Category Archives: Genetic Engineering

When Evolution Fights Back Against Genetic Engineering

Brooke Borel writes for The Atlantic:

In a crowded auditorium at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in August, Philipp Messer, a population geneticist at Cornell University, took the stage to discuss a powerful and controversial new application for genetic engineering: gene drives.

Gene drives can force a trait through a population, defying the usual rules of inheritance. A specific trait ordinarily has a 50-50 chance of being passed along to the next generation. A gene drive could push that rate to nearly 100 percent. The genetic dominance would then continue in all future generations. You want all the fruit flies in your lab to have light eyes? Engineer a drive for eye color, and soon enough, the fruit flies’ offspring will have light eyes, as will their offspring, and so on for all future generations. Gene drives may work in any species that reproduces sexually, and they have the potential to revolutionize disease control, agriculture, conservation and more. Scientists might be able to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria, for example, or eradicate an invasive species.

The technology represents the first time in history that humans have the ability to engineer the genes of a wild population. As such, it raises intense ethical and practical concerns, not only from critics but from the very scientists who are working with it.

Messer’s presentation highlighted a potential snag for plans to engineer wild ecosystems: Nature usually finds a way around our meddling. Pathogens evolve antibiotic resistance; insects and weeds evolve to thwart pesticides. Mosquitoes and invasive species reprogrammed with gene drives can be expected to adapt as well, especially if the gene drive is harmful to the organism—it’ll try to survive by breaking the drive.



Everything You Wanted to Know About Genetic Engineering in One Chirpy Video

This chirpy video about genetic engineering explains the complex present and speculative future quite well although it probably takes too optimistic a view of how the new technology will be used. (Bio Edge)

What Ever Happened to Cloning?

Kimberly Leonard reports for U.S. News & World Report:

Dolly, right, the first cloned sheep produced through nuclear transfer from differentiated adult sheep cells, and Polly, the world's first transgenic lamb, are in their pen at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, in early December, 1997.   A recent study revealed that sheep created from the same biological matter used to make Dolly, the first cloned mammal, were aging normally and living healthfully – crumbling an apparently widely held impression that cloning created unhealthy animals.

The study comes 20 years after Dolly blurred the lines between science fiction and reality, sparking worldwide debate that spanned the fields of science, ethics and religion over the appropriateness of cloning and whether someday humans would be grown and experimented upon.

And while the recent findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, reinforced scientific conclusions that clones aren’t sicker than other animals, they also reflected how in the decades since cloning became a reality, it hasn’t really lived up to the promises or the fears that surrounded it.


Most Americans Think Technology Developed to Hack Our Bodies Will Just Benefit the 1%

Michael J. Coren reports for Quartz:

BrainScope employee Doug Oberly wears a brain scanning headset at the NFL owners' meeting in Boca Raton, Fla.Upgrades are not just for software anymore. Humans are steadily gaining access to technologies that enhance our brains and bodies. But most Americans, says the Pew Research Center, see this as yet another way for the haves to get a leg up over the have-nots.

Scientists are already working on synthetic blood substitutes to boost strength and endurance, brain implants to improve concentration and information processing, and gene splicing techniques that hack the human genome with surgical precision. Most of these techniques are designed to prevent debilitating diseases. Eventually, they will allow us to redesign our genetic inheritance.

That doesn’t sit well with most Americans. The majority of U.S. adults would not want brain or blood enhancements (66 percent and 63 percent, respectively) for themselves or their children, while about one-third favored such procedures. Of the 4,726 people surveyed by Pew, most were “very” or “somewhat” worried about technology-enhanced humans, believing the negatives outweighed the benefits for society.


BBC’s 2015 in Science

British scientists call for debate on ‘designer babies’

James Gallagher reports for BBC News:

BabiesDr Tony Perry, a pioneer in cloning, has announced precise DNA editing at the moment of conception in mice.

He said huge advances in the past two years meant “designer babies” were no longer HG Wells territory.

Other leading scientists and bioethicists argue it is time for a serious public debate on the issue.’


How the Pentagon’s Skynet Would Automate War

Nafeez Ahmed writes for Motherboard:

‘Pentagon officials are worried that the US military is losing its edge compared to competitors like China, and are willing to explore almost anything to stay on top—including creating watered-down versions of the Terminator.

Due to technological revolutions outside its control, the Department of Defense (DoD) anticipates the dawn of a bold new era of automated war within just 15 years. By then, they believe, wars could be fought entirely using intelligent robotic systems armed with advanced weapons.

Last week, US defense secretary Chuck Hagel ann​ounced the ‘Defense Innovation Initiative’—a sweeping plan to identify and develop cutting edge technology breakthroughs “over the next three to five years and beyond” to maintain global US “mili​tary-technological superiority.” Areas to be covered by the DoD programme include robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, Big Data and advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing.

But just how far down the rabbit hole Hagel’s initiative could go—whether driven by desperation, fantasy or hubris—is revealed by an overlooked Pentagon-funded study, published quietly in mid-September by the DoD National Defense University’s (NDU) Center for Technology and National Security Policy in Washington DC.’


Kill switch: Breeding kamikaze mosquitoes

Kieron Monks reports for CNN:

Female Aedes mosquito feeding‘The Aedes Aegypti mosquito is just two to three millimeters long but its impact is devastating. Of the thousands of mosquito species, this one bears primary responsibility for one of the world’s deadliest and fastest growing diseases. In the past 50 years, incidence of Dengue Fever has multiplied by 30 according to the WHO, spreading from nine countries in 1970 to over 100 today. There is no vaccine or cure for the painful virus known as Breakbone Fever, and of the 50-100 million people infected each year, over 20,000 die.

Aedes Aegypti has spread with this epidemic, and has become the target of efforts to control the disease. But while solutions such as mass spraying of toxic chemicals have proved expensive, ineffective and environmentally damaging, scientists hope to use the insect as the agent of its own destruction. British biotech firm Oxitec is tackling the problem through pioneering genetic modification (GM) of the Aedes Aegypti. Scientists breed large numbers of the insects in laboratories and inject the sperm cells of males with a lethal gene. When the mosquito is released into the wild and mates with a female — always of the same species – the deadly transgene is passed on and the offspring dies.’


New technique could lead to “risky eugenics”, says IVF pioneer

Michael Cook writes for Bio Edge:

‘Britain’s leading fertility doctor, Lord Robert Winston, has warned that his recent research could open the door to “risky” eugenics programs.

Lord Winston, who developed preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and his colleagues have developed a technique to splice genes into sperm, thus making it far easier to modify the genetic make-up of embryos. His focus is creating genetically modified pigs whose organs could be transplanted into humans without being  rejected.

However, he told the Cheltenham Science Festival this week that it  will be a far easier way to create “designer babies” because it would not be necessary to manipulate embryos. Only artificial insemination would be needed.’


New service creates virtual babies for worried mothers

Michael Cook writes for Bio Edge:

An American businesswoman and an Ivy League scientist have teamed up to create a sophisticated service for reducing genetic diseases for lesbian couples and single women. Anne Morriss and Lee Silver, of Princeton, have founded

Genepeeks, a company which will identify the sperm donors who have the best chance of producing a disease-free baby. Using Silver’s patented gene analysis technology, Matchright, Genepeeks will create “virtual babies” for the woman and a range of possible sperm donors and screen out donors with a flawed genetic profile. Matchright screens for hundreds of diseases, but also other features, like eye colour and height. Morriss and Silver insist, however, that the technology will not be used to create genetically engineered children.

However, Silver, the author of pop science books like Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family (1998) andChallenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life (2006) is an apostle of genetic engineering  and even human cloning.

Genepeeks will have to be prepared for stiff opposition.

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, in California, told BBC News that its service was “highly irresponsible”.

“It amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies. We believe the patent office made a serious mistake in allowing a patent that includes drop-down menus for which to choose a future child’s traits. A project like this would also be ethically and socially treacherous.”

Infographic: A History of Books that Forecast the Future


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Bioethicist Julian Savulescu: We have a moral obligation to increase the intelligence of our children

Xavier Symons writes for Bio Edge:

Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu has again sparked controversy, this time advocating for the genetic screening of embryos and foetuses for intelligence genes.

In article published Wednesday in The Conversation, Savulescu referred to new research that identified specific genetic factors that contribute to low intelligence. A recent study, conducted by researchers from Cardiff University, showed that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala), together with low levels of thyroid hormone are four times more likely to have a low IQ.

… Accusations of eugenics have been leveled at Savulescu in the past, and this article is likely to garner similar responses. This most recent piece forms part of Savulescu’s growing corpus of articles advocating for human enhancement.


MIT constructs synthetic analog computers inside living cells

John Hewitt reported for Extreme Tech in May 2013:

An analog computer inside a living cellEarly computers could perform fairly complex calculations just by arranging a few analog circuits. By choosing appropriate resistor and capacitor values, arithmetic summers, integrators, and differentiators can be easily constructed using a single amplifier, so long as the answer is less than the supply voltage. Indeed this is, at least in part, how early computers were able to track and deploy countermeasures to incoming missiles. It is even possible to take a couple of transistors and turn them into a precision multiplier. Inspired by these simple circuits, researchers at MIT have created synthetic analog computers that run genetic machinery — in other words, living cell calculators. In addition to arithmetic, these computers are also able to also perform more complex functions like taking logarithms, square roots, and even do power law scaling (evaluate functions of x raised to a certain power). While these machines are not as convenient as any inexpensive calculator, they can process numbers up to four digits, and are a heck of a lot smaller.


Team of scientists’ goal to ‘make 100 the new 60’

Robert Langreth reports for Businessweek:

J. Craig Venter, the man who raced the U.S. government to sequence the first human genome, has a new goal: Help everyone live to 100, in good health. “Our goal is to make 100-years-old the new 60,” said Peter Diamandis, who co-founded with Venter a company that aims to scan the DNA of as many as 100,000 people a year to create a massive database that will lead to new tests and therapies that can help extend healthy human life spans.

Human Longevity Inc. will use machines from Illumina Inc., which has a stake in the company, to decode the DNA of people from children to centenarians. San Diego-based Human Longevity will compile the information into a database that will include information on both the genome and the microbiome, the microbes that live in our gut. The aim is to help researchers understand and address diseases associated with age-related decline. The company, with $70 million in initial funding, will focus first on cancer, according to a statement today.


Stop fretting about 3-parent embryos and get ready for “multiplex parenting”

Michael Cook writes for Bio Edge:

The controversy over three-parent embryos could soon be old hat. Writing in one of the world’s leading journals, one of Britain’s best-known bioethicists has outlined a strategy for creating children with four or more genetic parents. He calls it “multiplex parenting”.

John Harris, of the University of Manchester, and two colleagues, César Palacios-González and Giuseppe Testa contend in the Journal of Medical Ethics (free online) that this is one of many exciting consequences of using stem cells to create synthetic eggs and sperm. (Or as they prefer to call them, in vitro generated gametes (IVG).)

After the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells in 2007, theoretically any cell in the body can be created from something as simple as a skin cell. Mice have already been born from sperm and eggs created from stem cells. Harris and his colleagues believe that the day is not far off when scientists will be able to do the same with humans. In their paper, they spin an ethical justification for this and outline some possible uses.


Scientists grow primitive liver from pluripotent stem cells ~ Bioedge


Japanese scientists may have found the way to address the global organ transplant shortage. According to new research published by Yokohama City Unversity Graduate School of Medicine, scientists have succeeding in growing primitive livers from pluripotent stem cells.

The nascent livers, dubbed by the scientists “liver buds”, are the product of mixing three different cell kinds – liver, endothelial and mesenchymal- in a fashion akin to what happens in developing human foetuses. To the surprise of the researchers the cells bound together and developed into a primitive liver.


Cloning Project Could Save Britain’s Oldest and Strongest ‘Super Trees’ ~ Inhabitat

English Oak Tree, oak tree, old tree, big treeby 

David Milarch wants to clone the UK’s biggest, oldest, and most ecologically important trees. The US tree conservationist has embarked on a $3 million project to reproduce and regrow Britain’s “super trees” and offer tens of thousands of the genetically identical saplings to schools, cities and landowners for free. “The idea is to put back what we have lost,” says Milarch. ”It makes sense to use the largest, oldest, most iconic trees with their supergenes. These trees, which can be 1,000 years or older, have weathered the industrial age and all the climate changes. They have proved that they can take everything.”