Skin Deep: Adventures in Designer “Genes”

Skin Deep: Adventures in Designer “Genes”

As I write this, we are experiencing a heat wave in most of Ontario. With temperatures hitting around 40°C (with humidex), it’s way too hot to even think about wearing something like leather!
But, if you do manage to bypass that particular mental block when considering this week’s topic, you may find another one waiting for you. Fashion student Tina Gorjanc has created a line of clothing and accessories – called “Pure Human” – that she presents as being made from the cloned skin of late designer Alexander McQueen.
The collection is inspired by McQueen’s own physical foray into his design work: when he graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, as Gorjanc is doing now, his first collection featured locks of his hair sewn into the garments’ labels.  Gorjanc’s collection is currently a thought experiment – the pieces are actually made out of pig skin, with freckles and McQueen’s tattoos carefully copied for verisimilitude. But, she remains committed to one day cloning “hide” out of the follicles of McQueen’s hair, having made contact with both a lab willing to culture the skin, and the owner of one of the hair-endowed pieces from McQueen’s first collection, which can provide the “seed”.
Gorjanc is including a political complication in this artistic endeavour as well, presenting Pure Human as
“An exploration of the intersection between luxury and biology. […] Skin related biotechnologies seem to have caught the interest of the luxury industry. Major fashion and cosmetic companies have already signed research collaboration agreement[s] with bioengineering institutes. Those collaborations are enabling the development of existing skin technologies that were firstly designed for specific medical problems into enhancement of normal human functions and the extension of one’s self beyond its body. […] The [Pure Human] project is projecting the shift that is happening in the field of ethics and security regarding the tissue engineering technologies.”
To me, the collection seems the right kind of creepy — the uncanny kind that allows us to have critical distance from something so “homelike” as human skin (after all, we’re all covered in it!) and lets us see the darker, societal repercussions underneath.  I look forward to the weather cooling, if only to see if it is just the heat weirding me out about this project!

Gut Bacteria May Hold Key To Unlocking Mystery Syndrome

Call it confirmation bias, but it seems like nearly everything we investigate in these blogs circles back to that good old microbiome
Everyone’s favourite bacterial colony (that actually makes up about 90% of, well, everybody) is just starting to be studied in real depth. As we become aware that the health of the bacteria that live in us and on us is closely related to our health, we’re starting to trace solutions to previously mysterious problems. Researchers from Cornell University have found in the state of subjects’ microbiomes a possible source for the pernicious and inscrutable Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In a recent study published in the Journal Microbiome, they lay out their findings:
“‘Our work demonstrates that the gut bacterial microbiome in chronic fatigue syndrome patients isn’t normal, perhaps leading to gastrointestinal and inflammatory symptoms in victims of the disease,’ said Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell and the paper’s senior author. ‘Furthermore, our detection of a biological abnormality provides further evidence against the ridiculous concept that the disease is psychological in origin.’”
While still far from a smoking gun as to the source of CFS, the team is confident that narrowing it down to somewhere in the miocrobiome can only mean that we’re getting closer to full understanding of a condition that defies pinning down, and is estimated to affect up to 3% of the world’s population. And, if we can solve this mystery, who knows what else we can uncover in the depths of the bacteria colonies that call our bodies home?

Rewriting Bacteria ABCs of DNA

There are some amazing things happening at the genetic level nowadays – beyond the usual, controversial, modifications to increase crop yield, or make plants glow. Researchers have now devised a method to rewrite the DNA of living bacteria, encoding information into them like mini microscopic hard drives.
This feat was accomplished through the use of CRISPR, a defense mechanism present in many kinds of bacteria, which records the genes of invading viruses in order torecognize them when they attack again.This talent has been handily repurposed into what is being called a “genome editing tool:”
“‘We write the information directly into the genome,’ [co-author Jeff Nivala, part of the team from Harvard, said. ‘While the overall amount of DNA data we have currently stored within a genome is relatively small compared to the completely synthetic DNA data storage systems, we think genome-based information storage has many potential advantages.” These advantages, he says, could include higher fidelity and the capability to directly interface with biology. For example, a bacterium could be taught to recognize, provide information, and even kill other microorganisms in its midst, or provide a record of genetic expression.

‘Depending on how you calculate it, we stored between about 30 to 100 bytes of information,’ said Nivala. ‘Which is quite high compared to the previous record set within a living cell, which was ~11 bits.’”

While these results had been achieved with the above-mentioned earlier experiment, the DNA and encoding were manufactured, rather than modified from their natural state. In this new experiment, importantly, this edited information appears to be inheritable to the next generation. This could bode very well, not only as an information storage solution, but also for the understanding of genetic disorders in creatures great and small!

New Leaps in Prosthetic arm technology

DARPA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, has been putting its research muscle behind a new way to use real muscle: arm muscle, that is! Specifically, the arm muscle of volunteer Johnny Matheny, whose left arm amputation has made him an excellent subject for the development of a new prosthetic: one that features unprecedented connection between brain and limb.

The prosthetic, dubbed the “Modular Prosthetic Limb,” is capable not only of receiving signals from Matheny’s brain, but also of transmitting them back. This extraordinary communication is mediated by wireless Myo bands worn over on Matheny’s upper arm, which detect muscular signals, and transmit them via Bluetooth to the computer inside the prosthetic, which then issues commands to the arm to move. (Basically, Matheny’s collaboration with Myo and DARPA are slowly turning him into a cyborg.)

“Years ago, [Matheny] received targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR), a surgical procedure that reassigns nerves in a residual limb to make better use of a prosthetic replacement. In the spring of 2015, Matheny became the first American with TMR to undergo osseointegration, another surgical procedure that allows him to connect prosthetic devices directly to the bone of his upper arm. […]

And all of this is just the beginning. Pointing to his robotic fingertips, Matheny explained that they already contain tactile sensors capable of detecting texture, pressure, and temperature. But in order for Matheny to feel what his prosthetic arm feels, those signals have to reach his brain. In the not-too-distant future, another surgical procedure may enable this.”

It’s great to see a defense-related agency using its expansive mandate to create a fascinating new technology that can improve the lives of veterans — and others — who have experienced an amputation. This news also means we are one step closer to my personal dream, the Singularity. Definitely an interesting time to be alive!