TED2016

Andrew Pelling: This scientist makes ears out of apples

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TED Fellow Andrew Pelling is a biohacker, and nature is his hardware. His favorite materials are the simplest ones (and oftentimes he finds them in the garbage). Building on the cellulose structure that gives an apple its shape, he "grows" lifelike human ears, pioneering a process that might someday be used to repair body parts safely and cheaply. And he has some even wilder ideas to share ... "What I'm really curious about is if one day it will be possible to repair, rebuild and augment our own bodies with stuff we make in the kitchen," he says.

- Biohacker
Andrew Pelling's unconventional and creative scientific process is founded on play. Full bio

I've got a confession.
00:12
I love looking through people's garbage.
00:14
Now, it's not some creepy thing.
00:17
I'm usually just looking
for old electronics,
00:19
stuff I can take to my workshop and hack.
00:21
I do have a fetish for CD-ROM drives.
00:24
Each one's got three different motors,
00:27
so now you can build things that move.
00:30
There's switches so you can
turn things on and off.
00:32
There's even a freaking laser,
00:35
so you can make a cool robot
into an awesome robot.
00:37
Now, I've built
a lot of stuff out of garbage,
00:42
and some of these things
have even been kind of useful.
00:45
But here's the thing,
00:48
for me, garbage is just a chance to play,
00:49
to be creative and build things
to amuse myself.
00:52
This is what I love doing,
so I just made it part of my day job.
00:55
I lead a university-based
biological research lab,
00:59
where we value curiosity
and exploration above all else.
01:01
We aren't focused
on any particular problem,
01:05
and we're not trying to solve
any particular disease.
01:08
This is just a place where people can come
01:10
and ask fascinating questions
and find answers.
01:13
And I realized a long time ago
01:17
that if I challenge people
to build the equipment they need
01:19
out of the garbage I find,
01:22
it's a great way to foster creativity.
01:24
And what happened
01:27
was that artists and scientists
from around the world
01:28
started coming to my lab.
01:31
And it's not just because
we value unconventional ideas,
01:33
it's because we test and validate them
01:36
with scientific rigor.
01:39
So one day I was hacking something,
I was taking it apart,
01:41
and I had this sudden idea:
01:45
Could I treat biology like hardware?
01:47
Could I dismantle a biological system,
01:50
mix and match the parts
01:52
and then put it back together
in some new and creative way?
01:54
My lab started working on this,
01:57
and I want to show you the result.
01:59
Can any of you guys
tell me what fruit this is?
02:03
Audience: Apple!
02:07
Andrew Pelling:
That's right -- it's an apple.
02:08
Now, I actually want you to notice as well
02:10
that this is a lot redder
than most apples.
02:12
And that's because
we grew human cells into it.
02:16
We took a totally innocent
Macintosh apple,
02:18
removed all the apple cells and DNA
02:23
and then implanted human cells.
02:26
And what we're left with
after removing all the apple cells
02:28
is this cellulose scaffold.
02:31
This is the stuff that gives plants
their shape and texture.
02:32
And these little holes that you can see,
02:36
this is where all
the apple cells used to be.
02:38
So then we come along,
02:41
we implant some mammalian cells
that you can see in blue.
02:42
What happens is,
these guys start multiplying
02:45
and they fill up this entire scaffold.
02:47
As weird as this is,
02:50
it's actually really reminiscent
of how our own tissues are organized.
02:52
And we found in our pre-clinical work
02:56
that you can implant
these scaffolds into the body,
02:59
and the body will send in cells
and a blood supply
03:01
and actually keep these things alive.
03:04
This is the point
when people started asking me,
03:07
"Andrew, can you make
body parts out of apples?"
03:10
And I'm like, "You've come
to the right place."
03:15
(Laughter)
03:17
I actually brought this up with my wife.
03:19
She's a musical instrument maker,
03:21
and she does a lot
of wood carving for a living.
03:23
So I asked her,
03:26
"Could you, like,
literally carve some ears
03:28
out of an apple for us?"
03:31
And she did.
03:33
So I took her ears to the lab.
03:34
We then started preparing them.
03:37
Yeah, I know.
03:40
(Laughter)
03:42
It's a good lab, man.
03:45
(Laughter)
03:46
And then we grew cells on them.
03:48
And this is the result.
03:50
Listen, my lab is not
in the ear-manufacturing business.
03:53
People have actually been working
on this for decades.
03:59
Here's the issue:
04:02
commercial scaffolds can be
really expensive and problematic,
04:04
because they're sourced
from proprietary products,
04:09
animals or cadavers.
04:11
We used an apple and it cost pennies.
04:19
What's also really cool here
04:22
is it's not that hard
to make these things.
04:24
The equipment you need
can be built from garbage,
04:26
and the key processing step
only requires soap and water.
04:29
So what we did was put all
the instructions online as open source.
04:34
And then we founded
a mission-driven company,
04:39
and we're developing kits
to make it easier
04:41
for anyone with a sink
and a soldering iron
04:43
to make these things at home.
04:46
What I'm really curious
about is if one day,
04:47
it will be possible to repair, rebuild
and augment our own bodies
04:52
with stuff we make in the kitchen.
04:57
Speaking of kitchens,
05:01
here's some asparagus.
05:03
They're tasty, and they make
your pee smell funny.
05:05
(Laughter)
05:07
Now, I was in my kitchen,
and I was noticing
05:09
that when you look down
the stalks of these asparagus,
05:11
what you can see
are all these tiny little vessels.
05:14
And when we image them in the lab,
05:17
you can see how the cellulose
forms these structures.
05:19
This image reminds me of two things:
05:22
our blood vessels
05:25
and the structure and organization
of our nerves and spinal cord.
05:27
So here's the question:
05:31
Can we grow axons and neurons
down these channels?
05:33
Because if we can,
05:37
then maybe we can use asparagus
to form new connections
05:39
between the ends of damaged
and severed nerves.
05:43
Or maybe even a spinal cord.
05:47
Don't get me wrong --
05:49
this is exceptionally challenging
05:51
and really hard work to do,
05:53
and we are not the only ones
working on this.
05:54
But we are the only ones using asparagus.
05:57
(Laughter)
06:00
Right now, we've got
really promising pilot data.
06:03
And we're working with tissue engineers
06:07
and neurosurgeons
06:08
to find out what's actually possible.
06:10
So listen, all of the work I've shown you,
06:12
the stuff that I've built
that's all around me on this stage
06:15
and the other projects
my lab is involved in
06:18
are all a direct result
of me playing with your garbage.
06:21
Play -- play is a key part
of my scientific practice.
06:25
It's how I train my mind
to be unconventional and to be creative
06:31
and to decide to make human apple ears.
06:35
So, the next time any of you
are looking at some old,
06:38
broken-down, malfunctioning,
piece-of-crap technology,
06:42
I want you to think of me.
06:47
Because I want it.
06:50
(Laughter)
06:51
Seriously, please find any way
to get in touch with me,
06:52
and let's see what we can build.
06:56
Thank you.
06:58
(Applause)
06:59

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About the Speaker:

Andrew Pelling - Biohacker
Andrew Pelling's unconventional and creative scientific process is founded on play.

Why you should listen

Scientist, professor, entrepreneur and TED Fellow Andrew Pelling has built a career on unapologetic curiosity, creativity and serendipity. He is a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, where he founded and directs a curiosity-driven research lab that brings together artists, scientists, social scientists and engineers. The lab uses low-cost, open source materials and methods to explore speculative living technologies of the future. He has, for instance, created human body parts made from plants and grown living skins on LEGOs -- innovations with the potential to replace prohibitively expensive commercial biomaterials.

Pelling is also the co-founder and CTO of Spiderwort Inc., a mission driven company developing open source platforms to enable the widespread and global adoption of biological research in all environments and economic contexts. Most recently, he founded pHacktory, a street-level research lab in Ottawa that amplifies community ideas through a potent mixture of craft, serendipity and curiosity.

Pelling's work has been in the international media spotlight for many years, with recognition in outlets such as Wired, Huffington Post, NPR, Scientific American, Popular Science, BBC, Der Spiegel, Deutsche Welle and others, as well as numerous highlights in the Canadian media and Scientific media. He was named a TED Fellow in 2016.

More profile about the speaker
Andrew Pelling | Speaker | TED.com