Engineering Human Biology


Although information technology companies get most of the attention in discussions of future trends, it’s worth remembering that biotechnology and medical developments will perhaps have a greater impact on our lives going forward.

The engineering of human biology is already moving rapidly, sometimes in ways that are even scarier than the dystopian visions you can read about future computer technology.

In its August issue, WIRED magazine had a story about scientists creating new enhanced capabilities to reorder genes.  The article was titled “Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.” with this teaser:

“We now have the power to quickly and easily alter DNA.  It could eliminate disease.  It could solve world hunger.  It could provide unlimited clean energy.  It could really get out of hand.”


“The end of life as we know it”.


More recently, in another example, researchers at the University of California San Francisco announced that they have created a way to “print” human tissue on demand.  Their goals in the short run are not as dramatic as WIRED portrayed, but the possibilities are also large.

In another form of biological engineering, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University was given an award several months ago by the Defense Department’s DARPA.  While there have been exoskeletons to help soldiers with limb injuries (or just to take a load off their bodies), these have been clunky metallic models.  The scientists at Harvard are to develop a more comfortable, less noticeable, exoskeleton – a Soft Exosuit as described in this video.

A few miles away, however, other scientists are doing away with the need for such external supports in something from science fiction stories – the Massachusetts General Hospital announced in June that its staff had developed a “transplantable bioengineered forelimb”.  The chief researcher at MGH noted:

“Limbs contain muscles, bone, cartilage, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments and nerves – each of which has to be rebuilt and requires a specific supporting structure called the matrix.  We have shown that we can maintain the matrix of all of these tissues in their natural relationships to each other, that we can culture the entire construct over prolonged periods of time, and that we can repopulate the vascular system and musculature.”  

Of course, before we get to these biological futures, there is already computer technology to help our bodies.   The mental health profession has been one of the early adopters of information technology, so let’s start with that.

Thriveport promises its MoodNotes app:

“helps you to: Track your mood and identify what influences it; Develop healthier thinking habits; Learn about “traps” in your thinking style and how to avoid them; Bring new, helpful perspectives to situations; Increase your self-awareness; [and] Reduce your distress and enhance your sense of well-being”


Along the same lines, the research staff of the University of Rochester “have developed an innovative approach to turn any computer or smartphone with a camera into a personal mental health monitoring device.”  It analyzes “selfie” videos when you use social media.

The number of physical health apps and inexpensive devices available now is too numerous to be called news anymore.  

But a couple of months ago, Australia’s Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics announced that they had “created a simple, portable and economic biosensing device that allows for immediate diagnostic testing of arthritis, cystic fibrosis, acute pancreatitis and other clinical diseases.”  They built it because

“the device has enormous potential for use in point of care medical diagnostics, particularly in remote or developing areas where professional and expensive research laboratory equipment is unavailable”.

They’ve also made their software available so you can convert your smartphone into a “portable bioanalytical devices”.  

Finally, to keep healthy, you apparently not only need to monitor your body, but also to monitor the environment where you live and work.  So along comes the network-connected CubeSensors, which claims that it will “help you discover how small changes in your environment also affect your wellbeing” by observing factors like air quality, air pressure, temperature, humidity, noise and light.


© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved