Convergence research at MIT and beyond seeks new solutions for global challenges.
What if viruses could build batteries with almost no toxic waste? What if a protein common to almost every organism on Earth could purify drinking water at a large scale? What if a nanoparticle-based urine test could detect the early signals of cancer? What if machine learning and other advanced computing methods could engineer higher crop yields? Such biotechnologies may sound like the province of science fiction, but are in fact just over the scientific horizon.
In “The Age of Living Machines,” a book published this week by W.W. Norton and Co., MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield offers a glimpse into a possible future driven by a new convergence of biology and engineering. She describes how researchers from many disciplines, at MIT and elsewhere, are transforming elements of the natural world, such as proteins, viruses, and biological signaling pathways, into “living” solutions for some of the most important – and challenging – needs of the 21st century.
Q. What are living machines?
A: Thanks to the emergence and expansion of the fields of molecular biology and genetics, we are amassing an ever-growing understanding of nature’s genius – the exquisitely adapted molecular and genetic machinery cells use to accomplish a multitude of purposes. I believe we are on the brink of a convergence revolution, where engineers and physical scientists are recognizing how we can use this biological “parts list” to adapt these natural machines to our own uses.
We can already see this revolution at work. In the late 1980s, Peter Agre, a physician-scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, found an unknown protein that contaminated his every attempt to isolate the Rh protein from red blood cells. Intrigued by this mysterious interloper, he persevered until he revealed its function and structure. The protein, which he named “aquaporin,” turned out to be an essential piece of the cell’s apparatus for maintaining the right balance of water inside and outside of the cell. Its structure is superbly adapted to let water molecules – and only water molecules – pass through in large number with remarkable efficiently and speed.
The discovery of aquaporin transformed our understanding of the fundamental biology of cells, and thanks to the insight of Agre’s biophysicist colleagues, it may also transform our ability to purify drinking water at a large scale. With the launch of the company Aquaporin A/S in 2005, engineers, chemists, and biologists are translating this molecular machine into working water purification systems, now in people’s sinks and even, in 2015, in space, recycling drinking water for Danish astronauts.
Q: Why do we need living machines?
A: We are facing an existential crisis. The anticipated global population of more than 9.7 billion by 2050 poses daunting challenges for providing sufficient energy, food, and water, as well as health care, more accurately and at lower cost. These challenges are enormous in scale and complexity, and we will need to take equally enormous leaps in our imagination to meet them successfully.
But I am optimistic. Innovations like those inspired by the structure of aquaporin or the viruses that MIT materials scientist and biological engineer Angela Belcher is adapting to build more powerful, smaller batteries with cleaner, more efficient energy storage, demonstrate just how bold we can be. And yet I think the true promise of living machines lies in what we haven’t imagined yet.
In 1937, MIT President Karl Taylor Compton wrote a delightful essay called “The Electron: Its Intellectual and Social Significance” to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the discovery of the electron. Compton wrote that the electron was “the most versatile tool ever utilized,” having already resulted in seemingly magical technologies, such as radio, long-distance telephone calls, and soundtracks for movies. But Compton also recognized – accurately – that we had not even begun to realize the impact of its discovery.
In the coming decades, the atomic parts list discovered by physicists sparked a first convergence revolution, bringing us radar, television, computers, and the internet, just to start. Neither Compton nor anyone else could fully imagine the breadth of innovations to come or how radically our conception of what is possible would be altered. We can’t predict the transformations that “Convergence 2.0” will bring any more than Compton could predict the internet in 1937. But we can see clearly from the first convergence revolution that if we’re willing to throw open the doors of innovation, world-changing ideas will walk through.
Q: How do we ensure that these doors remain open?
A: The convergence revolution is happening all around us, but its success is not inevitable. For it to succeed at the maximum pace with maximum impact, biologists and engineers, along with clinicians, physicists, computational scientists, and others, need to be able to move across disciplines with shared ambition. This will require us to reorganize our thinking and our funding.
The organization of universities into departments serves us well in a number of ways, but it sometimes leads to disciplinary boundaries that can be quite difficult to cross. Interdisciplinary labs and centers can serve as reaction vessels that catalyze new approaches to research. Models for this abound at MIT. For example, soon after chemical engineer Paula Hammond joined MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, she found a new use for the layer-by-layer fabrication of nanomaterials she pioneered for energy storage devices. With the expertise of physician and molecular biologist Michael Yaffe, Hammond used that same layering method to produce nanoparticles that deliver a one-two punch of different anti-cancer drugs carefully timed to increase their effectiveness.
Our biggest sources of funding likewise constrain cross-disciplinary efforts, with the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the departments of Energy and Defense all investing in research along disciplinary lines. Increased experimentation with cross-disciplinary and cross-agency funding initiatives could help break down those barriers. We have already seen what such funding models can do. The Human Genome Project – which brought together biologists, computer scientists, chemists, and technologists with funding primarily from U.S.- and U.K.-based agencies – did not just give us the first map of the human genome, but paved the way for tools that allow us to study cells and diseases at entirely new scales of depth and breadth.
But ultimately, we need to renew a shared national commitment to developing new ideas. This July, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. While some might argue that it offered no real benefit, it produced enormous technological gains. We should recall that the technological feat of putting men on the moon and returning them to Earth was accomplished during a time of profound social disruption. Besides providing a focus for our shared ambitions and hopes, the drive to put astronauts on the moon also led to an amazing acceleration of technology in numerous areas including computing, nanotechnology, transportation, aeronautics, and health care. History shows us we need to be willing to make these great leaps, without necessarily knowing where they will take us. Convergence 2.0, the convergence of biology with engineering and the physical sciences, offers a new model for invention, for collaboration, and for shared ambition to solve some of the most pressing problems of this century.