Protein-based Nanotubes Pass Electrical Signals Between Cells

Explanation of how nanotubes enable cells to communicate over distances drastically complicates how the brain works

2 min read
Protein-based Nanotubes Pass Electrical Signals Between Cells

A few years back, scientists led by Hans-Hermann Gerdes at the University of Bergen noticed that there were nanoscale tubes connecting cells sometimes over significant distances. This discovery launched a field known somewhat by the term in the biological community as the “nanotube field.”

Microbiologists remained somewhat skeptical on what this phenomenon was and weren’t entirely pleased with some explanations offered because they seemed to fall outside “existing biological concepts.”

However, now Gerdes and his team have offered up an explanation that seems to be pleasing the skeptics.

In a recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the Norway-based researchers have shown that electrical signals can be passed through the nanotubes and that “gap junctions” are involved in the transmission process.

It is this gap junction bit that seems to be satisfying the skeptics. Gap junctions are proteins that create pores between two adjacent cells and create a direct link between the cells. But the key word in the definition is “adjacent” with these “tunneling nanotubes” or “membrane nanotubes” as they are alternately called, cells can communicate without being adjacent.

"The authors of this paper have identified an exciting way that cells can communicate at a distance. That means you can no longer just think of cells touching each other to coordinate movement," says Michael Levin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts in the Nature article cited above. "Understanding what physiological information these nanotubes pass on will now be a key question for the future."

Among other biological systems that this may help us to better understand is the development of an embryo in which there is massive coordinated cell migration to form the various organs of the body.

Another key biological question it helps address--or complicate, as the case may be--is the complexity of the human brain. This research makes the brain drastically more complex than originally thought, according to Gerdes.

This could tangentially complicate Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity concepts at least in so far as duplicating the human brain, if current skepticism wasn't damaging enough.

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.


If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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