The dystopic science fiction author Richard K. Morgan writes stories of regeneration taken to the limit. In his Takeshi Kovacs series, the wealthy or otherwise privileged among humankind (or post-humans) continuously download consciousness –memories, knowledge, personality, everything that makes a self – into hardened storage that can be transplanted from body to newly produced body. Among much else, these books are meditations on immortality and its discontents, for in Kovacs’ universe, there is death – when one’s body or “sleeve” ceases to function – and the “real death” that occurs when that encapsulated solid-state self gets annihilated. It’s a complicated dream, this vision in which minds persist in infinitely renewable (and/or interchangeable) bodies.
In 21st century science, the ambition is a little more grounded; scientists studying the regeneration of organs, tissues and body parts can be said to suffer amphibian-envy. As Cynthia Graber writes at the start of Electric Shock, “the axolotl, or Mexican salamander, has the ability to regenerate everything from its limbs and tail to its spinal chord and skin…”* Humans? Not so much: livers and skin can (partly) replace themselves, and children below the age of twelve, Graber writes, can rebuild fingertips they might be unlucky enough to lose.
Thus the premise for Graber’s story: what if it were possible to discover how to rebuild much more of the human body at any point in its lifecycle? Or rather – what if someone out there right now thinks he can make that happen, and soon?
What follows is an elegant bending of a very familiar genre, the common magazine trope of the scientist – profile. Graber traces the career of biologist Michael Levin from his émigré childhood to his current pursuit of an off-center approach to the problem of mammalian (target: human) regeneration. Where almost all the attention in the engineering of human tissue has focused on questions of genetics and – at the cellular level – on the manipulation of stem cells. Such approaches have had their successes, but if the goal is to tell some tissue to “become an arm” then, Levin's story argues, something else is required.
That something else is the stuff of Dr. Frankenstein’s dreams: manipulation of the electrical signaling that takes place in every cell in the body. Graber follows the conventions of profile-writing by taking her readers through a quick tour of Levin’s early life. We learn he was born in Moscow, brought by his parents to Lynn, Massachusetts at the age of nine, and early showed talent for computers and fascination with the living world. The catalyst for a life’s work came for Levin at 17, when he chanced upon a book called The Body Electric, written by Robert Becker, a surgeon with an unorthodox streak (to put it kindly).
The book had its excesses, but Levin responded immediately to its reports of lost experiments that had played with electric currents to spark regeneration in marine animals. During his Ph.D work, he seemed to outward appearance to have returned to more conventional biological interests, performing significant experiments on the genetics and biochemistry of development. But once ensconsed in his own lab, Graber writes, Levin returned to the question of bioelectric signals and the possibility, ultimately, that he could persuade a human arm or eye grow back.
The balance of Graber’s text – roughly the last half – tells what Levin has been able to achieve so far, from growing a four headed flatworm (its own bridge game!) to experiments – still in progress – through which Levin and his collaborators now hope to persuade a mouse finger to grow, replacing an amputated digit. The most riveting moment in Graber’s account isn’t that one, though. That falls to Levin’s colleague Dany Adams, who discovered (and partly stumbled upon) a technique for mapping the sequence of electrical signals in cells that map the structure to be developed before that structure begins to form.
Graber’s science writing chops show up here as she manages to convey both the vivid sense of the moment and the explanation of what her readers glimpse in their minds’ eyes. At the same time she gently – perhaps too much so – points to the big question that (this account, at least) of Levin’s work leaves unanswered: what is the mechanistic role bioelectric signaling plays in a sequence of events that ends at “eye” or “digit.”
That hints at the one gap I found in Electric Shock. Levin’s work, Graber told me, is viewed as solid, excellent science by the small community that works on bioelectric questions But Graber’s account does not return to the question she raises at the beginning, on the interplay between Levin’s view of the body electric and the genetic and cellular processes involved in building new tissues, organs, parts. I grasped Levin’s drive, his pursuit, and his impressive record of successful experiments from this text. I didn’t get that last step, at least not explicitly: how Levin’s off-the-beaten-path approach to regeneration fits into the larger corpus of work on the ways organisms build bodies.
That’s a lot to ask of a relatively brief text, of course, and to be clear, I don’t think either that Graber should have written a tome on developmental biology, nor that Electric Shock fails to deliver on its core promise of a gripping story about science told through the life of one passionate scientist.
But what lifts Electric Shock out of the common run of profiles, is the use Graber makes of the license given her by the fact of e-publication as opposed to a dead-tree assignment. As Virginia Hughes wrote in this space recently, not all feature stories benefit from the elbow room e-published non-fiction novellas offer. Graber's text does, going long to reach through the biographic narrative into the sophisticated ideas behind Levin’s work, and thus welcoming its readers to enter into the arguments his experiments seek to test. But the insight thus gained evokes more questions, the desire to got yet another step into the inquiry. That’s a good result – recall the show business adage to always leave the punters wanting more – but there’s a tricky side to this intermediate length: it’s not always easy to see whether you’ve finished the job.
With that caveat – hell, I’ll even cop to a quibble -- the bottom line remains. It's a long leap from evoking a mouse digit to the dreams (or nightmares) of science fiction. But the fascination with the possibility of mastering life's processes -- maybe even the whiff of making mortalitiy malleable -- is common to both. Electric Shock tells the real story of where that curiousity may lead, the one that's happening now, in a finely wrought account of an intriguing figure. And all for a price that leaves you change out of a buck!
*Full disclosure: the piece was edited by my MIT and Download the Universe colleague Seth Mnookin.
Tom Levenson writes books (most recently Newton and the Counterfeiter) and makes films, about science, its history, and whatever else catches his magpie's love of shiny bits. His work has been honored by a Peabody, a National Academies Science Communication and an AAAS Science Journalism Award, among others. By day he professes science writing at MIT.