The Bio-Revolution

Neuroscientist Susan Hockfield details innovative technologies coming down the pike.

By Abigail Fagan, published June 14, 2019 - last reviewed on August 22, 2019

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Technology and biology are in the midst of a world-changing convergence, argues MIT neuroscientist and past president Susan Hockfield, author of The Age of Living Machines. Now that molecular biology has decoded organic life forms, scientists can retool them to tackle critical challenges ranging from healthcare to agriculture. “We’ve harnessed nature’s genius again and again,” Hockfield says. “This is our era’s deployment of that genius.”

Mind-Reading Limbs

Thoughts, aided by developing technology, can propel the movement of robotic limbs for those with paralysis or an amputation. Electrodes implanted in the brain record the signals of hundreds of neurons responsible for movement. A computer interprets them to execute the desired outcome. If a patient thinks about moving an arm, for instance, the computer captures that signaling pattern. When the pattern emerges later, the computer can direct a robotic arm to reach forward and grasp an object. When motor skills are lost, “the brain still produces those signals, there’s just no way to express them,” Hockfield says. “These technologies give the brain the power to express its intentions.”

Virus-Built Batteries

Wind and solar power provide clean sources of energy to combat climate change, but storing that energy remains a challenge. Batteries that employ specialized viruses could address that problem. Engineers modified the M13 bacteriophage so battery materials bind to thousands of proteins on its surface without producing harmful waste like carbon dioxide. Virus-built batteries may eventually be integrated into components of the objects they power, such as the dashboard of a car.

The Perfect Plant

Scientists and engineers are currently analyzing thousands of plants to identify ideal botanical traits. They apply image processing software to record, analyze, and compare the characteristics of crops, hunting for genes that confer resistance to drought, frost, and pests, require minimal water and fertilizer, or produce the largest yield. Then they introduce successful gene sequences to future crops, optimizing agriculture to help feed the world’s growing population.

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