Can Bioelectrical Signals Reverse Aging? | Dr. Michael Levin
Live Longer World Podcast Episode #19
"Asking the question: Why do we have Cancer is the wrong question. The real question is, why is there ever anything but cancer. Why are individual cells able to work together to build complex organs?"
Live Longer World Podcast Episode #19 has been released!
My guest today is Dr. Michael Levin. He is an American developmental and synthetic biologist at Tufts University where he heads his own lab. He also directs the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.
His groundbreaking research focuses on bioelectrical signals that dictate the collective intelligence of cells and direct it to form tissues and organs. His work on bioelectric signals has important applications for how we understand cancer, regenerative medicine and even aging. In fact, he is collaborating with David Sinclair to see how his work can be applied to reverse aging.
Michael Levin’s work is fascinating and will surely leave you thinking. I hope you enjoy the conversation!
Listen to the Podcast:
Apple Podcasts: here
Google / All Platforms: here
0:40 How do cells decide what to build?
10:05 DNA is insufficient for dictating collective intelligence of cells
19:00 Anatomical Complier (End game)
22:24 History of Cellular Collective Intelligence & Ala Turing
26:30 Regenerative Medicine & Morphoceuticals
38:05 Cells forming new anatomies
44:53 Cancer as a morphogenetic problem
55:16 David Sinclair, Bioelectrics to reverse aging
57:44 Synthetic Wombs & Artificial Life
59:41 Support Live Longer World!
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Premium Subscriber Transcript:
Aastha: Very excited to talk to you about your research today. Huge fan of it. I want to start by reading out a sentence from your website where you say that, "Most of the interesting questions in biology boil down to the control of shape. We all start life as a single cell, the egg, which somehow self-assembles into an incredibly complex organism, and the question of how it's able to achieve its intended pattern or morphology as you call it, is the main issue of developmental for biology."
I think this is fascinating because what you're saying is that cells come together to form these tissues and organs and entire complex organisms. A lot of your research focuses on the fact that cells have this collective intelligence that they use to form entire organisms or bioelectrical signals. I'll let you explain what you mean by collective intelligence or bioelectrical signals.
Michael Levin: Sure. There's a couple of things going on here with the focus on embryonic development. One is, if we just really practically think about biomedicine, you can notice that with the exception of infectious disease, almost all of the problems of medicine would be solved if we could tell cells what to do. If we have the ability to determine what it is that cells build together, then birth defects, traumatic injury, cancer, aging, degenerative disease, all of these could be resolved because you could simply tell the cells to build healthy, new organs.
Morphogenesis is a really fundamental problem in biology and medicine in particular, in terms of this question of how do collective cells decide what they're going to build, because it's clear that they can build multiple things. They normally build the same default kinds of patterns, but how do we understand that? How do we control it? That's the first thing.
The other more deeper, more philosophical way to think about it is that a lot of times, people will look at themselves or other humans or even other what's so-called advanced animals, and they will say, "I am a cognitive system. I have true beliefs, memories, cognition, right preferences," that there is just physics. This other thing, whether it be some AI that somebody built or a synthetic construct, whatever, that's just physics, that's just mechanism.
We all in our life made that journey from just physics, which was a single cell with all the chemistry that goes on there, but very slowly step by step with no magical life flash of any kind when cognition shows up, we become this highly sentient being with a first person perspective and so on. That process is very slow and smooth, and we all journeyed through that. That helps us really think in an important way about where things come from, such as cognition, such as memory preferences, all these issues. I think it's very important to keep in mind where we come from, both evolutionarily and developmentally.
Aastha: I see. There are two points you mentioned. One of course, once we understand how cells process this information, it can have important implications for regeneration, aging, cancer, as you mentioned, and we'll talk about some of that. Then the second one, super interesting from a philosopher's standpoint then, I guess is that a way of saying we're maybe programmed and once you figure out these electrical signals, you can essentially create these organisms with memory and cognition, or free will, or consciousness, or what have you. I think you've probably shown that maybe initially with some of your experiments around xenobots as well.
Michael: Yes, I think that's unavoidable in a modern scientific worldview. I think it is unavoidable, and that in taking evolution seriously, taking developmental biology seriously, realizing that all of these changes are very slow and gradual. I think it is unavoidable to think that the processes that give rise to cognition, memory, and so on in us and in other animals are something that not only can arise through the processes of evolution, but of course can be engineered as well.
There's nothing really magical about evolution. It's this large-scale hill-climbing search through the space of possible bodies, which give rise to possible minds. There's zero reason why engineers couldn't do better than a more or less randomly guided process that basically just optimizes for biomass. It's not really optimizing for intelligence or anything like that.
Yes, I think it's absolutely likely that we will be able to engineer those things that raises many important responsibilities for us both ethically and scientifically to understand really what we're doing.