Global Speaker Series: Michael Levin, PhD, Tufts University

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The Medicine by Design Global Speaker Series invites established and emerging international leaders in regenerative medicine to engage with our extraordinary community of researchers and clinicians.

Medicine by Design, in partnership with the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is pleased to welcome Michael Levin, PhD, Vannevar Bush Professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University and director of both the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University and the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. His talk title is “Cracking the bioelectric code: Targeting endogenous physiological networks for advances in regenerative medicine and synthetic bioengineering.”

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A key property of living tissues is their ability to perform pattern homeostasis: harnessing individual cell behaviours toward creation and repair of complex anatomies during embryogenesis and regeneration. How can the decision-making abilities of cells be targeted for advances in regenerative medicine and synthetic bioengineering? Our group has discovered that an important aspect of information processing at the tissue and organ level occurs via endogenous bioelectrical signalling: spatio-temporal patterns of resting potential (across all cells, not just neurons) that store and process pattern memories that help direct growth and form. In this talk, I will explain the basics of non-neural bioelectricity, illustrate the new molecular techniques we have developed to read and write patterning information into tissues, and show examples of the control of large-scale pattern by specific modulation of patterns of resting potential. Recent examples include reprogramming of tumours, converting gut tissue into complete eyes, induction of appendage regeneration, innervation control, and repair of teratogen- and mutation-induced birth defects. While we have identified transduction machinery and transcriptional targets of bioelectric change in single cells, the biggest open questions concern computationally understanding the dynamics of large-scale bioelectric circuits for pattern control. I will conclude the talk with a perspective on the exciting opportunities in synthesizing machine learning and electroceutical compounds for advances in regenerative repair, cancer normalization and synthetic morphology.


Mike Levin is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University, holding the endowed Vannevar Bush Chair and serving as director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts. He began as a software engineer, working in scientific programming and artificial intelligence. He then received two B.S. degrees (in computer science and Biology) at Tufts University, and then went on to a PhD with Cliff Tabin (Harvard Medical School), in which they identified the genetic cascade responsible for consistent left-right asymmetry of the embryonic heart and viscera. In his post-doc with Mark Mercola (also at Harvard Medical School), he identified a physiological system of long-range signalling upstream of the transcriptional cascades determining embryonic laterality. He started his own group in 2000 at the Forsyth Institute (Harvard School of Dental Medicine), focusing on building new molecular tools to read and control the bioelectrically mediated processing of patterning information in embryogenesis and regeneration. He moved his team to the main campus at Tufts in 2009, to be closer to collaborators in diverse fields. Currently, his group uses computational and molecular-genetic techniques at the intersection of developmental biophysics, primitive cognition and machine learning. They use model systems including embryonic frog, regenerating flatworms, Physarum slime molds, and human cells to understand information processing and computation in a wide range of living systems.

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