Modifying and augmenting living organisms can help answer fundamental philosophical questions about the origins of life, and has the potential to revolutionize areas such as energy, the environment, and health. Current approaches for augmenting non-human organisms are powerful, but ultimately restricted to the evolutionary confines of biology.

Alternatively, “bionic life” utilizes non-biological supermaterials (e.g. graphene or nanoparticles) to give organisms emergent properties outside the scope of evolution. Supermaterials can protect an organism from harsh and toxic environments, and allow them to live off normally indigestible molecules through new biochemical reactions. Bionic life, therefore, has the potential to revolutionize areas such as the pharmaceutical industry, toxic waste remediation, and potentially even space travel and astrobiology. Bionic life also opens up unique philosophical and legal questions surrounding life and evolution, and how non-genetic augmentation should be regulated and protected.

NASA

Since the dawn of man, humans have been improving their survivability using external enhancements. For example, by using clothes, shoes, houses, weapons - and more recently - cell phones, the internet, computers, and cars. We have even reached the point where internal enhancements, like the bionic ear, bionic hands, pacemakers, and artificial joints, are relatively commonplace for restoring function and enhancing everyday life.

Humanity’s pursuit of augmentation, however, has been primarily self-centered and very few other organisms have benefitted from non-genetic augmentation. The few examples that exist are quite simple, for example, sweaters for dogs and shoes for horses. Instead, humanity historically engineered organisms through selective breeding, and more recently through direct genetic modification.

This could be because technology has advanced and grown increasingly sophisticated, answers to many global challenges are being sought with increasingly complex solutions. For example, carbon capture is being explored using expensive and often toxic porous materials when trees can perform a similar function and yield a sustainable material (wood) after carbon sequestration.

Another reason for humanity’s slow extension of augmentation to other organisms is because, up until recently, engineering advanced materials has been an expensive and involved process often relying on experimental conditions hostile to most lifeforms. Fortunately, we have now reached the point where non-toxic supermaterials can be formed rapidly in conditions amenable to life. Because of this, the augmentation and enhancement of organisms using supermaterials to form “bionic life” has recently started to emerge.

Bionic life

Bionic life is the enhancement of simple organisms with supermaterials so that they can accomplish feats outside the realm of what biology allows. A key point of engineering bionic life is that bionic coatings can also be applied to synthetic biology and genetically modified organisms, meaning bionic life complements existing methodologies and organisms. The result can be a more generalist and widespread approach to solving problems.

We analogize bionic lifeforms to humans in both spacesuits (real) and ironman suits (fictitious). The spacesuit has no direct biological or evolutionary equivalent and does two incredible things simultaneously: protects the wearer from the harsh conditions of space (e.g., cold, vacuum, radiation), and provides novel functionality to the wearer (e.g., propulsion, hydration, waste disposal, air circulation, CO2 scrubbing, etc.). Moreover, spacesuits are relatively easy to put on and take off and are even amenable to other organisms (e.g., monkeys and dogs have benefited from their use).

Similary, Ironman has a suit that protects him from hostile forces (e.g., bullets, knives) and toxic environments (e.g., the vacuum of space, the pressure of the deep sea, toxic gases), while also augmenting his movement (e.g. allowing him to fly) and functionality (e.g., radar, missile guidance, super strength).

Another benefit of humanity’s augmentative suits is that they are reversible. In other words, an astronaut can take off his suit to resume normal terrestrial life, while Tony Stark can remove his ironman suit to attend a party. Giving organisms external, reversible augmentative coatings analogous to what humans have (and dream of) could offer a variety of benefits with implications for everything from the generation of therapeutic compounds, to toxic waste site remediation, to exploring deep space.

In a more abstract sense, the integration of supermaterials with simple organisms stretches our current definitions of what constitutes life and speciation, and challenges our notions of intellectual property and legislation surrounding completely new, but non-genetically modified, organisms. For example, do viruses become “alive” if supermaterials are used to make them metabolically active and capable of reproduction in the absence of cells?

Ironman at the nanoscale

Spacesuits and ironman suits require various “space age” supermaterials and electronics to function. Despite this, translating the conceptual enhancements of these augmentative suits down to the nanoscale is surprisingly achievable. When materials are shrunk down to the nanoscale—the relevant length scale for bionic lifeforms—enhanced properties emerge.

A first step in making bionic life can be engineering reversible protective coatings around cells and organisms, which in nature is generally accomplished through sporulation. Sporulation is where certain bacteria and fungi grow protective coatings when environmental conditions get too extreme (drought, radiation, etc.). These coatings are then degraded when the environmental conditions normalize, after which the organism resumes normal functioning.

Reversibly protecting cells with synthetic materials (polymers, graphene, metal-organic systems, etc.) to make artificial spores has been gaining traction in the field of nanomaterial engineering for the past decade. These developments fulfill one of the criteria of “spacesuit-like” nano-systems. However, making protective coatings for more than artificial sporulation was only reported last year.

We recently designed a protective coating that also turns waste material into food for yeast. This non-toxic coating protects yeast against anti-fungal agents, bacteria, and digestive enzymes, while still letting nutrients flow in and waste to flow out. By embedding functional enzymes into the coating, inedible molecules could be converted into food as they passed through the coating. Importantly, the same coating technique is applicable to a broad range of single-celled and small multi-celled organisms, and the specific enzyme we used can be switched out for nearly any other enzyme. We are currently working on replacing the enzyme with other functional supermaterials to impart even more exotic traits to these bionic lifeforms.

Making drugs

The ability to simultaneously protect and enhance organisms makes bionic life particularly powerful for solving some of the grand challenges currently facing humanity. For example, labs and companies already utilize cells to produce therapeutics (proteins, vaccines, antibodies, etc.) in bioreactors.

One issue with this approach is that cells constantly divide during reproduction, this overcrowds the bioreactor and depletes the cells' resources. Our initial experiments with bionic coatings show that bionic lifeforms can survive >5-fold longer than normal organisms because the coatings prevent them from dividing, and therefore prevents overcrowding and nutrient depletion.

These bionic lifeforms remain metabolically active, and consequently can potentially be used to produce therapeutics for much longer—and much more efficiently—than current systems. When the therapeutic compound needs to be recovered, the bionic coatings can be degraded and the cells recycled. Finally, because some bionic life can live off normally inedible materials, waste products can potentially be used as the precursors for the manufactured therapeutics.

Cleaning up

Besides making useful materials, bionic life could also be used to remove harmful materials. Fungi, bacteria, and plants are already used for the remediation of contaminated waste sites; however, the most toxic of waste sites will have multiple contaminants. This can frustrate conventional clean-up approaches, and make the use of non-modified fungi, bacteria and plants impossible.

Bionic lifeforms are therefore ideal candidates for this tough job, as they can be protected from toxic environments, while also engineered to degrade multiple toxic materials simultaneously. In one potential example, bionic life could be utilized to degrade multiple nerve agents or chemical weapons in both civilian and battlefield settings. Although these examples primarily utilize the enhancement aspects of nanobionic coatings, the protective aspects also allow for other, unique applications to be developed.

Travelling through space

Preserving whole organisms in biostasis will likely be necessary for exploring space and colonizing other planets. The organisms need to be protected from the radiation of space during transport, in a way that requires minimal energy and resources, making bionic coatings a perfect fit.

It is relatively straightforward and quick to apply bionic coatings, and they may therefore be of use in unmanned astrobiology missions, where sample collection and preservation is necessary.

The augmentative aspects of bionic life could also enable organisms to function in the harsh conditions of space, or on distant heavenly bodies, however contamination risks would have to be weighed before use. Importantly, degradation of the bionic coating could render the organism defenseless, thereby reducing the contamination risks when compared to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Philosophical and legal implications

Regardless of the positive promise of bionic lifeforms, issues remain before they should be used in everyday life. For example, it is currently unclear how intellectual property surrounding bionic life would function, as this issue has proven a sticking point for GMOs. This could hinder positive uses and obscure who is responsible for negative uses of bionic life.

Bionic life also stretches the definition of “life” and “speciation,” which could hinder the regulation and classification of bionic lifeforms. Currently, seven broad requirements are typically used to consider something living: 1) responsiveness; 2) growth; 3) reproduction; 4) metabolism; 5) homeostasis; 6) organization; and 7) adaptation.

Viruses and prions, for example, lack metabolism and independent reproduction, and are generally not viewed as “living”, and reside just outside the edge of life. Does hybridizing a living cell with a supermaterial that prevents growth and division then cause this bionic lifeform to actually become un-alive?

One might analogize this situation to one where cells are frozen in liquid nitrogen for preservation, but in the latter case the cells are dormant and are not currently fulfilling any of the criteria for life, while in the former instance metabolism, responsiveness, homeostasis, etc. are all ongoing.

It is a bizarre thought that one could augment the functioning of a living cell and thereby render it philosophically “unliving”, exemplifying how bionic life can contribute to the discussion on what constitutes life, what paradigm should be used to determine what is living or not, and perhaps even contribute to the ongoing discussion on what it means to die.

Like many new paradigms, it is also likely that legislation will lag behind innovations. For example, does intellectual protection apply to the augmenting material, or the full bionic lifeform, and are bionic lifeforms even patentable? Thankfully, the reversibility and non-permanence of current approaches to bionic life means that lasting or permanent negative effects can largely be avoided.

The inevitable use… war

Sadly, humanity does not have a good track record of using new innovations for purely wholesome and beneficial ends. The combination of protected organisms and functional supermaterials opens up the frightening potential for the use of bionic life in warfare. Furthermore, due to ambiguity over what bionic lifeforms are, they may not be covered by current treaties and conventions on chemical and biological weapons.

Moreover, it would be relatively easy to engineer bionic lifeforms with non-degradable coatings which would make them significantly harder to neutralize. Moreover, the potential ease of fabrication and lack of specific signature materials or genes means that it could be hard to attribute the harmful use of bionic lifeforms to any single agent or country, making international policing challenging.

It is also unclear where bionic lifeforms would fall in current international treaties, in terms of whether they would be classified as a biological warfare agent, or a chemical warfare agent. However, due to the infancy of this field, harmful variations of bionic life are still a long way off, and hopefully some of the philosophical and legal questions surrounding bionic lifeforms will be answered before they can be used for harm.

A bright future

Bionic life shows significant promise and could revolutionize our approach to a range of critical challenges when coupled with the complementary fields of synthetic biology and genetics.

Our current pursuit of bionic life is to establish a general platform that can be applied to all living and life-like materials, while simultaneously shedding light on design principles crucial for engineering synthetic lifeforms.

Importantly, the coatings used for bionic life are non-hereditary and can be removed, and therefore bionic lifeforms seemingly have fewer ethical and moral concerns than many GMOs. Still, many risks abound relating to the use of bionic life for nefarious purposes, such as warfare.

Bionic life establishes a new perspective of combining synthetic and biological materials with potential impact for everyday life, and the positive potential currently far outweighs the imagined negative uses.