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A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.
Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok (Hebrew for "double sweet") has created a sugary product that uses 40 percent less actual sugar yet still tastes sweet.
- Consumers are fed a lot of nonsense about sugar and fad diets.
- Our bodies must consume sugar; the question is how much and in what form.
- Companies are trying to develop healthier sugars to combat our "sugar addiction."
Can we hack sugar to be healthy? www.youtube.com
Humans consume too much sugar. This is a refrain you've likely read for years, if not decades. As with any generality, that topline assessment misses nuance. While certainly true that we over-consume sugar in the Western diet — added sugar goes by at least 61 names and has been found in 74 percent of processed foods — sugar itself is a necessary carbohydrate. In fact, core metabolic processes, like glycolysis and the Krebs cycle, largely revolve around the processing of glucose.
This fact has caused some researchers to ask: can we create healthy sugar?
A primer on sugar and fad diets
Trying to make sense of the market for sugar substitutes is not necessarily helpful. Reading a nutrition label with terms like coconut sugar, xylitol, sucralose, Ace-k, or non-GMO dextrose leaves consumers scratching their heads. The aggressive agave nectar marketing campaign a few years ago caused many companies to market their products as having "real sugar." (As opposed to what? Fake sugar?)
The biochemical story of what happens to this carbohydrate inside of the human body is complex, however, and rarely will be answered by a company trying to sell its wares.
Monosaccharides, a.k.a. "simple sugars," are quite common. Galactose, glucose, and fructose fall in this category. Compound sugars, a.k.a. disaccharides, include sucrose (table sugar), maltose, and lactose. Then there are chemicals like sugar alcohols and glycerol, which are sweet but not actually sugar.
Most plants contain sugar. Fruit and honey also contain readily available simple sugars. Two common sources for processed food sugars are sugarcane and sugar beets. The cheapest to produce is corn syrup, which has been at the heart of the sugar debate for years. Due to farm subsidies, an overproduction of corn has led to this class of sugars being ubiquitous in the Western diet. Biochemically, believe it or not, high-fructose corn syrup isn't all that different from honey.
Historically, sugar was a rare and valuable commodity, often hard-won through gnawing on sugarcane. Fruits provide a quick and reliable burst of energy through their high sugar content, an especially useful trait for hunter-gatherers who relied on such fuel. As humans became addicted to sweetness, eschewing other flavor profiles to get right to the sugar rush, we figured out how to produce (and overproduce) it rapidly.
Thus, we got diet fads like "juice cleanses," which offer a rush of sugar without the fiber that slows its absorption into your bloodstream. Fiber is the most important part of the fruit. Detoxifying through such cleanses is a myth. Given the climate for sweet alternatives and nutritional shortcuts, however, we've grown susceptible to flashy marketing over solid nutritional science.
Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok (Hebrew for "double sweet") has created a sugary product that uses 40 percent less actual sugar yet still tastes like the sucrose that you would find in many products. The team noticed that our sweet receptors only detect about 20 percent of the sugar molecules that we consume, meaning the other 80 percent goes right into our bodies unnoticed by our mouths.
Health risks of sugar
Sugar science is constantly evolving. The WHO currently recommends a maximum of five to ten teaspoons (roughly 50 grams) of added sugar per day. To put that into perspective, Americans average 17 teaspoons (71 grams) per day — a whopping 57 pounds of sugar every year. One can of Coke contains nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar. Orange juice isn't much better.
This excess sugar leads to many potential health problems. A 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine states it bluntly: people who received between 17 and 21 percent of their daily calories from sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who consumed 8 percent of their calories from sugar. Harvard nutrition professor Dr. Frank Hu summarized his research with a simple assessment: "Basically, the higher the intake of added sugar, the higher the risk for heart disease."
The problems don't stop there. Sugar is metabolized similarly in the liver as alcohol — indeed, many alcoholic beverages contain high amounts of sugar — and the carbohydrates are turned into fat. As you gain weight, the health problems continue to escalate.
Issues with overconsumption of sugar include:
- High blood pressure. A 2014 study suggests that sugar might be worse for your blood pressure than salt. Along with an increase in insulin, sugar elevates heart rate and blood pressure by activating the sympathetic nervous system. Sugar was also found to reduce the sensitivity of blood pressure receptors and deplete cellular energy stores (ATP), both of which increase blood pressure.
- Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the primary problem with excess sugar intake, given that your body becomes resistant to insulin, causing sugar to build up in your blood. Sugar intake is not the only cause (genetics plays a role), though excess belly weight is clearly linked to the development of diabetes.
- Fatty liver disease. Excess fatty build-up in the liver leads to this disease. While common in alcoholics, some research suggests that sugar also negatively impacts the liver.
- Inflammation. While inflammation is essential for our body's self-repair process, excess sugar has been linked to chronic low-grade inflammation. In fact, just 40 grams per day has been demonstrated to have adverse inflammatory effects. While this is problematic in itself, inflammation can trigger many other health problems as well.
- Dementia. The science is less clear here, though some research has found that sugar impacts memory due to increased bodily inflammation.
- Tooth decay. For healthy teeth, it is ideal to keep your sugar intake to under 10 percent of total calories. The WHO found that excess sugar intake is the number one dietary factor for the development of cavities.
Photo: aboikos / Adobe Stock
Common sugar substitutes
Regardless of negative health effects, people love sweet foods. The desire for sweet-tasting foods is biologically programmed into us. The problem isn't eating sugar-rich foods per se; it's excessive consumption. Public health advice to cut down isn't working, and so a lot of companies are trying to offer alternatives.
High-intensity sweeteners are the most common substitute. These compounds are much sweeter than table sugar, meaning you need less of them in order to achieve the same level of sweetness. In America, there are six FDA-approved sweeteners in this category:
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
Other common sugar substitutes include Stevia, sugar alcohols, honey, and agave nectar.
Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K). Most commonly known under its trade names, Sunett and Sweet One, this potassium salt was first discovered in 1967. Two hundred times sweeter than common sugar, research has shown that Ace-K has no effect on body weight. Concerns over its possible carcinogenic effects were dismissed by the FDA, though as with all sugar substitutes, research is ongoing.
Advantame. This non-caloric sweetener is a whopping 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose and is commonly used in gum, drinks, and candy. It is approved in the U.S. as a flavor enhancer except in meat and poultry. It was recognized as safe by the European Food Safety Authority in 2013.
Agave syrup. This sweetener from the agave cactus was commonly used in health circles for years. It contains 56 percent fructose and dissolves quickly, making it ideal for cooking. Blue-agave syrup is between 1.4 and 1.6 times sweeter than sugar, though, and being over half fructose in composition, it also has many of the same detrimental effects as sugar.
Aspartame. As with Ace-K, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. First approved by the FDA in 1981, this peptide is one of the most widely tested food ingredients and has been found to be safe. That said, people who suffer from a rare inherited disease, phenylketonuria, cannot consume aspartame, which is why any foods sold in America must list this ingredient with a warning label.
Honey. Foods featuring honey are often marketed as containing "real honey," though in reality, its composition is similar to sucrose (it contains fructose and glucose), and it is roughly as sweet as sucrose. Anyone consuming honey should heed the same warnings as with common sugar.
Neotame. The aspartame analog, created by NutraSweet, is 8,000 times sweeter than sugar. First approved by the FDA in 2002, Neotame is common in colas, gums, yogurts, cakes, and drink powders. It's also used to cover the bitter taste of coffee.
Saccharin. This well-known sodium salt is roughly 400 times sweeter than common sugar. While used in numerous drinks, candies, and even medicine, it produces a metallic aftertaste. Considered safe for diabetics, saccharin has no nutritional value and is generally safe — though, anyone with an allergy to sulfonamide could experience symptoms after consuming saccharin.
Stevia. Derived from the South American Stevia rebaudiana plant, it's "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA. Up to 150 times sweeter than sucrose, stevia is a common additive in many health food products, though some consumers don't like its bitter aftertaste. The plant itself has been in use for at least 1,500 years as a tea sweetener and medicine.
Sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols have been all the rage in keto products over the last few years. Otherwise known as polyols, they are actually less sweet than sugar, marketed for not spiking blood glucose levels. Common sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, and lactitol. This family of sweeteners is considered safe.
Sucralose. Six hundred times sweeter than sugar, sucralose is the most common artificial sweetener in the world. Deemed safe by governing bodies in America, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Europe, it is appropriate for diabetics and does not cause tooth decay. The most common iteration of sucralose is Splenda, which is mixed with maltodextrin and dextrose and sold worldwide.
Can sugar be good for you?
The question of whether sugar can be good for you is common but based on an incorrect assumption: we must consume sugar. Our bodies rely on carbohydrates for energy, and carbs are all ultimately turned into sugars. If you were to only eat protein and fat, you would quickly encounter numerous other health problems. The question isn't whether sugar is good but how much and in what form it should be consumed.
For example, glucose and maltodextrin are high glycemic additives, whereas sucrose is moderate and agave syrup and fructose are low. High glycemic foods are known to give you a "sugar crash," which is a spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid fall in levels. High glycemic foods should generally be avoided.
But what about for people who exercise a lot? If you don't exercise often, sugar will be turned into fat, leading to a cascade of health problems. For endurance athletes, however, sugar is a necessary fuel for training.
Athletes and people who regularly exercise can benefit from high glycemic foods because our bodies recognize the intake as fuel for the activity. Whereas you would mostly want to consume low glycemic foods when not exercising, using a mix of maltodextrin and fructose during or after exercise is a smart choice. In fact, consuming low glycemic foods while exercising can cause stomach bloating.
Photo: veineleissa / Adobe Stock
What is the daily recommended sugar intake?
As mentioned above, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sugar caps at 10 teaspoons for adults. The latest edition of federal dietary guidelines offers a bit more detail, however.
- Americans older than two years should cap their added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of total calories. "Added sugar" is important because, as mentioned, all carbohydrates eventually turn into sugar in your body. Eating whole fruit doesn't count in this total; soft drinks and fruit juices do.
- Children under age two are advised to avoid foods with added sugars.
How is DouxMatok trying to create the healthiest sweetener on the market?
As mentioned earlier, our sweet receptors only recognize 20 percent of the common sugar we consume. Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok was founded by Professor Avraham Baniel, who in 2014, at the age of 96, applied his 75 years of industrial chemical research experience to create Incredo® Sugar. While the start-up aspires to create tastier and healthier variations of a variety of foods (including salt), sugar was the most pressing issue Baniel and his son, Eran, wanted to solve.
DouxMatok is not alone in this quest. For example, global food giant Nestle produced its own sugar reduction in a "healthier" candy bar called Milkybar Wowsomes. The experiment didn't end well as the company had to pull the item from shelves due to low consumer demand. Matching the flavor profile, density, and texture of sugar is harder than it sounds.
Nestle hasn't abandoned the quest for sugar alternatives, however. Companies realize their bottom line depends on offering healthier sugar without sacrificing taste and affordability — the same quest that meat alternative companies have been facing for years. While stevia and aspartame are widely used, for example, some consumers recognize the metallic taste and opt for what they know best. This will remain a real barrier until scientists can dial in an alternative that performs well in blind taste tests.
Incredo® Sugar is a sugar reduction created from cane or beet sugar. As the video at the top of the article shows, at least one anecdotal study in the Freethink office scored favorably for DouxMatok. The race is still on. DouxMatok's initial creation doesn't work well in liquids, at least not yet. Also, you can't cook with it on your own; the company is focused on using their sugar alternative in consumer food products first.As Dr. Robert Margolskee, Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says of the possible timeline, "I think within five years we'll be able to reduce 80 to 90 percent of the sugar in a food and still get pretty much the full sugar sensation. It's not an impossible dream."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.
CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.
So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.
The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.
I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.
I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.
Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.
Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.
Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.
Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA
When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.
We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.
Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.
Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.
We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.
Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.
This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.
Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.
Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.
There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.
What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.
Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.
There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA
There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.
When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?
Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.
We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.
Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?
Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.
The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.
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