27 August 2009

Synthetic Biology

SynBio is coming. While we have been busy getting in a lather about nanotech, synthetic biology has been creeping up on us at incredible pace.

The field of SynBio combines engineering and biology in pursuit of the creation of novel new forms of synthetic life with customised functions. The idea is not to create some "imitation" of life but genuine functioning cellular forms. A "second genesis". The technology is more advanced than many realise. Some experts in the field state that they are less than a year away from creating the first complete system.

Versions of simpler elements of the jigsaw, such as a cell wall formed from fatty acids, have been around for a while but one company has now created a fully functional ribosome. The protein biosynthesis process undertaken by the ribosome translates mRNA into protein. Ribosomes are like the protein micro-factories of cells. With this incredibly complex part of the problem appearing to have been solved it looks like it won't be long before the synbio kit of parts is complete.

With the ability to make customised microscopic lifeforms, such as bacteria to clean up man-made toxins or specialised antibodies to attack specific types of cancer cells in precise locations, the microscopic world will be open to greater and more direct intervention than ever before. We had perhaps assumed that we would have to wait for the arrival of full-blown nanotech, with its molecular submarines and cutting gear, to see this type of revolution.

But all the while it has not only been the physicists who have been seeing the potential of viewing microscopic objects as potential machine parts. Synthetic biologists can grow the parts they require for their machines. They have realised that biology is also an engineering substrate. This is way beyond transgenics, where genetic material constituting desirable properties from one lifeform are mixed with another. This is about understanding the pre-evolved building blocks of life, classifying them, replicating them and assembling them into new forms. Those new lifeforms can then, if required, be evolved further in the lab.

Synthetic Biology is an exciting new field, the results of which will soon explode into the headlines. All the old arguments about "playing God" with be brought forth with greater vehemence and incomprehension than ever.

We know that all life evolved from one "ancestor" cell. It only had to happen and take hold once to give rise to all life on this planet. We're now on the cusp of seeing a brand new form of life - one created by human beings.

19 August 2009

Neuroplasticity and handedness

I used to be ambidextrous.

When I was a child I had the ability to use either hand for most tasks. It was useful but also confusing. I had a nagging feeling that I should be settling on exactly which hand I should use to draw my pictures with. There wasn't much pressure from the adults around me to settle this internal argument but any suggestions I did receive from outside always favoured the right.

I now wonder if I lost something when I finally settled on using my right hand. Some of the old 'confusion' is still there - when cutting with scissors I use my left hand; when playing pool or darts my left hand dominates.

Having now read a fair amount about neuroplasticity - Norman Doidge's "The Brain That Changes Itself" is a particular favourite - I think that my ambidextrous abilities were a result of an earlier and more readily plastic phase of my brain's development. Once settled into a less readily plastic phase the right hand came to dominate. But can that process cause an imbalance?

I would assume that an imbalance would be more likely in an obviously left-handed child forced to use their right. This still happens - the old sinister/dexter nonsense. But when this happens more internally can it be a case of the left brain (right hand) achieving dominance over the right brain (left hand)? The probable answer is that it is much more complicated than that. Left-handed people do not necessarily have a more dominant right brain than right-handed. But I wonder if some of the 'flexibility' of thought and motion from the more plastic and ambidextrous phase would be better retained than lost.

I have started brushing my teeth and sometimes shaving with my left hand. This feels awkward and unnatural at first but it does appear to get easier after a few weeks. A kind of 're-learning' may be happening.

This would seem to tie in somewhat with current neuroplasticity research. There is growing evidence, for example, that stroke victims who lose the use of a limb, can learn to use that limb again by restricting the movement of the good limb. In the case of an arm the good limb could be put in a tight sling so that the non/semi-functional limb is 'forced' into use. Is it so different to try to force a once highly functional hand to undertake some of the tasks now so ably performed by its opposite number in an effort to regain some of its 'lost' function?

Someone I know has, in the fairly recent past, lost a good deal of the function in one leg. He insists the problem is entirely 'physical' and localised to the area of the leg itself, while at the same time talking about how the limb 'won't obey his commands'. It is clear to me that the damage has resulted from a small stroke but the affected person will never agree with this because of the stigma he sees attached to such a brain-associated dysfunction. The physiotherapists he has seen have made no real effort to investigate the root of the problem. I have suggested some kind of restrictive therapy to 'force' the affected limb into better use but he won't hear of it. Meanwhile the leg becomes less functional with each passing day.

Brain plasticity is never lost but it does become harder to 'activate' as the years go by. Exercises, both physical and mental, which re-activate and promote neuroplasticity can be of huge benefit to all. There appears to be resistance in some quarters to the notion of training the brain like a muscle or using it as 'tool' to effect change in itself and in the rest of the body. Some of the methods touted for achieving plastic change are pure hokum but others, such as the software developed by Posit Science, may just have a chance of making a real difference for those struggling with weakening mental agility.

I won't ever be fully ambidextrous again but that doesn't mean I should give up on my left hand. Balance in all things.