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GUEST COMMENTARY
 
By Michael Gross
 
Nov. 12, 2002 | Biology is a rich and diverse science branching out in many directions and increasingly forging interdisciplinary ties with numerous disciplines. Along with the old and venerable enterprises of biochemistry and biophysics, there are new or newly fashionable additions such as astrobiology and sociobiology. An increasing number of new arrivals seem to settle at the interfaces that biology shares with information technology and electronics. This development is more than just a fashion trend: It reflects an actual merger process between the worlds of biological and technological information processing, creating a new world we might call "biotronics." In short, we are observing a collision of continents that will make separations disappear and create entirely new landscapes.

In the traditional world view that we have inherited over many generations, technological and natural systems are exact opposites, and mutually exclusive. People have always built tools that took some inspiration from nature, from levers to cameras, but technological devices were bound to achieve their goals in different ways than their natural counterparts. To this day, no computer works like a brain, no microphone like an ear, and no camera like an eye. In our cultural tradition, people who violated this boundary — Dr. Frankenstein for example — had to be punished.


"Go go gadget: With a remote control sensor hotwired to its central nervous system, developments like the "roborat," created at SUNY's Downstate Medical Center, herald the coming of the biotronic age.
 
Recent developments are gradually nibbling away at this boundary. Within a decade or so, it may be entirely meaningless. The separations are eroding from both sides. Technology is drawing more inspiration from cellular biology than ever before. The entire field of nanotechnology is based on the insight that the cell's machinery works on the nanometer scale. Essentially, nanotechnologists ask: Why shouldn't we be able to build machines like that, too? In driving the length scale of technology down towards the cellular scale, we can follow nature's lead more or less closely. For instance, we can borrow ready-made machines, like molecular motors, from the cell and use them for our own purposes. Alternatively, we could just use the principle of building machines out of proteins, but design our own.

And even if we bring our own (artificial) molecules, such as dendrimers or rotaxanes, we are still using biological construction principles, such as the ideas of self-assembly, weak (noncovalent) interactions, and modular design, creating complexity step-wise from simple building blocks. In any case, future technologies that are going to realize the potential of the nanoscale are bound to contain some elements of biological origin.

On the other side of the traditional divide, the understanding of what goes on inside the living cell has grown explosively over the past half-century. Some of the insights that have emerged on the nanoscale are similar to our old large-scale technology. The cell contains linear and rotary motors, molecular assembly and disassembly lines, pumps, switchboards, and many other useful contraptions. Some even have solar cells, light bulbs, or clocks. In the ways it stores and processes information, every cell has some features of a very small computer.


Looking Ahead 
The more we understand the machine aspects of the cell and learn to develop the use of biological elements in our technology, the easier it becomes to create new interfaces between the two. It is already possible, for example, to implant a primitive artificial retina into the human eye and connect it to the nerve system of the recipient so that it actually allows the person to see in a crude way. In a recent controversial piece of research, scientists at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center managed to plug a remote control into the central nervous system of a rat, creating a "roborat" whose movements they could guide by direct communications from computer to brain.

Though the fear of Frankensteinesque misuse is never far away when wires are attached to living cells, many undoubted benefits could arise from the ability to create interfaces between nerve cells and conventional electronics. Paraplegics could learn to walk, deaf people hear, and blind people see, if only they could be wired up appropriately.

Outside the body, the trend of "wearable computers" has produced IT equipment that can fit into spectacles or clothing. Although this field has so far remained a playground for geeks, some very useful medical applications could result as soon as affordable wearables (whether they are worn under or over the skin) are made to interact with human physiology in a meaningful way. One promising candidate would be a combined glucose sensor/insulin dispenser for diabetics, which could be available in a matter of years.

In IT, benefits from the merger with biology are already with us, and more are expected. The current explosion in genomic information would not have been possible without today's computers, and it even drives development of IT in some areas. On the other hand, the exponential growth of computer performance predicted by Moore's Law is bound to hit the final roadblock some time within the next decade, and biomolecules are among the promising candidates for further improvements.

In the not too distant future, patients may be fitted with barely visible medical appliances, which may use biomolecules as sensors, then some traditional electronics for information processing, and finally chemistry for actuation. The whole device will be optimized such that the recipient's immune system will not recognize it as a foreign body. At that point, it will no longer be meaningful to define which parts of such devices will be biological, and which technological. Two continents will have become one.



Michael Gross is a science writer in residence at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of Travels to the Nanoworld (Perseus) and co-author, with Claudia Borchard-Tuch, of Was Biotronik alles kann published in German by Wiley-VCH. He can be reached through www.michaelgross.co.uk.







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