Biological Hacking In The 19th Century Or How The World Almost Lost Wine

While it isn’t quite universal, a lot of people enjoy a glass of wine now and again. But the world faced a crisis in the 1800s that almost destroyed some of the world’s great wines. Science — or some might say hacking — saved the day, even though it isn’t well known outside of serious oenophiles. You might wonder how biological hacking occurred in the 19th century. It did. It wasn’t as fast or efficient, but fortunately for wine drinkers, it got the job done.

When people tell me about new cybersecurity threats, I usually point out that cybercrime isn’t new. People have been stealing money, tricking people into actions, and impersonating other people for centuries. The computer just makes it easier. Even computing itself isn’t a new idea. Counting on your fingers and counting with electrons is just a matter of degree. Surely, though, mashing up biology is a more recent scientific advancement, right? While it is true that CRISPR can make editing genes a weekend garage project, people have been changing the biology of plants and animals for centuries using techniques like selective breeding and grafting. Not as effective, but sometimes effective enough.

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Green Hacking: Overclocking Photosynthesis

We think of hacking as bending technology to our will. But some systems are biological,  and we’re also starting to see more hacking in that area. This should excite science fiction fans used to with reading about cultures that work with biological tech, so maybe we’ll get there in the real world too.  Hacking farm crops and animals goes back centuries, although we are definitely getting better at it. A case in point: scientists have found a way to make photosynthesis better and this should lead to more productive crops.

We learned in school that plants use carbon dioxide and sunlight to create energy and produce oxygen. But no one explained to us exactly how that happened. It seems a protein called rubisco is what causes this to happen, but unfortunately it isn’t very picky. In addition to converting carbon (from carbon dioxide) into sugar, it also converts oxygen into toxic compounds called ROS (reactive oxygen species) that most plants then have to spend energy eliminating. Scientists estimate that if you could recover the calories lost in this process, you could feed an additional 200 million people worldwide at current production levels.

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Go Small, Get Big: The Hack That Revolutionized Bioscience

Few people outside the field know just how big bioscience can get. The public tends to think of fields like physics and astronomy, with their huge particle accelerators and massive telescopes, as the natural expressions of big science. But for decades, biology has been getting bigger, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Specialized labs built around the automation equipment that enables modern pharmaceutical research would dazzle even the most jaded CERN physicist, with fleets of robot arms moving labware around in an attempt to find the Next Big Drug.

I’ve written before on big biology and how to get more visibility for the field into STEM programs. But how exactly did biology get big? What enabled biology to grow beyond a rack of test tubes to the point where experiments with millions of test occasions are not only possible but practically required? Was it advances in robots, or better detection methodologies? Perhaps it was a breakthrough in genetic engineering?

Nope. Believe it or not, it was a small block of plastic with some holes drilled in it. This is the story of how the microtiter plate allowed bioscience experiments to be miniaturized to the point where hundreds or thousands of tests can be done at a time.

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Genetically Engineered Muscle Cells Power Tiny Bio-Robots

One of the essential problems of bio-robotics is actuators. The rotors, bearings, and electrical elements of the stepper motors and other electromechanical drives we generally turn to for robotics projects are not really happy in living systems. But building actuators the way nature does it — from muscle tissue — opens up a host of applications. That’s where this complete how-to guide on building and controlling muscle-powered machines comes in.

Coming out of the [Rashid Bashir] lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign, the underlying principles are simple, which of course is the key to their power. The technique involves growing rings of muscle tissue in culture using 3D-printed hydrogel as forms. The grown muscle rings are fitted on another 3D-printed structure, this one a skeleton with stiff legs on a flexible backbone. Stretched over the legs like rubber bands, the muscle rings can be made to contract and move the little bots around.

Previous incarnations of this technique relied on cultured rat heart muscle cells, which contract rhythmically of their own accord. That yielded motion but lacked control, so for this go-around, [Bashir] et al used skeletal muscle cells genetically engineered to contract when exposed to light. Illuminating different parts of the muscle ring lets the researchers move the bio-bots anywhere they want. They can also use electric stimulation to control the bio-bots.

The method isn’t quite at the point where home lab biohackers will start churning out armies of bio-bots. But the paper is remarkably detailed in methods and materials, from the CAD files for 3D-printing the forms and bio-bot skeletons to a complete troubleshooting guide. It’s all there, and it could be a game changer for developing the robotic surgeons of the future.

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Yes/No Neural Interface Partly Works

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi or horror movie: people suffering from complete locked-in state (CLIS) have lost all motor control, but their brains are otherwise functioning normally. This can result from spinal cord injuries or anyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Patients who are only partially locked in can often blink to signal yes or no. CLIS patients don’t even have this option. So researchers are trying to literally read their minds.

Neuroelectrical technologies, like the EEG, haven’t been successful so far, so the scientists took another tack: using near-infrared light to detect the oxygenation of blood in the forehead. The results are promising, but we’re not there yet. The system detected answers correctly during training sessions about 70% of the time, where the upper bound for random chance is around 65% — varying from trial to trial. This may not seem overwhelmingly significant, but repeating the question many times can help improve confidence in the answer, and these are people with no means of communicating with the outside world. Anything is better than nothing?

journal-pbio-1002593-g001It’s noteworthy that the blood oxygen curves over time vary significantly from patient to patient, but seem roughly consistent within a single patient. Some people simply have patterns that are easier to read. You can see all the data in the paper.

They go into the methodology as well, which is not straightforward either. How would you design a test for a person who you can’t even tell if they are awake, for instance? They ask complementary questions (“Paris is the capital of France”, “Berlin is the capital of Germany”, “Paris is the capital of Germany”, and “Berlin is the capital of France”) to be absolutely sure they’re getting the classifications right.

It’s interesting science, and for a good cause: improving the quality of life for people who have lost all contact with their bodies. (Most of whom answered “yes” to the statement “I am happy.” Food for thought.)

Via Science-Based Medicine, and thanks to [gippgig] for the unintentional tip! Photo from the Wyss Center, one of the research institutes involved in the study.

Amino Wants To Bring Bioengineering To Your Workbench

As the maker movement has exploded in popularity in recent years, there has been a strong push to put industrial tools into the hands of amateur tinkerers and hackers. CNC mills, 3D Printers, and laser cutters were all extremely expensive machines that were far too costly for most people until makers demanded them and hackers found ways to make them affordable. But, aside from the home brewing scene, those advancements haven’t really touched on anything organic. Which is a deficiency that Amino, a desktop bioengineering system, is seeking to address.

Amino, created by [Julie Legault], is currently seeking crowd-funding via Indiegogo. Hackaday readers are more suspicious than most when it comes to crowd-funding campaigns, and with good reason. But, [Julie Legault] has some very impressive credentials that lend her a great deal of credibility. She has four degrees in the arts and sciences, including a Masters of Science at the MIT Media Lab.

It was for that degree at MIT that [Julie] started Amino as her thesis. Her plan is to bring the tools necessary for bioengineering to the masses – tools which are traditionally only available in research labs. Those tools are packaged into a small desktop-sized unit called Amino. Backers will receive this desktop system, along with the supplies for their first project. Those projects are predefined, but the tools are versatile enough to allow users to move on to their own projects in the future. [Julie] thinks that the future is in bioengineering, and that the best way to feed innovation is to make the necessary tools both affordable and accessible.

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