[ScienceACEs: Biotechie]: As the Science ACEs, we love being scientists, but sometimes it does take a little magic out of a movie. In my excitement for Star
Wars: The Force Awakens, I began to wonder if my non-science friends had any interest in how the scientific discoveries we have today compared to those shown in Star Wars.
I contacted a friend of mine from college, Brad Highland, who is currently an assistant director in L.A. Who better to pose questions about Star Wars and science than someone who knows the saga like the back of his hand?
[Brad]: I was born in 1988, when the original Star Wars trilogy was already available on VHS. I’ve literally waited all my life for Episode VII. I know the franchise inside and out, and, with that in mind and with The Force Awakens mere days away, here are some questions I pose for the team at Science ACEs:
[Brad]: Let’s take a look at medicine and biology. Luke Skywalker gets his hand cut off in Episode V and receives a robotic replacement that looks identical to an actual human hand. It even responds to his neural impulses. Where do we stand on artificial limbs like that?
[Biotechie]: Prosthetics that are interfaced with and controlled by the brain exist, though they are still not quite as functional as the limb that is missing, and some of them require major surgery to interface with the brain. These prosthetics come in many shapes and sizes, depending on what the patient needs. Some look similar to normal body parts, and others look more like octopus arms. One major hurdle prosthetics must overcome in order to mimic natural limbs is the ability to feel different sensations. Currently, this limits how rapid and precise movements can be. The way prosthetics interface with our brains cannot reach full potential until these devices can effectively communicate sensations like pressure and heat. However, currently the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is testing new types of neural interface in the sensory cortex of the brain to fix this problem. Preliminary tests with patients and their prosthetic hands shows promise; they were able to tell which fingers on their prosthetic hand were touched. A new type of “skin” for prosthetics has also been developed that can detect force of touch or heat (and even sound) using electrical impulses. So are we at Vader-level prosthetics? No, not yet, but the groundwork has been laid, and we expect prosthetics to continue to improve. The next big debate: are prosthetics actually conferring an unfair advantage in sports?
[Brad]: Anakin Skywalker had all of his limbs hacked off, his body burnt, and, apparently, extensive lung damage. With the tech we have, could we have given Anakin a better quality of life than the Emperor did with the Vader suit?
[Biotechie]: Today, someone injured like Anakin Skywalker was would be very lucky to survive. We have successful limb transplants, but the degree of functionality varies, and is almost never as good as the body part which was lost. More than likely, the patient would be given prosthetic limbs. As far as the damaged lungs go, lung transplant is really the only viable option. The Vader Suit is way more highly advanced than anything we have, today, and it allows Anakin to be nearly normal, with the exception of his evil tendencies, propensity for black cloaks, and awkward breathing.
[Brad]: General Grievous is little more than lungs, heart, brain, and a few other organs housed in an extremely durable robot body. How close are we to living in a world where dying humans could just throw their organs in a robot suit and keep going?
[Biotechie]: Currently, medicine does not have a way to generate fool-proof organs for transplant. Failed organs today are replaced with donor organs from other individuals. The problem with this is that there is a chance of organ death or rejection by the recipient immune system. Ultimately, these patients have to take medication to suppress their immune system for the remainder of their lives.
However, scientists are working on making better organs for this purpose, and there are two main directions the research has proceeded. One direction involves trying to understand the basic biology behind how organs are formed. Scientists can generate certain types of stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), from adult tissues. These cells are still being researched, but scientists have generated small mini organs called organoids from these cells that have heart-like properties, including the ability to beat.
Another research area involves dissolving all of the cells in an organ, leaving only the structural matrix behind. This looks like a pale-white ghost version of the original organ. Then iPSCs from the person that needs to receive the organ or other donor cells are seeded into the matrix to grow. These methods have not been perfected for most organs, and large amounts of basic research are still needed to really understand how the different types of cells in an organ come together and how to get them to work together in an artificial setting.
Ultimately, this leads to the question of whether we will just be able to renew our organs indefinitely. Ideally, we could do so, though this would lead to major ethical considerations which we will not get into, today. There are many mechanisms to aging, many of which are still unknown to us or misunderstood. Even if we could generate new organs, the brain still ages, and we know once we lose our brain, we lose our sense of self.
[Brad]: Emperor Palpatine shoots Force lightning from his fingertips. Frickin’ lightning! Just how powerful is the human body when it comes to generating electricity? Could that energy be channeled into an external current? You know, like for shocking one’s enemies?
[Biotechie]: Researchers have already looked into this to a degree. The very fact that we’re alive as the giant multicellular organism that we are depends on electrical gradients within cells and communication throughout the body utilizing electrical impulses, especially communication in the brain and for stimulation of pumping in the heart. Thunderstorm clouds hold up to 100 million volts of potential. However, we ourselves can only generate up to 100 millivolts, which is enough for us to zap doorknobs with a little sting.
However, it is the current (measured in amps) we need to be the most worried about. The average lightning strike is about 30,000 amps. Between 100 and 200 MILLIamps can kill you. The amount of voltage and current in a lightning strike are so high that you would likely die or at the very least have irreversible damage. Our bodies are just not capable of producing that type of current or voltage. Odds are, even if you could produce that amount of electricity, it would cause irreversible damage and likely your death as well. There would have to be a very good reason for using this as it would be the ultimate sacrifice.
[Brad]: Attack of the Clones – Do I really want to know the current status on human cloning and eugenics?
[Biotechie]: We’re scientists, not Sith Lords. Most of us use gene editing in our research to try and answer questions about how our cells work or why changes to good genes cause disease. This information can be used not only to learn how processes in our cells work, but also to test out treatments on cells in a dish first to make sure they are safe before we let you try it.
Gene editing is something that has caused extreme controversy and sparked many ethical debates since it began, but these are things that have become talking points again now that we have discovered biological tools that make editing DNA easier than ever. In particular, it reached the forefront earlier this year when a group of Chinese researchers published that they had edited genes in human embryos (on embryos that were deemed unsuitable for in vitro fertilization and would have been discarded). Because of this, scientists had an International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington D.C. earlier this month. There will be no test tube babies with edited genes in the near future; the panel concluded that pregnancies resulting from sperm, eggs, or embryos that are genetically altered in the test tube would be irresponsible and unethical.
However, they did support using gene editing techniques to learn more about biology (and to treat people who already have these diseases). There are already clinical trials to use a safe virus to deliver a working copy of the gene to repair the effects of cystic fibrosis in the lungs of adult patients with some success. Healthy immune cells are being taken from patients and genetically modified to target and kill cancer cells such as leukemias with great success.
Gene editing on non-infant human patients will continue, and this will improve the quality of life for many patients in the near future. However, at least in the United States, scientists agree that human cloning is unethical, as is generation of the “perfect human.” There will be no attack of the human clones.
[Brad]: There are a number of species that share both mammalian and reptilian traits, such as Wampas, Taun-Tauns, and Rodians. How absurd is the idea of a mammal-reptile hybrid? If I remember Walking with Dinosaurs correctly, I believe there was once a small creature that bridged age of dinosaurs and the age of mammals.
[Rogers]: The idea is not actually that absurd when you consider the variety of lifeforms present on just our planet. Not only is there variety between different families of organisms (like the differences between bacteria, plants, insects, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, etc.), but even some of the characteristics that we think of as defining a group often don’t apply to all the members of that group! Some examples of Earth creatures that break the norm are: sharks that give birth instead of laying eggs (which are said to be viviparous), males that give birth (seahorses), and animals that are warm-blooded milk-producers but lay eggs (monotremes like the platypus and echidna), which some could argue seem like a combination of avian and mammalian traits! In fact, the creature you mention, an ancestor of mammals known as a synapsid, does seem to possess traits of both reptiles and mammals. All of this occurred on just our planet alone. In reality though, there is no way of knowing what kind of organism would evolve on another life-supporting planet. They may not use proteins or have DNA or even be carbon-based! There is just no way to predict one way or the other definitively. Personally, I would be surprised to find as many humanoid creatures as you see in Star Wars and other Sci-Fi universes.
[Brad]: Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle are moisture farmers, a logical occupation considering they live an a planet covered in sand. Could Uncle Owen’s moisture vaporators be the key to ending California’s drought?
[Bryan]: Making sure people have water is very important. Moisture farmers on Tatooine likely supplied water to people in the region for crops and drinking, and these moisture vaporators must have been serious business. Taking water from the air isn’t too far-fetched: many parts of our world see dew every morning. But in a desert environment, where the humidity is lower, could it still work? The Namib Desert Beetle may have a solution. Its shell is made to capture and funnel moisture from the air to the mouth. Self-filling water bottles are being developed by members of an MIT team using technology mimicking this beetle. This may be a very practical solution for harvesting water without the need for desalinization.
Ever wondered if the tech in Star Wars could be real? Could you ever have a lightsaber? Check back tomorrow for Part II of our Q&A session with Brad for answers!