Will we all be tweaking our own genetic code?


You have to wonder what’s going on in the DNA of Harvard genetics professor George Church.

What extra bit of code does he have that the rest of us don’t? If genes tell the story of a person’s life, then some altered sequence of ‘A’s, ‘C’s, ‘G’s and ‘T’s must be at play, because his brain works like almost no one else’s.

About 30 years ago, Prof Church was one of a handful of people who dreamed up the idea of sequencing the entire human genome – every letter in the code that separates us from fruit flies as well as our parents. His lab was the first to come up with a machine to break that code, and he’s been working to improve it ever since.

Once the first genome was sequenced, he pushed the idea that it wasn’t enough to have one sequence, we needed everyone’s. When people pointed to the nearly $3bn price tag for that first one, he built another machine.

Now, the cost is down to below $5,000 per genome, and Prof Church says we’re quickly heading toward another 10- or 20-fold decrease in price – to roughly the cost of a blood test.

Genes: read, write, edit

To Prof Church, routine whole-genome sequencing will herald the beginning of a new era as transformative and full of possibilities as the Internet Age. But this is not just about insurance companies wanting to have every customer’s entire genome in their files.

For Prof Church sees this only as a beginning of the project, rather than the culmination of three decades of work.

Model DNA double helix
Image captionHelping to develop the machines to sequence the human genome was Prof Church’s first big achievement

He’s pointing to at a bigger goal: Now that reading DNA code is almost simple, he wants to write and edit it, too.

He envisions a day when a device implanted in your body will be able to identify the first mutations of a potential tumour, or the genes of an invading bacteria. You’ll be able to pop an antibiotic targeted at the invader, or a cancer pill aimed at those few renegade cells.

Another device will monitor your outside environment, warning you away from sites that pose a health risk.

A range of genetic disorders will be identified at birth, or even conception, and tiny, preprogrammed viruses will be sent into the body to penetrate compromised cells and correct the damage. Changing the adult body at the first signs of illness will be just as easy, he predicts.

There’s no reason, Prof Church says, why people won’t be able to live to be 120, and then 150.

“There used to be this attitude: here’s your genetic destiny, get used to it,” Prof Church says. “Now the attitude is: genetics is really about the environmental changes you can make to change your destiny.”

Democratic science

Standing at 1.93m, with a bushy reddish-grey beard, George Church is hard not to notice. The 57-year-old is both imposing and unassuming. There’s an awkwardness to Church, like an 8th grade boy after a summer growth spurt, and an openness that makes him easy to like. His manner is the same with a Harvard faculty colleague as with the technician operating a machine he helped design.

This democratic instinct comes through in his science. Church advises 20 of the 30-or-so advanced genomics companies in the United States, but his heart is clearly in academia, doing basic science that helps everyone.

As he pushes for the mapping of more and more complete genomes, he also pushes to make those genomes public, so researchers can learn about medical conditions by comparing them. He’s put 11 up on the web already, including his own, and is aiming for 100,000 more.

Once thousands of people with diverse backgrounds have made their genomes and health status public, researchers will be able to delve into a wide range of diseases and disorders, from schizophrenia to heart disease, diabetes to learning disabilities, looking for patterns.

“You bring down the price and many blossoms bloom,” he says.

Prof Church doesn’t want to make these discoveries himself. The pace of that kind of science is too slow for him, and not driven by technology.

George Church
Image captionProf George Church at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard

‘Evolution on steroids’

There’s a climate-controlled room in the middle of Church’s generous lab space, where a small tray shakes back and forth, jostling pellets of E. coli DNA.

In a four-hour production process, researchers can turn on or off a single base pair of that DNA, or whole regions of genes to see what happens. The goal is to find a way to improve production of industrial chemicals or medications, or to test viral resistance.

“You could think of this as driving evolution to very rapid rates,” Church said. “Sort of evolution on steroids.”

The machine is a second-generation Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering (MAGE) machine, built with help from industry; the first one, which sits across the street not far from Church’s corner office was a doctoral student’s PhD thesis. Another thesis project sits just on the other side of the wall from new MAGE. Called the Polonator, this open-source genome-sequencing machine can read and write a billion base pairs at a time.

These two machines put Church’s lab at the forefront of synthetic biology, a burgeoning new field that aims to make things Mother Nature never thought of, like high efficiency, non-polluting fuels, and viruses that can carry cancer drugs safely to a tumour.

With these machines, Prof Church is doing to synthetic biology what he’s already done to personalised genomics: making it cheaper, faster and available to everyone.

model of a DNA strand
Image captionTake a snip of DNA here, insert a snip of DNA there

Ethical concerns

“He’s beginning to transform synthetic biology to a larger scale,” says James J. Collins, a professor at Boston University and Prof Church’s colleague at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

Prof Collins acknowledges that some people will have ethical concerns about scientists writing genetic codes. But, he said, the reality of synthetic biology is nowhere near as scary as the hype. No one is creating doomsday species or humanoids. They’re just barely able to create a single new cell, says Prof Collins.

“I think we as a community have a need and a role and responsibility to educate the public as well as to take precautionary safeguards to make sure we’re not introducing something that’s problematic,” says James Collins, who builds his cells with programmable kill switches, so they self-destruct before reproducing or mutating.

George Annas, chairman of the department of health law, bioethics and human rights at Boston University, agrees that it’s too early to be troubled by the ethics of synthetic biology. “At this point, we don’t know how synthetic biology will turn out or even if it will work at all,” he says.

Of the possible fears about new life forms: “I think we’re in the realm of science fiction right now,” Mr Annas says.

Reality check

Prof Church’s optimism about the power of reading and writing DNA is contagious, but not irresistible.

“You need George’s imagination and his vision if you’re going to do make any progress at all. But you’ve got to be foolish to think you’re going to make as much progress as he [imagines],” Mr Annas says.

American medical care is going broke as it is, he said. Adding more personalised treatment is only going to drive up the cost. And medicine may be able to add years to someone’s life, but the quality of those years is unlikely to be good, warns Mr Annas.

Chad Nussbaum agrees.

“There’s a statistical chance of being hit by a truck that’s going to make it hard to live to 150 no matter how healthy you are,” says Mr Nussbaum, co-director of the genome sequencing and analysis program at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, a genetics research institute, where Church is an associate member.

Extreme aging isn’t all about genetics, Mr Nussbaum says, it’s basic engineering: parts just wear out over time. “It’s wonderfully naive to think all we have to do is learn all the genetics and we’ll live to be 150.”

But Chad Nussbaum says he still admires Prof Church’s vision and his “genius.”

“It’s a great thing to think big and try to do crazy things,” says Mr Nussbaum. “If you don’t try to do things that are impossible, we’ll never accomplish the things that are nearly impossible.”

How Close Are We to Successfully Cloning the First Human?


When Will We Clone a Human?

Human cloning may endure as one of the go-to science fiction tropes, but in reality we may be much closer to achieving it than our fictional heroes might imply. At least in terms of the science required. On of the most prominent hurdles facing us may have less to do with the process and more to do with its potential consequences, and our collective struggle to reconcile the ethics involved. That being said, while science has come a long way in the last century when it comes to cloning a menagerie of animals, cloning humans and other primates has actually proven to be incredibly difficult. While we might not be on the brink of cloning entire human beings, we’re already capable of cloning human cells — the question is, should we be?

Seeing Double: The History of Animal Cloning
Click to View Full Infographic

The astoundingly complex concept of cloning boils down to a fairly simple (in theory, at least) practice: you need two cells from the same animal — one of which is an egg cell from which you’ve removed the DNA. You take the DNA from the other somatic cell and put it inside the devoid-of-DNA egg cell. Whatever that egg cell goes on to produce for offspring will be genetically identical to the parent cell. While human reproduction is the result of the joining of two cells (one from each parent, each with their own DNA) the cellular photocopy technique does occur in nature. Bacteria reproduce through binary fission: each time it divides, its DNA is divided too so that each new bacterium is genetically identical to its predecessor. Except sometimes mutations occur in this process — and in fact, that can be by design and function as a survival mechanism. Such mutations allow bacteria to, for example, become resistant to antibiotics bent on destroying them. On the other hand, some mutations are fatal to an organism or preclude them coming into existence at all. And while it might seem like the picking-and-choosing that’s inherent to cloning could sidestep these potential genetic hiccups, scientists have found that’s not necessarily the case.

Prediction: When will the first human be cloned?

What The Experts Say

While Dolly the sheep might be the most famous mammal science has ever cloned, she’s by no means the only one: scientists have cloned mice, cats, and several types of livestock in addition to sheep. The cloning of cows has, in recent years, provided a great deal of knowledge to scientists about why the process doesn’t work: everything from implantation failure to those aforementioned mutations that render offspring unable to survive. Harris Lewin, professor in the UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology, and his team published their findings on the impact cloning has on gene expression in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences back in 2016. In the study’s press release Lewin noted that the findings were certainly invaluable to refining cloning techniques in mammals, but that their discoveries “also reinforce the need for a strict ban on human cloning for any purposes.”

The creation of entire mammals via reproductive cloning has proven a difficult process both practically and ethnically, as legal scholar and ethicist Hank Greely of Stanford University explained to Business Insider in 2016:

“I think no one realized how hard cloning would be in some species though relatively easy in others. Cats: easy; dogs: hard; mice: easy; rats: hard; humans and other primates: very hard.”

The cloning of human cells, however, may be a far more immediate application for humans. Researchers call it “therapeutic” cloning, and differentiate it from traditional cloning that has reproductive intent. In 2014, researchers created human stem cells through the same cloning technique that generated Dolly the sheep. Because stem cells can differentiate to become any kind of cell in the body, they could be utilized for a wide variety of purposes when it comes to treating diseases — particularly genetic diseases, or diseases where a patient would require a transplant from an often elusive perfect match donor. This potential application is already well underway: earlier this year a woman in Japan suffering from age-related macular degeneration was treated with induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cellscreated from her own skin cells, which were then implanted into her retinas and stopped her vision from degenerating further.

We asked the Futurism community to predict when they think we’ll be able to successfully clone a full human, and the majority of those who responded agree that it feels like we’re getting close: nearly 30 percent predicted we’ll clone our first human by the 2020s. “We have replaced, and replicated almost every biology on earth,” said reader Alicja Laskowska, “[the] next step is for cures and to do that you need clean DNA, and there’s your start.”

 

Gene-editing algae doubles biofuel output potential. 


Scientists have created a strain of algae that produces twice as much lipid as its wild parent, a substance that can be processed into a biofuel.

By using a combination of gene editing tools, including the famed CRISPR-Cas9 technique, they identified and switched off genes that limited the production of lipids. Creating an alga that can pump out commercial amounts of sustainably obtained biofuels.

 

“We are focused on understanding how to maximize the efficiency of [lipid production] algae and at the same time maximise the amount of CO2 converted to lipids in the cells, which is the component processed into biodiesel,” Eric Moellering, lead researcher from company Synthetic Genomics Inc, told ScienceAlert.

Scientists have been trying to make the concept of using phototropic algae to produce bio-diesel a reality since the 1970s. In the past, it has been said that a new energy sector based on algal biofuels could guarantee transport fuel and food security far into the future.

Despite years of research, the best attempts until now have been limited to industrial strains which, although they have a really high lipid conversion rate, do not make sufficient amounts of lipid to make it commercially viable – limited by the fact it can’t grow very fast.

“Early in the [study] we posed the basic question, can we engineer an alga to produce more lipids while sustaining growth? This publication provides the proof of concept answer to that question is yes,” said Moellering.

In this new research, the team used CRISPR-Cas9, among other editing techniques, and identified 20 transition factors that regulated lipid production. By knocking out 18 of these, the team were able to double the lipid output compared to the non-modified algae.

But here’s the important bit: they were able to do so without stunting the alga’s growth rate. It grew at the same rate as the unmodified type.

The genetically modified algae produced up to 5 grams of lipid per metre per day, about twice as much as in the wild.

Another important metric is the total carbon to lipid conversion. This tells us how efficient the algae is at converting CO2 to lipids. In wild, unmodified alga the conversation rate is about 20 percent, but in the engineered alga it converted 40 to 55 percent of carbon to lipids.

It’s worth pointing out that this study was only performed at the laboratory scale but one of the researchers, Imad Ajjawi, also from Synthetic Genomics, told ScienceAlert that while they consider this a ‘proof of concept’, “they represent a significant milestone in establishing the foundation for a path that leads to eventual commercialisation of algal biofuels.”

Should this research graduate from the lab, bio-fuel production would no longer be reliant on sugars produced by land-grown crops like sugar cane and maize. Studies on the use of crop based biodiesel has shown that it could prove to be incredibly costly and damage our food security.

This research is another win for gene editing and the researchers have shown that new genetic editing tools sit at the centre of talking some of the world’s biggest problems.

“We have also developed the necessary genomic and genetic tools that will enable future breakthroughs to advance this field,” said Ajjawi.

Stem Cell Research: What Are Stem Cells And Why Is There So Much Controversy?


Stem cell research is often in the news both for its involvement in scientific breakthrough and the controversy surrounding its use. But while many of us are familiar with the term, when it comes to understanding exactly what stem cells are and what exactly they do, things can get a bit hazy. Luckily, YouTube channel Life Noggin put together a colorful video to outline the basics of stem cells.

Stem Cell Research: What Are Stem Cells, And Why Is There So Much Controversy? Here’s a quick overview of what makes stem cells so special and what exactly they can be used for. 

Stem Cell Research: What Are Stem Cells, And Why Is There So Much Controversy?

First off, all of your cells contain the same genetic code which is unique to you (unless, of course, you are an identical twin or triplet). What sets a skin cell apart from a brain, bone, or blood cell is the manner in which these genes are expressed or turned on. Stem cells are unspecialized, meaning their gene expression has not yet been set. It’s this factor that makes them so important.

Adult stem cells, also known as somatic cells, are used to maintain and repair cells in the tissue in which they are found. These types of stem cells are used in procedures such as skin grafts for burn victims. Researchers hope that eventually science will advance enough to enable these cells to regenerate whole organs and therefore lift some of the burden from organ transplant lists.

Controversial discussions involving stem cells usually refer to embryonic stem cells. Rather than being taken from adults, these cells are retrieved from fertilized embryos and can theoretically become any type of cell. This type of stem cell therpy is used in studies involving the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. The embryos are most often donated by women who are participating in in-vitro fertilization and have leftover embryos.

Despite this controversy, stem cells are at the forefront of treatment for everything, from Alzheimer’s disease to HIV, and are part of a truly exciting field of science.

Scientists Discover Method To ‘Expand’ Stem Cells In The Laboratory That Could Lead To New Cancer Treatments


Stem cells used in cell-based therapies have so far saved countless lives that may have otherwise been lost to cancer or birth defects. But such therapies are always subject to finding sufficient quantities of stem cells from a donor. But now, scientists from the University of Colorado School of Medicine have discovered a novel process that allows them to expand production of stem cells. An article on the research has been published Friday in PLOS ONE.

Stem cell cultivation

Stem cell cultivation Growing stem cells in the laboratory can greatly help in developing interventions for several autoimmune and metabolic conditions.

The scientists have uncovered the molecular code, or the process that regulates how the stem cells differentiate to produce more stem cells and retain their stem-cell characteristics. The discovery has generated great excitement among researchers, who hope the findings will aid in a cure for cancers, inborn immunodeficiency and metabolic conditions, and autoimmune diseases.

Importance of Stem Cells

Stem cells are the internal repair system of the body. Their ability to divide and produce more stem cells enables them to replenish old and worn out tissues with new ones. They also have the unique property of differentiating into specialized cells with specialized functions, such as muscle cells, red blood cells, or brain cells. But such differentiation in organs, like the pancreas or the heart, requires specialized conditions.

Scientists have been trying for years to reproduce these specialized conditions that would allow stem cells to differentiate in the laboratory to be used for regenerative and cell-based therapies.

“Use of stem cells to treat cancer patients who face bone marrow transplants has been a common practice for four decades,” said Yosef Refaeli, lead scientist of the study, in a statement. “The biggest challenge, however, has been finding adequate supplies of stem cells that help patients fight infection after the procedure.”

To overcome this, the team developed protein products that can be directly administered to blood stem cells to encourage them to multiply without permanent genetic modifications. The technology worked on blood stem cells obtained from cord blood, adult bone marrow, or peripheral blood from adults.

“Most of those approaches have been limited by the nature of the resulting cells or the inadequate number of cells produced,” said Gates Stem Cell Center Director Dennis Roop, referring to previous attempts to “grow” stem cells in a lab, which have not always been successful.

“The ability to multiply blood stem cells from any source in a dish will be critical for adoption of this new technology in clinics,” said Brian Turner, one of the lead authors of the study.

The researchers are now attempting to start human clinical trials, which will involve attempting blood stem cell expansion in patients suffering from inborn immunodeficiency conditions, like SCID and sickle cell anemia, to metabolic conditions, like Hurler’s disease or Gaucher syndrome, autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and lupus, or cancers such as lymphoma, myeloma, and other types of solid tumors.

Source: Rafaeli Y, Turner B, et al. PLOS ONE. 2014.

The Era Of Chimeras: Scientists Fearlessly Create Bizarre Human/Animal Hybrids


Did you know that scientists are creating cow/human hybrids, pig/human hybrids and even mouse/human hybrids?  This is happening every single day in labs all over the western world, but most people have never even heard about it.  So would you drink milk from a cow/human hybrid that produces milk that is almost identical to human breast milk?  And how would you interact with a mouse that has a brain that is almost entirely human?

These are the kinds of questions that we will have to start to address as a society as scientists create increasingly bizarre human/animal hybrids.  Thanks to dramatic advances in genetic technology, we have gotten to the point where it is literally possible for college students to create new hybrid lifeforms in their basements.   Of course our laws have not kept pace with these advances, and now that Pandora’s Box has been opened, it is going to be nearly impossible to shut it.

Scientists try to justify the creation of human/animal hybrids by telling us that it will help “cure disease” and help “end world hunger”, but what if scientists discover that combining human DNA with animal DNA can give us incredible new abilities or greatly extended lifespans?  Will humanity really have the restraint to keep from going down that road?

In my previous article entitled “Transhumanists: Superhuman Powers And Life Extension Technologies Will Allow Us To Become Like God“, I explored the obsession that transhumanists have with human enhancement.  The temptation to “take control of our own evolution” will surely be too great for many scientists to resist.  And even if some nations outlaw the complete merging of humans and animals, that does not mean that everyone else in the world will.

And once animal DNA gets into our breeding pool, how will we ever put the genie back into the bottle?  As the DNA of the human race becomes corrupted, it is easy to imagine a future where there are very few “pure humans” remaining.

Sadly, most of the scientists working in this field express very little concern for these types of considerations.  In fact, one very prominent U.S. geneticist says that we should not even worry about hybridization because he believes that humans were originally pig/chimpanzee hybrids anyway…

The human species began as the hybrid offspring of a male pig and a female chimpanzee, an American geneticist has suggested.

The startling claim has been made by Eugene McCarthy, who is also one of the world’s leading authorities on hybridisation in animals.

He points out that while humans have many features in common with chimps, we also have a large number of distinguishing characteristics not found in any other primates.

So if we are just hybrid creatures ourselves, why should we be scared of making more hybrids?

From their point of view, it all makes perfect sense.

And right now, extremely weird human/animal hybrids are being grown all over the United States.

For example, just check out the following excerpt from an NBC News article about what is going on in Nevada…

On a farm about six miles outside this gambling town, Jason Chamberlain looks over a flock of about 50 smelly sheep, many of them possessing partially human livers, hearts, brains and other organs.

The University of Nevada-Reno researcher talks matter-of-factly about his plans to euthanize one of the pregnant sheep in a nearby lab. He can’t wait to examine the effects of the human cells he had injected into the fetus’ brain about two months ago.

“It’s mice on a large scale,” Chamberlain says with a shrug.

When this article came across my desk recently, I noted that it was almost ten years old.

Over the past decade, things have gotten much, much stranger.

For example, scientists have now created mice that have artificial human chromosomes “in every cell in their bodies“…

Scientists have created genetically-engineered mice with artificial human chromosomes in every cell of their bodies, as part of a series of studies showing that it may be possible to treat genetic diseases with a radically new form of gene therapy.

In one of the unpublished studies, researchers made a human artificial chromosome in the laboratory from chemical building blocks rather than chipping away at an existing human chromosome, indicating the increasingly powerful technology behind the new field of synthetic biology.

And researchers at the University of Wisconsin figured out a way to transfer cells from human embryos into the brains of mice.  When those cells from the human embryos began to grow and develop, they actually made the mice substantially smarter

Yet experiments like these are going forward just the same. In just the past few months, scientists at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Rochester have published data on their human-animal neural chimeras. For the Wisconsin study, researchers injected mice with an immunotoxin to destroy a part of their brains–the hippocampus–that’s associated with learning, memory, and spatial reasoning. Then the researchers replaced those damaged cells with cells derived from human embryos. The cells proliferated and the lab chimeras recovered their ability to navigate a water maze.

For the Rochester study, researchers implanted newborn mice with nascent human glial cells, which help support and nourish neurons in the brain. Six months later, the human parts had elbowed out the mouse equivalents, and the animals had enhanced ability to solve a simple maze and learn conditioned cues. These protocols might run afoul of the anti-hybrid laws, and perhaps they should arouse some questions. These chimeric mice may not be human, or even really human, but they’re certainly one step further down the path to Algernon. It may not be so long before we’re faced with some hairy bioethics: What rights should we assign to mice with human brains?

So what should we call mice that have brains that are mostly human?

And at what point would our relationship with such creatures fundamentally change?

When they learn to talk?

Scientists all over the planet are recklessly creating these chimeras without really thinking through the implications.

In China, scientists have actually inserted human genes into the DNA of dairy cow embryos.

Now there are hundreds of human/cow hybrids that produce milk that is virtually identical to human breast milk.

Would you buy such milk if it showed up in your supermarket?  The scientists that “designed” these cows say that is the goal.

But of course this is just the tip of the iceberg.  A very good Slate article detailed some more of the human/animal hybrid experiments that have been taking place all over the planet…

Not long ago, Chinese scientists embedded genes for human milk proteins into a mouse’s genome and have since created herds of humanized-milk-producing goats. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Michigan have a method for putting a human anal sphincter into a mouse as a means of finding better treatments for fecal incontinence, and doctors are building animals with humanized immune systems to serve as subjects for new HIV vaccines.

And Discovery News has documented even more bizarre human/animal hybrids that scientists have developed…

Rabbit Eggs with Human Cells

Pigs with Human Blood

Sheep with Human Livers

Cow Eggs with Human Cells

Cat-Human Hybrid Proteins

As the technology continues to advance, the possibilities are going to be endless.

One professor at Harvard even wants to create a Neanderthal/human hybrid.  He says that he just needs an “adventurous female human” to carry the child…

Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School believes he can reconstruct Neanderthal DNA and resurrect the species which became extinct 33,000 years ago.

His scheme is reminiscent of Jurassic Park but, while in the film dinosaurs were created in a laboratory, Professor Church’s ambitious plan requires a human volunteer.

He said his analysis of Neanderthal genetic code using samples from bones is complete enough to reconstruct their DNA.

He said: ‘Now I need an adventurous female human.

‘It depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think it can be done.’

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a really, really bad idea to me.

And right now, the U.S. federal government is actually considering a plan which would allow scientists to create babies that come from genetic material drawn from three parents

A new technology aimed at eliminating genetic disease in newborns would combine the DNA of three people, instead of just two, to create a child, potentially redrawing ethical lines for designer babies.

The process works by replacing potentially variant DNA in the unfertilized eggs of a hopeful mother with disease-free genes from a donor. U.S. regulators today will begin weighing whether the procedure, used only in monkeys so far, is safe enough to be tested in humans.

Because the process would change only a small, specific part of genetic code, scientists say a baby would largely retain the physical characteristics of the parents. Still, DNA from all three — mother, father and donor — would remain with the child throughout a lifetime, opening questions about long-term effects for this generation, and potentially the next. Ethicists worry that allowing pre-birth gene manipulation may one day lead to build-to-order designer babies.

Many scientists believe that these kinds of technologies will “change the world”.

They might be more right about that than they ever could possibly imagine.

When we start monkeying with human DNA, we could be opening up doorways that we never even knew existed.

If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.  Hopefully scientists around the globe will understand the dangers of these types of experiments before it is too late.

A Company Is Charging $750,000 for Eggs and Sperm From “Genetically Desirable” People


IN BRIEF

A new global fertility agency claims to provide its clients with eggs and sperm “from the highest quality donors in the world” for a fee of $750,000, raising questions about the ethics surrounding the intersection of reproduction and genetics.

 Billionaire Matchmaker

Roughly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin shared his theory of natural selection with the world. It is through this evolutionary process that all species — humans included — chose their mates. Early on in our history, it was a process of elimination more than a choice. The individuals best adapted to their environments would survive long enough to reproduce, sending their desirable genes forward to the next generation.

Natural selection is still at work in our species today, but so is a far less natural means of genetic manipulation.

“All people are not created equal”

In December 2016, global fertility agency Purenetics opened for business. The company claims to provide its clients with eggs and sperm “from the highest quality donors in the world.” Basically, it is a company that is meant to allow the rich to “buy” a baby with whatever genetics they desire.

Those “genetically desirable” donors submit their information online, sharing everything from their blood type and eye color to their IQ and ethnicity. Purenetics clients must show proof of funds of at least $750,000 and give a deposit of $10,000 to even access the donor database. If they decide to make a purchase, $500,000 goes to the donor and $250,000 to Purenetics.

Up until just last year, payment for an egg donation was limited to $10,000, and the average sperm donation still only earns the donor roughly $35 to $50. Clearly, Purenetics is positioning itself as a high-end fertility service—one that works with people that the company designates as being “genetically elite.”

 The company’s founder claims that the work is not unique: “Our focus is not that much different than that of an upscale matchmaking service,” he claimed in a press release announcing the company’s launch. “It is a niche market that has not been addressed in an institutionalized way.”

Despite the founder’s attempts to normalize the process, the company’s uber-sexy donor video and tagline of “All people are not created equal” might leave anyone without a modeling contract feel a bit like a member of the huddled masses. Add to that social media accounts that feature more buxom blondes than a Playboy pool party, the founder’s decision to remain anonymous, and the fact that donors must pay $5.99 to even submit their applications, and the whole thing feels even less legit.

But setting aside any clues that it might be little more than a money-making scheme, is Purenetics necessarily doing anything wrong by selecting “desirable genes”?

Two Medical Milestones, One Big Controversy

While our ancient ancestors had pretty simple criteria for their reproductive mates — stay alive long enough to reproduce — advances in healthcare, agriculture, and education have made it so surviving well past the reproductive years has become the norm in much of the developed world. Research confirms what most of us probably already knew: people with the traits that are now most desirable — good looking, wealthy, steady income — are in a position to be more selective when choosing their mates. Proponents of Purenetics might say it is simply using the technology of the internet to speed up the selection process.

But like many issues surrounding the intersection of genetics and reproduction, this one carries with it numerous ethical concerns.

In 1978, the world’s first “test tube baby” was born via in vitro fertilization. Researchers had successfully removed an egg from a woman’s ovary, paired it in a laboratory dish with her husband’s sperm, and then implanted the subsequent embryo into her uterus. The woman had been unable to conceive through traditional methods despite years of trying, but nine months after the procedure, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Another medical breakthrough took place 25 years later when the first human genome was mapped. As the Human Genome Project put it, “Having the essentially complete sequence of the human genome is similar to having all the pages of a manual needed to make the human body.” Today, anyone with a couple hundred dollars to spare can request an abbreviated copy of their own genetic owner’s manual through sites like 23 and Me or Pathway Genomics. This relatively easy access to human DNA has led to new medical research and treatments, and now, we’re not only able to study and learn from human DNA, we can also alter it.

 IVF has been called everything from a “moral abomination” to a “miracle,” and public opinion is split on gene editing as well, with some deriding the technology as “playing God,” while others list its thousands of benefits. Combine the two controversial medical milestones, and the phrase “designer baby” moves from the realm of science fiction tropes to that of real-world possibilities. That shift excites some and terrifies others.

The Perfect Baby

Only recently have laws against human embryo editing begun to loosen, but we have good reason to be cautious about the technology — past efforts to manipulate the genetic makeup of a population haven’t gone so well. The early-twentieth century eugenics movement in the United States considered poor, uneducated, promiscuous, and non-white citizens “genetic undesireables.” By the time the movement ended, more than 64,000 people had been legally subjected to forced sterilization. It wasn’t until after the Nazis enacted their own eugenics programs that the practice lost favor in the U.S.

Thankfully, the situation today is a little different. Instead of forcing those with undesirable traits to forgo reproduction altogether, in some instances, doctors could simply remove the negative traits from their DNA. Some are already envisioning a not-so-distant future in which this modification will be permitted when doing so could prevent a baby from inheriting a diseaseEditing genes to ensure a baby is healthy doesn’t seem so controversial. But attractive or tall or athletic? Where do we draw the line?

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Right now, the best way to ensure that you have the “perfect” baby is to choose a mate that meets all of your qualifications and hope your offspring takes after them. After all, being a billionaire isn’t an inheritable genetic trait, but if the money can be used to buy the reproductive material of someone whose desirable traits areinheritable, are we really doing anything differently than our ancestors, combining the genetics of society’s “fittest” — both financially and genetically — to create the next generation?

There is no right answer, but the question of just how far we’re willing to go to create the ideal offspring is one we’ll need to address very soon. If someone is willing to pay $750,000 in the hopes that “elite” DNA from a donor will carry on to the next generation, would they be willing to skirt the law and modify that DNA to ensure that it does?

Source:https://futurism.com

Gene-editing technology has successfully targeted cancer’s “command centre”


The CRISPR gene-editing tool has already shown a lot of potential for helping doctors treat the most stubborn diseases, and now scientists have used it to target the “command centre” of cancerous tumours, stopping their growth and boosting survival rates in mice.

In this new study, CRISPR was aimed directly at fusion genes – formed when two genes combine to form a hybrid, resulting in abnormal proteins which often cause cancer or help it to grow.

 

These fusion genes also have a unique DNA fingerprint, which researchers from the University of Pittsburgh were able to use to hunt down and modify them. Specially engineered viruses were then applied to replace the fusion genes with cancer-killing ones.

“This is the first time that gene-editing has been used to specifically target cancer fusion genes,” says lead researcher Jian-Hua Luo. ” It is really exciting because it lays the groundwork for what could become a totally new approach to treating cancer.”

CRISPR lets scientists effectively cut and paste the DNA in cells to fix problems or make improvements, and it has already been used to boost immune cells in the fight against certain types of cancers.

In this case, the researchers went for one of the causes of growth, demonstrating a new way to tackle the disease.

A type of fusion gene called MAN2A1-FER was targeted – previously identified by the same team as being present in certain types of aggressive cancer in the prostate, liver, lungs, and ovaries.

“Other types of cancer treatments target the foot soldiers of the army,” explains Luo. “Our approach is to target the command centre, so there is no chance for the enemy’s soldiers to regroup in the battlefield for a comeback.”

 Once modified, the CRISPR-edited, cancer-killing genes were injected into mice carrying human prostate and liver cancer cells. The tumours reduced in size by up to 30 percent, no secondary growths were noted, and all the mice survived until the end of the eight-week test.

In contrast, in a control group of mice that didn’t receive the treatment, the cancer tumours increased nearly 40-fold in size, metastasis or cancer spread was common, and all the animals died before the study ended.

Even better, because fusion genes only occur in cancerous cells, healthy cells are left alone.

This could give the new technique a big advantage over chemotherapy, which has numerous unwanted side effects on healthy parts of the body.

Tackling the fusion genes didn’t kill off the cancer altogether, but there is hope a refined process could make that a possibility for the future.

More research is also needed to see if this can work as well in humans as it does in mice, but as these were human cancers xenografted to mice, the work so far is much more promising than a traditional mouse study.

“[T]he genome approach described here should in principle be applicable to most human cancers carrying fusion genes,” the researchers conclude. paper.

Source:Nature Biotechnology.

Tensions flare as scientists go public with plan to build synthetic human DNA.


One of the greatest ethical debates in science – manipulating the fundamental building blocks of life – is set to heat up once more.

According to scientists behind an ambitious and controversial plan to write the human genome from the ground up, synthesising DNA and incorporating it into mammalian and even human cells could be as little as four to five years away.

 

Nearly 200 leading researchers in genetics and bioengineering are expected to attend a meeting in New York City next week, to discuss the next stages of what is now called the Genome Project-write (GP-write) plan: a US$100 million venture to research, engineer, and test living systems of model organisms, including the human genome.

Framed as a follow-up to the pioneering Human Genome Project (HGP) – which culminated in 2003 after 13 years of research that mapped the human genetic code – this project is billed as the logical next step, where scientists will learn how to cost-effectively synthesise plant, animal, and eventually human DNA.

“HGP allowed us to read the genome, but we still don’t completely understand it,” GP-write coordinator Nancy J. Kelley told Alex Ossola at CNBC.

While those involved are eager to portray the project as an open, international collaboration designed to further our understandings of genome science, GP-write provoked considerable controversy after its first large meet-up a year ago was conducted virtually in secret, with a select group of invite-only experts holding talks behind closed doors.

“Given that human genome synthesis is a technology that can completely redefine the core of what now joins all of humanity together as a species, we argue that discussions of making such capacities real … should not take place without open and advance consideration of whether it is morally right to proceed,” medical ethicist Laurie Zoloth from Northwestern University and synthetic biologist Drew Endy of Stanford University wrote at the time for Cosmos Magazine.

Since then, the researchers behind the initiative have been more candid, announcing details of the project in a paper in Science, as well as releasing a white paper outlining GP-write’s timeline and goals.

One of GP-write’s lead scientists – geneticist and biochemist Jef Boeke from NYU Langone Medical Centre – says the approach has always been to consult the scientific community at large, to help frame and steer the research as it develops.

“I think articulation of our plan not to start right off synthesising a full human genome tomorrow was helpful. We have a four- to five-year period where there can be plenty of time for debate about the wisdom of that, whether resources should be put in that direction or in another,” he told CNBC.

“Whenever it’s human, everyone has an opinion and wants their voice to be heard. We want to hear what people have to say.”

But while that conversation is taking place, the science is developing regardless.

In March, Boeke shared details on a related project he’s involved with, where he oversees hundreds of scientists who are working together to synthesise an artificial yeast genome, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2017.

There might be a large gap between successfully synthesising yeast DNA and creating artificial human DNA from scratch. But the overall goal is to figure out how to synthesise comparatively simple genetic codes (such as microbial and plant DNA), before moving on to the ultimate prize.

“If you do that, you gain a much deeper understanding of how a complicated apparatus goes,” says Boeke. “Really, a synthetic genome is an engine for learning new information.”

Under its new organisational structure, GP-write is the parent project, which encompasses the core area of Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write), focussed on synthesising human genomes in whole or in part.

In addition to synthesising plant, animal, and human DNA, the primary goal of the project is to lower the cost of engineering genomes.

At present, it’s estimated to cost about 10 US cents to synthesise every base pair of nucleobase molecules that make up our DNA – and given humans have about 3 billion of these pairs, that makes for some pretty prohibitively expensive synthesis.

The plan is to reduce this cost by more than 1,000-fold within 10 years.

If that happens, the lower expense involved in synthesising DNA could unlock all kinds of new potential medical treatments – targeting illnesses such as cancer and genetic diseases, helping the body to accept organ transplants, and learning more about immunity to viruses.

Of course, before that can happen, GP-write’s organisers need to raise an estimated US$100 million in funding – which will be another of the drivers of next week’s get together.

It’s an incredibly exciting undertaking, although there’s bound to be more controversy as GP-write marches ahead.

Super Humans: Scientists Rewrote a Bacteria’s Genome From Scratch.


Article Image
Cloned embryo.

Most of us like the idea of superpowers. Though we may never have the strength of Superman, we could be made stronger, faster, and even better-looking, with total control over our genome, or genetic makeup. What about becoming disease-resistant, weight gain resistant, and even slowing down the aging process? This might be possible in decades to come, as geneticists are now getting ever closer to, not just removing and replacing genes, but rewriting entire genomes. It sounds like the realm of science fiction. Yet, consider that geneticists at Harvard recently recoded the genome of a synthetic E. coli bacteria. Prof. George Church and colleagues conducted the study.

Researchers replaced 62,214 base pairs of DNA. What they have done is recreate the DNA from scratch, though they haven’t actually brought the bacteria to life, yet. What was once thought impossible is no longer. This is the first synthetic genome ever assembled, and is being hailed as the most complex feat of genetic engineering, thus far.

With this technique, we could create any kind of life form we wanted, reprogram organisms, and even create synthetic proteins and compounds. MIT bioengineer Peter Carr, told the journal Science, “It’s not easy, but we can engineer life at profound scales.” Note that he was not involved in this project. So how exactly are they rewriting a genome? DNA is made up of four nucleobases which arrange themselves as base pairs, A and T, C and G. These create one strand of the double helix, known as RNA.

Nucleobases. Photo by Difference DNA_RNA-DE.svg: Sponk (talk)translation: Sponk (talk) – chemical structures of nucleobases by Roland1952, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Each combination equates to a certain amino acid, which is what cells are essentially made up of. Cell’s read combinations of nucleobases to know which amino acids to produce. There are only 64 possible combinations. When put in a group of three—called codons, they create a certain kind of amino acid. There are 20 different kinds in total. C-C-G for instance creates the amino acid proline. C-C-C does as well. So there is some overlap. In this way, geneticists can erase redundant genes without affecting the development of the organism.

That’s what Harvard geneticists did here. They edited out the overlap. Scientists removed seven of 64 codon types throughout 3,548 genes. Instead of editing the genome one gene at a time, researchers used machines to synthesize whole segments of RNA from scratch, each portion containing several alterations. Then they inserted these segments into the E. coli’s DNA, one-by-one, making sure as to not make changes that would destroy the cell. So far, 63% of recoded genes have been tested. Very few have caused any problems for the cell. Researchers still have several years of experimentation and testing ahead. Still, geneticists are marveling at how malleable the genome actually is.

Bacteria.

In the near term, scientists are excited about the prospect of creating bacteria that is invulnerable to viruses. Usually, a virus infects a living cell by adding its own DNA to the host’s genome. In this way, it replicates itself. Genetically recoded organisms (GROs) would have a genome so different, the virus wouldn’t be able to read it and so couldn’t inject its DNA, making it unable to replicate.

One possible use for GROs is manufacturing. By rewriting a bacterium’s genetic code, it would change what kind of protein it makes. Synthetic bacteria could become living factories, programmed to produce whatever amino acid wished for. These would then churn out the next generation of synthetic materials, perhaps even medicines. Such engineered bacteria could also become reliable test subjects for future scientific research.

Prof. Church’s experiments have been controversial in the past. In that, one issue is whether or not this technique is 100% safe. The concern is that recoded bacteria could produce a toxin. Since it would be resistant to viruses, it would have an edge over competitors in the environment. If it should say get loose, it could result in ecological damage or even cause the next great plague. To overcome this concern, Church and colleagues have built a few safety measures into the system.

Model of the human genome.

A special nutrient must be fed to these bacteria or else they die off. Unless they find this selfsame nutrient in the environment, which Church says is unlikely, they would not be able to survive. Another fail-safe is a special barrier which has been erected to make it impossible for the bacteria to mate or reproduce, outside of the lab. But other experts wonder how “unbeatable” Church’s fail-safe’s actually are. Carr says that instead of discussing these measures as foolproof, we should be framing it in degrees of risk.

The next step is further testing of the artificial genes that have been made. Afterward, Church and colleagues will take this same genome and produce an entirely new organism with it. Since DNA is the essential blueprint for almost all life on earth, being able to rewrite it could give humans an almost god-like power over it. That capability is perhaps decades away. Even so, combined with gene editing and gene modification, and the idea of a race of super humans is not outside the realm of possibility.

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