ITHACA, N.Y. — People experience the world through five senses but sharks, paddlefishes and certain other aquatic vertebrates have a sixth sense: They can detect weak electrical fields in the water and use this information to detect prey, communicate and orient themselves.
A study in the Oct. 11 issue of Nature Communications that caps more than 25 years of work finds that the vast majority of vertebrates – some 30,000 species of land animals (including humans) and a roughly equal number of ray-finned fishes – descended from a common ancestor that had a well-developed electroreceptive system.
This ancestor was probably a predatory marine fish with good eyesight, jaws and teeth and a lateral line system for detecting water movements, visible as a stripe along the flank of most fishes. It lived around 500 million years ago. The vast majority of the approximately 65,000 living vertebrate species are its descendants.
What this brings up: The idea of enhancing us to have additional senses. Also, existing senses can have ranges and sensitivities extended. Imagine being able to hear much higher frequency sounds. Those who could do this could even work out ways to talk to each other without being heard by the rest of us. Imagine vocal implants for generating higher frequency sounds.
What's more appealing? Seeing a wider range of colors, hearing a wider range of sounds, or perhaps sensing magnetic fields? Or do you have some other type of sensory capability you'd like to have? A wider range of visual focus? Sound filtering built into your ears to hear conversations in noisy areas?
Remember in the original Star Trek series how the blind woman with a sensor cape Miranda Jones could see what's around her by using her cape? In real life MIT researchers are working on a clothing fiber that will embed lots of mini-cameras making an outer garment that might some day feed images from all directions into the brain.
Imagine a soldier's uniform made of a special fabric that allows him to look in all directions and identify threats that are to his side or even behind him. In work that could turn such science fiction into reality, MIT researchers have developed light-detecting fibers that, when weaved into a web, act as a flexible camera. Fabric composed of these fibers could be joined to a computer that could provide information on a small display screen attached to a visor, providing the soldier greater awareness of his surroundings.
The researchers, led by Associate Professor Yoel Fink of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), emphasize that while such an application and others like it are still only dreams, work is rapidly progressing on developing fabrics capable of capturing images. In a recent issue of the journal Nanoletters, the team reported what it called a "significant" advance: using such a fiber web to take a rudimentary picture of a smiley face.
Humanity needs to get cracking and invent all the stuff that the Federation is going to need in coming centuries.
In recent years, obesity has taken on epidemic proportions in developed nations, contributing significantly to major medical problems, early death and rising health care costs. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, at least a quarter of all American adults and more than 15 percent of children and adolescents are obese.
While recent research advances and treatment methods have had little effect in reducing obesity levels, researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, in collaboration with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, may have discovered a completely new way to approach the problem.
In a study to be published in the June 3 issue of the journal Cell Metabolism, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor James Liao, associate professor of human genetics and pediatrics Katrina Dipple and their research team demonstrate how they successfully constructed a non-native pathway in mice that increased fatty acid metabolism and resulted in resistance to diet-induced obesity.
Humans are going to need to re-engineer our metabolisms to better fit into our niches in industrialized societies with plentiful food. Mice are leading the way into our transgenic future.
The researchers transferred genes from bacteria into the mice to alter their fatty acid metabolism.
To investigate the effects of the glyoxylate shunt on fatty acid metabolism in mammals, Liao's team cloned bacteria genes from Escherichia coli that would enable the shunt, then introduced the cloned E. coli genes into the mitochondria of liver cells in mice; mitochondria are where fatty acids are burned in cells.
The researchers found that the glyoxylate shunt cut the energy-generating pathway of the cell in half, allowing the cell to digest the fatty acid much faster than normal. They also found that by cutting through this pathway, they created an additional pathway for converting fatty acid into carbon dioxide. This new cycle allowed the cell to digest fatty acid more effectively.
We might adjust to our altered environments by altering our taste buds to derive more enjoyment from vegetables or perhaps by tweaking our brains to lower our appetites. But the ability to turn up our metabolisms to burn off excess fat would certainly be handy.
Recently listening to music too loud caused nerves in one of my ears to produce a sort of whistling sound afterward. The sound eventually went away. It occurred to me that while loud music often sounds better our ears are not designed to sustainably handle it. So I know one transhumanist upgrade I want for my body: ear cells (or perhaps some nanomaterial) that can better resist damage from loud sounds.
People who like the X-Men and other superheroes with superpowers have fantasized about all sorts of super enhancements such as super muscular strength. Surely some superheroes have ears that can hear at much lower sound volumes or eyes that can clearly focus on much smaller or more distant objects. But I got to thinking: what practical upgrades do you want for your body for daily life?
I see ears that can let me listen to louder music as something that would enrich my every day life. I do not need to be climbing Mount Everest or fighting a super evil genius to benefit from ears that can safely listen to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade or the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street turned up really loud. What other body upgrades would come in handy in a similar manner?
I know a lot of people who would benefit from stronger knee, elbow, and back designs. I know people who can't jog any more or who can't bicycle any more due to knee or back injuries. Some got their injuries in their 20s. These injuries are therefore more the result of exceeding design specifications than from aging. This is what I'm interested in here.
Sure, we need rejuvenation therapies. But once such therapies become available and your body returns to a teenage level of youthfulness. What parts of your fully rejuvenated body would still not let you engage in some pretty commonplace activity to the level you want to do it?
Of course, rejuvenation therapies will also be able to repair ears damaged by loud music, knees damaged in football, or elbows worn out in tennis. But I'd rather avoid the need for frequent repairs and ruggedize some body parts.
So what are your upgrade needs and desires?