Can iPhones grow on trees?

By Kitty Knowles 7 March 2016

Meet Dr Chris Forman, a nano-biophysicist from the University of Cambridge.

Can iPhones grow on trees? “Maybe,” says Dr Chris Forman, a nano-biophysicist from the University of Cambridge, who is due to speak on the subject at the Cambridge Science Festival.

It might seem like a bizarre idea, but scientists have long been inspired by natural systems.

“Flying was clearly inspired by bird flight,” Forman told The Memo. “Velcro was inspired by seeds sticking to dog fur.”

“Synthetic biology is perhaps the most interesting of all.”

“By harnessing biological processes we may be able to program cells to produce all of our chemicals and materials in an inherently sustainable way,” Forman explained.

What’s going on?

Scientists are actually already growing new materials in labs, and Forman poses that we could at some point grow the components to build electronics. In the not too distant future your iPhone may well be ‘grown’.

“Ultimately we will be able to program our own versions of bulk materials akin to bone and wood,” said Forman.

Read more: Swapping steel & concrete for buildings of bone

“Since biological analogues exist for all the components needed to make an iPod, I ask is it feasible that one day we might even produce fully functioning devices this way”.

In the short term synthetic biology could be used to make drugs and medicine, in the mid-term it could be used to create everything from construction materials, to textiles and food, Forman explains.

“In the long run I see devices, possibly even entire buildings and ecosystems driven by this kind of technology,” he adds.

Would a grown iPhone be better?

There would be many practical benefits of growing iPhones made of ‘natural’ materials too.

“A key thing about biology is that it is information driven,” said Forman. “But the information (DNA) comes in a cell which contains all the know-how.”

“By having biological process tasked to produce materials and devices locally we are no longer dependent on design created by someone else; we will have control over the atoms and materials around us to make whatever we need.”

“It’s like really, really advanced 3D-printing.”

A man-made leaf that absorbs water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen just like a plant.
A man-made leaf that absorbs water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen just like a plant.

Better for the environment

Growing materials in this way could play a huge role in creating a sustainable future, said Forman.

“I see synthetic biology as an enabling technology for a circular economy,” he explains.

“Biology is brilliant at recycling and that’s what we need to become if we are to eliminate all of our waste, including carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.”

“Technology and nature would harmonise sooner if people had to pay for the cost of protecting nature as well as the cost of their product,” he adds. “One way of doing that would be through taxation or regulation; the cost of a taxation or regulation that forced a company to fix environmental damage would be passed on to consumers.

“Solutions that didn’t damage the environment in the first place would then be cheaper than their evil cousins, and so everyone would win.”

Will we end up a nation of Terminators?

In a world where natural cells are manipulated to grow electronics, it’s “absolutely” possible we could end up creating technology in our own bodies, says Forman.

“Biological cells are nothing more than complicated machines,” he explains. “Spectacles, clothes, prosthetics or medical implants are all examples of technology merging with nature.”

“For me, the main strategic advantage of making our technology and biology closer is that it entwines the fate of technology and the fate of biology, thus enforcing us to keep the environment appropriate for biology as we understand it.”

Why should we care about all this?

For Forman, this is about a devolution of power.

“I believe that the internet combined with biologically inspired materials processing could be a great equaliser in terms of wealth and quality of life,” says Forman.

“If it’s implemented well it will be possible for all people to access in the same way that anyone can grow their own vegetables.”

“It is not without its dangers but it has the capacity to lead to a much more natural way of existing in which excessive consumption isn’t the design rule for our society, imposed on us by greedy corporations.”

The seed has been planted. Are you excited for the iPhones that follow?

Dr Chris Forman will deliver his lecture ‘Can iPods grow on trees?‘ on Tuesday 15 March between 7.30pm – 8.30pm at the Mill Lane Lecture Rooms, Cambridge. Find out more about the Cambridge Science Festival.  

Read more: Cambridge Science Festival: 10 incredible pictures that will make you see science differently

Read more: Swapping steel & concrete for buildings of bone