Alcor Conference – Brian Wowk

[Alcor Conference – Table of Contents]


Brian Wowk discussed cryobiology, the field of cold tolerance in nature and cryopreservation of biological material. In nature, organism survive freezing temperatures by ice avoidance and ice tolerance, using cellular “antifreeze” or cryoprotectants. By studying these organism, researchers hope to apply their findings to improving cryonics.

The use of cryoprotectants allows cells to exist in stasis indefinitely, with minimal damage. Tissues and organs have been successfully preserved, demonstrating the technology on short time-scales and limited scope.

Researchers have developed synthetic molecules based on antifreeze proteins in some organisms that are improved with ice blockers that prevent ice formation. Wowk works with organs, such as rabbit kidneys, to develop better cryoprotectants. The organ is vitrified. Biochemical reactions can then be measured to determine if they have slowed down significantly to suggest little change over not just hours, but thousands of years.

Wowk then spent some time describing the process of cryonics in humans. Much time is involved, time in which the body can further decay. Every moment is precious to place the body in stasis and stop biochemical reactions.

One question very important to researchers and Alcor members alike is whether or not memory is truly preserved during cryonics. Research to date suggests that the “basic machinery” of memory are in fact preserved, but preservation of the actual memories themselves is not clear. Even though vitrification causes less damage than freezing, there are still problems, including fracturing and possible toxicity of cryoprotectants.


One of the visuals used by Wowk was an image of solutions and organs with and without cryoprotectants at -125 degrees Celsius. On the left was a typical frozen liquid, opaque and crystalized. On the right was see-through vitrification and a pristine looking organ. Very effective. To the layperson, though, this Alcor focus on the desirability of vitrification versus freezing may come across as technobabble. The use of images is helpful, but what would truly be inspiring would be the demonstration of reanimation of vitrified organs. Some work has gone into this, with warming of tissues to determine the extent of damage.

Like transhumanism and other related topics, more effective marketing of cryonics is required to spread the idea. For members of Alcor, a talk like this is probably effective, but it will not convince the layperson to sign up for Alcor services and cryonics upon their death. For people that have already signed up, what is the point of this type of recap? I think members might actually be more interested in the cutting edge of the technology, and near-term improvements.

Instead of images of procedures used to cryoprotect a new patient, video might be more effective. Sure, not everyone wants to see the gore of operation, but then again, gore speaks louder than dry graphics. Better yet, a vat of vitrified organs on stage, even rabbit organs, might be a powerful demonstration of technology at work.

Theoretically, recovery appears to be possible. However, there are still so many details yet to be researched. I have a new appreciation for Steve Bridges’ insistence that much more research is required to further explore cryonics.

Wowk addressed the ethics of cryonics when resusciation has not yet been proven. I have personally never understood the ethical problems, because upon death there really are not ethical problems. What happens to the body will not, obviously, matter to the person who is dead. If there is little chance of recovery, this is still more of a chance than burial and cremation can offer. Of course, to people who believe in an afterlife, the idea of recovery in the material world may be an affront, though it is unclear why they should care if they do not themselves choose the cryonics option.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a fiction writer and poet, with his first published poem forthcoming later in 2017 from Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (, on Goodreads (richardleis), his (@richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).

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