He sees the billions of years that nature has had to perfect its craft compared to our human scientific endeavours over the last few hundred years, and wants to take full advantage of that. It makes sense really. Oded talks about his work with such enthusiasm and passion that it’s hard not to be infected by it and inspired. At a time when materials and minerals are not only running out but also contribute to the exponential waste problem across the planet, Oded has no doubt that we can create more sustainable and thoughtful applications by just harnessing some of the incredible properties this world offers. From exploiting the steel-like nanocellulose fibres in Sequoia trees to cultivating collagen to 3D print lungs. this is the future. But as Oded tells us, we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.
Professor Oded Shoseyov talking at TED
What really sparked our imagination with your work was the fact that you are utilising the most fascinating aspects of nature for industrial usage/ Can you tell us a little bit about your work in general?
My work essentially involves nano-biomaterials, we are inspired by the materials that have been developed by nature in different kingdoms – whether it is the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom or the insect kingdom. In principle, we believe that these materials have been developed over billions of years of evolution and therefore they are much better than what we could achieve over 200 to 300 years of modern science and the Industrial Revolution, due to a simple fact that they have more time than we scientists who started our research relatively recently.
In addition, to be able to maintain over so many billions of years, you have to be sustainable. So that’s another feature of these nanobiomaterials in nature. What that means is that my laboratory has to be very multidisciplinary – I need biologists and since I am working with plants I also need agricultural engineers, I need molecular biologists, analytical chemists, material scientists and of course physicists and mathematicians… so it’s not a typical lab. What we are doing here over the years is setting up a laboratory that, on the one hand, has students with many different disciplines who are forced (by me) to work together and understand how these materials can be extracted and produced.
All of a sudden you are improving what has been produced by nature by simply using modern technologies.
Another aspect of our work here is the realisation that the most important nano building block in our bodies as human beings is collagen. Again, just like all the other nanobiomaterials on Earth that have this unique feature that our cells assembled, collagen just like other self-assembling cells, creates scaffolds on which cells are growing and proliferating into tissues and organs and other combinations to make a living organism. Everybody understands the need for organs for transplantation like cornea, lungs and many others, but we don’t have enough of those. So there are many scientists around the world who are using different technologies like bioreactors and 3D printing to develop and grow these organs in laboratories and factories so that we will be able to produce them for anyone in need.
"Nature has its own checks and balances and an ability to overcome the problems that we as human beings impose on it."
In your work, the entire natural world is your canvas, so how do you begin to determine what the right material is to use? Would you say that you are still at this romantic stage of the work where you are finding just how powerful nature is?
I am definitely still at the romantic stage. Something that bothers me is that most probably even after I am dead there will be all these wonderful things that nature has created and I never noticed them. And so I think that really one of the most important things is just to observe and to listen to people who study different organisms and be inspired by what they observe. Once you do that you then have the tools to go and study.
For example the story of resilin, my inspiration was actually one of my students. He came to me and started talking about his dog that had fleas, and was telling me how the fleas jump almost 200 times their own height. So then I went away to look at the literature and found out that other scientists were already studying this phenomenon. For someone like me, coming from a totally different background from zoology or the insect world, I was not even aware of it.
There are so many amazing things but many times you find that the people who studied these things didn’t think about the opportunity to take it further in the application area because many people fear the need for interdisciplinary research that is essential to do that.
If you go today to any university in the world, typically you will not find one lab working on multidisciplinary research, and for a reason, being that the Academy for the last few hundred years has focused on disciplines. And I admire some of the great scientists who remarkably found some of these incredible things but truly my role model is a very old one – Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was a little bit of everything; he was a medical doctor, a chemist, a biologist. I think that to really translate research and science into application, you need a very wide toolbox. It’s more like the link between scientists and inventors. I heard that from a friend of mine once, he said, “A scientist is someone who is looking at a phenomenon in nature and trying to break down the pieces of the puzzle and really understand how it works. An inventor is a different character. An inventor looks at existing things in a variety of disciplines and puts them together to solve a problem.”
Is there a potential that we are creating super humans or perhaps a danger that we can cultivate certain elements of nature that shouldn’t be touched at all?
I think we always have to be very careful in what we are doing because all these things that human beings started to do around 10,000 years ago at the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution obviously significantly affected the way our Earth looked. The reason for that is once we decided that we would like to hybrid our plant species to make them more productive and to support our living, we basically disrupted the ecosystem. The new tools that we have today, which is the tools of genetic engineering and all the modern technologies, enable us to do things that are not necessarily sustainable. Having said that, I think that the damage that we inflicted on the world in the last 200 years is much more than scientists who started genetic engineering in the last 30 or 40 years have done. I think that today most of the scientists realise the power of these new technologies and are very conscious of doing things that may turn out to be irreversible or not sustainable. I personally believe that it is not that difficult to exercise these cautious measures because you have a long time to really find out if you are doing something where the benefit is really worth the risk.
"In the future, there will be 3D printing scaffolds for organ transplantation, which is starting to be realised now."
But nature also has its very own unusual properties.
Yes but you know, nature has its own checks and balances and an ability to overcome the problems that we as human beings impose on it. The natural systems and the plasticity of living organisms are amazing, which really enables them to overcome some of the problems that maybe because of our ignorance we put in front of them.
So tell us about some of the materials you are creating?
Yes, so for example with nanocellulose we recently signed an agreement with a large American paint company that showed when you add a minute amount of nanocellulose to the paint mainly used for painting wood, it increases dramatically their mechanical properties and structural resistance, so this is a product you will most probably see in the market very soon.
There are other agreements that are now being developed with other large companies for using the nanocellulose coating mainly for food packaging and beverages, because on the one hand it increases the mechanical properties of the packaging but also provides excellent gas barrier properties, so it can eliminate the need for aluminium foil for example, which significantly reduces the price of the packaging and makes it more sustainable.
Maybe let’s turn to one of your other focuses which is the replacement organ market. You have put together 5 human genes with the resource for creating collagen and harvesting it through tobacco plants. It seems almost like science fiction, taking these disparate ideas and putting them together to have amazing results.
The remark that we are making replacement parts for human beings in plants is not science fiction because it is being done today. In fact, we already have 2 products, one is the Vergenix Flowable Gel, for diabetic ulcers, that was approved and is already sold in Europe and Israel. It is a collagen scaffold that the doctor puts into a wound bed and the cells recognise the collagen so they get a signal to proliferate and close the wound.
Harvesting collagen through tobacco plants for organ manufacturing
In the future, there will be 3D printing scaffolds for organ transplantation, which is starting to be realised now. We have now developed a bio-ink based on our collagen that is suitable for use in 3D printing, and we are in collaboration with 3 groups to develop methods to produce cornea and also kidneys. There is also another company that I can’t disclose, but we are working with them to print lungs, so that’s quite a challenge on one hand but I can tell you that this will be achieved not so long from now – maybe on the market in 6 years.
What are your hopes and intentions for the future and the real purpose of your work’s legacy?
I can’t report on it being successful or meaningful because we are only in the early stages of research, but we are trying to understand how neural networks really operate in our brain. More specifically, we are trying to interface between electronics and neurons. We understand that the computation power of neural networks that has been developed in nature is so much better than our ability to compute with our regular computers. In fact, as I’m sure you know, mathematicians years ago developed computer programs and algorithms that mimic neural networks, and they found out that using them enabled people to do what we call today artificial intelligence or machine learning.
I think that the next step would be to go back to nature and use neurons to establish and build neurological computers that will enable us to compute much faster and better than we do today.
What does a biological computer look like?
It would look like a 3D chip, or like a tiny brain made of biological components, but it will be connected to electronic devices. The computation and the data analysis will be done more as we do in nature, like when we capture an image as we observe something, we immediately analyse it and come to a conclusion much faster than even the best computer today that is equipped with the most sophisticated machine learning equipment and the most sensitive camera.
So there are still so many things that can be done. Think about an apple that is stored on a tree – it is stored pretty well for quite a long time because it is a living system. I think that the future is amazing.
"Something that bothers me is that most probably even after I am dead there will be all these wonderful things that nature has created and I never noticed them."
Oded Shoseyov on future innovations
I think we are already reaching the limit of what the world can offer. If we put the industrial applications under a microscope, like the mobile phone that has one of the highest numbers of elements contained in a device, we know that a lot of these materials will run out in a decade. So how can your work have a more sustainable impact?
You mentioned indium tin oxide that is used in touch screens, which is very popular and you correctly said that it is a rare material and therefore there is a great need for better solutions for a conductive transparent material for touch screens. Here again, we are working with a company to include a conducting material like graphene and carbon nanotubes into nanocellulose and resilin films. By doing that, you are able to make both a transparent and conductive but also flexible material that hopefully will not break like the current touch screens.
These materials have potential in almost anything that you touch, whether it’s transportation, aviation or sport or medicine, so I believe that we are just touching the tip of the iceberg.