Radiation is not always a bad thing. The sun after all is the ultimate energy source for life on Earth, without which the Earth would be a cold lifeless ball. But some forms of radiation are not helpful at keeping us alive, and can be downright dangerous. As we consider expanding our frontiers to new worlds, and leaving the safe confines of Earth's magnetic field, we will be confronted with far more radiation than we have evolved to manage. With the advance of genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR, we can and should start asking tough questions about changing our own DNA. This is why some people have begun to seriously consider what a future human might look like for space exploration. In LikoLab's Life-Centered Podcast, I always ask my interviewees:
"What if you could insert any gene or trait from another organism into humans, what would it be and why?"
The answers are often abstract, but in the last few weeks two real possibilities have popped up that might hold clues to what humans will look like when we head to the stars.
Nano-Melanin Spheres from Fungi
One compelling concept was reported out of the Mars City Design Workshop where participants described the possibilities of engineering human tissue to super express melanin in a similar fashion to fungi that can withstand radiation at Chernobyl. The fungi that withstand intense radiation have been found to have nano spheres of melanin (which is found throughout organisms) where the layers of melanin are the right shape to redirect and capture different forms of damaging radiation. This super-melanin human would not only be resistant to radiation but also people who expressed this trick would have black bones, tissue, hair, and even black irises.
Tardigrade Dsup Protein
Over expressing melanin nano-spheres is just the beginning. We can look to other extreme organisms to find unique characteristics. One of the toughest organisms known is the tardigrade. This little guy lives to eat moss cells, and is only visible with a magnifying lens, but don't let his size fool you. The tardigrade can withstand decades without water, and be exposed to extreme radiation without missing a beat. Scientists just recently published a paper detailing a new class of proteins called Dsup that appear to help the tardigrade achieve its x-ray defense mechanisms. Further, they actually then went the next step and engineered human cells (in a petri dish) to express this protein and found that the human cells could suppress x-ray damage by up to 40% more than when compared to normal cells. I wonder if someone with this new gene will have a hankering for tasty moss?
- Genetic Engineering Will Change Everything Forever - CRISPR
- Tardigrade Protein Helps Human DNA Withstand Radiation
- Watch Out, Mars: City Planners Are Coming For You
- Organisms Capture Radiation - Black Fungi
- Mars City Foundation
Denise DeLuca's new book [Re]aligning with Nature is a treasure trove of wisdom and natural sense. As a friend and mentor Denise has been there for me every step along the journey of learning from nature and applying that to our own technology. Today I wanted to take a close look at page 87 in her new book when she says:
"...In Nature, consumption is good. Consuming is how organisms turn waste into food, create new structures, new synergies, new opportunities, participate in Nature's endless flows and cycles. In Nature, efficiency is not the goal..."
These few sentences are a pretty big shift for many people in the sustainability community. How do we wrap our mind around the idea that consumption is good? Aren't we suppose to be reducing our carbon footprint, and eliminating the product altogether. Didn't Patagonia (a bastion of sustainable products) recently ask us not to buy their jacket?
Is Denise asking us to abandon all hope, and just consume? No, she is challenging us to change our manufacturing, design, and economy to be as integrated, circular, and productive as Nature. She asks for us to make our products be as generative, supportive, and nutritious as natural products. How could Patagonia instead of asking us not to buy products, be so abundant in their creation of a jacket that they run this ad ->
One way that Stefanie Koehler and I (Stefanie also happens to be the brilliant illustator of Denise's book) have been working to create this abundant future is by collaborating with the International Living Future Institute. Their have a rather new and exciting program to help companies create products that meet their Living Product Challenge. If like Denise, you want to see a future where consumption is a beneficial part of our world - let's connect, and get abundant.
One of the most exciting organizations around is GreenWave. If there is a future of seafood, this is it. GreenWave embodies the vision that what we can produce can also be good for the ecosystems where we produce. Learning to farm the sea in a generous and generative fashion is one of the key ways we will maintain resilient and healthy communities into the future. I can't wait until I have 3D farmed kelp on my families dinner table.
Yesterday the Wyss Institute announced their new octopus inspired soft robot, the Octobot. Octobot is a technological marvel, with no batteries, no electrical motors, no wheels, no saws, no lasers, it's just a beautifully sophisticated lump of jello - like us! In honor of this advance of soft robotics I wanted to share a short wish-list of a few organisms from the ocean deep that the brilliant minds at Wyss could help me turn into reality.
StarFish Robot (Echinobot)
The most challenging robot on my wish-list is without a doubt the EchinoBot. Starfish have a wonderfully bizzar system of locomotion that is perfect for soft robotics. The video above highlights a few of the more exciting opportunities for soft robotics inspired by the starfish. Tube feet are a spectacular use of what is essentially water balloons with muscles, yet they allow starfish to operate in high flow environments, open tough clams, and navigate complex terrain. Imagine house starfish that would clean out the air ducts? Or maybe we have robotic starfish in the ocean that provides sensor data of water quality?
The hard plates of the skeleton joined by muscle tissue is another exciting opportunity. What if our starfish robot could withstand extreme pressures, or be super resilient in the face of continuous collisions. I could imagine a starfish robot on any kids playground that could survive the wrath of a 2 year old yet also entertain for hours.
Scallop Robot (Lopbot)
h best thing about the Lopbot is that the focus is really on the sensor network of eyes. Scallops are best known as tasty dinner items, but are a thriving part of the marine ecosystem. Their locomotion mechanism is surprisingly effective, and I think within soft robotics could be achieved more easily and more resiliently than with more traditional engineering approaches. Combining the locomotion with simple light sensor and a processor could enable a robotic scallop that behaves almost like the real thing. Besides the charming interaction, my hope is that a Lopbot could be useful not only in pools for kids, but for serious applications such self organizing sensors for water quality, or underwater acoustic applications. They might even change the behavior of other organisms around them, protecting underwater areas, or acting as 'scare crows' of the sea for the emerging field of ocean farming.
Jellyfish Robot (Jellybot)
Why wouldn't you want a Jellybot? Jellyfish are incredible, just ask Rebecca Helm of JellyBiologist, who for years has shared some of the most inspiringly geeky stories of jellyfish amazingness. A true huggable soft robot if there ever was one, the jellyfish itself is not to be underestimated. They have shut down nuclear power plants, and Rebecca points out they may even helps us clean micro-pollution from the ocean. With their efficient, and beautiful locomotion the Jellybot should also not be understimted as an ambassador for soft robots everywhere.
It's news to nobody that digital innovation has upended companies that have been around for decades or centuries. From Music, News, Television, to Transportation we have seen the rise of a digital age where information and smart design allows for faster, easier, more affordable products and services that dominate the competition. Existing companies are often caught off-guard in this fast moving environment, where not only has their core product changed but also the rules of the game. It's more important now than ever for companies to build their capacity to adapt, and to find their niche in this new economy. One way to help companies navigate this complex territory is to look to natural systems that have been dealing with complex adaptive information rich systems for millions of years to learn a few tricks to survive in this new landscape. Here are two (of many) tips from nature I have found useful, inspirational, and instructional.
Become an Ecosystem Engineer
In biology we recognize specific species as 'ecosystem engineers' because of their large impact on what results in the system. There tend to be two types, the type that create the space for new interactions, and the type that changes the flow of resources.
Space altering Ecosystem Engineers are the trees and corals of the world. Their physical space literally changes the game for everyone else, without them the system could not exist. Flow altering Ecosystem Engineers are the beavers and fungi of the world. Their ability to slow down or speed up critical resources means they can change the game locally. Companies can use these biology insights to ask themselves "What type of Ecosystem Engineer do they want to be?"
For example, IDEO worked with MassMutual to create 'The Society of Grownups'. In this effort a key component was creating a physical, digital, educational, and emotional space where younger adults could mingle, exchange information and stories, build relationships and figure out what life insurance really meant to them. The digital transformation here is realizing that the value is in creating the exchange of information, not just in selling the service on-line. You might ask yourself 'What space can we create that would allow a specific conversation to thrive?'
A rather famous example of an Ecosystem Engineer is Uber, this time it is all about flow. Like any fungi in the forest, Uber wants to connect and absorb. Uber connects the driver and the rider, facilitating a low friction payment of which it takes a part. It further amps up the appeal of the system by increasing the 'good feels' of the rider and driver by facilitating the information flow between them; ratings, arrival time, location, etc. For your own company you might ask yourself; 'Who are you connecting?' or 'What could we do to help them connect better?'
Get Slippery with your DNA
Dogs come in many shapes, colors, and sizes yet they are all dogs. This ability to transform is no accident, it allows the species to be flexible over time, to shift, adjust, and suit the always changing needs of their environment. Dogs accomplish this with what is known as 'slippery DNA'. The details of the mechanism here are not as important, but suffice it to say that portions of the dogs DNA that code for hair length, color, snout length, etc have evolved to have low fidelity from one generation to the next. This low fidelity means that these traits can morph, in fact they always do morph. You might use this biological inspiration to ask yourself 'What are the key traits of my organization that could morph, and how can we actively enable them to change to suit the needs of the environment?'
An example of where a slippery DNA strategy might be useful today is in the hotel business, where many older brands confronted by the emergence of Airbnb seem to be flailing around trying to figure out how to counter this digital juggernaut without loosing their existing customers. Brands can change, but being clear with the aspects that are allowed to evolve and those that need to remain the same is both liberating and enables the business to focus on core values that have led to its success. Taking a look at how dogs have remained our best friends, and allow their DNA to flex yet remain who they are could be the best thing a company could do.
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