Tag Archives: biotechnology

Our new cyborg insect overlords

livesilkmothContinuing the robotic insect theme: researchers in Japan are developing the means to recreate the brains of insects in electronic circuits and thus modify existing insect brains to perform useful tasks, like finding narcotics, and earthquake victims:

In an example of ‘rewriting’ insect brain circuits, Kanzaki’s team has succeeded in genetically modifying a male silkmoth so that it reacts to light instead of odour, or to the odour of a different kind of moth.

Such modifications could pave the way to creating a robo-bug which could in future sense illegal drugs several kilometres away, as well as landmines, people buried under rubble, or toxic gas, the professor said.

Kanzaki also observes how remarkably adaptable biological organisms are:

“Humans walk only at some five kilometres per hour but can drive a car that travels at 100 kilometres per hour. It’s amazing that we can accelerate, brake and avoid obstacles in what originally seem like impossible conditions,” he said.

Our brain turns the car into an extension of our body,” he said, adding that “an insect brain may be able to drive a car like we can. I think they have the potential.

It certainly raises interesting questions about how to achieve intelligent machinery: why reinvent the wheel creating strong AI? We can reverse engineer animals that fly or hunt then adapt them to our purposes.

[from Physorg][image from Physorg]

Achieving longevity

moai_profileThere always seems to be some intriguing news on progress in extending lifespans, or achieving what Aubrey De Grey calls engineered negligible senescence. From Physorg we have news that a compound called rapamycin, first discovered on Easter Island, can increase the lifespans of laboratory mice:

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and two collaborating centers reported that the Easter Island compound – called “rapamycin” after the island’s Polynesian name, Rapa Nui – extended the expected lifespan of middle-aged mice by 28 percent to 38 percent. In human terms, this would be greater than the predicted increase in extra years of life if cancer and heart disease were both cured and prevented.

Protein folding in certain species of bats has been found to lead to an increase in their lifespans:

Asish and colleagues made their discovery by extracting proteins from the livers of two long-lived bat species (Tadarida brasiliensis and Myotis velifer) and young adult mice and exposed them to chemicals known to cause protein misfolding. After examining the proteins, the scientists found that the bat proteins exhibited less damage than those of the mice, indicating that bats have a mechanism for maintaining proper structure under extreme stress.

And finally the curious case of Brooke Greenberg: who is the size of an infant, with the mental capacity of a toddler, but turned 16 in January:

In a recent paper for the journal “Mechanisms of Ageing and Development,” Walker and his co-authors, who include Pakula and All Children’s Hospital (St. Petersburg, Fla.) geneticist Maxine Sutcliffe chronicled a baffling range of inconsistencies in Brooke’s aging process. She still has baby teeth at 16, for instance. And her bone age is estimated to be more like 10 years old.

“There’ve been very minimal changes in Brooke’s brain,” Walker said. “Various parts of her body, rather than all being at the same stage, seem to be disconnected.”

A substantial increase in human lifespans would be a huge, world-changing, medical and technological achievement, but could well lead to many social problems. An excellent exploration of the effects of longevity is Bruce Sterling‘s sublime Holy Fire.

[from Physorg and abcnews][image from anoldent on flickr]

Artificial nerve cell breakthrough

line_curve_buildingResearchers at Karolinska Institutet and Linköping University in Sweden have made one more step towards artificial nerve cells with the creation of an artificial nerve cell that can communicate with natural nerve cells using neurotransmitters:

Scientists have now used an electrically conducting plastic to create a new type of “delivery electrode” that instead releases the neurotransmitters that brain cells use to communicate naturally. The advantage of this is that only neighbouring cells that have receptors for the specific neurotransmitter, and that are thus sensitive to this substance, will be activated.

The scientists intend to continue with the development of a small unit that can be implanted into the body. It will be possible to program the unit such that the release of neurotransmitters takes place as often or as seldom as required in order to treat the individual patient.

As ever the initial applications are intended to be towards treating diseases like Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. Progress on these fronts would be wonderful. But what further applications will become possible when this product matures?

[from Physorg][image from takanawho on flickr]

Enzyme linked to longevity

enzyme_WWP-1Researchers have discovered a key enzyme – WWP-1 – that forms part of the process by which caloric restriction leads to longer lifespans in roundworms:

“The only other known factor regulating longevity in response to diet restriction operates at the very end of the signaling cascade,” said Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and senior author Andrew Dillin, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. “These two enzymes are further up the ladder, bringing us closer to the receptor that receives the signal for throwing the switch to promote a healthy lifespan.”

Identifying the receptor may allow researchers to design drugs that mimic the signal and could lead to new treatments for age-related diseases. This could enable us to reap the health benefits of calorie restriction without adhering to extreme diets in which the satisfying feel of a full stomach is strictly off limits.

The kind of medicine described is definitely near the top of my plausible future technologies that may emerge in my lifetime.

[at Physorg][image from Physorg]

New resin for growing flesh

biodegradable_resinResearchers at the University of Twente have developed a biodegradable resin that can be used to create precise replicas of forms within the body around which new tissues can be grown:

The resin can be given different properties depending on where in the body it is to be used. Cells can be sown and cultured on these models, so that the tissues grown are, in fact, produced by the body itself. The new resin has been developed by Ferry Melchels and Prof. Dirk Grijpma of the UT’s Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials research group. An article on this breakthrough will be appearing in the authoritative specialist journal, Biomaterials

The method used to recreate the specific forms is called stereolithography, the improvement in this system is that the resins have hitherto not been biodegradable. This means:

If, for example, a child has a heart valve disorder, a 3D digital image of the heart valve can be created using a CT scanner. The model in the stereolithograph can be copied exactly with the new resin. If the structure is made porous, the child’s own cells can be placed on it. This porosity also gives nutrients access to the cells. Ultimately, after the carrier structure has broken down, only the natural tissue remains.

Which is a rather wonderful development.

[from Physorg]