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Cyborgs produce breakthroughs, questions

Scientifically engineered robo-eels, critters on chips lead pack

Cyborg eel
The cyborg eel is only one member of a group of animal/machine hybrids that relies on sophisticated microelectronics  

May 10, 2001
Web posted at: 5:22 PM EDT (2122 GMT)


(CNN) -- Melding animals and automatons, researchers have concocted a growing number of bizarre cyborgs that could transform science -- and perhaps the human species itself.

Scientists at laboratories in Illinois and Tennessee have mixed and matched parts of eels with those of robots and bacteria with microchips, using scientific experiments rather simply the results of creative impulses.

Such concoctions, they say, will offer understandings into how animals, humans and machines work, as well as provide real, practical uses. In the end, they hope their exercises in mechanical and biological creativity will stimulate breakthroughs in medicine, warfare and environmental protection.


But critics contend that such meddling could do more harm than good, pointing to Frankenstein-like ethical implications of combining living species with machines.

Juiced up eels and prosthetic limbs

In Chicago, researchers have fused the brain of a primitive lamprey eel with a robot the size of a hockey puck. The result is 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 with the eel's brain stem. Kept alive in a saline solution, the brain stem receives input from electronic light sensors and directs the robotic wheels to move toward the source of the beam.

By changing the location and intensity of the light source, Northwestern University researchers noticed that the eel brain could adapt in its effort to locate the light.

Bacteria chip
Induced to glow on an integrated circuit, these bacteria cells generated all the light necessary for this long-exposure photograph  

The scientists hope the experiment will help unlock the mysteries of the animal's -- and, in effect, human'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. Mussa-Ivaldi said this area is believed to sort out information gathered in different ways -- such as tactile or visual -- and, in turn, give the commands that control muscle movement.

Researchers say these findings could eventually help doctors fashion sophisticated artificial limbs for those suffering from nerve damage, he said.

Fighting toxins, disease

The cyborg eel is only one member of a growing number of animal/machine hybrids that rely on sophisticated electronics. In other projects in the United States, monkey brains have been wired to control robotic appendages, and moth antennae have been used to sniff out explosives.

In one experiment at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, scientists have developed bacteria -- linked up with microchips -- that glow in the presence of toxins, which are harmful to man and most animals and plants. The microbiologists say these computer-enabled bacteria offer an innovative way to clean up dangerous chemicals.

The hybrid includes genetic material from a glowing aquatic microorganism and another bacteria that breaks down pollutants into simpler, safer compounds.

Robot set-up
In this robot setup using a pattern of colored circles (lower right), the overhead camera tracks the robot. Trajectories are plotted with each symbol representing a target light (upper right)  

The so-called "critters on a chip," affixed to microcircuits with latex and other polymers, eat harmful toxins, emitting a blue-green light in the process. Oak Ridge researchers said the hybrid then transmits a signal to a receiver linked to a remote computer.

The living sensors could someday be used to monitor industrial pollutants in the water and soil and even help diagnose medical conditions (involving toxins) in humans, according to 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.



mechanisms that are relatively self-operating, like robots, or automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations or respond to encoded instructions



a combination living organism (living being) and mechanical apparatus (machine)



body parts, such as limbs (arms, legs, ears, etc.)



a mix or blend of two or more things



tiny molecules strung together in long, repeating chains to form chemical compounds, some natural (such as DNA or protein) and others man-made (such as plastic)



also biotechnical; relating to or somehow combining biology and technology, especially in genetic engineering and recombinant DNA technology






add (typically, a less important element) to another entity



spheres of knowledge



unite; bring in (something that was once separate) into the whole, or greater group

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Northwestern University
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Florida International University

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