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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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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>