Sometimes you find things out that are fascinating but utterly frightening and repugnant. Advances in the field of epigenetics have focused on the role of inter-cellular electrical activity in developmental morphology (shape or structure) of organisms.
Epigenetics is the study of factors outside of the genome which mediate genetic expression and the development of organisms, but don’t actually alter the genome. It is the study of how our behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work.
Michael Levin is a professor of biology at Tufts University, Boston, USA, where he is head of the Levin Laboratory. The Levin lab integrates approaches from developmental biology, computer science, and cognitive science to investigate the emergence of organic form and function. Using biophysical and computational modelling approaches, Levin’s team seeks to understand the collective intelligence of cells, as they navigate physiological, transcriptional, morphogenetic, and behavioural spaces.
Levin’s work reveals that DNA isn’t the only builder in the biological world – there’s also a mysterious bioelectric layer directing cells to work together to grow organs, systems and bodies. So far it sounds like a very interesting field, until you find out what this actually means.
You can watch Professor Levin explaining his work on a TED talk HERE in which he shares disturbing footage of two-headed worms he has created. He also introduces us to xenobots — the world’s first miniature living robots, created in his lab by cracking the electrical code of cells. In the TED talk, Levin discusses what this discovery may mean for the future of medicine, the environment and even life itself. In other words, he is playing God with enthusiasm.
In case any of us are worried by this, Prof. Levin explains practical applications of his research involve repair of birth defects, regenerative medicine, cancer reprogramming, and synthetic bioengineering. None of these have actually happened yet as a result of his work, in typical biotechnology style they are wild promises designed to keep the research grants flowing.
So how do you make two headed worms?
Cells communicate with each other and coordinate their activities through electrical signals. Levin has figured out that it is the electrical components of cells – miniature transistors – that contain the functional memory of how to put together the building blocks of life generated by DNA. By stimulating the cellular transistors of a growing organism, you can create novel electrical gradients in the whole network of cells that stimulate particular organs and organ systems to appear in unexpected places. Levin shows pictures of a tadpole that has been programmed to develop a functioning eye in its gut for example.
Similarly in flatworms, very simple organisms, the electrical gradient that determines which end of the worm will have a head can be altered so that a head and brain is formed at both ends of the worm – you can even make a worm that is alive but has no head. This is achieved not by applying an external electrical field but by turning on and off the little cellular transistors which are ion channel proteins made by DNA which form the electrical gradients to program the natural course of development. The reprogrammed gradients redesign the organism.