Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chimera and Panacea

There has been a lot of controversy about stem cell research over the years, bio technology in general tends to be a controversial field.  But what are stems cells, how do they work, and what are some of the long term potential benefits and dangers of advanced bio technology?

The basic concept is that all cells are created in a basic state with the potential to transform into any number of cell types when conditions and genetic program dictate.  This means the potential to become any kind of structure, muscle, neuron, ect. is latent within the stem cell, it is just waiting for the right set of conditions dictated by the DNA code, in this way the DNA acts as a computer code waiting for the right set of chemical or environmental conditions to carry out a scripted set of actions.

Scientists are interested in stem cells because they can be used to grow any type of tissue in your body, all you have to do is expose the cell to the right stimulus and you can control what type of cell it becomes, almost any cellular structure could be grown with stem cells.  The real boon would be transforming regular adult cells into stem cells, this would allow you to take a cell sample from a sick person and grow tissues of any type matching that persons DNA, if the organ you want to implant inside the sick person has similar DNA, the bodies chance of rejecting the organ is low.

If this could be made efficient, you could theoretically regrow organs, limbs, bones, skin, hair, eyes, ect ect ect, all you would have to do is donate a small sample of cells from your own body and they could be converted into stem cells for any use.  These kinds of therapies could revolutionize medicine, but what other kinds of revolutions does bio medicine offer?

On the most basic level, manipulation of the DNA itself is one of the most powerful tools in bio technology.  This allows scientists to program cells like a computer using hormonal or environmental triggers to activate programs, cells can be used for all sorts of purposes such as synthesizing chemicals or delivering molecules to specific locations.  These sorts of procedures are essentailly bio nano technologies operating on the molecular level, the more precise the scale the more powerful the technology will become.

Nano bio technology can't be discussed without mentioning the nanobots, microscopic robots built from individual molecules that can be programmed to carry out a huge variety of tasks.  The theoretical uses for these robots are incredible, almost any disease can be cured, injuries can be repaired and even defects in DNA can be fixed.  You can learn more about advanced medical nano tech by watching this video:

But what about diagnostics?  Nano robots could perform molecular diagnostics very efficiently, but in the near future we will be able to perform advanced medical scans from the outside with tricorder like scanning technology that can give you a real time readout of vital stats such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen level or neural activity.  With these kinds of gadgets, medicine could become something that runs from a smartphone in your house.

This sounds great, but there is always another side to every technology, the potential for misusing biotechnology is huge, one of the most obvious scenarios is someone creating a virus that kills everyone on the planet, this is doable with the technology today, however it is still very expensive and out of most peoples reach.  But one could imagine in the future such capabilities could become common place when 3D printers and genetic sequencing technology become more widespread.

Another possibility is self modification, using bio technology to give yourself superpowers is an old idea, but now it is much closer to becoming a reality.  Besides nano healing and longevity, you could also do things like create super efficient oxygen carrying nano bots in your blood that could let you hold your breath for an hour or run for 20 minutes without breathing.  This is just the surface, its hard to imagine what kind of abilities people will discover are possible once they being to experiment.

But what about the holy grail of bio technology:  Synthetic biology?  This is the creation of a living creature from the molecular parts, scientists have had great success recently in this direction by creating DNA molecules and implanting them in bacteria, this could be the first step twords building or growing organisms from scratch.

This may be one of the most terrifying prospects of bio technology; the possibility of designing macroscopic organisms, old monster movies are conjured to mind with hideous creations crawling out of the test tube to attack the local metropolis.  But what about more realistic ideas, such as the biological cyborg ships and vehicles in the computer game Halflife 2?

This game takes place in the future where an alien race has opened a portal to earth and invaded, one group of the aliens use synthetic organism vehicles such as a helicopter gun ship, drop ship, and a three legged "strider".  To get some idea of what they are like, check out this picture:

These creatures are basically used as soldiers by the antagonistic aliens, this highlights the real potential for advanced biotechnology to be utilized for military purposes.  These sorts of living weapons raise deep and controversial questions, many people would say that creating organisms at all is unethical, but it seems to be a deeply nuanced possibility with great positive potential, it all depends on how it is used.

Ultimately any technology is dangerous, so it is most important to worry about the social, economic, military and political realities that create the underlying foundation for how technology emerges.  Technology is not one strait arrow but a branching tree with many possibilities, a diversity of minds and experiences communicating together is crucial for safe scientific endeavors, it is only when secretive organisations lock away scientists in corporate labs or military bases that truly evil technology can come about in the shadows.

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