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.
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