A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘genetic engineering

[BLOG] Five D-Brief links: microbiome, genetic engineering, elephant ivory, Moon, O’Neill colonies

  • D-Brief examines the importance of the microbiome in human beings.
  • D-Brief observes that the genetic engineering of two twins in China to make them resistant to HIV might also shorten their lifespans.
  • The poaching of elephants, happily, is decreasing as demand for ivory goes down worldwide. D-Brief reports.
  • D-Brief takes a look at the history of imagined landings on the Moon.
  • D-Brief looks at the long history of O’Neill colonies in popular culture, as imagined settlements in space itself.

[BLOG] Some Saturday links

  • Architectuul looks at some architecturally innovative pools.
  • Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait looks at Wolf 359, a star made famous in Star Trek for the Starfleet battle there against the Borg but also a noteworthy red dwarf star in its own right.
  • Centauri Dreams looks at how the NASA Deep Space Atomic Clock will play a vital role in interplanetary navigation.
  • The Crux considers the “drunken monkey” thesis, the idea that drinking alcohol might have been an evolutionary asset for early hominids.
  • D-Brief reports on what may be the next step for genetic engineering beyond CRISPR.
  • Bruce Dorminey looks at how artificial intelligence may play a key role in searching for threat asteroids.
  • The Island Review shares some poetry from Roseanne Watt, inspired by the Shetlands and using its dialect.
  • Livia Gershon writes at JSTOR Daily about how YouTube, by promising to make work fun, actually also makes fun work in psychologically problematic ways.
  • Marginal Revolution notes how the relatively small Taiwan has become a financial superpower.
  • Janine di Giovanni at the NYR Daily looks back at the 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone. Why did it work?
  • Jamais Cascio at Open the Future looks back at a 2004 futurological exercise, the rather accurate Participatory Panopticon. What did he anticipate correctly? How? What does it suggest for us now to our world?
  • The Planetary Society Blog notes that LightSail 2 will launch before the end of June.
  • Starts With A Bang’s Ethan Siegel looks at how the discovery of gas between galaxies helps solve a dark matter question.
  • Strange Company shares a broad collection of links.
  • Window on Eurasia makes the obvious observation that the West prefers a North Caucasus controlled by Russia to one controlled by Islamists.
  • Arnold Zwicky takes a look at American diner culture, including American Chinese food.

[LINK] “Crispr Gene-Editing Upstart Editas Goes Public as Patent Battle Rages”

Wired‘s Julia Greenberg looks at the legal fight over Crispr, the first modern genetic engineering technology for beings like us (potentially).

The future of medicine may rest in altering our genes. That’s a constant refrain in the recent history of medical science. Over the past few decades, researchers and investors have pinned their hopes on experimental gene therapies with the potential to change the landscape of disease, from transplanting engineered stem cells into humans to injecting them with viruses. The most recent addition to the list: Crispr-Cas9, a powerful gene-editing technique that allows researchers to rapidly—and cheaply—cut-and-paste genes.

Crispr is still a long way from snipping disease-causing mutations from the cells of humans. Right now, it’s most successful as a experimental tool, editing the genomes of yeast cells and a worm here and there. But that’s not stopping a number of biotech companies from capitalizing on the technology: Crispr Therapeutics, Caribou Biosciences (and spinoff Intellia Therapeutics), and Editas Medicine all hope to use the technique to develop human therapeutics. And yesterday, Editas became the first to go public.

Backed by Bill Gates and GV (venture capital arm of Alphabet, Google’s parent company), Editas filed for an initial public offering in January, and began trading on the NASDAQ exchange at $16 per share. It sold 5.9 million shares, raising $94.4—and the stock rose nearly 14 percent yesterday, its first day of trading.

Despite that successful opening, the company has a long way to go. Editas promises to do a lot with science that’s still in its infancy. Founded in 2013, Editas probably won’t begin clinical trials for at least a few years, even as scientists and ethicists negotiate the rules for fundamentally changing someone’s genes. More crucially, though, its ability to develop drugs rests on the results of a weedy ongoing patent dispute over the Crispr technology. “There’s a graveyard full of gene-editing biotech companies that have gone public that are no longer with us,” says Jacob Sherkow, an associate professor at New York Law School who has written about the Crispr-Cas9 patent dispute.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 12, 2016 at 4:33 pm

[LINK] “In a First, the FDA Clears Genetically Modified Salmon for Eating—It Just Took 20 Years”

Nick Stockton of Wired notes the approval, after decades, by the FDA of a genetically-modified fish for human consumption. What did it take? A lot.

From their birth in freshwater lakes to getting caught in a fisherman’s net, it can take years for a wild salmon to wind up filleted and garnished with a lemon on your dinner plate. But for the Frankenfish that the FDA approved yesterday—the very first genetically modified organism declared safe to eat—the journey took more than 20 years.

It didn’t take that long because the science was hard. Researchers had already nailed down the genetic tweaks to bulk up the fish—technically called the AquAdvantage salmon—by the early 1990s. Starting with the genome of the Atlantic salmon, a heavily farmed species that’s nearly extinct in the wild, scientists made two changes. They took the gene for a growth hormone from the Chinook (or king) salmon, the largest of the Pacific salmon species, and kicked that hormone into overdrive with a promoter gene taken from ocean pout, an eel-like fish that can survive and grow in near-freezing waters. “Usually the salmon’s growth hormone gets turned off during colder months,” says Eric Hallerman, fish conservation scientist at Virginia Tech University. The pout’s promoter gene basically makes sure the Chinook growth gene never gets shut off. Voila: a mega-fish.

So why did AquAdvantage take so long getting to market? In part, because the government didn’t have a regulatory pathway for GM animals to become food at that time. Fish become food, which goes in your mouth, and the Reagan administration decided that modified animal foods fall under the FDA. That makes sense, because a modified animal could trigger some peoples’ allergies, and there have also been (mostly debunked) claims about GM organisms causing cancer. Those concerns have all been cleared up to the FDA’s satisfaction.

But the AquAdvantage also stoked environmental worries. For instance, what if this super fast-growing, fast-eating fish escapes and starts competing for resources with its wild cousins? Do you want extinction? Because that’s how you get extinction. You also don’t want GM fish and wild fish interbreeding, polluting the wild genomes with engineered sequences.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 20, 2015 at 2:29 pm

[LINK] “Making Babies with 3 Genetic Parents Gets FDA Hearing”

Dina Fine Maron’s Scientific American article concerning new technologies that could marry DNA from three individuals, creating three-parent children, is a good overview of the technology’s position in the United States right now. (I’m for it, for whatever it’s worth, in that preventing inherited mitochondrial DNA diseases in children is a good thing.)

Scientists have already had successes with this type of reproductive approach in monkeys and in human embryos, and are now eager to launch human clinical trials. First, however, they must get the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which will convene a public hearing before an advisory committee on February 25.

The technology, called oocyte modification (but sometimes nicknamed “three-parent IVF”), involves scooping out potentially mutated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from a woman’s egg and replacing it with the mtDNA of an unaffected donor woman. The process is designed to prevent the transmission of some debilitating inherited mitochondrial diseases, which can result in vision loss, seizures and other maladies. Such inherited diseases, often unfortunately known by acronyms for complex medical names that include LHON, for Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, along with MELAS, MERRF and NARP, occur in about one in every 5,000 live births and are incurable.

Once the mtDNA has been swapped out, the egg could be fertilized in the lab by the father’s sperm and the embryo would be implanted back into mom where pregnancy would proceed. The resulting child would be the genetic offspring of the intended mother but would carry healthy mitochondrial genes from the donor.

[. . .]

Scientists already have evidence for the promise of this type of oocyte modification. Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University and his colleagues created human embryos in this way, although they did not implant those embryos to make babies. Their findings were published in October 2012 in Nature. Other work from that same team also found that in monkeys the process could lead to the birth of healthy offspring that remained free of complications into adulthood. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

[. . .]

But wading into this type of approach is also fraught with ethical issues. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, fears that this reproductive approach could soon lead to tampering with other traits, such as intelligence or sports ability. “Life is full of slippery slopes and we need brakes,” she says. “This is described as saving lives but it is not aimed at people who are sick,” she adds. The FDA advisory committee does not plan to consider ethical issues at this meeting. Instead it will focus on the scientific aspects of future clinical trial considerations, including long-term risk of carryover of abnormal mtDNA, the potential benefits and harm to mothers and future children, and the need for multigenerational follow-up in any trials (because female children could pass on mitochondrial disease to future offspring). “Our job will be purely to air the issue and bring it out into the open,” says Evan Snyder, chair of the committee and director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Program at Sanford–Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “We’re not going to come out at the end of the meeting and say we are advocating for clinical trials or any particular technique. This is educational,” he says.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2014 at 8:47 pm

[LINK] Two links on the genetically engineered future

Some days ago, Razib Khan at GNXP wondered about the future of genetic engineering, specifically genetic engineering as applied to human beings, after listening to a NPR broadcast. Might it occur, but just not in the West?

[S]ome animal geneticists are actually moving to places like Brazil to do their work because of disquiet about the nature of their research. In this specific case it had to do with replicating the anti-bacterial properties of human milk for goats using trans-genic methods (I presume). The host naturally expressed difficult to suppress revulsion at the idea of “human genes” in “animals.” To be pedantic of course we are ourselves animals, and what is a “human gene” supposed to even mean? A substantial portion of the human genome does not derive from humans.

On the one hand it’s sad when American researchers have to go abroad when their work really isn’t that objectionable. If, for example, they were modifying goat milk with cow genes that would not arouse as much concern, even though fundamentally the process is the same. Intuitive folk biology and a moral sense of the special character of humanity which is somehow ineffably tied up into our form and genetic character bubble up unbidden. But in nations like Brazil where diarrhea is major public health concerns these wisdom-of-repugnance intuition lack as much relevance. There is often the presumption that genetic engineering will be accessible only to the rich. And yet I wonder perhaps if being “wholly organic” might become a sort of signal of affluence and conspicuous consumption, with those closer to the margin of poverty engaging in various transformations which are ethically, morally, or aesthetically disquieting.

Just now I came across, via io9’s George Dvorsky, Aleks Eror’s VICE article “ChinA Is Engineering Genius Babies”. The interview with geneticist Geoffrey Miller is … something.

At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation’s intelligence by five to 15 IQ points. Within a couple of generations, competing with the Chinese on an intellectual level will be like challenging Lena Dunham to a getting-naked-on-TV contest.

VICE: Hey, Geoffrey. Does China have a history of eugenics?
Geoffrey Miller: As soon as Deng Xiaoping took power in the late 70s, he took the whole focus of the Chinese government from trying to manage the economy, to trying to manage the quality and quantity of people. In the 90s, they started to do widespread prenatal testing for birth defects with ultrasound, and more recently, they’ve spent a lot of money researching human genetics to figure out which genes make people smarter.

What do you know about BGI Shenzhen?
It’s the biggest genetic research center in China, and I think the biggest in the world, by a considerable margin. They’re not just doing human genetics; BGI is also doing lots of plant genetics, animal genetics, anything that’s economically relevant or scientifically interesting.

[. . .]

What does that mean in human language?
Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.

And over the course of several generations you’re able to exponentially multiply the population’s intelligence.
Right. Even if it only boosts the average kid by five IQ points, that’s a huge difference in terms of economic productivity, the competitiveness of the country, how many patents they get, how their businesses are run, and how innovative their economy is.’

Written by Randy McDonald

March 19, 2013 at 1:24 am

[LINK] “Why Eugenics Will Always Fail”

Esther Inglis-Arkell’s io9 essay on some of the problems likely to face any large-scale human eugenics program is worth reading. The central argument, that we just don’t know enough about our genetic inheritance to hack it about, is one that will give way over time, but that will remain an important factor nonetheless.

Selective eugenics cannot do otherwise but have an effect. Obsessively manage a familial line over generations, and it will change a species. However, every species will respond differently. Assuming that eugenics will have as much of an effect on humans as it does on other species is wrong. Assuming it will have the same effect it does on the more genetically pliable species can be fatal.

Even the success that we see with dogs comes at a price. Though different breeds of dogs might have a trait that’s desirable to humans, they aren’t more fit to survive than their wild compatriots. And what becomes of all their selective breeding? Aside from any number of diseases, weaknesses, and health problems endemic to dog breeds, they lose biodiversity. It’s estimated that five percent of wolves’ diversity was lost when they became domesticated dogs. When those domestic dogs were obsessively bred to make, say, a golden retriever, they lost another thirty-five percent of their diversity.

Humans don’t have that much biodiversity to lose. Grab any two humans on Earth and they’re likely to be more similar to each other, at the genetic level, than two chimps from the same tribe. It’s thought that the human race came close to extinction in the past, and that the few survivors became genetically close to each other. Losing another thirty-five percent of our diversity is not a tempting prospect. Going back to the dog model, scientists generally agree that their mutations don’t involve introduction of new genes, but expressions of ones already existing ones, which is why they can still interbreed so well. All that difference in genetics is what allowed them to change form in order to adapt to different conditions. Human eugenics isn’t going to be about trying to create many different breeds, but about going for an ideal. Limiting our biodiversity in the name of one ideal, or even a chosen few, doesn’t just change the human species in the present, it cuts off our capacity for change in the future. It’s widely acknowledged that a species that limits its gene pool leaves itself extremely vulnerable to any change from its ideal conditions. If the world itself changes — which is pretty much a guarantee — the human population could very well be stranded at a dead end.

So what would we gain for this vulnerability, and this expenditure of energy and care on selective human eugenics? What’s the ideal trait that we’d like for future humans to have? The general consensus on what we’d like to breed into the human population is intelligence. The human brain wants to preen and protect itself. This separates us from the animals! Except there’s no pure way, genetically, to do that. During a recent interview with Io9, Gary Karpen, a UC Berkeley biologist, has said flat-out that, given all possible genetic information about a child, it is in no way possible to predict intelligence. There are too many traits bound together, too many ways that genes might be expressed. The leader of the Human Genome Process, Francis Collins, said the same in his own book, claiming that no amount of genetic tinkering could give people designer babies with intelligence to order.

Well, what about other things? Strength? Fertility? Resilience? The problem is there is no one smart gene, or fertile gene, or strong gene. Mix the DNA of two geniuses and, even assuming somewhere in the soup of their DNA intelligence is passed down, it drags a net of other traits along with it. Those who manage animal breeding notice the same. When one can breed in a trait like swiftness in horses, or health and fertility in chickens, it generally comes with any number of other characteristics. Thoroughbreds and “hot-blooded” horses are notoriously temperamental. One study in poultry husbandry showed that even moderate increases in hen fertility and health came with increase in aggression, hysterical behavior, weird imprinting responses in the young, and odd sexual behavior. Good luck with that mixed in to the human population. Eugenics can’t be a scalpel. It’s a club. Even assuming we could get an extraordinary trait in one area, it would come with a whole host of other traits that wouldn’t be so desirable.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm