Robo-eels, critters on chips lead cyborg pack
(CNN) -- Melding animals and automatons, researchers have concocted a growing number of bizarre cyborgs that could transform science and perhaps the human species itself.
Mixing and matching parts of everything from fish with robots and bacteria with microchips, scientists hope their creations someday lead to advances in medicine, warfare and environmental protection.
But critics contend that such meddling could lead to consequences that do more harm than good.
In Chicago, researchers have fused the brain of a primitive lamprey eel with a robot the size of a hockey puck, creating a living machine that tracks a beam of light in a laboratory ring, like a miniature bull chasing a matador's red cape.
Part biological and part mechanical, the crude cyborg is equipped the brain stem of an eel, which, kept alive in a saline solution, receives input from electronic light sensors and directs the robotic wheels to move toward the source of the beam.
Changing the location and intensity of the light, the scientists noticed that the eel brain could adapt to changing conditions in its effort to locate the source.
Prosthetic limbs, glowing bacteria
The Northwestern University researchers hope to unlock the mysteries of the animal's nervous system.
"We are focused on the use of this instrument as a tool to understand the processing of information by a group of brain cells," said Ferdinando Mussa-Ivaldi, one of the primary researchers. "In particular, we are interested in the biological mechanisms by which nerve cells 'program' themselves."
The scientists are focusing on a structure located between the spinal cord and higher brain centers that is believed to integrate information from different origins, such as tactile or visual, to shape the commands that control muscle movement, Mussa-Ivaldi said. The research eventually could help doctors fashion sophisticated artificial limbs for those suffering from nerve damage, he said.
The cyborg eel is only one member of a menagerie of animal/machine hybrids that relies on sophisticated microelectronics. In other projects in the United States, monkey brains have been wired to control robotic appendages, moth antennae have been used to sniff out explosives, and bacteria have been engineered to glow in the presence of environmental toxins.
In the last experiment, microbiologists cemented genetically modified bacteria to microchips, creating an innovative way to clean up dangerous chemicals.
The hybrid includes genetic material from a luminescent aquatic microorganism and another bacteria that breaks down pollutants into simpler, safer compounds.
Affixed to microcircuits with latex and other polymers, the so-called "critters on a chip" eat harmful toxins, emit a blue-green light, and then can transmit a signal to a receiver linked to a remote computer, said researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The living sensors could someday be used to monitor industrial pollutants in the water and soil and even help diagnose medical conditions in humans, said the project's principal investigator.
"I envision devices that detect disease much earlier than conventional detection methods. It could eventually be possible to initiate treatment at this very early stage using implanted devices that communicate with cells at the molecular level," said Oak Ridge microbiologist Michael Simpson.
'Science marches faster than ethics'
Amid the fanfare over possible medical benefits, critics wonder if the biotech hybrids might lead to Frankenstein-like outcomes.
"I think the science is marching faster than the ethics can keep up. Once we figure out how to do something, it is rare that the creators fully think through what the ethical implications are," said Steven Mizrach, a Florida International University anthropologist who has written extensively on the ethics of cyborg technology.
One concern: What happens after medical advances allow humans to replace broken biological parts with new mechanical ones? The human race could inadvertently divide along the lines of biological haves and have-nots, he said.
Some will artificially augment their bodies as they see fit while others will keep suffering from disease, infirmity and "bad genes."
"The 21st century is largely going to see a greater integration of biology and technology, but I'm not sure if we've fully thought through in which ways these two domains may not integrate," he said.
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