Biotechnology isn’t something that’s just restricted to sci-fi movies anymore, we actually have it. Although we’re still in the embryonic stage, you can expect the industry to make significant strides in the near future.
At its most basic, biotechnology can be described as technology based on biology that’s designed to harness biomolecular and cellular processes to build technologies and products that can help improve our lives and the overall health of the planet.
Messing around with biology to gain an advantage isn’t exactly anything new. In fact, we have used biological processes of microorganisms for more than six millennia to make useful food products like bread and cheese. We have also used it to preserve dairy products and continue to do so even today.
According to Gartner, 2018 will usher in the age of the “trans-human” where hacking biology and “extending” humans will increase in popularity and availability. These innovations will range from neural implants to simple diagnostics.
Today, we can split biotechnology into four categories:
- Experimental biology
- Grinder biohacking
- Technology augmentation
While there are plenty of moral and ethical questions surrounding it, biohacking isn’t something that’s limited to corporations and governments, regular people from all walks of life are also getting into. For example, more than 3,000 people in Sweden voluntarily chose to get RFID microchip implants under their skin to eliminate the need for car keys, credit cards, and even train tickets.
From a medical perspective, these types of biochips can also be used to detect diseases like smallpox or cancer before any symptoms are detected. So you can expect innovation to accelerate considerably within this space.
Then you also have things like artificially cultured and biologically inspired muscles which can someday enable skin and tissue to grow on robot exteriors to make them sensitive to pressure. This also opens the door to the development of food resources that can end world hunger one day.
According to Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, “feeding the world will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. It will be impossible without using scientific advancements and biotechnology."
To get an idea of just how much interest and activity is out there, all you have to do is visit one of the biohacking threads on Reddit.
So what are the latest innovations in biotechnology? Let’s take a look.
The human antenna experiment is the brainchild of artist, Neil Harbisson who was born with achromatopsia that rendered him colorblind. This project was started to help extend his perception of color beyond the limitation of the grey scale.
Eventually, they managed to develop software that was capable of transposing colors to vibrations by leveraging a simple head-mounted camera extension. In the beginning, Barbisson carried around the bulky hardware in a backpack and wore headphones to “hear colors.”
Today he has moved on to the next step by surgically inserting the antennae into his occipital bone. Now the colors he experiences resound through bone conduction that reverberates the sensation around his skull.
A Sense of True North
Unlike the human antenna experiment, North Sense from Cyborg Nest follows an exo-sense model. This means that the unit is implanted on the surface of the skin, not under it.
The company suggests that these units are placed on the upper chest. So whenever the wearer faces the magnetic north, he/she will feel a gentle vibration.
Now, this product sounds like a silly innovation because it can be easily replaced by a rudimentary compass or mobile app. However, just like the human antenna experiment, the whole purpose here is to develop subliminal relationships with new stimuli. In other words, processing this data will become subconscious in time (and could someday be useful during certain emergencies).
This is quite similar to biomagnets which is a popular biohacking trend that strives to augment and find new ways for humans to sense and interact with their environment. However, it’ll be interesting to see how this implant evolves as it’ll come into conflict with some electronic devices.
As for Cyborg Nest, the company is in the process of designing similar technologies related to visual sensing and panoramic audio.
Unity Biotechnology is a unique startup that’s trying to achieve something humans have desired for eons. They’re trying to prevent aging!
Although it sounds pretty wild, the idea is backed by science and certainly seems plausible. The primary goal here is to kill senescent cells (or aging cells) that build up throughout the body during the course of our lives and contribute to our waning vision and achy joints.
The project has raised $222 million in venture capital and another $85 million in their initial public offering. Now the company which is valued at $700 million hopes to achieve this incredible goal in the near future, but it comes with a significant risk.
This is because when you start human tests, the odds of making it to market are only 10%. But as the founders have an excellent track record in biotechnology, there’s hope that we will all be able to benefit from it soon.
Grow Human Skin
The sad plight of a 7-year-old Syrian refugee in Germany led to an amazing biotech innovation. Recently, this child was diagnosed with a debilitating skin disease called junctional epidermolysis bullosa.
This means that as much as 80% of the skin on his body was rendered useless and extremely fragile like a butterfly’s wing. His condition demanded drastic measures to be taken as doing nothing would mean certain death.
Doing something drastic in this situation meant reaching out to an Italian researcher named Michele De Luca, the director of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia’s Center for Regenerative Medicine.
Professor De Luca took a small patch of the boy’s healthy skin, and by using a virus, he injected it with a gene called LAMB3. This defective gene corrected the genetic condition and enabled the growth of new sheets of skins over scaffolds in their lab.
Once it was ready, the doctors in Germany surgically attached the new skin to the boy. Within months the boy started walking, and today he is completely healthy.
This blog post just touches on the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot more examples of commercial and underground biohacking innovations that will improve our lives and help us live longer.