Tag Archives: life/nonlife

Cyborg organoids?

Every time I think I’ve become inured to the idea of a fuzzy boundary between life and nonlife something new crosses my path such as integrating nanoelectronics with cells for cyborg organoids. An August 9, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily makes the announcement,

What happens in the early days of organ development? How do a small group of cells organize to become a heart, a brain, or a kidney? This critical period of development has long remained the black box of developmental biology, in part because no sensor was small or flexible enough to observe this process without damaging the cells.

Now, researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have grown simplified organs known as organoids with fully integrated sensors. These so-called cyborg organoids offer a rare glimpse into the early stages of organ development.

An August 8, 2019 Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences news release (also on EurekAlert but published August 9, 2019) by Leah Burrows, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“I was so inspired by the natural organ development process in high school, in which 3D organs start from few cells in 2D structures. I think if we can develop nanoelectronics that are so flexible, stretchable, and soft that they can grow together with developing tissue through their natural development process, the embedded sensors can measure the entire activity of this developmental process,” said Jia Liu, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS and senior author of the study. “The end result is a piece of tissue with a nanoscale device completely distributed and integrated across the entire three-dimensional volume of the tissue.”

This type of device emerges from the work that Liu began as a graduate student in the lab of Charles M. Lieber, the Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor. In Lieber’s lab, Liu once developed flexible, mesh-like nanoelectronics that could be injected in specific regions of tissue.

Building on that design, Liu and his team increased the stretchability of the nanoelectronics by changing the shape of the mesh from straight lines to serpentine structures (similar structures are used in wearable electronics). Then, the team transferred the mesh nanoelectronics onto a 2D sheet of stem cells, where the cells covered and interwove with the nanoelectronics via cell-cell attraction forces. As the stem cells began to morph into a 3D structure, the nanoelectronics seamlessly reconfigured themselves along with the cells, resulting in fully-grown 3D organoids with embedded sensors.

The stem cells were then differentiated into cardiomyocytes — heart cells — and the researchers were able to monitor and record the electrophysiological activity for 90 days.

“This method allows us to continuously monitor the developmental process and understand how the dynamics of individual cells start to interact and synchronize during the entire developmental process,” said Liu. “It could be used to turn any organoid into cyborg organoids, including brain and pancreas organoids.”

In addition to helping answer fundamental questions about biology, cyborg organoids could be used to test and monitor patient-specific drug treatments and potentially used for transplantations.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper

Cyborg Organoids: Implantation of Nanoelectronics via Organogenesis for Tissue-Wide Electrophysiology by Qiang Li, Kewang Nan, Paul Le Floch, Zuwan Lin, Hao Sheng, Thomas S. Blum, Jia Liu. Nano Lett.20191985781-5789 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.9b02512 Publication Date:July 26, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

What about the heart? and the quest to make androids lifelike

Japanese scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro has been mentioned here several times in the context of ‘lifelike’ robots. Accordingly, it’s no surprise to see Ishiguro’s name in a June 24, 2014 news item about uncannily lifelike robotic tour guides in a Tokyo museum (CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News online),

The new robot guides at a Tokyo museum look so eerily human and speak so smoothly they almost outdo people — almost.

Japanese robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro, an Osaka University professor, says they will be useful for research on how people interact with robots and on what differentiates the person from the machine.

“Making androids is about exploring what it means to be human,” he told reporters Tuesday [June 23, 2014], “examining the question of what is emotion, what is awareness, what is thinking.”

In a demonstration, the remote-controlled machines moved their pink lips in time to a voice-over, twitched their eyebrows, blinked and swayed their heads from side to side. They stay seated but can move their hands.

Ishiguro and his robots were also mentioned in a May 29, 2014 article by Carey Dunne for Fast Company. The article concerned a photographic project of Luisa Whitton’s.

In her series “What About the Heart?,” British photographer Luisa Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry--androids. Here, an eerily lifelike face made for a robot. [dowloaded from http://www.fastcodesign.com/3031125/exposure/japans-uncanny-quest-to-humanize-robots?partner=rss]

In her series “What About the Heart?,” British photographer Luisa Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry–androids. Here, an eerily lifelike face made for a robot. [dowloaded from http://www.fastcodesign.com/3031125/exposure/japans-uncanny-quest-to-humanize-robots?partner=rss]

From Dunne’s May 29, 2014 article (Note: Links have been removed),

We’re one step closer to a robot takeover. At least, that’s one interpretation of “What About the Heart?” a new series by British photographer Luisa Whitton. In 17 photos, Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry–androids. These are the result of a growing group of scientists trying to make robots look like living, breathing people. Their efforts pose a question that’s becoming more relevant as Siri and her robot friends evolve: what does it mean to be human as technology progresses?

Whitton spent several months in Japan working with Hiroshi Ishiguro, a scientist who has constructed a robotic copy of himself. Ishiguro’s research focused on whether his robotic double could somehow possess his “Sonzai-Kan,” a Japanese term that translates to the “presence” or “spirit” of a person. It’s work that blurs the line between technology, philosophy, psychology, and art, using real-world studies to examine existential issues once reserved for speculation by the likes of Philip K. Dick or Sigmund Freud. And if this sounds like a sequel to Blade Runner, it gets weirder: after Ishiguro aged, he had plastic surgery so that his face still matched that of his younger, mechanical doppelganger.

I profiled Ishiguro’s robots (then called Geminoids) in a March 10, 2011 posting which featured a Danish philosopher, Henrik Scharfe, who’d commissioned a Geminoid identical to himself for research purposes. He doesn’t seem to have published any papers about his experience but there is this interview of Scharfe and his Geminoid twin by Aldith Hunkar (she’s very good) at a 2011 TEDxAmsterdam,

Mary King’s 2007 research project notes a contrast, Robots and AI in Japan and The West and provides an excellent primer (Note: A link has been removed),

The Japanese scientific approach and expectations of robots and AI are far more down to earth than those of their Western counterparts. Certainly, future predictions made by Japanese scientists are far less confrontational or sci-fi-like. In an interview via email, Canadian technology journalist Tim N. Hornyak described the Japanese attitude towards robots as being “that of the craftsman, not the philosopher” and cited this as the reason for “so many rosy imaginings of a future Japan in which robots are a part of people’s everyday lives.”

Hornyak, who is author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots,” acknowledges that apocalyptic visions do appear in manga and anime, but emphasizes that such forecasts do not exist in government circles or within Japanese companies. Hornyak also added that while AI has for many years taken a back seat to robot development in Japan, this situation is now changing. Honda, for example, is working on giving better brains to Asimo, which is already the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. Japan is also already legislating early versions of Asimov’s laws by introducing design requirements for next-generation mobile robots.

It does seem there might be more interest in the philosophical issues in Japan these days or possibly it’s a reflection of Ishiguro’s own current concerns (from Dunne’s May 29, 2014 article),

The project’s title derives from a discussion with Ishiguro about what it means to be human. “The definition of human will be more complicated,” Ishiguro said.

Dunne reproduces a portion of Whitton’s statement describing her purpose for these photographs,

Through Ishiguro, Whitton got in touch with a number of other scientists working on androids. “In the photographs, I am trying to subvert the traditional formula of portraiture and allure the audience into a debate on the boundaries that determine the dichotomy of the human/not human,” she writes in her artist statement. “The photographs become documents of objects that sit between scientific tool and horrid simulacrum.”

I’m not sure what she means by “horrid simulacrum” but she seems to be touching on the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’. Here’s a description I provided in a May 31, 2013 posting about animator Chris Landreth and his explorations of that valley within the context of his animated film, Subconscious Password,,

Landreth also discusses the ‘uncanny valley’ and how he deliberately cast his film into that valley. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the ‘uncanny valley’ I wrote about it in a Mar. 10, 2011 posting concerning Geminoid robots,

It seems that researchers believe that the ‘uncanny valley’ doesn’t necessarily have to exist forever and at some point, people will accept humanoid robots without hesitation. In the meantime, here’s a diagram of the ‘uncanny valley’,

From the article on Android Science by Masahiro Mori (translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato)

Here’s what Mori (the person who coined the term) had to say about the ‘uncanny valley’ (from Android Science),

Recently there are many industrial robots, and as we know the robots do not have a face or legs, and just rotate or extend or contract their arms, and they bear no resemblance to human beings. Certainly the policy for designing these kinds of robots is based on functionality. From this standpoint, the robots must perform functions similar to those of human factory workers, but their appearance is not evaluated. If we plot these industrial robots on a graph of familiarity versus appearance, they lie near the origin (see Figure 1 [above]). So they bear little resemblance to a human being, and in general people do not find them to be familiar. But if the designer of a toy robot puts importance on a robot’s appearance rather than its function, the robot will have a somewhat humanlike appearance with a face, two arms, two legs, and a torso. This design lets children enjoy a sense of familiarity with the humanoid toy. So the toy robot is approaching the top of the first peak.

Of course, human beings themselves lie at the final goal of robotics, which is why we make an effort to build humanlike robots. For example, a robot’s arms may be composed of a metal cylinder with many bolts, but to achieve a more humanlike appearance, we paint over the metal in skin tones. These cosmetic efforts cause a resultant increase in our sense of the robot’s familiarity. Some readers may have felt sympathy for handicapped people they have seen who attach a prosthetic arm or leg to replace a missing limb. But recently prosthetic hands have improved greatly, and we cannot distinguish them from real hands at a glance. Some prosthetic hands attempt to simulate veins, muscles, tendons, finger nails, and finger prints, and their color resembles human pigmentation. So maybe the prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case, there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny. In mathematical terms, strangeness can be represented by negative familiarity, so the prosthetic hand is at the bottom of the valley. So in this case, the appearance is quite human like, but the familiarity is negative. This is the uncanny valley.

[keep scrolling, I’m having trouble getting rid of this extra space below]

It seems that Mori is suggesting that as the differences between the original and the simulacrum become fewer and fewer, the ‘uncanny valley’ will disappear. It’s possible but I suspect before that day occurs those of us who were brought up in a world without synthetic humans (androids) may experience an intensification of the feelings aroused by an encounter with the uncanny valley even as it disappears. For those who’d like a preview, check out Luisa Whitton’s What About The Heart? project.

Ferroelectric switching in the lung, heart, and arteries

A June 23, 2014 University of Washington (state) news release (also on EurekAlert) describes how the human body (and other biological tissue) is capable of generating ferroelectricity,

University of Washington researchers have shown that a favorable electrical property is present in a type of protein found in organs that repeatedly stretch and retract, such as the lungs, heart and arteries. These findings are the first that clearly track this phenomenon, called ferroelectricity, occurring at the molecular level in biological tissues.

The news release gives a brief description of ferroelectricity and describes the research team’s latest work with biological tissues,

Ferroelectricity is a response to an electric field in which a molecule switches from having a positive to a negative charge. This switching process in synthetic materials serves as a way to power computer memory chips, display screens and sensors. This property only recently has been discovered in animal tissues and researchers think it may help build and support healthy connective tissues in mammals.

A research team led by Li first discovered ferroelectric properties in biological tissues in 2012, then in 2013 found that glucose can suppress this property in the body’s connective tissues, wherever the protein elastin is present. But while ferroelectricity is a proven entity in synthetic materials and has long been thought to be important in biological functions, its actual existence in biology hasn’t been firmly established.

This study proves that ferroelectric switching happens in the biological protein elastin. When the researchers looked at the base structures within the protein, they saw similar behavior to the unit cells of solid-state materials, where ferroelectricity is well understood.

“When we looked at the smallest structural unit of the biological tissue and how it was organized into a larger protein fiber, we then were able to see similarities to the classic ferroelectric model found in solids,” Li said.

The researchers wanted to establish a more concrete, precise way of verifying ferroelectricity in biological tissues. They used small samples of elastin taken from a pig’s aorta and poled the tissues using an electric field at high temperatures. They then measured the current with the poling field removed and found that the current switched direction when the poling electric field was switched, a sign of ferroelectricity.

They did the same thing at room temperature using a laser as the heat source, and the current also switched directions.

Then, the researchers tested for this behavior on the smallest-possible unit of elastin, called tropoelastin, and again observed the phenomenon. They concluded that this switching property is “intrinsic” to the molecular make-up of elastin.

The next step is to understand the biological and physiological significance of this property, Li said. One hypothesis is that if ferroelectricity helps elastin stay flexible and functional in the body, a lack of it could directly affect the hardening of arteries.

“We may be able to use this as a very sensitive technique to detect the initiation of the hardening process at a very early stage when no other imaging technique will be able to see it,” Li said.

The team also is looking at whether this property plays a role in normal biological functions, perhaps in regulating the growth of tissue.

Co-authors are Pradeep Sharma at the University of Houston, Yanhang Zhang at Boston University, and collaborators at Nanjing University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Ferroelectric switching of elastin by Yuanming Liu, Hong-Ling Cai, Matthew Zelisko, Yunjie Wang, Jinglan Sun, Fei Yan, Feiyue Ma, Peiqi Wang, Qian Nataly Chen, Hairong Zheng, Xiangjian Meng, Pradeep Sharma, Yanhang Zhang, and Jiangyu Li. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1402909111

This paper is behind a paywall.

I think this is a new practice. There is a paragraph on the significance of this work (follow the link to the paper),

Ferroelectricity has long been speculated to have important biological functions, although its very existence in biology has never been firmly established. Here, we present, to our knowledge, the first macroscopic observation of ferroelectric switching in a biological system, and we elucidate the origin and mechanism underpinning ferroelectric switching of elastin. It is discovered that the polarization in elastin is intrinsic at the monomer level, analogous to the unit cell level polarization in classical perovskite ferroelectrics. Our findings settle a long-standing question on ferroelectric switching in biology and establish ferroelectricity as an important biophysical property of proteins. We believe this is a critical first step toward resolving its physiological significance and pathological implications.

Almost Human (tv series), smartphones, and anxieties about life/nonlife

The US-based Fox Broadcasting Company is set to premiere a new futuristic television series, Almost Human, over two nights, Nov. 17, and 18, 2013 for US and Canadian viewers. Here’s a description of the premise from its Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

The series is set thirty-five years in the future when humans in the Los Angeles Police Department are paired up with lifelike androids; a detective who has a dislike for robots partners with an android capable of emotion.

One of the showrunners, Naren Shankar, seems to have also been functioning both as a science consultant and as a crime writing consultant,in addition to his other duties. From a Sept. 4, 2013 article by Lisa Tsering for Indiawest.com,

FOX is the latest television network to utilize the formidable talents of Naren Shankar, an Indian American writer and producer best known to fans for his work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as well as “Farscape,” the recently cancelled ABC series “Zero Hour” and “The Outer Limits.”

Set 35 years in the future, “Almost Human” stars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy as a crimefighting duo of a cop who is part-machine and a robot who is part-human. [emphasis mine]

“We are extrapolating the things we see today into the near future,” he explained. For example, the show will comment on the pervasiveness of location software, he said. “There will also be issues of technology such as medical ethics, or privacy; or how technology enables the rich but not the poor, who can’t afford it.”

Speaking at Comic-Con July 20 [2013], Shankar told media there, “Joel [J.H. Wyman] was looking for a collaboration with someone who had come from the crime world, and I had worked on ‘CSI’ for eight years.

“This is like coming back to my first love, since for many years I had done science fiction. It’s a great opportunity to get away from dismembered corpses and autopsy scenes.”

There’s plenty of drama — in the new series, the year is 2048, and police officer John Kennex (Karl Urban, “Dr. Bones” from the new “Star Trek” films) is trying to bounce back from one of the most catastrophic attacks ever made against the police department. Kennex wakes up from a 17-month coma and can’t remember much, except that his partner was killed; his girlfriend left him and one of his legs has been amputated and is now outfitted with a high-tech synthetic appendage. According to police department policy, every cop must partner with a robot, so Kennex is paired with Dorian (Ealy), an android with an unusual glitch that makes it have human emotions.

Shankar took an unusual path into television. He started college at age 16 and attended Cornell University, where he earned a B. Sc., an M.S. and a Ph.D. in engineering physics and electrical engineering, and was a member of the elite Kappa Alpha Society, he decided he didn’t want to work as a scientist and moved to Los Angeles to try to become a writer.

Shankar is eager to move in a new direction with “Almost Human,” which he says comes at the right time. “People are so technologically sophisticated now that maybe the audience is ready for a show like this,” he told India-West.

I am particularly intrigued by the ‘man who’s part machine and the machine that’s part human’ concept (something I’ve called machine/flesh in previous postings such as this May 9, 2012 posting titled ‘Everything becomes part machine’) and was looking forward to seeing how they would be integrating this concept along with some of the more recent scientific work being done on prosthetics and robots, given they had an engineer as part of the team (albeit with lots of crime writing experience), into the stories. Sadly, only days after Tserling’s article was published, Shankar parted ways with Almost Human according to the Sept. 10, 2013 posting on the Almost Human blog,

So this was supposed to be the week that I posted a profile of Naren Shankar, for whom I have developed a full-on crush–I mean, he has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Cornell, he was hired by Gene Roddenberry to be science consultant on TNG, he was saying all sorts of great things about how he wanted to present the future in AH…aaaand he quit as co-showrunner yesterday, citing “creative differences.” That leaves Wyman as sole showrunner, with no plans to replace Shankar.

I’d like to base some of my comments on the previews, unfortunately, Fox Broadcasting,, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to block Canadians from watching Almost Human previews online. (Could someone please explain why? I mean, Canadians will be tuning in to watch or record for future viewing  the series premiere on the 17th & 18th of November 2013 just like our US neighbours, so, why can’t we watch the previews online?)

Getting back to machine/flesh (human with prosthetic)s and life/nonlife (android with feelings), it seems that Almost Human (as did the latest version of Battlestar Galactica, from 2004-2009) may be giving a popular culture voice to some contemporary anxieties being felt about the boundary or lack thereof between humans and machines and life/nonlife. I’ve touched on this topic many times both within and without the popular culture context. Probably one of my more comprehensive essays on machine/flesh is Eye, arm, & leg prostheses, cyborgs, eyeborgs, Deus Ex, and ableism from August 30, 2011, which includes this quote from a still earlier posting on this topic,

Here’s an excerpt from my Feb. 2, 2010 posting which reinforces what Gregor [Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary] is saying,

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.” [originally excerpted from Paul Hochman’s Feb. 1, 2010 article, Bionic Legs, i-Limbs, and Other Super Human Prostheses You’ll Envy for Fast Company]

Here’s something else from the Hochman article,

But Bailey is most surprised by his own reaction. “When I’m wearing it, I do feel different: I feel stronger. As weird as that sounds, having a piece of machinery incorporated into your body, as a part of you, well, it makes you feel above human. [semphasis mine] It’s a very powerful thing.”

Bailey isn’t  almost human’, he’s ‘above human’. As Hochman points out. repeatedly throughout his article, this sentiment is not confined to Bailey. My guess is that Kennex (Karl Urban’s character) in Almost Human doesn’t echo Bailey’s sentiments and, instead feels he’s not quite human while the android, Dorian, (Michael Ealy’s character) struggles with his feelings in a human way that clashes with Kennex’s perspective on what is human and what is not (or what we might be called the boundary between life and nonlife).

Into this mix, one could add the rising anxiety around ‘intelligent’ machines present in real life, as well as, fiction as per this November 12 (?), 2013 article by Ian Barker for Beta News,

The rise of intelligent machines has long been fertile ground for science fiction writers, but a new report by technology research specialists Gartner suggests that the future is closer than we think.

“Smartphones are becoming smarter, and will be smarter than you by 2017,” says Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner. “If there is heavy traffic, it will wake you up early for a meeting with your boss, or simply send an apology if it is a meeting with your colleague. The smartphone will gather contextual information from its calendar, its sensors, the user’s location and personal data”.

Your smartphone will be able to predict your next move or your next purchase based on what it knows about you. This will be made possible by gathering data using a technique called “cognizant computing”.

Gartner analysts will be discussing the future of smart devices at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2013 in Barcelona from November 10-14 [2013].

The Gartner Symposium/Txpo in Barcelona is ending today (Nov. 14, 2013) but should you be curious about it, you can go here to learn more.

This notion that machines might (or will) get smarter or more powerful than humans (or wizards) is explored by Will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas) and, futurist, Brian David Johnson in their upcoming comic book, Wizards and Robots (mentioned in my Oct. 6, 2013 posting),. This notion of machines or technology overtaking human life is also being discussed at the University of Cambridge where there’s talk of founding a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (from my Nov. 26, 2012 posting)

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Our emerging technologies give rise to questions abut what constitutes life and where human might fit in. For example,

  • are sufficiently advanced machines a new form of life,?
  • what does it mean when human bodies are partially integrated at the neural level with machinery?
  • what happens when machines have feelings?
  • etc.

While this doesn’t exactly fit into my theme of life/nonlife or machine/flesh, this does highlight how some popular culture efforts are attempting to integrate real science into the storytelling. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Cosima Herter, the science consultant and namesake/model for one of the characters on Orphan Black (from the March 29, 2013 posting on the space.ca blog),

Cosima Herter is Orphan Black’s Science Consultant, and the inspiration for her namesake character in the series. In real-life, Real Cosima is a PhD. student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota, working on the History and Philosophy of Biology. Hive interns Billi Knight & Peter Rowley spoke with her about her role on the show and the science behind it…

Q: Describe your role in the making of Orphan Black.

A: I’m a resource for the biology, particularly insofar as evolutionary biology is concerned. I study the history and the philosophy of biology, so I do offer some suggestions and some creative ideas, but also help correct some of the misconceptions about science.  I offer different angles and alternatives to look at the way biological science is represented, so (it’s) not reduced to your stereotypical tropes about evolutionary biology and cloning, but also to provide some accuracy for the scripts.

– See more at: http://www.space.ca/article/Orphan-Black-science-consultant#sthash.7P36bbPa.dpuf

For anyone not familiar with the series, from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series starring Tatiana Maslany as several identical women who are revealed to be clones.

Autodesk in the tissue printing business

I came across the information about Autodesk’s venture into tissue printing in a Dec. 19, 2012 article by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan for Fast Company Co.Design.com (Note: Links have been removed),

Bioprinters–or 3-D printing hybrids that can print human tissue–have been around for a few years now. As the technology emerged, a single nagging question stuck out in the mind of this post-architecture school student: what’s the software of choice for a scientist modeling a human organ?

Today, an announcement from biomedical startup Organovo and software giant Autodesk goes a long way towards answering it. …

The Organovo Dec. 18, 2012 press release provides some detail about the deal,

Organovo Holdings, Inc. (OTCQX: ONVO) (“Organovo”), a creator and manufacturer of functional, three-dimensional human tissues for medical research and therapeutic applications, is working together with researchers at Autodesk, Inc., the leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, to create the first 3D design software for bioprinting.

The software, which will be used to control Organovo’s NovoGen MMX bioprinter, will represent a major step forward in usability and functionality for designing three-dimensional human tissues, and has the potential to open up bioprinting to a broader group of users.

This looks like it’s going to be a proprietary system, i.e., the software is designed for one type of hardware, Organovo’s hardware, reminiscent of the  late 1990s where printers in the graphic arts field were, in some cases, were trapped into proprietary computer-to-plate printing systems. There was an open source vs. proprietary systems competition which was eventually won by open source systems.

Organovo’s press release describes the technology they’ve developed,

Organovo’s 3D bioprinting technology is used to create living human tissues that are three-dimensional, architecturally correct, and made entirely of living human cells. The resulting structures can function like native human tissues, and represent an opportunity for advancement in medical research, drug discovery and development, and in the future, surgical therapies and transplantation.

The Dec. 17, 2012 article by Kim-Mai Cutler for TechCrunch adds more technical and business detail (Note: Link removed.),

Organovo, which went public earlier this year through a small cap offering and has a market cap of $98 million, manufactures a bioprinter that can create 1 millimeter-thick tissues. Based on research out of the University of Missouri, the company’s technology creates a bio-ink from cells and deposits new cells in a layer-by-layer matrix according to a computer design.

The Dec. 18, 2012 article by Joseph Flaherty for Wired magazine offers an analysis of the business advantages for both companies (Note: Links removed.),

Autodesk, the industry leader in CAD software, has announced it is partnering with biological printer manufacturer Organovo to create 3-D design software for designing and printing living tissue.

It’s an area of interest to Autodesk, whose software runs the industrial design and architecture worlds, allowing them to expand further into new fields by helping researchers interface with new tools.

“Autodesk is an excellent fit for developing new software for 3D bioprinters,” Organovo CEO Keith Murphy says in a press release. “This partnership will lead to advances in bioprinting, including both greater flexibility and throughput internally, and the potential long-term ability for customers to design their own 3D tissues for production by Organovo.”Jeff Kowalski, senior VP/CTO at Autodesk, echoes Murphy’s sentiment. “Bioprinting has the potential to change the world,” he says. “It’s a blend of engineering, biology and 3D printing, which makes it a natural for Autodesk. I think working with Organovo to explore and evolve this emerging field will yield some fascinating and radical advances in medical research.”

While this announcement is certainly big news, we’re multiple revisions away from 3-D printing replacement body parts. Even after the technical difficulties of printing organs or even tissue for live human use are worked through, any resulting process will need to be validated through complex clinical trials and a long review by the FDA and international authorities. Still, it will be exciting to see what medical researchers and DIY biohackers will do with these tools.

Oddly, as of today (Dec. 26, 2012) Autodesk has yet to post a press release about this deal on its own website.

Viruses as manufacturing plants

In her January 2011 TEDx talk at Caltech (California Institute of Technology), MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Professor Angela Belcher talks about using viruses to grow batteries that don’t require toxic materials for their production or produce toxic materials themselves. It’s similar to biomimicry in that the reference point is nature but rather than trying to simulate nature using synthetic materials this work focuses on tweaking nature so that something like a virus can be used to create something new, e.g., a battery, a solar cell, etc.

 

A Sept. 25, 2011 article by Karen Weintraub on the BBC News website offers further insight into Belcher’s work,

Prof Belcher’s work unites the inanimate world of simple chemicals with proteins made by living creatures, a mash-up of the living and the lifeless.

She is motivated, she says, by a simple question: “How do you give life to non-living things?”

Like the abalone collecting its materials in shallow water and then laying them down like bricks in a wall, Belcher takes basic chemical elements from the natural world: carbon, calcium, silicon, zinc. Then she mixes them with simple, harmless viruses whose genes have been reprogrammed to promote random variations.

The resulting new materials just might address some of our most vexing problems.

The distinctiveness of Prof Belcher’s work, colleagues say, lies in her use of biology to synthesise new materials for such a wide range of uses, to develop an entirely new method for producing entirely novel materials.

“Her methodologies for directing and assembling materials I think will be unique,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor who collaborates with Prof Belcher on battery research. “I think 50 years from now, we’ll look back on biology as an important part of the toolkit in manufacturing… we’ll look back and say this is one of the fundamental tools we developed in this century.”

As I’ve been thinking about life/nonlife (in the context of human enhancement and memristors), this works offers me additional food for thought. Meanwhile, the TEDx talk and the Weintraub article point to some of the vast difference between scientists and lay people (general public). Belcher references life/nonlife quite casually, almost in passing. This could be quite disturbing to folks who believe there’s a distinct difference. The disturbances don’t stop there.

In the first place, viruses do not have a good reputation. When you add in the problems with calling your work biotechnology (as Belcher does in her TEDx talk), the stage is set for some interesting possibilities. If that isn’t enough, Belcher’s work comes perilously close to Eric Drexler’s self-assembling nano entities and the spectre of ‘grey’ or ‘green’ goo. It’s been a while since the big scares over genetically modified organisms (GMO), I wonder if scientists have forgotten or perhaps they don’t realize just how much conflicting (and often frightening) information is still being pushed at the general public. As for breaching the life/nonlife boundaries, that could be a whole other mess.