Throughout this series (Human and/vs Machine), we have discussed “man” and “machine” as two separated entities. But the fact remains that we are all made from the same building blocks, and those building blocks are all mechanical. In this “Human-Machine” installment, I will try to show you why it is important to look at the human body as a ‘machine’ (which indeed it is), so that we can understand its parts and how they work together. This view allows the potential to ‘fix’ and enhance bodies without any need of electronic or mechanical devices, but to instead ‘tweak’ the biological-mechanical ones for each desired purpose. From 3D printing organs, to the ability to grow tissue, and even the process of creating a human, let’s go through them all.
When agriculture first emerged about 12,000 years ago, there were around 15 million humans on the planet. Now consider this: that is 5 millions less than the population of New York. Crazy, isn’t it? But what’s even crazier is that the resulting rise in terms of ‘billions’ occurred at such a relatively rapid pace. It only took about 12,000 years for humans to grow from 15 million to 1 billion (year 1804), but then only 123 more years to double, 33 years to reach 3 billion, and then around 12 years for every additional billion, reaching more than 7 billion humans at the present.(source)
Now comes the question: how much did Earth weight when there were only 15 million people, compared to the 7 billion it ‘hosts’ today? Although humans weight very little compared to the entire Earth, would there be a measurable difference that they have brought to this? The interesting answer is that this is a trick question, as the planet would weigh exactly the same! Well…, almost. Except for the dust (cosmic objects) that may have fallen onto Earth from space, and the ‘stuff’ that Earth may lose through the nuclear reactions at its core(source), all of the stuff you see -mountains, people, clothes, smartphones, candies, the dinosaurs that existed, cars, cats, trees, and so on- are all recycled atoms. It’s the same massive handful of tiny atoms, just arranged in different ways to create all of this complexity.
Humans are indeed bits of other humans, bits of valleys, furniture, dogs, even feces. What was once an atom that helped formed a dinosaur, may very well be part of your nose right now, or part of your spleen.
One interesting thing to keep in mind is that most of the elements (types of atoms) that make up your body can only be formed as a star explodes. Only then! This means that at least one star had to explode for you and I to be here. As the song goes, we are stardust.
So, atoms make up cells, and although there are many kinds of cells out there, only two kinds of these cells make up you. Meet your real parents: the egg and sperm cells.
The process of reproduction seems very complex, but the main thing that has to happen is for these two ‘parent’ cells to meet. We may see it complicated because one of these tiny little structures needs to migrate from one body to another and they meet via a rather complex path. In the same way that you can inject drug molecules or nanobots into the human body by the billions, ‘hoping’ that some of them will eventually reach their intended destination, the same approach is taken by sperm cells that are (normally) ‘injected’ via the penis ’syringe’ into the female’s body via the vagina. There are typically hundreds of millions of such tiny sperm cells in a single ‘injection’, and because they move around like crazy, some of them may end up in the right place. But even if an egg happens to also be in that place if/when they arrive there, only one of the sperm cells can combine with the egg cell to make up another human. But keep in mind that this is just a very short and simplified description, as it’s actually more complicated than that.
The human female can produce a finite amount of such egg-cells(source). About 400 of them, with each having the potential to become ‘new humans’ via combination with sperm cells. So, if you are a female, you live long enough, most of your egg cells are ok for reproduction, and you are able to take in sperm cells at the right time (wherever/however you choose to seek them), then you could potentially produce around 400 human children. Of course, it’s not really that simple. As this animation shows, egg cells are only ‘released’ one at a time from their ‘shells’ (inside the female body) over about 35 years of a female’s lifetime. Then consider that each released egg can only survive for roughly 24-48 hours after ’release’, and the average lifespan of a sperm cell that found its way into a female uterus is also about 24-48 hours. So, although sperm cells are typically introduced into a female in huge quantities, they have a very narrow ‘window of opportunity’ to reach an egg and trigger the transformation.
Watch this animation to see how the ‘adventure’ of the sperm cell is mechanistic and based on ‘chances’, as most sperm cells end up trapped in different parts of the female’s body, some are even ‘killed’ by the female’s ‘immune system’, showing how there is no ‘purpose’ to the immune system or any such process, as they are only reactions to different stimuli. It’s not that the immune system wants to protect one’s body. If an ‘immune system’ is tuned to react to a specific molecular shape and it turns out that the sperm cells have shapes that are similar, then the immune system will ‘attack’ them, too. Here’s the video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFrVmDgh4v4
Once the two ‘real parents’ meet and combine, all of the information for a new human is there. These ‘new baby instructions’, containing contributions from the DNA of both parents, is complete and can already tell how tall the person will be, if they will have blue or green eyes, and even if they are predisposed to heart disease. Then again, only a little over half of these egg-sperm structures manage to survive and mature. To read more about how DNA from both parents combine to form new life, read our article on ‘evolution’.
Given all the variables involved – the tiny structures that have to meet and combine, with all of the complex roads they have to follow – it’s a marvelous wonder that humans (and other animals) are able to reproduce at all. It comes down to multiplicity: the sheer number of possibilities that allows such unique and complex events to happen.
Saying that these two little creatures, the egg and sperm, are your ‘true’ parents is not an exaggeration. Since most people are not fully aware of the complex process of reproduction, many people ‘project’ that the male and female contributors of the sperm and egg are the parents, and society contributes greatly to this misunderstanding. To help solidify this understanding, consider how we can take the egg and sperm from two humans, combine them in a lab, and then insert the resulting cell into a different female (surrogate) where the baby will develop. We may eventually be able to manage this entirely within the lab, no longer needing a surrogate to carry out the process of development. This shows how those two tiny structures are the ‘true’ parents of each one of us. Of course, they carry bits of information from the contributing male and female humans, which is why the baby is physically similar to them.
A human consists primarily of cells; about 37 trillion of them covering around 200 different types. Some types of cells make up your heart, some others become your liver, and some are part of your blood. As these cells develop and begin working together as a whole, they form into tissue, and tissue does the same to create organs. And when organs ‘cooperate’, they make you, the human.
We can currently recognize four types of tissue: nervous, connective, epithelial, and muscular.
What this says is that there are some types of structures made of cells that have different properties. For instance, ‘nervous’ tissue is what makes you ‘alive’, allowing you to respond and react. If an insect lands on your arm, it will stimulate hair follicles that, in turn, stimulate nerve cell receptors in your arm (part of a complex system throughout your body). That stimulation may be quickly transmitted to your brain (which is also a ‘nervous’ tissue type) and, based on a complex soup of past experiences (associative memory), you might ignore it, scream, observe its behavior or structure for a while, or whatever else you might do based on your upbringing. But this function is also based on how your biology works. The stimuli from the insect to your skin may not be transmitted to your brain and, instead, just go directly to the arm muscle beneath the insect, contracting it in a process that we call ‘unconscious’ (no brain thoughts involved). An interesting thing about nerve cells is that they do a simple thing, but individually: they can only transmit one signal at a time, and only with the same strength and speed they received from the nerve cell that passed it to them, making them basically like a ‘simple repeater’. So, imagine it as a “beep” sound being passed from nerve cell to nerve cell along a string of these cells, where their only task is to fully preserve the intensity of the volume and length of the “beep” (not change it to “beeeeeep”).
What is most relevant here is the ‘frequency’ of the signal transmitted. A slow “beep ——- beep ——- beep” moving through the nerve cell string may indicate part of your body’s interpretation of a slight sensation (perhaps a light breeze on your face), while a more frequent “beep – beep – beep” signal may warn you of a more severe pain (maybe a hammer hitting your thumb instead of the nail).
This is similar to how a computer works, where each switch (transistor) can only manage a simple on-off function, but through the use of multiple switches through the entire system, it can render a photo, play a video, reproduce your voice, etc.. In a similar way, a nerve cell can contribute to creating a memory, initiating a sneeze, a laugh, a sensation of coldness or a simple twitch movement, all because of the complex system it is part of. Because of their huge number and interconnections, simple core elements (cells, transistors) are able to work together to render complex actions.
‘Muscle’ tissue is what allows your arm to contract, your heart to pump blood, your ‘face’ to talk, or to smile. If the nervous tissue is what allows for responses and reactions, muscular tissue is what makes movement possible. When a computer physically opens an old-fashioned DVD-ROM compartiment, it has to rely on multiple moving parts, including springs and elastic bands, gears and pulleys, and several other plastic parts. These parts make up the ‘musculature’ of a computer: You click a mouse button, which activates part of software, that then sends a signal to another part of the physical computer to perform an action. This is very similar to how your body reacts via the nerve cells that then activate certain muscles, if the right buttons are ‘pushed’.
Tissues that form into organs need to be separated and encapsulated somehow to not ‘break apart’, ‘combine’ with other organs, and otherwise not be easily damaged. So, a bunch of another type of cells, called ‘epithelial’, gives them structure and shape. They coat many of your organs, and even the exterior of your body. With support from some other cell types, the skin is mostly made up of this kind of tissue. It’s this protective tissue that keeps organs somewhat separated. For example, you don’t digest yourself because your stomach is coated with these types cells. Since they coat most of what makes up your body, your interaction with the universe is basically managed through these types of cells. Similarly, most parts of a computer are also isolated with all kinds of insulators, or else the energy would flow in ways that would ‘fry’ at least some of the computer’s parts. These insulators are what allows different parts of a system to manage their own individual job and, ultimately, perform as a complete system.
The last type of cells is the ‘connective’ tissue which, well, connects all of the above together. Your body machine needs a skeleton (frame) and something to connect all of its parts. The connective tissue does that. Stretch your skin, flex your nose, or feel the bones in your fingers and you will gain a sense of what this type of tissue does. Without this connective tissue, you would be more like a pile of goo. Actually when you cook meat you do that to destroy the connective tissue that holds it up, so you can chew it. Without its structural components, from screws to metal bars, no computer is a computer.
Visit this website to see all of the types of tissues explained (with real ‘photos’).link
The human body is, well…, seriously complex, and made up of so many different kinds of cells that interact in so many ways. Each of the four types of tissue described above have even more subcategories to learn about, so this is only a very small representation of what the human body does or what it is. Check out this video illustrating just a tiny fraction of the life of microscopic events that happen inside everyone’s body all the time – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdjERhTczAs
Here are some real photos of the the human body under the microscope:
The Crash Course on Anatomy is also highly recommended to better understand all these processes. http://videoneat.com/lectures/3970/anatomy-physiology
Finally, we suggest these documentaries in order to gain a much stronger understanding of the massive ‘universe’ inside you, which may be even more complex than any ‘outside’ world that we might eventually find on distant planets – http://videoneat.com/biology/
Let’s now look at some ‘usefull’ stuff that we can do with these varied cells that make us, us.
Cells make up the foundation of humans; how we breath, breed, move, eat, hear, taste, and even think. If you were to lose one leg, suddenly :o, not only would you not be able to walk anymore, but you would also leak essential fluids that would quickly end ‘you’. A sneeze is nothing more than some tiny ‘things’ inside of you reacting to various stimuli. When you close your eyelids because there is too much light, that is another mechanical reaction, triggered by the effects of the Sun’s rays.
So, how can we tweak our mechanical body to make it healthier?
I used to repair computers a few years ago and I enjoyed taking parts from different computers and assembling them in many different configurations. But I quickly learned that some of these parts were not compatible with others. Some CPUs (processors) do not ‘fit’ on some motherboards (the foundation of a computer system); even if they fit physically, some still cannot work with the rest of the system because of other incompatibilities (frequency, overheating due to a lack of a good heat dispersal system, and so on); even more interestingly, even if they fit and the system seems to work, you may later on realize that some parts do not work properly due to other less-obvious incompatibilities between them that you were not initially able to detect. I once had a RAM memory disk (computer stuff) that was performing at half of its rated capacity because it could not communicate with the rest of the system very well.
You may be able to take a hand from a dead body and try to connect it to a living human, but if the tiny bits that connect all the tissues between the hand and the body do not match properly, you cannot attach it. Even if you can attach it, the hand may not function properly. A human is far more complex than a desktop computer, so the potential for incompatibility is much higher. This is why organ transplants are not that efficient and pose many dangers. But unlike a computer that cannot be that much improved or repaired without swapping out parts, a human body can be tweaked.
There are currently 3 promising methods/techniques toward achieving that:
- Creating building blocks (Transforming one cell into another and creating new custom cells)
- Manipulating building blocks (Manipulate cells’ DNA)
- Creating human parts from these building blocks (Assembling cells and manipulating their growth)
- Creating building blocks
Transforming one cell into another and creating new custom cells
This is the key, as it provides us with the many lego-like building blocks that we need. Although we have many different types of cells in our bodies, each with different structures and performing different functions (liver cells, muscle cells, neurons, etc.), they all have the same DNA, which is uniquely yours. Remember: the entirety of you is only made from two cells (a sperm and egg cell). So then, how is it that you now have so many varied types of cells? What differentiates a lung cell from a liver cell is how the DNA’s genes (parts of the DNA) are expressed (turned on or off). While the same code is inside all cells, different parts of it activate in different ways to give different cells their unique shapes, and thus unique functionalities. That’s really all it is.
There are some types of cells that can be found in ‘undeveloped’ humans (after a sperm and egg combine, and then form a few embryonic ‘stem cells) that you can extract, add them to a heart muscle, for example, and they will become heart cells. These are ‘undefined’ cells that can become any kind of cell. That’s how ‘magical’ it is. What they become is regulated by what signals (chemicals) the cells eventually interact with (the environment). So, if you put them in liver muscle, they become liver cells; in a lung, they become lung cells; and so on. In this way, they can transform into any kind of cell, based on the ‘environment’ within which they find themselves placed. It is similar to how a christian, a thief, a programmer, a football player or a scientist are each created by the environments that they are exposed to. They start out (as babies) basically the same, and then differentiate based on what their total environment causes them to become.
Collecting stem cells from undeveloped ‘human creatures’ (embryos) is a bit tricky due to availability, and the fact that you ‘destroy’ a potential human in the process. However, you can also find them inside your own body. Your skin completely replaces itself every 30 days or so, made possible by stem cells inside you that transform into skin cells. The same goes for your intestinal lining, liver, and other organs/tissues. These stem cells are less potent than the embryonic type (cannot transform into as many cell types), but they are still a fantastic tool that people are already working with. Keep these stem cells in mind, as they are perhaps the most important building blocks available to us because of their ability to ‘morph’ into any kind of cell.
Within your bone marrow, there is a type of stem cell that can produce/transform into red or white blood cells. Mutations of these stem cells can occur and, if they give rise to many ‘mutant’ white cells, we call them ‘cancerous’. This is because your body becomes unable to produce enough of the ‘good’ cells and you end up with more ‘mutant’ (non-functional cells) than normal healthy ones.
We can kill these cancerous cells with chemotherapy (substances), but that also kills some of the good stem cells that were producing the ‘good stuff’ for you, making this approach highly problematic. However, we are now able to inject new stem cells into the bone marrow following chemotherapy treatments, and they start producing ‘good’ cells for your body. This is similar to spraying pesticide on an insect-devastated crop of vegetables. It kills the insects, and the vegetables, but you can then plant new seeds to produce vegetables again. So, a stem cell is a kind of seed that can become any kind of cell, depending on where it’s ‘planted’. Imagine having the same seed producing any kind of plant, the way that stem cells become any kind of cell. That would be awesome and we just might someday be able to invent such a thing.
But here is another fantastic discovery: as I mentioned earlier, the cells inside your body share the same DNA, but expressed in different ways to create different types of cells. What if you could tweak the DNA of a muscle cell, for example, and transform it back into a stem cell, so it can then be transformed again into becoming another kind of cell. Well, it turns out that you can, and these ‘reverted’ stem cells are almost as potent as the embryonic ones.(source) The best part? As in the previous example of transplanting a hand, your body may reject stem cells from other sources (like the potent embryonic ones), but transforming your own cells into stem cells solves that problem. As a result, scarcity of stem cells, along with the potential for rejection, is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
I also recommend this short Khan Academy video explaining more about stem cells, as this is such an important field of research that everyone should be aware of:
- Manipulating building blocks
Manipulating cell DNA
Maybe you’re thinking that’s the best trick that humans can manage. It’s not!
A virus is a ‘biological’ nanobot that can infiltrate a cell and then replicate, thereby destroying the cell or editing it’s code (the DNA), which transforms the cell into a cancerous one.(source) On the other hand, you can isolate and edit such a virus so when it infiltrates a cell, it then edits/modifies the cell’s DNA in an intentional way, for instance, to fix errors in that DNA or to create a specific new type of cell (give it new properties/functionality).
Here’s what they can do today: they take stem cells that make red blood cells from your bone marrow and put them in a ‘bag’ (container) – billions of them. They then use an ‘edited’ virus to then edit these stem cells in a way that the stem cells become another kind of cell that can target specific diseases. Then they inject these modified stem cells back into your bone marrow, allowing your body to begin producing these ‘mutant protector‘ cells. In other words, your body becomes a medicine factory. They did this for a very rare disease, where ‘fatty acids’ build up in one’s brain, killing the person before they reach the age of 10. Once the body started to add these ‘mutant’ cells to the child’s bloodstream, they circulated through his brain, connected with these dangerous ‘fatty acids’, and reduced them, saving the child’s life.
It’s quite amazing that we can edit our own cells and insert them back into our bodies in order to become its own medicine producing factory. I highly recommend this TED talk to learn more about this –
- Extract blood stem cells
- Virus with payload
- Viruses are put in a bag with billions of blood stem cells
- New stem cells created
- New stem cells inserted into the bone marrow
- Mutated stem cells create new kind of cells
- Creating human parts from these building blocks
Assembling cells and manipulating their growth
Now that you understand how important these techniques are, as they allow us to create new building blocks that can transform into basically any kind of cells we need, we can move on and look at methods of putting these cells together in more complex ways, controlling their assembly, and do some really useful things with them :).
One method is to basically 3D-print these cells in any kind of shape you may want. This is already happening and, as an example, liver cells have been printed in this fashion. They survive for many days in a special environment where they are fully functional. So, imagine taking a sample of cells from one of your own organs, grow a bunch of them and then ‘print’ them into small samples (any shape you want), so that various drugs can be tested on them. This is huge! Why? Animals have been traditionally used for drug testing over many hundreds of years, which looks extremely primitive compared to what it will become ‘the norm’ in a few years time. Simply put, a mouse is not you. Not even another human is you. You are unique, so you require unique, personalized medicine. So, taking a wide variety of primary cells from your body (liver, lung, heart, etc.) and printing them into three dimensional samples of them (replicating the real living environment they developed in), you can now test all kinds of treatments, over extended periods of time, on what is effectively your own body, quickly arriving at the best known treatment for your uniqueness, all while saving many other creatures from being subjected to all manners of testing, or even death.
This also describes the main use of 3D-printed tissue (cells) today, as it is not yet feasible to print large chunks of tissue (such as a full-size liver or heart). The issue is that cells require oxygen and nutrition, usually delivered by a native blood vessel system, but such a support system has not yet been integrated into this printing method. I suspect it won’t be long before this becomes reality, because another method of assembling tissue is to grow it alongside structures that can be printed from materials other than cells. For instance, you can 3D map a real blood vessel system, print it with polymers or other materials, and then grow cells around and inside it. Damaged skin can be ‘fixed’, for example, with materials that can be printed and applied to one’s arm, making it possible for the person to regrow his/her own skin on them (stimulating cell growth) from his/her own cells.
Since the structure to be printed can take on, perhaps, near-infinite forms, then imagine the potential for growing cells along the ‘lines’ of any kind of structural form. You might print a 3D scaffold of the heart and then grow heart tissues inside it. Then again, you can already take a heart and wash it with detergent (really) in order to remove all of the cells and other ‘stuff’ inside, leaving you with a complete, already built scaffold (no need to 3D print), into which you can inject heart cells from anyone’s body and let them ‘do their thing’. Voila, the end result is a new fully-functional heart. You can even do this with a pig’s heart and it can become ‘yours’. This field is still in its infancy, but is hugely promising.
This one-hour talk on the topic of replacing/enhancing one’s biology goes into more details about all the technologies presented so far – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cULURpGU6y4
Tweaking these building blocks of ours, the cells, and then integrating them into our body, printing them into samples to better test and understand future treatments, and even creating scaffolds that can be populated with them to function as new replacement organs, is a huge advancement for human societies, because one of the most ‘problematic’ challenges over all of human history has been management of the health of humans. Simply put, people often ‘break’, so they need frequent repairs. These new technologies consume far less resources and energy and are far more advanced and focused than anything we’ve had before. Plus, they hold the promise of ‘fixing’ almost anything that may go wrong with the human body. Instead of looking for an organ donor for a transplant, we can just repair the broken one, or make or grow a direct replacement from your own cells.
Because it is such a complex part of the human body, you can’t grow a fully-functional limb (or even a 10% functional one). Then again, there may not be much relevance to that approach when you can grow the individual parts of a limb (or whatever body part). So, if there are issues with certain types of cells inside an arm (muscle, blood vessels, bone, etc.), you can target-fix those. But then consider that there are some animals that automatically regrow lost limbs or other complex parts of their bodies. This is an even newer field of research to better understand how it might be applied to humans. Perhaps one day we will even be able to do that.(source)
With the techniques that we have presented so far, humans have been able to build and manipulate a wide variety of human ‘parts’ (some not fully functional yet): bone tissue, liver tissue, heart cells, multilayered skin, kidneys, hearts, tracheas, ears, noses, vaginas, muscle tissue, thymus, lungs, tiny ‘brains’, bladder, blood vessels, tiny stomachs, and so much more…
Having an identical biological ‘avatar’ of you, in the form of tissues and organs, can provide us with huge advantages for drug testing and treatment, as well as for body parts replacements and enhancements.
The main purpose of this article is to help you better understand the basics of this emerging medical approach. It will become more and more visible over the next few years, and is such an important part of how medical care will be (or at least should be) done. Every time you hear about 3D-printed or lab-grown organs, think about the fact that they are basically manipulating cells into tissues and, with the help of 3D-printed biodegradable structures or washed scaffolds, they then mold these cells into organs. That is the basis of all of this: cells and how to orchestrate them. I hope you can now better weigh these abundant news titles about human organs and have a better understanding of what we are capable of today, along with what we will likely be able to do in the near future.
There are also numerous recently ramped up research efforts going on to stop or even reverse aging, as the longer we live, the cells that form our bodies become less able to manage their functions. There are more and more scientists emerging that see the various effects of aging on human health as ‘diseases’ that perhaps can be ‘cured’. There is a lot of noise about ‘breakthroughs’ in this area of research these days, but perhaps it is too soon to draw more than speculations. We may try to develop a separate article on this, to highlight the many ways that it would benefit our health to no longer ‘age’, as not all of them are ‘obvious’.
I also hope that you now recognize how ‘mechanical’ we really are. We are made of tiny creatures that we call ‘cells’, which are all part of a massive ‘universe’ inside us, although we are that ‘universe’, as “it” is us. Looking at it in this way, we are better able to understand how to improve it.
Perhaps tweaking our body-machine in this way will make today’s more typical mechanical and electronic devices (pacemakers, dialysis, crutches, etc.) look like primitive solutions. Nevertheless, combining both approaches will definitely end the scarcity of organ transplants, as it eventually makes the transplant method obsolete. But then consider that if this happens in today’s profit-motivated world, it will take many dead bodies until these technologies become ‘important’ enough for our money-society to provide for all (and then at a price).
A major part of The Venus Project’s vision is for the creation of abundance of goods and services to nurture the saner society it envisions. As such, the overall scarcity of medical treatments and replacement organs is one of the main, if not ‘the main’, scarcities that TVP recognizes. TVP also recognizes that we need to more thoroughly explain how it would be eliminated within a global Resource-based Economy, as this is obviously a ‘need’ for all humans, rather than a culturally-based ‘want’. I hope that this Human and/or Machine series has succeeded in providing some significant details on how that can be achieved, even with today’s technology.