Microbes are in the soil, in the water, in the air. And according to The Human Microbiome Project (HMP), the human body consists almost entirely of bacteria, made up of trillions of cells. Even though invisible to the eyes, microbes as bacteria, fungi, and viruses are part of human skin microflora, covering both the inside and the outer surface of the body. With the advent of scientific research into the microbiome, we have become aware of walking ecosystems made of microbes: our microflora has a symbiotic relationship with the interface between our body and the environment.
Thus interaction designer Giulia Tomasello asks how we feel about the idea that we consist almost entirely of bacteria. Questioning our notions of wellbeing to develop innovative tools in the intersection of medical and social sciences, she investigates the potential of biotechnology and living materials, proposing a biological and sustainable alternative for electronic textiles and more. These are enabled by her multidisciplinary collaborations and the symbiosis between her creative and scientific work. She has recently won the AEC STARTS Prize with her Future Flora kit – a bacteria harvesting pack which can prevent and treat yeast infections such as thrush with germs – bringing to the forefront issues that the medical community should consider in their production of pharmaceuticals for women.
Future Flora is a simple, interactive and revolutionary project created by Tomasello as part of the Material Futures MA course at Central Saint Martins, in order to treat common female Candida infections like thrush. By using agar jelly in the form of a sanitary towel, the product uses bacteria, grown in the agar jelly and placed as a pad in front of a vagina, to balance vaginal pH-levels to prevent and treat Candid yeast infections. Its apparatus includes a Petri dish, an Arduino DIY incubator to grow bacteria at home, a freeze-dried bacterial compounded pipette and an inoculation loop wire which gathers the microbes that have formed and it’s fairly easy to use.
In her own words, she explains that “Lactobacillus bacteria creates a hostile environment for the further development of Candida albicans, acting as a living culture of probiotics. By placing the pad in contact with the female genitalia, the healthy bacteria grow on the surface of the infected area, reconstructing the microflora missing in the vaginal epithelium and maintaining a lower pH level in the vaginal area. The kit has been designed to allow women to establish, nurture and harvest their very own personal skin flora at home, becoming not only consumers but also active participants in their own health and wellbeing.”
Quoting the STARTS Prize Jury Statement: “Through the thick digital forest, there was a distinctive and loud call for returning to nature, attention to life, biology, the self, the body—especially empowering the female body and its sexuality which came as no surprise after a year of #MeToo. […] Digital technologies are tricking us into an immaterial world made out of shining data. As Digital Ghosts, we are hallucinating about being almighty, even immortal under the sun of a God-like AI. Giulia Tomasello forces us to lower our gaze from the digital heaven to the most vulnerable female body part—the vagina. With Future Flora she demonstrates this vulnerability as a strength, using the embodied openness as a medium between internal and external organisms, creating in this way what she calls ‘Future Flora’. Future Flora provides a clear and loud signal that ‘Future’ is not only ‘Digital’.”
Following DIY procedures and merging biology with health-tech, Future Flora addresses women who are taking control of their own bodies as a precious and intimate practice of self-care, becoming a participant in the culture and the knowledge of science. Tomasello’s body of works and research push to engage the public to consider feminine hygiene and the surrounding taboos and think differently about bacteria in general—important in times of overuse of antibiotics and antiseptics that are destroying the ecological balance.
Together with Tommaso Busolo (PhD Material Science and Engineer), Michele Calabrese (Physicist and Ba in Medicine) and James Che (PhD Biochemistry) – self-called “ALMA team” – she is now developing a Wearable Biosensor for Monitoring Vaginal Discharge, a low-cost wearable biosensor aimed at monitoring physiological markers of infection, such as lactate and pH, in vaginal secretions, connected to a user-friendly mobile app designed to interface the sensor and display the data gathered. We, women, are all hopeful this could help to generate awareness and promote health-seeking behaviours within us, take up a more active role in our healthcare, prompting us to seek medical advice as necessary and ultimately break some of the taboos associated with our urogynaecological health.