“Biohacking” and probing the unknown keep University of Ottawa scientist at the cutting edge of cell research

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What are the chances the human of tomorrow will have an organ that we currently don't? Imagine a new organism with four small lungs, an IP address and a Twitter account. University of Ottawa professor Andrew Pelling's research shows that the possibilities of a post-human future are endless.

Professor Pelling, a Canada Research Chair and assistant professor in the Departments of Physics and Biology, heads the PellingLab – a laboratory for biophysical manipulation in the University's Centre for Interdisciplinary Nanophysics that explores how cells respond to the physical environment and uses mechanical, topological and physical stimuli to control cell fate, differentiation and morphogenesis.

Although the bulk of Professor Pelling's research helps detect and treat diseases and may provide significant benefits for human health and longevity, it is its less obvious applications that drive his work.  Unique in its kind, his lab boasts a mix of biologists, physicists, chemists and engineers who work at the edge of human knowledge and are most comfortable exploring “in the dark.”

“The end game is designer organs or hybrid bio-silicon-electronic devices, not necessarily for transplanting into humans, but as tools,” says Professor Pelling.

An example of the type of “fringe” research carried out in the Lab is bio-hacking — a process where you take all the cells out of a sample — for instance a piece of steak — in order to repurpose the structure to create something that doesn't exist in nature.

In order to help his work in the lab thrive, Professor Pelling also makes time to pursue related interests in bioart—that strange conjoining of imagination and hard science. He has collaborated on numerous art installations and was a visiting pro­fessor at SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory of life sciences at the University of Western Australia.

“Admittedly, the boundaries between all these projects and disciplines become blurry,” says the inquisitive researcher. “Often my students are helping out on the bioart stuff as well,” Pelling says. “It's fun for everybody.”

For more insight into Professor Pelling's research read the article “Art and Cell Research” in the current issue of Research Perspectives, and watch the video “The Art of Biohacking and Cell Mechanics”.

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