Tag Archives: biology

Rat as Jellyfish

Janna Narwoth, advised by Kit Parker at Harvard, created a jellyfish mimic from the cardiac muscle cells of a rat. (Video after the jump.) Copying the structure of Moon Jellies, the cardiac muscle cells were grown so that they were aligned into ring shape on a sheet of polydimethylsiloxane. When electricity is applied, the muscle cells contract, deforming the ring into a bell shape. When the electricity us removed, the cells relax, and the natural elastic properties of the substrate reflatten the disk. Examining the fluid dynamics, the mock jelly not only propels itself, but also creates a counter vortex that drives particles up and into the center of the bell, just like real jellyfish. The researchers hope to apply this technology as a tested for examining the effectiveness of certain cardiac drugs.

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More Microbrial Home

After coming across the Bio-Light, I felt I needed to highlight a few other projects in Philips’s Microbrial Home.

According to Philips, the centerpiece of the home is a kitchen island with an integrated bioreactor. The digester is connected to the garbage disposal so that decaying plant and animal matter can be fed to bacteria that then produces methane which is then burned for fuel. It’s an interesting idea, but I find it hard to believe that the the amount of energy created from the scraped plates of a few dinners could actually do anything useful, certainly not anything that could noticeably effect the power demands of the home.

The main purpose of the bioreactor – besides fueling the Bio-Light – is to power the the dining table. An herb garden grows above a table that has integrated terra cotta evaporation coolers. What’s the methane for, apparently to warm the tabletop. Strange I know. Still, the table does look pretty striking with plants and the storage.

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Part of Philips’s Microbial Home concept, the Bio-Light is a group glass vessels containing a bioluminescent bacteria. The bacteria is suspended in a nutrient bath that is provided from either a biodigester, or just a boring old tank.

Seeing the photos of the lamp, I wondered how much light was actually generated. I still don’t know. I don’t expect the Bio-Light to be useful to read by or anything, but I would expect it to be bright enough to be obviously glowing even in a room that’s moderately lit. Looking into bioluminescent kits, the bacteria in the lamp might be vibrio fischeri. Bacteria isn’t a bad choice for bioluminescent lamps since unlike diatoms, they glow continuously, as opposed to only when disturbed. Another possibility would be to use fungi like armillariella mellea (aka foxfire), but from what I’ve read most fungi are very dim. Mycena chlorophos might be a bit brighter, but Im having problems finding where to purchase it. Personally, I’d feel better having a bunch of mushrooms on my wall rather than bacteria.

Previously. Previously

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Blood Wars

Blood Wars by the Vampire Study Group is an art game where players have a sample of their blood drawn to determine who has the toughest immune system. In each battle, the the players’ white blood cells are extracted and stained different colors and then mixed together. Whoever has the most surviving cells after a period of time, advances to the next round, until there’s a champion.

Blood Wars is currently showing as part of the Visceral exhibition of living art at the the Dublin Science Gallery. This art show feature work that use living cells as part of their art. Bioreactors and living tissue samples are in legion. It’s


Mike Thompson‘s latest project, Latro, again examines using biology as an energy source. Actually, it’s not really a device at all, but rather simply a mock up of a device. According to the detailed description Latro uses 30-nanometer gold electrodes to extract electrical current from the chloroplasts of algae. Like his previous work, owners must consider the source of the energy they are receiving. Before they had to make a cost-benefit calculation, and now they must maintain and care for the energy source.

The Yansei/Stanford team that inspired this work successfully drew a currents of between 1.2 – 12 pA depending on light intensity. Thompson points in terms of amps per area, this is 0.6 – 6.0 mA/cm2. Photovoltaic cells currently operate at about 35 mA / cm2. Extracting a few electrons from photosynthesis is interesting, but it’s hard for me to think of how this could scale to anything beyond a lab bench curiosity, since you need a nanowire in each chloroplast you want to siphon from. So why do this? The Yansei/Stanford team wasn’t actually trying to create a power source, but rather wanted to study electron transfer in photosynthesis.

Clearly, photosynthesis extraction isn’t going to to replace photovoltaics, but it is interesting to think of a world where technology has biological components. Say <biological neural networks to solve complex problems. A sort of biopunk world, or perhaps just Star Trek circa 2370.

Blood Lamp

Mike Thompson‘s Blood Lamp is a sealed flask containing luminol. When the owner finds himself in need of light, the neck is broken, and the owner uses the jagged edge to cut his finger and drip blood into the liquid contained in the flask.

On a superficial level, the lamp looks like something out of Zork, or something out of an alchemical lab. (Funny, how “menstrual blood of a virgin” is never a magical ingredient. It would be in my magical world.) Thompson says his intention was to bring awareness to how much energy is consumed by each person in a year, and this work does do that in a way that only art can. The other thing that I like about this work is that it uses blood as an energy source.

Like many people, I’ve fantasized about blood powered medical implants, and wondered how such implants would effect the patient’s appetite and energy levels. Earlier this year, an implantable glucose powered fuel cell was tested. Recreating the glucose fuel cell, is probably difficult to make at home, but a blood lamp can be made with a simple order of luminol from online suppliers. Place a solar cell around the luminol, and very inefficient blood powered device can be yours.

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Design collaborative Mad Lab‘s chandelier Bacterioptica (located somewhere in New Jersey, much like Toxie. No, not that one, this one.) features exposed fiber optics (courtesy of Del Lighting) routed through petri dishes full of bacteria. As the bacteria colonies mature, the light is attenuated.

Mad Lab’s site implies that it’s available as a kit, but I don’t know if I want E. Coli hanging above the dinner table. Still, the light looks very cool, and I imagine that the light diffused through agar would be very interesting indeed.

Detail photo after the jump.
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Synthetic DNA

Wow. No this is big. As Richard Ebright, molecular biologist at Rutgers, said, “This is literally a turning point in the relationship between man and nature. ”

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, created a synthetic DNA strand, implanted it into a gutted bacterium, and got it under go mitosis. The press is billing this as “synthetic life,” but it’s not. Not yet. You still need a natural cell. How long it will take to create the first fully synthetic organism I don’t know. I’m sure someone is working on it though.

According to NPR, the hard part of creating the synthetic DNA was making it long enough. Previous technology could only stitch together a few hundred base pairs, while a viable DNA sequence needs millions. The trick was to build small fragments and then place the fragments into yeast to do the final assembly.

So that they could prove that the synthetic DNA duplicated correctly, the team added a set of watermarks to the end of the DNA strand. The watermarks were the names of everyone on the 46 person team, along with the James Joyce quote, “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” Since each base pair encodes two bits (One bit for the nucleobases (adenine-thymine versus cytosine-guanine), and the second for the orientation (AT/CG versus TA/GC).), and assuming the text was encoded using the 26 letters of the English alphabet, you would need three base pairs per character. Since 2^(2*3) = 2^6 = 64, you would have 41 empty encodings. This means you could encode letters, digits, and punctuation. For comparison, after removing all the control codes and lowercase letters, ASCII contains 69 characters.

I find this fascinating on two levels. First, Venter uses the words like “software” and “programming” describe this work. DNA is software, but it’s not just operating instructions, it’s building instructions. Today, we already have scientists that grab single genes from other species and splice them into other organisms, like Roundup resistant soybeans. If we can build entire DNA sequences, this implies a future organisms could be uploaded to a Thingiverse-like site, where users could download organisms. Also, if the genes and the proteome can be understood (or at least understood on a block level), it seems possible that scientists could begin to construct single cell organisms by assembling a mixture of parts, like a Lego kit.

The other thing that’s interesting are these watermarks. I love the idea of encoding messages into DNA sequences. It’s microfilm for the 21st century. One could build an entire design fiction story around this idea. You could store a message inside a person, like Leeloo, or use it in a bacteria dead drop. Of course, over time your message would be corrupted. Which makes me wonder how mutations manifest? Does the strand break and the reform incorrectly, meaning splices and flips, or what? If so what types of error correction would be needed? Simple parity checks wouldn’t work for this.

We do live in the future.