Category Archives: science

China Opens ‘Pandora’s Box’ of Human Genetic Engineering

He Jiankui, an American-educated scientist based in Shenzhen, announced on Monday that he’d used Crispr, a powerful gene-editing tool, to make recently born twin girls resistant to HIV. He’s statement, which was not backed by peer-reviewed data and hasn’t been verified, prompted widespread condemnation from scientists in China and elsewhere, with many calling it an irresponsible use of a technology whose long-term effects are still poorly understood.

Yet whatever the veracity of He’s claims, it’s likely that China, with its aggressively entrepreneurial startups and less stringent regulation, will be the country where researchers most rapidly test the currently-accepted boundaries of genetic manipulation. That presents its leaders with a dilemma: Whether to follow the U.S. and Europe in strictly regulating its application, or take a more hands-off approach, catalyzing rapid innovation in a strategic industry at the cost of what could be serious risks to patients.

“There is always the possibility that there will be others who will bypass ethical jurisdictions, or jurisdictions that have rigorous ethical processes in place, and will try and apply the technology,” said John Christodoulou, chair of genomic medicine at the University of Melbourne. “There are rumors of it happening in China.”

A Chinese official on Tuesday emphasized at a press briefing that China had outlawed the use of gene-editing for fertility purposes in 2003. He, the researcher, will make the project’s data public Wednesday at an international genetics conference in Hong Kong, according to a representative.

He did not respond to requests for comment.

Harmonicare Medical Holdings Ltd. owns the hospital where He said he got approval for his work. It said in a filing Tuesday that it believed signatures on an application to the hospital’s medical ethics committee had been forged, and that that the committee never met to review the proposal.

“Shenzhen HarMoniCare Hospital will invite public-security organizations to participate in the investigations and pursue the legal responsibilities of the relevant individuals,” Harmonicare said in the statement. An investor relations representative for Harmonicare Medical said it is investigating the researcher’s claims when reached by telephone Tuesday.

Artificial Intelligence

The Chinese scientist is under intense pressure to produce compelling evidence, and to show he complied with ethical standards. He’s said the twins were born a few weeks ago, though the births have yet to be verified.

One of the co-inventors of the Crispr technique, University of California-Berkeley researcher Jennifer Doudna, urged extreme caution before it’s used in humans. “No clinical use should happen right now, until there is a broad societal discussion,” Doudna said in an interview in Hong Kong. “We need to be very specific that if someone wants to proceed into the clinic, here are the criteria that have to be met.”

The current gene editing debate comes as China moves ahead aggressively with what might be the other defining technology of the 21st century, artificial intelligence. The contest between Western and Chinese companies to develop powerful AI systems has been likened to the Cold War arms race, due both to the speed of back-and-forth developments and what technologists like Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk warn could be devastating consequences for miscalculation.

As Chinese companies including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. vie with Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. for global leadership in AI, the Asian country has been much faster to commercialize applications that would raise serious ethical and regulatory concerns elsewhere. Chinese cities are pioneers in marshaling the potential of facial recognition and big data to police the behavior of their citizens, down to issuing automated fines for offenses like jaywalking.

Crispr, the Tool Giving DNA Editing Promise and Peril: QuickTake

This week, several Chinese institutions, including the university where He has served as an associate professor in biology, have disassociated themselves from his work. At the Hong Kong genetics conference, Renzong Qiu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who’s known in the country as the “father of bioethics,” said He’s work likely violated existing government regulations.

U.S. Restrictions

The U.S. and many European countries have heavily restricted the use of Crispr for the so-called germ-line editing — making changes that will impact the descendants of an original patient — that He claims to have performed in China.

“We have a legal moratorium on that here,” U.S. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview Monday. “The potential applications are also relatively dangerous if they get into the hands of people who don’t have good judgment or have ill intent.”

In China, government guidelines issued in 2003 prohibit experimentation on embryos more than 14 days after fertilization, and ban the use of gene-manipulated embryos for reproduction. The most recent government pronouncement, a 2017 document from the science and technology ministry, said that the research involves great risks and urged rigorous supervision.

But current Chinese rules don’t impose penalties for violations, and aren’t a powerful enough deterrent against potential violators, said Zhai Xiaomei, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

While China has allowed other game-changing technologies to proceed with relatively little interference, it would be a mistake to view the country as wide-open even for those innovations. Even the most powerful Chinese companies do business only at the pleasure of the government, which can shut down their activities at any time—with virtually no recourse for the firms concerned.

One recent example comes from the games industry. Earlier this year, China halted approvals of new computer games, ostensibly to protect young players, freezing the pipelines of several Internet companies. A widespread backlash to the aggressive use of gene-editing could spur a similar reaction, or at least a dramatic clampdown on efforts like He’s.

His announcement has clearly struck a nerve among many Chinese scientists. The country’s biotech companies and universities have worked hard to counter suspicions that their endeavors are rife with fraud and the kind of minimally-supervised experimentation that the Shenzhen researcher may have engaged in.

The Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Cell Biology were quick to condemn his purported work, calling it a serious ethical violation. A group of 122 Chinese research scientists on Monday published a letter that called the project unfair to the vast majority of Chinese scholars who work conscientiously and respect ethical boundaries.

They urged the Chinese government to impose clear regulations quickly. “The Pandora’s box is open,” they said. “We have a small opportunity to close it before it’s too late.”

Reference

China Opens a Pandora Box of Human Genetic Engineering

Chinese Gene Edited Babies

Cremated remains of 100 people To be launched into space on a SpaceX rocket

Before 36-year-old James Eberling died in November 2016, he told his parents he had one final wish:

He wanted his remains to be sent into space.
Now Eberling’s dream is about to be realized, as his and about 100 others’ cremated remains are expected to be launched into space Monday in a memorial satellite by the company Elysium Space.

The Japanese solutions designed to withstand climate change

With the Hybrid Island Initiative, Japan is committed to supporting island countries vulnerable to climate change.
The San Francisco-based company said families paid about $2,500 to have a sample of their loved ones’ ashes placed aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Traveling into space will be the remains of military veterans and aerospace enthusiasts, alongside those whose families were “looking to celebrate a loved one within the poetry of the starry sky,” Elysium Space said in an emailed statement.
James’ ashes and the others have been packed into a 4-inch square satellite called a cubesat, Elysium Space Founder and CEO Thomas Civeit explained to CNN. Families will be able to track the spacecraft in real-time through an app as it orbits the earth for about four years before it falls back to Earth, according to Civeit.
The launch is part of a “rideshare mission” organized by Spaceflight. The company said it purchased the rocket to accommodate clients, which range from schools to commercial businesses to government entities and international organizations.Sixty-four small satellites from 34 different organizations will be aboard, Spaceflight said.

‘May you now soar thru the Heavens’

Eberling was a missile and rocket enthusiast his entire life, his mother Beverly told CNN. He was also an avid photographer, and often went to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to take pictures of launches.
At the time of his death, James’ family was only aware of missions carrying peoples’ remains into space after being launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, Beverly said in a phone interview with CNN from Lompoc, California.
But about a month after James died, they discovered Elysium Space, and told the company they would like James’ ashes to be launched from Vandenberg AFB. That way, the family could be there.
A sample of James’ ashes were put in a small capsule engraved with his initials, JME.
The Eberlings will send a message with him, that reads, “James, you were a grounded Eagle on Earth — may you now soar thru the Heavens.”

The Elysium Star 2 cubesat.

The two years since her son’s death have been “nerve-wracking” for Beverly. She’d given the company some of her son’s ashes, and at one point she was skeptical the mission would actually go forward.
But the Eberlings were patient, and they finally got an email telling them the launch date had been set for November 19, 2018, Beverly said, two years to the day that James died.
The launch has been delayed, but Beverly doesn’t mind.
“We’re overjoyed to be able to grant him his final wish. and it means a lot to my husband and myself that we’re able to do this for him,” Beverly said. “And I think that James is very, very happy to finally see that this is going to finally take place.”
It won’t be the first time someone’s earthly remains were sent to be among the stars. In 1998, a small vial of astronomer Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes crashed into the moon as part of NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission and remains on the surface.
And the ashes of “Star Trek” actor James Doohan, who played “Scotty” on the show, were sent to space among 320 sets of ashes on a mission similar to Elysium’s in 2012. Mercury 7 astronaut Gordon Cooper’s ashes were on board that flight as well.
Reference

Mother Spiders Actually Nurse Their Babies on Spider Milk

Jumping spiders are already among the most adorable members of the arachnid order, but we’re ready to give them the prize, officially. A species of ant-mimicking jumping spider has just been found suckling its babies on milk. You know what else does that? Kitties. Doggos. Mousies.

This is a high standard of infant care that had been thought exclusive to mammals.

“But ScienceAlert!” you are saying. “Spiders don’t have nipples!” (You may also be making some rude remarks about whether spiders can ever be cute. There are some people on our team who agree with you on that.)

While it’s true that spiders do not have nipples, it turns out that T. magnusdoesn’t actually need them.

The discovery was made by behavioural ecologist Chen Zhanqi of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his team, who noticed some odd behaviours practised by the spiders.

Firstly, although these spiders are not known to form colonies, nests in the wild are often found containing a number of members, including grown juveniles. This caught Chen’s attention, and he brought some of the spiders into his lab for closer study.

And then, when the the babies did emerge, the third odd thing: a juvenile attached to a mother, like a young mammal at its mother’s teat – and the mother seemed to be tending to the baby in a caring way.

So Chen and his colleagues started to really take a closer look – and discovered that the mother was in fact producing a kind of milk for her babies. The stuff was nutrient-rich, containing nearly four times the protein found in cow’s milk, as well as sugar and fat.

Here’s how it goes. The mother spider lays a clutch of eggs, typically between 2 and 36. When the babies hatch, the mother deposits tiny droplets from her epigastric furrow, the opening on her abdomen from which she lays her eggs.

The newly hatched babies sip from these droplets from the first few days of their life; but as they gain a little bit of size and strength, they are able to suckle directly from the mother’s epigastric furrow.

But, although at about the 20 day mark, the spiderlings are able to leave the nest and start finding their own food, they continue to supplement their foraging with mother’s milk for another 20 days – a total of 40 days nursing.

In the lab, this resulted in a survival rate of around 76 percent. And it does look like the extended nursing time is crucial.

When Chen and his colleagues cut off the mother’s milk supply, spiderlings younger than 20 days died, while those older than 20 days were fine. Meanwhile, when the mother was removed entirely, older spiderlings tended to leave the nest sooner, didn’t grow as quickly, and were less likely to survive to adulthood.

The scientists aren’t sure exactly what the milk is made of, but suggest it could be liquefied, unfertilised eggs. Some other animals feed their young with unfertilised eggs – frogs, for instance, and bees, although generally the eggs are laid as per normal, and the young just eat them.

T. magnus‘ milk could be a similar source of nutrition, although supplied via a different delivery method. In fact, the duration of care she provides her babies is rare even in mammals, only seen in a few long-lived social species such as humans and elephants.

“The extended maternal care indicates that invertebrates have also evolved [this] ability,” Quan Rui-Chang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences toldScience magazine.

The team’s research has been published in the journal Science.

Studies Shows Spider Love On Its Babies

Jumping spider mothers provide milk to their spiderlings far into development, according to a new study that might turn your understanding of invertebrate parenting on its head.

Animals offer all sorts of provisions to their offspring, be it through regurgitation, unfertilized eggs, or in extreme cases, their own flesh. But specialized milk-like secretions are something erroneously attributed to solely mammals—other non-mammals and even invertebrates produce milk-like secretions, too. What’s exciting about this new study is not only the fact that spiders produce milk, but how long they provide it for.

“It sets up interesting questions about why this happens in the first place,” Nathan Morehouse, assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati who was not involved with the study, told Gizmodo. “Why are these spiders acting like college kids returning home to live with their parents?”

We often think about invertebrates as robotic beings that reproduce and eat and that’s it, but this is not really the case. Spiders care for their young in various ways—some just guard the eggs, while others will regurgitate food or lay unfertilized “trophic” eggs for newly hatched young to feed on. But jumping spiders providing milk presents an extreme case of invertebrate parental care.

The researchers behind the newest study, all from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, knew that Toxeus magnus or “jumping spiders” bred in nests that consisted of parents and several juveniles. They wondered whether the spider provided long-lasting parental care, so they observed some spiders in the nest. Then, they noticed that spiderlings didn’t leave the nest until they were around 21 days old, during which time the mother was never observed bringing back food while the young spiders grew larger.

A jumping spider
Photo: Rui-Chang Quan

They looked more closely and noticed that the mother was secreting a liquid from its upper abdomen onto the surface of the nest, which the spiderlings ate. After a week, the spiderlings sucked the milk directly from the mother. Even though they were able to leave the nest and feed themselves after 20 days, they continued suckling the milk for another 18 days. If these were humans, they’d be featured on a cable TV program. Once the spiderlings matured, the mother attacked the males that returned while females were still allowed in, perhaps to prevent inbreeding, according to the study published today in Science.

For those of you who have any doubts about the importance of the secretion, the researchers then blocked the mother’s milk glands with whiteout and the spiderlings died at 10 days old. When the mother was removed from the nest after 20 days, it reduced the overall survival of the baby spiders as well as their total size.

Scientists have observed other non-mammals producing milk-like secretions before, such as pigeons, cockroaches, and tsetse flies; earwigs also provide extended care to their young, said Joshua Benoit, also an assistant professor from the University of Cincinnati who was not involved with the study. He was impressed with and convinced by the research, but thought that maybe it’s time we rethink who we attribute nursing young to. After all, invertebrates make up over 95 percent of the Earth’s species.

“Production of milk-like system may have evolved more times in invertebrate systems than in vertebrates,” said Benoit.

The study has its limitations. It’s unclear whether jumping spiders in the wild—not confined to a lab enclosure like these were—would continue returning to the mother after 20 days, said Benoit. And Morehouse noted that it doesn’t really explain why these spiders continue nursing for so long, and why other spiders don’t produce milk. The study’s authors declined Gizmodo’s request for comment.

Reference

Some Spiders Actually Nurse Their Babies on Spider Milk

Spider Mother Gives Milk To Its Young Ones