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MIT and US Armed Forces Developing ‘Living Computer’ Tattoos

Biohybrid technology is going to start introducing some real sci-fi levels of weirdness into our lives. From half-living, half-electronic hybrid organisms to all manners of stranger abominations, it seems clear we’re entering a new phase of human history in which we truly are becoming gods, able to create and shape life how we see fit. Will the Earth forgive us? Let’s hope so. The latest biohybrid high strangeness comes out of MIT, where engineers have invented what they’re calling “living tattoos” that can respond to their environment just like living cells.

It'd be a lot cooler if they were green and pulsated.

It’d be a lot cooler if they were green and pulsated.

Well, that’s because they’re made of living cells that have been 3D printed into flexible, three-dimensional interactive structures and devices. The cells in the tattoos have been genetically modified for different purposes like sensing pollutants in the environment or alerting wearers of changes in temperature, pH, or other environmental metrics. There are also genetically engineered bacteria in many of the tattoos that can be programmed for different functions like lighting up or changing color in response to different inputs. By stacking different types of bacteria in various layers, the researchers were able to create input/output systems which essentially turned bacteria into living computers.

Each layer of bacteria works like a different circuit or component of the "living computer."

Each layer of bacteria works like a different circuit or component of the “living computer.”

Xinye Liu, one of the grad students who co-authored the paper, says these systems can be modified for any number of biological applications, and not just ones on the outside of the body either:

We can use bacterial cells like workers in a 3-D factory,. They can be engineered to produce drugs within a 3-D scaffold, and applications should not be confined to epidermal devices. As long as the fabrication method and approach are viable, applications such as implants and ingestibles should be possible.

Interestingly enough, this research was funded in part by the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, which aims to “discover and field technologies that dramatically advance soldier protection and survivability capabilities” and the Office of Naval Research. Why would the military be interested in creating genetically hybridized bacterial computer tattoos? Your guess is as good as mine. I could certainly see a number of health and safety benefits; wearing a tattoo which visually displayed a soldier’s heart rate and body temperature is almost like wearing a real-life version of the health meters found above video game characters’ heads. Still, the pessimist in me has to wonder what potential dangers may arise from sticking genetically modified bacterial sandwiches all over soldiers’ arms. Sounds a little too much like the premise of a John Carpenter film if you ask me.