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Insect Drones and Pig Replacement Parts

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 14, 2013

Drones have been in the news lately, and the next generation of drones may involve an even more controversial and exotic technology. They may be very tiny cyborgs.

Amit Lal, an engineer, Cornell professor and program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wrote a proposal for prospective researchers years ago suggesting if scientists could hack into insect bodies and control their movements, they’d have a real start on small scale flying machines. Michael Maharbiz at the University of California, Berkeley, took up the challenge. He and his team began researching the biology of the Mecynorrhina torquata, at 2-3 inches long, the world’s second largest flower beetle. Its hard shell and size make it capable of carrying a significant amount of cargo, including a "backpack” of electronic gear attached to its back with beeswax. Researchers wired the creature’s brain so it could be steered remotely, and loaded the backpack with a tiny battery, miniature radio receiver and a custom built circuit board.

Emily Anthes describes the race to create insect cyborgs in an article in The Guardian. She is also author of a new book, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts, which contains the story of DARPA’s quest. Anthes quotes Maharbiz as saying the beetlebots, which still haven’t been deployed in the field, will be able to provide intelligence in military operations and save lives in earthquakes by directing rescue teams to humans trapped in ruble. Critics have worried that cyborg beetles could be used to launch germ warfare or spy on civilians, but Maharbiz scoffs at such sinister suggestions. He is now working on a remote controlled cyborg fly, an even more difficult project because of its smaller size and weight. Such cyborg insects could fly into buildings and caves, alerting soldiers and distant observers to the presence of explosives and information to gauge whether human occupants were enemies or civilians.

Bioengineering has advanced dramatically since Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996. Listen to Anthes’s interview with Terri Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. Some wealthy people clone their pets-it’s six figures for a dog-and people can buy genetically modified bright colored fish that glow in the dark. But there are more serious endeavors. It’s no longer rare for a human to receive a valve from a pig heart. Scientists are now trying to grow pigs that will produce numerous whole organs for human transplants and goats injected with human genes that can produce protein rich milk with the antibiotic properties of human breast milk. Anthes describes how Chinese scientists are identifying the functions of each gene in the mouse genome by disabling one gene at a time and monitoring how the mutant mice develop. She told Gross that among the lab’s 45,000 mouse cages there are mice with cancer, male pattern baldness, obsessive compulsive disorder, and some that are only able to turn left. The discoveries could eventually help understand genes involved in human diseases and afflictions.

And the ethics of all this? Anthes concedes it’s complex. People might accept an experiment intended to treat cancer more readily than one to prevent baldness, says Anthes. Is it all right to risk harm to animals in the name of research? Unintended consequences can’t be ruled out in experimental work, Anthes says, so researchers have to worry. Scientists successfully engineered leaner, faster growing pigs, she notes, but the pigs were miserable with arthritis, eye problems and other health woes. In a New York Times essay, Anthes describes genetically modified salmon that grow faster because they’ve been engineered to carry the genes of another species, the ocean pout. It soon may be the first transgenic animal in the human food supply. While Anthes agrees with the need for painstaking evaluation, she hopes fear of genetic modification won’t prevent innovative scientific research with potential to help human health.

photo: male and female Mecynorrhina tortuata beetles

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  science 

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