Category Archives: science

Joyeux Noël! Science raps for Christmas 2018!

I received a December 17, 2018 email from Baba Brinkman, a Canadian rapper who lives in New York City these days and who has often graced this blog. He has an offer for those of us lucky enough to be in New York City from December 27, 2018 to mid-February 2019 ,

If you’re looking for a last minute present for someone you know in New York, get them the gift of thought-provoking entertainment with a Rap Guide Gift Card, good for any one of my three off-Broadway shows set to open on December 27th at the Soho Playhouse. Don’t know if you have any friends in New York? Just type “my friends who live in new york” into a Facebook search and be enlightened.

To recap, in 2011 I moved to NYC to perform Rap Guide to Evolution off-Broadway. The show was a hit, nominated for a Drama Desk Award with a glowing review in the New York Times, and I started working with Soho Playhouse artistic director Darren Lee Cole to develop several new hip-hop theatre productions that tackle major topics in science. A series was born.

In 2015 I had the opportunity to perform Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at the UN Paris Climate Conference, followed by a six month off-Broadway run, and earlier this year we presented Rap Guide to Consciousness for an eight-month run, exploring the latest neuroscience research on human thoughts and experiences. This year alone I have performed Consciousness more than 90 times, so I’m ready for a break!

Too bad. The Soho Playhouse recently offered me the chance to present three of my shows in rotation, with 32 performances scheduled through late February. How could I say no?

So all this week I’m in rehearsals, then a brief respite for Christmas cheer, and then next Thursday [Dec. 27, 2018] it’s off to the races. This three show assembly is a grand experiment, designed around the principle that my overall project is more than the sum of its parts. What project is that? Simply the challenge of creatively sharing the findings of science that help us answer the big questions: who are we, where did we come from, and where might we go?

Got any friends who might be interested in that? Send them my way!

Enjoy and to all, a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Happy Saturnalia, Happy Kwanzaa, and all other winter celebrations!

Tech Art Fair (Ontario, Canada) call for submissions

I received an email (Dec. 19, 2018) from the ArtSci Salon folks in Toronto (Canada) about this call for submissions. It’s a bit late but there’s still time (Jan. 14, 2019) to make the deadline, From a December 19, 2018 ArtSci Salon announcement,

OPEN CALL

Tech Art Fair

February 16 – 18, 2019 at the Ontario Science Centre

Juried Competition: Call for Applications to Participate in the Tech Art Fair

Are you a tech-focused artist who wants to showcase your work in a diverse and dynamic public venue? Do you enjoy face-to-face conversations about what you do? Would you like to expand your network and generate new synergies within a global like-minded community? The Tech Art Fair at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto will highlight creative processes and provide an opportunity for participants to launch and test-drive creative ideas during a three-day winter holiday event, anticipated to attract up to 10,000 visitors. The Tech Art Fair will be complemented by an online exhibition hosted by the New York-based SciArt Center.

The Opportunity

This is a call for applications to participate in the Tech Art Fair to be held in the Great Hall of the Ontario Science Centre from February 16 through to February 18, 2019. Up to 20 applicants will be selected through a juried competition to demonstrate and exhibit work and sell affordable items at the Tech Art Fair. In addition to participation in the Tech Art Fair, participants will be considered for the art studio residences at MOCA Toronto [Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto], leading to an exhibition at the Ontario Science Centre.

Eligible Art and Selection Criteria

This call is open to artists, artist collectives, innovative entrepreneurs and interdisciplinary makers. Original art projects made in classic or digital media will be considered. This could include installations, immersive 3D works, innovative craft projects, electronics, Internet of Things projects and wearables, decorative arts, furniture, functional glass, ceramics and textiles.

We’re seeking provocative and unconventional art with a connection to science and technology that reveals your creative process, inspires awe and excitement and sparks dialogue. We’ll also be looking for work which facilitates interaction, collaboration and creation with our visitors.

Participants will be provided with a designated space containing one 6-foot table, two chairs and electrical power. Additional vertical supports (up to 6 feet in height) will be available for a limited number of works. Opportunities for displaying large-scale art pieces, hanging installations or video projections will be limited. Applicants selected by the jury will be required to sign a participation agreement with the Ontario Science Centre to participate in the Tech Art Fair. Please review the agreement: your agreement to execute and fulfill the terms of this agreement is a pre-condition to consideration by the jury. As set out in the agreement, you must be in attendance at the Ontario Science Centre during the Centre’s working hours for the duration of the Tech Art Fair.

Jury Members

  • Rachel Birnberg and Cecilia Garcia, North York Arts
  • Julia Buntaine Hoel, SciArt Center
  • Andy Forest, STEAMLabs
  • Ana Klasnja, Ontario Science Centre
  • Megan MacLaurin, InterAccess
  • Vessna Perunovich, Fashion Art Toronto
  • Renn Scott, Daily Goods Design Lab

Apply by January 14, 2019!
NOTE: To submit materials, you’ll need a Google Account.

Key Dates

October 31, 2018, 9 a.m. – Call for Applications opens
January 14, 2019, 11:59 p.m. – Call for applications closes
January 14 – 17, 2019 – Juried competition underway
January 18, 2019 – The Centre begins notifying successful applicants
January 26, 2019 – Due date for signed participant agreements
February 15, 2019, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. – Participant set-up complete
February 16, 2019, 10 a.m. – Tech Art Fair opens to the public
February 18, 2019, 5 p.m. – Tech Art Fair closes to the public

For further details, please contact us.

I have looked at the ‘agreement’ and given the constraints and apparent lack of any funding for travel, this call is probably more suitable for artists based in Ontario and/or in close proximity to Toronto.  You can find the original call for submissions here on the Ontario Science Centre’s site.

The secret lives of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-Cas (CRISPR-associated) proteins

This research isn’t quite as exciting as the title promises but it is important as it attempts to answer some fundamental questions about Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)-CRISPR-Associated (Cas).proteins. From a June 13, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Recently published research from the University of Georgia and UConn Health [University of Connecticu Health Center] provides new insight about the basic biological mechanisms of the RNA-based viral immune system known as CRISPR-Cas.

CRISPR-Cas, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR-associated, is a defense mechanism that has evolved in bacteria and archaea that these single celled organisms use to ward off attacks from viruses and other invaders. When a bacterium is attacked by a virus, it makes a record of the virus’s DNA by chopping it up into pieces and incorporating a small segment of the invader’s DNA into its own genome. It then uses this DNA to make RNAs that bind with a bacterial protein that then kills the viral DNA.

The system has been studied worldwide in hopes that it can be used to edit genes that predispose humans to countless diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. However, to reach this end goal, scientists must gain further understanding of the basic biological process that leads to successful immunity against the invading virus.

A June 12, 2018 University of Georgia news release by Jessica Luton and Jessica McBride, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Distinguished Research Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project Michael Terns and UGA postdoctoral fellow Masami Shiimori collaborated with Brenton Graveley and Sandra Garrett at UConn Health to sequence millions of genomes to learn more about the process. Graveley is professor and chair of the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences and associate director of the Institute for Systems Genomics at UConn Health, and Garrett is a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory.

“This research is more fundamental and basic than studies that are trying to determine how to use CRISPR for therapeutic or biomedical application,” said Terns. “Our study is about the unique first step in the process, known as adaptation, where fragments of DNA are recognized and integrated into the host genome and provide immunity for future generations.”

Previously, researchers did not understand how the cell recognized the virus as an invader, nor which bacterial proteins were necessary for successful integration and immunity.

“In this project we were able to determine how the bacterial immune system creates a molecular memory to remove harmful viral DNA sequences and how this is passed down to the bacterial progeny,” said Graveley.

By looking at patterns in the data, the researchers discovered several new findings about how two previously poorly characterized Cas4 proteins function in tandem with Cas1 and Cas2 proteins found in all CRISPR-Cas systems.

In this initial adaptation phase, one of two different Cas4 proteins recognizes a signaling placeholder in the sequence that occurs adjacent to the snippet of DNA that is excised.

When the Cas1 and Cas2 proteins are present in the cell with either of two Cas4 protein nucleases, Cas4-1 and Cas4-2, they act like the generals of this army-based immune system, communicating uniform sized clipped DNA fragments, directions on where to go next and ultimately instructions that destroy the lethal DNA fragment.

In order for a cell to successfully recognize and excise strands of DNA, incorporate them into its own genome and achieve immunity, the Cas4 proteins must be present in conjunction with the Cas1 and Cas2 proteins.

“Cas4 is present in many CRISPR-Cas systems, but the roles of the proteins were mysterious,” said Terns. “In our system, there are two Cas4 proteins that are essential for governing this process so that functional RNAs are made and immunity is conferred”

To achieve these findings, the research team from the University of Georgia created strains of archaeal organisms with key genetic deletions.

Hundreds of millions of DNA fragments captured in the CRISPR loci were sent to the Graveley lab in Farmington, Connecticut, where they were sequenced with the Illumina MiSeq system. The researchers then used supercomputing for bioinformatics analysis and data interpretation.

While there is still much to learn about the biological mechanisms involved in CRISPR-Cas systems, this research tells scientists more about the way these proteins work together to save the cell and achieve immunity.

“The data are so clear. We sequenced millions and millions of DNA fragments captured in CRISPR loci in different genetic strains and found the same results consistently,” he said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Cas4 Nucleases Define the PAM, Length, and Orientation of DNA Fragments Integrated at CRISPR Loci by Masami Shiimori, Sandra C. Garrett, Brenton R. Graveley, Michael P. Terns.Molecular Cell Volume 70, Issue 5, p814–824.e6, 7 June 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.molcel.2018.05.002

This paper is behind a paywall.

Using sound to transfer quantum information

It seems sound is becoming more prominent as a means of science data communication (data sonification) and in this upcoming case, data transfer. From a June 5, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Quantum physics is on the brink of a technological breakthrough: new types of sensors, secure data transmission methods and maybe even computers could be made possible thanks to quantum technologies. However, the main obstacle here is finding the right way to couple and precisely control a sufficient number of quantum systems (for example, individual atoms).

A team of researchers from TU Wien and Harvard University has found a new way to transfer the necessary quantum information. They propose using tiny mechanical vibrations. The atoms are coupled with each other by ‘phonons’ — the smallest quantum mechanical units of vibrations or sound waves.

A June 5, 2018 Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien) press release, which originated the news item, explains the work in greater detail,

“We are testing tiny diamonds with built-in silicon atoms – these quantum systems are particularly promising,” says Professor Peter Rabl from TU Wien. “Normally, diamonds are made exclusively of carbon, but adding silicon atoms in certain places creates defects in the crystal lattice where quantum information can be stored.” These microscopic flaws in the crystal lattice can be used like a tiny switch that can be switched between a state of higher energy and a state of lower energy using microwaves.

Together with a team from Harvard University, Peter Rabl’s research group has developed a new idea to achieve the targeted coupling of these quantum memories within the diamond. One by one they can be built into a tiny diamond rod measuring only a few micrometres in length, like individual pearls on a necklace. Just like a tuning fork, this rod can then be made to vibrate – however, these vibrations are so small that they can only be described using quantum theory. It is through these vibrations that the silicon atoms can form a quantum-mechanical link to each other.

“Light is made from photons, the quantum of light. In the same way, mechanical vibrations or sound waves can also be described in a quantum-mechanical manner. They are comprised of phonons – the smallest possible units of mechanical vibration,” explains Peter Rabl. As the research team has now been able to show using simulation calculations, any number of these quantum memories can be linked together in the diamond rod thanks to these phonons. The individual silicon atoms are “switched on and off” using microwaves. During this process, they emit or absorb phonons. This creates a quantum entanglement of different silicon defects, thus allowing quantum information to be transferred.

The road to a scalable quantum network
Until now it was not clear whether something like this was even possible: “Usually you would expect the phonons to be absorbed somewhere, or to come into contact with the environment and thus lose their quantum mechanical properties,” says Peter Rabl. “Phonons are the enemy of quantum information, so to speak. But with our calculations, we were able to show that, when controlled appropriately using microwaves, the phonons are in fact useable for technical applications.”

The main advantage of this new technology lies in its scalability: “There are many ideas for quantum systems that, in principle, can be used for technological applications. The biggest problem is that it is very difficult to connect enough of them to be able to carry out complicated computing operations,” says Peter Rabl. The new strategy of using phonons for this purpose could pave the way to a scalable quantum technology.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Phonon Networks with Silicon-Vacancy Centers in Diamond Waveguides by M.-A. Lemonde, S. Meesala, A. Sipahigil, M. J. A. Schuetz, M. D. Lukin, M. Loncar, and P. Rabl. Phys. Rev. Lett. 120 (21), 213603 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.120.213603 Published 25 May 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

First CRISPR gene-edited babies? Ethics and the science story

Scientists, He Jiankui and Michael Deem, may have created the first human babies born after being subjected to CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing.  At this point, no one is entirely certain that these babies  as described actually exist since the information was made public in a rather unusual (for scientists) fashion.

The news broke on Sunday, November 25, 2018 through a number of media outlets none of which included journals associated with gene editing or high impact journals such as Cell, Nature, or Science.The news broke in MIT Technology Review and in Associated Press. Plus, this all happened just before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (Nov. 27 – 29, 2018) in Hong Kong. He Jiankui was scheduled to speak today, Nov. 27, 2018.

Predictably, this news has caused quite a tizzy.

Breaking news

Antonio Regalado broke the news in a November 25, 2018  article for MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.

The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment.

However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows that genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

Apparently He changed his mind because Marilynn Marchione in a November 26, 2018 article for the Associated Press confirms the news,

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist [Dr. Michael Deem] said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it’s too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it Monday [November 26, 2018] in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday [November 27, 2018], and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It’s “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

“This is far too premature,” said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”

However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University’s George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called “a major and growing public health threat.”

“I think this is justifiable,” Church said of that goal.

h/t Cale Guthrie Weissman’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Fast Company.

Diving into more detail

Ed Yong in a November 26, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides more details about the claims (Note: Links have been removed),

… “Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He said in the first of five videos, posted yesterday {Nov. 25, 2018] to YouTube [link provided at the end of this section of the post]. “The girls are home now with their mom, Grace, and dad, Mark.” The claim has yet to be formally verified, but if true, it represents a landmark in the continuing ethical and scientific debate around gene editing.

Late last year, He reportedly enrolled seven couples in a clinical trial, and used their eggs and sperm to create embryos through in vitro fertilization. His team then used CRISPR to deactivate a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos, six of which they then implanted into mothers. CCR5 is a protein that the HIV virus uses to gain entry into human cells; by deactivating it, the team could theoretically reduce the risk of infection. Indeed, the fathers in all eight couples were HIV-positive.

Whether the experiment was successful or not, it’s intensely controversial. Scientists have already begun using CRISPR and other gene-editing technologies to alter human cells, in attempts to treat cancers, genetic disorders, and more. But in these cases, the affected cells stay within a person’s body. Editing an embryo [it’s often called, germline editing] is very different: It changes every cell in the body of the resulting person, including the sperm or eggs that would pass those changes to future generations. Such work is banned in many European countries, and prohibited in the United States. “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” He said.

“Was this a reasonable thing to do? I would say emphatically no,” says Paula Cannon of the University of Southern California. She and others have worked on gene editing, and particularly on trials that knock out CCR5 as a way to treat HIV. But those were attempts to treat people who were definitively sick and had run out of other options. That wasn’t the case with Nana and Lulu.

“The idea that being born HIV-susceptible, which is what the vast majority of humans are, is somehow a disease state that requires the extraordinary intervention of gene editing blows my mind,” says Cannon. “I feel like he’s appropriating this potentially valuable therapy as a shortcut to doing something in the sphere of gene editing. He’s either very naive or very cynical.”

“I want someone to make sure that it has happened,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. If it hasn’t, that “would be a pretty bald-faced fraud,” but such deceptions have happened in the past. “If it is true, I’m disappointed. It’s reckless on safety grounds, and imprudent and stupid on social grounds.” He notes that a landmark summit in 2015 (which included Chinese researchers) and a subsequent major report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine both argued that “public participation should precede any heritable germ-line editing.” That is: Society needs to work out how it feels about making gene-edited babies before any babies are edited. Absent that consensus, He’s work is “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” says Greely. “It provokes not just the regular bio-Luddites, but also reasonable people who just wanted to talk it out.”

Societally, the creation of CRISPR-edited babies is a binary moment—a Rubicon that has been crossed. But scientifically, the devil is in the details, and most of those are still unknown.

CRISPR is still inefficient. [emphasis mine] The Chinese teams who first used it to edit human embryos only did so successfully in a small proportion of cases, and even then, they found worrying levels of “off-target mutations,” where they had erroneously cut parts of the genome outside their targeted gene. He, in his video, claimed that his team had thoroughly sequenced Nana and Lulu’s genomes and found no changes in genes other than CCR5.

That claim is impossible to verify in the absence of a peer-reviewed paper, or even published data of any kind. “The paper is where we see whether the CCR5 gene was properly edited, what effect it had at the cellular level, and whether [there were] any off-target effects,” said Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute. “It’s not just ‘it worked’ as a binary declaration.”

In the video, He said that using CRISPR for human enhancement, such as enhancing IQ or selecting eye color, “should be banned.” Speaking about Nana and Lulu’s parents, he said that they “don’t want a designer baby, just a child who won’t suffer from a disease that medicine can now prevent.”

But his rationale is questionable. Huang [Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University ], the first Chinese researcher to use CRISPR on human embryos, targeted the faulty gene behind an inherited disease called beta thalassemia. Mitalipov, likewise, tried to edit a gene called MYBPC3, whose faulty versions cause another inherited disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Such uses are still controversial, but they rank among the more acceptable applications for embryonic gene editing as ways of treating inherited disorders for which treatments are either difficult or nonexistent.

In contrast, He’s team disableda normal gene in an attempt to reduce the risk of a disease that neither child had—and one that can be controlled. There are already ways of preventing fathers from passing HIV to their children. There are antiviral drugs that prevent infections. There’s safe-sex education. “This is not a plague for which we have no tools,” says Cannon.

As Marilynn Marchione of the AP reports, early tests suggest that He’s editing was incomplete [emphasis mine], and at least one of the twins is a mosaic, where some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 and others do not. If that’s true, it’s unlikely that they would be significantly protected from HIV. And in any case, deactivating CCR5 doesn’t confer complete immunity, because some HIV strains can still enter cells via a different protein called CXCR4.

Nana and Lulu might have other vulnerabilities. …

It is also unclear if the participants in He’s trial were fully aware of what they were signing up for. [emphasis mine] The team’s informed-consent document describes their work as an “AIDS vaccine development project,” and while it describes CRISPR gene editing, it does so in heavily technical language. It doesn’t mention any of the risks of disabling CCR5, and while it does note the possibility of off-target effects, it also says that the “project team is not responsible for the risk.”

He owns two genetics companies, and his collaborator, Michael Deem of Rice University,  [emphasis mine] holds a small stake in, and sits on the advisory board of, both of them. The AP’s Marchione reports, “Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials.” [emphasis mine]

Yong’s article is well worth reading in its entirety. As for YouTube, here’s The He Lab’s webpage with relevant videos.

Reactions

Gina Kolata, Sui-Lee Wee, and Pam Belluck writing in a Nov. 26, 2018 article for the New York Times chronicle some of the response to He’s announcement,

It is highly unusual for a scientist to announce a groundbreaking development without at least providing data that academic peers can review. Dr. He said he had gotten permission to do the work from the ethics board of the hospital Shenzhen Harmonicare, but the hospital, in interviews with Chinese media, denied being involved. Cheng Zhen, the general manager of Shenzhen Harmonicare, has asked the police to investigate what they suspect are “fraudulent ethical review materials,” according to the Beijing News.

The university that Dr. He is attached to, the Southern University of Science and Technology, said Dr. He has been on no-pay leave since February and that the school of biology believed that his project “is a serious violation of academic ethics and academic norms,” according to the state-run Beijing News.

In a statement late on Monday, China’s national health commission said it has asked the health commission in southern Guangdong province to investigate Mr. He’s claims.

“I think that’s completely insane,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Mitalipov broke new ground last year by using gene editing to successfully remove a dangerous mutation from human embryos in a laboratory dish. [I wrote a three-part series about CRISPR, which included what was then the latest US news, Mitalipov’s announcement, along with a roundup of previous work in China. Links are at the end of this section.’

Dr. Mitalipov said that unlike his own work, which focuses on editing out mutations that cause serious diseases that cannot be prevented any other way, Dr. He did not do anything medically necessary. There are other ways to prevent H.I.V. infection in newborns.

Just three months ago, at a conference in late August on genome engineering at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Dr. He presented work on editing the CCR₅ gene in the embryos of nine couples.

At the conference, whose organizers included Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of Crispr technology, Dr. He gave a careful talk about something that fellow attendees considered squarely within the realm of ethically approved research. But he did not mention that some of those embryos had been implanted in a woman and could result in genetically engineered babies.

“What we now know is that as he was talking, there was a woman in China carrying twins,” said Fyodor Urnov, deputy director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences and a visiting researcher at the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California. “He had the opportunity to say ‘Oh and by the way, I’m just going to come out and say it, people, there’s a woman carrying twins.’”

“I would never play poker against Dr. He,” Dr. Urnov quipped.

Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-led an advisory group on human gene editing for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, said that group and a similar organization in Britain had determined that if human genes were to be edited, the procedure should only be done to address “serious unmet needs in medical treatment, it had to be well monitored, it had to be well followed up, full consent has to be in place.”

It is not clear why altering genes to make people resistant to H.I.V. is “a serious unmet need.” Men with H.I.V. do not infect embryos. …

Dr. He got his Ph.D., from Rice University, in physics and his postdoctoral training, at Stanford, was with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics who works on sequencing DNA, not editing it.

Experts said that using Crispr would actually be quite easy for someone like Dr. He.

After coming to Shenzhen in 2012, Dr. He, at age 28, established a DNA sequencing company, Direct Genomics, and listed Dr. Quake on its advisory board. But, in a telephone interview on Monday, Dr. Quake said he was never associated with the company.

Deem, the US scientist who worked in China with He is currently being investigated (from a Nov. 26, 2018 article by Andrew Joseph in STAT),

Rice University said Monday that it had opened a “full investigation” into the involvement of one of its faculty members in a study that purportedly resulted in the creation of the world’s first babies born with edited DNA.

Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor at Rice, told the Associated Press in a story published Sunday that he helped work on the research in China.

Deem told the AP that he was in China when participants in the study consented to join the research. Deem also said that he had “a small stake” in and is on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies.

Megan Molteni in a Nov. 27, 2018 article for Wired admits she and her colleagues at the magazine may have dismissed CRISPR concerns about designer babies prematurely while shedding more light on this  latest development (Note: Links have been removed),

We said “don’t freak out,” when scientists first used Crispr to edit DNA in non-viable human embryos. When they tried it in embryos that could theoretically produce babies, we said “don’t panic.” Many years and years of boring bench science remain before anyone could even think about putting it near a woman’s uterus. Well, we might have been wrong. Permission to push the panic button granted.

Late Sunday night, a Chinese researcher stunned the world by claiming to have created the first human babies, a set of twins, with Crispr-edited DNA….

What’s perhaps most strange is not that He ignored global recommendations on conducting responsible Crispr research in humans. He also ignored his own advice to the world—guidelines that were published within hours of his transgression becoming public.

On Monday, He and his colleagues at Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, published a set of draft ethical principles “to frame, guide, and restrict clinical applications that communities around the world can share and localize based on religious beliefs, culture, and public-health challenges.” Those principles included transparency and only performing the procedure when the risks are outweighed by serious medical need.

The piece appeared in the The Crispr Journal, a young publication dedicated to Crispr research, commentary, and debate. Rodolphe Barrangou, the journal’s editor in chief, where the peer-reviewed perspective appeared, says that the article was one of two that it had published recently addressing the ethical concerns of human germline editing, the other by a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. Both papers’ authors had requested that their writing come out ahead of a major gene editing summit taking place this week in Hong Kong. When half-rumors of He’s covert work reached Barrangou over the weekend, his team discussed pulling the paper, but ultimately decided that there was nothing too solid to discredit it, based on the information available at the time.

Now Barrangou and his team are rethinking that decision. For one thing, He did not disclose any conflicts of interest, which is standard practice among respectable journals. It’s since become clear that not only is He at the helm of several genetics companies in China, He was actively pursuing controversial human research long before writing up a scientific and moral code to guide it.“We’re currently assessing whether the omission was a matter of ill-management or ill-intent,” says Barrangou, who added that the journal is now conducting an audit to see if a retraction might be warranted. …

“There are all sorts of questions these issues raise, but the most fundamental is the risk-benefit ratio for the babies who are going to be born,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. “And the risk-benefit ratio on this stinks. Any institutional review board that approved it should be disbanded if not jailed.”

Reporting by Stat indicates that He may have just gotten in over his head and tried to cram a self-guided ethics education into a few short months. The young scientist—records indicate He is just 34—has a background in biophysics, with stints studying in the US at Rice University and in bioengineer Stephen Quake’s lab at Stanford. His resume doesn’t read like someone steeped deeply in the nuances and ethics of human research. Barrangou says that came across in the many rounds of edits He’s framework went through.

… China’s central government in Beijing has yet to come down one way or another. Condemnation would make He a rogue and a scientific outcast. Anything else opens the door for a Crispr IVF cottage industry to emerge in China and potentially elsewhere. “It’s hard to imagine this was the only group in the world doing this,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis who wrote a book on the future of designer babies called GMO Sapiens. “Some might say this broke the ice. Will others forge ahead and go public with their results or stop what they’re doing and see how this plays out?”

Here’s some of the very latest information with the researcher attempting to explain himself.

What does He have to say?

After He’s appearance at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing today, Nov. 27, 2018, David Cyranoski produced this article for Nature,

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claims to have helped produce the first people born with edited genomes — twin girls — appeared today at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong to explain his experiment. He gave his talk amid threats of legal action and mounting questions, from the scientific community and beyond, about the ethics of his work and the way in which he released the results.

He had never before presented his work publicly outside of a handful of videos he posted on YouTube. Scientists welcomed the fact that he appeared at all — but his talk left many hungry for more answers, and still not completely certain that He has achieved what he claims.

“There’s no reason not to believe him,” says Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “I’m just not completely convinced.”

Lovell-Badge, like others at the conference, says that an independent body should confirm the test results by performing an in-depth comparison of the parents’ and childrens’ genes.

Many scientists faulted He for a lack of transparency and the seemingly cavalier nature in which he embarked on such a landmark, and potentially risky, project.

“I’m happy he came but I was really horrified and stunned when he described the process he used,” says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer of the CRISPR/Cas-9 gene-editing technique that He used. “It was so inappropriate on so many levels.”

He seemed shaky approaching the stage and nervous during the talk. “I think he was scared,” says Matthew Porteus, who researches genome-editing at Stanford University in California and co-hosted a question-and-answer session with He after his presentation. Porteus attributes this either to the legal pressures that He faces or the mounting criticism from the scientists and media he was about to address.

He’s talk leaves a host of other questions unanswered, including whether the prospective parents were properly informed of the risks; why He selected CCR5 when there are other, proven ways to prevent HIV; why he chose to do the experiment with couples in which the fathers have HIV, rather than mothers who have a higher chance of passing the virus on to their children; and whether the risks of knocking out CCR5 — a gene normally present in people, which could have necessary but still unknown functions — outweighed the benefits in this case.

In the discussion following He’s talk, one scientist asked why He proceeded with the experiments despite the clear consensus among scientists worldwide that such research shouldn’t be done. He didn’t answer the question.

He’s attempts to justify his actions mainly fell flat. In response to questions about why the science community had not been informed of the experiments before the first women were impregnated, he cited presentations that he gave last year at meetings at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. But Doudna, who organized the Berkeley meeting, says He did not present anything that showed he was ready to experiment in people. She called his defence “disingenuous at best”.

He also said he discussed the human experiment with unnamed scientists in the United States. But Porteus says that’s not enough for such an extraordinary experiment: “You need feedback not from your two closest friends but from the whole community.” …

Pressure was mounting on He ahead of the presentation. On 27 November, the Chinese national health commission ordered the Guangdong health commission, in the province where He’s university is located, to investigate.

On the same day, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued a statement condemning his work, and the Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research jointly issued a statement saying the experiment “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law”.

The hospital cited in China’s clinical-trial registry as the that gave ethical approval for He’s work posted a press release on 27 November saying it did not give any approval. It questioned the signatures on the approval form and said that the hospital’s medical-ethics committee never held a meeting related to He’s research. The hospital, which itself is under investigation by the Shenzhen health authorities following He’s revelations, wrote: “The Company does not condone the means of the Claimed Project, and has reservations as to the accuracy, reliability and truthfulness of its contents and results.”

He has not yet responded to requests for comment on these statements and investigations, nor on why the hospital was listed in the registry and the claim of apparent forged signatures.

Alice Park’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Time magazine includes an embedded video of He’s Nov. 27, 2018 presentation at the summit meeting.

What about the politics?

Mara Hvistendahl’s Nov. 27, 2018 article about this research for Slate.com poses some geopolitical questions (Note: Links have been removed),

The informed consent agreement for He Jiankui’s experiment describes it as an “AIDS vaccine development project” and used highly technical language to describe the procedure that patients would undergo. If the reality for some Chinese patients is that such agreements are glossed over, densely written, or never read, the reality for some researchers working in the country is that the appeal of cutting-edge trials is too great to resist. It is not just Chinese scientists who can be blinded by the lure of quick breakthroughs. Several of the most notable breaches of informed consent on the mainland have involved Western researchers or co-authors. … When people say that the usual rules don’t apply in China, they are really referring to authoritarian science, not some alternative communitarian ethics.

For the many scientists in China who adhere to recognized international standards, the incident comes as a disgrace. He Jiankui now faces an ethics investigation from provincial health authorities, and his institution, Southern University of Science and Technology, was quick to issue a statement noting that He was on unpaid leave. …

It would seem that US [and from elsewhere]* scientists wanting to avoid pesky ethics requirements in the US have found that going to China could be the answer to their problems. I gather it’s not just big business that prefers deregulated environments.

Guillaume Levrier’s  (he’ studying for a PhD at the Universté Sorbonne Paris Cité) November 16, 2018 essay for The Conversation sheds some light on political will and its impact on science (Note: Links have been removed),

… China has entered a “genome editing” race among great scientific nations and its progress didn’t come out of nowhere. China has invested heavily in the natural-sciences sector over the past 20 years. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2001) mentioned the crucial importance of biotechnologies. The current Thirteenth Five-Year Plan is even more explicit. It contains a section dedicated to “developing efficient and advanced biotechnologies” and lists key sectors such as “genome-editing technologies” intended to “put China at the bleeding edge of biotechnology innovation and become the leader in the international competition in this sector”.

Chinese embryo research is regulated by a legal framework, the “technical norms on human-assisted reproductive technologies”, published by the Science and Health Ministries. The guidelines theoretically forbid using sperm or eggs whose genome have been manipulated for procreative purposes. However, it’s hard to know how much value is actually placed on this rule in practice, especially in China’s intricate institutional and political context.

In theory, three major actors have authority on biomedical research in China: the Science and Technology Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. In reality, other agents also play a significant role. Local governments interpret and enforce the ministries’ “recommendations”, and their own interpretations can lead to significant variations in what researchers can and cannot do on the ground. The Chinese National Academy of Medicine is also a powerful institution that has its own network of hospitals, universities and laboratories.

Another prime actor is involved: the health section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has its own biomedical faculties, hospitals and research labs. The PLA makes its own interpretations of the recommendations and has proven its ability to work with the private sector on gene editing projects. …

One other thing from Levrier’s essay,

… And the media timing is just a bit too perfect, …

Do read the essay; there’s a twist at the end.

Final thoughts and some links

If I read this material rightly, there are suspicions there may be more of this work being done in China and elsewhere. In short, we likely don’t have the whole story.

As for the ethical issues, this is a discussion among experts only, so far. The great unwashed (thee and me) are being left at the wayside. Sure, we’ll be invited to public consultations, one day,  after the big decisions have been made.

Anyone who’s read up on the history of science will tell you this kind of breach is very common at the beginning. Richard Holmes’  2008 book, ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ recounts stories of early scientists (European science) who did crazy things. Some died, some shortened their life spans; and, some irreversibly damaged their health.  They also experimented on other people. Informed consent had not yet been dreamed up.

In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the largest human clinical trial in history was held in Canada. The small pox vaccine was highly contested in the US but the Canadian government thought it was a good idea so they offered US scientists the option of coming here to vaccinate Canadian babies. This was in the 1950s and the vaccine seems to have been administered almost universally. That was a lot of Canadian babies. Thankfully, it seems to have worked out but it does seem mind-boggling today.

For all the indignation and shock we’re seeing, this is not the first time nor will it be the last time someone steps over a line in order to conduct scientific research. And, that is the eternal problem.

Meanwhile I think some of the real action regarding CRISPR and germline editing is taking place in the field (pun!) of agriculture:

My Nov. 27, 2018 posting titled: ‘Designer groundcherries by CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)‘ and a more disturbing Nov. 27, 2018 post titled: ‘Agriculture and gene editing … shades of the AquAdvantage salmon‘. That second posting features a company which is trying to sell its gene-editing services to farmers who would like cows that  never grow horns and pigs that never reach puberty.

Then there’s this ,

The Genetic Revolution‘, a documentary that offers relatively up-to-date information about gene editing, which was broadcast on Nov. 11, 2018 as part of The Nature of Things series on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

My July 17, 2018 posting about research suggesting that scientists hadn’t done enough research on possible effects of CRISPR editing titled: ‘The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle’.

My 2017 three-part series on CRISPR and germline editing:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

There you have it.

Added on November 30, 2018: David Cyanowski has written one final article (Nov. 30, 2018 for Nature) about He and the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. He did not make his second scheduled appearance at the summit, returning to China before the summit concluded. He was rebuked in a statement produced by the Summit’s organizing committee at the end of the three-day meeting. The situation with regard to his professional status in China is ambiguous. Cyanowski ends his piece with the information that the third summit will take place in London (likely in the UK) in 2021. I encourage you to read Cyanowski’s Nov. 30, 2018 article in its entirety; it’s not long.

Added on Dec. 3, 2018: The story continues. Ed Yong has written a summary of the issues to date in a Dec. 3, 2018 article for The Atlantic (even if you know the story ift’s eyeopening to see all the parts put together.

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Associate Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University (ASU) and Jason Scott Robert, Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University have written a provocative (and true) Dec. 3, 2018 essay titled, CRISPR babies raise an uncomfortable reality – abiding by scientific standards doesn’t guarantee ethical research, for The Conversation. h/t phys.org

*[and from elsewhere] added January 17, 2019.

Added on January 23, 2019: He has been fired by his university (Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen) as announced on January 21, 2019.  David Cyranoski provides a details accounting in his January 22, 2019 article for Nature.

Spider glue

Caption: An orb spider, glue-maker extraordinaire, at work on a web. Credit: The University of Akron

Scientists are taking inspiration from spiders in their quest to develop better adhesives. (Are they abandoning the gecko? Usually when scientists study adhesiveness, there’s talk of geckos. From a June 5, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Ever wonder why paint peels off the wall during summer’s high humidity? It’s the same reason that bandages separate from skin when we bathe or swim.

Interfacial water, as it’s known, forms a slippery and non-adhesive layer between the glue and the surface to which it is meant to stick, interfering with the formation of adhesive bonds between the two.

Overcoming the effects of interfacial water is one of the challenges facing developers of commercial adhesives.

To find a solution, researchers at The University of Akron (UA) are looking to one of the strongest materials found in nature: spider silk.

The sticky glue that coats the silk threads of spider webs is a hydrogel, meaning it is full of water. One would think, then, that spiders would have difficulty catching prey, especially in humid conditions — but they do not. In fact, their sticky glue, which has been a subject of intensive research for years, is one of the most effective biological glues in all of nature.

A June 4, 2018 University of Akron news release (also on EurekAlert published on June 5, 2018), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

So how is spider glue able to stick in highly humid conditions?

That question was the subject of investigation by UA graduate students Saranshu Singla, Gaurav Amarpuri and Nishad Dhopatkar, who have been working with Dr. Ali Dhinojwala, interim dean of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, and Dr. Todd Blackledge, professor of biology in the Integrated Bioscience program. Both professors are principal investigators in UA’s Biomimicry Research Innovation Center [BRIC], which specializes in emulating biological forms, processes, patterns and systems to solve technical challenges.

The team’s findings, which may provide the clue to developing stronger commercial adhesives, can be read in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Singla and her colleagues set out to examine the secret behind the success of the common orb spider (Larinioides cornutus) glue and uncover how it overcomes the primary obstacle of achieving good adhesion in the humid conditions where water could be present between the glue and the target surface.

To investigate the processes involved, the team took orb spider glue, set it on sapphire substrate, then examined it using a combination of interface-sensitive spectroscopy and infrared spectroscopy.

Spider glue is made of three elements: two specialized glycoproteins, a collection of low molecular mass organic and inorganic compounds (LMMCs), and water. The LMMCs are hygroscopic (water-attracting), which keeps the glue soft and tacky to stick.

Singla and her team discovered that these glycoproteins act as primary binding agents to the surface. Glycoprotein-based glues have been identified in several other biological glues, such as fungi, algae, diatoms, sea stars, sticklebacks and English ivy.

But why doesn’t the water present in the spider glue interfere with the adhesive contact the way it does with most synthetic adhesives?

The LMMCs, the team concluded, perform a previously unknown function of sequestering interfacial water, preventing adhesive failure.

Singla and colleagues determined that it is the interaction of glycoproteins and LMMCs that governs the adhesive quality of the glue produced, with the respective proportions varying across species, thus optimizing adhesive strength to match the relative humidity of spider habitat.

“The hygroscopic compounds – known as water-absorbers – in spider glue play a previously unknown role in moving water away from the boundary, thereby preventing failure of spider glue at high humidity,” explained Singla.

The ability of the spider glue to overcome the problem of interfacial water by effectively absorbing it is the key finding of the research, and the one with perhaps the strongest prospect for commercial development.

“Imagine a paint that is guaranteed for life, come rain or shine,” Singla remarked.

All thanks to your friendly neighborhood spider glue.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Hygroscopic compounds in spider aggregate glue remove interfacial water to maintain adhesion in humid conditions by Saranshu Singla, Gaurav Amarpuri, Nishad Dhopatkar, Todd A. Blackledge, & Ali Dhinojwala. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1890 (2018) Published 22 May 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04263-z

This paper is open access.

3-D underwater acoustic carpet cloak

Who can resist a ‘Black Panther’ reference (Wikipedia Black Panther film entry)? Certainly not me. Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences made this June 4, 2018 announcement (also on EurekAlert),

Cloaking is one of the most eye-catching technologies in sci-fi movies. In two 2018 Marvel films, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther conceals his country Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation, from the outside world using the metal vibranium.

However, in the real world, if you want to hide something, you need to deceive not only the eyes, but also the ears, especially in the underwater environment.

Recently, a research team led by Prof. YANG Jun from the Institute of Acoustics (IOA) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences designed and fabricated a 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak (UACC) using transformation acoustics.

The research was published online in Applied Physics Letters on June 1 [2018].

Like a shield, the carpet cloak is a material shell that can reflect waves as if the waves were reflecting off a planar surface. Hence, the cloaked target becomes undetectable to underwater detection instruments like sonar.

Using transformation acoustics, the research team first finished the 2D underwater acoustic carpet cloak with metamaterial last year (Scientific Reports, April 6, 2017). However, this structure works only in two dimensions, and becomes immediately detectable when a third dimension is introduced.

To solve this problem, YANG Jun and his IOA team combined transformation acoustics with a reasonable scaling factor, worked out the parameters, and redesigned the unit cell of the 2D cloak. They designed the 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak and then proposed a fabrication and assembly method to manufacture it. The 3D cloak can hide an object from top to bottom and deal with complex situations, such as acoustic detection in all directions.

The 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak is a pyramid comprising eight triangular pyramids; each triangular pyramid is composed of 92 steel strips using a rectangle lattice, similar to a wafer biscuit. More vividly, if we remove the core from a big solid pyramid, we can hide something safely in the hollow space left.

“To make a 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak, researchers needed to construct the structure with 2D period, survey the influence of the unit cell’s resonance, examine the camouflage effect at the ridge of the sample, and other problems. In addition, the fabrication and assembly of the 3D device required more elaborate design. The extension of the UACC from 2D to 3D represents important progress in applied physics,” said YANG.

In experimental tests, a short Gaussian pulse propagated towards the target covered with the carpet cloak, and the waves backscattered toward their origin. The cloaked object successfully mimicked the reflecting surface and was undetectable by sound detection. Meanwhile, the measured acoustic pressure fields from the vertical view demonstrated the effectiveness of the designed 3D structure in every direction.

“As the next step, we will try to make the 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak smaller and lighter,” said YANG.

Funding for this research came from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No.11304351, 1177021304), the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of CAS (Grant No. 2017029), and the IACAS Young Elite Researcher Project (Grant No. QNYC201719).

Prof. YANG Jun and Dr. JIA Han led the research team from the Institute of Acoustics (IOA) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Prof. YANG Jun engages in research on sound, vibration and signal processing, and especially sound field control and array signal processing. They also work on other devices based on metamaterial in order to manipulate the propagation of sound waves.

A model of the device,

Caption: This is a model and photograph of the 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak composed of over 700 steel strips. Credit: IOA

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Experimental demonstration of three-dimensional broadband underwater acoustic carpet cloak by Yafeng Bi, Han Jia, Zhaoyong Sun, Yuzhen Yang, Han Zhao, and Jun Yang.
Appl. Phys. Lett. 112, 223502 (2018); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5026199 Published Online: June 2018

This paper is open access.

Paint to Programming: exploring the role of algorithms in SciArt; a Dec. 4, 2018 ArtSci Salon event in Toronto, Canada

Here’s the latest from a November 20, 2018 ArtSci Salon announcement received via email,

Paint to Programming: exploring the role of algorithms in SciArt

Description

What is the role of programming in artwork creation? is programming preliminary a Medium to be hidden to an audience more interested in the interface rather than in its algorithmic content ? or is it both medium and content, revealing the inner working, the politics, and the tactical/strategic uses of code and algorithmic complexity in a culture increasingly withdrawn from its crucial implications?

Thanks to a collaboration between Art the Science and ArtSci Salon, this event is meant to initiate a conversation to understand the many uses of algorithms in artistic and scientific research, from ways to solve problems in fluid mechanics by drawing inspiration from the dripping technique of Jackson Pollock, to exploring and making visible the complex dynamics of the blockchain, to using algorithms to process and display data for science communication.

Join ArtSci Salon and Art the Science at Fields for an evening of presentation and discussion with:

Julia Krolik : Exploring algorithms in SciArt
Owen Fernley: Creative coding
Sarah Friend: Software as a medium
Bernardo Palacios Muñiz: Modern painting: A fluid mechanics perspective

Moderator: Roberta Buiani

December 4th | 6pm-8pm

The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
222 College Street | Room 230
Toronto ON | M5T 3J1
Please, RSVP here 

Bios

Julia Krolik is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Art the Science, an organization dedicated to uniting and empowering artists and scientists to collectively advance scientific knowledge. As an exhibiting artist, focusing on science, art and new media, Julia has created works for CBC, the Ontario Science Centre, the Toronto Urban Film Festival and the Scotia Bank Photography Festival. 

Owen Fernley is an engineer and experimentalist. He has experience programming computational engines in Fortran and C and is currently building front-end web tools in javascript to aid in exploration geology.He co-created Decomposing Pianos, an experimental music collective focusing on projects related to art, science, experimental music and new media. 

Sarah Friend is an artist and software engineer working at a large blockchain development studio. When not doing that, she creates games and other interactive experiences. Her practice investigates murky dichotomies – like those between privacy and transparency, centralization and decentralization, and the environment and technology – with playfulness and absurdist humour.

Bernardo Palacios Muñiz is a mechanical engineer and a researcher from Mexico City. His thesis at UNAM “Descifrando a Pollock: Arte y Mecánica de Fluidos” explored the technique inplemented by Jackson POllock through the perspective of fluid mechanics

Like so many of the events from the ArtSci salon, this is very timely. On a somewhat related note, there’s an art/AI emergence mentioned in my August 31, 2018 posting (scroll down about 70% of the way to this subhead ‘Artworks generated by an AI system are to be sold at Christie’s auction house’).

I’ve also mentioned ArtSci Salon’s presentation partner, Art the Science, in an October 23, 2017 posting. Amongst other programmes, they advertise and promote artist  residencies. I notice that their events are held exclusively in Ontario and the descriptions for participants in their 2018 online gallery exhibit feature a preponderance of Ontario-based artists. I’m sure they’d like to get more participation from across the country but that takes extra time and effort and volunteer organizations such as this one don’t have much of either to spare. Their three year life (they were founded in 2015) is quite an accomplishment.

As for a more national art/sci or sciart network, maybe it’s time to organize something, eh?

I found it at the movies: a commentary on/review of “Films from the Future”

Kudos to anyone who recognized the reference to Pauline Kael (she changed film criticism forever) and her book “I Lost it at the Movies.” Of course, her book title was a bit of sexual innuendo, quite risqué for an important film critic in 1965 but appropriate for a period (the 1960s) associated with a sexual revolution. (There’s more about the 1960’s sexual revolution in the US along with mention of a prior sexual revolution in the 1920s in this Wikipedia entry.)

The title for this commentary is based on an anecdote from Dr. Andrew Maynard’s (director of the Arizona State University [ASU] Risk Innovation Lab) popular science and technology book, “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.”

The ‘title-inspiring’ anecdote concerns Maynard’s first viewing of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey, when as a rather “bratty” 16-year-old who preferred to read science fiction, he discovered new ways of seeing and imaging the world. Maynard isn’t explicit about when he became a ‘techno nerd’ or how movies gave him an experience books couldn’t but presumably at 16 he was already gearing up for a career in the sciences. That ‘movie’ revelation received in front of a black and white television on January 1,1982 eventually led him to write, “Films from the Future.” (He has a PhD in physics which he is now applying to the field of risk innovation. For a more detailed description of Dr. Maynard and his work, there’s his ASU profile webpage and, of course, the introduction to his book.)

The book is quite timely. I don’t know how many people have noticed but science and scientific innovation is being covered more frequently in the media than it has been in many years. Science fairs and festivals are being founded on what seems to be a daily basis and you can now find science in art galleries. (Not to mention the movies and television where science topics are covered in comic book adaptations, in comedy, and in standard science fiction style.) Much of this activity is centered on what’s called ’emerging technologies’. These technologies are why people argue for what’s known as ‘blue sky’ or ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ science for without that science there would be no emerging technology.

Films from the Future

Isn’t reading the Table of Contents (ToC) the best way to approach a book? (From Films from the Future; Note: The formatting has been altered),

Table of Contents
Chapter One
In the Beginning 14
Beginnings 14
Welcome to the Future 16
The Power of Convergence 18
Socially Responsible Innovation 21
A Common Point of Focus 25
Spoiler Alert 26
Chapter Two
Jurassic Park: The Rise of Resurrection Biology 27
When Dinosaurs Ruled the World 27
De-Extinction 31
Could We, Should We? 36
The Butterfly Effect 39
Visions of Power 43
Chapter Three
Never Let Me Go: A Cautionary Tale of Human Cloning 46
Sins of Futures Past 46
Cloning 51
Genuinely Human? 56
Too Valuable to Fail? 62
Chapter Four
Minority Report: Predicting Criminal Intent 64
Criminal Intent 64
The “Science” of Predicting Bad Behavior 69
Criminal Brain Scans 74
Machine Learning-Based Precognition 77
Big Brother, Meet Big Data 79
Chapter Five
Limitless: Pharmaceutically-enhanced Intelligence 86
A Pill for Everything 86
The Seduction of Self-Enhancement 89
Nootropics 91
If You Could, Would You? 97
Privileged Technology 101
Our Obsession with Intelligence 105
Chapter Six
Elysium: Social Inequity in an Age of Technological
Extremes 110
The Poor Shall Inherit the Earth 110
Bioprinting Our Future Bodies 115
The Disposable Workforce 119
Living in an Automated Future 124
Chapter Seven
Ghost in the Shell: Being Human in an
Augmented Future 129
Through a Glass Darkly 129
Body Hacking 135
More than “Human”? 137
Plugged In, Hacked Out 142
Your Corporate Body 147
Chapter Eight
Ex Machina: AI and the Art of Manipulation 154
Plato’s Cave 154
The Lure of Permissionless Innovation 160
Technologies of Hubris 164
Superintelligence 169
Defining Artificial Intelligence 172
Artificial Manipulation 175
Chapter Nine
Transcendence: Welcome to the Singularity 180
Visions of the Future 180
Technological Convergence 184
Enter the Neo-Luddites 190
Techno-Terrorism 194
Exponential Extrapolation 200
Make-Believe in the Age of the Singularity 203
Chapter Ten
The Man in the White Suit: Living in a Material World 208
There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom 208
Mastering the Material World 213
Myopically Benevolent Science 220
Never Underestimate the Status Quo 224
It’s Good to Talk 227
Chapter Eleven
Inferno: Immoral Logic in an Age of
Genetic Manipulation 231
Decoding Make-Believe 231
Weaponizing the Genome 234
Immoral Logic? 238
The Honest Broker 242
Dictating the Future 248
Chapter Twelve
The Day After Tomorrow: Riding the Wave of
Climate Change 251
Our Changing Climate 251
Fragile States 255
A Planetary “Microbiome” 258
The Rise of the Anthropocene 260
Building Resiliency 262
Geoengineering the Future 266
Chapter Thirteen
Contact: Living by More than Science Alone 272
An Awful Waste of Space 272
More than Science Alone 277
Occam’s Razor 280
What If We’re Not Alone? 283
Chapter Fourteen
Looking to the Future 288
Acknowledgments 293

The ToC gives the reader a pretty clue as to where the author is going with their book and Maynard explains how he chose his movies in his introductory chapter (from Films from the Future),

“There are some quite wonderful science fiction movies that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overarching narrative (Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049, for instance, and the first of the Matrix trilogy). There are also movies that bombed with the critics, but were included because they ably fill a gap in the bigger story around emerging and converging technologies. Ultimately, the movies that made the cut were chosen because, together, they create an overarching narrative around emerging trends in biotechnologies, cybertechnologies, and materials-based technologies, and they illuminate a broader landscape around our evolving relationship with science and technology. And, to be honest, they are all movies that I get a kick out of watching.” (p. 17)

Jurassic Park (Chapter Two)

Dinosaurs do not interest me—they never have. Despite my profound indifference I did see the movie, Jurassic Park, when it was first released (someone talked me into going). And, I am still profoundly indifferent. Thankfully, Dr. Maynard finds meaning and a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

Jurassic Park is unabashedly a movie about dinosaurs. But it’s also a movie about greed, ambition, genetic engineering, and human folly—all rich pickings for thinking about the future, and what could possibly go wrong. (p. 28)

What really stands out with Jurassic Park, over twenty-five years later, is how it reveals a very human side of science and technology. This comes out in questions around when we should tinker with technology and when we should leave well enough alone. But there is also a narrative here that appears time and time again with the movies in this book, and that is how we get our heads around the sometimes oversized roles mega-entrepreneurs play in dictating how new tech is used, and possibly abused. These are all issues that are just as relevant now as they were in 1993, and are front and center of ensuring that the technologyenabled future we’re building is one where we want to live, and not one where we’re constantly fighting for our lives.  (pp. 30-1)

He also describes a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

De-Extinction

In a far corner of Siberia, two Russians—Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita—are attempting to recreate the Ice Age. More precisely, their vision is to reconstruct the landscape and ecosystem of northern Siberia in the Pleistocene, a period in Earth’s history that stretches from around two and a half million years ago to eleven thousand years ago. This was a time when the environment was much colder than now, with huge glaciers and ice sheets flowing over much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It was also a time when humans
coexisted with animals that are long extinct, including saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and woolly mammoths.

The Zimovs’ ambitions are an extreme example of “Pleistocene rewilding,” a movement to reintroduce relatively recently extinct large animals, or their close modern-day equivalents, to regions where they were once common. In the case of the Zimovs, the
father-and-son team believe that, by reconstructing the Pleistocene ecosystem in the Siberian steppes and elsewhere, they can slow down the impacts of climate change on these regions. These areas are dominated by permafrost, ground that never thaws through
the year. Permafrost ecosystems have developed and survived over millennia, but a warming global climate (a theme we’ll come back to in chapter twelve and the movie The Day After Tomorrow) threatens to catastrophically disrupt them, and as this happens, the impacts
on biodiversity could be devastating. But what gets climate scientists even more worried is potentially massive releases of trapped methane as the permafrost disappears.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—some eighty times more effective at exacerbating global warming than carbon dioxide— and large-scale releases from warming permafrost could trigger catastrophic changes in climate. As a result, finding ways to keep it in the ground is important. And here the Zimovs came up with a rather unusual idea: maintaining the stability of the environment by reintroducing long-extinct species that could help prevent its destruction, even in a warmer world. It’s a wild idea, but one that has some merit.8 As a proof of concept, though, the Zimovs needed somewhere to start. And so they set out to create a park for deextinct Siberian animals: Pleistocene Park.9

Pleistocene Park is by no stretch of the imagination a modern-day Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs in Hammond’s park date back to the Mesozoic period, from around 250 million years ago to sixty-five million years ago. By comparison, the Pleistocene is relatively modern history, ending a mere eleven and a half thousand years ago. And the vision behind Pleistocene Park is not thrills, spills, and profit, but the serious use of science and technology to stabilize an increasingly unstable environment. Yet there is one thread that ties them together, and that’s using genetic engineering to reintroduce extinct species. In this case, the species in question is warm-blooded and furry: the woolly mammoth.

The idea of de-extinction, or bringing back species from extinction (it’s even called “resurrection biology” in some circles), has been around for a while. It’s a controversial idea, and it raises a lot of tough ethical questions. But proponents of de-extinction argue
that we’re losing species and ecosystems at such a rate that we can’t afford not to explore technological interventions to help stem the flow.

Early approaches to bringing species back from the dead have involved selective breeding. The idea was simple—if you have modern ancestors of a recently extinct species, selectively breeding specimens that have a higher genetic similarity to their forebears can potentially help reconstruct their genome in living animals. This approach is being used in attempts to bring back the aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle.10 But it’s slow, and it depends on
the fragmented genome of the extinct species still surviving in its modern-day equivalents.

An alternative to selective breeding is cloning. This involves finding a viable cell, or cell nucleus, in an extinct but well-preserved animal and growing a new living clone from it. It’s definitely a more appealing route for impatient resurrection biologists, but it does mean getting your hands on intact cells from long-dead animals and devising ways to “resurrect” these, which is no mean feat. Cloning has potential when it comes to recently extinct species whose cells have been well preserved—for instance, where the whole animal has become frozen in ice. But it’s still a slow and extremely limited option.

Which is where advances in genetic engineering come in.

The technological premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists can reconstruct the genome of long-dead animals from preserved DNA fragments. It’s a compelling idea, if you think of DNA as a massively long and complex instruction set that tells a group of biological molecules how to build an animal. In principle, if we could reconstruct the genome of an extinct species, we would have the basic instruction set—the biological software—to reconstruct
individual members of it.

The bad news is that DNA-reconstruction-based de-extinction is far more complex than this. First you need intact fragments of DNA, which is not easy, as DNA degrades easily (and is pretty much impossible to obtain, as far as we know, for dinosaurs). Then you
need to be able to stitch all of your fragments together, which is akin to completing a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture looks like. This is a Herculean task, although with breakthroughs in data manipulation and machine learning,
scientists are getting better at it. But even when you have your reconstructed genome, you need the biological “wetware”—all the stuff that’s needed to create, incubate, and nurture a new living thing, like eggs, nutrients, a safe space to grow and mature, and so on. Within all this complexity, it turns out that getting your DNA sequence right is just the beginning of translating that genetic code into a living, breathing entity. But in some cases, it might be possible.

In 2013, Sergey Zimov was introduced to the geneticist George Church at a conference on de-extinction. Church is an accomplished scientist in the field of DNA analysis and reconstruction, and a thought leader in the field of synthetic biology (which we’ll come
back to in chapter nine). It was a match made in resurrection biology heaven. Zimov wanted to populate his Pleistocene Park with mammoths, and Church thought he could see a way of
achieving this.

What resulted was an ambitious project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth. Church and others who are working on this have faced plenty of hurdles. But the technology has been advancing so fast that, as of 2017, scientists were predicting they would be able to reproduce the woolly mammoth within the next two years.

One of those hurdles was the lack of solid DNA sequences to work from. Frustratingly, although there are many instances of well preserved woolly mammoths, their DNA rarely survives being frozen for tens of thousands of years. To overcome this, Church and others
have taken a different tack: Take a modern, living relative of the mammoth, and engineer into it traits that would allow it to live on the Siberian tundra, just like its woolly ancestors.

Church’s team’s starting point has been the Asian elephant. This is their source of base DNA for their “woolly mammoth 2.0”—their starting source code, if you like. So far, they’ve identified fifty plus gene sequences they think they can play with to give their modern-day woolly mammoth the traits it would need to thrive in Pleistocene Park, including a coat of hair, smaller ears, and a constitution adapted to cold.

The next hurdle they face is how to translate the code embedded in their new woolly mammoth genome into a living, breathing animal. The most obvious route would be to impregnate a female Asian elephant with a fertilized egg containing the new code. But Asian elephants are endangered, and no one’s likely to allow such cutting edge experimentation on the precious few that are still around, so scientists are working on an artificial womb for their reinvented woolly mammoth. They’re making progress with mice and hope to crack the motherless mammoth challenge relatively soon.

It’s perhaps a stretch to call this creative approach to recreating a species (or “reanimation” as Church refers to it) “de-extinction,” as what is being formed is a new species. … (pp. 31-4)

This selection illustrates what Maynard does so very well throughout the book where he uses each film as a launching pad for a clear, readable description of relevant bits of science so you understand why the premise was likely, unlikely, or pure fantasy while linking it to contemporary practices, efforts, and issues. In the context of Jurassic Park, Maynard goes on to raise some fascinating questions such as: Should we revive animals rendered extinct (due to obsolescence or inability to adapt to new conditions) when we could develop new animals?

General thoughts

‘Films for the Future’ offers readable (to non-scientific types) science, lively writing, and the occasional ‘memorish’ anecdote. As well, Dr. Maynard raises the curtain on aspects of the scientific enterprise that most of us do not get to see.  For example, the meeting  between Sergey Zimov and George Church and how it led to new ‘de-extinction’ work’. He also describes the problems that the scientists encountered and are encountering. This is in direct contrast to how scientific work is usually presented in the news media as one glorious breakthrough after the next.

Maynard does discuss the issues of social inequality and power and ownership. For example, who owns your transplant or data? Puzzlingly, he doesn’t touch on the current environment where scientists in the US and elsewhere are encouraged/pressured to start up companies commercializing their work.

Nor is there any mention of how universities are participating in this grand business experiment often called ‘innovation’. (My March 15, 2017 posting describes an outcome for the CRISPR [gene editing system] patent fight taking place between Harvard University’s & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley and my Sept. 11, 2018 posting about an art/science exhibit in Vancouver [Canada] provides an update for round 2 of the Broad Institute vs. UC Berkeley patent fight [scroll down about 65% of the way.) *To read about how my ‘cultural blindness’ shows up here scroll down to the single asterisk at the end.*

There’s a foray through machine-learning and big data as applied to predictive policing in Maynard’s ‘Minority Report’ chapter (my November 23, 2017 posting describes Vancouver’s predictive policing initiative [no psychics involved], the first such in Canada). There’s no mention of surveillance technology, which if I recall properly was part of the future environment, both by the state and by corporations. (Mia Armstrong’s November 15, 2018 article for Slate on Chinese surveillance being exported to Venezuela provides interesting insight.)

The gaps are interesting and various. This of course points to a problem all science writers have when attempting an overview of science. (Carl Zimmer’s latest, ‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity’] a doorstopping 574 pages, also has some gaps despite his focus on heredity,)

Maynard has worked hard to give an comprehensive overview in a remarkably compact 279 pages while developing his theme about science and the human element. In other words, science is not monolithic; it’s created by human beings and subject to all the flaws and benefits that humanity’s efforts are always subject to—scientists are people too.

The readership for ‘Films from the Future’ spans from the mildly interested science reader to someone like me who’s been writing/blogging about these topics (more or less) for about 10 years. I learned a lot reading this book.

Next time, I’m hopeful there’ll be a next time, Maynard might want to describe the parameters he’s set for his book in more detail that is possible in his chapter headings. He could have mentioned that he’s not a cinéaste so his descriptions of the movies are very much focused on the story as conveyed through words. He doesn’t mention colour palates, camera angles, or, even, cultural lenses.

Take for example, his chapter on ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Focused on the Japanese animation film and not the live action Hollywood version he talks about human enhancement and cyborgs. The Japanese have a different take on robots, inanimate objects, and, I assume, cyborgs than is found in Canada or the US or Great Britain, for that matter (according to a colleague of mine, an Englishwoman who lived in Japan for ten or more years). There’s also the chapter on the Ealing comedy, The Man in The White Suit, an English film from the 1950’s. That too has a cultural (as well as, historical) flavour but since Maynard is from England, he may take that cultural flavour for granted. ‘Never let me go’ in Chapter Two was also a UK production, albeit far more recent than the Ealing comedy and it’s interesting to consider how a UK production about cloning might differ from a US or Chinese or … production on the topic. I am hearkening back to Maynard’s anecdote about movies giving him new ways of seeing and imagining the world.

There’s a corrective. A couple of sentences in Maynard’s introductory chapter cautioning that in depth exploration of ‘cultural lenses’ was not possible without expanding the book to an unreadable size followed by a sentence in each of the two chapters that there are cultural differences.

One area where I had a significant problem was with regard to being “programmed” and having  “instinctual” behaviour,

As a species, we are embarrassingly programmed to see “different” as “threatening,” and to take instinctive action against it. It’s a trait that’s exploited in many science fiction novels and movies, including those in this book. If we want to see the rise of increasingly augmented individuals, we need to be prepared for some social strife. (p. 136)

These concepts are much debated in the social sciences and there are arguments for and against ‘instincts regarding strangers and their possible differences’. I gather Dr. Maynard hies to the ‘instinct to defend/attack’ school of thought.

One final quandary, there was no sex and I was expecting it in the Ex Machina chapter, especially now that sexbots are about to take over the world (I exaggerate). Certainly, if you’re talking about “social strife,” then sexbots would seem to be fruitful line of inquiry, especially when there’s talk of how they could benefit families (my August 29, 2018 posting). Again, there could have been a sentence explaining why Maynard focused almost exclusively in this chapter on the discussions about artificial intelligence and superintelligence.

Taken in the context of the book, these are trifling issues and shouldn’t stop you from reading Films from the Future. What Maynard has accomplished here is impressive and I hope it’s just the beginning.

Final note

Bravo Andrew! (Note: We’ve been ‘internet acquaintances/friends since the first year I started blogging. When I’m referring to him in his professional capacity, he’s Dr. Maynard and when it’s not strictly in his professional capacity, it’s Andrew. For this commentary/review I wanted to emphasize his professional status.)

If you need to see a few more samples of Andrew’s writing, there’s a Nov. 15, 2018 essay on The Conversation, Sci-fi movies are the secret weapon that could help Silicon Valley grow up and a Nov. 21, 2018 article on slate.com, The True Cost of Stain-Resistant Pants; The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology. Enjoy.

****Added at 1700 hours on Nov. 22, 2018: You can purchase Films from the Future here.

*Nov. 23, 2018: I should have been more specific and said ‘academic scientists’. In Canada, the great percentage of scientists are academic. It’s to the point where the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has noted that amongst industrialized countries, Canada has very few industrial scientists in comparison to the others.

Harlem Globetrotters and the Magnus effect

Just about everybody is interested in science these days and the Harlem Globetrotters (basketball team) are no exception,,

Here’s more about science and Harlem Globetrotters from an October 17, 2018 news release (received via email),

(Dallas, TX – Oct. 17, 2018) To prepare for their new world tour, the Harlem Globetrotters demonstrated acts of science at the “highest” level when Zeus McClurkin made two trick shots from the roof of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in downtown Dallas.  Showing off the Magnus Effect, Zeus spun a basketball on his finger and shot a “curve ball” from nearly 200 feet up – hitting nothing but net in a hoop below.

The video was released today and is available via the hyperlinks below.  The footage and accompanying music are approved for media (courtesy Harlem Globetrotters).

Via YouTube

Via Facebook

As a two-time Guinness World Record holder, Zeus was joined by Cindy Hua, one of the “Brainiac” science educators from the Perot Museum.  Cindy took Zeus through the concept of the “Magus Effect” and how a spin of the ball will affect his shot.

The Globetrotters will bring their new Fan Powered World Tour to Dallas and Frisco over Thanksgiving Weekend.  The world famous team will play the Dr Pepper Arena on Friday, Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.  Plus, two more games at American Airlines Center on Saturday, Nov. 24 a 1 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m.  The full schedule of the Globetrotters’ games in Texas and around the world are available at HarlemGlobetrotters.com.

The top cultural attraction in Dallas/Fort Worth and a Michelin Green Guide three-star destination, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science is a nonprofit educational organization located in Victory Park in the heart of Dallas, Texas. With a mission to inspire minds through nature and science, the 180,000-square-foot Perot Museum delivers exciting, engaging and innovative experiences through its education, exhibit, global research and collections programming for children, students, teachers, families and life-long learners. To learn more, please visit perotmuseum.org.

For anyone who’s curious about the Magnus effect and its impact on ‘ball sports’, there’s this from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The most readily observable case of the Magnus effect is when a spinning sphere (or cylinder) curves away from the arc it would follow if it were not spinning. It is often used by soccer players, baseball pitchers and cricket bowlers. Consequently, the phenomenon is important in the study of the physics of many ball sports. It is also an important factor in the study of the effects of spinning on guided missiles—and has some engineering uses, for instance in the design of rotor ships and Flettner aeroplanes.

Frankly, I’m thrilled it never occurred to me that I’d ever have a chance to include the Harlem Globetrotters in any of my postings. Thank you to whomever dreamed up this piece of publicity.

Canadian fans will have a number of opportunities to see the Harlem Globetrotters in action on their world tour. Check it out here.

Finally,, I have not received any rewards (money or tickets or merchandise); quite simply, I love the Globetrotters for their expression of joyous athleticism.