Hacking with Microbes

Rick van Rein

Playlists: 'MCH2022' videos starting here / audio

Microbes are everywhere. They are part of nature, both around us and inside of us. When you provide their desired niche, you can make them do something for you, in a mutually beneficial arrangement. This talk will take you into their realm, and show a few practical examples and hacking opportunities.

Our climate is on fire, but we are still reaching for an Ultimate Solution. We don't move until we get a drop-in replacement to sustain current habits, at no extra cost. Our cognitive dissonance makes us trust politicians to deliver on promises, and energy vendors to withstand lucrative green washing. But it is both interesting and profitable to be part of the solution, and not of the problem.

I have a long-standing fascination with microbial processes. They are adaptive and resilient while they modestly take on chores that pull things back to nature's standards. I think many problems that we are facing now can be solved locally and efficiently with clever combinations of technology and microbiology. Not always complete solutions and not everything is simple, but they certainly add to resilience and taking ownership of problem *and* solution.

In a perfect situation, energy is harvested when&where it is abundant and moved to when&where it is needed. This talk demonstrates ways of doing at least some of that with the help of microbial systems. We will demonstrate overlap and connections, and conditions under which they may be hacked:


* Beer. Vinegar. Innoculation. Permaculture.
* Gut. Fiber or Fat. SCFA. Immune system. Epigenetics.
* Biogas. Acetate. Sulphur and ammonia. Garbage in, garbage out.
* Microbial fuel cell. Clay and carbon. Training.
* Pee. Urea. Energy calculations for a Raspberry Pee.
* Poo. Phosphate. Energy calculations for iPoo mobility.
* Compost. Worms. Energy calculations for heat generation.
* Climate change & zoonose. Cramming sick animals. Antibiotics. Government ignorance.


* Making beer uses yeast to turn sugar to alcohol. Yeast can flexibly adapt from/to glucose via DNA switching to generate different enzymes. Let fruit flies in, and they bring along Acetobacter that reduce alcohol to vinegar. Wild fermentation is more natural, and yields a lambic beer. Save work by going for stable, naturally mixed processes.
* Our gut processes whatever we can't. Two rough kinds of colonies co-exist. One consumes cholesterol/bile and the other plants/fiber. They tune our body via SCFA, the immune system and epigenetics. You can hack by changing your food (and after a few weeks, the microbes are thought to hack you by asking for more; so much for free will?!?)
* Biogas works like a gut. It forms/consumes acetate CH₃COOH to produce CO₂ and methane CH₄ with byproducts hydrogen H₂, hydrosulphide H₂S and ammonia NH₃. Local cycles can process known sludge and produce usable liquid output, but large-scale anonymity destroys that. Some influences are possible, but the process is basically difficult, smelly and a bit dangerous.
* Microbes can live in a fuel cell, which then accepts electrons and passes H+ through a membrane. Urine can be broken down with just clay and carbon -- and a culture. What are researchers doing? A variant to produce hydrogen H₂. And the potential of driving microbes by passing in a current.
* Pee contains urea (NH₂)CO(NH₂), a hydrogen carrier. Urea is stable when dried, but otherwise reduces to ammonia NH₃. Soil microbes normally turn ammonia into atmospheric N₂ and water. But we can also use urea in a fuel cell to extract electricity or hydrogen.
* Poo contains many microbes, some of which are pathogenic. But it is also our disposal channel for phosphorous (which we mine to grow food) and nitrogen. Troubled hygiene, but can this be safe? Is it a good idea?
* Compost is incredibly straightforward and safe. The nutrient cycle is so short that nature could have invented it... oh wait, it did. Spring brings a gradual start, Summer collects energy, Autumn sheds it off and Winter benefits from the captured energy. Because composting generates heat, and has been used for heating homes, or parts of homes. Though mostly self-controlled, there are broad requirements for heat retention, moisture, oxygenation and C:N ratio. Working with these, you can have some degree of control over this process.
* Microbes mutate if we force them into another environment. Like a sick animal. Or 3000 of them. Antibiotics form a bonus challenge. Many animal farmers carry resistent microbes. Zoonoses are on the rise due to climate change, and they are the common source of infectious diseases. Government practices [best effort management](https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/binaries/rijksoverheid/documenten/wob-verzoeken/2020/10/28/besluit-wob-verzoek-prognoses-ziektekiemen-uit-dierhouderijen/Besluit+Wob-verzoek+prognoses+ziektekiemen+uit+dierhouderijen.pdf) by chasing for *known* diseases; they are generally clueless about possible future zoonoses and any involved risk to humans.

[Session image source](https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyanobacteria_guerrero_negro.jpg)