I've got a confession. I love looking through people's garbage. Now, it's not some creepy thing. I'm usually just looking for old electronics, stuff I can take to my workshop and hack. I do have a fetish for CD-ROM drives. Each one's got three different motors, so now you can build things that move. There's switches so you can turn things on and off. There's even a freaking laser, so you can make a cool robot into an awesome robot.
Now, I've built a lot of stuff out of garbage, and some of these things have even been kind of useful. But here's the thing, for me, garbage is just a chance to play, to be creative and build things to amuse myself. This is what I love doing, so I just made it part of my day job. I lead a university-based biological research lab, where we value curiosity and exploration above all else. We aren't focused on any particular problem, and we're not trying to solve any particular disease. This is just a place where people can come and ask fascinating questions and find answers. And I realized a long time ago that if I challenge people to build the equipment they need out of the garbage I find, it's a great way to foster creativity. And what happened was that artists and scientists from around the world started coming to my lab. And it's not just because we value unconventional ideas, it's because we test and validate them with scientific rigor.
So one day I was hacking something, I was taking it apart, and I had this sudden idea: Could I treat biology like hardware? Could I dismantle a biological system, mix and match the parts and then put it back together in some new and creative way? My lab started working on this, and I want to show you the result.
Can any of you guys tell me what fruit this is?
Andrew Pelling: That's right — it's an apple. Now, I actually want you to notice as well that this is a lot redder than most apples. And that's because we grew human cells into it. We took a totally innocent Macintosh apple, removed all the apple cells and DNA and then implanted human cells. And what we're left with after removing all the apple cells is this cellulose scaffold. This is the stuff that gives plants their shape and texture. And these little holes that you can see, this is where all the apple cells used to be. So then we come along, we implant some mammalian cells that you can see in blue. What happens is, these guys start multiplying and they fill up this entire scaffold.
As weird as this is, it's actually really reminiscent of how our own tissues are organized. And we found in our pre-clinical work that you can implant these scaffolds into the body, and the body will send in cells and a blood supply and actually keep these things alive. This is the point when people started asking me, "Andrew, can you make body parts out of apples?" And I'm like, "You've come to the right place."
I actually brought this up with my wife. She's a musical instrument maker, and she does a lot of wood carving for a living. So I asked her, "Could you, like, literally carve some ears out of an apple for us?" And she did. So I took her ears to the lab. We then started preparing them. Yeah, I know.
It's a good lab, man.
And then we grew cells on them. And this is the result.
Listen, my lab is not in the ear-manufacturing business. People have actually been working on this for decades. Here's the issue: commercial scaffolds can be really expensive and problematic, because they're sourced from proprietary products, animals or cadavers. We used an apple and it cost pennies.
What's also really cool here is it's not that hard to make these things. The equipment you need can be built from garbage, and the key processing step only requires soap and water. So what we did was put all the instructions online as open source. And then we founded a mission-driven company, and we're developing kits to make it easier for anyone with a sink and a soldering iron to make these things at home. What I'm really curious about is if one day, it will be possible to repair, rebuild and augment our own bodies with stuff we make in the kitchen.
Speaking of kitchens, here's some asparagus. They're tasty, and they make your pee smell funny.
Now, I was in my kitchen, and I was noticing that when you look down the stalks of these asparagus, what you can see are all these tiny little vessels. And when we image them in the lab, you can see how the cellulose forms these structures. This image reminds me of two things: our blood vessels and the structure and organization of our nerves and spinal cord.
So here's the question: Can we grow axons and neurons down these channels? Because if we can, then maybe we can use asparagus to form new connections between the ends of damaged and severed nerves. Or maybe even a spinal cord. Don't get me wrong — this is exceptionally challenging and really hard work to do, and we are not the only ones working on this. But we are the only ones using asparagus.
Right now, we've got really promising pilot data. And we're working with tissue engineers and neurosurgeons to find out what's actually possible.
So listen, all of the work I've shown you, the stuff that I've built that's all around me on this stage and the other projects my lab is involved in are all a direct result of me playing with your garbage. Play — play is a key part of my scientific practice. It's how I train my mind to be unconventional and to be creative and to decide to make human apple ears.
So, the next time any of you are looking at some old, broken-down, malfunctioning, piece-of-crap technology, I want you to think of me. Because I want it.
Seriously, please find any way to get in touch with me, and let's see what we can build.