Jan 31, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Scientists Hack Living Cells to Communicate with Electronics

The future of biotech - heck, probably all tech - lies in brain-computer interfaces. Why use your crude, ape-like hands to paw away clumsily at your mobile devices when you could simply communicate telepathically? Actually touching stuff was so 20th century, anyway. Top technology research firms including Facebook are currently developing neural interfaces that could allow computer users of the near future to communicate entirely through their minds. Recent breakthroughs have even hinted at the ability to inject sensory information directly into the brain through electrical signals alone. Boy, some days I sure do miss the past.

In the future, everything will be a computer. Except computers. They will be our benevolent overlords.

To further the push towards interfacing our bodies directly with technology, researchers from the University of Maryland have bioengineered bacterial cells to respond directly to electrical signals. According to their published data, this marks the first time that biological cells have been hacked to react to electrical signals by changing how certain genes are expressed. To do this, scientists took advantage of the redox (reduction–oxidation) reactions inside organic cells, which shuttle electrons back and forth between molecules:

Our work shows, for the first time, the utility of using biologically relevant redox molecules in translating electronic signals to changes in engineered bacterial gene expression. [...] To our knowledge, our work is first in demonstrating and characterizing an electrode-based system for reversible and specific redox-driven genetic control in bacteria.

Previous attempts to create cell-sized electronics were unable to cross the technology-biology divide. By engineering living cells to behave more like electronic devices, this technique could allow cells to essentially be re-programmed for any number of functions.

Why build tiny cell-sized electronics when you can turn cells into electronics themselves?

The researchers believe this technique gives an unprecedented level of control over biological cells, potentially allowing engineers to create designer cells which can autonomously detect and destroy diseases or infections:

Such cells can be programmed to respond to an unprecedentedly wide array of biological and non-biological information and make ‘smarter’ decisions than previously possible.

While many of the biggest leaps in technological development over the past few decades have been in communications technologies, it’s becoming more and more clear that the future will be shaped by biotech. Between CRISPR/Cas-9 gene editing, bizarre new designer organisms, and advanced superhuman prosthetics, the future of humanity is certainly looking stranger and stranger every day.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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