Almost since the creation of Science Fiction, there has been the concept of a living machine. Frankenstein’s monster, Karel Čapek’s “RUR” (including the invention of the term Robot), Maria from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” through “Robocop” and beyond. As mankind has a proclivity for going to war, there has been a demand for replacement body parts. Since the 1970’s we have been working on functional replacements for one of the most complex organs of the body, the human eye. And practically from the time they switched on the first computer the idea of some variation on the blending of human and machine has captured our imagination.
One of the key problems has been of interface. How to get a inanimate mechanical system to communicate efficiently with the complex human nervous system.
Discoveries of microbial communities that transfer electrons between cells and across relatively long distances are launching a new field of microbiology.
By Mohamed Y. El-Naggar and Steven E. Finkel
Today’s information age rests on a basic understanding of how electrons move. The remarkable success of computers, cell phones, and other devices, such as solar cells, depends on our ability to mediate the flow of electrons through the semiconductors and microchips that control the function of these machines and give them their intelligence. But the importance of electron flow is by no means limited to these man-made systems; electron transfer is also central to energy storage and conversion in living cells.
Organisms depend on the flow of electrons for key energy-generating cellular processes. Continuous electron flow is necessary for the formation of the electrochemical gradients that enable the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), life’s energy currency. In eukaryotes, including animals, this power generation is the specialty of mitochondria. But the same process is also at play in domains of life that lack internal organelles, namely archaea and bacteria, from which mitochondria evolved.
Unfortunately, in contrast to our detailed knowledge of the electron flow in popular solid-state electronics, our understanding of biological electron transport remains limited, especially when the distances traveled far exceed the length of a cell. Much is known about the mechanisms that enable electron transfer reactions between nearby molecules in very small spaces, such as the inner mitochondrial membrane; but bacteria, the planet’s oldest organisms, are able to transfer the charged particles to a variety of acceptors, including some at great distances. For instance, we now know that some anaerobic bacteria gain energy through electron transfer to inorganic minerals, and even to synthetic surfaces, hundreds of cell-body lengths away.
This notion of electron transport driving information flow and communication in microbial communities is new, and as yet untested, but it has potentially transformative physiological and technological implications. Compared to the relatively slow diffusion of entire molecules, electron flow is a rapid process, allowing cells to more quickly sense and respond to environmental change. Such an electronic signaling network, in addition to regulating cell-cell interactions on the population level, could even form the backbone of new synthetic microbial networks designed as sensors to detect specific environmental conditions, such as harmful or desirable chemicals, or variations in light or pH. Eventually, researchers may even learn to interface these networks with solid-state microelectronics, using the extracellular electron transport pathways of metal-reducers such as Shewanella to perform functions from bioremediation to energy production. This vision of integrated microbial circuits was unimaginable 10 years ago. But as we unravel the molecular and biophysical basis of long-distance electron transport, these bacteria may one day become essential components of everyday technologies.
Beyond advancing robotics, bionics and computer technology, this discovery opens up the possibility of living space exploration. One of the drawbacks of exploring space is the time it takes and the relative frailty of the human body when it comes to exposure in the harsh realities of space. Imagine a living consciousness embedded in a probe.
Would you allow yourself to be offered the opportunity to effectively have you brain installed in a deep space probe and explore the stars? Before you say no, consider that to you there may not be a difference. You could dwell in a Matrix-like artificial environment with friends and a life, every stimulation you could possibly desire, yet your 9-5 job is to see what is out there. I have postulated before now that if Aliens were exploring other solar systems they might use nanotechnology to do so. It is cheaper to send tiny robots that can permeate every aspect of an environment without notice than to send living beings who probably stand out in a crowd. You can check that article out HERE. And maybe they still would, but how much better if that mission could be lead by a living entity, one without the restrictions of a mortal body?
Would you go?
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