• Prumsodun Ok

HEARTBEAT OF A BUTTERFLY: Andrew Pelling & The Practice of Curiosity

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

Photo: Colin Rowe.

Andrew Pelling is a biohacker, inventor, TED Senior Fellow, and the director of Pelling Lab. I had the pleasure to sit with him for a conversation about the relationship between art, science, and innovation, touching upon everything from ears made from apples to immortality.

Prumsodun Ok: When you were young, what was your imagination of your life and your future?

Andrew Pelling: Oh man. It was everything. The two things that really come to mind are . . . I wanted to be an archeologist. Or I wanted to be a rockstar.

PO: Wow.

AP: It was one or the other. My parents hated it and they told me to go to school.

I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about it but I was chosen for some reason to attend a special school for the arts. So all of my early education is all arts-based. Singing, dancing, music, visual arts, whatever—I spent a lot of time doing that sort of thing.

It was in this school that I discovered math and science, and it eventually became my career path. Nowadays we’ve got artists, scientists, and humanists in my lab. We do everything.

PO: You’re breaking rules. You go to an art school and you come out a scientist.

AP: I know. That’s how you feel in art school.

PO: So what was that moment that made you realize, “This is what I want to do? This is what I’m meant to do?”

AP: Curiosity’s become a big theme of everything that I do. I think that in the last few years, maybe decade or so, I’ve started to own that idea of curiosity. I value it because I don’t think anyone values curiosity anymore. It’s seen as a childhood thing. And then when you become an adult you become very serious. And you do away with just asking questions about your stuff.

I realized that research was just asking questions about the natural world during my first day of undergrad. It was in my very first class, my very first lecture, which is why it’s so clear in my mind. Because this was the first time I was in a university classroom.

The prof comes up and the first thing that he said was, “At the heart of any good chemist, is the desire to make things burn and blow things up.” And that’s when I realized I’m a chemist! Because as a kid I used to blow things up and burn things, pull up insects from the dirt.

That whole semester, all the prof talked about was all the unknowns of the universe, all the big questions, what we don’t know about science. And I just loved it. For me this is what I have to be doing with my life. I have to be asking questions and finding answers, exploring the natural environment. I’m lucky to do it.

PO: Is it frustrating sometimes to not have the answer?

AP: I hate having the answer! It drives me crazy. When you design an experiment and you know how it’s going to end before you even run it, I find that so boring. It’s so obvious. I’m much happier when I don’t know the answer. And, in fact, I’m often just happy to not know, to leave it at that.

My lab’s gotten some criticism over the years for writing research papers where we answer one little question but then we create ten big questions. For me that’s kind of beautiful because you can do a simple experiment and expose what we don’t know. And I think that’s what we should be doing. Our society kind of loses that because we always want answers. We always want to know what’s happening.

On the other hand we’ve become this lab that is more about the questions, more about doing things that make people curious. Because that’s really important. It’s how we create things. If we can do more of that . . . We’d like to be a part of that process, or that stimulus for making people curious.

PO: What have been some questions that have been fun for you to try and answer in your career?

AP: So many things. In my early research career I was asking, “Can I listen to a cell? Can I hear what it sounds like?” And I tried to figure out ways to do that.

“Can I feel a cell? Can I poke a cell, like how I would poke bugs and dead animals?”

Both of those projects, at the beginning they seemed silly and pointless. In both of those cases, they ended up resulting in patents and diagnostic tools and new understandings of health and disease in our own bodies. That was by accident.

Once I wanted to figure out if we could feel the heartbeat of a butterfly, or of a caterpillar as it was turning into a butterfly. And we actually managed to! Literally you can feel this heartbeat in a cocoon as it grew over the course of a week into a monarch butterfly. It was just really beautiful to be able to watch that, understand the biology, discover things that nobody really knew.

When you have a caterpillar and it goes into a cocoon and it comes out as a butterfly, there’s always been a big question. What happens to all the internal organs? Do they dissolve? Or do they stay intact? And we figured out the heart stays intact. It just keeps beating. It’s really nice, this beautiful data.

More recently, the question was: “Can we grow human cells inside of an apple?” Seems crazy right? But it just turned into more patents and tools for fixing the human body.

I don’t know if we’ll do it but we’ve been growing some tissues in the lab—human tissues, artificial tissues. And I think we can treat them like batteries. So I think we might be able to draw power out of them, just enough to run a small micro-controller, like a tiny little computer that you find inside your watch or whatever. They’re all over the place.

And, why this is neat is, if you’ve ever seen The Matrix, the machines are using human bodies as batteries essentially, as energy sources. So we’re seeing if we can do this on a small scale in the lab. Because this is the first step to making The Matrix. Let’s try it!

It might fail. And we’ve had plenty of projects that have failed. But you always end up learning really interesting things in that process. Our attitude has always been: let’s fail as much as possible. Let’s design crazy experiments that are just never going to work. Because if we do that, and we learn from our mistakes, we’re going to learn new things, discover new ideas that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

It’s just proven true. As human beings we’re really good at being curious. Learning from our mistakes, usually.

PO: Usually. So then, would you say that risk is structurally encouraged in the field of science?

AP: No, not anymore. I would say that when you write a grant proposal, and you try to get a job and all that, you write projects that are really safe. It’s always driven me crazy.

Often when you write a proposal for a whole boatload of money, you’ve actually already done all of the science. And often, you’re actually supplying the data to show that everything you’re proposing can be done, has been done, and it’s 100% sure that you’re going to get the result that you think you’re going to get. And those proposals often win because they are safe, risk-free.

And everything you’re doing in your proposal is trying to convince the committee that you’re the safest bet. There’s no risk at all. You have all the people. You have all the personnel. You have all the equipment. You have all the expertise. You’ve done the experiment. And it’s so boring.

What’s interesting is, through the course of human history there have been so many accidental discoveries, things that have changed the world that were failures at first, mistakes. And that’s where the meat is but we don’t reward that type of behavior.

I want to change that in my own little way. And what we’ve been doing, what we’re going to keep doing, is just being very vocal and very public about the fact that yeah, this is a crazy experiment but look where it went. This failed but look where it went. We did it anyway and look where it went. Just keep showing again and again and again that we can use curiosity and failure to drive discovery.

Human cells grown in apples. Photo by Peter Thornton.

PO: Do you think that, with those proposals where the answers are already known, do you think that they are unnecessary? Or that there is a need for them? Why do something you already know?

AP: That’s a good question. I feel like I need to say that they are necessary. Why are they necessary, I don’t know. Well, okay, I don’t think it’s an either-or. With everything there has to be a balance. We need to be courting applied science, where it’s very clear what’s happening, what’s going to happen to develop a new technology or therapy or whatever. That has to keep happening.

There are scientists who are really good at doing that. And those are really easy for politicians to fund, because there’s a clear result, especially when you talk about publically funded science. You put $100 million into this and here are the results. You know it’s going to happen. There’s a quick timeline. Your money’s been invested well. This is a responsibility that people in power, politicians, kind of hope for, spending public money wisely.

But I think that we forget. We don’t have a way to think about it yet. How do we fund those accidents, those pie-in-the-sky research programs where it’s very hard to say in three years we’re going to have a treatment for cancer. Or a new battery or a new machine that does X. And so those are harder to fund. It takes a lot of leadership and vision to be able to construct an argument around these kind of projects.

But if you talk to anybody, if you talk to most people, most people will recognize that that’s how some of the most important discoveries have been made. It’s just through that fundamental science, things that are really pointless in the beginning. But then the discoveries end up changing the world. We don’t have mechanisms yet to really deal with that.

Recently I started a new research lab which is more of a public lab. We solicit research proposals from people, anybody in the world. The whole thing is an experiment. We ask people to submit proposals for ideas that are never going to work, they’re probably going to fail, to encourage people to start thinking like that. And people have a hard time thinking that way.

We’ve been gathering proposals and we get rid of the ones that are too safe. We know the outcome of another one so we get rid of it as well. And then we look for those proposals that seem completely nuts, but are still based in reality. They seem pointless and probably won’t work. And then we work on those projects and see where it goes.

We’ve just started. But our very first project ended up on Discovery Channel. It was actually an art project. It created a new funding stream for this particular artist, for these installations that nobody would fund in the beginning. Nobody would undertake them because they were just too risky.

Really this installation could have gone so badly. But you know, a positive story came out of it. It ended up on the Discovery Channel, led to more installations and commissions for the artist.

Right now we’re trying to build a wheel for a machine that might drive around on Saturn. It’s a gas a planet so there’s not even a surface to drive around. There’s no point in making a wheel. NASA would never ever do this. And we’ll see what we learn.

PO: I think what I’m hearing is the importance of journeys without expectations, and learning and discovering along the way. It’s so brave. You really need to somehow convince your donors and government to support that. Because that’s what I think people think of artists. We’re just these crazy people. Sometimes you don’t know what it’s going to be. You just need to make something.

AP: That’s right. My intuition tells me there’s something there.

PO: Can you tell me more about discovering things by accident or learning from mistakes? What has that been like in your career?

AP: All of the major stuff has come out of accidents, out of failures. This is not something that’s limited to science. That creative process, it doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or an artist or whatever, it’s the same. Human beings are really good at being curious.

I think this goes back to my art school days. We spent so much time having our work being critiqued by people. You sort of get very comfortable sitting outside of the box. You get comfortable following your intuition, that voice deep inside that’s saying, “This is important to me. I need to do it. Even if I get made fun of. Even if I’m going to fail.”

You get critiqued. And you often fail. And what you start learning how to do is to learn from that failure. That theme has followed me through my career, whether it’s an artistic project or scientific project. We need to ask this question because it’s important to us.

I want to know, I’m going to own my curiosity, and I don’t care if the whole scientific field wants to criticize me. Because I know this is an unanswered question which means I’m going to discover new knowledge. And I’m going to publish that, quantify it and prove it in an experiment, and at that point people have to take it seriously.

And then what’s been happening lately—I’m only ten years into my independent scientific career—but now what’s happening is other groups are reproducing our work, using our work as the starting point for their own type of work. That’s giving us a lot of validation.

A few years ago I would go to a conference and literally people would laugh at me. And now people are citing our work as the beginning of a new field. That’s really cool to see. So it’s that process. You need some guts to do it. And I tell my students this all the time.

I like to think that I’m creating an environment where there’s a certain safety net for them, that they can get used to doing this. I’m here to protect them and take the brunt of any criticism. But if you’re going to step out on your own you just have to be ready for it.

You have to work on projects that you’re passionate about because otherwise it’s going to suck. And you need to figure out what that is and own it. Most people are just not used to doing that, not used to stepping out, being beyond the norms, beyond the borders of the box.

PO: So I’m just thinking about how I’m going to translate “it’s going to suck” into Khmer. But listening to you there are two things that come to mind. One is this bravery to be different, this bravery to go on stage knowing that people are going to laugh at and ridicule you. Have there been moments when you felt like, “I give up. I don’t want to do this anymore.” Have there been those moments at all?

AP: I don’t think so. Maybe there is a little bit of cockiness here, or arrogance, or maybe a better word is self-confidence. If anything, when I get criticized, I do two things. One is I listen to it very carefully. The people keeping you honest is actually a really good thing. Some of the colleagues who I respect the most are the most critical and most vocal about our work. Because they’re never afraid to just tell me what they think. And honestly, even if I disagree, even if I go back to my team and I look at what they are saying, and we’re convinced ourselves that they’re misinterpreting it, then at least we’ve been kept honest. We’ve thought through the criticism, we’ve thought through all of the arguments for why that argument is not valid. Or the criticism is totally valid and it just helps us to do better science.

And the other part of this is that when I’m criticized, I usually find it energizing. At least I’m getting a response from people. How many conferences have we been to where someone is giving a talk and people are yawning and just don’t care? At least I’m getting a response.

I may get vocal critics but I also get vocal supporters. And they’re often younger, earlier career scientists. And that gives me hope for the future. If I can inspire them right now, if our work can give them ammunition to emulate what we’ve done, I think that’s a good thing.

Someone’s got to break ground—and I’m not the only one. But someone’s got to break ground.

The other comment that I’ve been hearing recently from more senior scientists is . . . They come up to me and they say, “You know what, I’m going to start a project that I’ve always thought was crazy. I’m going to do that.” Or they’ll come back to me and say, “A few months ago we did a Pelling-like project. We undertook this crazy research and we discovered all these things.”

PO: And there’s a new word for it, “Pelling-like.”

AP: I hear that all the time from people telling me that it’s very brave. I’ve heard that two or three times last week actually. That’s very brave! I don’t think it is.

PO: Well, I think it really is brave. I think for someone like you, where it’s very natural to experiment and be curious, it may not feel so. But I think that for a lot of people, as you were saying, that that’s something unnatural. It does require a certain sense of bravery to be the different one.

The second thing that I was hearing was “new knowledge.” What is the importance of new knowledge for you?

AP: For me knowledge is everything. It’s an ideal of science at least, if not every discipline. It’s an ideal that what we do allows us to understand the universe better and reveals how the universe works. It’s all about new knowledge.

There’s the moments of discovery. It’s very new and you start to understand it. And then it becomes dogma sometimes. And discovering new knowledge sometimes requires breaking that dogma, questioning what we already know. And that’s the scientific process: constantly questioning.

But there are a lot of outside human factors that would motivate someone not to want to change the field that dramatically. Because suddenly it invalidates their decades of research. Well, in their mind anyways. It certainly doesn’t invalidate their research.

So again, I’m trying to own it. Curiosity is linked to discovering new knowledge. And in order to do that you have to ask questions that have never been asked before. For me that’s the only way I can get at new knowledge. So if I’m going to ask “weird” questions, it requires being very creative and fearless about questioning dogma and breaking rules.

It takes practice. People are just comfortable with dogma because there’s often no opportunity to practice breaking it. I often talk about curiosity as a practice. I practice curiosity.

It takes time. And I think art school’s good for this. It can be good for this.

PO: Art school is also very expensive. And unfortunately, it seems that in every country in the world, when they think about what’s important in terms of education, art is the last thing they think about. It’s also the first thing that they throw out.

Could you talk more about how your background in the arts, your training in an art school, was instrumental in you becoming you today? Does the art school list you among notable alumni? Like, “You could become the next Andrew Pelling.” Forget Andy Warhol, it’s all about Andy Pelling.

AP: I think, especially now, we just don’t need people to be robots. We already have computers and AI. We just don’t need people who can regurgitate information. It’s not good enough to just be a specialist in your field, and all you can do is regurgitate a textbook to me. When I teach students, I tell them it’s not good enough. And in fact, I would even argue that to become hyper-specialized isn’t all that useful because our world is so multidisciplinary now.

Think about people who are developing artificial intelligence. Of course there’s science behind it but it’s being applied to healthcare, so you need to have some understanding of healthcare. And then there’s all the ethical dimensions to it. So you have to have an understanding of the societal problems. And you can’t cut yourself off from all of it. Those discussions have to be had. You might talk with other people who are more specialized, but you have to be able to interact and synthesize information.

I think all of that comes down to creativity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or an artist. You have to be able to think much more creatively in all ways. I’ve always found my art education to be really fundamental, helping along in all of that, helping me to have the confidence to think creatively, as well as the training, the craft of creativity.

The craft of curiosity is something you have to practice. It’s not something you read in a book. You just have to do it. My arts education forced me to do that. Because I was exposed, at first, to different fields and practices, and got used to talking different languages, speaking differently.

We need people who can think. As surprising as it sounds, we just need people to think.

PO: It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or a scientist. You just need to be crazy.

AP: How are we going to invent this crazy, unexpected technology? You have to be nuts!

Chixel Array. Photo: Andrew Pelling.

PO: With all the experimentation that you’re doing in your lab, and the ramifications of that for society, what about you? Do you feel that you have to constantly challenge yourself, experiment with yourself, in order to do the bigger work?

AP: Oh that’s a good question. I do. What some people know about me, or some don’t, is that I will often give myself very weird projects sometimes. Ones that just I have to do. It’s not a deliberate thing. I wait for that moment of inspiration.

I don’t know if I’ve ever shown you these little chickens ever.

PO: For some reason they’re familiar to me.

AP: This is a good example. I was in the dollar store a few months ago and I happened to come across this box of chickens. I don’t know why but I was just mesmerized by these stupid chickens. So I cleared out the shelf. I bought all of them and dropped them off at home. I just kept obsessing over them saying, “I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something with these things.”

I ended up creating a little light installation thing where these chickens are being lit up in different colors. Again, it’s just really stupid. But allowing myself . . . I give myself permission to do this. My whole weekend got eaten up by this. I ignored everything I had to do. All my responsibilities were pushed back and I obsessed over these chickens and built a light sculpture out of these things.

It required me to problem solve a whole bunch of design issues. I had to code. I had to solder together some circuits, work with LEDs. It literally took all weekend to figure this thing out.

In and of itself, this object has no real purpose. For me it’s the process of . . . Here’s the problem. Identifying it, figuring out the design criteria, thinking through things even though it’s pointless. It’s the practice of problem-solving and thinking creatively.

So I do this a lot. I build lots of weird things. It’s not prescribed. I don’t say I’m doing one a week or anything like that. When I see something where I know, just for some reason it’s resonating in my mind. Unlike most adults I won’t ignore it or push it off. I will obsess over it, push out all my other responsibilities and figure out what’s going on, why this thing is so interesting to me.

I ended up connecting each chicken to an LED pixel and then on social media I was like, “Look, I’ve invented the ‘Chixel.’”

PO: The Chixel!

AP: It’s a whole new technology. It’s a chicken plus an LED. So stupid.

When the whole thing was implemented, it was really mesmerizing. It’s surprising how interesting this thing ended up being. I shared it on social media and people went nuts. Somebody offered to pay $1,000 for this stupid Chixel Array. I couldn’t believe it.

What was really satisfying was that people just loved it. The response was really positive. It’s just a bunch of chickens being lit up in different colors. It’s nothing special.

But I think it’s so playful. It’s so weird. You don’t expect to see it in your daily life. So it really resonated with people, and the process really resonated with people too.

PO: But those chickens are cute.

AP: I’ve got boxes of them in the back. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of them.

PO: You’re going to be the crazy chicken guy. There’s the crazy cat lady; you’ll be the crazy chicken guy.

AP: One of the other ones that people have always loved was . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those blood pressure monitors that you strap to your wrists. They’re portable and they read out your blood pressure.

PO: The ones that tighten, right?

AP: Yeah, exactly. These ones are battery-operated and portable. You don’t need to go to your doctor’s office. We hacked one and put a little stress sensor in there. If you’re sort of stressed out, it will detect that and then it will tweet, “I need a hug.” And if somebody responds back with “#hug” then the armband squeezes your wrist. You can send a hug through Twitter.

PO: That’s so wonderful.

AP: Again, the response has been really positive. But if I told somebody, “I’m going to build a machine that sends hugs through Twitter.” It sounds stupid.

We were then approached by an autism researcher, and we might end up collaborating on a project. He said this is the type of thing that might really work with some autistic kids who need that little bit of physical stimulus to help them focus. But also, for parents to be sending hugs to their kids if that device is measuring some sort of physiological stress.

Who knew?

Biohacked Lego men. Photo: Andrew Pelling.

PO: Wow. Speaking of hacking, I’m not a scientist. I’m now in a country where I don’t know what to say if you asked what people are doing in terms of science. What is biohacking if you were to explain it to a guy on the street? Or to an auntie or an uncle?

AP: We’ve all heard in the news that an account has been hacked. Or a computer system has been hacked. We usually think about someone altering computer code, writing malicious computer code, like a program or piece of software that does something nasty.

The early days of biohacking really was this analogy of . . . There’s an analogy between our genetic code, our DNA, which has all these letters. It’s a code—and hacking that code, right? There are biological tools that allow you to rewrite it. That’s the traditional ideal of biohacking, creating a genetically modified organism (GMO).

For me, I’m more primitive than that. I think, if you hack together an object. You take apart a toaster and a printer, and you put some parts together, and you create a bicycle out of it or something. It’s called physical hacking.

I think about biology in that way. Can I take parts of an apple that I like, parts of a human that I like, parts of a mouse? Can I put them back together to create something new out of it? Kind of thinking of biology like legos, like building biology. That’s kind of how we think of biohacking. It’s very primitive. It’s sort of like Frankenstein: taking the parts you like, putting them together, seeing if you can power it on. That’s driven a lot of our research.

Again in the early days, this was a very weird way to think about biohacking. It was like this sort of Stone Age approach to things. Because what we do in the lab is just primitive compared to so many other labs right now. And we’ve been much more successful than some of those people.

PO: What are some examples of biohacking that your lab has done?

AP: One of the projects that didn’t really go anywhere was . . . We took human cells, jellyfish DNA, and lego figures to make little green men. You know those little Lego mini figures? We grew greens skin onto them. That’s a hack—classic. We took human cells and jellyfish and it became a semi-living object.

The hack that’s most well-recognized is that we took parts of an apple, the flesh of an apple. We were able to grow human cells onto it. And we created prosthetics or implants. We’re now starting to take those materials, put them into human beings for clinical trials to start fixing damaged tissues and diseases.

If you think about it, the end-product would be a human with plant material inside of them. It’s this sort of plant hybrid that wouldn’t naturally exist in nature. But it’s still living. It’s not unlike people with titanium inside of them, or silicone.

Using plant is really interesting because that implanted tissue actually becomes alive. Your cells live inside of it. It’s a living part of your body rather than just a piece of metal stuck to your head or to your bones. That’s kind of a big shift there.

PO: It’s making me think. I remember reading that in Cambodia, that there was a tradition of implanting metal that’s been inscribed upon with sacred letters, a protective spell that would be implanted into you.

AP: That’s interesting.

PO: What about metal and electronic objects? I’m thinking about the future of AI and things that you see in the movies when you’re growing up—these robot-people. What about things like that?

AP: That’s actually becoming quite popular. People are calling themselves cyborgs now, and I guess that definition sort of holds. They’re implanting electronics under their skin. There may be sensors and lights. There may be just purely aesthetic reasons for why someone would want to do this, or there might be some functional reason.

This is not a standard practice. People are doing this in garages, tattoo parlors, and outside of the medical institutions primarily because these are boards and electronics that they’re building themselves. They’re taking that risk upon themselves. That’s very fascinating stuff.

For me, where my interest in that kind of stuff ends is that those boards and electronics are never living. They’re always a foreign object in the body. That’s not to say it’s not cool. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if it was alive?

This actually goes back to what I was talking about in The Matrix. It’s a little bit of a thought experiment but if I had a piece of tissue, a human tissue powering some electronics, and the electronics are in turn feeding the tissue the nutrients it needs to grow, then the tissue is being kept alive by the electronics but also the electronics are being powered, kept alive, by the tissue. What you have in that scenario is a symbiotic relationship between silicon and carbon biology.

That for me is a little more interesting than a cyborg, which is someone who has implanted a piece of dead electronics inside of them. It’s just reading something or it’s powered by a battery or something.

As a concept, potentially what we’re trying to build here is a symbiotic cybernetic organism. It’s a little bit murky. We still haven’t found the right language to explain it all. But basically there’s this symbiotic relationship between electronics and organism, the human, where each keeps the other alive. Without one the other dies. I think that’s really the next, next step.

Right now, we’ve got electronics that are passively measuring things in your body and spitting out data. And the electronics now are being powered by rechargeable batteries. So they always have to be pulled out, recharged, and put back in.

If we think next, next step, maybe those electronics are being powered by your own blood system, your own energy. And at the same time, they’re keeping you alive in some way or connecting you to the internet. Who knows? There’s all sorts of possibilities.

I’d like to remove the battery from the whole situation. There’s no need to replace a battery. This thing is just powered by you. And in turn, could this thing be helping to keep you alive in some way, maybe an organ? Right now we’re at the beginning of all this so who knows where this goes.

PO: So maybe I’m crazy. Or maybe I’m not understanding you. But you mentioned the loop between carbon and silicon, and how those forms can send energy to each other. Is there the sense that . . . Is immortality possible in something like this?

AP: Yeah, I think that’s there too. The other consequence that’s gaining a lot of traction right now is this so-called “singularity.” You upload your consciousness to the internet, do away with your physical body and whatever that means.

These types of concepts, these types of technologies where something biological is powering something electronic and the electronic component is keeping the biology alive could play a role in all of that. Potentially this could lead to avatars, where they will be able to download your consciousness to.

I think these are the ideas that are coming. We haven’t proven anything. It’s all speculation right now. It’s really interesting science fiction. How much of that we can make real is a fun game to play.

I think that the immortality question is there. My wife however, she is adamant. She has one life to live and that’s that. For me, if I could have a very good internet connection that might be enough. We keep joking around here that if we could make an implant that would give you super high speed internet, that would be so cool.

PO: I think people would really love that. The bigger questions and possibilities will come later.

AP: Absolutely.

Apples to ears. Photo: Bonnie Findley.

PO: I have one last question. This idea of making an ear from an apple, this idea of this plant-human—all throughout history, all throughout the world, there are spirits that are associated with trees and flowers . . . It’s really interesting to literally have that happen.

But now to root it in the ground here in Cambodia. This is a country that’s still grappling with the effects of war in so many ways. Landmines are still littered in some parts of the country. There are people who are maimed, missing their limbs, fingers, and legs as a result. How do you see this technology impacting a place like Cambodia?

AP: This is one of the unintended consequences of just working on a goofy sci-fi project, trying to grow cells in apples. What we accidentally discovered was that we suddenly have a material made from plants that seems to be very effective at rebuilding bones, skin, soft tissue, and nerves even. It’s much cheaper and much more accessible than any other method out there right now.

The traditional materials that are out there are exorbitantly expensive. They’re often derived from animals, or human cadavers are cut up and the parts we like are used in other people. Or they’re made from chemicals. Again, it’s just an expensive process. There are a lot of ethical problems with it. It’s kind of the only solution right now.

All of a sudden though, there’s something that can be made from plants. This solves a lot of problems, like costs and ethics. Also, interestingly, we haven’t done it yet, I think it’s still down the road . . . But one of the things that we are thinking about is: could we train clinicians in a country to use the local plants that are available to them to make these types of prosthetics on-site? And then you’re not dependent on FedEx or pharmaceutical companies shipping it to you, which is not always straightforward and often can be expensive no matter what.

We’re about to embark on human clinical trials. We have a lot of diligence to do here to make sure that it’s properly safe on human beings before it’s ready for people to get this on a wide, global scale. All of our animal studies so far have been really positive so we’re not expecting any surprises. But we have to do this. Once it’s an accepted and validated approach, these materials can be made as a medical-grade product, it’s safe, it’s stable in the human body, then all of a sudden you could think about it.

Could you, yourself, go out into the forest and grab what you want and make your next appendage?

Or, if you take the ears as an example, people ask a lot why we didn’t 3D-print the ear. “Why didn’t you use a robot to carve it out? Why did you get a human to do it?” I got my wife who is a woodcarver to carve it. Because right now, if you want an ear, a pharmaceutical company determines what your ear looks like and it’s all robotic and mass-produced.

This approach, showing you can hand-make this body part, means that we’re putting power back into the patient’s hands. They themselves could define what it looks like. And it doesn’t have to look like a normal ear if they don’t want it to. Or you can co-commission an artist to create that prosthetic for you. It opens up this new dimension in controlling what your body looks like, how it functions.

I mean, for many people, if you’ve lost limbs, all you want is a working arm or leg. That certainly is priority number one. But I’m thinking a little bit ahead in the future here— and let’s say that this all becomes standard—it also becomes possible to think about how I would redesign my limb if I had to. Or do I just want it to look like my old arm? Here’s a picture; make it look like that. And that’s fine too.

These possibilities are really interesting, both from the immediate accessibility to healthcare and healthcare technologies and also thinking forward to the future about how we define our own bodies. And there’s the fact that these become living parts. It’s not just titanium or plastic.

This is an area where we’ve had a lot of interest from people who are transitioning, going through sex changes. If you’re getting breasts, they aren’t just silicone bags. This would actually become flesh. Your flesh. And that idea’s powerful for somebody’s well-being.

All of this was unintended. We weren’t expecting any of this. Although that’s what happens sometimes.

PO: So, no expectations.

AP: Or expect the unexpected. And yeah, the genesis of this project was . . . Have you seen The Little Shop of Horrors? That plant that eats people—we were just trying to grow a plant that eats people!

PO: It’s nice to know you have the good of humanity in mind.

AP: Well, you know, it wasn’t the original intent but we follow the data.


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