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5 ways CRISPR will reshape humanity and the world
A transformational tool for the future of the world.
- The 'cut and paste' DNA tool CRISPR will one day eliminate deadly diseases.
- The technology will give us the capability to genetically design our children and perhaps one day ourselves.
- CRISPR is already revolutionizing certain fields of medicine.
Genetic engineering has been in a rapid pace of development these past few years. Experts believe that CRISPR, the gene editing technology responsible for much of this progress will completely revolutionize the world. We are now playing with the genome on a scale we've never broached before.
In comparison to other genetic engineering tools, CRISPR, is an accurate, cheap and highly efficient method that's easy to use. Discovered in the 1990s, it's a tool combined with specific RNA that allows it to either insert or delete a genetic sequence in a targeted DNA. Currently, the patent for CRISPR is pending as there is a legal dispute between two separate teams of scientists.
The new power to alter DNA – our blueprint for life – brings us with many new questions and ethical quandaries. Yet, the overwhelming fact is that this technology will bring about undreamed of possibilities.
Whether that's stomping out all diseases endemic to our genes, reviving extinct species or augmenting ourselves into transhumans, we're in for quite a ride. Here are some of the most exciting ways that CRISPR is going to reshape humanity and the world.
Curing diseases from genetic errors
There are a number of genes we inherit which give us bum luck when it comes to disease. Already, CRISPR-based platforms have been developed which are either identifying the genes that lead to these diseases or are actively finding out how to remove them.
For example, scientists have been working on researching the genes responsible for the cellular process that leads to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Pharmaceutical companies are developing new CRISPR-based drugs that could one day treat heritable heart disease and other disorders.
There has been some headway from multiple sources in treating HIV. CRISPR has managed to remove the virus's DNA from a few humans' genomes. In 2018, this was mired in controversy as Chinese scientist He Jiankui reported in November that he'd used CRISPR to delete a gene called CCR5, which enables humans to contract HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The scientific community or at least the most vocal of the bunch, were in an uproar after this as they saw the genetic alteration as premature and unethical. They also worried about the unintended consequences.
Yet more level heads in the community and the ones that matter most like Harvard geneticist George Church, found the criticism to be overblown. In an interview with Science Insider he talked about how he felt an obligation to be balanced on the subject.
"People have said there's a moratorium on germline editing and I contributed to reports that called for that, but a moratorium is not a permanent ban forever… At some point, we have to say we've done hundreds of animal studies and we've done quite a few human embryo studies. It may be after the dust settles there's mosaicism and off targets that affect medical outcomes. It may never be zero."
In this regard, many Western countries are falling behind when it comes to our freedom of manipulating genetic code. In places such as China, scientists are given free reign to experiment on human embryos.
Understanding cancer completely in order to eliminate it
CRISPR has already been instrumental in modifying immune cells to make them more efficient at attacking and destroying cancer cells. The genetic alteration tool can also be used to evaluate how someone will react to new anti-cancer drugs, which could lead to a personalized genetic treatment plan.
We're also learning more about how cancer cells work together. Lou Staudt, M.D., Ph.D., of NCI's Center for Cancer Research said,
"We know that mutated genes form abnormal regulatory networks within the cells. Those regulatory networks can give you new targets for therapy… Comparing the behavior of cancer and normal cells with the same CRISPR-generated mutation can help researchers identify gene targets that cancer cells depend on for survival but that normal cells can do without."
Studies like this can help researchers better determine how cancer cells grow and propagate. Many scientists believe that understanding exactly how cancer cells develop and change is the best way to discover how to eliminate cancer completely. They dream of one day making all sorts of cancer akin to treating the common cold.
An evolution to the Transhuman
Many people are concerned about the idea of "designer babies" as humans will eventually opt for genetic enhancements. The least creative among us think that it'll create a kind of genetic discrimination. Rather than outright banning the technology – which will just bring it underground anyways and expedite a haves and haves not situation, we should encourage it.
CRISPR has the distinct capability to bring about new and diverse paths of human evolution. In the hands of great scientists and artists, we could become something else entirely. Something great and powerful.
Again we look to George Church, who has recently made a list of genes that could be modified to enhance human abilities. The list includes both the positive and potential negative effects which could bring us to the posthuman or transhuman age.
In an interview with Futurism, the professor talked about this database of genes and his goal to drive down the cost of such genetic resources.
"I felt that both ends of the phenotype spectrum should be useful. And the protective end might yield more powerful medicines useful for more people and hence less expensive."
"It also serves as a reminder," Church said regarding the database. "that not all mutations are negative or neutral."
Some of the choices from the "Transhumanist Wishlist" included genetic alterations that would aid in enhanced physiology and intellect. Such as the LRP5 gene which would give people extra-strong bones that don't break. Or MSTN that could produce larger and leaner muscles, while also curing muscular dystrophy. On the mind side, the GRIN2B gene could lead to greater memory and increased learning abilities.
Destroy dangerous pests and their pathogens
Mosquitos carry some of the worst forms of disease which wreck underdeveloped countries. This may one day be a thing of the past. Scientists have already created mosquitoes that are malaria resistant. These altered mosquitoes would pass on these same genes nearly 100 percent of the time to their offspring, even after mating with non-edited mosquitoes.
The method for change here is called transmission. CRISPR could directly attack infectious diseases through a number of different pests, be it rats, mosquitoes, ticks, or what have you. Scientists at the University of California, Riverside have developed genetically altered mosquitoes with a set of strange traits, resulting in wingless and yellow mosquitoes.
Their intention is to gain radical control over the traits that the mosquito will pass to its offspring. The end goal is to test a "gene drive" which would inhibit disease carrying properties. A gene drive would make sure that a genetic trait is never inherited again to a certain degree.
Interfering with mosquitos could have unintended consequences. While we don't know the extent of their ecological value, this could disrupt a fragile system we're not aware of.
Revive extinct species
Since 2017, Church and his team have been working on developing an embryo for an elephant mammoth hybrid, which essentially would bring the mammoth back to life. A number of labs around the world have been working on this problem. Japanese and Russian scientists were recently able to "reactive" 28,000 year old wooly mammoth cells.
"I was looking under the microscope at night while I was alone in the laboratory," 90-year-old Akira Iritani, a co-author on the new study who's spent years working toward resurrecting the woolly mammoth, told CNN. "I was so moved when I saw the cells stir. I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."
The rebirth of mammoths could actually be a boon to tackling climate change as well.
"The elephants that lived in the past — and elephants possibly in the future — knocked down trees and allowed the cold air to hit the ground and keep the cold in the winter, and they helped the grass grow and reflect the sunlight in the summer… Those two [factors] combined could result in a huge cooling of the soil and a rich ecosystem," said George Church at the 2018 Liberty Science Center Genius Gala.
Scientists hope to utilize CRISPR to combine genetic code from Asian elephants with the wooly mammoth. Samples of mammoth genes comes from frozen hairballs that were found in Siberia.
An undertaking like this could move the field forward in such a way that an unfathomable amount of ancient animals could be resurrected and modified in ways to temper our new world.
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.
- A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
- More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
- The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
Professor Luis Escobar.
Credit: Virginia Tech
A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.
- Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
- Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
- Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.
Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.
The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.
An odd find
Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock
Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.
"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."
Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.
The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."
Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.
"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."
Why understanding memory matters
Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock
"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.
If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."
Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock
Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.
Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."
Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia
At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.
Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.
In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.
Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."
He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.