By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Spools of yarn grown from human skin could serve as surgical stitches, CNN reported February 5. While most stitches self-dissolve or must be removed, this new technological type of stitches would be absorbed by the body. Biotechnology is the basis for this new medical development.
According to CNN, a research team at the University of Bordeaux in France is at the heart of developing surgical stitches grown from human skin cells. The research team refers to its creation as “human textile,” and mentions that unlike traditional stitches, the patient would suffer no risk of rejection or unfavorable reaction to the technological invention.
The field of biotechnology makes human textile possible. While frequently a theme of science fiction, it pioneered nearly half a century ago with humble beginnings.
Recombinant DNA and Rare Proteins
“Biotechnology began in its current form in the 1970s, when scientists figured out that DNA from organisms, as diverse as elephants and amoebas, has the same structure and uses the same genetic code,” said Dr. Kevin Ahern, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University. “As a result, one can insert an elephant gene into amoeba DNA, and seamlessly, the cut-and-pasted gene becomes a part of the DNA it’s inserted into.”
Dr. Ahern explained that since this process combines DNA from two different sources, it’s known as recombinant DNA. Furthermore, he said, if the elephant genes are inserted into just the right place in the amoeba, then those genes can be “transcribed, processed, and expressed” in the amoeba.
“In other words, a recipe from the elephant cookbook can be integrated into the amoeba cookbook and used by the amoeba,” Dr. Ahern said. “It’s basically using the amoeba’s RNA and protein synthesis machinery to build a protein to elephant specs. Researchers developed the method because it’s useful to be able to produce proteins that are otherwise hard to come by.”
One example Dr. Ahern gave is that to study human proteins, such as brain cells, it’s far easier to grow them from yeast or bacteria than from its usual source.
Another popular part of biotechnology is cloning, which is done by taking the nucleus of a somatic cell—meaning a non-reproductive cell—and implanting it into an unfertilized egg. Hollywood has made a flashy trope of photocopying people or bringing dinosaurs back to life, although animal cloning is a far less spectacular, but, nonetheless, an interesting endeavor. But why bother?
“One reason is to create an exact replica of a particular animal—perhaps a prize bull or a superior racehorse,” Dr. Ahern said. “It used to be that once a prized animal was past its prime, breeders had no option but to look for another animal and hope for it to be as good as the original. With a clone, there’s no need to leave it to chance—for instance, a famous champion polo team from Argentina rides using a stable of 100 cloned horses.”
For reasons of maintaining quality, animal cloning and plant cloning have both become popular. They have low success rates, which Dr. Ahern said range from 2 percent to 40 percent, but providing the best product isn’t the only reason to keep trying.
“Animal cloning might help save endangered species,” Dr. Ahern said. “Scientists have taken nuclei from somatic cells of an endangered animal and inserted it into an oocyte of a closely-related, non-endangered species. An endangered wild cow, for example, was cloned successfully this way and displayed in the San Diego Zoo.”
Species that have recently died out could also be brought back, Dr. Ahern said.
Human textile may initially come across as a shocking step in biotechnology, but considering the uses of recombinant DNA and animal cloning, it isn’t as frightening as it may seem.
Dr. Kevin Ahern contributed to this article. Dr. Ahern is a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University (OSU), where he also received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Biophysics. He has served on the OSU faculty in Biochemistry/Biophysics since the mid-1990s.