The next challenge of the internet of things: transmit genes through machines

Technology provides numerous improvements for people’s lives. One of the areas with more potential is the one that studies the intelligence and autonomy of the machines and also one of those that, on the negative side, generate more alarm and confusion. Precisely because of its diverse possibilities.

Flagella, receptors, ribosomes, mitochondria, bacteria … It is very possible that when you hear these words you remember the lessons of Biology classes on the components of molecules and cells. However, this article speaks of the so-called “bio-internet of things” which, although related, is not the same.

In an increasingly digital world, the connection between objects is increasingly important and frequent. Advances in this regard happen every day, as it is one of the fields of work and research of experts and perhaps the future of technology. Telefónica’s Kite platform, for example, offers users to control their activity in a convenient and simple way. This is the famous internet of things (IoT).

Researchers Rafael Kim and Stefan Paslad of Queen Mary University in London, United Kingdom, raise this interesting topic in a recent study on the possibilities of the internet of things. For them, the future – and present – goes through small electronic devices, capable of processing information, storing and transmitting it, just as living organisms do.


Is it possible to give life to these devices, create a biological version of the internet of things?
It is a question that these two researchers ask themselves in their study and that they try to answer. It is not a simple task, for now, almost everything is predictions and assumptions. The evolution of technology and its possible uses is a matter as immense in its possibilities as complex and unknown. Can be? Yes, it may be, but for now we can only guess.

The bacteria on which they base their hypothesis is Escherichia Coli, on which Federico Tavella recently conducted an experiment with other colleagues from the University of Padua, Italy. They built a circuit in which a strain of this bacterium transmitted a “Hello world” message to another mobile strain, which in turn took the information to another place.

The process is called “conjunction” and is something natural in the bacterial world. First, they receive the information through cell walls. They store it in ring-shaped DNA structures, called “plasmids,” process it through ribosomes and transmit it to other bacteria, driven to wavy appendages that allow them to move and connect with other organisms. However, until now, a process like this was not believed as possible as now for electronic devices. Kim and Paslad believe that it may be the beginning of a field that is yet to be discovered, but from which they expect great potential.

Great potential, but many questions to clear
This is the most interesting part for researchers. Small devices could be used to improve the environmental situation and propose ecological solutions. For example, detecting polluting toxins in the sea and with these data, undertake bioremediation processes. Similarly, for health, they could be used to cure diseases. This would be possible by programming the devices and directing them to a specific destination of the human body. Upon arrival, they could produce and release certain hormones that would benefit the patient.

At the moment, they are only guesses. Although they point out that while the benefits can be impressive, it can also become dangerous devices, capable of for example spreading diseases and unable to locate or track information once transmitted and released.

As with all advances in science, it is not a positive or negative fact, but would depend on the use we make of it. Here the question of ethics would come into play.

Will we get to cure diseases thanks to small machines with intelligent technology? These questions have no answer today. Although, without a doubt, the scenario that opens is intriguing.

We will have to wait a little while to know if scientists “give life” to small machines to transmit genes or stay in an ambitious and uncertain project.

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