With some clever genetic engineering but without ever touching a cell or an animal, scientist can remotely control cells using ultrasound, light, and, now, also radio waves. The electromagnetic waves can be used to selectively heat up parts of cells and activate a gene to make insulin in mice, according to a recent study published in Science.
But why care about radio waves if we have light and ultrasound? Radio waves have a couple distinct advantages over existing techniques.
In the current study, the radio waves didn’t heat up a whole patch of tissue or even a whole cell—it only affected specific pores in the cell, called TRPV1, that open in response to heat. To get this specificity, the scientists made special iron oxide nanoparticles attached to an antibody that only sticks to TRPV1. When they turned on the radio waves, the iron oxide particles warmed up and opened the TRPV1 channel, minimally affecting the rest of the cell or surrounding cells. Ultrasound, on the other hand, heats up a whole patch of tissue to 42° Celsius, which could have damaging or confounding effects on the cells.
For something that you can’t see or touch, the electromagnetic spectrum sure is valuable property. The auction of a big slice of useful, empty airwaves—used by television broadcasts before they went all digital in 2009—is expected to net the federal government $25 billion to fund payroll tax cut extensions. This auction is one thing everyone could agree on amidst all the bipartisan sniping in Congress. That’s how much of a no-brainer it is.
While the electromagnetic spectrum is fixed by the laws of physics, the use of that spectrum is human and quickly changing affair: global mobile traffic is expected to increase 18-fold in the next 5 years. WiFi, mobile phones, and radio are all vying for a limited slice of the radio frequency part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Luckily, we’ve got a chunk of empty airwaves where analog TV used to be. Mobile phone companies, whose networks are crunched by the hundreds of millions of smartphones we’re now toting around, will definitely be in the auction.
A proposal to designate a chunk of the former TV airwaves as a free, unlicensed “white space” may be even more interesting. Tech companies such as Google have long campaigned for white spaces, with the hope that public access to the spectrum will spur innovation in wireless technology. WiFi currently operates at high frequencies and short range, which is why you have to be pretty close to a coffee shop to steal its free WiFi.