Famed ‘biohacker’ Andrew Pelling encourages budding engineers to watch more sci-fi and just ask questions

What do ears grown on apples and a microscope built with a late-90s iMac casing found in the garbage have in common? The answer may be ‘nothing’ to some, but for Andrew Pelling, it represents the driving force behind his career—recapturing pure curiosity in the world.

On August 10, the University of Ottawa professor gave a talk to more than 100 students, faculty and researchers in the U of T Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) as the keynote address for the 2016 Undergraduate Summer Research Program (USRP) closing symposium. His topic, Augmented Biology: a new frontier inspired by cheesy sci-fi movies, highlighted the importance of retaining the inherent curiosities we develop as children and seeking ideas from uncommon places in order to bring transformative change to the world.

“Knowledge is never complete and never fully formed,” said the 2016 TED Fellow and Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics. “Every person in the room has the opportunity to shape human knowledge in our own way through time.”

Hailed as one of the world’s most disruptive and transformative change makers by the TED organization, Pelling’s Biophysical Manipulation lab welcomes scientists, engineers and artists who are interested in creating living, functional and biological objects that do not currently exist in nature.

Some of their most successful projects (or what Pelling refers to as ‘stunts’) originated from lab members wondering if a microscope can be controlled by the videogame Minecraft, or, if you can send hugs over Twitter, and whether or not you can grow skin on Lego (the answer was scientifically proven to be ‘yes’ for all three).

“For every discovery, there are many failures [behind them],” said Pelling. “Negative data is still important—we wouldn’t have positive data without it.”

Pelling’s most famous discovery to date, the ears grown on apples experiment that anchored his TED talk, originated in failure.

“Can we grow muscle cells in a leaf?” asked Pelling, describing another wild hypothesis a student of his posed, referencing the famous image of the carnivorous plant from the classic 1986 movie, Little Shop of Horrors. After some experimental attempts, they discovered that the answer was no, primarily due to the leaf’s wax-like protective coating on its surface.

But, it gave another student an idea. While eating an apple, he realized he could peel the skin, gaining direct access to the uncoated biomaterial inside. It eventually led to successful attempts at growing tissue in apple cells—in their case, human ears.

“We had no expectation that this was going to work. But it did, and we’ve now shown that we can grow cells using stuff bought in a grocery store” said Pelling, who has since released this experiment as an open source protocol for other budding scientists to take it further. “What’s important to me is the implication. There are so many possibilities out there—you just have to ask great questions.”

Pelling’s visit to U of T also included a guest appearance in Professor Penney Gilbert’s iBEAM session, a learning program for students in Grades 8 and 9. He dazzled the crowd with an activity that involved adding sparkles to treated apple slices, mimicking one of the first steps towards his famed experiment.

“You could hear a pin drop during Professor Pelling’s talk—that’s rare for a lecture with a large audience,” said Professor Dawn Kilkenny, IBBME’s associate director of undergraduate programs. “I’m very grateful that he made time in his busy TED schedule to engage our students. Even the brightest need motivation and Professor Pelling has further inspired a very brilliant group of future biomedical engineers.”