Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Biomaterials research watch: future silk

Long-time readers may recall my fascination with the desire to mass produce spider silk--something notoriously difficult because spiders are highly territorial and cannibalistic and cannot be housed together in the numbers needed to make this possible. For those unfamiliar, spider silk is one of the holy grails of materials research because it has a tensile strength greater than steel, the extensibility of rubber, the water uptake capability of wool, and is biodegradable.

Fibre researchers are particularly interested in its potential use in biomedicine, and since the early 2000s researchers have looked at different ways that the necessary silk proteins could be created. Cows, hamsters, transgenic goats and even bacteria have all been made to produce the proteins needed to make silk, but it has proven much more difficult to replicate a spinneret, the spider's spinning mechanism. This is further complicated by the desire to "improve" on the spinneret by making it capable of faster spinning, since the biotech industry moves faster than nature.

In 2006, engineers at MIT came closer to understanding how spiders spin silk, and today's news reports that German researchers have constructed "a device that consists of three channels etched into glass" that can control the levels of salt and proteins needed to make silk. However, the same article also quotes researchers at Oxford Biomaterials saying that "certain wild silks are stronger when you unravel them than natural spider silks" so it may be that spiders get passed over for Chinese and Indian wild silkworms.

Still, processing silk is very expensive, and it's hard to say how viable either will be for the type of mass production needed to keep American soldiers alive longer, let alone to make implantable medical textiles for the rest of us.

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Biotechnologies, bodies and boundaries

These days when not writing about the politics of touch, my efforts are going towards teaching. We only have three classes left (the final one is a poster session, yay!) and I already know I'll miss our weekly get-togethers. They're an unusually good bunch who just submitted major research papers on topics like the biopolitical implications of assigning life and death, social and political boundaries for biometrics use, transexuality and the construction of otherness, mobile technologies and perceptions of space and time, genetically engineered crops and uncommon ground, public debates on stem cell research, domestic appliances, gender and everyday life, and pharmaceutical regulation of human sexuality. Totally amazing.

The last two classes have focussed on technoscience and bodies. Last week put the beginnings and ends of life up for debate, and we talked about reproductive technologies, tissue culturing, selfhood, markets, property and regulation.

For example, the case of Amillia Taylor offers intriguing insights into the practice of neonatal medicine and the regulation of bodies, as well as public concerns around the practice of abortion and the constitution of life itself. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of ambivalence in this Daily Mail story. The hospital environment is clearly understood to be more controlled/controllable than the "outside" world, but no less risky if we consider the litany of medical problems the premature baby has already experienced within its walls. According to the story, "Amillia was conceived in vitro and has been in an incubator since birth." Born at 22 weeks, this means that the majority of her life--and the very status of her life--has been almost entirely regulated by biotechnology. At the same time her survival is most often described in terms of surprise or the miraculous. Her mother is quoted as saying "now she is beginning to look like a real baby," which suggests it was difficult to recognise her as such before then. And the article concludes by invoking the abortion debate and challenging the reader to ask when but not how life actually begins: "Babies can still be aborted for non-medical reasons at up to 24 weeks. Recent evidence shows that, of those born at 25 weeks, half of them manage to live."

On a more personal note, the pictures of the child startled me. I still have a hard time recognising this creature as something bound for this world no matter how much we try to bind her to it. The medical intervention initially struck me as artifice in the sense of mechanical art, and thus wholly unnatural. But I find all sorts of 'unnatural' things to be beautiful and good and I'm having a hard time explaining why I can't seem to recognise 'life' here. Maybe it's the implication in that final quote that if we can keep a baby alive at 25 weeks then we shouldn't be allowed to abort it at 24 weeks. The problem I'm having, maybe, is that I don't think either creature is a 'baby' or 'child' at all. In fact, it discomforts me that she has a name because it insinuates her into a social world I share and I have a hard time attributing selfhood to bodies kept alive. Plus, it totally disturbs me that Latour's collectives of humans and non-humans could constitute nothing but people, or rather that we assign different people to different sides of the human/nonhuman 'divide'. Biopower and biopolitics indeed.

Yesterday's class focussed on monsters, hybrids and the sexing of bodies. One of my favourite topics because it focusses almost exclusively on what happens between categories, we talked about everything from Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, to freaks, museums and reality tv to conjoined and parasitic twins, intersexuality, body modification, disability, circumcision, cosmetic surgery (including vaginal rejuvenation and designer vaginoplasty), commodities, markets, consumerism and the ever-present matter of taste. Generally a proponent of the 'three-sex' (female, male and both/neither) model, I also keep thinking about the idea that there is only one sex and it exists on a continuum from male to female and different people occupy different positions, like if you view sexuality as a continuum from homosexuality to heterosexuality and people occupy many positions along it over a lifetime.

Anyway, now I'm preparing for the final classes on technology and everyday life. Next week we take a look at domestication and technology, which includes domestication of and by technology, as well as domestic technologies. This means reading some really interesting work by Shelley Nickles on the history of refrigeration in terms of material culture and gender construction, and introducing students to Elizabeth Shove's work on material culture, consumption and practice-oriented design, as well as the larger Designing and Consuming: Objects, Practices and Processes research project and their forthcoming book on The Design of Everyday Life. The final lecture and discussion will focus on pervasive technologies from mobile phones to biometrics, and further investigate the fluid boundaries between public and private in our technologised everyday.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

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