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Synthetic Genetic Shakespeares

Examining the implications of science and technology

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Synthetic Genetic Shakespeares

The personal blog of Tyler Kokjohn. A partial list of my scientific publications may be found on PubMed. The opinions expressed in these posts are my own. I declare I have no competing scientific or financial interests regarding the topics examined in this blog.

How Are You Feeling? Let’s Have a Look Online

If a new study is correct, physicians trying to gauge whether or not you are depressed may soon be interested in having a close look at your Instagram posts (1).  Because they reveal a great deal about behavior, Instagram posts and possibly other social media activities may turn out to be invaluable databases for mental health care practitioners.

The ability to sift through large aggregates of digital information has given epidemiologists new power to discover influenza epidemics as they emerge (2).  Predictive analytics based on marketing data can already offer retailers amazing – and profitable – insights into the needs of their customers (3).  Recognizing the potential, health care professionals have adopted social media to facilitate communication with patients (4), although the potential diagnostic power of these tools remains largely untapped.

Could we reach a point where computer analyses of Instagram posts become an important addition to the standard methods for diagnosing depression?  Nothing is certain yet, but perhaps this tantalizing prospect will remind predictive analytics scientists that the time is ripe for burgeoning digital information troves to make important contributions to medicine.  For example, the pathological changes of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are thought to develop silently years before clinical signs and symptoms of dementia become obvious.  However, a retrospective analysis of the published works of author Iris Murdoch reveal the probable imprint of AD before she received a formal, and ultimately pathology-confirmed, diagnosis (5, 6).  This is where Google data scientists might now make a seminal contribution by analyzing written communications such as e-mails and assessing how they may have changed over time to identify the early linguistic signals that flag future AD. 

predictive-analytics

Analyses of Gmail might achieve something well beyond the current capabilities of medical science – recognizing young subjects at high risk for AD decades before even subtle signs of dementia begin.  A detailed study of women in religious orders revealed that the writing style and content of autobiographical essays written when they first entered their vocation predicted the individuals most likely to be afflicted with AD at the end of their lives (7, 8, 9).  Advance knowledge may enable at-risk persons to alter diet and other behaviors to mitigate the threat.  If the conclusions of the Religious Order study are correct it gives us hope that although writings might reveal AD risk, the final outcome is not necessarily etched in stone.

What you say and how you say it online have important health implications. It is time to harness the healing power of social media and digital communications.   

 

(1) N. Chokshi. 2017.  Your Instagram Posts May Hold Clues to Your Mental Health.  The New York Times, 10 August 2017.  https://nyti.ms/2uJePdQ

(2) G. Eysenbach. 2006.  Infodemiology: Tracking Flu-related Searches on the Web for Syndromic Surveillance.  Proceedings of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) Symposium 2006; 244-248 http://www.webcitation.org/5LIlQNbDQ

(3) C. Duhigg. 2012.  How Companies Learn Your Secrets.  The New York Times Magazine, 16 February 2012.   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html

(4) D. R. George et al.   Dangers and Opportunities for Social Media in Medicine.  Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology 56(3):453-462. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3863578/

(5) P. Garrad et al. 2004.  The Effects of Very Early Alzheimer’s Disease on the Characteristics of Writing by a Renowned Author.  Brain 128(2);250-260.  http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/128/2/250

(6) R. Highfield. 2004.  Decline of Iris Murdoch… in her own words.  The Telegraph, 1 December 2004.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1477906/Decline-of-Iris-Murdoch…-in-her-own-words.html

(7) D. A. Snowdon et al. 1996. Linguistic ability in early life and cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease in late life: Findings from the Nun Study. Journal of the American Medical Association 275:528–532.

(8) P. Belluck. 2001.  Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer’s and Aging.  The New York Times, 7 May 2001.  http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/07/us/nuns-offer-clues-to-alzheimer-s-and-aging.html

(9) J. A. Mortimer et al. 2005.  Very Early Detection of Alzheimer Neuropathology and the Role of Brain Reserve in Modifying Its Clinical Expression.  Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology 18(44):218-223.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1405917/

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Tools for the Brave New World

In his book, Life at the Speed of Light (1), Dr. J. Craig Venter offers a personal reminiscence of brash scientific work that upended conventional wisdom.  Dr. Venter has consistently seized new technologies to advance knowledge and notes that a key, but sometimes underappreciated, factor in scientific success is what he terms problem solving.  Overcoming formerly intractable obstacles sometimes yields new technologies with great implications.  With Dr. Venter’s work in particular and synthetic biology in general, achievements once deemed almost impossible are now routine accomplishments (2).

Scientists aspire to engineer the genomes of complex organisms, but are currently stymied by technical issues inherent in the manipulation of gigantic DNA molecules.  However, Dr. George Church is optimistic that synthetic biologists will ultimately cruise past the roadblocks (2).  New contrivances and new methods will be needed and proposals to undertake a focused program to develop them have been put forward (3).

If scientists working on a Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-write) systematically problem-solve their way to achieve the central goal what are the implications?  It is impossible to forecast, other than the world to come might get complicated.  We are already at a point where the technologies are developing exponentially.

Inetrval

Will HGP-write democratize the whole-genome engineering of animals?  What would the proliferation of such capability mean?  Perhaps a biohacker proposing to use CRISPR gene-editing to eliminate an inherited disease in Dalmatian dogs is something to consider.  Utterly impossible not all that long ago, this plan has to be – and is – being taken seriously by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (4).  The great thing about democratization of a technology is that truly creative ideas may blossom as more persons get involved.  On the other hand, if and when unaffiliated biohackers are able to adopt such powerful technologies they may push forward without the benefit of any input from scientific colleagues, Biosafety committees or Institutional Review Boards.   

IMG_2647

Futurists will recognize this as a situation complicated by an accelerating rate of change.  As formerly impossible genomic manipulation feats are reduced to routine practice and broadly disseminated, how will regulators prevent bio-terror or bio-error?  Dr. Venter suggests that constant vigilance, a ‘rolling review’ of new developments will be essential.  Although Dr. Venter critiques the precautionary principle, perhaps the scientific community will need to devise proactive controls for future genomic manipulation tool users analogous to the way DNA synthesis companies today screen orders for potentially dangerous sequences.  The new tools will require some wise rules.   

(1) J. Craig Venter. 2013.  Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life.  Penguin Books.

(2) J. M. Perkel. 2017.  Cell Engineering: How to Hack the Genome.  Nature 457:477-479, 26 July 2017.  http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v547/n7664/full/547477a.html

(3) J. D. Boeke et al. 2016.  The Genome Project-Write.  Science 353(6295):126-127, 8 July 2016.  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6295/126.full

(4) A. Rosenblum.   A Biohacker’s Plan to Upgrade Dalmatians Ends Up in the Doghouse.  MIT Technology Review, 1 February 2017.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603530/a-biohackers-plan-to-upgrade-dalmatians-ends-up-in-the-doghouse/amp/

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Have an Opinion on Gene Editing Human Embryos? Speak Your Mind

The announcement U. S. scientists have used altered the genes in a human embryo using the CRISPR system (1) has generated quite a bit of interest.  The investigators claim they were able to avoid creating potentially problematic off-target mutations and incomplete transformation of cells produced in earlier efforts by other scientists (2).  A report of the work has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, so these claims are tentative.  However, although the embryos were only allowed to develop a few days the assertions have attracted attention.  Using CRISPR to manipulate genes has obvious potential, but critics are particularly worried about the implications of work that re-writes the hereditary information of germline cells.

Fetus

CRISPR technology is being developed by commercial interests.  These companies are already so influential they may be changing some of the traditional ground rules for how scientific research is conducted and reported.  A recent study that seemed to expose problems with CRISPR editing efficacy provoked a vigorous push-back response from the companies and high-profile scientists involved with them (3).  Undoubtedly stung by a paper that seems to have triggered a sudden decrease in stock values, the companies had every right to critique the offending work.  However, pressure to retract the paper from the scientific literature being issued by persons with competing financial interests troubled some.

Despite the interest and perhaps some fears, designer babies are not about to be unleashed.  In fact, the critical data that will prove (or not) the claims about accurate and complete embryo gene editing have yet to be published (4).  Perhaps they will not survive a rigorous peer review.  Scientists, political leaders and the public have some time to discuss these issues and prepare for the future.  Will that happen?

For perspective about how public conversations on scientific advances do – and do not – occur I suggest looking at Frankenstein’s Footsteps, written almost 20 years ago by Jon Turney (5).  The technologies at issue have changed, but a critical observation still stands; calls for dialogue and public involvement by researchers are standard, it’s just that we don’t seem to get around to them.  In defense of scientists it is not clear how such airing of opinions might be orchestrated.  However, the refrain to involve the public is a virtual tradition in itself and will be issued dutifully again.

The public relies on experts to offer recommendations and decide many matters as to how new technologies will be used.  It is important that these experts do more than simply talk among themselves or receive the bulk of their input from parties with competing interests.  Social media such as Facebook and Twitter along with the ability to leave comments on blog and news article posts about gene editing now provide opportunities to express a point of view.  If you have an opinion regarding gene editing embryos this might be a good opportunity to have your voice heard.  Let the experts know how you feel.     

express

(1) S. Connor. 2017.  First Human Embryos Edited in U.S.  MIT Technology Review, 26 July 2017.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608350/first-human-embryos-edited-in-us/

(2) K. Servick. 2017.  First U.S. Team to Gene-Edit Human Embryos Revealed.  Science, 27 July 2017.  http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/first-us-team-gene-edit-human-embryos-revealed

(3) A. Regalado.   Gene Editing Companies Hit Back at Paper That Criticized CRISPR.  MIT Technology Review, 9 June 2017.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608073/gene-editing-companies-hit-back-at-paper-that-criticized-crispr/?set=608061

(4) H. T. Greely. 2017.  About That “First Gene-Edited Human Embryos” Story… There’s Less Going On Here Than Meets the Eye.  Scientific American, 28 July 2017.  https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/about-that-first-gene-edited-human-embryos-story/

(5) J. Turney.   Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture.  1998.  Yale University Press.

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The Free Martian State of Transhumania – Will Necessity and Separation Spark the First H+ Mutiny?

Martin Rees, U.K. Astronomer Royal and a past President of the Royal Society has offered some thought-provoking ideas as to what the future holds for our species (1).  Lord Rees suggests that a combination of necessity and sedition might fuel the emergence of the Transhumanists.  On Mars.

The idea human intelligence is destined to become non-biological by melding with artificial mechanisms has been with us for a while.  When and precisely how these momentous events will be accomplished is uncertain although some maintain the time is near.  Lord Rees feels that Mars will be the ideal place to foster a transhuman entity (H+) genesis as colonists respond to the demands imposed on them by a harsh environment.  Anticipating the transformative technologies will be constrained on Earth, he suggests Mars may be beyond the reach of the terrestrial authorities.  Raw exigency coupled with simple opportunity may foment a Martian H+ rebellion; Scanners Live In Vain meets Total Recall.   

BOA    

The thought that great physical distance and conflicting goals could spawn political differences certainly seems plausible.  Such situations have led to revolution and the birth of nations.  Perhaps matters could reach a point at which Mars colonists feel compelled to assert their natural rights.  Clearly, such hypothetical affairs lie far in the future.  However, an H+ emergence might not be contingent on the Free Martian State of Transhumania declaring independence.  Instead of The War of the Worlds we might experience a war of the world views.

New biotechnologies like CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing are already widely disseminated.  Both individual scientists and nation states vary in their level of concern regarding the application of new genetic manipulation methods to human subjects.  When scientists proposed a moratorium on certain types of CRISPR experiments there was no automatic assurance all researchers worldwide would honor the restrictions.  One high profile example of such differences toward the use of genetic manipulation of humans involved the successful creation of a 3-parent baby (2).  Prohibited from conducting such work in one country, the investigators found a location where regulations were more permissive.

Scientists sometimes relocate in reaction to political situations or quests to find better working conditions.  Perhaps we are seeing an example of a recent large-scale talent migration as France and Germany woo climate scientists from other countries (3).  Many nations are ambitious scientifically (4) meaning that recruiting talent from abroad might be an expedient means to leapfrog the competition.  However, these situations are fluid because even the possibility key scientific talent might emigrate could force governments to devise strategies to keep their researchers at home.  Should creating H+ entities ever be linked to national security needs, a fear of falling behind the competition may mean even ironclad limits to research work scopes might vanish.

The entire world is not bound by a single set of immutable ethical standards regarding genetic and other technologies that might lead to an H+ transformation.  Lord Rees envisions Martian colonists as adventurous souls willing to become H+ prototypes.  Let’s not forget where they came from.  I say the revolution will not be transported from Mars because it will find fertile ground right here on planet Earth.  

(1) Edge Foundation. Curtains for Us All?  A Conversation with Martin Rees.    Edge.org, 31 May 2017.  https://www.edge.org/conversation/martin_rees-curtains-for-us-all

(2) K. V. Brown. This Rogue Doctor Wants to Charge Women $100,000 for an Illegal Fertility Treatment.  Gizmodo, 16 June 2017.  http://gizmodo.com/this-controversial-doctor-wants-to-use-three-parent-emb-1796151423

(3) D. Butler. 2017.  Climate Scientists Flock to France’s Call.  Nature, 18 July 2017.  http://www.nature.com/news/climate-scientists-flock-to-france-s-call-1.22318

(4) J. Qiu. 2017.  China’s Quest to Become a Space Science Superpower.  Nature, 26 July 2017.  http://www.nature.com/news/china-s-quest-to-become-a-space-science-superpower-1.22359

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Our Synthetic Future

Where are we headed as a species?  Could our evolving technologies ultimately supersede biology?  Have other extraterrestrial civilizations grappled with analogous challenges and how did they solve them?  These fascinating questions and more were examined by Lord Martin Rees, U.K. Astronomer Royal and a past President of the Royal Society (1).

The Daily Grail excerpted some comments where Rees speculates about our post-human future in which we will transition to inorganic mechanical devices (2).  Going beyond our world, Lord Rees offers some conjectures about intelligent civilizations, or the evidence of them, humans may ultimately discover.  Confident that the trajectory to a post-human machine state seems clear, he envisions any advanced galaxy mates will also convert themselves into artificial devices.  He is not alone, professional alien hunter Dr. Seth Shostak has hypothesized that the extraterrestrials we are most likely to encounter will be intelligent mechanisms, not squishy organic beings (3).

The notion of a technological singularity where human intelligence becomes non-biological has been championed for some time.  It is unclear when and how these events might transpire although some maintain the time is near.  Neither is it certain they are inevitable.  As Lord Rees notes (1) whether technologies soar or flop is unpredictable.  Part of the problem is that we cannot always see what is coming.

The biological sciences are in a state of tumultuous ferment; new DNA editing tools are about to empower us to alter living beings at will, including ourselves if we so desire.  Today our bodies age and wear out.  Tomorrow we may no longer care whether we can transfer our consciousness into machines if it is possible to be forever young by reversing aging at the DNA level.  The era of synthetic biology is only dawning and the full ramifications of these capabilities are undiscovered.  Enormously powerful tools to alter heredity have been developed and we are certain they can take us far.  However, not even the scientists who created them can envision all the new vistas they will reveal and novel inventions they will facilitate.  The genetic Shakespeares are about to engineer a whole new book of life as they like it.    

Will human destiny remain anchored in squishy biochemistry or switch to electro-mechanical contrivances?  At this stage our future is probably best described not as post-biological, but synthetic.

Postbio

 

(1) Edge Foundation. Curtains for Us All?  A Conversation with Martin Rees.    Edge.org, 31 May 2017.  https://www.edge.org/conversation/martin_rees-curtains-for-us-all

(2) Astronomer Royal: Advanced Extraterrestrial Civilizations Will Be Post-Biological.  The Daily Grail, 25 July 2017.  http://dailygrail.com/Alien-Nation/2017/7/Astronomer-Royal-Advanced-Extraterrestrial-Civilisations-Will-Be-Post-Biological

(3) R. Hollingham. 2016.  What if the Aliens We Are Looking for are AI?  BBC, 23 September 2016.  http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160922-what-if-the-aliens-we-are-looking-for-are-ai

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The Biotech Chickens Come Home to Roost

Scientists claim they have revived an extinct virus by patching together fragments of synthetic DNA (1).  The DNA fragments used to accomplish this feat were reportedly obtained through a commercial supplier by mail order.  The revitalized virus is horsepox which may have vanished (2, 3) and is not considered to pose much danger to humans.  However, horsepox is in the same family as smallpox and this work proved that reviving an extinct scourge using synthetic DNA has now transitioned from worrisome possibility to more worrisome possibility. 

This situation has been anticipated for 15 years when the chemical synthesis of a functional poliovirus genome analogue was announced (4).  However, I am not dismissive of the accomplishment being reported; pox viruses are far larger than polioviruses and their genomes are not directly infectious complicating the task of getting them to replicate.  Despite the novelty, the horsepox resurrection data has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the information about the effort has been conveyed through news stories.  At least two journals have passed on the opportunity to publish the full study (1) and the effort has generated some controversy.

Should this work have been done?  It might help produce a safer human smallpox vaccine or be utilized in the development of other immunotherapies and cancer treatments (1).  But it is also a proof-of-principle demonstration that the smallpox virus could probably be resurrected in short order without massive funding or specialized expertise (1).

This controversy illustrates how evolving technology complicates dual-use research risk assessments.  Each year the situations become more complex as new advances make once challenging efforts routine.  Fifteen years ago creating a functional poliovirus analogue was quite a feat.  Today scientists synthesize, assemble and jumpstart virus genomes around 30 times larger.  Tomorrow?  Our future is barreling toward us like a runaway train as scientists plan the next phase of the Human Genome Project in which the synthesis and manipulation of large DNA molecules will be refined.  It is impossible to predict where these new capabilities might take and leave us.

The scientific community has been slow to recognize the unique threat posed by fast-emerging technologies.  While advances in gene sequencing and data dissemination have supercharged biomedical research, it may be unwise to insist on following the traditional patterns of publication and data access.   As nucleic acid synthesis and assembly methods are perfected we may realize certain DNA sequences are potentially quite dangerous because they are fast becoming explicit blueprints for less noble actors.  Information dissemination practices that were OK in 2002 for polioviruses or 2005 for killer influenza may be ill advised today. 

Biohaz

Commercial DNA synthesis operations have protocols to flag requests to produce potentially dangerous molecules.  Although horsepox does not pose the same risk as smallpox and is not on the forbidden list, that virus could be extinct.  It will be interesting to see – if and when the work is published – whether or not there were any concerns raised about the idea by the DNA supplier or the institutional biosafety officers.  Did anyone wonder about the wisdom of bringing an extinct pathogen back to life and how to accomplish that responsibly? 

The currently foreseeable ramifications of advancing technology suggest our situation will inevitably become more complex.  Perhaps in the near future someone will order up the sequences for horsepox and assemble them by emulating the strategy we now know will work.  And what then, if using multiplex CRISPR editing, a nefarious actor proceeds to genetically transform their revived horsepox into smallpox or create a completely unnatural analogue of that pathogen that is resistant to vaccines?  Perhaps this uncertain situation was part of the reason DARPA is now undertaking a proactive effort to manage and, if necessary, mitigate the consequences of the amazing new genetic manipulation tools (5). 

The harsh reality is that there is no telling where this technology train will take us.  However, the first chickens have already come home to roost.  Unless the research community and publishers modify information management policies to reflect fast-evolving technical capabilities we should anticipate the emergence of more unsettling results with troubling implications.

Chicken roosts

(1) K. Kupferschmidt. 2017.  How Canadian Researchers Reconstituted an Extinct Poxvirus for $100,000 Using Mail-Order DNA.  Science, 6 July 2017.  http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/how-canadian-researchers-built-poxvirus-100000-using-mail-order-dna

(2) E. R. Tulman et al. 2006.  Genome of Horsepox Virus.  Journal of Virology 80(18): 9244-9258.   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1563943/

(3) M. C. S. Brum et al. 2010.  An Outbreak of Orthopoxvirus-associated Disease in Horse in Southern Brazil. Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation 22:143-147.  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/104063871002200132

(4) E. Wimmer.  2006.  The Test-Tube Synthesis of a Chemical Called Poliovirus.  EMBO Reports 7 (Spec No): S3-S9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1490301/

(5) DARPA 2017.  Building the Safe Genes Toolkit.  https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2017-07-19 

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Is it Wise to Signal Our Cosmic Neighbors?

 

Do human beings share the Universe with other intelligent civilizations or are we alone?  The revelation that planets outnumber the innumerable stars suggests that habitable worlds must exist somewhere.  The vast number of possibilities invites the hypothesis that somewhere out there are planets harboring intelligent life.

Scientific discoveries have systematically dispelled all notions that planet Earth is exceptional.  The heavens may seem to revolve around us, but the data confirm our beautiful home is quite modest by celestial standards. The latest results, while demonstrating our home planet is only one of a vast multitude, have invigorated discussions regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). 

The numbers give SETI investigators (1) hope they will ultimately discover evidence other intelligent beings exist in our galaxy.  Searches have been conducted, but have yielded only false alarms and the inexplicable Wow! signal (2).  Although the current findings suggest intelligent life is rare, only a tiny portion of the galaxy has been examined and briefly at that.  It is too early to declare with any confidence we are alone. 

Maybe we have not been looking for our neighbors in the right ways.  Instead of seeking the needle in a gigantic cosmic haystack, deliberately announcing our presence through optical or radio signals might be a more fruitful approach and generate a quicker reply.  A new group operating as METI – Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – proposes to initiate this more active strategy in 2018 (3). 

But is the METI effort wise?  Any reply would be a stunning scientific result, but is revealing our location risky?  Opinions differ and the debate has surprisingly far reaching implications.  If we do have tech-savvy neighbors and they elect to respond to our overture the scientific implications of contact are incalculable.  But what happens if we draw the attention of beings far more advanced than us?  Will they be benevolent or might we come to regret this action?  Look at our solar system; eight major planets with only one currently suitable for an intelligent civilization.  Perhaps livable planets are rare and someone else would like to have ours, as H. G. Wells envisioned in The War of the Worlds.  On the other hand, maybe our neighbors are so advanced that they would have no interest in our planet.  Perhaps they were spawned and evolved on illuminated worlds like ours which they abandoned long ago.  Or maybe they did not emerge on anything remotely like our Earth.  One argument against METI is that the nature and intentions of our neighbors will only be known after they have discovered us.  METI supporters counter that humans have been sending electromagnetic signals into space for many decades. 

ConTactRisk

Steven Johnson’s article (3) reveals the complexities and complications involved in undertaking an effort like METI.  How do scientists calculate the risk when the unknown factors are so far beyond the bounds of knowledge?  Who makes the decision to proceed or enforces an order to halt?  Everyone on Earth has a stake in the outcome.

How long do civilizations able to communicate across space survive?  Perhaps such beings have already flourished and expired on many of the illuminated worlds around us.  Or, more troubling, such beings vanish quickly because they actively engineer their own extinction.  Maybe our corner of the Universe seems empty because advanced civilizations inevitably end up destroying themselves through environmental degradation, nuclear war or other means. 

The most provocative aspect of Mr. Johnson’s article has to do with the decision-making involved.  METI raises profound questions about the persons empowered to make the call for the planet.  In the end, this matter will be decided by a tiny circle of experts.  However, METI is but one of many momentous wise-use-of-technology decisions facing humankind; will we modify our own genomes, will we re-write the genetics of entire ecosystems with gene drives or continue growth/energy policies that are unsustainable?  Although we often hear how the public must be included, the reality is that a small group of experts will drive these decisions.  Let’s hope they are judicious or humankind may be long gone if and when a response to our METI call comes in.

Over the past decades support for the SETI effort has been fitful and proactive signaling attempts limited.  In 1974, the Arecibo radio message was beamed in the direction of the M13 cluster as a special event.  Forty years ago the Wow! signal was detected, a strange occurrence that has never been repeated or explained.  Taken together these brief, one-time happenings suggest something; If the Wow! signal is artificial and extraterrestrial, at least when it comes to the fundamental approach toward the issue of finding intelligent life, those beings seem exactly like us. 

 (1) https://www.seti.org/

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wow!_signal

(3)  S. Johnson. 2017 Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us).  The New York Times, 28 June 2017.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/28/magazine/greetings-et-please-dont-murder-us.html

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Fighting Half-Fact Journalism

 

Will climate change release disease agents from melting permafrost and produce devastating epidemics?  An article (1) promoted on Twitter (19 June 2017) suggests this might happen.  Some of the material, dutifully cited by the author, appears to have been distilled from another, similarly slanted article (2).  Both works contain conceptual flaws and factual errors.  Watching myth information propagate and reverberate through the Twitterverse has been interesting and distressing. Responding  on Twitter has achieved only partial success.    

A recent anthrax outbreak was traced back to animals released from their permafrost tombs (1).  However, this disease is caused by a bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, not a virus.  Anthrax may be lethal, but it is antibiotic treatable and very difficult, if not impossible, to spread in a person-to-person fashion. Anthrax outbreaks are cause for concern, but the chance this disease is poised to leap from the melting permafrost and produce a human pandemic is essentially zero.  It is true that some bacteria, especially the spore-formers, persist for long periods under extremely harsh environmental conditions.  Unfortunately, some of the diseases they produce such as botulism and tetanus (2) are also not contagious on a person-to-person basis.  In addition, planet Earth has abundant reservoirs for these bacteria outside of the permafrost regions.  Realistically, none of these diseases has pandemic production potential and the threats posed by them have been with us for a long time.  Melting permafrost is not likely to dramatically increase the dangers they pose.       

Clostrid

The 1918 influenza virus, sometimes called the Spanish flu, produced a terrible pandemic a century ago.  However, infectious killer flu virus is probably not lurking in corpses buried in the Alaskan tundra.  To date, only fragments of 1918 flu genes have been recovered from such samples.  I cannot say there will never be an announcement that scientists have isolated infectious virus from a thawed cadaver.  But the evidence in hand does not suggest this prospect is likely.  

1918 fu

Blogger and Twitter user @Neuro_Skeptic has noted correcting errors in news articles can be challenging.  The good news is that the specific error regarding 1918 flu virus recovery was edited in the BBC paper although some overstated implications about tetanus and botulism still stand (2).  However, at the time this essay was posted (20 June 2017), the other article (1) had not yet been edited.  Do the authors and editors read Twitter comments?  I have no idea, but they have seen fit to correct some, but not all, of the problems pointed out in their articles.  

Where will this end?  Not all facts are equally reliable, but social media gives every one of them an equal opportunity to reverberate around the internet.  In light of the situation, journalists, editors and readers will be best served by actually evaluating references or investing the time to check facts.  For example, a cursory search through Wikipedia would reveal how botulism, tetanus and anthrax are, or are not, transmitted.  The last line of defense against half-fact journalism is an alert reader.    

(1)  D. Galeon.  2017.  Climate Change is Freeing Ancient Infections From Their Icy Prisons.  Futurism, 5 May 2017.  https://futurism.com/climate-change-is-freeing-ancient-infections-from-their-icy-prisons/

(2)  J. Fox-Skelly. 2017.  There Are Diseases Hidden in Ice, and They Are Waking Up.  BBC, 4 May 2017.  http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up

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A CRISPR Kerfuffle

News and opinion regarding CRISPR genomic alteration technology often veers into extremes; this will either be the greatest tool ever or will entice humanity to ruin.  The prospect of immense financial rewards has induced the swift spawning of companies determined to exploit an extraordinary opportunity.  Developments are coming at a fast pace.

CRISPR genetic modification could be the key to controlling some diseases and a general sense of urgency has already propelled the technology into clinical trials.  However, questions as to whether researchers have gotten too far ahead of the data have been raised (1).  A controversial new study suggesting CRISPR editing may produce large numbers of untargeted DNA alterations has been met with a ferocious push back from eminent scientists and companies involved in developing the new technology (2, 3).  Disputing the methods and data and alleging faulty peer review, some have called for the journal to retract the paper.  For the involved publically-traded companies subject to market forces the stakes are high.  Stock valuations declined sharply in response to the publication of results highlighting the potential risks of CRISPR.

In one sense, the notion that CRISPR-Cas9 activity is imprecise is not controversial because investigators have been working for some time to improve the system (4).  However, right or wrong, the new findings were attention-grabbing and forcing a retraction of that paper may help companies minimize financial losses.  Although a retraction may satisfy pressing corporate concerns, it does not resolve the controversy surrounding off-target mutations generated by CRISPR therapy.  One problem is that not much published data can be cited to establish whether or not competing claims about genomic editing manageability are reliable.  This situation fuels a perception CRISPR technology is being rushed into the clinic based on sketchy information.  Perhaps companies will now be motivated to fill this information gap by publishing studies which establish the targeting efficiency and error induction rates of their genetic alteration systems.   

A troubling situation envisioned nearly 10 years ago by Nobel laureate Paul Berg may now have emerged (5).  Where academic scientists could once be counted on to act as honest brokers regarding the risk and benefits of new technologies, the situation we face today is much more complicated.  Many eminent scientists involved in CRISPR research and development have vested financial interests in the exploitation of this technology.  I feel sorry for the journal editors who must now adjudicate the issues swirling around a published paper that has offended some powerful persons and organizations.  At some point this particular dispute will be resolved.  For the sake of those volunteering for tests of CRISPR-based therapies it is vital to establish the scientific details supporting the clinical use of this technology with rigor and precision.  

Dead Mans

(1) A. King. 2017.  Fears that Gene-Editing Cancer Trails Are Premature.  Chemistry World, 9 January 2017.  https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/fears-that-gene-editing-cancer-trials-are-premature/2500206.article

(2) Antonio Regalado.   Gene Editing Companies Hit Back at Paper That Criticized CRISPR.  MIT Technology Review, 9 June 2017.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608073/gene-editing-companies-hit-back-at-paper-that-criticized-crispr/?set=608061

(3) I. Haydon. 2017. CRISPR Controversy Raises Questions About Gene-Editing Technique. The Conversation, 31 May 2017.    https://theconversation.com/crispr-controversy-raises-questions-about-gene-editing-technique-78638

(4) H. Ledford. 2016.  Enzyme Tweak Boosts Precision of CRISPR Genome Edits.  Nature, 6 January 2016.   http://www.nature.com/news/enzyme-tweak-boosts-precision-of-crispr-genome-edits-1.19114

(5) P. Berg. 2008.  Meetings that Changed the World; Asilomar 1975: DNA Modification Secured.  Nature 455:290-291. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7211/full/455290a.html

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