When you think of cyborgs becoming a reality, you probably picture Arnold Schwarzenegger's glowing red eye from Terminator or the steely, tight-lipped stare of Robocop. But the future where man and machine converge won't just be built with nuts and bolts. It will be built with biology.
Self-avowed cyborg expert Tim Maly said as much when I talked to him last year. The first full-fledged cyborg "probably won't be a mechanical body," he told Gizmodo. "It will probably be some biogrown body, and it won't be recognizable to us as Robocop, because it'll already be part of a long line of small improvements."
Those improvements have already begun.
The field is known as bioelectronics, and it's exactly what it sounds like: biology meets electronics. Before I get ahead of myself, though, it's important to define what bioelectronics is, then we can start to look at its very exciting possibilities.
Bioelectronics is a fairly new word when it comes to scientific disciplines, although its origins go back at least a century. You can look at least as far back as the first accurate recording of the electrocardiogram in 1895 for the beginnings of bioelectronics. That's when it became obvious that electronic systems could have a profound impact on the field of medicine. Today, some 160,000 defibrillators are implanted in the United States alone, turning thousands of Americans into walking, breathing cyborgs, whether they realize it or not.
The field of bioelectronics has only recently taken off, however. In fact, about 95 percent of all papers written on the topic were published after 1990. And only in the past couple of years have truly world-changing breakthroughs started to surface. After the 20th century brought us everything from the pacemaker to robotic prosthetics, ambitious scientists started to wonder how they could push the synergy between biology and electronics even further. Instead of building electronic devices that could be implanted in biological systems, for instance, why not build devices that become a part of them?
So far, the beginnings of this have largely happened on a cellular level. Scientists are building biocomputers, for example, that use biologically derived material to perform computational functions. These mind-bending little inventions actually use DNA to manufacture proteins in a system according to very specific directions. More specifically, they use proteins and DNA to process information instead of silicon chips.
To be considered computers, then, they have to be able to do three things: store information, transmit information, and perform a function according to a system of logic. Scientists figured out how to store and transmit information a long time ago. (After all, DNA itself is in the business of store and transmitting information.) Only last year, did they figure out how to get biocomputers to perform calculations.
A team led by Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy built a system of transmitting genetic information using something they called "transcriptors" that work a lot like electronic transistors. Whereas transistors work by letting electrons either flow or not flow through a gateway, transcriptors allowed a protein called RNA polymerase either flow or not flow along a strand of DNA. This inevitably enabled scientists to build a fully functional biocomputer.
Building a biological system that performs like an electronic system isn't necessarily bioelectronics. Biocomputing is a building block for something bigger, something more akin to learning how biological systems and electronic systems can exist symbiotically. That's precisely what a team of Harvard scientists accomplished in 2012 when they created a "cyborg" tissue that embedded a three dimensional network of functional, biocompatible, nanoscale wires into engineered human tissue. This discovery represents perfectly that synergy that I mentioned above.
"The current methods we have for monitoring or interacting with living systems are limited," said Professor Charles Lieber who led the research. "We can use electrodes to measure activity in cells or tissue, but that damages them. With this technology, for the first time, we can work at the same scale as the unit of biological system without interrupting it. Ultimately, this is about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin."
It makes basic sense when you think about it. At the end of the day, the human body is controlled by a series of electrical signals, so Lieber and his team designed this new material after the autonomic nervous system using nanoscale wires to act kind of like nerves. For now, the material will likely be used by the pharmaceutical industry to see how human tissue reacts to drugs, but the sky's the limit when it comes to the possibilities of electronic body parts.
Let's draw a distinction here. A material that's part electronic (read: has wires) and part biological (read: is made of living cells) is certainly bioelectric. But the ultimate ambition of bioelectronics takes it a stage further. These—largely hypothetical—devices use the principles of biocomputing and the architecture of biological electronics to do incredible things.
It'll take some time to get there. So far, what we have been successful at doing in the field of bioelectronics is manipulating the electrical properties of living cells. Tufts University developmental biologist Michael Levin, for instance, believes he can tweak the existing electronic signals in cells to spawn new patterns of growth. This is not dissimilar to tweaking the flow of proteins in a biocomputer to perform a specific function, except its implications are potentially world-changing.
Just think what it could do for cancer research. Levin's team published a paper last February that outlines how specific electrical signals are associated with tumor growth. In effect, if you could identify that unique bioelectric signal early on, you could spot the tumor before it even starts to grow.
Even further, if you could manipulate that bioelectric signal, you could stop the cancer altogether. This would happen by facilitating the flow of ions into and out of the cells setting off a chain reaction that could alter the course of the disease. In the grand scheme of things, reading these bioelectric signals could help identify and treat all kinds of conditions and possibly even regrow limbs.
That's largely where the near term promise for bioelectronics lies: in medicine. These kinds of devices are already coming to market as wearable sensors that tell you about your body. Google's recently announced contact lens that can monitor glucose levels is a perfect example, as are the many different iterations of LED tattoos. Some of these devices work in tandem with a smartphone or a computer, but scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to operate autonomously, without wires or perhaps even batteries.
The vision is ambitious. A little over a month ago, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced a $1 million prize for innovation in the field of bioelectronics. They're looking for some genius scientists to build "a miniaturized, fully implantable device that can read, write and block the body's electrical signals to treat disease." Sounds pretty incredible! This could bring us closer to a cure for anything from asthma to diabetes and potentially save millions of lives. And thanks to recent research we know it's possible.
Quite frankly, if bioelectronics can do all things scientists think it can do, $1 million is a bargain for a device like that.
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