First gene-edited babies born in China, scientist claims

A Chinese researcher has sparked controversy after claiming to have used gene-editing technology known as CRISPR to help make the world's first genetically modified babies.

First gene-edited babies born in China, scientist claims
(Photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
  • The claim is unsubstantiated as of yet, but if true it would mark a historic moment in science and ethics.
  • The scientist claims to have edited a gene that controls whether someone can contract HIV.
  • Many say gene-editing is unethical, or that its technology is too premature to be used responsibly.

A chinese scientist claims to have helped create the world's first genetically edited human babies, a development that would be both historic and highly controversial if true.

The scientist, He Jiankui of Shenzhen of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, said he and his colleagues used a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to modify the embryos of twin girls born this month. The team reportedly made changes to one-day old embryos in a gene called CCR5, which enables HIV to enter and infect immune system cells. These changes supposedly made it impossible for the girls, whose father is HIV-positive, to contract the virus, which causes AIDS.

"When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed a doorway through which HIV enter to infect people," He says in one of several videos the scientist posted online, adding elsewhere that analyses confirm that both babies were born healthy. "No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection...This verified the gene surgery worked safely."


A questionable and controversial claim

Some doubt He's claim, which remains unsubstantiated in the absence of confirming evidence or data published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Several scientists who reviewed He's materials told The Associated Press that the findings are incomplete or don't necessarily mean it's impossible for the children to contract HIV.

The Southern University of Science and Technology said in a statement it was unaware of the project and that He potentially "seriously violated academic ethics and standards." The university plans to investigate.

Even if proven true, many scientists argue that using gene-editing technology in this way, at this stage of development, would be highly unethical.

"If true, this experiment is monstrous," Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian. "The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer."

Gene-editing, used in this way, is illegal in the U.S. and many other countries because of the currently unforeseeable risks it poses to future generations.

"This is far too premature," Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, told The Associated Press. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

In addition to safety concerns, others raise ethical questions about creating "designer babies"—which would be the genetic modification of embryos not only to prevent disease, but also to produce taller, smarter, or better-looking children.

Still, He said he was prepared for the blowback.

"I understand my work will be controversial," he says. "But I believe families need this technology. And I am will to take the criticism for them."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

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End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution

Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
  • Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
  • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
  • Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
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Surprising Science

Scientists discover why fish evolved limbs and left water

Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.

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