Topics Discussed: Embryogenesis, Xenobots: biological robots, Sense of self, Multi-scale competency architecture , Free will, Bioelectricity, Planaria, Building xenobots, Unconventional cognition, Origin of evolution, Synthetic organisms, Regenerative medicine, Cancer suppression, Viruses, Cognitive light cones, Advice for young people, Death, Meaning of life.
Michael Levin is an American developmental and synthetic biologist at Tufts University, where he is the Vannevar Bush Distinguished Professor. Levin is a director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University and Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.
Books Mentioned in this Podcast with Michael Levin:
Unlocking the Mysteries of Planaria: How Bioelectricity and Memory Shape Evolution
Planaria, those unassuming flatworms that dwell in the shadows of scientific fame, hold secrets that challenge our fundamental understanding of genetics and inheritance. With their incredible ability to regenerate, resist cancer, and adapt to changing conditions, planaria defy conventional biological wisdom. This article explores the intriguing interplay between genetics, bioelectricity, and memory in these fascinating creatures, shedding light on the complexities of evolution and development.
The Immortal Flatworms
One of the most astonishing aspects of planaria is their immortality. Unlike most organisms, these creatures do not age. There’s no gradual deterioration over time. Planaria have maintained their youthfulness for over 400 million years, effectively debunking the notion that aging is an unavoidable consequence of life. This peculiarity suggests that there might be more to the story of aging than we previously thought.
Regeneration: A Remarkable Feat
Regeneration is one of planaria’s most remarkable talents. If you were to cut a planarian into multiple pieces, each fragment would miraculously regrow into a perfect, fully functional worm. In fact, one daring experiment conducted by Thomas Hunt Morgan yielded an astounding record of 276 regenerated worms from a single original flatworm. The ability to regenerate to this extent opens up a world of possibilities for understanding and harnessing regenerative medicine in the future.
Resistance to Cancer
Despite their seemingly chaotic genetic makeup, planaria possess a remarkable resistance to cancer. While most organisms grapple with the specter of cancerous mutations, planaria navigate this perilous landscape with ease. This resistance hints at an intriguing relationship between the genome and the somatic network that transcends our traditional understanding of genetic determinism.
The Somatic Network: A Memory Bank for Body Plans
What truly sets planaria apart is the concept of the somatic network—a web of bioelectricity and memory that orchestrates their regeneration and adaptation. When you cut off a planarian’s head and tail, the middle fragment embarks on a journey to reconstruct a new head and tail. But how does it know how many heads and tails to make, and where to position them?
Researchers have uncovered that the somatic network within planaria holds the key to this mystery. By manipulating the electrical patterns in these organisms, scientists can essentially implant false memories into their somatic systems. The result? Planaria that defy their genetic instructions, growing two heads instead of one, all without a single alteration to their DNA.
Genome Versus Competency
The conundrum of planaria’s mixed-up genome versus their incredible competency raises profound questions about the nature of genetics and evolution. While the genome provides the hardware and initial instructions for an organism, the somatic network acts as a dynamic memory bank and adaptive mechanism. This interplay challenges the conventional idea that the genome solely dictates an organism’s characteristics and capabilities.
Planaria, the unsung heroes of the scientific world, continue to astound researchers with their unique blend of genetics, bioelectricity, and memory. They teach us that genetics is not the sole determinant of an organism’s destiny. Instead, the somatic network—fueled by bioelectricity and memory—plays an equally vital role in shaping the complexity of life.
The mysteries of planaria provide a compelling glimpse into the possibilities of regenerative medicine and the nature of evolution. As we continue to unravel the secrets of these immortal flatworms, we may find that they hold the key to transforming our understanding of genetics and unlocking new frontiers in medicine and biology.