Category Archives: Genetic Engineering

WSJ on “Living to 100 and Beyond”

Today’s “Saturday Essay” in The Wall Street Journal is an excellent primer penned by Sonia Arrison on ever-longer longevity, adapted from her new book, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything.

Arrison’s essay covers many of the promising techniques and technologies that may enable humans to live well into their tenth decades and beyond, including everything from calorie restriction to gene therapy, organ printing and replacement and tissue regeneration. She also writes about how a longevity revolution will impact society for the better, but even so, will not be without its critics:

But realizing the full potential of the longevity revolution will not be easy. We will need to tackle important and legitimate questions about the effects of greater health spans on population growth, resource availability and the environment. The decisions that we make in this regard will matter far more than the mere fact of greater numbers.

The very idea of radically greater longevity has its critics, on the right and the left. Leon Kass, who served as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics under George W. Bush, sees the scientific effort to extend life as an instance of our hubris, an assault on human nature itself.

The environmental writer Bill McKibben, for his part, strongly opposes what he calls “techno-longevity,” arguing that “like everything before us, we will rot our way back into the woof and warp of the planet.”

I’m unconvinced. Arguments against life extension are often simply an appeal to the status quo. If humans were to live longer, we are told, the world, in some way, would not be right: It would no longer be noble, beautiful or exciting.

But what is noble, beautiful and exciting about deterioration and decline? What is morally suspect about ameliorating human suffering?

Read the whole thing online here.

Using genetically engineered probiotics to treat bowel disease

Probiotics are the healthy food additive du jour, appearing in everything from yogurt (where beneficial bacteria are naturally found) to cereals, granola bars and juice mixes. Some of the claims of these products are highly debatable, particularly those that claim to boost the body’s immune system, but despite that, many strains of probiotics have been known to colonize the gut and despite a lack of hard evidence, may improve symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Crohn’s and colitis are believed to be autoimmune diseases in which the immune system attacks the digestive system. Symptoms may include weight loss due to malabsorption, bleeding in the intestines and diarrhea.

A team at Northwestern University created a genetically engineered strain of the probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus, deleting a gene that causes an inflammatory response while leaving the gene that helps regulate the immune system. Mice who were fed the bacteria did not experience weight loss or diarrhea, and had “90 percent less inflammation in their colon tissue than did their untreated counterparts.”

While these findings are positive, researchers are careful to note the benefits seen in animals may not translate to humans. Even so, this novel approach could be a step forward in treating this potentially debilitating condition.

Engineering synesthetic flies to “smell” light

I’ve long been fascinated with synesthesia, a condition in which”the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception of another sense.” Humans have reported the ability to perceive sounds as having certain colors (sometimes even the ability to “see” music) or “taste” certain words. More commonly, synesthetes perceive numbers and letters as having distinct colors.

While humans have been known to experience synesthesia by using hallucinogenic drugs or after brain injury, German scientists have been able to re-wire fruit fly larvae to perceive blue light as smelling like bananas. Although normal larvae would retreat from light, these larvae were thus attracted to it:

The work involves activating single receptor neurons out of 28 olfactory neurons. All the olfactory neurons were capable of producing a protein that is activated by light. The researchers had to choose which one to make light-sensitive.

They found they could either activate cells which would normally register repulsive odors and make the flies go away, or they could activate cells that respond to attractive odors like banana, marzipan or glue. Those odors are all present in rotting fruit, which attracts fruit flies.

The neurons send an electrical signal if they are stimulated with blue light, giving the fly larvae the impression that it has smelled something. As shown in the photo, the larvae went toward the light. The point is to study how the neural network operates, the researchers say.

There are certain instances where synesthesia could potentially be beneficial – this list of famous synesthetes seems to indicate it’s especially common (relatively speaking) among musicians.

R.U. Sirius offers his utopian vision for a transhuman future

One of my favorite blogs, io9, has been running a series of posts on “posthumanity” from both fiction and real-life. Today R.U. Sirius of h+ Magazine has a great post up about his “best-case scenario for posthumanity.” In it, he describes what his ideal vision of the future might look like, which includes open-source style collaboration among individuals, molecular manufacturing, control over our own biology and artificial intelligence systems that can solve our problems.

He also provides his opinion on who is helping bring about this potential future:

Ok, so who is working towards this eventuality? Well, if it happens this way, pretty much everybody in the NBIC fields – everybody working on nanotech and biotech and AI and brain science, whether as citizen scientists in a collaborationist project or working for a corporation, or those wacky surrealists at DARPA – they’re all pushing this potentiality forward. Of course, we may have to “hijack the singularity” from them eventually – or even now (think gene patent v. open source bio). But mainly, I think all the people who are engaging in open source collaborationist tinkering and culture, the citizen scientists – particularly the more sophisticated and educated young people that are choosing to invest themselves in “garage” projects – I think they all may be taking us there.

I also think the best, smartest critics and skeptics and SF writers and creators are helping – by problematizing these scenarios in advance, by giving us arguments and narratives that remind us about human behaviors and emotions and political and economic and scientific realities. Brilliant fiction adds to our foresight… our pattern recognition… by playing out dramatic, difficult, dark, challenging, ambiguous or dystopian scenarios based on similar technological possibilities.

Like all of R.U. Sirius’ writings, it’s well worth reading.

Highlights from the AAAS Annual Meeting

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held their annual meeting this week, and naturally a lot of very interesting stories and research results were unveiled:

Stem cell therapy lengthens telomeres for those with premature aging disease

People with a rare premature aging disease called dyskeratosis congenita (DKC) experience many of the symptoms we associate with the normal aging process – such as gray hair – but also experience serious symptoms such as anemia and a predisposition to cancer.

It is thought that the symptoms of DKC are brought on by the body’s inability to properly maintain telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes that get shorter as we age. Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston were able to “reprogram” cells using a stem cell therapy that actually lengthened telomeres, providing hope for those diagnosed with DKC but also those of us who hope to escape the ravages of aging:

In the new study, Suneet Agarwal, a physician and researcher at Children’s Hospital, and collaborators took skin cells from three patients with the disease and genetically engineered the cells to express a set of genes that triggers reprogramming, reverting the cells to an embryonic state. They were surprised to find that the reprogrammed cells grew and divided, their telomeres lengthening with subsequent divisions.

“They show that they can make the cells young,” says Lorenz Studer, a physician and scientist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York, who was not involved in the research. The defect in the telomerase enzyme “seems to be repressed or overridden during reprogramming, which probably explains why patients do reasonably well in the early stages of life,” he says. “Patients still have same mutation whether in the [skin cell] or iPS cell, but the mutation only manifests itself in the differentiated cell.”

The results of the study were published online yesterday in the journal Nature.

(Via Instapundit)

Military explores creation of immortal synthetic organisms equipped with an off-switch

I’m trying to figure out if this is really cool, really scary, or both:

As part of its budget for the next year, Darpa is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, with the goal of eliminating “the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.” The plan would assemble the latest bio-tech knowledge to come up with living, breathing creatures that are genetically engineered to “produce the intended biological effect.” Darpa wants the organisms to be fortified with molecules that bolster cell resistance to death, so that the lab-monsters can “ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely.”

Of course, Darpa’s got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they’ll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create “tamper proof” cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, “similar to a serial number on a handgun.” And if that doesn’t work, don’t worry. In case Darpa’s plan somehow goes horribly awry, they’re also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch [...]

It really does sound like the set-up for a sci-fi thriller, doesn’t it?