October 4, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Living Better Bioelectrically

Electric eels are inspiring a new generation of fuel cells.  Science Daily reported that a remarkable fusion of engineering and biology may lead to tiny electronic devices that run on biology’s own energy currency, ATP.  “Engineers long have known that great ideas can be lifted from Mother Nature, but a new paper by researchers at Yale University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) takes it to a cellular level.”
    The voltage-generating cells in an electric eel are called electrocytes.  They work by pumping sodium and potassium ions in and out of the cell membrane through specially designed channels or gates (see 01/17/2002).  The cells are then stacked in series, to build up voltage, and in parallel, to build up current.  The result?  An electric eel can generate 600 volts – enough to knock a horse off its feet (see National Geographic).  Electric eels and other forms of electric fish use their powers primarily at lower levels for navigation (05/05/2004), communication, and even courtship (see 06/20/2007, bullet 5).
    The Yale-NIST team is using a “systems biology” approach (08/21/2003), considering the overall context of function, to understand and build on biological technology.  Of seven types of channels in the cell membrane, the specifications of each are being examined: reaction time, density in the membrane, and more.  “Nerve cells, which move information rather than energy, can fire rapidly but with relatively little power,” the article said, whereas “Electrocytes have a slower cycle, but deliver more power for longer periods.”  Tweaking the specs in engineering models allow bio-engineers to optimize voltage production for human applications.
    The article not only ignored evolution completely, it seemed positively fixated on design.  “Applying modern engineering design tools to one of the basic units of life, they argue that artificial cells could be built that not only replicate the electrical behavior of electric eel cells but in fact improve on them,” the body of the story began.  David LaVan, NIST engineer, put it this way: “Do we understand how a cell produces electricity well enough to design one—and to optimize that design?”  This is reverse engineering – which implies intelligent design.  An engineer has to see and appreciate design to want to emulate it.
    In this case, engineers don’t have to copy the design with their own components made from scratch, as with gecko-foot tape (see 12/06/2006, 06/20/2007.)  They can take parts from existing off-the-shelf technology and adapt it for human-designed applications.  They can use engineered proteins to build membranes.  They can tailor bacteria or mitochondria (cellular powerhouses) to produce ATP for energizing the reactions.  They can modify electrocytes to produce continuous electrical current instead of pulses.
    An interesting question comes to mind.  If an extraterrestrial engineer were to land in the lab and study the eel and the biological electronics designed by humans, would it know where the evolution stops and the intelligent design begins?

Answer: yes, it would know that evolution stopped at the science door and intelligent design produced the whole show.  Evolution as a concept would be the trash can for explaining mistakes and degeneration.
    “Nerve cells … move information rather than energy.”  Did you catch that?  Your body is wired for the intranet as well as for power.  Let CEH help empower you to get good information flowing.

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