The Future is… Worms: Life Extension and Computer-Simulations

genetic_circuitPost-mortality is considered by most to be an intrinsic part of the so-called Technological Singularity. For centuries, improvements in medicine, nutrition and health have led to improved life expectancy. And in an age where so much more is possible – thanks to cybernetics, bio, nano, and medical advances – it stands to reason that people will alter their physique in order slow the onset of age and extend their lives even more.

And as research continues, new and exciting finds are being made that would seem to indicate that this future may be just around the corner. And at the heart of it may be a series of experiments involving worms. At the Buck Institute for Research and Aging in California, researchers have been tweaking longevity-related genes in nematode worms in order to amplify their lifespans.

immortal_wormsAnd the latest results caught even the researchers by surprise. By triggering mutations in two pathways known for lifespan extension – mutations that inhibit key molecules involved in insulin signaling (IIS) and the nutrient signaling pathway Target of Rapamycin (TOR) – they created an unexpected feedback effect that amplified the lifespan of the worms by a factor of five.

Ordinarily, a tweak to the TOR pathway results in a 30% lifespan extension in C. Elegans worms, while mutations in IIS (Daf-2) results in a doubling of lifespan. By combining the mutations, the researchers were expecting something around a 130% extension to lifespan. Instead, the worms lived the equivalent of about 400 to 500 human years.

antiagingAs Doctor Pankaj Kapahi said in an official statement:

Instead, what we have here is a synergistic five-fold increase in lifespan. The two mutations set off a positive feedback loop in specific tissues that amplified lifespan. These results now show that combining mutants can lead to radical lifespan extension — at least in simple organisms like the nematode worm.

The positive feedback loop, say the researchers, originates in the germline tissue of worms – a sequence of reproductive cells that may be passed onto successive generations. This may be where the interactions between the two mutations are integrated; and if correct, might apply to the pathways of more complex organisms. Towards that end, Kapahi and his team are looking to perform similar experiments in mice.

DNA_antiagingBut long-term, Kapahi says that a similar technique could be used to produce therapies for aging in humans. It’s unlikely that it would result in the dramatic increase to lifespan seen in worms, but it could be significant nonetheless. For example, the research could help explain why scientists are having a difficult time identifying single genes responsible for the long lives experienced by human centenarians:

In the early years, cancer researchers focused on mutations in single genes, but then it became apparent that different mutations in a class of genes were driving the disease process. The same thing is likely happening in aging. It’s quite probable that interactions between genes are critical in those fortunate enough to live very long, healthy lives.

A second worm-related story comes from the OpenWorm project, an international open source project dedicated to the creation of a bottom-up computer model of a millimeter-sized nemotode. As one of the simplest known multicellular life forms on Earth, it is considered a natural starting point for creating computer-simulated models of organic beings.

openworm-nematode-roundworm-simulation-artificial-lifeIn an important step forward, OpenWorm researchers have completed the simulation of the nematode’s 959 cells, 302 neurons, and 95 muscle cells and their worm is wriggling around in fine form. However, despite this basic simplicity, the nematode is not without without its share of complex behaviors, such as feeding, reproducing, and avoiding being eaten.

To model the complex behavior of this organism, the OpenWorm collaboration (which began in May 2013) is developing a bottom-up description. This involves making models of the individual worm cells and their interactions, based on their observed functionality in the real-world nematodes. Their hope is that realistic behavior will emerge if the individual cells act on each other as they do in the real organism.

openworm-nematode-roundworm-simulation-artificial-life-0Fortunately, we know a lot about these nematodes. The complete cellular structure is known, as well as rather comprehensive information concerning the behavior of the thing in reaction to its environment. Included in our knowledge is the complete connectome, a comprehensive map of neural connections (synapses) in the worm’s nervous system.

The big question is, assuming that the behavior of the simulated worms continues to agree with the real thing, at what stage might it be reasonable to call it a living organism? The usual definition of living organisms is behavioral, that they extract usable energy from their environment, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce, and adapt to their environment in successive generations.

openworm-nematode1If the simulation exhibits these behaviors, combined with realistic responses to its external environment, should we consider it to be alive? And just as importantly, what tests would be considered to test such a hypothesis? One possibility is an altered version of the Turing test – Alan Turing’s proposed idea for testing whether or not a computer could be called sentient.

In the Turing test, a computer is considered sentient and sapient if it can simulate the responses of a conscious sentient being so that an auditor can’t tell the difference. A modified Turing test might say that a simulated organism is alive if a skeptical biologist cannot, after thorough study of the simulation, identify a behavior that argues against the organism being alive.

openworm-nematode2And of course, this raises an even larger questions. For one, is humanity on the verge of creating “artificial life”? And what, if anything, does that really look like? Could it just as easily be in the form of computer simulations as anthropomorphic robots and biomachinery? And if the answer to any of these questions is yes, then what exactly does that say about our preconceived notions about what life is?

If humanity is indeed moving into an age of “artificial life”, and from several different directions, it is probably time that we figure out what differentiates the living from the nonliving. Structure? Behavior? DNA? Local reduction of entropy? The good news is that we don’t have to answer that question right away. Chances are, we wouldn’t be able to at any rate.

Brain-ScanAnd though it might not seem apparent, there is a connection between the former and latter story here. In addition to being able to prolong life through genetic engineering, the ability to simulate consciousness through computer-generated constructs might just prove a way to cheat death in the future. If complex life forms and connectomes (like that involved in the human brain) can be simulated, then people may be able to transfer their neural patterns before death and live on in simulated form indefinitely.

So… anti-aging, artificial life forms, and the potential for living indefinitely. And to think that it all begins with the simplest multicellular life form on Earth – the nemotode worm. But then again, all life – nay, all of existence – depends upon the most simple of interactions, which in turn give rise to more complex behaviors and organisms. Where else would we expect the next leap in biotechnological evolution to come from?

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the OpenWorm’s simulated nemotode in action


Sources:
IO9, cell.com, gizmag, openworm

The Future is Here: “Spiber” Silk

spider-silkFor years, scientists and researchers have been looking for a way to reproduce the strength of spider silk in the form of a synthetic material. As an organic material, spider silk is tougher than kevlar, strong as steel, lighter than carbon fiber, and can be stretched 40 percent beyond its original length without breaking. Any material that can boast the same characteristics and be massed produced would be worth its weight in gold!

Recently, a Japanese startup named Spiber has announced that it has found a way to produce the silk synthetically. Over the next two years, they intend to step up mass production and created everything from surgical materials and auto arts to bulletproof vests. And thanks to recent developments in nanoelectronics, its usages could also include soluble electronic implants, artificial blood levels and ligaments, and even antibacterial sutures.

spiber-synthetic-spider-silkSpider silk’s amazing properties are due to a protein named fibroin. In nature, proteins act as natural catalyst for most chemical reactions inside a cell and help bind cells together into tissues. Naturally, the process for creating a complex sequence of aminoacids that make up fibroin are very hard to reproduce inside a lab. Hence why scientists have been turning to genetic engineering in recent years to make it happen.

In Spiber’s case, this consisted of decoding the gene responsible for the production of fibroin in spiders and then bioengineering bacteria with recombinant DNA to produce the protein, which they then spin into their artificial silk. Using their new process, they claim to be able to engineer a new type of silk in as little as 10 days, and have already created 250 prototypes with characteristics to suit specific applications.

SpiderSilkModelNatureThey begin this process by tweaking the aminoacid sequences and gene arrangements using computer models to create artificial proteins that seek to maximize strength, flexibility and thermal stability in the final product. Then, they synthesize a fibroin-producing gene modified to produce that specific molecule.

Microbe cultures are then modified with the fibroin gene to produce the candidate molecule, which is turned into a fine powder and then spun. These bacteria feed on sugar, salt and other micronutrients and can reproduce in just 20 minutes. In fact, a single gram of the protein produces about 5.6 miles (9 km) of artificial silk.

spiber_qmonosAs part of the patent process, Spiber has named the artificial protein derived from fibroin QMONOS, from the Japanese word for spider. The substance can be turned into fiber, film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber form, giving it the ability to suit a number of different applications – everything from clothing and manufacturing to nanomedicine.

Spibers says it is building a trial manufacturing research plant, aiming to produce 100 kg (220 lb) of QMONOS fiber per month by November. The pilot plant will be ready by 2015, by which time the company aims to produce 10 metric tons (22,000 lb) of silk per year.

spiber_dressAt the recent TedX talk in Tokyo, company founder Kazuhide Sekiyama unveiled Spiber’s new process by showcasing a dress made of their synthetic silk. It’s shiny blue sheen was quite dazzling and looks admittedly futuristic. Still, company spokesperson Shinya Murata admitted that it was made strictly for show and nobody tried it on.

Murata also suggested that their specialized slik could be valuable in moving toward a post-fossil-fuel future:

We use no petroleum in the production process of Qmonos. But, we know that we need to think about the use of petroleum to produce nutrient source for bacteria, electric power, etc…

Overall, Sekyama lauded the material’s strength and flexibility before the TedX audience, and claimed it could revolutionize everything from wind turbines to medical devices. All that’s needed is some more time to further manipulate the amino acid sequence to create an even lighter, stronger product. Given the expanding use for silks and its impeccable applicability, I’d say he’s correct in that belief.

In the meantime, check out the video from the TedX talk:


Sources:
gizmag.com, fastcoexist.com

Relaunching an Idea: Genome!

GenomeIn recent months, I did what I often do when I find myself in the midst of a few projects, where none of them are occupying my attenti0n completely. I went back to an old idea that never got finished, but which I felt pretty passionate about at the time. This idea was one a friend and I came up with while we chatted about human nature and genetic engineering.

Specifically, we talked about how people in the future might try to tailor their children to weed out self-doubt and the self-directed critical tendencies we all seem to have. That got the ball rolling, and in short order, I began writing the full-length concept into a story I called Genome. Unfortunately, this project, like so many others, lost my interest part way through and got stock in the Incomplete folder.

Luckily, writing for China Daily Mail got me interested in it again. You see, the story takes place in one of my favorite environments: the Northeaster Megapolitan region known as BosWash – aka. the Boston-Washington D.C. metropolitan axis. In the story, I decided to add a little symbolic feature known as the BWHM, or BosWash Health Monitor, which rates the cities pollution based on the Air Toxicity Factor (or ATF).

The scale was out of 100 and during the course of the story, it kept getting higher. Well after reading about China’s air pollution and the AQI (Air Quality Index) which has a maximum ranking of 500, but which needs to be revised to account for Beijing’s 700 plus ratings of late, I began to think I had stumbled onto something golden!

Or, I had simply stolen something without knowing it and ought to pursue it since it’s relevant. But of course, to make the reference accurate and work for readers, I had to since revise it to make the BWHM out of 1000 so people would know exactly how toxic and polluted this future, dystopic megacity really was!

In addition, I also began thinking I should do with Genome what I did with Whiskey Delta and begin sharing it here, chapter by chapter. And so here it is, the first-ever installment of Genome, which is the prologue chapter entitled “The Big Sink”. As you can probably tell, I was going for a real urban noire feeling, with some cyberpunk elements thrown in for good measure. This, you will find, is offset by some dry humor down the road…

Enjoy, and feel free to let me know if it’s any good, in need of a full-scale rewrite, or a short trip to the Recycle Bin! 🙂

*                    *                    *

It was an evening like any other. The sky was ashen grey, rain clouds and thunderclaps flashing over the urban landscapes. Outside of the establishment, a few people lingered in the rain, taking in their carcinogenic fixes and staring with blank faces.

In the distance, the sound of thunderclaps and sirens set the nighttime scene. And the rain, it fell hard. So hard it could almost wash the scum off the sidewalk for another night. But even if it could, the scum would return tomorrow. It came in endless supplies, and the fight to keep it at bay was always constant.

Bastion stepped out of the twenty-four café and made a quick appraisal of the evening. The prospects were grim, much like the weather. No one to go home to, few women adequate enough to invite home, and a whole lot of pain and misfortunate to look forward to tomorrow. Another day of bills, alimony and hard-luck stories from perps, policemen and unaffiliated scumbags, nothing but the bottle and takeout meals to keep him company in the one bedroom flat that passed for a home.

Just another day in the life of a Detective working the Big Sink.

Sparking up his torch, Bastion lit up the stubby green tube between his lips and inhaled deeply. Everyone who stood out in the rain with him was taking their daily smoke break, sucking in the terrible tasting shit that was supposed to ward off the tumors and slow death that city living brought on.

It was a constant feature in the news, the build-up of toxins that was forcing everyone to ingest one kind of poison to offset the others, and every day the count got higher, bringing the city closer to the brink.

Last he checked, the experts said it was at a robust eight-hundred eighty-five on a scale that reached to one thousand, though that could be updated in the near future, as it had in the past. No one in his immediate surroundings could say with any certitude what would happen once they reached the top of that index, but all indications said it would be bad.

He looked around and gauged the people next to him by the tired, sunken looks in their eyes. Already he could tell how long they had been on the medication just by the look of them.

Sandra, the head waitress, the one with the yellowing skin and eyes to match: five years.

The gentleman in the nice linen suit with the bowler cap on: three or so.

The server boy with the terrible nostalgic get-up that was supposed to be the theme of the restaurant, red suspenders and a white collared shirt. A year tops. And then there was the old Manchu fella with the white hair and the terrible wrinkles, his skin the color of leather and just as tough: ten years!

Of course, he himself wasn’t too enthused about taking up this particular dirty habit. But the nice doc had summarized it for him thusly: Smoke it, and live to the ripe old age of sixty-five, then proceed steadily downhill. Don’t, and die of melanoma or an inoperable tumor at fifty-five. Twenty years was what he was buying with this terrible, stinking stick that was smoldering in the corner in his mouth then. It smelt awful and tasted a hell of a lot worse!

One could fit a lot of living in the space of twenty years, consuming one poison to kill another. And they learned a valuable lesson from it too. Just another gift the Big Sink provided for anyone lucky enough to be born into her. Just like life, it was a gift nobody asked for and was unreturnable, so you enjoyed it while you could.

If only, he thought, bringing him smoke to a quick conclusion and then stubbing it out on the ground. He checked his right side to make sure his piece was still there. On the way home, he might just get lucky tonight and have someone try to kill him. Then he knew he’d get the added excitement of a life or death struggle, a nice trip to the emergency room, and maybe a new lease on life. They always said you had to have a brush with death to find the value in living. Bastion was eager to find out.

Envisioning Emerging Technology

Where are we headed when it comes to technology? Which fields will advance before others? When will certain devices and tools be available? How long before we can expect things like flying cars, interactive holograms, space travel, and intelligent robots? These are the questions currently being addressed by Envisioning Technology and its founder, Mitchell Zappa.

The purpose is pretty straightforward: by examining the wider context, one can see not only where technology is going in the near future, but how developments in one field will stimulate others. Once we have a better understanding of what lies ahead, according to Zappa, we can make better decisions of what to create today.

To illustrate this, ET has prepared a helpful interactive infographic, one which allows users to hover over an item and see a detailed description. The target dates range from 2012 to 2040, beginning with tablets and cloud computing and culminating in the development of Avatars, Space Elevators, and AIs. Some additional predictions include:

  • 2018: Self-driving cars
  • 2019: Space tourism
  • 2026: Domestic robots
  • 2030: Blood-powered displays embedded into human skin
  • 2033: Remote presence
  • 2035: Human missions to Mars
  • 2035: Thorium reactors
  • 2036: Space elevators
  • 2036: Climate engineering
  • 2037: Anti-aging drugs
  • 2039: Nanotechnology utility fogs
  • 2040: Arcologies (massive cities)

For a more detailed breakdown and description, check out the infographic below, or follow the link to the website for a more detailed interactive experience: