First Steps Toward A Machine-Controlled Human CellS

A semipermeable membrane encloses each of your cells, selectively allowing molecules in and out. And now, scientists have figured out how to use nanowires to control the mechanism that makes your cells permeable, thus creating a computer-regulated cell.

A team led by Lawrence Livermore Lab scientists Nipun Misraa and Julio A. Martinez worked on the discovery, and their results were published earlier this week in PNAS. According to a release about the research:

[The researchers] created a biomechanical hybrid in which nanowires are coated in a lipid bilayer-the same type of membrane that envelopes cells and controls the passage of molecules in and out of the cell. The authors incorporated gated channels in this membrane, and used molecular transport through these channels to trigger an electric signal. The researchers show that the nanowire circuit can be used to make the channels open and close as they would in a biological cell. Although their work is currently in an early stage, later versions of the nanowire technology could find applications in biosensing, neuroscience, and medicine.

There are two things that are very exciting about this early-stage research. One, it means that cellular membranes could be incorporated into computerized devices that are designed to respond to molecules in the environment. Essentially, you could have a cellular sensor at the end of a nanowire.

But the applications for neuroscience and medicine are even greater. The membrane that these researchers have learned to manipulate is part of the same system that controls cell-to-cell communication in the human body. Proteins that arrange themselves on the surface of cells serve as signal transducer, conveying information between genetic material inside each cell to proteins or chemicals in the blood (and vice versa). For example, when a cell malfunctions, it usually sends out a signal asking to be destroyed by the cells around it. In cancer and AIDS, however, this signal is interrupted so that the diseased cells continue to thrive and infect more of the body. Being able to control those cellular signals with nanowires could potentially help contain some cancers.

It would also open up a very weird area of medicine whose consequences we can't know for certain. What would it mean if you could control cellular signals, sending very precise messages to cells or cell groups? Obviously it would be great for controlling healing, but could it also be a method of physical enhancement? A way to lose weight by telling fat cells to die? It's possible.

via PNAS