The future is biological

Tom James @ 17-08-2009

hummingbirdWired does an excellent job of focusing on a day-to-day aspect of an imminently transformative technology. Much is spoken of the coming biotech revolution, but industrial designers like Tuur Van Balen focus on the how biotechnology will present itself at the most basic level:

The 1s and 0s of software live in shiny metals shielded by colourful plastics; biological data lurks in dampness, in pipettes and test tubes. Hacking is about the culture of garages and workshops; DIY bio lives somewhere between the kitchen and the garden. You need mixing bowls and hygiene, beakers and taps. Every article about DIY bio seems to mention a salad-spinner. This isn’t the heavy macho culture of Survival Research Labs and steampunk. We’re moving from BarCamps to Tupperware parties.

Continuing with the theme of biomimetics: artificial technology is gradually merging with natural biology at both ends. Engineers borrow from nature to create new gadgets whilst biotechnologists seek to alter nature to meet human ends.

[from Wired UK][image from Lori Greig on flickr]

Smallest ever free-flying device

Tom James @ 17-08-2009

smallest-uavThe world’s smallest free-flying device has successfully flown. The DARPA-commissioned nano-air-vehicle flew TK without external support:

Aeronvironment has released a video that shows its “nano air vehicle” (NAV), which is the size of a small bird or large insect, hovering indoors without such crutches and under radio control. “It is capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, as well as forward and backward, under remote control,” says the company….
Their ultimate ask is a ten-gram aircraft with a 7.5cm wingspan, which can carry a camera and explore caves and other potential hiding places. “It will need to fly at 10 metres per second and withstand 2.5-metre-per-second gusts of wind”

The micro-ornithopter/robot-insect concept has plenty of precedants in science fiction, and is another example of engineers borrowing from nature to solve engineering problems.

[from New Scientist, via Wired UK][image from ubergizmo]

Biological cells as cloud computing networks

Tom James @ 13-08-2009

webIn an interesting confluence of ideas, and of the unintentional biomimicry at work in cloud computing, researchers identify parallels between biological cells and computer networks:

Gene regulatory networks in cell nuclei are similar to cloud computing networks, such as Google or Yahoo!, researchers report today in the online journal Molecular Systems Biology. The similarity is that each system keeps working despite the failure of individual components, whether they are master genes or computer processors.

“It’s extremely rare in nature that a cell would lose both a master gene and its backup, so for the most part cells are very robust machines,” said Anthony Gitter, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department and lead author of the Nature MSB article. “We now have reason to think of cells as robust computational devices, employing redundancy in the same way that enables large computing systems, such as Amazon, to keep operating despite the fact that servers routinely fail.”

It is fascinating how natural selection has already discovered many of the same processes used by human engineers.

[via Technut News, from ScienceDaily][image from Jus’ fi on flickr]

First artificial organelle

Tom James @ 05-08-2009

artificial_organelleResearchers have developed an artificial cellular organelle to aid in the development of artificial synthesis the life-saving anti-clotting drug heparin:

Scientists have been working to create a synthetic version of the medication, because the current production method leaves it susceptible to contamination–in 2008, such an incident was responsible for killing scores of people. But the drug has proven incredibly difficult to create in a lab.

Much of the mystery of heparin production stems from the site of its natural synthesis: a cellular organelle called the Golgi apparatus, which processes and packages proteins for transport out of the cell, decorating the proteins with sugars to make glycoproteins. Precisely how it does this has eluded generations of scientists.

To better understand what was going on inside the Golgi, Linhardt and his colleagues decided to create their own version. The result: the first known artificial cell organelle, a small microfluidics chip that mimics some of the Golgi’s actions.

As well as the utility of being able to produce drugs in this way, it is impressive the degree of control that can be exerted over the matter:

The digital device allows the researchers to control the movement of a single microscopic droplet while they add enzymes and sugars, split droplets apart, and slowly build a molecule chain like heparin.

[from Technology Review, via KurzwailAI][image from Technology Review]

Re-engineering biology

Tom James @ 31-07-2009

roboticsinsiAs I’ve mentioned before, we’re entering a new phase of technological progress: engineers and technologists are not just seeking inspiration in the mechanisms of the natural world, but are actually reverse- and re-engineering biology to improve synthetic technology. In this case researchers in Germany are studying how bow flies perform their incredible feats of aerial acrobatics by creating a wind tunnel for blow flies (pictured):

A fly’s brain enables the unbelievable – the animal’s easy negotiation of obstacles in rapid flight, split-second reaction to the hand that would catch it, and unerring navigation to the smelly delicacies it lives on.

Yet the fly’s brain is hardly bigger than a pinhead, too small by far to enable the fly’s feats if it functioned exactly the way the human brain does. It must have a simpler and more efficient way of processing images from the eyes into visual perception, and that is a subject of intense interest for robot builders.

While researchers use biomimetic inspiration for the development of flying robots other scientists are working to reprogram existing biological technology, in this case altering bone marrow stem cells so that they function as retinal cells:

University of Florida researchers were able to program bone marrow stem cells to repair damaged retinas in mice, suggesting a potential treatment for one of the most common causes of vision loss in older people.

The success in repairing a damaged layer of retinal cells in mice implies that blood stem cells taken from bone marrow can be programmed to restore a variety of cells and tissues, including ones involved in cardiovascular disorders such as atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease.

For all the pessimism about the future of human civilisation, it is exhilerating to live in an era with so many opportunities and challenges.

[both from Physorg][image from Physorg]

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