Controlling robots with electromagnetism is nothing new, but controlling a living organic organism is still in the realm of science fiction. Here, on Element14, we have seen attempts to use optogenetics to influence the behavior of a living organism. Now researchers the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo are pushing one step further by modifying nematode worms to control their movement at the flip of a switch.
A team of biophysicists from SUNY has been conducting experiments on protein gates called ion channels that are found in the membranes of cells. In the natural cellular world, there are a wide array of these ion channels which react or open to different cues such as light, mechanical forces and temperature and regulate cell functions.
The team has made previous breakthroughs using the temperature sensitive ion channels and now they are applying their findings to nematode worms. Nematode worms have ion channels that activate as a reflex when they are hot enough and alert the organism of possible harm ahead of it. This causes the worm to stop and move the opposite direction automatically.
In order to activate these minute ion channels in cells, the researchers found that they could excite magnetic nano particles made of manganese-iron with a magnetic field to create heat and activate these minute ion channels.
To attach these magnetic nano particles to tissues, the team coated them with polyethylene glycol, which adheres to the mucus layer near the worm’s head. After they are implanted, a radio frequency is applied which causes the polarity of the nano particles to change quickly; a process which releases heat, opens the ion channels and allows calcium to enter the cells which triggers the flight reflex.
When the white & clack square appears, the signal is being applied
The results of this were immediate. When the worms implanted with the nano particles were exposed to the magnetic field, they responded in exactly the way the researchers had hoped. They were able to activate biochemical processes simply by pressing a button. Magnetic nano particles had never before used to control cellular function.
Advantages of this method over optogenetics is that this uses a magnetic field that easily penetrates living organisms rather than visible light which does not. Furthermore, researchers believe this technique holds a lot of potential. They released an article in June’s Nature Nanotechnology issue where they say this could be used to destroy tumors with heat, treat paralysis and fix dysfunctional organs that need to secrete important chemicals for our bodies to function.