Life as a geometry problem: Are these the first manmade living organisms?

in hive-109160 •  last month 

A Tufts University lab has used evolutionary programming to build xenobots, novel organisms that are designed by computer and constructed out of living cells



Pixabay license: source

Introduction

The other day, I shared a link in the Steem Links community to a TED interview with Michael Levin. The interview is titled, The electrical blueprints that orchestrate life.

Frankly, I'm surprised that this topic hasn't made a bigger news splash, or if it has, I'm surprised that I missed it until now. The discussion is fascinating, and after looking over the Levin Lab web site, I thought it deserved to be the subject of a more complete article.

Along with my #steemlinks share the other day, I just found a YouTube embed of the talk:



Most of us are familiar with the idea that DNA contains the instructions that tell our bodies how to grow and develop, but Levin informs us that another component of a body's ability to self-organize is a form of electrical signaling that he calls bioelectricity. In the interview, Levin says that during embryonic development or tissue regeneration, the cells use this bioelectricity to communicate with each other in a way that enables them to make intelligent seeming decisions.

After viewing that TED interview over the week-end, last night I took a look at another interview, recorded in 2012 and posted on YouTube in 2013. It's here:



After listening to those two interviews and skimming through other parts of the Levin Lab's web site, it seems to me that the overarching long-term themes of the team's research include the following:

  • DNA in animals contains the instructions that are used in embryonic development, childhood growth, and for regeneration in species that are naturally capable of it.
  • That information is available throughout an animal's lifetime.
  • Bio-electrical signaling can be used to activate cells in order to make use of that information and harness it for regenerative or healing purposes.
  • It is therefore possible for higher order animals (including people) to regenerate and heal organs and maybe even eyes, limbs, and other extremities.
  • This same signaling can be harnessed by researchers in order to modify the way an organism looks or functions, or even to create totally new organisms.

In order to perform this research, Levin says that he has recruited a team with multi-disciplinary knowledge in biology, computer science, and other relevant fields. He says that it's not enough to include computational biologists because that field's focus, to date, has been limited to DNA and gene manipulation and ignored the bioelectrical signaling mechanism.

So let's back up and look at some of the progress that has been achieved over the years. Obviously, I've only had a time to take a cursory look at some of this stuff, but what I have found so far has been fascinating. In the remainder of this post, I'll discuss four facets of Levin's research:

  1. Research with regenerative repair in tadpoles
  2. Research with regeneration in higher order animals
  3. Research with organism modification, leading to the creation of a 2-headed worm.
  4. Research with creating a new organism, known as a "xenobot".

The first two topics come from the 2012 interview and the last two come from the TED talk.

Research with regenerative repair in tadpoles

image.png

Pixabay license: source

In the 2012 interview with Science for the Public, Levin explains that an animal has its design coded into it's DNA so that, in animals that are capable of regeneration, the cell uses bioelectricity to make iterative decisions about:

1.) What shape is it now?
2.) What shape is it trying to reach?
3.) What are the steps to get from [1] to [2]?

Interestingly, he mentions that if you move cells around during the regeneration process, the cells will make up for it and the final shape will still match the target shape.

One of the most interesting things to me was an experiment that he described where a cancerous tumor in a tadpole's tail was cut in half. Surprisingly, to me, when the tail regenerated, the cancerous cells were repaired.

Regeneration in higher order animals

image.png

Pixabay license: source

Aside from low-order species like tadpoles and salamanders, we tend to assume that higher-order species are incapable of regeneration. Levin points out that this is incorrect, though. In fact, he gives the examples that deer regenerate their antlers every year and that human children are able to regenerate finger tips. So the question is, why is it possible in some cases, but not in others.

Some people, he says, believe that it's because the information to perform the regeneration gets lost when the animal (or person) gets older. He disagrees, however. He says that the information needed to regenerate is still there, but the body doesn't make use of it because it has other priorities.

For example, if a deer loses its leg, the body's first priority is to stop the blood loss before the animal bleeds to death. Once the wound is closed and scarred, however, it may be too late to implement a regenerative process.

With humans, modern medicine offers techniques to avoid dying from blood loss without closing the wound, so Levin suggests that if we can use electrical signaling to learn to access the stored information, we could trigger regeneration and healing in humans.

Levin says that we are a long way from understanding how cells build the body's organs, but that doesn't matter if we just learn how to turn the regeneration capability on, because the cells can implement the process without guidance. He describes the needed capability as the ability to provide a "master regulator" by initiating "coordinated downstream responses in the host organism."

Research with organism modification

image.png

Pixabay license: source

In the 2012 interview, Levin mentioned that if you cut a flatworm in half, "the polarity is preserved". In other words, the half-worm with the head grows a tail, and the half-worm with the tail grows a head.

Moving on to the TED interview, Levin begins by discussing his research into the creation of two-headed worms. In this research, his team has learned how to instruct the worm's cells to create a head at each end of the worm's body. As with the tadpoles, the cells are able to adapt dynamically if the researcher moves cells around in the growing organism.

To me, the most interesting part of this research is that after they generate a two-headed worm, if they cut it in half, it retains knowledge of the second head, and both halves regenerate as two-headed worms. Amazingly, this is accomplished with just electical signaling and without any genome modification.

Once the two-headed geometry is activated in the worm, it stays active permanently.

Research with creating a new organism, known as a "xenobot"

The final research area that I'd like to discuss is the creation of a xenobot. Here is a video from Seeker, that focuses exclusively on xenobots.



These tiny organisms were built by differentiating stem cells from frogs into skin cells and heart cells. These differentiated cells were modeled and fed into an evolutionary algorithm in a supercomputer. The algorithm selected designs for the desired capability, locomotion. After many generations of selection, the supercomputer produced a cellular design that the researchers used to create these novel microscopic organisms or cellular robots.

According to Levin, these xenobots and his related research may have medical uses that address, "birth defects, degenerative disease, aging, traumatic injury, even cancer". Further, his team envisions the use of swarms of xenobots in completion of a variety of non-medical tasks.

Conclusion

image.png

Pixabay license: source

So there you have it, these tiny robots are designed by a computer but built out of living material. This combination has many asking whether they should be considered robots or life forms. It also raises difficult ethical questions. The ethics are made more complicated because of the possibility that future iterations may include things like nervous systems and reproductive capabilities.

To my layman's understanding, and restating from the Introduction, these are some of the key principles underlying this multi-decade research effort:

  • DNA in animals contains the instructions that are used in embryonic development, childhood growth, and for regeneration in species that are naturally capable of it.
  • That information is available throughout an animal's lifetime.
  • Bio-electrical signaling can be used to activate cells in order to make use of that information and harness it for regenerative or healing purposes.
  • It is therefore possible for higher order animals (including people) to regenerate and heal organs and maybe even eyes, limbs, and other extremities.
  • This same signaling can be harnessed by researchers in order to modify the way an organism looks or functions, or even to create totally new organisms.

As with many realms of of scientific discovery, it seems that these advances have positive and negative potential results, but I thought it was fascinating to learn about. I hope you did, too!


Experimental: Please leave a relevant and substantive reply to this post in order to be considered for a gratuity from @penny4thoughts after the post pays out.

Thank you for your time and attention.

As a general rule, I up-vote comments that demonstrate "proof of reading".




Steve Palmer is an IT professional with three decades of professional experience in data communications and information systems. He holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics, a master's degree in computer science, and a master's degree in information systems and technology management. He has been awarded 3 US patents.

Authors get paid when people like you upvote their post.
If you enjoyed what you read here, create your account today and start earning FREE STEEM!
Sort Order:  

WOW... about xenobots I knew before, but the electrical signaling is also responsible for cell and organ regeneration besides stem cells is a new Knowledge to me, I ill definetely do study on it.

Thanks for sharing an informative post related to my field (biotechnology)

I am amazed about the creation of these xenobots, really reading this type of content creates a curiosity to investigate more about it, our body is a perfect creation, capable of regeneration, in the DNA I think there is still much to discover, many believe that in he finds the secret of eternal youth.

Nice sir 👍