In today’s episode, storyteller Reece Whatmore interviews cutting-edge materials scientists in a genre-blending piece, conjuring a future where innovative technologies blend symbiotically with nature. She speculates on a world in which a circular economy fuels reciprocity with nature, from bioluminescence-powered screens, to self-repairing sidewalks, to clothing made of algal biopolymers.
And, in this week's bonus episode, Inherited host Shaylyn Martos sits down with Reece Whatmore, who envisioned a bio-inspired world where nature and humanity coexist harmoniously in Season 3, Episode 5: “Beyond the Anthropomass.” Together, they talk about Reece’s research, process, and dreams for the future.
Inherited is a critically acclaimed climate storytelling show made by, for, and about young people. We’re a production of YR Media and distributed by Critical Frequency.
For more information about our podcast, head to our website at yr.media/inherited, and follow us on the socials @inheritedpod.
SEASON 3, EPISODE 5
“BEYOND THE ANTHROPOMASS,” BY REECE WHATMORE
HOST SHAYLYN MARTOS: Across the planet, species rely on symbiosis to survive. From glass sponges and shrimps, to ants and acacias, organisms work in tandem with others.
Håfa adai, and welcome to Inherited — we share the work of young audio storytellers, hoping to uplift a new generation of climate advocacy. I’m your season host, shaylyn martos. This is season 3, episode five: “Beyond the Anthropomass”.
Our human-made materials are disruptive and extractive to our environment and to our neighbors. But this exploitation of Earth’s natural resources can be halted — there is a better way.
Biomaterials, both macro and micro, are a fascinating sector of engineering science today. For folks like Reece Whatmore, a student in bioengineering and fantastic storyteller for this episode, this discipline is driven by hope and creativity.
Today, Reece takes us into the future, where a more equitable world lies in symbiosis between our environment and our technology.
Here’s Reece Whatmore with “Beyond the Anthropomass”.
[fade out shaylyn’s theme]
BEYOND THE ANTHROPOMASS
BY REECE WHATMORE
REECE WHATMORE: Close your eyes. Imagine the weight of the natural world – every living thing. All the trees in all the rainforests of the world. The vast network of fungi beneath your feet, connected to the roots of all those trees. Now think of every animal in every ocean, from the dolphins leaping above to the deep-sea lanternfish, each amoeba, each tiny insect and pollened flower and bacterium and virus. These seemingly boundless products of eons of natural evolution no longer are what primarily makes up Earth.
You see, Earth has entered a new era. It’s called: The Anthropomass. We now live in a world where the collective mass of human-made goods outweighs all biological material. New York City, for example, has a mass roughly equal to the weight of all the fish in the world. Plastics, metals, skyscrapers – our materials dominate the land. The towering rainforests are now mere patches within a tapestry of concrete jungles and urban landscapes. Every building, every bridge, every vehicle, everything we have crafted converges to transform the composition of the earth.
It’s not hard to see that with this new influence over the Earth, we are failing. We are failing ourselves, we are failing the air, the water, the planet.
In an attempt to technologically advance our society, we have demolished what is most precious. We have permanently altered the state of the world; We have created irreversible damage. What nature has developed over billions of years, we’ve destroyed almost instantaneously.
But I would like to propose an alternative world. A future where instead of dominating nature, we build in collaboration with it. The world we are about to enter is still our own, still – but one where human made materials no longer weigh it down. Our materials no longer divide between organic and synthetic but instead merge in a space of symbiosis.
In this world, we’ll honor and work alongside The Earth, instead of exploiting and extracting its resources for our own gain. But keep in mind that in order for a truly innovative future to unfold, we’ll need to halt our fantasy of infinite economic growth. Unfettered capitalism and consumerism can’t coexist with a harmonious planet, because they’re systems that thrive on exploitation.
So as we go through this journey, I ask you to imagine a new model, one based not on huge companies selling us more things, but instead focusing on reciprocity with the Earth, and with each other. One where we leave our human-centered philosophy behind and embrace a nature-centered approach. Where we create a human-nature symbiosis.
These innovations I’ll introduce you to today are just the beginning of the fundamental changes we must make.
Now, let's begin our journey. Biomaterial designers, scientists, and engineers, inventors of this harmonic future, will be our guides. Close your eyes, and take a deep breath, as together we dive – into the future.
REECE: As you look around, you are welcomed by a warming green undertone.
You feel the heartbeat of nature surrounding you. From the microscopic scale,
CATHERINE MONDOA: These proteins can produce a kind of green fluorescence when stimulated
REECE: To macroscopic materials.
CHARLOTTE MCCURDY: Algae is a big part of the future we need to build because it is such an efficient photosynthesizer. So algae is a critical part of our future.
REECE: Everything contains the heartbeat of nature’s biological rhythm.
JIL BERENBLUM: When I think about a circular ecosystem, usually I want to think about it for use in terms of like nature
CATHERINE: Oh, so this is what you do, so let's work together to create something.
JIL: Think most people center the human. But if you center nature like that is where we come from, then the system that we build around that should go back to it.
VICTORIA PIUNOVA: And if they escape, then they stay in the environment for years to come, you know, for hundreds of years. So would seaweed and seaweed read material? This is quite the opposite. So if anything escapes and God forbid, it gets into the ocean, well, it just went home, you know, that's where it came from. So it's perfectly fine and perfectly safe for the environment.
JIL: And I think that means like as a designer, how do you gather inspiration? How do you look at nature in order to influence, like what you're making?
REECE: In this world, nature has not just influenced all aspects of society, but become integrated within it.
We changed the way we thought about nature and our materials. We began to understand that we could not separate our materials from nature. The man made and the natural are not two discrete parts, but rather pieces that are destined to reunite.
ROBOTIC VOICE: Act one, raincoat.
REECE: It’s early morning. The sunrise peers down through the small gaps in the clouds above, gentle drops of rain falling all around you. The air is wet and smells like earth. The rain brings the world around you to life – its steady dripping on your raincoat accompanying the rhythm of your footsteps. As you walk, you take in the lush greenery around you, marveling at the way the plants seem to shine with pops of color against the muted gray sky. The tree branches arch over the sidewalk, creating an enchanting display of movement in the rain.
Droplets hit your face and run down your raincoat. You are mesmerized by the patterns they make as they slide, some condensing to form small streams and others darting away, or falling to the ground below.
Your eyes trace the patterns of the rain on the slick exterior of your raincoat, blocking their wetness from reaching your skin. It’s not the buttery yellow plastic fisherman’s raincoat you wore to jump in puddles as a kid. It’s clear, and made from organism’s millions of years younger than those that decomposed and were drilled back up to make that yellow puddle-jumping coat. This raincoat itself is made of nature. It all starts with the slimy green organisms that float in our oceans, seaweed. Known more formally as macroalgae, you have these multicellular marine algaes to thank for staying dry on this rainy day.
CHARLOTTE MCCURDY: Algae has this really exciting potential to both give us alternative ways to meet our need for fuel, for shelter, for clothing, and also to create systems and supply chains that are that sequestering.
REECE: This is Charlotte McCurdy, a designer and assistant professor in the Design School of Arizona State University.
CHARLOTTE: So when I imagine a future that is livable, that is at least net zero, that is compatible with the ecosystem we have to live in, I see a world where there is much more direct farming of algae, so aquaculture in the ocean, and also that our built environment is made of things that are drawing from that feedstock
REECE: The original plastic materials, like that old buttery yellow fisherman’s raincoat of your past, were made from oil or methane gas that were refined into ethane and propane, which were then treated and processed until they became synthetic plastic.
CHARLOTTE: So I like to think about these synthetic petrochemical materials, like plastics, as ancient sunlight.
So what do I mean by that? How is that possible? That seems like a bit of a paradox to have an ancient, ephemeral thing. And the reason they're ancient sunlight is because they're made of fossil fuels, which are ancient organisms, in the case of petroleum. Mostly algae. It's not dinosaur bones. Sorry. So the process that brought you this piece of plastic started with ancient sunlight. So sunlight hit the surface of the earth in the case of a petroleum based material 90 million years ago.
And that energy from that sunlight drove the photosynthesis of that little algae. So that little algae, photosynthesis, CO2, water, combining them into sugar molecules, the energy of the cell, but also the body of the cell. And these algae grew, expanded, built their little bodies out of ancient CO2, driven by the power of the ancient sun. The energy of that ancient sun is what is stored in the chemical potential energy of those molecular bonds.
CHARLOTTE: Right. So when we burn petroleum, we are rereleasing. That's stored ancient sunlight.
REECE: But this ancient sunlight is unsustainable. When it burns, it creates C02 emissions, which heat our planet
CHARLOTTE: And what happened for me when I started to think about these materials as being ancient sunlight being made of ancient sunlight being embodied forms of ancient sunlight, is that it begs the question.
Or what if we could make these things out of present tense sunlight? What if, instead of taking the sunlight that hit the earth hundreds of millions of years ago, taking the algae that grew off of that power and it happened to get stored underground in just the right ways. What if instead we could take the sunlight that's hitting the surface of the earth right now?
REECE: Our new materials are made from biological organisms, living things, that are on our planet, in this present moment.
CHARLOTTE: Grow algae, sequester carbon and make useful things out of the polymers and biopolymers the chemicals of that plant based nature based sequestration. It's a naturally occurring biopolymer. It's a structural polymer from the seaweed. It's extracted directly from seaweed. I'm not doing any chemical engineering.
REECE: The biomaterial starts with algae, from which the structural biopolymer of the seaweed is extracted. A biopolymer is a large molecule from a biological source. Then water is added and the solution is heated up just in the right way so that it will re-polymer-ize. It forms cross links amongst itself and can then be casted into molds to form its final shape. The conditions of this process must be perfectly adjusted, so as the water dries out of the material, a clear, consistent sheet is produced. This sheet of material can then be used to cut to size and sewn into a final product like the raincoat you are wearing right now.
But the story of your jacket doesn't end there. This algae biomaterial is not just a passive material but active in its creation. As it grows, it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. By collaborating with nature in the process of creating this material, we are healing our planet.
You search the horizon for your community’s algae aquaculture farm. It is one of your favorite views – a land pocketed with deep, varying shades of green, each an algae pool blooming in the distance. The rhythmic movement of the algae under the weight of falling raindrops, reminds you of the intricate dance of life itself. You see the farmers offering up their care to the algae in return for the beautiful resources it provides. As they nurture the algae, ensuring optimal conditions for its growth, the algae reciprocates by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, enriching the surrounding environment. In this moment, you pause to thank nature for this dynamic resource, for each cell of algae that has contributed to the raincoat you wear, the air you breathe, and the world you live in.
The rain starts falling heavier, and you start walking faster. As you arrive upon your favorite morning spot, a worker-owned cooperative cafe nestled in your neighborhood, a sense of anticipation fills the air. You step inside, immediately embraced by a comforting warmth and smell of good food. The spirit of togetherness held within the walls of this cafe makes you feel at home. The hum of lively conversations intertwine with the soothing melodies of calming lofi beats. Among the delightful symphony of sounds, you discern the rhythmic grinding of locally farmed espresso beans and the gentle whooshing of milk being steamed. These sounds are testament to the craft and dedication of the baristas, who take pride in their work and reap the benefits of collective ownership, splitting the shop’s profits equitably.
Here, the spirit of community doesn’t only include the people of your neighborhood, but the natural world as well.You’ve had some of your best ideas here in this cafe while talking to your friends or even with new people you've met. The smell of warm, comforting food wafts over, and your stomach growls.
You look up at the brightly glowing screen displaying today’s menu. It’s full of pictures of freshly harvested produce. Heirloom tomatoes and blueberries from the community garden, wild mushrooms sustainably grown, bread fresh from the nearby bakery. The chia seed pudding catches your eye. The screen shows a picture of the dish topped with house-made granola, and blueberries, drizzled with local honey.
But it’s not the electricity we think of today that powers this menu. Hiding beneath this screen are thousands of specialized bacteria cells, each lighting up under electric pulses to create this natural display.
CATHERINE MONDOA: a natural or bio inspired material can have the level of performance that is required to fuel our electronics and the things that we use every day
REECE: That is Catherine Mondoa, a material scientist, researcher, and designer who studies innovative materials in the sustainable materials space. She follows the work of innovative companies such as Mimotype.
CATHERINE: So they've kind of created this process by which these fluorophores can be electrically stimulated outside of an organism. This process of creating fluorescence in different organisms, I mean, you can find it in fungi, you can find it in the sea, you can find it in plants, you can find it in insects. And so it's kind of all over the place. These proteins can produce – can produce a kind of green fluorescence when stimulated. This particular technology is largely due to the protein structure, and various proteins exist that can create these effects.The process of turning this natural fluorescence into a screen involves first extracting the genetic blueprint of the specific fluorescent molecule and then genetically programming bacteria to use that gene. This bacteria produces the specific biological material of OLEDs, Organic Light Emitting Diode.
And when it's time for it to degrade, largely because this is a protein material, if you place it down in moist environments like soil, etc., then enzymes that already exist in the soil would be able to break it down because it's largely composed of components that are already found in nature.
REECE: You remember trying to catch fireflies as a kid and marvel at the fact that the screen above you glows in parallel. You find yourself lost in the world of microbiology as you think about all the creatures that you have seen glow.
But before you get too carried away, a nostalgic sweet and citrusy aroma brings you back to the cafe and you quickly step in line. You look back up to the screen and see a list of fresh juices displayed in front you. Orange juice, freshly squeezed, the smell of a childhood breakfast.
The juicer crushes the fruit, squeezing out every last drop from the orange. You decide to order a cup of orange juice in honor of these joyful memories.
You feel a warming sense of anticipation as you watch the golden liquid being poured into your cup. You pick out a bright blue straw and plop it in, the contrasting colors satisfying.
Your chia seed pudding arrives in a cork-like bowl. The pudding has a mildly sweet and nutty flavor, with hints of vanilla, and coconut.
The bowl itself was made of orange peels. The leftover orange peels from yesterday's juice were made into this organic vase for today's meal.
ROBOT VOICE: Act three, bowl.
JIL BERENBLUM: I've worked with a lot of like waste by product materials and how you transform that into new materials
REECE: Jil Berenblum is an industrial designer who works with biomaterials.
JIL: And what I find the most fascinating for our future is thinking about how like. It's asking us to harvest more locally. You know, like, these waste byproducts are something that you can pick up from, you know, your local coffee shop or your local lake. and how you collect that and get to, like, make things like within your near vicinity I think is really exciting and speaks to how maybe, like biomaterials is asking for you to make things closer to home.I think it makes the field very collaborative, right, because. I am a designer, but I am working with scientists or, you know. People who are local baristas or, you know, juices or the manufacturers to create a new future.
REECE: As you take a sip of the orange juice a burst of sweet and tangy flavor awakens your taste buds. And just like your raincoat, the bright blue straw you sip out of comes from algae. But with different processing, comes a different product. Algae is a source of blue carbon, carbon stored in aquatic environments.
ROBOT VOICE: Act four, straw.
VICTORIA PIUNOVA: Seaweed is known to be this amazing material, this amazing gift from the ocean where it grows, doesn't need to anything to grow on its own, doesn't need much attention, does not require valuable agricultural resources like fresh water, fertilizers, you know, fully self-sufficient. And while it grows, it also absorbs carbon dioxide. So which contributes to climate change mitigation and also oxygen acidification.
REECE: That is Victoria Piunova, a material scientist and the Chief Technology Officer of Loliware, a company that makes biodegradable, algae-based products.
VICTORIA: And this wonderful source of raw material also presents an attractive option as a potential replacement to chemical materials like plastics. Just a little chemistry inside is material which is very different from plastic. It's a plant that comes from a living creature. So our material does not last for decades. It lasts 4 hours. It could be safely composted in a home composting environment. It degrades within 50 days or it can be industrially composted and degrade significantly faster. And again, if it escapes, if it's not composted, well, it will degrade on its own. It's essentially food for bacteria and fungus and some other similar organisms. So there is definitely no harm there.
REECE: Feeling refreshed and energized after your time at the cafe, you step outside. The rain has made the streets glisten, creating a mirror of the city on the ground. You lose yourself in its reflection, almost tripping on a crack in the sidewalk. This stumble brings your attention to the crack. You lean over to look for the bacteria inside. You see the outline of the growing bacterium and feel a deep sense of appreciation for the tiny organisms. Their progress will be almost imperceptible but you know that next time you return, the crack will be smaller, until it is fully repaired, the surface of the cement as smooth as ever.
ROBOT VOICE: Act five, sidewalk.
CATHERINE: And so some researchers at the Soft materials lab, especially in particular Dr. Esther Armstead, came up with a 3D printing ink that uses a specific bacterium called porcini pastry or pastry. And this bacteria can express calcium carbonate. And calcium carbonate is a component of cement and concrete
REECE: This is Catherine Mondoa again.
CATHERINE: So they found a way then to and of print these bacteria into a structure and then immerse them in solutions that would kind of stimulate and stimulate the expression of calcium carbonate. So you make these kind of rigid structures, these rigid mineral structures. if we could use some of these calcium carbonate expressing bacteria in. Things like cement blocks or in reinforced concrete to kind of promote self-healing behavior in buildings. And one way we could address that is if we allowed bacteria that produce some of these mineral components to reside in those structures so that when cracks do form, they can express the necessary minerals to keep things going. It's very much an example of nature already has, you know, a certain way of working, and we are using that same way of working and adapting it into our processes. There's no altering what the bacteria do. Oh, so this is what you do, so let's work together to create something.
REECE: You continue walking down this path smiling as you think back to the bacteria healing the crack in the sidewalk. It is a small thing, but it represents something much larger: the power of nature to heal, and the value of using natural materials instead of man-made ones. Nature is not merely a backdrop or a resource to be exploited but an intricate web of interdependencies that sustains all life itself.
The concrete path transitions into a mulch covered walkway as you arrive at your final destination, the community garden. It is the place you grow your food and compost your leftovers. But it is more than that. It is your way of giving back to nature. You ponder on how you can give back to the earth for all that it gives. How can you enter into reciprocity? Along with the spiritual gift of gratitude that you offer to all of the natural world around you, you find that tending to this garden is your way of giving.
You care for this soil. You add compost to enrich the nutrients and plant cover to protect it. You provide mulch or water when needed. And your compassion has aided in the creation of this rich humus. This humus that is the embodiment of the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature. And as you take a deep breath, the smell of the soil stimulates the release of oxytocin, the same hormone that bonds a mother and child. The earthy symphony fills your body. It is full of the essence of minerals, decomposing matter, and an abundance of microorganisms.
Here you sit, in the soil. You are held by the earth. You are one with nature. With your hands stained by the soil you ponder upon what you can give back to nurture the very planet that sustains you. It is your job to discover what you can give. Everyone finds their own way to give back, to say thank you.
Hi folks, it’s shaylyn again. Thank you so much for listening to “Beyond the Anthropomass” by Reece Whatmore.
And that was episode 5 of Inherited! We’ll return next week with an all-new episode featuring another impactful climate storyteller. And look out for a bonus, BTS interview with Reece about her process and how she blends bioengineering with creative audio storytelling.
[fade in shaylyn’s theme]
Saina Ma’ase’ for joining us for episode five! There is so much more in store for season 3 of Inherited, so make sure to tune in Wednesdays, wherever you get your podcasts.
Inherited is brought to you by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. We’re distributed by Critical Frequency, a women-run podcast network founded by journalists.
The story, “Beyond the Anthropomass,” featured in today's episode, was written, sound designed produced, and voiced by Reece Whatmore, an Inherited season 3 storyteller.
I’m shaylyn martos, your Season 3 host, and producer. The co-creators and senior producers of Inherited are Georgia Wright and Jules Bradley. Our audio engineer is James Riley. Our audio engineering fellow is Christian Romo. Dominique French and Nyge Turner provided production support, and our intern is Esther Omolola. Our Executive Producer is Amy Westervelt from Critical Frequency.YR Media’s Director of Podcasting is Sam Choo, and our Sr. Director of Podcasting and Partnerships is Rebecca Martin.
Original music for this episode was created by these young musicians at YR Media:
Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza, and Jay Mejia Cuenca. Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler. Other music licensed from APM Music.
Art for this episode created by YR’s Marjerrie Masicat. Art direction by Brigido Bautista. Michella Rivera is our web designer. Project management from Eli Arbreton. YR Media’s Creative Director is Pedro Vega, Jr. Special thanks to Maggie Taylor, Jazmyn Burton, Shavonne Graham, Donielle Conley, and Kyra Kyles.
Please throw us a rating or maybe even a review on the Apple Podcast app – it goes a LONG way towards getting these stories out there! You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter @inheritedpod. If you want to learn more about our show and this season’s cohort of storytellers, head to our website at yr.media/inherited.
Thanks for listening!