reaches noon. This demonstration displays the ability for it to protect from, connection to and transformation of sunlight.

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Installation for Broken Nature. ©
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The Installation facade covers a larger area of protecting the biodiversity in that space. ©

The project comprises an environmentally responsive melanin-infused glass structure designed to contain multiple types of melanin including the replication to natural melanogenic process observed on the site and extraction process from the laboratory. This biological augmented facade structure mirrors and protects endangered species on site and celebrates the diversity of life on the planet.

Images of the final piece, image 12-15 below, 3-D printed to include six distinct liquid channels and pockets. Each pocket contains melanin from a different species, from bird to cuttlefish

Melanin infused glass structure ©
Melanin infused glass structure ©

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Melanin infused glass structure ©
Melanin infused glass structure ©
Melanin infused glass structure ©
Melanin infused glass structure ©

Subhay Baberwal, a practising architect at Taller-S and a visiting faculty at SJB School of architecture and planning, Bangalore. He is an art and culture enthusiast as well as a certified wildlife Eco-volunteer by the Karnataka Forest Department for activities regarding conservation, census, preservation. Furthermore, he is a poet and currently exploring his voice in architecture writing along with being a ghostwriter for mobile application, fashion collections and bloggers.