Growing body parts from plants

Inspired by movies like Little Shop of Horrors and The Matrix, Andrew Pelling’s University of Ottawa lab is all about taking the most audacious ideas and turning them into reality
University of Ottawa
Cellular Biology
Andrew Pelling, wearing a microphone, points to a slice of apple in a petri dish.

Andrew Pelling’s Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa exalts curiosity and wild ideas. Described on its homepage as “an openly curious and exploratory space where scientists, engineers and artists work in close quarters,” the lab is about generating ideas — even far-fetched ones — to explore living technologies of the future.  

It was the launch point for an experiment that grew human ears from apple slices — now the subject of Pelling’s TED2016 talk that has garnered over a million views. It has also given rise to his new company, pHacktory, described as “a street-level research lab in Ottawa that amplifies community ideas through a potent mixture of craft, serendipity and curiosity.”

We talked to Pelling, who is Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics, to find out how using innate human curiosity as a guidepost has led him to develop game-changing new technologies that are more than great science-fiction-turned-fact.

You’re invited!

Hear Andrew Pelling speak in Ottawa on December 5, 2016.

What are speculative living technologies?

Good question! [laughing] I want to know if it’s possible to create living biological organs and tissues that don’t exist in nature right now. When I use the term speculative I mean we’re speculating about a potential tissue that might be of interest in the future. We’re trying to push biology into science fiction, or to see how we can make science fiction into science fact.

The work we’ve been doing with apples is a good example. We’re creating these hybrid living tissues from both plant and animal structures. You can’t find this in nature and this would be something very difficult to produce through genetic modification or synthetic biology, but we’ve been able to make these living tissues and animals in a dish. We can use them as implants or potentially as the basis for new types of organs that don’t exist right now.

One of the questions we ask ourselves commonly is “What would a new organ be?” What would it do? It’s a very difficult question to answer because we’re so used to what we have in our bodies already, it’s hard to think beyond that. Maybe an organ is a great Wi-Fi receiver hooked up to the cloud and a biosensor. It’s trying to redefine our notion of what biology should be and using the tools that are at our disposal right now to speculate about biology and the future of living systems on our planet, or on other planets.

Is it sometimes hard for people to understand what you do?

We’re taking cues from science fiction, which is familiar to a lot of people, and we’re trying to see how much of it is actually possible.

What people often have difficulty with is seeing what the application might be. This goes to my philosophy about science. We’re not actually trying to create things with applications. We have really almost no interest in that. We’re simply trying to ask questions that have no answers.

Right now in this age of biotech, we have a lot of power to manipulate and control biological systems and we’re trying to find out, well, how far can we go with that? My lab is driven by pure curiosity and even though we’re not trying to create applications, we’ve still spun out two companies, generated IP, had devices being commercialized by other companies in Canada. All that good stuff is happening despite the fact that we’re not trying to create applications or a better battery, we’re just following our curiosity and that curiosity is inspired by science fiction movies.

Has there been something missing from traditional research approaches?

What we’re doing is actually just classic Renaissance science. Every scientist will tell you the same thing — they started out as a curious kid. Somehow, we’ve equated the value of science and the value of knowledge to the application. I think we’ve forgotten that curiosity is intrinsically valuable. It’s part of what makes us human. We don’t say “Curiosity is valuable because it’s going to create the next billion-dollar enterprise.” Curiosity is valuable because it goes to the core of who we are as human beings, period. We should be creating environments where we encourage and value curiosity for curiosity’s sake. If we forget to generate new knowledge, then eventually we’re just going to kind of run out.

What is the role of art in your work?

My lab is about ideas. The best way to come up with really unconventional ideas is by getting a whole bunch of different perspectives in the same room together and saying “Ask questions! Be creative!” If you create an environment where you’ve got artists and social scientists and engineers and scientists of all stripes working together, you’re much more likely to come up with those disruptive ideas because you’re able to think about problems in ways that you normally wouldn’t. In my lab, what I’m trying to do is create the conditions for that serendipity to be maximized. It leads to a lot of dead ends but when things hit, they hit big.

You say you’re inspired by sci-fi. Is there something you’ve seen recently in that realm that you want to try to recreate?

I’m thinking a lot about The Matrix lately. I’m really interested in this notion of cyborg. If you’re walking around with a cell-phone, you could technically call yourself a cyborg. Same if you implant a piece of electronics under your skin, or you’ve got biosensors. But I think that doesn’t go far enough. I’ve been wondering, could we use a tissue in the body to power a piece of electronics which in turn maintains the health of the tissue itself, so you’ve got a symbiotic relationship. That’s very Matrix-like, where human bodies are powering the machines and the machines have to keep the human bodies happy and alive and fed. Could we actually create that in the lab at a very simple scale first and who knows where it goes after that? I don’t know if we’ll be able to but we’re at the concept phase and trying some initial, very early experiments on that.

What kind of future do you see?

I really don’t like answering that question, because what I hope is that by exploring these really wild and strange possibilities in biology, we’ll actually stumble on something that nobody’s even ever really thought of. Our apple stuff is a good example of that. We were initially trying to grow that man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors and it was a miserable failure. But it was during that process that we discovered that we could use plants as a biomaterial and all of a sudden we’ve got this biotechnology that’s insanely cheap and solves so many problems that come along with current biomaterial strategies. It could be very disruptive. There’s a potential now for people to actually create these things at home and take back ownership of what these implants look like. There’s another speculative future there. Maybe you’re designing your body at home and creating those organs that don’t exist in nature yet, just the way you can build your own computer. I really revel in that ambiguity of not knowing what the future is like and purposefully conducting experiments that are unconventional in order to potentially generate new ideas that just don’t exist at the moment.

Main image: Ryan Lash/TED