Astronomer calculates the odds of intelligent alien life emerging

A new study discovers the likelihood of extraterrestrial life in the universe.

Astronomer calculates the odds of intelligent alien life emerging
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  • A Columbia University astronomer calculates the odds of extraterrestrial life emerging.
  • The probability comes out in favor of aliens existing.
  • The search for life in space should be encouraged, concludes the scientist.

    The sheer amount of space boggles the mind and makes one wonder, where are all the aliens? Surely, we aren't the only ones who made it out onto a cosmic rock alive. Of course, there might be numerous reasons we have not encountered aliens yet, from having poor technology to the aliens not desiring to be seen. A new study tries to take a statistical approach to the question, finding out the likelihood of complex extraterrestrial life emerging on other planets.

    For his new paper, David Kipping of Columbia University's Department of Astronomy, used the statistical technique called Bayesian inference to arrive at the conclusion that there's a greater chance than not that aliens should exist. The odds he calculated come out 3 to 2 for the aliens.

    Kipping based his analysis on the chronology of life's development within 300 million years of the Earth's oceans forming and the human evolution on the planet. He wondered how often life would emerge if we were to repeat Earth's history over and over.

    To figure this out, he used the method of Bayesian statistical inference, which works by updating the probability of a hypothesis when new evidence or information appears.

    "The technique is akin to betting odds," Kipping explained. "It encourages the repeated testing of new evidence against your position, in essence a positive feedback loop of refining your estimates of likelihood of an event."

    He came up with four possible answers, as reported in the press release:

    • life is common and often develops intelligence
    • life is rare but often develops intelligence
    • life is common and rarely develops intelligence
    • life is rare and rarely develops intelligence

    Do aliens exist? If they did, would we know?

    Using Bayesian math, Kipping pitted the models against each other. According to him, the "key result here is that when one compares the rare-life versus common-life scenarios, the common-life scenario is always at least nine times more likely than the rare one."

    This means that life is 9 times more likely to emerge than not. But would this life be intelligent? The answer here is more muddled and less optimistic. Still, Kipling concluded that under similar circumstances and conditions to Earth, the odds are 3:2 that some planet out there would sport complex, intelligent life like ours.

    Why are these odds lower? Kipping thinks that as humans appeared rather late in Earth's habitable history, it's clear their existence was not a foregone conclusion. "If we played Earth's history again, the emergence of intelligence is actually somewhat unlikely," he pointed out.

    He also maintains that while the likelihood of alien life may not be overwhelming, it's still quite strong, and "the case for a universe teeming with life emerges as the favored bet."

    Check out his paper published in PNAS, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

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    CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

    It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

    Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
    Technology & Innovation

    This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

    For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

    The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

    The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

    One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

    Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

    Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

    Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

    A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

    We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

    —JENNIFER DOUDNA

    "This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

    "While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

    What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

    The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

    A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

    This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

    —FYODOR URNOV

    If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

    Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

    "This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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