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Synthetic Genetic Shakespeares

Examining the implications of science and technology

Did Scientists Taking Untested Vaccines Shoot Themselves in the Foot?

Did the COVID-19 pandemic begin with a laboratory leak? Controversy rages as scientists and government officials battle to reach an evidence-based answer to that question (1). Whether or not SARS-CoV-2 eluded control, reviews of high-containment laboratory facility operations worldwide are warranted to minimize the risks a future disaster could emerge from one of them (2).

A Conspiracy Theory Hothouse

Whether knowledge acquired through conducting gain-of-function (GOF) experiments to make pathogenic viruses more virulent justifies the potential risks has divided scientists for over a decade (1-3). Unfortunately, the processes used to evaluate GOF research funding proposals and approve release of scientific journal publications produced by that support have been criticized for coverage gaps and lack of transparency (4-6). Rising public apprehensions about research on dangerous viruses combined with long-simmering, public disputes over GOF research oversight emanating from the scientific upper echelons make the area a ripe target for misinformation propagators and conspiracy theorists.                    

Violating Public Trust

The public trusts that the scientific research we support will be conducted safely and ethically. Scientific research has yielded enormous benefits to society such as novel vaccines able to halt the COVID-19 pandemic produced in record-breaking short time frames. Notwithstanding the spectacular successes in combatting this terrible pandemic, anyone seeking to cast the scientific enterprise in an unfavorable light can mine published articles to find plenty of grist for their personal mills. For example, one researcher conducting GOF work on avian influenza viruses made particularly intemperate statements to a science journalist regarding his intention to publish results without required government approvals (7). Another researcher defied federal regulations to conduct a field experiment using genetically modified bacteria in an action he characterized as a deliberate act of “civil disobedience” (8). Arrogating authority to act contrary to rules and regulations is a superb way to destroy public confidence in scientists.         

Clearly, some scientists can be impatient and unreasonable. The D.I.Y. coronavirus vaccine situation (9, 10) offers a more recent and troubling example of ill-considered actions. Groups of scientists convinced they had a solution to the urgent coronavirus pandemic threat, began administering untested and unvalidated vaccine preparations to themselves. These are people who understand the processes of safety and efficacy testing and presumably were cognizant of the risks. In principle, if they used private funding sources and something went awry or the vaccine was simply impotent, they hurt only themselves, so no harm, no foul?

Image Confronts Reality – A Problem of Public Perception

The fact that multiple scientists skipped long-established safety and efficacy testing protocols in the service of their personal fears/needs is a little troubling. We are not talking about one or two rogue actors and that invites questions about just how many scientists might be/are situational rule benders. For example, do most researchers working in high-containment laboratory facilities dutifully follow all the operational rules of conduct or do they cut corners on any they deem inconvenient or view as useless bureaucratic overkill? In the event of laboratory mishap, should we trust them to report what transpired accurately or might they shade the truth? It is unfair to judge all by the actions of a few, but clear that the strange D.I.Y. vaccine situation and its implications provides a ready-made cudgel to bash the entire scientific enterprise. 

GOF research and the safety of high-containment laboratory facilities are about to be subjected to intense public scrutiny. Hopefully, the questionable norm-bending actions of frightened or overconfident scientists will not end up shooting all of their colleagues in the foot. 

(1) Jorge Casesmeiro Roger. 2021. By Investigating Itself, the US Can Answer Many of the Key COVID19 Origin Questions. Independent Science News, 8 June 2021. https://www.independentsciencenews.org/commentaries/by-investigating-itself-the-us-can-answer-many-of-the-key-covid19-origin-questions/

(2) Laura H. Kahn. 2021. How to Make Biomedical Research (and Biosafety Labs) Less Dangerous and More Ethical, Post-COVID-19. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 8 June 2021. https://thebulletin.org/2021/06/how-to-make-biomedical-research-and-biosafety-labs-less-dangerous-and-more-ethical-post-covid-19/#.YMIkLUqGH7o.twitter

(3) Donald G. McNeil, Jr. A Federal Ban on Making Lethal Viruses is Lifted. The New York Times, 19 December 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/19/health/lethal-viruses-nih.html?_r=0  

(4) Ed Yong. 2012. Why Did a U.S. Advisory Board Reverse Its Stance on Publishing Mutant Flu Papers? National Geographic, 2 April 2012. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/why-did-a-us-advisory-board-reverse-its-stance-on-publishing-mutant-flu-papers

(5) Lynn C. Klotz and Gregory D. Koblentz. 2018. New Pathogen Rules: Gain of Function, Loss of Clarity. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 26 February 2018. https://thebulletin.org/2018/02/new-pathogen-research-rules-gain-of-function-loss-of-clarity/

(6) Jocelyn Kaiser. 2020. After Criticism, Federal Officials to Revisit Policy for Reviewing Risky Virus Experiments. Science, 24 January 2020. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/after-criticism-federal-officials-revisit-policy-reviewing-risky-virus-experiments

(7) Declan Butler. 2012. Mutant-Flu Researcher Plans to Publish Even Without Permission. Nature, 17 April 2012. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2012.10469

(8) Keith Schneider. 1987. Tearful Scientist Halts Gene Test. The New York Times, 4 September 1987. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/04/us/tearful-scientist-halts-gene-test.html

(9) Antonio Regalado. 2020. Some Scientists are Taking a DIY Vaccine, and Nobody Knows if it’s Legal or if it Works. MIT Technology Review, 29 July 2020.  https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/07/29/1005720/george-church-diy-coronavirus-vaccine/

(10) Heather Murphy. 2020. These Scientists Are Giving Themselves D.I.Y. Coronavirus Vaccines. The New York Times, 1 September 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/01/science/covid-19-vaccine-diy.html

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Featured post

The Lunch Break Time Travelers, or, The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear

At my high school commencement ceremony, one of our class co-valedictorians, Richard Burgess, delivered a speech that touched on the tricky subject of time. Nearly half a century later, still not comprehending the fundamental nature of time at all, I can now recognize a few of its many impacts. Listening to Richard’s talk I had no idea how I was about to begin several summers of regular time travel and how it would change my life. You see, I thought I was only making some money for college by working as a construction crew laborer. 

The school district of my home town hired part time workers in the summer, mostly students, to help take care of facilities maintenance like lawn mowing, painting, window repairs and small-scale construction projects. I thought I would be mowing grass, but somehow ended up on the construction crew putting in driveways, sidewalks, digging ditches and laying water and electrical lines. I ended up learning quite a bit about how many things I once took for granted came to be only after a good deal of hard work. 

Changes, Fast and Slow

Some of the changes this summer job induced came about quickly; learning a new language; “mud” (concrete), visqueen (plastic sheeting), forms (not paper), plumb, etc. Laboring in the hot sun ultimately left its physical marks like great suntans and hard calluses along with skin cancer, although that unfortunate change took decades to finally emerge.

It was a great time of my life when nearly every day brought new experiences and learning. One of the things I realize now is how much of the education process extends far beyond the confines of the classroom. Decades of teaching experience have revealed that, with the possible exception of Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society), even most educators never grasp the full scope of the education process. I think Mr. Illich would have been delighted to find that the particular bit of critical educational experience I describe had nothing to do with a classroom. 

The Time Travelers

Something else happened to me on that job that I absolutely did not, and arguably could not, comprehend for many years. It turns out that my co-workers and I were regular time travelers. Embedded in my brain, some of these implanted memories remained silent for decades, to bubble up when prompted by events or conversations. Such is the nature of the human brain and its amazing capacity to leap across time with seeming ease.

What happened is so routine that we consequently often fail to appreciate this miraculous human capacity. The crew was composed of older, long-term school district employees and a few summer laborers like me. And those old guys had some stories to share. 

Their recollections would spring forth at unpredictable moments, but the short intervals of daily down time during and after lunch or our mid-afternoon breaks were often relaxed and unguarded moments when we would talk. Often only snippets flashed out from these guys, but sometimes they offered detailed accountings of traumatic events prompted by context I no longer can recall, that were journeys back into times and places far away. Too young almost 50 years ago to understand what was happening, I took in the information, said little and although I sometimes re-told a couple of the stories over the years, wrote nothing about all this until now. Some of what they conveyed, perhaps unintentionally, were dark secrets that I will never reveal, but I now put forward a few things I still remember when these guys looked back in their minds to recount the events of their lives, some long passed and some still fresh and being processed.  

     

Al 

Al was our backhoe operator. A man so skilled with the controls that the bucket moved as if it were an extension of his hand. He had worked a variety of construction jobs over the years and when I was on the crew with him he was probably around 50 years old. I think his most memorable moment operating the backhoe had to be the day he severed a large underground natural gas line that fed a newly constructed high school. Hearing the noise and seeing dirt flying, Al knew instantly what had happened and that he had to kill the engine to prevent a deadly explosion and fire. Luck had not totally abandoned him that day because the diesel engine, which Al said normally rolled over several times whenever he switched it off, “stopped dead” the instant he turned the key. If it had not happened that way and that rushing gas geyser had ignited only a few feet away, Al, and God only knows how many others, would have been incinerated on the spot. Al scrambled away to inform the crew chief, describing for us how that man’s eyes grew wide with terror as he realized what was happening. Although I think Al told us the chief was criticized for issuing a Mayday call on his radio, he got the help needed onsite in a hurry and averted a possible disaster.      

A World War II veteran, another memorable story Al told had to do with being in combat during the final months of the campaign in Germany. Like a lot of the crew in that day, Al had been a smoker for quite a while and one story he revealed was about having a cigarette on the front lines. “They told us to get down in a hole if wanted to smoke at night.”  Forgetting this potentially life-saving advice, Al told us how he stood in the dark sideways to the enemy position with a lit cigarette dangling in his mouth. A sniper’s bullet whizzed past and “knocked that cigarette out of his mouth.” Had he been facing the enemy directly as the sniper who noticed the glow of his cigarette must have assumed, Al probably would have died right then and there. 

I recall this particular story partly because Al repeated it several times over the four summers I worked with him, and I remember another worker, Terry, asked me once if I believed it. All I could do was point out how I had heard that same story several times and it never varied, not even a little. Consistency was characteristic of all the stories I heard Al tell.

One of the things that did not make the journey through time is the conversational context that led to the recounting of war experiences stories like Al’s. Fifty years later I can still hear in my mind some of the words he said, but cannot tell you why that particular story would come up, although it did several times over the years I worked with him.

Somewhere in a conversation with Al and Jack (a Navy veteran) that transpired as we installed a new Cyclone fence section at a school yard, I got the clear impression both of them had served brief jail terms, perhaps while in the military, although neither man ever offered the specific details. At other times, Al had told a couple of stories that conceivably could have led to trouble with the authorities and one stood out in particular. He talked about going through a repossession experience. When the persons came to seize his property, he was waiting in a barn or shed with a rifle. He had one of them in the sights, but said, “it’s a hard thing to pull the trigger,” and, as angry as he was, could not bring himself to shoot him. He added that when they threw open the door and saw him standing inside with a weapon they were shocked and ran off. It probably did not take long for them to call law enforcement officers.   

Howard

Al and his older brother, Howard, a construction crew chief when I worked with him, had lived through the Great Depression and those experiences had left deep scars. We would get paid every two weeks by check and one payday on the way to a job site, Howard pulled the truck into a gas station near his home in a part of town known as Gilman Terrace. He came back with a big wad of cash and I asked if he had plans to buy something. “No, I trade here and the owner cashes my checks for me.” Somehow it became apparent that this was his regular payday routine because Howard did not have a bank account. When I pointed out how that was costing him money my comment was met with dead silence. 

Al informed me later that both he and Howard never put any money in banks because they didn’t trust them after the catastrophic childhood experience of seeing their family lose everything during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I recall one of them mentioning “the banker never lost his home.” Understanding this traumatic history, I realized those repo men who came to Al’s home years later were in some serious danger.   

It dawned on me that some of the stories Howard told over the years could have come when he, like a lot of young men of that era, survived the Depression by picking up any work they could find. I recall on some hot summer days he recounted bringing in the wheat harvest during a blazing heat spell, warning us to consume cold drinks slowly to avoid getting sick. He’d seen that happen when harvest crews were offered a choice of hot tea or cold water to quench their thirst. “Those of us who drank that hot tea kept right on a-going,” he said, while the guys who downed the cold water got pretty sick.

When the United States entered World War II, Howard joined the Army. I can’t say if Army life improved his circumstances because Howard never mentioned anything like that in all the days I knew him. However, he did have some harrowing experiences which may have outweighed any good memories.

Howard served in several North African desert campaigns and one battle that did not go well. He told me how an officer gathered the men and gave them two options. “Those of you who want to surrender, get rid of your weapons” and muster over there. “We don’t know if the Germans can even take prisoners, so you could end up dead. Those of you who want to keep fighting” gather up here. Howard, at that time with enough combat experience to have no illusions about what might happen to him, said he thought about it, “pushed his rifle straight down into the sand” and went to surrender.

His gamble paid off, the Germans did take prisoners and Howard ended up in a POW camp in Germany. He mentioned his experience was not much like the movies or a popular TV comedy show. “There were rules” and punishments for any transgressions. The thing that surprised me was he mentioned how much weight he lost during his time as a POW. “They fed us every day,” he said, “it just wasn’t enough.” 

Howard’s return to civilian life seems to have been difficult as he mentioned after he got out of the Army how “he did not think he drew a sober breath for over a year.” He saw a quite a bit of combat and was awarded the Bronze Star 3 times, events I only found out about by reading his obituary. Beyond his account of being taken prisoner, he never spoke to me about any of the battles he was in or how he turned things around after returning form the war. Thinking back, I cannot remember him ever talking about drinking or going to a bar like quite a few of our coworkers would from time to time. Howard passed away in 1989, but he lived long enough to get his picture in the local paper when he was awarded a medal recognizing the over 2 years of time he was held as a POW. 

Cliff, a.k.a. “Preacher”

Cliff was one of the youngest guys on the permanent crew, a Vietnam veteran who was known as “Preacher” due to his habit of carrying a Bible and readiness to talk about his faith. I finally had to ask his real name because the older guys never referred to him by anything other than this intentionally derogatory nickname. Because the bulk of the crew were people who had been working together for years, getting into the social circle could be hard. A person like Cliff, younger and with a tendency to witness for the Word, probably had more trouble being accepted.

I do not recall now if I asked Cliff exactly how and when he came to see the light, but along that line do remember him telling me how “he had been looking for something.” I also discovered that he was a Marine and served in Vietnam. He did not say he turned to Jesus because of that experience, but in the short time I worked with him he described one hair-raising event. 

His company was on patrol when someone leaped up out of cover, sprayed a burst of AK-47 fire at them and ran. They killed their attacker quickly after a chase and brief firefight. “Of course, then we all had to go running up to look at him,” Cliff said, realizing too late their unlucky foe was the decoy when they found themselves trapped between hills and a river as mortar rounds starting coming in from the high ground. With no way out “we fixed bayonets and ran up the hill directly at the enemy” who must have been surprised and retreated. I never thought to ask if any fellow Marines were killed or injured in the assault. When stories like this were told, they often came out fast and grabbed your full attention.   

I suspect Cliff probably had more war stories, but I only worked with him a few days before he moved on to another job. I imagine he felt pretty lonely during his time with the crew. After he left, I do not recall anyone ever speaking about him.       

“Brownie” 

I never knew Brownie’s real name because he was a painter and not a part of our group. One day while working an inside job which meant it was raining too hard for the crew to do their usual outdoors tasks, he came over and just started talking to me. Apparently, a tendency to be talkative was the norm for Brownie. As he told his story I realized I had already heard pieces of it being commented on by the other guys. The version I had heard being passed around second-hand was accurate. 

Brownie had been contacted recently about a relative, possibly an uncle or a great uncle, that he may never have known. The amazing part of this was the reason Brownie was contacted had to do with his relative’s estate. Based on hear-say and what Brownie told me directly, the man was senile and had not too much longer to live. And it seemed his final official act was to be a last will that named Brownie as the beneficiary of a purportedly life-changing amount of money. Brownie told me he had traveled to California to visit the man – I am unsure now if he ever told me his name – and the shock over his medical condition and physical situation in a nursing home facility. The final, undignified days of this poor soul and his fellow facility inmates left a deep impression on Brownie. He never spoke to me about the money or his plans for it, only the terrible things he saw on his visit. It was apparent from the comments going around the shop that he had been retelling that sad story over and over again, possibly to come to terms with it. I never encountered him again and perhaps Brownie did receive an inheritance that gave him the freedom to quit his painter job and do whatever he wanted to do.      

“Whitey”

Whitey was a veteran of the Korean War and of all the guys he seemed to have had the most demons still chasing him in the days I worked with him. He once mentioned his first day in Korea, taking cover in an excrement-filled shell hole, but apart from that and a story about the great time he had while on leave in Japan, never brought up any more of his military experience when I was around. Based on other things he said and did, I suspect that he may have been suppressing some unpleasant memories with alcohol. Most of his stories involved humorous descriptions of past events on the school district job, and despite his frequent complaints, remarked several times how both “I and Al have found a home.” Whatever his issues and famous volatility, he was a kind and considerate crew chief.    

Bill and Don and the Legendary Freezer Rats

Bill and Don exemplified quite a number of school district employees who had lost their previous employment through change or disability. Many of these guys were former meat packing plant employees so broken down physically after years of back-breaking labor they could no longer work the kill floors. Others, like Bill and Don, were skilled journeymen who were laid off when employers shifted operations to new labor-saving technologies. I am sure for almost all of them the school district paid them much less than their previous jobs. However, the school jobs came with benefits which was an important consideration for people who found themselves without work at the awkward age of being too young to retire while still needing a job.

Bill and Don described the sort of work they did as newspaper printers before I encountered them on a school district construction job which I put in an earlier blog post https://syntheticgeneticshakespeares.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/scanners-live-in-vain-vs-frankenstein/(opens in a new tab). In addition to that, I think Bill was the first to tell me a story I simply did not believe could be true at the time, possibly because I did not think it was a first-hand experience. I later heard the same story from other guys who definitely worked in packing plants and were in a position to have actually seen these things they called freezer rats. Gigantic (for rats), these long-haired beasts lived secretly in the meat freezers deep in the dark recesses of the old Swift packing plant and other meat processing facilities near the Floyd River. These were huge buildings, often open to the outdoors directly, providing a lure and ample opportunity for rodent infestations. These bold rats moved right in and adapted to the cold. My skepticism was misplaced because it seems the long-haired freezer rats these guys talked about are real. I am also pretty sure the story he told me about an exhibitionist who drove a convertible around the newspaper building on hot summer days when the workers – mostly women – would hang out near the windows at break time was true as well.     

Jack Spins a Tale About Chickens

One story I remember was a completely bonkers tall tale, put out I suspect just to see who might buy it.  

A Moon rock then touring the country came to our town. Yes, a Moon rock really did tour the United States of America. The public was invited to a local college for a presentation by a NASA scientist and get a close look at a genuine Moon rock collected by one of the Apollo astronauts. All paid for with their tax dollars. Safely within a square plastic container and watched over by an armed guard, I remember the rock as being between the size of a golf ball and a baseball and dark colored. And you were allowed to get right next to it, which all of us in the surprisingly small audience did. 

I mentioned the event to Jack and Al, who were not in attendance and recounted part of the talk given by the NASA speaker. He spent some time lamenting the state of our nation where young people were more focused on working dead-end jobs that enabled them to scrape together enough money to buy a ‘73 Chevy Monte Carlo or some such vehicle and not dedicating enough effort on higher education. 

In one of the few times I recall the lead-in to a story, I mentioned the lecture included a brief story about the outcome of an experiment in which chickens put in motion on a centrifuge or some other device induced a fat-mobilizing enzyme he suggested could have a future medical spin-off for obesity control. Jack really took off on this one, getting animated as he proceeded to tell Al and me some scientists had put chickens on spinning platforms which caused them to vanish mysteriously and “they don’t know where the f’ing things go!” A moonlighting musician and a character, although we did not argue with him, neither Al nor I considered Jack a reliable source of scientific information.

A funny outlier, most of the stories from those days I recall today were not tall tales, but recollections of lived events, things like fishing, vacations, freezer rats and sometimes experiences dredged up from much deeper in the past.  However, Jack’s claims remind us that conspiracy theories are nothing new. Jack had one true claim to fame since he was the only guy, at that time at least, to have set his equipment, a dump truck, on fire. He said he could not figure out why everyone was pointing and waving at him as he drove down the street and, happy guy that he was, he was just waving back. Finally someone yelled, “look behind you!” Glancing in the mirror he saw his truck was blazing. Part of the load cover tarp he had rolled up after a run had slipped onto the vehicle exhaust and ignited. Ever resourceful, he pulled into the driveway of a fire station he happened to be passing and they extinguished the fire. The tarp was next to the fuel tank, so it was bad, but could have been a lot worse.    

The Human Brain Time Machine

Evolution has somehow honed the human brain to re-construct itself in response to stimuli. Part of this legacy is it turns our brains into living time machines. However, not only can these encoded memories take us back through impressive expanses of time and space, we can pass those experiences along to others. When I worked with the crew and heard their stories, I thought we were only killing time, not realizing how I was being taken on journeys or how fortunate I was to be invited to ride along. Because he was one heck of smart guy, maybe Richard Burgess knew all this when he spoke about time to my graduating class so long ago. Hopefully, someone will ask him about this at our 50th class reunion. Being much slower, it took me a lifetime to get any sense of the full message.   

The Power of Listening

I think it is fair to say that many, if not most, of the people working on the crew were accustomed to being ignored and treated disrespectfully. I believe that led to the one piece of advice I got consistently from almost every one of them at one time or another; essentially make sure you finish your education. Many of them for one reason or another had not completed high school and were painfully aware how that specific early happenstance had held them back in life. One guy named Paul pointed out that “what you know is the only thing they can’t take away from you.” I enjoyed those summers working with them and recalling the many things they taught me. Looking back at events small and large I realize now that I was not just another college kid part-timer to them, but somehow over time had been accepted as a full member of their group. Most important, that meant they trusted me with some of their darkest secrets.

I will never understand why a group of guys my Dad’s age and older decided I was OK. The only thing I can think might have played a part in this was the fact that we listened to each other. That was easy for me since, having zero life experience, all I could do was listen to the guys who had collectively lived through the Great Depression, survived wars, traveled the world, had a few adventures and cheated death. Their way of according respect to one another was the simple act of listening – quietly – to each other’s stories. In this part of the world, the tiny piece of it they controlled anyway, they paid attention to each other. The world little appreciated that these almost invisible men were heroes, survivors, fathers and builders. If you waited around a while and listened, they might reveal a bit of what they had done and seen.

Years after I had finished my formal education, I picked up two books in a uniquely organized used book store https://syntheticgeneticshakespeares.wordpress.com/2017/12/29/preserving-odd-connections/(opens in a new tab) in Cedar Falls, Iowa; How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear by John Drakeford. Only after reading these books and the passing of many more years did I realize the astonishing power of listening skills and how much people respond to simply knowing they are being heard by others. I am not sure anyone, including the guys in the crew, could explain why they allowed me into their group, but I have to believe that just being seen as someone who listened to them was a big part of it. However it came about, I am grateful for the miracles of memory they shared with me through space and time.

Most of my time traveler friends are gone now, but in a sense some of their memories are still alive. God bless them all.

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The Next 500 Years

Book Review 

Christopher E. Mason. The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds. The MIT Press, 2021.

Christopher Mason is an accomplished scientist whose unique and interdisciplinary research background makes him well qualified to write on the topics that underpin a book like this. His scope is nothing less than the entire Universe and its fate, his mission a call for humans to become the Guardians of life impelled by the central rationale that this is our duty. 

The general idea that long duration spaceflight will pose biomedical challenges is probably a familiar one, but Dr. Mason’s descriptions of the afflictions suffered by astronaut Scott Kelly following a year-long stint on the International Space Station may shock some readers. The take-away message is sobering; humans are not built for zero-g space travel and a journey even to our neighboring planet Mars would tax, probably exceed, the physical and emotional limits of the toughest astronauts. However, science is poised to provide technological work-arounds to overcome the bodily weaknesses imposed by our evolutionary history. 

Readers are taken on a whirlwind tour of known problems of spaceflight, the new genetic tools and strategies that may mitigate them along with thoughts about the ramifications of human beings engineering and directing our future evolution. Drawing heavily from cutting edge biomedical research, some readers may find the descriptions of genetic technology tough going. However, offering specific details is an important opening approach because it allows Dr. Mason to demonstrate his deep speculations have sprung from solid scientific ground. The book transitions from a lab insider feel to big picture extrapolations spanning centuries of time that, because the essential breakthroughs remain to be achieved, are only describable with minimal technical detail. Notwithstanding his overarching sense of optimism, Dr. Mason does a good job of outlining some amazing possibilities ahead along with their attendant foreseeable complexities as our human destiny unfolds.    

Frankenstein Meets Gilgamesh

Despite the dark fact of impending existential doom driving humankind to seek refuge in the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond, the author’s view of the future is unreservedly optimistic. Like us, Earth itself has an inevitable expiration date, but Dr. Mason has bold proposals to cheat our cosmic death sentence.  Featuring some of the most impressive scientific advances of our day and projecting a high technology-based future in outer space, some readers may discover it inducing recollections of stories created centuries earlier like Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and The Epic of Gilgamesh

Readers of works informally known as classic hard science fiction may also sense traces of familiar tropes embedded within this narrative. Manifest Destiny, technology as savior, the hope for eternal life, subjugation of the natural world(s) and more are the understated unifying principles of the quest. By virtue of our supreme sentience and technical skills, humans are the sole hope to save terrestrial life by transporting it into outer space and the far reaches of the future. Dr. Mason writes –  

“We alone can act as the conscious, careful and thoughtful incarnation of evolution, as Guardians, and direct it to prepare for long-term survival.” 

A breath-takingly bold mission, should humankind choose to accept it. 

To Mars and More

Civilization and life are doomed if they remain confined solely to the Earth making the first steps in their preservation establishing new living quarters elsewhere in our solar system. However, even those efforts are stop-gap because the sun will ultimately exhaust its fuel supply. Fortunately, astronomers inform us that the Cosmos is packed with planets we might find are suitable homes if we can devise ways to get to them and alter their environments as necessary. Dr. Mason is blunt about the challenges ahead and his versions of Noah’s Arc seem as unappealing as they are currently unrealistic. However, this future is still centuries away which allows the abiding faith science will ultimately provide the means to achieve our ends to automatically trump any foreseeable downsides.

Guardians or Centurions?

The solar system can only sustain us for so long and Dr. Mason foresees our descendants will need to push to the stars. At least at the outset of interstellar migrations in search of second suns, it seems probable planets with Earth-like attributes will be prime targets for colonization. But, if life emerged spontaneously on Earth, won’t similar worlds harbor their own biospheres? It is not clear how seeding and modifying other planets fits within our Guardian-of-all-life charge. Maybe we will re-jigger the genetics of astronaut-colonists to match the anticipated challenges of their new homes, but after going to all the time and trouble to reach these new Edens, will we stop and move on if we discover the place already has residents? What will be put forward as fair decision criteria for planetary takeovers or transformations? How many indigenous life forms will be lost when our spacefaring invasive species decides we own the galaxy?     

A Duty to Genetically Edit Life?

A fascinating aspect of this book is the making of the case that humans have an ethical responsibility to genetically edit the creatures around us to make their lives better. In reality, humans assumed dominion over all creatures great and small as well as the entire planet long ago. Our stewardship of our home planet has been self-centered, suggesting any benefits our self-serving attempts at preserving civilization and attaining immortality provide to other voiceless species will be accidental and debatable. As brilliant as we are, acting as Guardians of Life does not seem to be in our nature.

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Mars: Risky Place for a New Space Race?

Shortly after the announcement that NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have initiated the process of creating a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) in support of a Mars sample return mission (1), Space News published an article (2) revealing China is undertaking a similar mission. The Chinese mission will differ from that of their Western counterparts in at least one important way; they intend to have samples of the Red Planet in hand two years before NASA/ESA researchers. It appears a new space race has begun. 

Collecting rock and regolith (soil) samples from Mars and transporting them to Earth for study will be an extremely complex undertaking. Although a timeline for the NASA/ESA project has been created, it is hard to predict whether the plans will be accomplished within this hoped-for timeframe. With successful lunar and Mars landing missions under their belt and a clear understanding of the challenges involved, it is interesting that Chinese engineers and scientists have announced not only an intention to retrieve samples from Mars, but to reach that challenging milestone first.

No matter when Mars samples are acquired or who gets them, the scientific results from their study will be of huge interest and significance. Still, the desire to be the first, to grab scientific priority and a place in history, is a strong motivating force. The prestige conferred by success will be huge which means the stakes for the competing teams are enormous. No one wants to be a spectator to unfolding historic events as competitors grab the glory. Hopefully, a competitive race will not lead to poor decisions.

Whose Standards?

It is unclear if Mars harbors any viable life forms, but we do know that our Earth teems with them. With a major goal of uncovering evidence of life on Mars, NASA scientists aim to collect, transport and analyze samples with the utmost care to avoid contamination with terrestrial life or biomolecules. The scientific goals of the Chinese Mars sampling mission appear to be similar to those being pursued by NASA (2), but how they will be prioritized and executed remains to be explained. If they wish to seek molecular traces of Martian life, which seems likely given its scientific importance, the Chinese will undoubtedly employ stringent isolation techniques to avoid confounding their experiments with terrestrial contamination. 

Adapting facility designs and protocols used to isolate and control deadly pathogenic microbes would serve the double purpose of maintaining Martian samples in as pristine a state as possible and, provided investigators successfully contain them indefinitely (3), preventing accidental release of any viable extraterrestrial microbes they may contain. 

Demanding work be conducted under strict biocontainment conditions will increase the expense and difficulty of the effort. Beyond needing to avoid terrestrial contamination artifacts, how stringent do the precautions need to be to avoid accidental back contamination of Earth, a NASA priority (4)? Scientific community opinion as to whether or not the Martian surface harbors viable organisms of any sort is divided sharply (5). The cold and dry surface of Mars appears inhospitable, but scientists have never examined any samples from the Red Planet directly. For now, the precautionary principle appears to be guiding the Mars sample return campaign planning and the forthcoming PEIS (1) will give more insight into the work conduct proposals. As experience grows and results accumulate, the operational procedures may be adapted appropriately. Perhaps the Chinese approach to these issues will parallel that adopted by NASA/ESA.                       

There is no guarantee all parties will agree completely on how samples from Mars should be examined and safeguarded. If Chinese scientists conclude the Martian surface has been devoid of living microbes for so long the prospects for finding biomolecules are remote and concerns about back contamination of the Earth are overblown, their approach and research goals may diverge from those that will be implemented by NASA/ESA. Disputes over best practices and standards for spaceflight operations have happened previously (6). However, it is also equally conceivable that NASA/ESA researchers will resist accepting guidelines they deem overly restrictive based on their perception of the probable risks. Accordingly, the planning processes could be dynamic and contentious.   

Given the many unknowns, it seems wise to bear in mind that it is always possible to relax controls that are demonstrated to be unnecessarily restrictive. The world is in the grips of a pandemic of uncertain origin with charges and countercharges researchers and governmental authorities are withholding important information from the public. The scientific community can ill afford giving the public any sense the risks involved in conducting Mars sample return research programs have not been weighed seriously and presented to them fairly.

The search for life on Mars is about to enter a new phase. As they race for discovery priority and research achievements, we can only hope – and demand if necessary – all scientists conduct these explorations with due regard for safety.  

(1) Mars Sample Return Campaign PEIS https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2022-04-15/pdf/2022-08088.pdf

(2) Andrew Jones. 2022. China Aims to Bring Mars Samples to Earth Two Years Before NASA, ESA Mission. Space News, 20 June 2022. https://spacenews.com/china-aims-to-bring-mars-samples-to-earth-2-years-before-nasa-esa-mission/

(3) Martin Furmanski. 2014. Threatened Pandemics and Laboratory Escapes: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 31 March 2014.  https://thebulletin.org/2014/03/threatened-pandemics-and-laboratory-escapes-self-fulfilling-prophecies/

(4) NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. Planetary Protection. https://sma.nasa.gov/sma-disciplines/planetary-protection

(5) International Committee Against Mars Sample Return. https://www.icamsr.org/index.html

(6) Stephen Clark. 2021. NASA Chief Criticizes NASA for Uncontrolled Rocket Reentry. Spaceflight Now, 10 May 2021. https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/05/10/nasa-chief-criticizes-china-for-uncontrolled-rocket-re-entry/

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The Mars Sample Return Mission – A Road Map for Future High-Risk Research?

Should full environmental assessments be required before some laboratory research projects involving biological agents are approved? Proactive measures are mandated to keep microbial pathogens contained and ensure the safety of laboratory personnel as well as the public. Although effective, is the customary focus on the immediate laboratory environment sufficient for all situations today?       

Development projects that involve federal lands, federal funding or will be subject to federal oversight may be required to produce Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Assessments during the planning process to describe their anticipated effects on the physical, cultural and human environments (1). These planning tools are intended to disclose to the public and policy makers the full range of issues involved with projects that could impact environmental quality, but do not necessarily prohibit environmental harm. 

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are planning a mission to transport samples collected by the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface to Earth for detailed study. Avoiding the contamination of planets and other solar system bodies with terrestrial microbes and preventing the back contamination of Earth with alien life is a longstanding NASA priority (2) that will set the rules for the sample return mission. All Martian samples will be maintained and studied under conditions of strict biocontainment to preclude contamination with terrestrial microbes and biomolecules. While the cold and inhospitable conditions of the Martian surface make it appear unlikely that any living organisms exist there (3), that opinion is not universal within the scientific community (4) and NASA planners are acting accordingly. Reflecting the enormous scientific significance of this mission and potential ecological implications in the event of release of a Martian sample(s) from containment, a supporting Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) is being prepared (5).

Laboratory Research With Global Impact

A true expedition into the unknown, NASA and its partner agencies are making decisions that could impact our entire planet and everyone living on it. Likely aware the world is watching, NASA planners are setting a high bar for this first – and future – Mars Sample Return missions. Their efforts almost certainly will influence how future missions unfold whether conducted by NASA or other nations.

Appropriate for a planet, Mars will be a bit of a moving target when it comes to sample biosafety issues. The first samples acquired from the surface may turn out devoid of viable microbes, but follow-on missions to the “Special Areas” of the Red Planet or locations with frozen water ice may yield totally different discoveries and there seems little doubt scientists will eventually push to investigate these intriguing sites. Looking beyond Mars, future scientists may collect samples from Enceladus or Europa. While the exact risks are unknown, starting out with what may be the lowest risk samples from Mars might be a good means to gain experience prior to venturing into locations with a greater probability of harboring viable alien (to us) microorganisms.             

Can We Keep Things Confined to the Laboratory Forever?

Collecting samples cached for years on the dusty Martian surface and getting them back to Earth without bringing along any extraneous materials will be an enormous technical challenge. But, once landed safely on Earth, can scientists keep them under containment indefinitely? High-containment lab facilities may be more prone to leaks than once assumed (6-8). If agents occasionally slip out of containment, proactive planning for mitigation of environmental impacts may be a wise action.      

Should Others Follow the Mars Sample Return Mission Road Map?       

There is no question that laboratory work is an essential element in the detection, diagnosis and ultimate control of disease. However, the absolute prerequisites for laboratory research with dangerous pathogens is that work is performed safely under conditions ensuring the complete containment of the disease agents. Whether the COVID-19 pandemic was fueled by a laboratory escape has unleashed a long running feud within the scientific community over culpability and the wisdom of some research programs. That a deadly pathogen could escape control and cause a pandemic is unfortunately an established fact (9); the 1977 Russian (H1N1) influenza outbreak is widely regarded as coming from research work involving that agent. This escaped influenza virus circulated for years and ultimately resulted in a large number of deaths. Few may have thought of it this way when that ill-fated effort began, but that work ended up having significant consequences for human health across the entire world. 

The uncertainty regarding the genesis of the COVID-19 pandemic has renewed controversy over certain gain-of-function research with potentially pandemic producing pathogens (10). Whether or not a laboratory escape event started the COVID-19 pandemic, these agents are unquestionably dangerous and research with them warrants special precautions. Scientific community opinion is divided regarding how best to go about such work and its fundamental value in light of an array of possible risks. Although new protocols to evaluate gain-of-function research funding proposals have been implemented, critics complain the process is not transparent (11). Responding to criticism and the reality that the customary peer review process is probably unworkable in this situation, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) will evaluate certain research programs supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that could pose high risks (12).

The full scope of high-risk gain-of-function work arguably involves a handful of high-containment laboratories, but the entire world has a stake in how and whether these experiments are done. It seems clear the NIH recognizes some gain-of-function research is in a unique class of high-risk work. However, based on the proposed solution, it is not clear this prestigious research agency sees the attendant ramifications of that fact. First and foremost, decisions of this magnitude should not fall to a couple dozen or so members of an appointed expert advisory board and some NIH administrators.

Perhaps the assumption that escapes from high-containment laboratories are rare has led to a tendency to discount concerns about the potential impacts of mishaps on the larger environment. If a research program carries some foreseeable risk of sparking a disastrous pandemic, maybe detailed environmental assessment work should be a required part of the planning and approval process. No matter how capable an investigator or research group may be, the scope of essential impact planning exceeds the time, effort and expertise they can provide. Assuming it is done well, the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement being prepared by NASA for the Mars Sample Return Campaign may offer a good road map to emulate for the NIH and other organizations supporting research with biological agents capable of creating global mayhem should they ever escape laboratory control. Those hoping to keep all gain-of-function or other potentially high environmental risk research oversight comfortably ‘in-house’ at the NIH may not realize we blew past that milepost a long time ago. 

  

 

(1) Tiffany Middleton. 2021. What is an Environmental Impact Statement? American Bar Association, 2 March 2021. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/publications/teaching-legal-docs/teaching-legal-docs–what-is-an-environmental-impact-statement-/

(2) NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. Planetary Protection. https://sma.nasa.gov/sma-disciplines/planetary-protection

(3) Nell Greenfieldboyce. NASA is Bringing Rocks Back from Mars, but What if Those Samples Contain Alien Life? NPR, 4 May 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/05/04/1095645081/nasa-is-bringing-rocks-back-from-mars-but-what-if-those-samples-contain-alien-li

(4) International Committee Against Mars Sample Return. https://www.icamsr.org/index.html

(5) Mars Sample Return Campaign PEIS https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2022-04-15/pdf/2022-08088.pdf

(6) Martin Furmanski. 2014. Threatened Pandemics and Laboratory Escapes: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 31 March 2014.  https://thebulletin.org/2014/03/threatened-pandemics-and-laboratory-escapes-self-fulfilling-prophecies/

(7) Jocelyn Kaiser. 2014. Lab Incidents Lead to Safety Crackdown at CDC. Science, 11 July 2014. https://www.science.org/content/article/lab-incidents-lead-safety-crackdown-cdc

(8) Kelsey Piper. 2019. How Deadly Pathogens Have Escaped the Lab – Over and Over Again. Vox, 20 March 2019.  https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/3/20/18260669/deadly-pathogens-escape-lab-smallpox-bird-flu

(9) Robert Roos. 2012. Fouchier Study Reveals Changes Enabling Airborne Spread of H5N1.  CIDRAP News, 21 June 2012. https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2012/06/fouchier-study-reveals-changes-enabling-airborne-spread-h5n1

(10) Carl Zimmer and James Gorman. 2021. Fight Over Covid’s Origins Renews Debate on Risks of Lab Work. The New York Times, 20 June 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/20/science/covid-lab-leak-wuhan.html

(11) Jocelyn Kaiser. EXCLUSIVE: Controversial Experiments That Could Make Bird Flu More Risky Poised to Resume. Science, 8 February 2019. https://www.science.org/content/article/exclusive-controversial-experiments-make-bird-flu-more-risky-poised-resume

(12) Joel Achenbach. 2022. NIH Orders Sweeping Review of Potentially Risky Experiments on Viruses and Other Pathogens. The Washington Post, 1 March 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/01/nih-review-lab-safety/

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Down to Earth – The First Mars Sample Return Mission

The detailed planning process has begun for a future NASA mission to transport small rock and dirt samples from Mars to Earth. Long imagined, this formidable task with the promise of an enormous scientific payoff is at last on the way toward finally being underway (1).    

That NASA engineers will devise a technologically dazzling plan to achieve the ambitious mission goals is certain. However, getting Mars samples to Earth is only the beginning of this effort. 

Safeguarding Planets

Do soils and rocks on the surface of Mars harbor any living organisms? Opinions vary (1, 2). Evidence suggests Mars was wetter and warmer in the distant past, perhaps life once flourished there. If that is true, what happened to it as conditions changed? If the consensus of the scientific community is that samples collected at the Martian surface are unlikely to harbor any viable microbes or the hardy analogs of spores, is it OK to put aside worries over back-contamination of Earth? Whether the hypothesis the Martian surface is currently devoid of life turns out to be true or not, scientists will still take extraordinary precautions to ensure their hard-earned samples do not become contaminated with terrestrial microbes and biomolecules. That means maintaining and examining all Mars rock and dirt samples only under the most stringent conditions of biocontainment.

For the sake of scientific investigation, researchers dispatching probes to Mars have worked systematically to avoid accidental forward contamination with stowaway terrestrial microbes (3). Discovering experiments on Mars have been confounded by the presence of terrestrial microbes would be dismaying, but accidental back contamination of the Earth with an unknown form of microbial life might turn out to be utterly disastrous. Well aware of severe and irrevocable outcomes following introductions of invasive species and microorganisms, it is clear the potential consequences of mishap for our biosphere could be profound (1). Under the circumstances, the onus is squarely on NASA to create failsafe methods to preserve and contain Mars samples brought to Earth for analyses. Reflecting the complexity of its many component subprojects, the long timeframe of execution and poorly understood risks with potentially extraordinary geographic range, a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) must be part of the analysis and approval process. It will be one of the most momentous documents of its type in history.

Everyone Will Want Some of This Action

Competition to examine samples from Mars will probably be intense. Every investigator allowed into this sanctum sanctorum will secure a place in history and legitimate claim to coveted scientific discovery priority. It is possible investigations of Mars samples will be confined to a single purpose-built federal facility. However, because funds always seem limited, arguments to avoid duplication of specialized equipment make it almost inevitable samples will be parceled out to numerous laboratories and investigators. 

Any facilities designated to receive Mars samples will be top flight and overseen by well qualified professionals, so are we safe to assume chances for any mishaps are low? Unfortunately, prior history reveals microbiology laboratory escapes and incidents have been reported frequently enough to be worrisome (4-6). After 9/11, the proliferation of high containment research facilities was identified specifically as increasing the public health risk (7). Although a great number of scientists may hope to work with Mars samples, limiting their distribution would appear to be an essential risk reduction action. It is unclear if maintaining such limits will be politically feasible. 

Did This Train Already Depart the Station? 

NASA planners are a long way down the pike on this one. Anticipating a follow-on mission to transport materials to Earth, the Mars Perseverance rover is collecting and caching samples in Jezero Crater. On one hand, while building on success is good, significant resources have already been expended which increases pressure to push this project forward. On the other hand, perhaps the timing and prior project history will inadvertently constrain the freedom of planners. Required to locate and secure previously acquired samples, will engineers be compelled to shoehorn them aboard the future transport vehicle employing ‘best-we-can-do’ trade-offs regarding containment and biosafety issues? Cached containers will be exposed to the harsh and dusty conditions of the Martian surface a minimum of several years before collection. Extraordinary actions may be required simply to secure them free of the dust (8) that is so ubiquitous on Mars. More worrisome is the fact that experience shows it is hard to sterilize spacecraft (3) or samples from complex environments like soils.        

Appreciating the Full Scope of This Problem

Administrators of scientific programs often rely on a peer review process to evaluate merits and reveal shortcomings of research funding proposals. Involving experts and capable of prioritizing funding requests according to technical merit and scientific significance, these protocols have served the research community well. Scientific investigation will be at the heart of the Mars sample program, but because the environmental ramifications of this work are potentially so far reaching, the evaluation process will extend far beyond the scientific peer review committee level.  Reflecting the gravity and complexity of the impending determinations, NASA has been designated lead agency for the Mars Sample Return Campaign, although it is not clear precisely where final decision-making authority rests. Plans should be forthcoming in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) detailing how cooperating federal agencies with jurisdiction and essential supporting organizations will participate in the Mars Sample Return Campaign.  

Will the scientific community broadly support the effort to transport samples from Mars to the Earth for analysis? We can only wait and see if safety concerns overwhelm an ordinarily predictable enthusiasm to foster scientific achievement. The contentious situation surrounding some “gain-of-function” research may offer an instructive example for NASA. Involving potentially pandemic producing viruses such as influenza, some gain-of-function programs have been criticized as too risky to pursue by peers fearing possible tragic mishaps (9). Should an analogous sentiment that transporting rocks and dirt samples from Mars to Earth is unwise given the current uncertainty about what, if any, viable life forms may be harbored within them take hold within the scientific community, normal peer review evaluations of Mars sample work proposals could be stymied. Worse, in the absence of substantial scientific community consensus, decisions to approve proposed work plans handed down by peer review panels may be attacked after the fact as biased, actions virtually guaranteed to sow confusion and fear in the general public.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has been tapped to evaluate certain research programs supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) deemed to pose high risks (10). NASA will be well advised to pay heed to the scientific and political issues that ultimately forced this unusual action. Creating an unquestionably independent and unbiased oversight board may be the most challenging and essential task ahead to ensure continued public confidence in the Mars sample return mission.   

When Will the Mars Sample Return Campaign End?

The Mars sample return mission will necessarily unfold over a period of years. While the mission currently being planned has a defined end point, the desire to analyze Mars samples on Earth seems unlikely to be satisfied with a ‘one and done’ effort. As mechanical devices and possibly human beings continue exploring the Red Planet, more materials, perhaps in greater quantities, will probably be sent back to Earth. Undoubtedly scientists will be eager to investigate the Special Regions (3) and any accessible sites harboring water. Does an active biosphere still exist near or within frozen subsurface waters or other hospitable refuges on Mars? The first trove of small samples collected on the Martian surface may have little potential to harbor viable microbes, but the situations and attendant risks could be vastly different in other locations. Moving forward, it may be wise to require updated risk assessments reflecting the physical history and specific level of biocontamination risk prior to approving future Mars sample return missions.

Now or Never? 

NASA has published a Federal Register notice stating a draft PEIS will be available for public inspection in the Fall of 2022 with the Record of Decision anticipated to follow in Spring/Summer 2023 (11). Involving as it does flight hardware and processes in final design phases, coordinating input from multiple cooperating federal agencies while addressing public comments received during the recently concluded project scoping phase, this timeline would be extremely optimistic even for a routine project. Factor in potentially controversial environmental risks assessment, an urgent need to devise impartial research conduct oversight mechanisms, complicated biosafety considerations combined with an existing base of opponents present within the scientific community itself (2) and it is clear this task will be as complex as the flights and sample recovery operations to be executed on Mars. Hopefully, the sample containers cached by the Perseverance rover are durable because they may be stuck on the Red Planet for a long time.    

The extraordinary scientific significance of this project and its many ramifications guarantee intense interest and scrutiny. This Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement creation process is open to the public (11) making it imperative the planning to preserve and contain the returned Martian samples safely be as proactive, thorough and every bit as attentive to detail as the work performed supporting the flight phases of this transport mission. Anything less and NASA may discover its premier program has been grounded. 

Update 29 June 2022. https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/news/planning-for-return-sample-science/?utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=NASAAstrobio&utm_campaign=NASASocial&linkId=171135703

 (1) Nell Greenfieldboyce. NASA is Bringing Rocks Back from Mars, but What if Those Samples Contain Alien Life? NPR, 4 May 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/05/04/1095645081/nasa-is-bringing-rocks-back-from-mars-but-what-if-those-samples-contain-alien-li   

(2) International Committee Against Mars Sample Return. https://www.icamsr.org/index.html

(3) Alberto G. Fairén.  2017. Worries About Spreading Earth Microbes Shouldn’t Slow Search for Life on Mars.  The Conversation, 28 September 2017.  https://theconversation.com/worries-about-spreading-earth-microbes-shouldnt-slow-search-for-life-on-mars-84742

(4) Martin Furmanski. 2014. Threatened Pandemics and Laboratory Escapes: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 31 March 2014.  https://thebulletin.org/2014/03/threatened-pandemics-and-laboratory-escapes-self-fulfilling-prophecies/

(5) Jocelyn Kaiser. 2014. Lab Incidents Lead to Safety Crackdown at CDC. Science, 11 July 2014. https://www.science.org/content/article/lab-incidents-lead-safety-crackdown-cdc

(6) Kelsey Piper. 2019. How Deadly Pathogens Have Escaped the Lab – Over and Over Again. Vox, 20 March 2019.  https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/3/20/18260669/deadly-pathogens-escape-lab-smallpox-bird-flu

(7) Jocelyn Kaiser. 2007. Proliferation of Biosafety Labs Poses Its Own Risks, Congress Told. Science, 4 October 2007. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2007/10/proliferation-biosafety-labs-poses-its-own-risks-congress-told

(8) Mary Kekatos. 2022. Mars Lander Losing Power Because of Dust on Solar Panels. ABC News, 18 May 2022. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/mars-lander-losing-power-dust-solar-panels/story?id=84805112

(9) Carl Zimmer and James Gorman. 2021. Fight Over Covid’s Origins Renews Debate on Risks of Lab Work. The New York Times, 20 June 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/20/science/covid-lab-leak-wuhan.html

(10) Joel Achenbach. 2022. NIH Orders Sweeping Review of Potentially Risky Experiments on Viruses and Other Pathogens. The Washington Post, 1 March 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/01/nih-review-lab-safety/

(11) Mars Sample Return Campaign PEIS https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2022-04-15/pdf/2022-08088.pdf

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The World is My Oyster Pandemic

SARS-CoV-2 and its variant offspring are running rings around the world. As the Omicron variant fades, can authorities finally eliminate all pandemic restrictions mandated on a weary public? The short answer on eliminating masks and other measures is yes, but the real question is whether the threat has declined sufficiently to warrant that action. At the moment it is hard to be sure where we are in the complex and unpredictable ebb and flow of this disease. Maybe the combined effects of vaccination and fresh herd immunity will protect most of us in the near future. On the other hand, after anticipating being done with COVID last July, we have experienced the swift rise of several variant viruses. If Omicron or its sub-variant BA.2 have a virulent successor, will the public accept a return to restrictions after they have been lifted? Unfortunately, the authorities may be forced to address that question soon.            

Cover the Earth

As long as people get infected with coronavirus, we face a persistent risk new variant strains will emerge somewhere. Prior experience reveals that no matter where they happen to appear, some of these new virus forms are capable of marching over the entire world with stunning speed.

The dire situation may become increasingly challenging because virus transmission is encompassing more than human populations. Armed with a capacity to infect a broad range of species, the human pandemic has set the stage for susceptible wild animals such as deer (1, 2) to become fertile new grounds for SARS-CoV-2 invasion. 

The ultimate ramifications of this explosive expansion in SARS-CoV-2 range for infectious disease and planetary ecology are unpredictable. For example, if the viruses currently circulating in humans evolve toward more benign forms (3), i.e., become endemic as some people describe it, could we relax only to see existing reservoir species or newfound hosts like deer brew up unique coronaviruses (3) that turn out to be deadly to humans? A global experiment is underway.

Can We Avoid More Disasters?

Knowing wild animals exploited as food sources indisputably have been infection sources for several viruses (4) should prompt more changes in how we manage them. Despite efforts to clarify its genesis, the exact sequence of events that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic remain uncertain and controversial; did SARS-CoV-2 leap into humans out of a wet market, a natural setting or a laboratory? Did the Omicron variant evolve in an immunosuppressed human being or through some other mechanism? In principle, an accurate understanding as to how the current pandemic got started and evolved might help us avoid repeating catastrophe. Unfortunately, we have to wonder and worry whether the expanding list of natural reservoir species, new opportunities for transmission (1-5) and burgeoning geographic range of this particular virus increases the risk of future deadly pandemics. The world is changing before our eyes. 

As much as we may wish the decline in Omicron cases signals an end to the pandemic and return to normalcy, the situation is complicated and becoming more complex. Maybe evolution will hone SARS-CoV-2 into something akin to the currently known human coronaviruses that generally produce mild disease (3). Still, an adaptable beast is on the loose within us and perhaps this means we are fated to experience wave after wave of nasty, world-traversing variants (3). However, the coronavirus pandemic has been consistently unpredictable, so maybe better days do lay just ahead. While we wait for SARS-CoV-2 to evolve, we have the luxury of choosing which hypothesis to believe.              

For SARS-CoV-2 and other potentially pandemic-producing viruses, the whole world is wide open. We, hopefully, will devise ways to live within this harsh new reality. 

(1) Vanessa L. Hale et al. 2021. SARS-CoV-2 Infections in Free-Ranging White-Tailed Deer. Nature, 23 December 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-04353-x

(2) Emily Anthes and Sabrina Imbler. 2022. Is The Coronavirus in Your Backyard? The New York Times, 7 February 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/07/health/coronavirus-deer-animals.html  

(3) Donald S. Burke. 2022. Coronaviruses are “Clever”: Evolutionary Scenarios for the Future of SARS-CoV-2. Stat, 16 February 2022. https://www.statnews.com/2022/02/16/coronaviruses-are-clever-evolutionary-scenarios-for-the-future-of-sars-cov-2/

(4) Jon Cohen. 2022. Wild Animals Prized as Delicacies in China Contain a Bevy of Threatening Viruses.  Science, 17 February 2022.  https://www.science.org/content/article/wild-animals-prized-delicacies-china-contain-bevy-threatening-viruses

(5) Emily Anthes. 2022. In New York City Sewage, a Mysterious Coronavirus Signal. The New York Times, 3 February 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/03/health/coronavirus-wastewater-new-york.html?smid=tw-share  

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Update

Sabrina Imbler and Emily Anthes. 2022. The Coronavirus Menagerie. The New York Times, 22 February 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/22/health/coronavirus-animals.html

Is Proxima b A Party Planet?

Dr. Avi Loeb is an accomplished scientist, but a recent opinion piece published in The Hill (1) reminds us his bold, public expressions of some unconventional views make him an outlier in his professional community. I do not know how many scientists believe that interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is a device constructed by intelligent aliens or that federal funding support for programs to scan planet Proxima b for city lights is warranted. However, a quick survey of the news media and other information sources will reveal how many of them are active champions of such notions.

Few ideas captivate the public imagination like the prospect of encountering intelligent life in the Cosmos. Dr. Loeb also heads The Galileo Project (2) “to bring the search for extraterrestrial technological signatures of Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations (ETCs) from accidental or anecdotal observations and legends into the mainstream of transparent, validated and systematic scientific research,” making it fair to assert he has captured the particular attention of what might loosely be termed the UFO community. To what end? 

Danger, Will Robinson!

Dr. Loeb appears to have deliberately embarked on a career high wire act and I wish him the best of luck in this complicated undertaking. Is it possible for elements of a raucous UFO community to find productive common cause with mainstream scientists in a systematic and rigorous search for evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life? Time will reveal if we are witnessing a courageous visionary on the cusp of multiple momentous discoveries, whether enthusiasm sparked by new observations got the better of seasoned professional judgement or some of both are in play. 

Notwithstanding a shared interest in exploring the unknown, scientists can be brutal in their assessments of unconventional ideas deemed unsupported by objective facts. Using one of the unquestionably finest telescopes of his era, Percival Lowell gathered a body of primarily visual observations he deduced revealed a civilization struggling to survive on a drying planet Mars (3). A successful businessman boasting spectacular achievements at the cutting edge of Astronomy, Mr. Lowell was well known to the general public and a short review of his book, Mars as the Abode of Life, was published in the prestigious journal Science (4). The reviewer noted that although Mr. Lowell had not produced an outright fantasy, he had so blurred essential distinctions between personal opinions and facts that the book warranted being judged misleading pseudoscience.

Reading Dr. Loeb’s opinion piece positing city lights, continents, frequent birthday celebrations and possible imputations regarding the global technology/politics/customs extant on planet Proxima b reminded me how Percival Lowell blazed his lonely trail by founding a private observatory and building his own telescopes. New instruments will be doubtlessly constructed for astronomers, but the rationale as put forth by Dr. Loeb in his opinion piece alone seems unlikely to persuade skeptical scientific peer reviewers or impel funding agencies to act in the event forthcoming tools like the James Webb Telescope fail to capture clear evidence of artificial lights or huge solar panel installations on Proxima b. The idea scientists armed with a powerful telescope could detect an alien civilization by observing the frequent birthday celebrations on the dark side of a hypothetically inhabited nearby planet rests not on a body of objective evidence, but a gossamer thread of contrived high hopes. Will a high-risk, high-reward research hypothesis based on such a factually wispy rationale be rated favorably enough by peers to be allocated observing time on the Webb Telescope or any other instruments?    

With ‘Oumuamua too distant for additional study, no one knowing when the next interstellar object might zip past Earth, intense competition for instrument observing time and a new super telescope still years away, Dr. Loeb may have a long wait for any of his more unconventional ideas to be confirmed through direct observation. The Galileo Project could conceivably fill that gap by discovering something spectacular. However, if I were Dr. Loeb, I would be worried this tricky effort will not yield anything of note quickly and leave me with evaporating public support and irritated professional peers. With so much at stake, let’s hope he has a viable career plan B.  

Abandoning the Art of Leaving Out 

Scientists extrapolate their findings and speculate about their ramifications in journal articles and formulate testable hypotheses to frame research funding proposals. However, the art in this part of the job is recognizing the community norms constraining these activities. In other words, it is important to have a feeling for what peer reviewers will deem acceptable deductions and reasonable interpretive license based on the data in hand. You also learn that no matter how elegant they may be or how dearly you love them, some insights and experiences do not fall within the constrained interest scope of professional publications. 

In his book, The Unexpected Universe (5), Anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley summed up a personally transcendent experience involving a fox kit this way; 

“It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.”

Dr. Eiseley demonstrated there are places to publish such accounts and Dr. Loeb may likewise be actively seeking out a broader audience and the unique opportunities that could come with it. Perhaps a billionaire inspired by reading Dr. Loeb’s evocative writings will provide the financial support necessary to reveal if Proxima b is a party planet. However, it seems a safe bet no awards will be forthcoming until after the full confirmatory light curve data is published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. 

(1) Avi Loeb. 2022. Why NASA Should Build an Even Bigger Telescope. The Hill, 3 February 2022. https://thehill.com/opinion/technology/592719-why-nasa-should-build-an-even-bigger-telescope

(2) The Galileo Project. https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/galileo/home  

(3) Percival Lowell.  1908.  Mars as the Abode of Life.  Reprinted (2000) by Bohn Press.

(4) Eliot Blackwelder.  1909.  Letters – Discussion and Correspondence – Mars as The Abode of Life.  Science 29:659-661, 23 April 1909. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/29/747/659

(5) Loren Eiseley. 1969. The Unexpected Universe. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (p. 212)

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A UFO Renaissance?

A few days ago, a friend revealed he had encountered a large, black object maneuvering silently in the night sky. It vanished, leaving him wondering what he had seen.

I suggested his experience is a classic UFO sighting report in many ways and went on about how Arizona seems to be a hot spot for such things. Living as he does near several active defense installations and testing/training reservations, sightings of military aircraft are frequent. However, what my friend witnessed was unlike anything familiar to him. I suspect that although he recognizes he may have accidentally observed a flight of a top secret military aircraft, the sighting and its possible ramifications shook him.

Now What?

Newly drafted into the realm of UFO experiencers, I have to wonder what the aftermath of this event will be for my friend. He confided in me because he knew of my longstanding interest in UFOs, but I felt compelled to advise him that repeating his account may incite more jokes and ridicule than serious consideration. I hope I was able to convey the message that he is not alone.     

He may have assumed I would know where reliable information on the subject could be found. He didn’t reveal whether he had searched out more information on the topic, but since he does follow mainstream news reports he probably has seen some of the recent surge of stories about UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena) sightings involving the U.S. military (1) and the free-for-all these reports have ignited (2). However, little in the latest UAP news speaks to his personal experience directly. 

A great deal of information has been posted on blogs and I recommended my friend start his journey by having a look at Jack Brewer’s blog, The UFO Trail (3), and listen to a re-launch of the Paratopia Podcast produced by the late Jeff Ritzmann and Jeremy Vaeni (4). 

The history of the UFO phenomenon in the U.S. has a dark side and to orient a newcomer to ‘men-in-black’ intrigues and other issues I recommended reading Adam Gorightly’s recently published book Saucers, Spooks and Kooks (5) and viewing the documentary Mirage Men (available on Amazon Prime). One investigator has compiled a list of scholarly works on UFOs and allied topics on his Ufology Research blog (6). (h/t to Sarah Scoles, author of They are Already Here, for pointing out this resource in her Twitter feed.)

Change is Coming

Scientific community interest in UFOs has fluctuated widely over the years. Notwithstanding the well-worn refrains that scientists ignore or are afraid of the topic, a search of the prestigious journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reveals a substantial number of articles, news reports, letters and book reviews on UFO/flying saucers were featured over the years. While scientist evaluations of specific UFO studies and evidence have often been scathing, the body of work published in Science has not been uniformly dismissive of the topic (7). Spurred by observations of the first confirmed interstellar object and concurrent reports of UAP events recorded by military personnel, a new scientific research initiative, The Galileo Project (8), has been launched. Perhaps humankind is on the verge of a new comprehension of the Universe and our place in it. 

This may be a good moment in time to be drawn into the UFO mystery as change seems to be on the way for the scientific backwater of UFO research. For decades work has been conducted by solitary, part-time investigators of variable levels of competence. Is the center of productive investigation poised to become the presumably adequately-funded and well-equipped Department of Defense UAP investigation program? How much of what the military discovers will be classified and unavailable to the general public? Are we in for breath-taking disclosures or a high-tech re-play of Project Blue Book? Maybe The Galileo Project is the best hope for the fullest possible public release of facts and discoverable evidence underlying the UFO phenomena. We must wait for whatever findings the new gatekeepers decide they are willing to present.

Fair warning to any intrepid souls seeking to plumb the depths of the UFO subculture; you will encounter situations that unleash powerful emotions. Joy, awe and fear may find you, but also be prepared for seething rage when you recognize how some callous and malignant charlatans have found a means to perpetrate unspeakable outrages against our fellow human beings.        

UFO study is a challenging endeavor and I do not claim to know what the coming research efforts will yield. However, I will predict that anyone undertaking a quest to comprehend the UFO mystery will ultimately realize many facets of the human experience are reflected in it clearly.

(1) Bill Chappell. 2021. How UFO Sightings Went from Conspiracy Theory to a Serious Government Inquiry. NPR, 4 June 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/06/04/1003262749/how-ufo-sightings-went-from-conspiracy-theory-to-a-serious-government-inquiry  

(2) Alex Seitz-Wald. 2022. Disclosure or Deception? New UFO Pentagon Office Divides Believers. NBC News, 8 January 2022. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/disclosure-or-deception-new-ufo-pentagon-office-divides-believers-n1287199

(3) Jack Brewer. The UFO Trail.  http://ufotrail.blogspot.com/

(4) Jeff Ritzmann and Jeremy Vaeni. Paratopia. http://paratopia.net

(5) Adam Gorightly. Saucers, Spooks and Kooks. UFO Disinformation in the Age of Aquarius. Daily Grail Publishing, Brisbane, Australia, 2021.

(6) Ufology Research Blog. https://uforum.blogspot.com/2022/01/scientific-and-scholarly-articles-about.html

(7) David Kestenbaum. 1998. Panel Says Some UFO Reports Worthy of Study. Science, 3 July 1998. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.281.5373.21a

(8) The Galileo Project. https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/galileo/home

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Nature, Nurture, Culture and Biotechnology Start-up Companies

 An editorial by the editor-in-chief of Science journals described the interplay between the culture of science and a visionary entrepreneur (1). A heavy focus on charisma coupled with a certain amount of fakery being considered acceptable in this arena (1) ultimately yielded a truly devastating outcome for Elizabeth Holmes, the investors in the company she launched, Theranos, and its employees. 

As this sad story grinds through to a disgraceful end in the legal system, can anything be learned to prevent such debacles in the future? Is this situation a simple one-off crime or have deep underlying problems in how promising scientific advances are converted into remarkable private sector enterprises been exposed?

A Culture of Hype? 

As much as we might prefer to identify a villain to blame, several factors contributed to the cursed birth and death of Theranos. Igniting enthusiasm is a component of successful research grant awards. However, achieving that with an audience of true peers is one thing, trying to capture the attention of potential investors is probably a different endeavor. I am not accusing anyone of telling lies, but can appreciate how under some circumstances raw enthusiasm might spontaneously grab the reins and run with a presentation beyond the advisable limits of established facts.  

If there is a pervasive culture of hype in science, it is not clear Elizabeth Holmes had much time to internalize it since she was so young at the outset of her Theranos project. This was not someone who spent years writing grant proposals while absorbing the norms of the biotech community, although she did seem to consciously emulate Steve Jobs in some ways. However, it is possible that the group of capable scientists and technical advisors she attracted coached her in the fine art of high-tech research and development hype. Perhaps that hypothesis will be clarified in the legal proceedings still to come.   

Back to the Basics?

Could an overboard hype problem be controlled by relying on accomplished scientists armed with data-rich – and probably boring – PowerPoint presentations? The first rule of communication is to know your audience and I will hazard a guess that approach, although pleasing to many academics, will not be competitive in the cut throat real world of start-up companies.

Working as a scientific consultant for a biotech company, I met someone who told me a fascinating story about a past investment opportunity. He and a few co-workers at a large communications company had been seeking out small start-ups hoping to attract funding. Two guys gave them a presentation, but the group declined to invest, feeling they were inexperienced and did not inspire confidence they would succeed. Only later did it become clear they passed on what might well have been a life-changing investment. 

Impressions and appearances will inevitably influence our decisions. My suggestion for prospective investors facing inspirational presentations delivered by ‘force-of-nature’ entrepreneurs is to always seek a second, informed opinion. Find a faculty member consultant with experience in the area or hire a graduate student to comb through the prospectus and set the claims in true factual context for you. Called on to perform peer reviews of funding proposals and publications, scientists are skilled at deconstructing data interpretations and arguments. You just need to find the ones without competing interests in the work or distracted by a well-polished funding pitch. Or a lack luster one.                           

(1) H. Holden Thorpe. 2022. When Hyping Technology is a Crime. Science, 13 January 2022. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abo0022

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