Stephen Riffle 10/20/2022 at 1:12 pm
“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the life-less thing that lay at my feet.” – Victor Frankenstein, disgraced scientist.
Between Dia De Los Muertos and Halloween, this time of year is marked by a celebration of both life and death, as well as musings about the blurry boundary separating them. The story of Frankenstein and his monster is one of the most popular examples of this, as the story features a scientist who was so preoccupied with whether he could, that he never stopped to ask if he should. The result is a composite, reanimated form of life that torments the doctor until his eventual death. This story, morbid as it is, seems like a particularly relevant frame through which we can explore our own work and its potential implications for how we view life and death.
In 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin—soon to be Mary Shelley—sat ruminating the essence of life under a blackened sky. Mount Tambora had exploded in Indonesia the year prior, prompting much of the world to experience an abnormally cold and dark summer. It is in this setting that Shelley considered vitalism, galvanism, and the potentially malleable (and apparently sinister) nature of life.
“Perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth,” Shelley wrote.
With advances in genetic engineering, bioprinting, and microfluidics, it is well within our ability to manufacture component parts of a creature, specifically tissue units. The individual cells in microphysiological systems, as well as the higher-order tissue unit, are capable of dynamic responses to their environments and may be connected to other organ-like tissues—so called body-on-a-chip setups. Both Organ-Chips and body-chips display remarkable similarities to in vivo tissues and have significant potential in disease modeling, drug development, and other such studies.
But as these models become more advanced and more accurate in their emulation of the human body, it seems appropriate to ask: When does an Organ-Chip, or a body-chip, become a living organism?
At the heart of this question is a deeper, philosophical one that has vexed scientists and the general public for centuries: What does it mean to be alive?
With no clear definition of life and yet an advancing ability to manufacture living tissues, it raises the question of whether we would even recognize life-on-a-chip if we made it. Who knows—maybe in pursuit of better, more human accurate models, we’ll discover something deeper about the nature of life itself.
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