Building living machines - computer designed xenobots
Most technologies are made from steel, concrete, chemicals and plastics, which degrade over time and can produce harmful ecological and health side effects. It would thus be useful to build technologies using self-renewing and biocompatible materials, of which the ideal candidates are living systems themselves. Thus, our lab in collaboration with scientist at the University of Vermont developed a method that designs completely biological machines from the ground up: computers automatically design new machines in simulation, and the best designs are then built by combining together different biological tissues. This suggests others may use this approach to design a variety of living machines to safely deliver drugs inside the human body, help with environmental remediation, or further broaden our understanding of the diverse forms and functions life may adopt.
Sensory plasticity in the visual system: replacing whole eyes to restore vision in blinded animals
Through a combination of cell culture and microsurgery techniques I am able to graft developing eye tissue into blinded animals, which differentiates into morphologically complete eyes at the site of the graft. Further, though the misexpression of specific ion channels in the host animal, I can promote afferent innervation of the developing eyes and guide innervation to specific targets. Behavioral data using a visual associative learning assay reveal these eyes are functional, even when present at ectopic locations along the cranial-caudal axis. This work has implications both in developmental neurobiology, where the role of membrane physiology in axon guidance is only beginning to be understood, as well as regenerative medicine, where scientists hope to one day implant and connect sensory structures grown in culture.
Developing automated robots to assess learning and memory in aquatic species.
While Xenopus is an established model to probe early developmental pathways during embryogenesis, there are currently no cognitive assays to examine learning or memory in the species. This problem has been a critical barrier in the field for many years - we have the ability to alter the brain in a way that mimics human disease, but do not have any way to examine the actual cognitive consequences of such changes. To overcome this barrier I have helped created an automated robot which uses motion tracking cameras to train individual tadpoles in real-time. The device can autonomously measure learning and memory rates without input from the investigator and is ideal for high throughput screens comparing the cognitive abilities of wild type animals with a variety of experimental treatments. I am currently using this device to examine the learning ability of animals with altered developmental serotonin levels.