This year is the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s completion of her novel, in May 1817. Her scenario is simple: A man creates a living being, which, grown monstrous, turns on its creator. The experience of the fictional Victor Frankenstein, who used electricity to give life to an inanimate body, shows how the best intentions can lead to unintended consequences that mock and imperil creators.
Today, few would dismiss this assessment. What then can engineers do to reduce, if not eliminate, the chances of unwittingly creating a Frankenstein monster? Here are a few ideas:- Resist the temptation to pursue projects simply because they are beautiful or too cool to resist. As the philosopher Heather E. Douglas explains in a companion essay in the new MIT edition of the novel, creative engineering often inspires feelings of awe and wonder that can obscure or erase an awareness of design challenges. When euphoria reigns, stop and take a breath!
- Technologists do best when they solve problems of value to people and the planet. Pursuing possibilities without regard to utility invites unforeseen blowback.
- Engineers should act as if creation is a shared responsibility, because their knowledge at least partly comes from others and the effects of their work inevitably extend further than themselves.
Human-Pig Hybrid Created in the Lab
Human cells, coloured green, were found in the four-week-old embryo
... Development in the womb is much faster in pigs - pregnancy lasts less than four months compared with about nine in people.
... "One possibility is to let these animals be born, but that is not something we should allow to happen at this point."
"Not everything that science can do we should do, we are not living in a niche in lab, we live with other people - and society needs to decide what can be done.
Scientists create first stable semisynthetic organism
Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have announced the development of the first stable semisynthetic organism. Building on their 2014 study in which they synthesized a DNA base pair, the researchers created a new bacterium that uses the four natural bases (called A, T, C and G), which every living organism possesses, but that also holds as a pair two synthetic bases called X and Y in its genetic code.
TSRI Professor Floyd Romesberg and his colleagues have now shown that their single-celled organism can hold on indefinitely to the synthetic base pair as it divides. Their research was published January 23, 2017, online ahead of print in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Next, the researchers plan to study how their new genetic code can be transcribed into RNA, the molecule in cells needed to translate DNA into proteins. "This study lays the foundation for what we want to do going forward," said Zhang.
Scientists persuade nature to make silicon-carbon bonds
A new study is the first to show that living organisms can be persuaded to make silicon-carbon bonds—something only chemists had done before. Scientists at Caltech "bred" a bacterial protein to make the man-made bonds—a finding that has applications in several industries.
The study is also the first to show that nature can adapt to incorporate silicon into carbon-based molecules, the building blocks of life. Scientists have long wondered if life on Earth could have evolved to be based on silicon instead of carbon. Science-fiction authors likewise have imagined alien worlds with silicon-based life, like the lumpy Horta creatures portrayed in an episode of the 1960s TV series Star Trek. Carbon and silicon are chemically very similar. They both can form bonds to four atoms simultaneously, making them well suited to form the long chains of molecules found in life, such as proteins and DNA.
DragonflEye Project Wants to Turn Insects Into Cyborg Drones
The DragonflEye project is a collaboration between Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Janelia Farm. There are several unique technologies that have been implemented here: The group was able to pack all of the electronics into a tiny “backpack,” meaning that small insects (like bees and dragonflies as opposed to large beetles) can fly while wearing it. Some of the size reduction comes from the use of solar panels to harvest energy, minimizing the need for batteries. There’s also integrated guidance and navigation systems, so a fully autonomous navigation is possible outside of a controlled environment.
Another major advance is that, rather than using electrodes to brute-force the muscles of an insect into doing what you want, the Draper engineers are taking a more delicate approach, using what are called optrodes to activate a special type of “steering” neuron with light pulses. These steering neurons act as a bridge between the dragonfly’s sensors and its muscles, meaning that accessing them provides a much more reliable form of control over how the insect moves.
The DragonflEye backpack is designed to navigate autonomously without wireless control, harvest energy from the environment for extended operation, and is a fraction of the weight for smaller insects. Next steps will further reduce the size and weight of the DragonflEye system by developing a custom integrated system-on-chip. Further miniaturization will reduce the payload burden and allow the system to be worn by even smaller insects.
The DragonflEye system doesn’t require a power source for flight, only for navigation. It can operate indefinitely due to the insect’s ability to replenish energy from food and the navigation system’s ability to harvest energy from the environment.