Centre for Synthetic Biology and the Bioeconomy

Staff Profile

Professor Martyn Dade-Robertson

Professor of Emerging Technology, Co-Director of the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment


I studied Architectural Design as an undergraduate in Newcastle University and later at Cambridge University for an MPhil and PhD funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. My focus throughout the early part of my career was on ‘Information Architecture’, specialising in information systems, drawing parallels between the topological organisation of physical and digital information spaces. My PhD, which was supervised in Schools of Architecture and of Computing at Cambridge, was nominated for and Royal Institute of British Architects research prize and was published as the Routledge book The Architecture of Information. This work also led to my first major EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) grant in 2011 for a project which investigated the future of research spaces. Through this grant I developed a projects on Data Visualization – publishing on network visualisation and creating a spin out art consultancy: “Data Portraits” which was publicised in the national and international media. 

In parallel to this work I developed an interest in the emerging field of Bio Design – specialising in Synthetic Biology. Synthetic Biology applies engineering design thinking (from fields such as electronic engineering and computing science) to biological systems. In the UK Synthetic Biology has been heralded as one of the “Eight Great Technologies” (which includes, for example, robotics and advanced materials). I recognised a gap between scientific state of the art and design speculations in the emerging field of biotechnology and, with the aim of helping to bridge this gap I completed an MSc in Synthetic Biology 2016 – developing skills in both wet lab science (with a specialism in microbial Synthetic Biology) and computational methods and systems biology. From this starting point I have rapidly built a new research group which takes a human application centred approach to Synthetic Biology and includes the EPSRC Funded Projects Computational Colloids and Thinking Soils both concerned with developing bacteria based sensors capable of detecting mechanical changes in their environment and synthesising strengthening materials. The work has received wide spread media coverage and enabled me to set up a wet lab and develop a research group consisting of engineers architectural designers and bioscientists. A blog of our ongoing research can be found here:


In 2019 I lead a successful bid to create an £8M Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE) with Northumbria University. I will co-direct the HBBE, which will eventually consist of more than 30 researchers, and host 4 new research facilities including an experimental house we call the "OME". Our website and more information can be found here:


Previously I acted as the Research Director for the School of Architecture Planning and Landscape and from August 2019 I will become the school's Professor of Emerging Technology. I am the editor for a new Routledge Book Series on Bio-Design and the author of the first book: Living Construction.



Research Interests

My main interests lie in the relationship between architectural design and computation in two specific areas:

Synthetic Biology

Through studying the relationship between the design and engineering of biological systems and material practices in architecture and other fields of design. Specifically this has involved collaborating with Molecular Biologists, Computer Scientists, Materials Scientists and Experimental Anatomists on morphogenesis and biomineralization with the aim of exploring new material possibilities for architecture. To this end I have also been an advisor for Newcastle University’s iGEM (international genetically engineered machines competition) team.  

Information Architecture 

Through the study and development of ‘architectonic systems’ which can, in contrast to ‘linguistic systems’, be see as the way in which the spatial environment and our articulation of it are used to communicate information. My research examines the broad culture of architecture and knowledge representation from mnemonic architecture through to the origins of storehouses of knowledge such as museums and libraries and I apply this knowledge to the design of computational systems, whether hardware or software, which use space (physical and virtual) as a way of articulating information and knowledge.

Current Projects

The Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment

I am the co-director of the Reseach England funded £8M hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment which is a new research centre integrating design, biology and engineering to develop new 'living' buildings. More information can be found here:


Thinking Soils 

I am the PI for the £598,309 EPSRC funded project Thinking Soils. This project investigates how Civil Engineering may be integrated with the emerging field of Synthetic Biology. Combining these fields has potentially transformative implications for both and may generate a new field of Engineering Design.

Imagine a column of sand saturated with billions of engineered bacteria cells. As a force is applied to the top of the column, bacteria in the sand detect an increase in pressure. The bacteria respond by synthesising a new biological material to bind the grains together and resisting the load. The resulting structure would consist of a material where sand grains are only cemented where the forces through the material require.

We are building a proof of concept to show how we might design a manufacturing process where the material itself acts as manufacturer and designer, modelling and responding to its environment. Such a technology would push well beyond the current state of the art and challenge a new generation of engineering designers to think at multiple scales from molecular to the built environment and to anticipate civil engineering with living organisms.

Bacilla Spore Actuators

When conditions are not favourable for their growth (i.e. there is a lack of nutrients) some types of bacteria cells are capable of entering ‘spore’ form. This is a state in which their metabolism is almost entirely shut down and they are no longer technically alive. Spores can remain stable for hundreds of years and (some have speculated thousands of years) and are very robust and they preserve the DNA of the organism in challenging times. However as soon as the conditions are right they are able to convert back to living and viable cells. Spores are interesting to us as architectural designers for two reasons:

1 Spores encompass the idea of a system which is dynamic and responsive to its environmental context – optimised for its energy and nutrient conditions. Something that we often strive to achieve in architecture through the use of dynamic actuated and responsive systems but something which we are unable to do with such elegance.
2 Bacteria sores themselves may also offer the direction for a new architectural technology.
Very recent research has shown that bacteria spores combined with an elastomer like material can be used create very powerful hydromorphic material. Hydromorphic materials can respond to changes in humidity by changing shape. There are a number of hygromorphic materials and most work by combining two layers – which have separate rates of expansion in the presence of moisture. As one layer expands it forces the other layer to change its shape causing the material to bend. In architecture there has been experimentation with timber based hygromorphic materials but, as yet, the bacteria based hygromorphic materials have not been considered by architectural designers.

We have begun to experiment with the basic materials and configurations of Bacilla Spore actuators and, through a Stage 3 (3rd Year Undergraduate) studio begun to work with mechanism that may translate the power the hydromorphic material to mechanisms which may form parts of a dynamic building skin.

Past Funded Projects

  • 2016-2017 PI for the £240,435 EPSRC funded Computational Colloids to find pressure sesing genes within e.coli bacterial as part of a new responsive material system. 
  • 2010-2013 £1.4 million pound EPSRC funded project called PATINA (Personal Architectonics through Interactions with Artefacts) which builds on the ideas developed in The Architecture of Information by examining the relationship between physical and digital research spaces. 
  • 2012  EPSRC (Impact Award, Internally Allocated): £42,854 I was a Co-investigator for ‘Enabling Simple Public Voting and Consultation in Local Communities’,  a project to extend an existing research project to develop a mobile voting system for Newcastle Council in the context of their ‘U-Decide’ program. The project is also in collaboration with the polling company YouGov. I act as a design adviser on the project.
  • Faculty REF Fund: £2,370 Small faculty grant to support the creation of my research group and to develop the PATINA project proposal (described above).
  • 2010 - 2013 European 7th Framework (Marie Curie Program): £190,200 I am a Co-Investigator, in collaboration with Philips Research and Newcastle University School of Computing,  on a project entitled Balance@Home which aims to help in the development of intelligent environments for healthy living. The income supports the employment of two post-doctoral reserachers based in computing. 
  • 2003 - 2006 AHRC PhD. Studentship: approx. £45,000 Funded fees and living expenses for a three year PhD. entitled ‘Information Architecture in Screen Based Semantic Spaces’.
  • 2002 AHRC Masters Studentship: approx. £15,000 Funded fees and living expenses for a one year MPhil degree in ‘Architecture and the Moving Image’.Industrial Relevance
  • My research involves the design of digital artefacts and systems and, as such I have collaborated with companies including Microsoft Research and Philips Research.


Most of my teaching is currently suspended while I set up our new Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment. However, I will still be involved in Linked Reseach and Dissertation projects for students who want to work on topics related to Biotechnology and Buildings. I am always keen to hear from prospective PhD students. 

Past Teaching

ARC8028 Programming for Design

Introducing students to the principles and practices of software creation in design with a particular emphasis on creative application through the use of programming environments such as Processing and Grasshopper.

ARC8082 Research through Design

A research methods course based on using design as part of a research methodology. The course will include a spectrum of topics from material practice in scientific experiments to experimental practices in creative arts.

Stage 3 Studio: Experimental Architecture

ARC1001 Stage 1 Design (Module Leader)

ARC8068 Linked Research Project (Project Leader)
Developed a Stage 5/6 research studio based on the theme of Architecture and Interaction Design
Additionally I have been a guest tutor and reviewer for projects throughout the undergraduate and graduate design programs and a dissertation supervisor. I have also been nominated by my students for two Student Union led university wide awards for teaching innovation.

ARC8015 Architecture in the Information Age (Module Leader)

Lecture and seminar based module for Stage 5 and other post graduate students on principles and philosophies of architecture in the age of digital methods and media.

ARC8027 Interactive Space Design (Module Leader)
Masters level design based module for Stage 5 and other post graduate students introducing the foundations of interaction design in architectural and urban contexts.

Stage 1 project module (BA Architectural Studies) introducing core skills in Computer Aided Design and digital media as well as graphic design and communication.

Stage 6 Studio: Architecture and Synthetic Biology

Completed PhD students:
• Dr. Reham Abdelatif – Design Reviews in Second Life 
• Dr Abdelatif El-Allous – The urban effects of digitisation of municipal services in Tripoli   
• Dr Aikaterini Antonopoulou – From Digital Creations of Space to Analogous Experiences of Places (as second supervisor)
• Dr Luis Hernandez – Wireless Spectres: Space and the re-enchantment of invisible technologies
• Dr Carolina Ramirez-Figueroa – Bio-Material Probe: Design engagements with living systems 

Ongoing PhD supervisions:
• Javier Rodriguez Corral - The development of a computational model to characterise the growth, distribution and mechanical influence of urease producing bacteria in nutrient-rich hydrogels (co-supervised with Civil Engineering)
• Sara Nabil Ahmed – Interactive Architecture: Exploring and Unwrapping the Potentials of Organic User Interfaces (co-supervised with School of Computer Science)
• Jenifer Wright – In-vivo study of the activation of Bacillus Subtilis Urease expression (co-supervised with Northumbria University)
• Yomna Elghazi – Responsive plant inspired building skins.
• Thora Arnardottir – Thinking Soils (starts in January 2018)  

PhD examined:
• Dr Islam Abohela – Effects of Roof Shape, Wind Direction and Building Height on the Position of Roof Mounted Wind Turbines. 
• Dr Amina Batagaraw – Assessing the Thermal Performance of Phase Change Materials in Composite Humid/Hot Dry Climates: An examination of office buildings in Abuja – Nigeria.