Chinese scientist vanishes after claiming to have made first gene-edited babies

The controversial scientist He Jiankui is currently missing after causing major controversy in late November.

  • He Jiankui caused international controversy by claiming to have used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to modify the genes of two babies.
  • Some reports suggested he was being held under house arrest, though others say that's inaccurate.
  • It's not unusual for people to disappear in China at the hands of government authorities.

Where is He Jiankui?

The scientist who caused international uproar by claiming to have used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to modify the embryos of two babies recently born in China is missing, and it's unclear why.

In a YouTube video published in late November, He stunned the world with claims, which, if true, would be both historic and highly ethically questionable. Almost immediately, geneticists and others in the scientific community decried his research as premature and unethical, criticizing his methods and noting that not enough is known about the consequences of gene editing to pursue the practice at this time.

The co-inventor of CRISPR, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, issued a statement saying He and his colleagues should "fully explain their break from the global consensus that application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing should not proceed at the present time."

China's Southern University of Science and Technology, where He worked, said it had been unaware of the controversial research, and said it would open an investigation.

The South China Morning Post wrote that He's whereabouts have not been known since last Wednesday. Other reports suggested He had been placed under house arrest by Chinese authorities. A spokeswoman with Southern University said He hadn't been placed under house arrest, but that she couldn't confirm details.

"Right now nobody's information is accurate, only the official channels are," the spokeswoman told the Morning Post, adding that she couldn't "answer any questions regarding the matter right now."

On Thursday, Huai Jinpeng, Party chief and executive vice chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology, said He's work was "extremely abominable in nature" and had "blatantly violated China's relevant laws and regulations."

Xu Nanping, a vice minister for science and technology, told state broadcaster CCTV that the work had "violated the ethical bottom line that the academic community adheres to. It is shocking and unacceptable." The China Association of Science and Technology has ordered an investigation into the matter.

Vanishing in China

Although it's still unclear why He is missing, it's worth noting that it's not uncommon for Chinese citizens, and even high-ranking officials, to go missing after slipping up in public or painting the government in a negative light.

In early November, Lu Guang, a renowned Chinese photographer who documented social injustice and environmental destruction in China, vanished while traveling to a conference in the Xinjiang province. His wife heard from a friend that Lu had been detained by officials.

More broadly, thousands of executives and officials have disappeared in recent years, likely as part of the anti-corruption campaign China began in 2012. The government says its aim is to purge from its ranks officials who abuse power or accept bribes. However, some critics say the primary goal of the program, which was expanded in March, is to allow Party leaders to get rid of opponents and keep everyone in ideological consensus.

Amnesty International has called the campaign, which can result in people being forcefully detained for months without access to a lawyer, as a "systemic threat to human rights in China."


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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.