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What Bodies Think About: Bioelectric Computation Outside the Nervous System (youtube.com)
117 points by adenadel on Dec 21, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 16 comments

This is an absolutely fantastic talk.

tl;dw (others can jump in if they'd like):

- Organism morphology seem to be highly dependent upon large-scale electrical potential differentials between cells

- These electrical networks are primarily regulated by cell-to-cell gated ion channels; simple chemical pumps (the same types of membrane proteins that control faster-acting electric potentials that enable muscle contraction, neural activity)

- These networks and patterns of bioelectric signalling have stable memory (once a pattern between cells is induced, it remains stable) and are responsible for driving "subroutines" of large groups of cells -- morphological gene, protein expression downstream of this

Michael Levin mentions a few times how they manipulate these bioelectric fields towards desired morphological outcomes ("we don't apply electrodes", etc.)... but I have a feeling the CS-y people might still get a little lost, so, I'll try to summarize as best I can. (Some nuance will be lost, apologies in advance.)

The gated ion channels (mentioned above) are simply protein complexes that transfer ions (K+, etc.) across cells (and thus regulate the overall bioelectric signature: charge of specific tissues, regions). As protein complexes these gates themselves can be altered either in the way they're built (genetically) or with a "cocktail of chemicals", this cocktail being one that interferes to some degree with the rate at which ions are transferred between cells.

To make an analogy to human society to help you understand: imagine individual cells (or cell types, tissues) are like countries, and imagine ions are engineers. Gated ion channels are border crossings, complete with Visa requirements and regulations. To stably get more engineers from [Head Country] to [Tail Country] to build a head, you'd try to find a way to prioritize skilled immigration acceptance in [Tail Country]. This means you modify [Visa requirements] slightly, but not enough to relax immigration requirements completely and throw the country's economy into chaos.

Modifying [Visa requirements] (gated ion channel behavior) is a much more nuanced and stable way to change organism morphology, and it appears to be as elegant as it sounds re: regulating downstream effects. Really exciting stuff. If I had remained in academia I would be extremely interested in pursuing this field of research, definitely having a moment of rose-tinted glasses here :).

To opine on my own: what I'm really interested in, personally, is the applications to individual organ regrowth that isn't just restricted to [whole organism morphology]. The immediately obvious benefit of this work, to me, is the prospect of eliminating transplant lists altogether.

Do you have any good recommendations for books, textbooks, links, lectures or papers for beginners to start to understand this area?

When I was in undergrad I pretty much just read the textbooks directly and used Wikipedia for supplementary reading. I donate (nearly) every year to Wikipedia because I would not have graduated without it.

This is the exact Molecular Cell Biology text we were assigned a decade ago (though I’d imagine it’s significantly updated now):


The first principles of a an education in biochemistry are roughly, (1) the central dogma: DNA (transcribed) -> RNA (translated) -> Protein. (2) basic principles of diffusion and chemical equilibria.

Most biochemical systems do work by leveraging potential energy gradients across membranes. For example: there’s a lot of K+ on one side of a membrane, and very little on the other. If you selectively open a channel between the two compartments, we know that statistically the ion (K+) flow will be directionally towards where there’s less K+ (diffusion). Biochemical systems use natural properties of stochastic systems to do work: if we know K+ is traveling in one direction, you can imagine a flywheel of sorts positioned to turn that ion movement into useful energy (ion channels).

The processes by which energy is transferred and utilized is pretty much the field of biochemistry in a nutshell.

I'm curious if you have come across any reference to non-ionic current flow, e.g. semi-conductive. I feel like I've seen it mentioned, possibly along the cytoskeleton and via gap junctions, but can't come up with anything offhand.

So what's the effect of widespread use of microwaves (and soon with 5G, terahertz radiation) on the bioelectrical communication that's going on within our bodies?

I keep seeing industry studies that say there aren't any health effects, but that's purely due to the argument that the thermal effects of microwave radiation aren't sufficient to harm us (i.e. we're not cooking ourselves).

What about non-thermal effects? And how do microwaves affect, say, the long-range navigation of birds or insects, which we do know must have an electromagnetic component since they're in part using the Earth's magnetic field?

We’re really talking about electrochemical gradients here: sustained bioelectric fields that represent the differential accumulation of ions in cells / tissue. Radiation would need to be ionizing and intense or have enough of a heating effect to materially alter the structure of gated ion channels (like, you literally put an organism in a microwave) to make a difference. In both cases the result would likely be failure to thrive (complete disruption), but moreso due to the fact you’ve destroyed every other protein in the organism in this process.

I’m not going to be completely dismissive of possible side effects of long range microwave radiation on tissue, but you’re essentially asking something akin to, “how does my fridge magnet affect the Sun’s magnetic field and boundaries of the heliosphere?” i.e. orders of magnitude differential in effect size. Hope that helps!

I wonder what you think about this paper?


'extensive evidence has been published clearly showing that the EMF exposure can act to produce excessive activity of the VGCCs in many cell types suggesting that these may be direct targets of EMF exposure.'

> Radiation would need to be ionizing and intense or have enough of a heating effect to materially alter the structure of gated ion channels

I don't understand this point — why is it necessary that radiation be ionizing to affect VGC ion channels in a transient fashion that could still lead to long-term biochemical changes?

Because these frequencies dont handle water well. They turn into heat pretty fast when hitting flesh.

As for the birds navigating, a thousand 5g cells would have less impact on the earth's magnetic field than a single high voltage powerline.

What if you controlled the backdoor in the baseband processor and pointed a thousand 5G phones' beamforming antennas with full power at one bird (or one person on stage at a protest)?

Only 1000? At a range of say 100m... you might raise the temperature a degree or two. If the bird stood very still.

Smells like chicken.

Amazing and exciting.

If anyone is working in this area and would like to discuss, I'm eager to. I've been working on an independent thesis in the area for a few years and have extensive notes and extended ideas towards general intelligence theory and A.I.

I hope to contact the Levin lab about assisting with work there too; so maybe collaboration on some open-source support tools?

For some context, I submitted this talk a couple weeks ago and today HN asked me if I wanted to resubmit because it hadn’t got much attention.

HN meaning dang?

Yes, if you submit a link that doesn’t get much attention sometimes he will email you with a second chance for the submission. You also get an extra one upvote bump.

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