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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."

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

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Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

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  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
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The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

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