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Gene Drives – Will Conqueror Biomolecular Bots Dictate a New Book of Life?

Declining vulture populations have received some recent news coverage. The number of human rabies cases in India is not known which makes it difficult to establish clear correlations between vulture population losses and human rabies increases. However, the notion some ecological changes yield unanticipated consequences and potential health risks still holds.

JayVay

Gene Drives – Will Conqueror Biomolecular Bots Dictate a New Book of Life?
By Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

 A new DNA engineering technique known by the strange name CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to edit the genomes of living cells with unprecedented ease and precision (1).  The method has only been in wide use for a few years, so it is hard to envision all the breakthroughs it will foster.  However, it is already clear the implications will extend far beyond the laboratory and clinic.

Conqueror WormThe CRISPR-Cas9 DNA editing system is versatile, but scientists have extended its capabilities by creating powerful new forms of this technology which function as gene drives (2).  A gene drive disperses genetic alterations or DNA cargo rapidly through a population by overruling the normal patterns of inheritance.  A recipient of a gene drive receives the complete genetic information needed to synthesize the enzymes and guide…

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Never Sell the Clones

Sunday evening, March 11, 2018, 60 Minutes aired a story about how cloned ponies have infiltrated polo in Argentina (1).  A multi-faceted account reported by Lesley Stahl, it is well worth your time.

An accident involving a prized pony may have started it all.  Before the animal was euthanized, the owner, a champion polo player and noted pony breeder directed a veterinarian to preserve skin cell samples.  In 2006 he was anticipating the day might come when it would be possible to resurrect his lost pony.  His foresight paid off.

Several animal species have been cloned and the technology is generally available.  However, the work is complicated and expensive making the cloning of companion or champion animals a game for the well-funded (2).  Using cells harvested from several of their best horses the polo breeders have created more than 100 clones.  These activities are legal and permissible under the rules of polo.   

ponies

Nature vs. Nurture Again

Does having the right genes make a champion polo pony or are a good environment and proper training the most important factors?  The 60 Minutes program reveals the clones are raised in a truly extraordinary environment featuring special diets, expert care and superb training.  Despite some subtle physical differences, the discussion that the clones possess the aptitudes and dispositions of their progenitors is quite interesting.  No claims are made that the clones are totally identical to their ancestors – some spontaneous mutations, mostly inconsequential, will always be present.  In addition, the clones are produced in surrogate mares.  That means the gestational environment will be close, but not identical to, the conditions for the originals.  Environmental conditions exert some influence over gene expression and development.   

Couldn’t expert breeders accomplish the same thing as the high-tech cloners?  In one sense they already did exactly that – the clones were derived from ponies created by just such methods.  The other consideration is that the clones beg the question as to which animals are the best – that decision was already made and carried forward into the future through cloning.  But, can anyone be sure that donor animals selected possessed the best polo pony genetic profile there ever can be?

The ultimate test for polo ponies is success on the field of competition.  In a championship match of clones vs. breeders, the clones prevailed by the narrowest of margins (1).  Perhaps this reflects the fact that the human riders also play a significant role in the competition.  In a situation where both horses and riders are top flight, it would appear cloned ponies did not offer any huge competitive advantage.

As is the case for ponies produced in the traditional ways, the value of clone-sired foals is based on the pedigree of their ancestors.  Cloned ponies are mated with champion stock and the foals may command a high price – sold for a reported maximum price of $250,000 (1).  The pony breeder/cloner interviewed noted something interesting about the fate of the cloned animals.  They are never sold.  The reason is simple, if you marketed them it would not be long before everybody had the same miracle stock.  End of mystique and/or competitive advantage.   

The Future                             

The amount of tissue needed to clone a champion polo pony is small and perhaps misappropriation of clones will become a problem.  Or the issues of safeguarding clones might get even more complex.  It may become necessary to update the definition of clone (3) yet again as scientists begin developing more powerful genetic manipulation technologies (4).  For example, what if new technologies allow someone to take the genomic sequence of a champion and simply introduce all the genetic changes that turn an ordinary animal into a proven top performer?  Is that clone infringement?  As the cloners should understand, each new technology opens up new possibilities.  The cat-and-mouse intrigues of elite Olympic athletes attempting to gain advantage (5) suggests that competitive forces might spur the emergence of a genomics high technology race in the polo pony world of the future.

Never Sell the Clones

For now, polo pony foals derived from champion stock are valuable.  However, it is uncertain how much genetic variability exists in breeding stocks.  Perhaps there is a magic genetic profile that only the champion animals possess.  It may not take long to determine if that is true.  Refusing to sell clones is a brilliant, if potentially temporary, business strategy.  In the future persons unable to purchase a genetic champion pony may be able to construct one of their own.       

 

Thanks to Carol Rainey for making certain I saw the 60 Minutes story on polo pony clones.   http://www.carolrainey.com/

 

(1) Lesley Stahl.   The Clones of Polo.  60 Minutes, (CBS News), 11 March 2018.  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-clones-of-polo/

 (2) Matt Stevens.   Barbra Streisand Cloned Her Dog. For $50,000, You Can Clone Yours.  The New York Times, 28 February 2018.  https://nyti.ms/2COao5l

(3) National Human Genome Research Institute.   https://www.genome.gov/25020028/cloning-fact-sheet/

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

(5) Bret Stetka.   Have We Reached the Athletic Limits of the Human Body?  Scientific American, 5 August 2016.  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/have-we-reached-the-athletic-limits-of-the-human-body/

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A Microbiologist Evaluates Dr. Greer’s Messages

Publication of a scientific study of some strange remains sometimes known as the Atacama humanoid has resulted in controversy. However, issues regarding the precise origins and proper disposition of the humanoid were clear years before the paper was published. See also https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/tiny-chile-alien-backgrou_n_3071767.html?utm_hp_ref=weird-news

JayVay

Evaluating Dr. Greer’s Messages

By Guest Blogger,

Tyler A. Kokjohn, Ph.D.

AnencephalyEd Uthman, MD Anencephalic Human Fetus (courtesy Dr. Ed Uthman, MD)

Getting too far ahead of the data may be risky and few situations illustrate that better than the Atacama humanoid story presented by Dr. Steven Greer.  Despite the obviously strange appearance of the remains, recently released laboratory test results do not support an extraterrestrial origin for the entity (1, 2).  A preliminary analysis of mitochondrial (mt) DNA sequences has revealed although the entity is not a New World primate, it shares genetic kinship with people indigenous to the area in which the tiny body was recovered (2, 3).Notwithstanding the awkward discord between his initial assertions regarding the origins of the remains and the actual lab results, Dr. Greer continues to hatch still more factually unsupported speculations regarding extraterrestrial connections (3).

Judging ‘Preliminary’ Results

The report issued by Dr. Garry Nolan of…

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Will Scientific Research Validate the “Twinkie Defense”?

The murders of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk by Dan White created a media sensation 40 years ago.  Part of the public uproar involved a diminished capacity alibi employed by Mr. White’s lawyers that was repackaged by others as the captivating “Twinkie defense” (1).  The central tenet of the alleged Twinkie defense was that consumption of sugary junk foods impaired the defendant’s mental capacity.  Although the actual legal defense revolved around the consequences of Mr. White’s untreated depression, part of the evidence brought forth was his switch to an unhealthy diet.  The mis-characterized trial strategy provoked public outrage and was established as an urban legend (1). 

Not long after this shocking trial had concluded I was a graduate student being introduced to the biochemistry of neuronal cells by Professor Michael Collins.  I recall Dr. Collins discussing the Twinkie defense, indicating that although the public perceptions about it may not have been completely accurate, neurons were sensitive to their environments.  Although not much direct evidence was in hand at that time, Dr. Collins did not dismiss the possibility dietary choices might substantially impact human behavior.  Science may soon have a great deal more to say about such matters.

IMG_2960

Researchers are now tracing out the complex biochemical transactions that take place between human beings and the invisible microbes living in and on us (2).  It turns out that the benefits of a healthy, high fiber diet actually reach us indirectly through the metabolic transformations produced by a diverse community of active microorganisms.  Gut microbes, our personal gastrointestinal microbiomes, are influenced by diet and, in turn, feed back essential, health-maintaining signals to our cells.  Evidence is accumulating that gut bacteria may synthesize or regulate the levels of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin that are known to play important roles in disorders such as depression (3).

The discoveries revealing the intricate interactions between gut bacteria and the brain hint we may see new ways to mitigate some significant human health issues.  If such notions are validated, could the findings herald the transformation of the Twinkie defense from inaccurate legend into a compelling, scientifically-grounded legal strategy? 

Then again, perhaps the lawyers of the future will never need it.  If we comprehend how dietary choices influence behavior, scientist-nutritionists of the future might devise new foods (4) and probiotic programs to keep us all happy and well-behaved in a brave new world.  

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(1) David Mikkelson.   The Twinkie Defense.  Snopes.com, 27 August 2009.  https://www.snopes.com/legal/twinkie.asp

(2) Carl Zimmer.   Fiber is Good for You.  Now Scientists May Know Why.  The New York Times, 1 January 2018.  https://t.co/tCfReMWXaj

(3) David Kohn.   When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function.  The Atlantic, 24 June 2015.   https://t.co/XpU4K5PMug

(4) Barbara J. King.   Clean Meat, Via Lab, Is On the Way.  NPR, 2 January 2018.  https://t.co/UJ71m9B9Eo

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Preserving Odd Connections

Years ago, during the Christmas season, I would often find my way to a used book store in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  It was a delightful jumble – all sorts of pearls scattered here and there, each embedded with a not-so-faint cigarette odor that came home with them.  It took a long time to go through the place, but I was usually rewarded with finding something I had no idea I wanted until I actually laid eyes on it.  Until recently I did not comprehend the full value of the service this little store had provided me.            

A story in The New York Times today noted the passing of Book World, the 4th largest U.S. bookstore chain with over 40 stores (1).  These are hard times for retail in general and book sellers in particular.  The depressing truth be told, these losses confirm it is tough to compete with the internet merchandizers.

This story reminded me of an article I first noticed on Twitter a few days earlier about the joys and difficulties of finding books that fall outside personal experience (2).  True enough, the software enabling us to browse Amazon or other internet sites is helpful, but these wonderful tools may also be inadvertently constricting.  It can be tough to discover something really novel when you have no idea of what items to search or rely on suggestions based on items purchased by others who bought the same book.  Maybe the current software workaround for persons determined to expand their horizons is to enter in some random words and just see what pops up.        

Although some programs are better than others (2), suffocation by search algorithm is one facet of emerging changes that collectively diminish the chances we will stumble on unanticipated gems while shopping.  Making the effort to get to local retail outlets is not always the final solution because stores must organize their stocks in some manner and, as noted by Ms. Schwab, “… the more we categorize, the less we are likely to discover.”  However, pacing a real bookstore does at least give more opportunity for fully serendipitous discoveries.  Mulling over this situation it finally dawned on me how that dusty, smoke-laden and rather wonderfully disorganized used book store was actually a well disguised treasure filled with unique opportunities for discovery.

Will finding mind-bending reading become tougher in the future as bookstores vanish?  Maybe Amazon will find a way to devote a corner of their new bricks-and-mortar stores to used books.  If we are really lucky they will allow them to be kept in an untidy fashion unsupervised with powerful computer algorithms or curated by neatness-obsessed managers.  Nature preserves for untrammeled explorers trapped in a homogenized world, the magic of odd connections might still occur in such places.

 

Books

 

(1) David Streitfeld.   Bookstore Chains, Long in Decline, Are Undergoing a Final Shakeout.  The New York Times, 28 December 2017.  nyti.ms/2lePwhN

(2) Victoria Schwab.    Just Trust Me:  In Praise of Strange Books.  NPR, 23 December 2017.  twitter.com/npr/status/945…

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Forever Young Through Plasma Infusions?

If you want to recapture your lost youth there may be something far more potent than Botox – rejuvenating infusions of plasma harvested from young persons.  The idea has gained sufficient scientific currency to spawn new start-up companies to investigate and/or capitalize on it (1, 2).

Experiments with mice have demonstrated that blood from young animals reversed the negative changes on brain structure and cognitive function characteristic of advancing age (3).  A recently completed small-scale follow-up study suggests persons with dementia who received plasma taken from donors between 18-30 years of age experienced an improvement in their ability to cope with the activities of daily living.  No one is suggesting plasma therapy will cure Alzheimer’s disease (AD), but dementia has been an intractable medical problem for so long any good news draws attention.

Details are Sketchy and Sometimes Mice Lie

The full details of the dementia study will be presented soon.  Notwithstanding hope, it is important to keep in mind that this work, while controlled, was a small-scale trial of the type used to establish a treatment is safe and well tolerated.  At this point no claims have been made that the treatments significantly improved cognitive function, there are only hints providing plasma from young donors might have helped demented subjects get along better with day-to-day living.  In addition to being small, the study was short duration – 4 weeks – so at this time whether the beneficial impact observed is deemed real or lasting is entirely speculative.  Additional details such as the level of dementia of the experimental and control groups, how they were assessed and the magnitude of differences between them will be apparent when the data are presented to the public.  As matters stand the results may support performing a larger scale study.  However, it is too soon to tell if periodic infusions plasma acquired from young donors are the secret route to eternal youth or a way to stave off AD dementia.  Caveat emptor to potential investors; when it comes to AD cures everything works in mice and the people doing the study are involved with a company seeking to develop plasma infusion therapy. 

A New Set of Problems – What if Young Blood Revitalization Actually Works?

Recapturing youth through plasma infusions is a wealthy person’s fantasy.  Despite almost zero evidence for efficacy, people have paid a reported $8,000 (USD) per dose to receive pooled plasma infusions (1).  If experiments confirm young-donor plasma does nothing more than stop dementia progression the results will be sensational.  Because millions currently suffer from AD, demand for young-donor plasma will immediately far exceed supply.  Biochemists will apply a standard divide-and-conquer strategy to identify the blood factor(s) responsible and that may pave the way to mass produce the essential ingredients to create dietary supplements or other ways to supply them.  However, until that is done young-donor plasma supplies will be too limited to meet the demand which suggests they will either be rationed or sold off to the highest bidders.  For quite a while only the wealthy will be able to buy their way out of AD.

Goop

Transhumanist Entrepreneurs to the Rescue?

Some intrepid souls are pushing DIY biohacking to the limits to bring a transhuman future into being (4).  Maybe such bold persons will help society transition into a free market mass rejuvenation era.  Those under 30 years of age could cash in as donors.  But what if we get more creative and allow parents to license the use of their children?    

Let’s do the math:

            Average cost to raise a child to age 17, adjusted for inflation (5)     $ 284,570

            Current retail price for pooled ‘young plasma’ treatment (1)                   8,000

Once you fatten your kids up to around 110 pounds or more (the legal size) and have them donating plasma every 60 days it should be possible to establish a positive cash flow to recoup the initial investment sunk costs or finance a college education.  In the event that regulations regarding donor age limitations are relaxed, having children could be positively lucrative.  Everybody will want one and I can already envision an app that connects youthful plasma donors to the elderly vampire demographic.  Should be a great gig until the biochemists figure out how to render children outmoded before they have entered the work force.

For those wondering how to remain forever young, there is no telling if young-donor plasma infusions are the answer.  Even if they do keep our brains working we cannot be sure they will iron out tell-tale wrinkles.  It might be a good idea to keep the Botox handy for a while. 

(1) Gavin Haynes.   Ambrosia: The Startup Harvesting the Blood of the Young.  The Guardian, 21 August 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2017/aug/21/ambrosia-the-startup-harvesting-the-blood-of-the-young

(2) Alison Abbott.   Infusions of Young Blood Tested in Patients with Dementia.  Nature, 1 November 2017.  http://www.nature.com/news/infusions-of-young-blood-tested-in-patients-with-dementia-1.22930

(3) Saul A. Villeda et al.   Young Blood Reverses Age-related Impairments in Cognitive Function and Synaptic Plasticity in Mice.  Nature Medicine 20:659-663.  https://www.nature.com/nm/journal/v20/n6/full/nm.3569.html

(4) Tim Adams.   When Man Meets Metal: Rise of the Transhumans.  The Guardian, 29 October 2017.  buff.ly/2lptnQs

(5) https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/01/13/cost-raising-child

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Looking for Life on Mars – Are Scientists Running Out of Time?

Is it possible that scientists seeking evidence of life on the planet Mars are being too timid?  Have concerns over contaminating Martian environments with terrestrial microbes been exaggerated out of proportion to actual risks?  Will the imminent arrival of human explorers and colonists make all such precautions utterly futile?  A recent article makes a strong case that scientists hoping to capture pristine samples from Mars may have missed the opportunity (1).  And in the event the red planet has not already been seeded by terrestrial microbes transferred on

Earth and Mars

our scientific probes or the natural process of interplanetary panspermia, the author is concerned our efforts to avoid contaminating Mars will not matter much once humans arrive. 

Are Martian Ecosystems Vulnerable to Invasions or Not?

At this point it is impossible to say whether Martian ecology has been disturbed by microbes from Earth.  Our knowledge of terrestrial microbial ecology is rudimentary and Mars is a complete unknown.  On one hand it seems reasonable to assert that any Martian microbes would be so exquisitely adapted to their environments that no hitchhiking terrestrial bugs accidentally inoculated there could possibly displace them.  That would seem to make our laborious precautions to prevent transfer unnecessary.  However, introductions of exotic species have sometimes totally disturbed normal ecological balances and microbial invasions have been documented (2).  In addition, if Martian environments are sparsely populated or uninhabited they may be vulnerable to invasion (3).

Hypotheses vs. Facts

Although no spacecraft can be guaranteed to have been totally sterilized, systematic decontamination measures have been employed for Mars missions.  Terrestrial microbiologists accustomed to working in richly populated environments have developed mechanisms to acquire samples that are as free from extraneous contamination as possible.  Such measures make interpreting results much simpler.  Even though recent Mars missions have not been designed to search for living microbes, the minimal contamination strategy makes good sense scientifically.  Other than demonstrating, at great expense, intelligent life forms can successfully execute an artificial form of panspermia, recovery of invasive terrestrial vagabonds left behind by prior survey missions would not be a big advance.  But what if our spacecraft or natural panspermia have already inoculated Mars?  Is that possibility enough to jettison planetary protection protocols and greenlight missions into the Special Regions deemed most likely to harbor life or evidence of life?  Notwithstanding the fallout from abandoning formal treaty obligations to safeguard such places, the idea Mars has already been contaminated by human exploration or panspermia is an unproven hypothesis.  Scientists are unlikely to go along with such actions when the answer remains a matter of opinion.

Mars

The Humans Are Coming!

Does imminent human exploration or colonization of Mars force scientists to rush ahead and drop safeguards?  There seems little doubt that humans will transfer living microbes to the planet.  Even worse, spaceflight conditions might induce the evolution of microbes with unique and unpredictable properties (4).  Could all that be the end of any hope to analyze uncontaminated samples?  Again, the only thing more limited than our understanding of terrestrial microbial ecology is our knowledge of Martian ecology.  Only a miniscule portion of the Martian surface has been examined directly and even the Special Region designations are conjectural.  It is impossible to say if accidental contamination by previous missions carries any significant implications for the immediate vicinity, a region or the entire planet.  Until it can be proven that proactive protection measures and operational restrictions are futile, I doubt that mission planners will embrace the idea of removing them.  We have to see how the authorities – whomever they may be – will prioritize and accommodate future missions involving humans into the on-going plans to search for signs of life on the red planet.

Maybe We Have Already Driven Right Past Them

Could Mars and Earth have followed similar paths of physical and perhaps biological evolution for a time?  We see how microbial life on Earth has exploited even the most hostile environments so maybe Mars still has relict organisms holding on in scattered locations.  Or could conditions in spots be more hospitable than what we believe are representative for the planet as a whole?  Some terrestrial microbes thrive under environmental conditions that at first glance would appear to be completely inimical to them.  For example, cryptoendolithic microbes evade hostile conditions by taking shelter within rocks.  

CryptoDeemHills

 

Hot, dry desert ecosystems harbor algae which grow under light-colored stones where they find sufficient water and the right level of light to support photosynthesis. 

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Slide4

RockAlgae2

 

Searching for life or signs of past life on Mars are complicated undertakings.  Perhaps the prospect of human arrivals will spur scientists to speed up their efforts.  We are about to go down some uncharted paths and explore totally unknown territories.  Maybe one of our rovers has already driven past rocks with native Martian microbes living in or under them. 

 

(1) Alberto G. Fairén.   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

(2) Sarah A. Spaulding et al.   Diatoms as Non-native Species.   The Diatoms, 2nd edition, J. P. Smol and E. F. Stoermer, editors.  Cambridge University Press, 2010.    https://www.fort.usgs.gov/sites/default/files/products/publications/22437/22437.pdf

(3) Wilk-Wozniak and K. Najberek. 2013.  Towards Clarifying the Presence of Alien Algae in Inland Waters – Can We Predict Places of Their Occurrence?  Biologia 68(5):838-844.  http://www.iop.krakow.pl/pobierz-publikacje,536

(4) Nicola Davis.   ‘The Enemy Within’: Mars Crews Could Be at Risk From Onboard Microbes –Study.  The Guardian, 4 October 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/04/the-enemy-within-mars-crews-could-be-at-risk-from-onboard-microbes-study

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As You Like It – The Singularity Emerges

Facebook executives now admit they have created an entity they do not control completely (1).  As the company seeks ways to curb the malevolent aspects of their invention, observers have likened their predicament to the Frankenstein story (1).  We now seem to have arrived at the point in Mary Shelly’s novel where Dr. Frankenstein acknowledges his creature and strikes a bargain to satisfy his demands.  We will see how matters play out for Facebook.        

Personalized Mass Marketing

Whether the commandeering of Facebook functionality was predictable (2) or not it is important to understand how it seems to have been exploited.  Members are the center of attention of surveillance algorithms.  However, the real Facebook customers are advertisers and this mass marketing enterprise is a great service for them because it is so good at learning what each and every one of its 2 billion users likes (2). 

Click-bait as the New Truthiness     

As we view, linger over and actively ‘like’ content, Facebook artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms figure out what keeps us happy (2).  Because substantial numbers of members are willing to share information, the inter-member transmission process may become an infectious chain reaction.  With 2 billion users, commercial goals of supreme importance and little editorial oversight, results predictably have varied.  Facebook is the premier global news aggregator of the world wide web with a surprising tendency to promote information incest.  Indulging penchants does cultivate contented consumers.  But the software might also blinker users and the ease with which content can be shared could prompt us to forward materials that resonate regardless of their accuracy (3).  In fairness, Facebook was not created to educate the public.

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Facebook as the Harbinger

Scientists have speculated how biotechnology may be employed to create the perfect astronauts of the future (4).  Some of the proposals are sheer flights of fancy, but the fundamental philosophy of human beings reduced to instrumentality should look familiar.                    

Facebook has teamed artificial intelligence (AI) with internet-mediated infotainment to transform service-using persons into infinitely scalable and profitable data products.  By the time biotechnology allows a more physically concrete metamorphosis into living products we will be accustomed to the role.  The singularity is sneaking up on us.     

There are more shiny things to come.  Will we ‘Like’ them into reality?

(1) Kevin Roose.   Facebook’s Frankenstein Moment.  The New York Times, 21 September 2017.  https://nyti.ms/2ygvbg2

(2) Zeynep Tufekci.   Facebook’s Ad Scandal Isn’t a ‘Fail,’ It’s a Feature.  The New York Times, 23 September 2017.   https://nyti.ms/2jTyUhp

(3) Nina Jankowicz.   The Only Way to Defend Against Russia’s Information War.  The New York Times, 25 September 2017.   https://nyti.ms/2yneks9

(4) Antonio Regalado.   Engineering the Prefect Astronaut.  MIT Technology Review, 15 April 2017.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604142/engineering-the-perfect-astronaut/

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Scanners Live In Vain! vs. Frankenstein

The Implications of Purpose-Built Humans for Space Exploration

During the summers of my college years I was a laborer.  My job tasks included efforts like digging ditches, demolition projects and pouring concrete.  Often outdoor work, the weather conditions alone could be challenging. 

Too young to retire, too old to hire

A few of my coworkers were at least 40 years older than me.  With a lifetime of experience under their belts these guys had a wealth of great stories to share.  However, I did not understand the full significance of some of their accounts until many years later.  Before they were laborers Bill and Don held skilled journeyman positions at the local newspaper; parts of a team that made it possible to mass produce high quality documents 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  And then the owners invested in a new offset press printing process.  You know the rest of the story; the new methods were more efficient, less labor-intensive, etc., so Bill, Don and quite a few more people lost their jobs.  Worse, these guys had been cast aside at an awkward age – too young to retire and, in the opinion of many employers, too old to hire. 

Cruel Calculations

Bill showed me the art of using hammer and chisel to take apart concrete block walls.  His skills were exemplary and he explained that in his past life he fabricated chases (block frames for type) for old style newspaper printing presses by hammering lead into the proper form.  His hands showed the impacts of decades of diligent labor.  Don tried to describe the process he performed to transfer photographs to printing press plates, work that involved the use of a deep red-colored powder they called ‘dragon’s blood.’  He described how that red dust got on everything and that it really stuck on skin over the veins which apparently made for some hideous-looking workers.  I think (I hope) these people had dust masks, but maybe that was when management could still get away saying safety equipment was for the weak.

Those jobs required time to master and they took a toll, but the compensation was good enough to raise a family in reasonable comfort.  Over the many years their jobs changed Bill and Don physically and mentally, although we do not commonly think about these situations in such terms.  The mechanical skills and expert’s eye they developed were physically hardwired into their brain structure and the deft moves needed to execute the work became second nature.  Loyal, valued and valuable employees, they suddenly became worthless to the company and were shown the door.  Thank you for your service and good luck. 

When I met Bill and Don they had found work as custodians for the school district.  Part of their new jobs required them to work on whatever projects needed doing during the summer months.  So that year they were laborers breaking up concrete walls, hauling blocks and mixing cement.  The work could be exhausting for an 18 year-old and I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for them.  I never heard a complaint from either man, they were probably happy to have found a steady job with benefits.

Building Perfect Employees 

New technology, displaced workers, profits, loss and grief, the story heard over and over again.  No doubt similar stories will be repeated in the future although maybe they will be a good deal more complex.  A recent article (1) pondering how it might be possible to construct astronauts with enhanced capabilities to tolerate the extreme conditions of space travel has some interesting implications.  Could genetic modifications yield a literal new breed of space explorers impervious to DNA-damaging cosmic ray radiation?  Although engineering super-human astronauts is not imminent, some hypotheses are in early laboratory testing. 

Scanners2

The extremely radiation resistant bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans, has a high capacity to repair DNA damage (2).  Perhaps tweaking genes to enhance DNA repair capacity would help cancer patients recover from radiation therapy (3, 4) or enable astronauts to work safely in environments with murderous radiation levels.  In pursuit of such goals one group is reported to be considering augmenting the levels of a protein regulator known as p53 which plays important roles in allowing DNA damage to be reversed and halting the start of cancer (1).          

The Transhumanist (H+) future is often envisioned as a machine-organism fusion, but the fact is that the age of human-directed evolution has not even begun.  If genetic modification becomes a practical means to build better humans its use will raise even more complex ethical questions than device fusions.  Genetic alteration of adult volunteers, in principle, could be managed using informed consent procedures.  However, if germ cells are modified all succeeding generations become involuntary participants which renders nonsensical any notions of meaningful informed consent.  For example, take the idea that small-sized persons might be superior astronauts (1).  Unless only small-sized persons are recruited or there are ways in the future to shrink adults, achieving this specific goal would seem to require genetic changes be made early in life.  Could a child make such a decision?  If germ cells were altered would the involuntarily downsized descendants of the future wish they could be of average stature?  If they do could the genetic changes be reversed?

geneticvariationNIH

The Disposable Employee

Clearly, the first intrepid souls who are transformed into super-human space explorers will be taking a risk.  What happens when the job is done or the employer is done with them?  Our society tolerates risk exposure and even life-threatening occupational danger.  Today persons may elect to participate in biomedical research that could produce severe adverse outcomes.  And even though enlistment might lead to death or severe injury, military ranks are filled with volunteers.  Bill and Don were 20th century examples of the personal costs exacted by disruptive technological change.  In the 21st century it will be possible for clever lawyers to argue that clear precedents exist allowing corporations to subject genetically or otherwise engineered employees to risk and jettison them as deemed necessary.  In essence we are talking about the same thing – job-related changes in employees – imposed through different means in different centuries.  While Bill and Don restructured their brains and bodies on their own through long practice, some changes in the workers of the future may be accomplished with genetic manipulations.  Indeed, the argument could be made that by making a job less potentially damaging genetic modifications are more humane than the old style of employee management.   From the artisan weaver Luddites, 20th century journeymen like Bill and Don to the working persons of today and beyond, it seems the tradition of the disposable employee will continue as it has for hundreds of years.

What are the Implications?

Few things change faster than high technology.  Maybe the brave augmented once-human astronauts to come will have the foresight to negotiate terms that will protect them from hardship should new technologies render them obsolete.  Imagine an engineered astronaut with super human DNA repair capacity.  If his or her job is declared ended, maybe it will turn out the genetic alterations are irreversible because a fantastically efficient repair system will not allow any new changes to be introduced in DNA.  It is not clear if super DNA repair capacity has other costs; those impacts come out later.  Perhaps employers seeking volunteers will find it necessary to offer contracts guaranteeing full health care coverage and financial safeguards for genetically engineered employees.  Maybe the next battle will be cost-conscious corporations arguing that former humans have fewer legal rights than authentic humans.   

What if something unexpectedly good happens in genetically altered persons?  Even discoveries that seem positive at first glance might end up being problematic.  We are entering uncharted medical territories and maybe we will find that enhanced DNA repair and other tweaks to create super astronauts have rejuvenating, anti-aging effects.  Once it is recognized that super astronauts out-live normal humans by wide margins, large segments of the public will want that alteration.  Imagine organizations on the hook for pension cost payouts that last for centuries.  Think about social security.  Imagine the house you could own if you financed it through a 500-year mortgage.  Trying to get these strategies to work, scientists will be focused on the technical details at microscopic and molecular scales.  It will fall to others to recognize the necessity to carefully ponder the big picture and envision the full scope of what scientific success might ultimately bring.

The morality and ethics of human genetic modification will soon be vexing societies.  Cordwainer Smith examined the implications of the abandonment of home, well being and humanity in his science fiction short story Scanners Live In Vain!  We will do well to remember that while we have a long tradition of declaring human beings obsolete, nothing goes out of date faster than our instrumentality.  Will we explore space as true human beings or servile entities devised by and derived from humans? 

After reading Cordwainer Smith, you may wish to review Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley.  Confusing the fact that Frankenstein refers to Victor Frankenstein, the scientist/creator, and not his un-named creation is a common error.  In the future this mistake may be more understandable if we make the momentous decision to play both roles.         

(1) Antonio Regalado.   Engineering the Perfect Astronaut.  MIT Technology Review, 15 April 2017.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604142/engineering-the-perfect-astronaut/

(2) S. E. DeWeerdt. 2002.  The World’s Toughest Bacterium. Genome News Network, 5 July 2002.    http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_02/deinococcus.shtml

(3) J. Li et al. 2017.  A Conserved NAD+ Binding Pocket That Regulates Protein-Protein Interactions During Ageing.  Science 355:1312-1317.    http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6331/1312.full

(4) Alice Park. Scientists Can Reverse DNA Aging in Mice.  Time.com, 23 March 2017.  http://time.com/4711023/how-to-keep-your-dna-from-aging/

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