The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution

Image of The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution
Release Date: 
May 7, 2019
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

Author Susan Hockfield, president emerita of MIT, and in The Age of Living Machines provides an entertaining popular science introduction to the convergence of biology and engineering technologies. In The Age of Living Machines, Hockfield takes a tour of MIT and other universities’ bioengineering labs and commercial facilities and their recent and promising research in biotech.

Chapters are organized from DNA and RNA to protein discovery, to molecular medicine and biological constructed electronics, to commercial biotech products, to the study of plants, to the study of the brain. Readers should be aware that the book’s title The Age of Living Machines is hyperbole; not one of the “machines” identified within The Age of Living Machines is living. The “machines” identified are, at best, viruses and proteins. 

Up front, Susan Hockfield offers her bonefides, she notes that it is unusual for a biologist to be president of a college well-known for engineering. Hockfield pays homage to past MIT president Karl Compton, for his prescient vision in changing MIT’s Department of Biology to the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, way back in 1942. As president of MIT, Hockfield continued to raise the visibility of cross disciplinary work between engineering and biology, and the collaboration between MIT laboratories and industry.

Hockfield recaps the highlights of milestones in physics from the 1800s to the 20th century, the growing influence of physics and engineering in manufacturing and commerce, the convergence between discovery and innovation, and in what she calls “Convergence 2.0,” the transition from advances in technology being led, to an increasing extent, through innovations in biotech.

Hockfield recounts the major revolutions in the science of biology. “The first, molecular biology, revealed the basic building blocks of all living organisms; the second, genomics, gave molecular biology the scale necessary to identify the genes responsible for diseases and trace them across populations and species.”

Next, Hockfield recounts the efforts performed at MIT toward the convergence of biology and engineering. As president of MIT Hockfield added resources to support this effort, including the establishment of The MIT Koch (Yes, that Koch) Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and MIT biotech spinoffs.

Another biotech-engineering convergence promoted is The MIT Energy Initiative. And one area of investigation within this initiative uses the components of biology as building blocks for manufacturing electric batteries. Hockfield begins this story describing the basics of the fossil fuel lifecycle, from plants storing energy in chemical bonds by photosynthesis. Once the stored bonds are broken, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to become the greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. Hockfield notes the relationship between burning coal and decreasing human life span, admitting, “We have not yet figured out how to efficiently and cost effectively store these sources of energy.”

Hockfield next explains how batteries work, their history, and their drawbacks. The drawbacks of batteries are that they are energy inefficient, made of toxic materials, generate pollution in their manufacture, and are recharged through electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. Hockfield explains how biology derived technology can reduce the harmful steps of their manufacture, and interviews Angela Belcher, a tenured faculty member of MIT who is researching how viruses can be used to manufacture batteries.

Hockfield takes a step back to provide context by explaining how technology research works, and in doing so conveys the excitement of doing science. She recounts the history of the discovery of DNA, RNA, and the virus, and the benefits of studying viruses as a tool for product manufacture. “As troublesome a threat as viruses pose for our health, we have learned an enormous amount of basic biology from them.” And though viruses to date have been only used as a laboratory tool to move genetic material from cell to cell, none have yet been engineered well enough to actually build a battery. The hope, and the research intended to carry out the promise of that hope, is someday they might.

After touring MIT, Hockfield visits other pioneering researchers in biotech labs around the world. One chapter focuses on the bioengineering of water purifiers. One such scientist is Paul Agre, who won a 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of aquaporins in 1992.

Aquaporins are a family of biomaterial films made of protein that have a “water channel,” that is, a channel that allows water, but nothing else, to cross. The step from discovery of aquaporins to having a useable product required figuring out how to manufacture aquaporins in a form that would allow them to be used for reverse-osmosis water purification.

The answer required the effort of biophysics doctoral student Morten Ostergaard Jensen, who along with Peter Holme Jensen in 2005, figured out how to create a water filter membrane out of aquaporin. The two partnered with Claus Helix-Nielsen, to form a company in Denmark appropriately named Aquaporin. The next step was to scale the membrane up for manufacture. Here the problem was that industry was not ready to manufacture aquaporins as biological products made of proteins are different from synthetic chemicals, which were, at that time, readily manufactured.

Bioengineering new materials and techniques depends on collaboration among scientists across different specialties who each hold a different piece of the puzzle. The partners looked to the pharmaceutical industry for ideas, which led to a breakthrough in the manufacture of new protein-based drugs, in that they, with a team of experts, created a cellular “factory” of bacteria. Their technique was different from producing aquaporin, in that they were now manufacturing a membrane that contained aquaporin. Luckily aquaporin was stable enough to survive the manufacturing process and remained in a form that allowed it to do what it was supposed to do.

There was a high-profile test of an aquaporin-based water filter by Danish astronaut, Andreas Mogensen who, in 2015 drank filtered water as a visitor to the International Space Station. Today, Aquaporin sells a faucet-based water filtration in India and China and is conducting experiments to recycle gray water.

Bioengineering can also used to create new cancer fighting tools. Hockfield begins this chapter by explaining how cancer works and what it takes to stop it. One type of cancer fighting treatment is a designer drug that kills cancer cells by “turning them off,” while cancer-fighting tools can assist in early detection by imaging, and by use of blood based bioengineered diagnostics. Nanoparticles are now being engineered to assist in the fight against cancer, and Hockfield provides an overview of ongoing nanoparticle science introducing the work of Sangeeta Bhatia, the Director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, which is part of the MIT Koch Institute.

Nanoparticles can be used to deliver drugs or imaging materials, or be directly used to track disease progression. Nanoparticles have to date been designed to carry a protein marker that interacts is acted on by cancer, used for early detection. Once altered by cancer, fragments of the protein marker travel to the bladder where they can be detected in urine and analyzed. The hope is that nanoparticle-based technologies can reduce the cost of diagnostics.

From cancer fighting, Hockfield moves on to developing better prosthetics. The bioengineering of “smart” prosthetics is complex and difficult to do. New techniques depend on changing surgical amputation procedures to preserve more muscle tissue, which allows muscles to be connected to sensors in prosthetics, and to devising new techniques in brain surgery to install small sensors in the brain to provide brain-nerve-muscle feedback. Advances to date include computer modeling of prosthetics, embedded computers for active knee prosthetics, and the use of state-of-the-art wireless sensors for muscle movement.

In the chapter that follows, Hockfield addresses the science of recovery from brain trauma, and Introduces John Donoghue, neurophysiologist, who works to return mobility to patients who were paralyzed from brain injury by impact or from disease.

Moving focus from human biology to plants, Hockfield next visits the Danforth Plant Science Center, which hosts the Bellwether Foundation Phenotyping Facility. The goal of this phenotyping lab is to study a great many plants as they grow, so as to improve future plant varieties.

The Danforth Plant Science Center’s products include open source image analysis software for plant phenotyping, genotyping, agricultural robotics, and field scanning by drone. One benefit of large-scale phenotyping is reducing costs compared to individually manually selecting and propagating plant variations. Another is that picking the seeds of better plants is less intrusive and less costly than gene modification.

Moving from plant biology to plant genetics, Hockfield provides a potted history of genetics from pea plants to the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, to the future of applying technology to genetics. However, some of Hockfield’s gee-whiz study could have used some reflection on estimating the intelligence of her readers. Hockfield identifies advances made in plant varieties and uses insect resistant tobacco as her primary example. Anyone with any sense would consider publicizing the use of technology to improve growing tobacco to be a bad thing.

Again, Hockfield appears to be immune to irony. She next touts bioengineering plants to increase their tolerance to pesticides such as Round-up. That increasing the use of cancer-causing pesticides increases the opportunity for cancer-causing pesticides to enter the food chain is downplayed by Hockfield who blames farmers in an argument no different from “guns don’t kill, people do.” Her states, “adverse effects have not accompanied appropriate use.” Adding insult to injury, she says that government regulation causes more harm than good.

Though Hockfield has a good grasp of her material, and of her audience, Hockfield’s view of some of the ethics of bioengineering seems to be one-sided, emphasizing on the benefits of serving industry while ignoring the downside of the same. Many of the arguments in The Age of Living Machines may give readers pause, not in the value of bioengineering, but in the realization that the guiding star for MIT presidents (and that this is not just a recent aberration) has been money over ethics. 

There are endnotes and an appendix.

Recently, one of the MIT engineering biology initiatives, OpenAg, which was led by MIT's Media Lab ex-President Joi Ito got caught up in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. From Wired magazine’s article titled, "Dirty Money and Bad Science at MIT's Media Lab,” dated January 16, 2020: “At the same time that Ito’s resignation was making headlines, serious questions emerged concerning the research at a prominent project within the lab, the Open Agriculture Initiative, OpenAg for short. A number of news articles (including one I wrote for The New York Times) reported that OpenAg’s pivotal research tool—a “food computer” used for growing plants under precise conditions—never really worked. Members of the team said they were told to put store-bought plants inside the boxes before demonstrations or photo shoots, to cover up failures. In October, MIT suspended work on the project.