This spring, a U.S. and Chinese team announced that it had successfully grown, for the first time, embryos that included both human and monkey cells.
In the novel, technicians in charge of the hatcheries manipulate the nutrients they give the fetuses to make the newborns fit the desires of society. Two recent scientific developments suggest that Huxley's imagined world of functionally manufactured people is no longer far-fetched.
On March 17, 2021, an Israeli team announced that it had grown mouse embryos for 11 days – about half of the gestation period – in artificial wombs that were essentially bottles. Until this experiment, no one had grown a mammal embryo outside a womb this far into pregnancy. Then, on April 15, 2021, a U.S. and Chinese team announced that it had successfully grown, for the first time, embryos that included both human and monkey cells in plates to a stage where organs began to form.
As both a philosopher and a biologist I cannot help but ask how far researchers should take this work. While creating chimeras – the name for creatures that are a mix of organisms – might seem like the more ethically fraught of these two advances, ethicists think the medical benefits far outweigh the ethical risks. However, ectogenesis could have far-reaching impacts on individuals and society, and the prospect of babies grown in a lab has not been put under nearly the same scrutiny as chimeras.
Mouse embryos were grown in an artificial womb for 11 days, and organs had begun to develop.
Growing in an artificial womb
When in vitro fertilization first emerged in the late 1970s, the press called IVF embryos “test-tube babies," though they are nothing of the sort. These embryos are implanted into the uterus within a day or two after doctors fertilize an egg in a petri dish.
Before the Israeli experiment, researchers had not been able to grow mouse embryos outside the womb for more than four days – providing the embryos with enough oxygen had been too hard. The team spent seven years creating a system of slowly spinning glass bottles and controlled atmospheric pressure that simulates the placenta and provides oxygen.
This development is a major step toward ectogenesis, and scientists expect that it will be possible to extend mouse development further, possibly to full term outside the womb. This will likely require new techniques, but at this point it is a problem of scale – being able to accommodate a larger fetus. This appears to be a simpler challenge to overcome than figuring out something totally new like supporting organ formation.
The Israeli team plans to deploy its techniques on human embryos. Since mice and humans have similar developmental processes, it is likely that the team will succeed in growing human embryos in artificial wombs.
To do so, though, members of the team need permission from their ethics board.
CRISPR – a technology that can cut and paste genes – already allows scientists to manipulate an embryo's genes after fertilization. Once fetuses can be grown outside the womb, as in Huxley's world, researchers will also be able to modify their growing environments to further influence what physical and behavioral qualities these parentless babies exhibit. Science still has a way to go before fetus development and births outside of a uterus become a reality, but researchers are getting closer. The question now is how far humanity should go down this path.
Chimeras evoke images of mythological creatures of multiple species – like this 15th-century drawing of a griffin – but the medical reality is much more sober. (Martin Schongauer/WikimediaCommons)
Human–monkey hybrids might seem to be a much scarier prospect than babies born from artificial wombs. But in fact, the recent research is more a step toward an important medical development than an ethical minefield.
If scientists can grow human cells in monkeys or other animals, it should be possible to grow human organs too. This would solve the problem of organ shortages around the world for people needing transplants.
But keeping human cells alive in the embryos of other animals for any length of time has proved to be extremely difficult. In the human-monkey chimera experiment, a team of researchers implanted 25 human stem cells into embryos of crab-eating macaques – a type of monkey. The researchers then grew these embryos for 20 days in petri dishes.
After 15 days, the human stem cells had disappeared from most of the embryos. But at the end of the 20-day experiment, three embryos still contained human cells that had grown as part of the region of the embryo where they were embedded. For scientists, the challenge now is to figure out how to maintain human cells in chimeric embryos for longer.
Regulating these technologies
Some ethicists have begun to worry that researchers are rushing into a future of chimeras without adequate preparation. Their main concern is the ethical status of chimeras that contain human and nonhuman cells – especially if the human cells integrate into sensitive regions such as a monkey's brain. What rights would such creatures have?
However, there seems to be an emerging consensus that the potential medical benefits justify a step-by-step extension of this research. Many ethicists are urging public discussion of appropriate regulation to determine how close to viability these embryos should be grown. One proposed solution is to limit growth of these embryos to the first trimester of pregnancy. Given that researchers don't plan to grow these embryos beyond the stage when they can harvest rudimentary organs, I don't believe chimeras are ethically problematic compared with the true test–tube babies of Huxley's world.
Few ethicists have broached the problems posed by the ability to use ectogenesis to engineer human beings to fit societal desires. Researchers have yet to conduct experiments on human ectogenesis, and for now, scientists lack the techniques to bring the embryos to full term. However, without regulation, I believe researchers are likely to try these techniques on human embryos – just as the now-infamous He Jiankui used CRISPR to edit human babies without properly assessing safety and desirability. Technologically, it is a matter of time before mammal embryos can be brought to term outside the body.
While people may be uncomfortable with ectogenesis today, this discomfort could pass into familiarity as happened with IVF. But scientists and regulators would do well to reflect on the wisdom of permitting a process that could allow someone to engineer human beings without parents. As critics have warned in the context of CRISPR-based genetic enhancement, pressure to change future generations to meet societal desires will be unavoidable and dangerous, regardless of whether that pressure comes from an authoritative state or cultural expectations. In Huxley's imagination, hatcheries run by the state grew a large numbers of identical individuals as needed. That would be a very different world from today.
Sahotra Sarkar, Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Biology, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Roughly the size of a thumbnail, this newly discovered toadlet has some anatomical surprises.
- A new species of "pumpkin toadlet" is discovered skittering along the forest floor in Brazil.
- It's highly poisonous and brightly colored, and some if its bones glow under UV light.
- An analysis of the toadlets' chirp song helped scientists establish that it's something new.
It's tiny, just a little bigger than a thumbnail. It's partially fluorescent. It's orange. And it's very poisonous.
Led by herpetologist Ivan Nunes, scientists have reported in the journal PLOS ONE the discovery of a new "pumpkin toadlet" species of the genus Brachycephalus. Found in the Mantiqueira mountain range along Brazil's Atlantic coast, it joins 35 other Brachycephalus species. The newcomer's official name is Brachycephalus rotenbergae, named after Brazilian conservationist Elise Laura K. Rotenberg.
Distinguishing one Brachycephalus species from another isn't straightforward, as there's no telltale identifying mark. Instead, a more holistic profile has to be developed to tell one species from another.
In this case, scientists considered the toad's genes, natural history, gross anatomy (including its skeletal structure), and even its songs. Brachycephalus toadlets emit what's considered an "advertisement call" — as in "Hey, I'm here!" — consisting of long sequences of chirps.
A find on the forest floor
The toadlet was studied on the forest floor in two areas.Credit: Nunes, et al. / PLOS ONE
Between October 2017 and September 2019, 76 field surveys were conducted in Brazil's Atlantic forests as researchers studied B. rotenbergae, whose turf is the forest floor in the São Francisco Xavier Government Protected Area. Among the new species' distinguishing features are a rounded snout and dark spots on its head. Additionally, it's a bit smaller than its similar-looking cousin B. ephippium, and its chirps are not quite like those of any other Brazilian pumpkin toadlet.
Some of the toadlets' bones glow under UV lightCredit: Nunes, et al. / PLOS ONE
When B. rotenbergae is exposed to UV light, some of the bones just underneath their skin emit a green glow. "There's an idea," Nunes tells Smithsonian Magazine, "that fluorescence acts as signals for potential mates, to signal to rival males or some other biological role."
As for the brilliant orange color, it may be one of nature's warnings, a "don't eat me" signal of extreme toxicity. Indeed, other Brachycephalus toadlets have tetrodoxins in their skin, and the researchers suspect this toadlet does, too. (Pufferfish and blue-ringed octopi also carry tetrodoxins.) Ingestion of these neurotoxins can cause a number of progressively nasty things, from a pins-and-needles sensation to convulsions, heart attacks, and even death.
Currently, there is neither an indication that the species is endangered, nor is it especially rare. The only concern the researchers have for the species' survival is the growing population of wild boars in the area. The boars are tearing up the habitat of B. rotenbergae, rooting around for tasty seeds, nuts, acorns, and roots.
However, accidentally gobbling up a toadlet probably would be bad news for the boar.
A study from Carnegie Mellon University tracks the travels of tarantulas since the Cretaceous period.
- Scary-looking tarantulas actually prefer to keep to themselves and stay in their burrows.
- Their sedentary nature makes a puzzle of their presence in so many places around the world.
- Researchers discover that this is because they've been around a very long time and rode drifting continental land masses to their contemporary positions.
Whenever a movie script calls for the protagonist to be menaced by a spider, central casting typically places a call to a tarantula wrangler. Tarantulas, or theraphosids, are hairy and big — they're the largest spiders in the world — and for many people, the ultimate spider nightmare.
Reality is much tamer. Tarantulas are not actually aggressive. They're homebodies, preferring to spend their time in their burrows with their families. Females and their young hardly ever leave home, and males only go out to mate. Stay away from them, and they'll stay away from you.
This makes tarantulas' presence on six out of seven continents something of a mystery. How did such non-adventurous creatures end up in so many places? A new study published in the journal PeerJ from a team of international researchers provides the answer: They walked there as they rafted across the earth atop drifting continental masses.
Ancestry.com for tarantulas
Credit: Foley, et al./ PeerJ
The lead author of the study is Carnegie Mellon University's Saoirse Foley, whose team included researchers from Universität Trier in Germany and Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Together, they conducted a wide-ranging analysis of 48 spider transcriptomes, a compilation of RNA transcripts inside of cells. The researchers used the transcriptomes to construct a "family tree."
The tarantula family tree was then time-calibrated using fossil data. (Tarantula fossils are rare, so the team used software to assist in the calculation using the ages of fossils from other types of spiders.)
Combined, the data allowed the researchers to construct a tarantula family tree dating back about 120 million years to the Cretaceous period. Around this time, giant crocodiles were walking — yes walking on legs — in South Korea.
Landmasses on the move
A map of Godwana 240 million years ago.Fama Clamosa/Wikimedia Commons
Tarantulas are Americans from a time when the Americas were part of the supercontinent Gondwana and still attached to Australia, Africa, Antarctica, and India.
The researchers tracked tarantulas' migration atop pieces of Gondwana as the landmasses slowly assumed their current positions.
A few detours along the way
The study identifies tarantulas' ancestral ranges.Credit: Foley, et al. /PeerJ/ Map credit: https://mapchart.net, 2021. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 SA.
The research revealed that tarantula migration wasn't just a matter of riding the continents.
Researchers discovered that the spiders may have done some dispersing through the areas in which they found themselves. Their arrival into Asia was, for example, two-pronged. Once the tarantulas were in India, they split into two groups — one group stayed on the ground while the other took to the trees — before that landmass collided with Asia and the spiders moved northward. The two groups arrived in Asia 20 million years apart from each other.
This is a bit of a surprise says Foley, noting that the two Indian variants demonstrate tarantula adaptability at work:
"Previously, we did not consider tarantulas to be good dispersers. While continental drift certainly played its part in their history, the two Asian colonization events encourage us to reconsider this narrative. The microhabitat differences between those two lineages also suggest that tarantulas are experts at exploiting ecological niches, while simultaneously displaying signs of niche conservation."
A newly discovered coronavirus — but not the one that causes COVID-19 — has made some dogs very sick.
- A different coronavirus outbreak in late 2019 made many dogs in the UK very ill.
- The strangeness of the disease led veterinarians to send questionnaires to their peers and pet owners.
- The findings point toward the need for better systems to identify disease outbreaks in animals.
A recent study suggests that a mysterious disease plaguing dogs in the UK is caused by a novel coronavirus. This virus, which coincidentally appeared in late 2019 and began to concern veterinarians in early 2020, is not related to the virus which causes COVID-19, but can make your four-legged friend feel quite ill.
Novel coronavirus in dogs
The term "coronavirus" doesn't refer to a single disease, but a family of viruses (more formally, Coronaviridae) that share a shape similar to a crown (hence the name, "corona"). They infect many different kinds of animals and cause various diseases from COVID-19 and SARS to the common cold.
This new coronavirus, a variant of canine enteric coronavirus, was first noticed in January 2020 when a veterinarian in the United Kingdom treated "an unusually high number" of dogs with severe vomiting and other gastrointestinal issues at his office. Concerned about this spike in doggy indigestion, they reached out to other veterinarians to see if they were reporting a similar outbreak.
Online questionnaires were sent out to more than a thousand vets and pet owners to map the outbreak and collect information on which animals were being affected. Analysis of this data showed that nearly all of the cases involved vomiting and a loss of appetite, and half of them also involved diarrhea. Most of the cases took place in south and northwest England, though a large outbreak also occurred in and around the Scottish city of Edinburgh.
The data also suggested that male dogs in contact with other dogs were most likely to be infected, hinting at "either transmission between dogs or a common environmental source." The dogs recovered in more than 99 percent of cases.
Hoping to move beyond the questionnaire, the authors also turned to records to piece together what happened.
While public health data for animals is less frequently gathered than it is for humans, electronic records of pet admissions to veterinarian offices and pet insurance payouts do exist. The researchers accessed these records and found that the number of dogs recorded with stomach problems rose between December 2019 and March 2020, with nearly double the number of expected cases occurring during that time. There was also a concomitant rise in prescriptions for drugs to treat those conditions.
A later comparison of samples from dogs that were sick and healthy control dogs confirmed the presence of the novel coronavirus in the ill dogs. All of this was later compiled into a study that was recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is produced by the CDC.
Should I be concerned?
This coronavirus only affects dogs, and the researchers didn't find anything to suggest that humans could become infected.
However, the scale of the outbreak and the lack of tools immediately available to determine what was happening led the researchers to suggest that better organization is needed. Many of the authors are involved in creating a disease surveillance system for dogs, known as SAVSNet-Agile.
The authors also mention that "previous CeCoV [canine enteric coronavirus] seasonality suggests further outbreaks may occur." Thanks to this study, your local vet might be a little more prepared for it next time.
Find your dog's breed mix, personality and more with a simple cheek swab in this DNA kit.
- There’s a great deal of information about our canine companions we don’t know.
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Forget being man’s best friend; dogs are everybody’s best friend. We treat our furry friends like royalty, because we recognize the value of having them around as long as possible. But while we like to view ourselves as knowing our dogs as well as our own family, there’s a lot that we remain unaware of. While humans regularly take DNA tests, due to the potential benefits of knowing one’s genetic makeup as well as family history, it is less common to know the genetics of your dog.
The DNA My Dog Breed Identification Test gives you the ability to quickly understand your pet on a whole new level. All you have to do is swab your dog’s inner cheek, send it in via mail to DNA My Dog, and in two weeks or less you’ll get a full report of your dog’s DNA and breed mix. With this information, you’ll be able to understand where your dog’s personality traits and predispositions for diseases are coming from, which can help you make sure your dog stays healthy and happy for a long time.
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