Tag Archives: biotechnology

genetically engineered algae

USEPA has approved a strain of genetically engineered oil producing algae to be tested outdoors.

On August 1, 2013, EPA received TSCA Experimental Release Applications (TERAs) R-13-0003, -0004, -0005, -0006 and -0007 from Sapphire Energy, Inc. to test five different intergeneric strains of the photosynthetic green algae Scenedesmus dimorphus in open ponds. The purpose of the field test is to (1) evaluate the translatability of the genetically modified strains from the laboratory to an outdoor setting, and (2) to characterize the potential ecological impact (dispersion and invasion) of the genetically-modified microalgae. The introduced intergeneric DNA sequences include certain metabolism genes and an intergeneric marker gene that enables detection of the microorganism from environmental samples. Also, different regulatory elements controlling expression of the genes were used, resulting in the five intergeneric strains. The field trials are to be conducted at the University of California San Diego Biology Field Station (BFS) in La Jolla, CA.



Change Agent

From Amazon:

On a crowded train platform, Interpol agent Kenneth Durand feels the sting of a needle—and his transformation begins…

In 2045 Kenneth Durand leads Interpol’s most effective team against genetic crime, hunting down black market labs that perform “vanity edits” on human embryos for a price. These illegal procedures augment embryos in ways that are rapidly accelerating human evolution—preying on human-trafficking victims to experiment and advance their technology.

With the worlds of genetic crime and human trafficking converging, Durand and his fellow Interpol agents discover that one figure looms behind it all: Marcus Demang Wyckes, leader of a powerful and sophisticated cartel known as the Huli jing.

But the Huli jing have identified Durand, too. After being forcibly dosed with a radical new change agent, Durand wakes from a coma weeks later to find he’s been genetically transformed into someone else—his most wanted suspect: Wyckes.

Now a fugitive, pursued through the genetic underworld by his former colleagues and the police, Durand is determined to restore his original DNA by locating the source of the mysterious—and highly valuable—change agent. But Durand hasn’t anticipated just how difficult locating his enemy will be. With the technology to genetically edit the living, Wyckes and his Huli jing could be anyone and everyone—and they have plans to undermine identity itself.

March 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • Trump admires Andrew Jackson, who I consider a genocidal lunatic and the worst President in U.S. history.
  • Fluoridated drinking water could eventually be looked back on as a really stupid idea that damaged several generations of developing brains, like leaded gasoline. Or not…I’m not sure who to believe on the issue but caution is clearly warranted.

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
  • South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030.
  • Advanced power strips can reduce the so-called “vampire loads” of our modern electronic devices that are never really off.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • This long NASA article first gets you excited about the possibility of life on eight new planets it has just discovered, and then throws cold water (actually, make that lethal X-rays) all over your excitement.
  • Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • CRISPR could be used to create new crops out of the wild ancestors of our current crops.

February 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • Russian hackers are cheating slot machines by figuring out the pattern on pseudo-random numbers they generate.
  • From a new book called Homo Deus: “For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.”

using CRISPR to create new crops

This article in Trends in Plant Science (which I know you’ve seen, since it flies off the news stands) argues that CRISPR should be used to create entirely new crops out of wild plants, mimicking the process that created our most common cereal crops over thousands of years.

Of the more than 300 000 plant species that exist, less than 200 are commercially important, and three species – rice, wheat, and maize – account for the major part of the plant-derived nutrients that humans consume.

Plants with desirable traits, such as perennials with extensive root systems and nitrogen-fixing plants, are currently being domesticated as new crops…

Several traits in crops that were crucial for their domestication are caused by mutations that can be reproduced by genome-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, offering the potential for accelerated domestication of new crops.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

NPR had a review of this book recently (below is the Amazon description).

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically-acclaimed New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style—thorough, yet riveting—famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

With the same insight and clarity that made Sapiens an international hit and a New York Times bestseller, Harari maps out our future.

“hundreds of mini-brains on a chip”

This Wired article talks about tiny balls of mouse brain cells complete with blood vessels connected to a “microfluidic” chip that essentially acts as a heart.

In the last five years, researchers have engineered lots of dish-dwelling micro-organs, from itsy bitsy intestines to Lilliputian livers. They’ve simultaneously made major advances in biochips: small, Flash-drive-sized structures lined with a layer or two of cells and studded with biosensors and microfluidic channels. Those two-dimensional chips are useful for testing, say, how lung cells react to a piped-in toxin, but they’re too simplistic to truly mimic organs. That’s where organoids like Hoffman-Kim’s brain balls come in. For the first time, 2-D biochips are colliding with 3-D mini-organs—and together they’re making some of the best organ simulations ever.

Using these mashups, the idea is that scientists will be able to take a few of your skin cells, grow miniature versions of all your major organs, and put them on a chip. Then doctors can test out the best compounds for whatever disease you might have—not in a mouse, but in a mini-you. “This will enable a new era of personalized medicine,” says Ali Khademhosseini, a bioengineer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute who has been working on both mini-organs and biochips for the last decade.

In a paper that will be published later this month, Khademhosseini’s team created a series of chips connecting liver organoids and cancer cells with loops of tiny tubes. They pumped an anticancer drug through the system, tracking whether it killed the tumor cells and whether the liver cells could survive the toxic onslaught. That way, they could optimize a drug dosage that maxed cancer-killing power while keeping the liver out of harm’s way.

I can’t help wondering if these body-less mouse brains are sentient on some level, or if they could be. Do they have a natural life span, or can they regenerate and repair themselves indefinitely? Could someone create a human consciousness this way? If so, could it survive and develop in the absence of a body? Could it be plugged into a simulation so it thought it had a body? Could it be plugged into a spacecraft or a submarine and sent out to explore?


Here’s the Amazon description of a new (to me) book called Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-extinction.

If you could bring back just one animal from the past, what would you choose? It can be anyone or anything from history, from the King of the Dinosaurs, T. rex, to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, and beyond.

De-extinction, the ability to bring extinct species back to life is fast becoming reality. Around the globe, scientists are trying to de-extinct all manner of animals, including the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon and a bizarre species of flatulent frog. But de-extinction is more than just bringing back the dead. It’s a science that can be used to save species, shape evolution and sculpt the future of life on our planet.

In Bring Back the King, scientist and comedy writer Helen Pilcher goes on a quest to identify the perfect de-extinction candidate. Along the way, she asks if Elvis could be recreated from the DNA inside a pickled wart, investigates whether it’s possible to raise a pet dodo, and considers the odds of a 21st century Neanderthal turning heads on public transport.

Pondering the practicalities and the point of de-extinction, Bring Back the King is a witty and wry exploration of what is bound to become one of the hottest topics in conservation if not in science as a whole in the years to come.

interspecies chimerism, or Dr. Moreau returns

I only understand a few words of this paper in Cell, like “human”, “pig”, “embryo”, and “implantation”, but they are enough to raise both my eyebrows. I’ll quote the last paragraph of the paper rather than the abstract because it contains a little less jargon. There are some understandable, or possibly hair-raising depending on your point of view, pictures in the paper too.

Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. Wu, Jun et al. Cell, Volume 168 , Issue 3 , 473 – 486

The procedures and observations reported here on the capability of human pluripotent stem cells to integrate and differentiate in a ungulate embryo, albeit at a low level and efficiency, when optimized, may constitute a first step towards realizing the potential of interspecies blastocyst complementation with hPSCs. In particular, they may provide a better understanding of human embryogenesis, facilitate the development and implementation of humanized animal drug test platforms, as well as offer new insights on the onset and progression of human diseases in an in vivo setting. Ultimately, these observations also raise the possibility of xeno-generating transplantable human tissues and organs towards addressing the worldwide shortage of organ donors.

Of course rich people are going to have copies of all their vital organs cloned in pigs as soon as this technology is available. And some mad dictator or Bond villain on an island somewhere is going to be breeding pig people. Now speaking of madmen on islands, there was a story about a certain Dr. Moreau…but it was only a story, right?

 “Monsters manufactured!” said I. “Then you mean to tell me—”

“Yes. These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted. I have studied for years, gaining in knowledge as I go. I see you look horrified, and yet I am telling you nothing new. It all lay in the surface of practical anatomy years ago, but no one had the temerity to touch it. It is not simply the outward form of an animal which I can change. The physiology, the chemical rhythm of the creature, may also be made to undergo an enduring modification,—of which vaccination and other methods of inoculation with living or dead matter are examples that will, no doubt, be familiar to you. A similar operation is the transfusion of blood,—with which subject, indeed, I began. These are all familiar cases. Less so, and probably far more extensive, were the operations of those mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples, show-monsters,—some vestiges of whose art still remain in the preliminary manipulation of the young mountebank or contortionist. Victor Hugo gives an account of them in ‘L’Homme qui Rit.’—But perhaps my meaning grows plain now. You begin to see that it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another; to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth; to modify the articulations of its limbs; and, indeed, to change it in its most intimate structure.

“And yet this extraordinary branch of knowledge has never been sought as an end, and systematically, by modern investigators until I took it up! Some of such things have been hit upon in the last resort of surgery; most of the kindred evidence that will recur to your mind has been demonstrated as it were by accident,—by tyrants, by criminals, by the breeders of horses and dogs, by all kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends. I was the first man to take up this question armed with antiseptic surgery, and with a really scientific knowledge of the laws of growth. Yet one would imagine it must have been practised in secret before. Such creatures as the Siamese Twins—And in the vaults of the Inquisition. No doubt their chief aim was artistic torture, but some at least of the inquisitors must have had a touch of scientific curiosity.”

“But,” said I, “these things—these animals talk!”

He said that was so, and proceeded to point out that the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis. A pig may be educated. The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily. In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much indeed of what we call moral education, he said, is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion. And the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx, he continued,—in the incapacity to frame delicately different sound-symbols by which thought could be sustained. In this I failed to agree with him, but with a certain incivility he declined to notice my objection. He repeated that the thing was so, and continued his account of his work.

I asked him why he had taken the human form as a model. There seemed to me then, and there still seems to me now, a strange wickedness for that choice.

He confessed that he had chosen that form by chance. “I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas and llamas into sheep. I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn more powerfully than any animal shape can.