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Could CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) be weaponized?

On the occasion of an American team’s recent publication of research where they edited the germline (embryos), I produced a three-part series about CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), sometimes referred to as CRISPR/Cas9, (links offered at end of this post).

Somewhere in my series, there’s a quote about how CRISPR could be used as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ and it seems this has been a hot topic for the last year or so as James Revill, research fellow at the University of Sussex, references in his August 31, 2017 essay on theconversation.com (h/t phys.org August 31, 2017 news item), Note: Links have been removed,

The gene editing technique CRISPR has been in the limelight after scientists reported they had used it to safely remove disease in human embryos for the first time. This follows a “CRISPR craze” over the last couple of years, with the number of academic publications on the topic growing steadily.

There are good reasons for the widespread attention to CRISPR. The technique allows scientists to “cut and paste” DNA more easily than in the past. It is being applied to a number of different peaceful areas, ranging from cancer therapies to the control of disease carrying insects.

Some of these applications – such as the engineering of mosquitoes to resist the parasite that causes malaria – effectively involve tinkering with ecosystems. CRISPR has therefore generated a number of ethical and safety concerns. Some also worry that applications being explored by defence organisations that involve “responsible innovation in gene editing” may send worrying signals to other states.

Concerns are also mounting that gene editing could be used in the development of biological weapons. In 2016, Bill Gates remarked that “the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus”. More recently, in July 2017, John Sotos, of Intel Health & Life Sciences, stated that gene editing research could “open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential”.

An annual worldwide threat assessment report of the US intelligence community in February 2016 argued that the broad availability and low cost of the basic ingredients of technologies like CRISPR makes it particularly concerning.

A Feb. 11, 2016 news item on sciencemagazine.org offers a précis of some of the reactions while a February 9, 2016 article by Antonio Regalado for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Technology Review delves into the matter more deeply,

Genome editing is a weapon of mass destruction.

That’s according to James Clapper, [former] U.S. director of national intelligence, who on Tuesday, in the annual worldwide threat assessment report of the U.S. intelligence community, added gene editing to a list of threats posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.”

Gene editing refers to several novel ways to alter the DNA inside living cells. The most popular method, CRISPR, has been revolutionizing scientific research, leading to novel animals and crops, and is likely to power a new generation of gene treatments for serious diseases (see “Everything You Need to Know About CRISPR’s Monster Year”).

It is gene editing’s relative ease of use that worries the U.S. intelligence community, according to the assessment. “Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications,” the report said.

The choice by the U.S. spy chief to call out gene editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction, or WMD, surprised some experts. It was the only biotechnology appearing in a tally of six more conventional threats, like North Korea’s suspected nuclear detonation on January 6 [2016], Syria’s undeclared chemical weapons, and new Russian cruise missiles that might violate an international treaty.

The report is an unclassified version of the “collective insights” of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and half a dozen other U.S. spy and fact-gathering operations.

Although the report doesn’t mention CRISPR by name, Clapper clearly had the newest and the most versatile of the gene-editing systems in mind. The CRISPR technique’s low cost and relative ease of use—the basic ingredients can be bought online for $60—seems to have spooked intelligence agencies.

….

However, one has to be careful with the hype surrounding new technologies and, at present, the security implications of CRISPR are probably modest. There are easier, cruder methods of creating terror. CRISPR would only get aspiring biological terrorists so far. Other steps, such as growing and disseminating biological weapons agents, would typically be required for it to become an effective weapon. This would require additional skills and places CRISPR-based biological weapons beyond the reach of most terrorist groups. At least for the time being.

A July 5, 2016 opinion piece by Malcolm Dando for Nature argues for greater safeguards,

In Geneva next month [August 2016], officials will discuss updates to the global treaty that outlaws the use of biological weapons. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was the first agreement to ban an entire class of weapons, and it remains a crucial instrument to stop scientific research on viruses, bacteria and toxins from being diverted into military programmes.

The BWC is the best route to ensure that nations take the biological-weapons threat seriously. Most countries have struggled to develop and introduce strong and effective national programmes — witness the difficulty the United States had in agreeing what oversight system should be applied to gain-of-function experiments that created more- dangerous lab-grown versions of common pathogens.

As scientific work advances — the CRISPR gene-editing system has been flagged as the latest example of possible dual-use technology — this treaty needs to be regularly updated. This is especially important because it has no formal verification system. Proposals for declarations, monitoring visits and inspections were vetoed by the United States in 2001, on the grounds that such verification threatened national security and confidential business information.

Even so, issues such as the possible dual-use threat from gene-editing systems will not be easily resolved. But we have to try. Without the involvement of the BWC, codes of conduct and oversight systems set up at national level are unlikely to be effective. The stakes are high, and after years of fumbling, we need strong international action to monitor and assess the threats from the new age of biological techniques.

Revill notes the latest BWC agreement and suggests future directions,

This convention is imperfect and lacks a way to ensure that states are compliant. Moreover, it has not been adequately “tended to” by its member states recently, with the last major meeting unable to agree a further programme of work. Yet it remains the cornerstone of an international regime against the hostile use of biology. All 178 state parties declared in December of 2016 their continued determination “to exclude completely the possibility of the use of (biological) weapons, and their conviction that such use would be repugnant to the conscience of humankind”.

These states therefore need to address the hostile potential of CRISPR. Moreover, they need to do so collectively. Unilateral national measures, such as reasonable biological security procedures, are important. However, preventing the hostile exploitation of CRISPR is not something that can be achieved by any single state acting alone.

As such, when states party to the convention meet later this year, it will be important to agree to a more systematic and regular review of science and technology. Such reviews can help with identifying and managing the security risks of technologies such as CRISPR, as well as allowing an international exchange of information on some of the potential benefits of such technologies.

Most states supported the principle of enhanced reviews of science and technology under the convention at the last major meeting. But they now need to seize the opportunity and agree on the practicalities of such reviews in order to prevent the convention being left behind by developments in science and technology.

Experts (military, intelligence, medical, etc.) are not the only ones concerned about CRISPR according to a February 11, 2016 article by Sharon Begley for statnews.com (Note: A link has been removed),

Most Americans oppose using powerful new technology to alter the genes of unborn babies, according to a new poll — even to prevent serious inherited diseases.

They expressed the strongest disapproval for editing genes to create “designer babies” with enhanced intelligence or looks.

But the poll, conducted by STAT and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that people have mixed, and apparently not firm, views on emerging genetic techniques. US adults are almost evenly split on whether the federal government should fund research on editing genes before birth to keep children from developing diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease.

“They’re not against scientists trying to improve [genome-editing] technologies,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard’s Chan School, perhaps because they recognize that one day there might be a compelling reason to use such technologies. An unexpected event, such as scientists “eliminating a terrible disease” that a child would have otherwise inherited, “could change people’s views in the years ahead,” Blendon said.

But for now, he added, “people are concerned about editing the genes of those who are yet unborn.”

A majority, however, wants government regulators to approve gene therapy to treat diseases in children and adults.

The STAT-Harvard poll comes as scientists and policy makers confront the ethical, social, and legal implications of these revolutionary tools for changing DNA. Thanks to a technique called CRISPR-Cas9, scientists can easily, and with increasing precision, modify genes through the genetic analog of a computer’s “find and replace” function.

I find it surprising that there’s resistance to removing diseases found in the germline (embryos). When they were doing public consultations on nanotechnology, the one area where people tended to be quite open to research was health and medicine. Where food was concerned however, people had far more concerns.

If you’re interested in the STAT-Harvard poll, you can find it here. As for James Revill, he has written a more substantive version of this essay as a paper, which is available here.

On a semi-related note, I found STAT (statnews.com) to be a quite interesting and accessibly written online health science journal. Here’s more from the About Us page (Note: A link has been removed),

What’s STAT all about?
STAT is a national publication focused on finding and telling compelling stories about health, medicine, and scientific discovery. We produce daily news, investigative articles, and narrative projects in addition to multimedia features. We tell our stories from the places that matter to our readers — research labs, hospitals, executive suites, and political campaigns.

Why did you call it STAT?
In medical parlance, “stat” means important and urgent, and that’s what we’re all about — quickly and smartly delivering good stories. Read more about the origins of our name here.

Who’s behind the new publication?
STAT is produced by Boston Globe Media. Our headquarters is located in Boston but we have bureaus in Washington, New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was started by John Henry, the owner of Boston Globe Media and the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox. Rick Berke is executive editor.

So is STAT part of The Boston Globe?
They’re distinct properties but the two share content and complement one another.

Is it free?
Much of STAT is free. We also offer STAT Plus, a premium subscription plan that includes exclusive reporting about the pharmaceutical and biotech industries as well as other benefits. Learn more about it here.

Who’s working for STAT?
Some of the best-sourced science, health, and biotech journalists in the country, as well as motion graphics artists and data visualization specialists. Our team includes talented writers, editors, and producers capable of the kind of explanatory journalism that complicated science issues sometimes demand.

Who’s your audience?
You. Even if you don’t work in science, have never stepped foot in a hospital, or hated high school biology, we’ve got something for you. And for the lab scientists, health professionals, business leaders, and policy makers, we think you’ll find coverage here that interests you, too. The world of health, science, and medicine is booming and yielding fascinating stories. We explore how they affect us all.

….

As promised, here are the links to my three-part series on CRISPR,

Part 1 opens the series with a basic description of CRISPR and the germline research that occasioned the series along with some of the other (non-weapon) ethical issues and patent disputes that are arising from this new technology. CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

Part 2 covers three critical responses to the reporting and between them describe the technology in more detail and the possibility of ‘designer babies’.  CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

Part 3 is all about public discussion or, rather, the lack of and need for according to a couple of social scientists. Informally, there is some discussion via pop culture and Joelle Renstrom notes although she is focused on the larger issues touched on by the television series, Orphan Black and as I touch on in my final comments. CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

Finally, I hope to stumble across studies from other countries about how they are responding to the possibilities presented by CRISPR/Cas9 so that I can offer a more global perspective than this largely US perspective. At the very least, it would be interesting to find it if there differences.

Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature (a three year Canadian project nearing its end date)

Working on a grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the  Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature project has been establishing a ‘cosmopolitanism’ research network that critiques the eurocentric approach so beloved of Canadian academics and has set up nodes across Canada and in India and Southeast Asia.

I first wrote about the project in a Dec. 12, 2014 posting which also featured a job listing. It seems I was there for the beginning and now for the end. For one of the project’s blog postings in its final months, they’re profiling one of their researchers (Dr. Letitia Meynell, Sept. 6, 2017 posting),

1. What is your current place of research?

I am an associate professor in philosophy at Dalhousie University, cross appointed with gender and women studies.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

My 1st degree was in Theater, which I did at York University. I did, however, minor in Philosophy and I have always had a particular interest in philosophy of science. So, my minor was perhaps a little anomalous, comprising courses on philosophy of physics, philosophy of nature, and the philosophy of Karl Popper along with courses on aesthetics and existentialism. After taking a few more courses in philosophy at the University of Calgary, I enrolled there for a Master’s degree, writing a thesis on conceptualization, with a view to its role in aesthetics and epistemology. From there I moved to the University of Western Ontario where I brought these three interests together, writing a thesis on the epistemology of pictures in science. Throughout these studies I maintained a keen interest in feminist philosophy, especially the politics of knowledge, and I have always seen my work on pictures in science as fitting into broader feminist commitments.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

5. How do you relate your work to the broader topic of ‘cosmopolitanism and the local’?

As feminist philosophers have long realized, having perspectives on a topic that are quite different to your own is incredibly powerful for critically assessing both your own views and those of others. So, for instance, if you want to address the exploitation of nonhuman animals in our society it is incredibly powerful to consider how people from, say, South Asian traditions have thought about the differences, similarities, and relationships between humans and other animals. Keeping non-western perspectives in mind, even as one works in a western philosophical tradition, helps one to be both more rigorous in one’s analyses and less dogmatic. Rigor and critical openness are, in my opinion, central virtues of philosophy and, indeed, science.

Dr. Maynell will be speaking at the ‘Bridging the Gap: Scientific Imagination Meets Aesthetic Imagination‘ conference Oct. 5-6, 2017 at the London School of Economics,

On 5–6 October, this 2-day conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play.

Why, how, and when do scientists imagine, and what epistemological roles does the imagination play in scientific progress? Over the past few years, many philosophical accounts have emerged that are relevant to these questions. Roman Frigg, Arnon Levy, and Adam Toon have developed theories of scientific models that place imagination at the heart of modelling practice. And James R. Brown, Tamar Gendler, James McAllister, Letitia Meynell, and Nancy Nersessian have developed theories that recognize the indispensable role of the imagination in the performance of thought experiments. On the other hand, philosophers like Michael Weisberg dismiss imagination-based views of scientific modelling as mere “folk ontology”, and John D. Norton seems to claim that thought experiments are arguments whose imaginary components are epistemologically irrelevant.

In this conference we turn to aesthetics for help in addressing issues concerning scientific imagination-use. Aesthetics is said to have begun in 1717 with an essay called “The Pleasures of the Imagination” by Joseph Addison, and ever since imagination has been what Michael Polyani called “the cornerstone of aesthetic theory”. In recent years Kendall Walton has fruitfully explored the fundamental relevance of imagination for understanding literary, visual and auditory fictions. And many others have been inspired to do the same, including Greg Currie, David Davies, Peter Lamarque, Stein Olsen, and Kathleen Stock.

This conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play. Specific topics may include:

  • What kinds of imagination are involved in science?
  • What is the relation between scientific imagination and aesthetic imagination?
  • What are the structure and limits of knowledge and understanding acquired through imagination?
  • From a methodological point of view, how can aesthetic considerations about imagination play a role in philosophical accounts of scientific reasoning?
  • What can considerations about scientific imagination contribute to our understanding of aesthetic imagination?

The conference will include eight invited talks and four contributed papers. Two of the four slots for contributed papers are being reserved for graduate students, each of whom will receive a travel bursary of £100.

Invited speakers

Margherita Arcangeli (Humboldt University, Berlin)

Andrej Bicanski (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London)

Gregory Currie (University of York)

Jim Faeder (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Tim de Mey (Erasmus University of Rotterdam)

Laetitia Meynell (Dalhousie University, Canada)

Adam Toon (University of Exeter)

Margot Strohminger (Humboldt University, Berlin)

This event is organised by LSE’s Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and it is co-sponsored by the British Society of Aesthetics, the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 654034.

I wonder if they’ll be rubbing shoulders with Angelina Jolie? She is slated to be teaching there in Fall 2017 according to a May 23, 2016 news item in the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

The Hollywood actor and director has been appointed a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, teaching a course on the impact of war on women.

From 2017, Jolie will join the former foreign secretary William Hague as a “professor in practice”, the university announced on Monday, as part of a new MSc course on women, peace and security, which LSE says is the first of its kind in the world.

The course, it says, is intended to “[develop] strategies to promote gender equality and enhance women’s economic, social and political participation and security”, with visiting professors playing an active part in giving lectures, participating in workshops and undertaking their own research.

Getting back to ‘Cosmopolitanism’, some of the principals organized a summer 2017 event (from a Sept. 6, 2017 posting titled: Summer Events – 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology),

CosmoLocal partners Lesley Cormack (University of Alberta, Canada), Gordon McOuat (University of King’s College, Halifax, Canada), and Dhruv Raina (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India) organized a symposium “Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature” as part of the 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology.  The conference was held July 23-29, 2017, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The abstract of the CosmoLocal symposium is below, and a pdf version can be found here.

Science, and its associated technologies, is typically viewed as “universal”. At the same time we were also assured that science can trace its genealogy to Europe in a period of rising European intellectual and imperial global force, ‘going outwards’ towards the periphery. As such, it is strikingly parochial. In a kind of sad irony, the ‘subaltern’ was left to retell that tale as one of centre-universalism dominating a traditionalist periphery. Self-described ‘modernity’ and ‘the west’ (two intertwined concepts of recent and mutually self-supporting origin) have erased much of the local engagement and as such represent science as emerging sui generis, moving in one direction. This story is now being challenged within sociology, political theory and history.

… Significantly, scholars who study the history of science in Asia and India have been examining different trajectories for the origin and meaning of science. It is now time for a dialogue between these approaches. Grounding the dialogue is the notion of a “cosmopolitical” science. “Cosmopolitics” is a term borrowed from Kant’s notion of perpetual peace and modern civil society, imagining shared political, moral and economic spaces within which trade, politics and reason get conducted.  …

The abstract is a little ‘high falutin’ but I’m glad to see more efforts being made in  Canada to understand science and its history as a global affair.

Nanobots—at last

Who can resist Etta James? Getting to the point of the post, I’ve been reading about nanobots for years but this is the first time I’ve seen something that resembles what lived in my imagination—at last. From a Sept. 20 , 2017 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

Scientists at The University of Manchester have created the world’s first ‘molecular robot’ that is capable of performing basic tasks including building other molecules.

The tiny robots, which are a millionth of a millimetre in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo, using a tiny robotic arm.

Each individual robot is capable of manipulating a single molecule and is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. To put that size into context, a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt.

The robots operate by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions which can then be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform the basic tasks.

In the future such robots could be used for medical purposes, advanced manufacturing processes and even building molecular factories and assembly lines. …

A Sept. 20, 2017 University of Manchester press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides (perhaps) a little more explanation than is absolutely necessary,

Professor David Leigh, who led the research at University’s School of Chemistry, explains: ‘All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules. [emphasis mine] Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.

‘It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line. Those robots pick up a panel and position it so that it can be riveted in the correct way to build the bodywork of a car. So, just like the robot in the factory, our molecular version can be programmed to position and rivet components in different ways to build different products, just on a much smaller scale at a molecular level.’

The benefit of having machinery that is so small is it massively reduces demand for materials, can accelerate and improve drug discovery, dramatically reduce power requirements and rapidly increase the miniaturisation of other products. Therefore, the potential applications for molecular robots are extremely varied and exciting.

Prof Leigh says: ‘Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible. This is just the start but we anticipate that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories.’

Whilst building and operating such tiny machine is extremely complex, the techniques used by the team are based on simple chemical processes.

Prof Leigh added: ‘The robots are assembled and operated using chemistry. This is the science of how atoms and molecules react with each other and how larger molecules are constructed from smaller ones.

‘It is the same sort of process scientists use to make medicines and plastics from simple chemical building blocks. Then, once the nano-robots have been constructed, they are operated by scientists by adding chemical inputs which tell the robots what to do and when, just like a computer program.’

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

Stereodivergent synthesis with a programmable molecular machine by Salma Kassem, Alan T. L. Lee, David A. Leigh, Vanesa Marcos, Leoni I. Palmer, & Simone Pisano. Nature 549,
374–378 (21 September 2017) doi:10.1038/nature23677 Published online 20 September 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

There’s a rather attractive image accompanying the news release which manages to be both quite informative and wholly unrealistic,

Courtesy: University of Manchester

Nanobots first made their way into popular science with K. Eric Drexler’s book 1986, Engines of Creation, which also provoked a spirited academic debate. See Drexler’s Wikipedia entry for more. One final comment, this would seem to be a promising start to the long-held dream of bottom-up engineering of materials.

“Innovation and its enemies” and “Science in Wonderland”: a commentary on two books and a few thoughts about fish (1 of 2)

There’s more than one way to approach the introduction of emerging technologies and sciences to ‘the public’. Calestous Juma in his 2016 book, ”Innovation and Its Enemies; Why People Resist New Technologies” takes a direct approach, as can be seen from the title while Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain” presents a more fantastical one. The fish in the headline tie together, thematically and tenuously, both books with a real life situation.

Innovation and Its Enemies

Calestous Juma, the author of “Innovation and Its Enemies” has impressive credentials,

  • Professor of the Practice of International Development,
  • Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Better Science and International Affairs,
  • Founding Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi (Kenya),
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and
  • Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Even better, Juma is an excellent storyteller perhaps too much so for a book which presents a series of science and technology adoption case histories. (Given the range of historical time periods, geography, and the innovations themselves, he always has to stop short.)  The breadth is breathtaking and Juma manages with aplomb. For example, the innovations covered include: coffee, electricity, mechanical refrigeration, margarine, recorded sound, farm mechanization, and the printing press. He also covers two recently emerging technologies/innovations: transgenic crops and AquAdvantage salmon (more about the salmon later).

Juma provides an analysis of the various ways in which the public and institutions panic over innovation and goes on to offer solutions. He also injects a subtle note of humour from time to time. Here’s how Juma describes various countries’ response to risks and benefits,

In the United States products are safe until proven risky.

In France products are risky until proven safe.

In the United Kingdom products are risky even when proven safe.

In India products are safe when proven risky.

In Canada products are neither safe nor risky.

In Japan products are either safe or risky.

In Brazil products are both safe and risky.

In sub-Saharan Africa products are risky even if they do not exist. (pp. 4-5)

To Calestous Juma, thank you for mentioning Canada and for so aptly describing the quintessentially Canadian approach to not just products and innovation but to life itself, ‘we just don’t know; it could be this or it could be that or it could be something entirely different; we just don’t know and probably will never know.’.

One of the aspects that I most appreciated in this book was the broadening of the geographical perspective on innovation and emerging technologies to include the Middle East, China, and other regions/countries. As I’ve  noted in past postings, much of the discussion here in Canada is Eurocentric and/or UScentric. For example, the Council of Canadian Academies which conducts assessments of various science questions at the request of Canadian and regional governments routinely fills the ‘international’ slot(s) for their expert panels with academics from Europe (mostly Great Britain) and/or the US (or sometimes from Australia and/or New Zealand).

A good example of Juma’s expanded perspective on emerging technology is offered in Art Carden’s July 7, 2017 book review for Forbes.com (Note: A link has been removed),

In the chapter on coffee, Juma discusses how Middle Eastern and European societies resisted the beverage and, in particular, worked to shut down coffeehouses. Islamic jurists debated whether the kick from coffee is the same as intoxication and therefore something to be prohibited. Appealing to “the principle of original permissibility — al-ibaha, al-asliya — under which products were considered acceptable until expressly outlawed,” the fifteenth-century jurist Muhamad al-Dhabani issued several fatwas in support of keeping coffee legal.

This wasn’t the last word on coffee, which was banned and permitted and banned and permitted and banned and permitted in various places over time. Some rulers were skeptical of coffee because it was brewed and consumed in public coffeehouses — places where people could indulge in vices like gambling and tobacco use or perhaps exchange unorthodox ideas that were a threat to their power. It seems absurd in retrospect, but political control of all things coffee is no laughing matter.

The bans extended to Europe, where coffee threatened beverages like tea, wine, and beer. Predictably, and all in the name of public safety (of course!), European governments with the counsel of experts like brewers, vintners, and the British East India Tea Company regulated coffee importation and consumption. The list of affected interest groups is long, as is the list of meddlesome governments. Charles II of England would issue A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses in 1675. Sweden prohibited coffee imports on five separate occasions between 1756 and 1817. In the late seventeenth century, France required that all coffee be imported through Marseilles so that it could be more easily monopolized and taxed.

Carden who teaches economics at Stanford University (California, US) focuses on issues of individual liberty and the rule of law with regards to innovation. I can appreciate the need to focus tightly when you have a limited word count but Carden could have a spared a few words to do more justice to Juma’s comprehensive and focused work.

At the risk of being accused of the fault I’ve attributed to Carden, I must mention the printing press chapter. While it was good to see a history of the printing press and attendant social upheavals noting its impact and discovery in regions other than Europe; it was shocking to someone educated in Canada to find Marshall McLuhan entirely ignored. Even now, I believe it’s virtually impossible to discuss the printing press as a technology, in Canada anyway, without mentioning our ‘communications god’ Marshall McLuhan and his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Getting back to Juma’s book, his breadth and depth of knowledge, history, and geography is packaged in a relatively succinct 316 pp. As a writer, I admire his ability to distill the salient points and to devote chapters on two emerging technologies. It’s notoriously difficult to write about a currently emerging technology and Juma even managed to include a reference published only months (in early 2016) before “Innovation and its enemires” was published in July 2016.

Irrespective of Marshall McLuhan, I feel there are a few flaws. The book is intended for policy makers and industry (lobbyists, anyone?), he reaffirms (in academia, industry, government) a tendency toward a top-down approach to eliminating resistance. From Juma’s perspective, there needs to be better science education because no one who is properly informed should have any objections to an emerging/new technology. Juma never considers the possibility that resistance to a new technology might be a reasonable response. As well, while there was some mention of corporate resistance to new technologies which might threaten profits and revenue, Juma didn’t spare any comments about how corporate sovereignty and/or intellectual property issues are used to stifle innovation and quite successfully, by the way.

My concerns aside, testimony to the book’s worth is Carden’s review almost a year after publication. As well, Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the federal government of New Zealand, mentions Juma’s book in his January 16, 2017 talk, Science Advice in a Troubled World, for the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

Science in Wonderland

Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain” provides an overview of the fashion for writing and reading scientific and mathematical fairy tales and, inadvertently, provides an overview of a public education programme,

A fairy queen (Victoria) sat on the throne of Victoria’s Britain, and she presided over a fairy tale age. The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented interest in fairies and in their tales, as they were used as an enchanted mirror in which to reflection question, and distort contemporary society.30  …  Fairies could be found disporting themselves thought the century on stage and page, in picture and print, from local haunts to global transports. There were myriad ways in which authors, painters, illustrators, advertisers, pantomime performers, singers, and more, capture this contemporary enthusiasm and engaged with fairyland and folklore; books, exhibitions, and images for children were one of the most significant. (p. 13)

… Anthropologists even made fairies the subject of scientific analysis, as ‘fairyology’ determined whether fairies should be part of natural history or part of supernatural lore; just on aspect of the revival of interest in folklore. Was there a tribe of fairy creatures somewhere out thee waiting to be discovered, across the globe of in the fossil record? Were fairies some kind of folks memory of any extinct race? (p. 14)

Scientific engagements with fairyland was widespread, and not just as an attractive means of packaging new facts for Victorian children.42 … The fairy tales of science had an important role to play in conceiving of new scientific disciplines; in celebrating new discoveries; in criticizing lofty ambitions; in inculcating habits of mind and body; in inspiring wonder; in positing future directions; and in the consideration of what the sciences were, and should be. A close reading of these tales provides a more sophisticated understanding of the content and status of the Victorian sciences; they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants. (p. 18)

Segue: Should you be inclined to believe that society has moved on from fairies; it is possible to become a certified fairyologist (check out the fairyologist.com website).

“Science in Wonderland,” the title being a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, was marketed quite differently than “innovation and its enemies”. There is no description of the author, as is the protocol in academic tomes, so here’s more from her webpage on the University of Cambridge (Homerton College) website,

Role:
Fellow, Graduate Tutor, Director of Studies for History and Philosophy of Science

Getting back to Keene’s book, she makes the point that the fairy tales were based on science and integrated scientific terminology in imaginative ways although some books with more success than other others. Topics ranged from paleontology, botany, and astronomy to microscopy and more.

This book provides a contrast to Juma’s direct focus on policy makers with its overview of the fairy narratives. Keene is primarily interested in children but her book casts a wider net  “… they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants.”

In a sense both authors are describing how technologies are introduced and integrated into society. Keene provides a view that must seem almost halcyon for many contemporary innovation enthusiasts. As her topic area is children’s literature any resistance she notes is primarily literary invoking a debate about whether or not science was killing imagination and whimsy.

It would probably help if you’d taken a course in children’s literature of the 19th century before reading Keene’s book is written . Even if you haven’t taken a course, it’s still quite accessible, although I was left wondering about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and its relationship to mathematics (see Melanie Bayley’s December 16, 2009 story for the New Scientist for a detailed rundown).

As an added bonus, fairy tale illustrations are included throughout the book along with a section of higher quality reproductions.

One of the unexpected delights of Keene’s book was the section on L. Frank Baum and his electricity fairy tale, “The Master Key.” She stretches to include “The Wizard of Oz,” which doesn’t really fit but I can’t see how she could avoid mentioning Baum’s most famous creation. There’s also a surprising (to me) focus on water, which when it’s paired with the interest in microscopy makes sense. Keene isn’t the only one who has to stretch to make things fit into her narrative and so from water I move onto fish bringing me back to one of Juma’s emerging technologies

Part 2: Fish and final comments

Burning coal produces harmful titanium dioxide nanoparticles

It turns out that Canada has the fifth largest reserve of coal in the world, according to the Coal in Canada Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Coal reserves in Canada rank fifth largest in the world (following the former Soviet Union, the United States, the People’s Republic of China and Australia) at approximately 10 billion tons, 10% of the world total.[1] This represents more energy than all of the oil and gas in the country combined. The coal industry generates CDN$5 billion annually.[2] Most of Canada’s coal mining occurs in the West of the country.[3] British Columbia operates 10 coal mines, Alberta 9, Saskatchewan 3 and New Brunswick one. Nova Scotia operates several small-scale mines, Westray having closed following the 1992 disaster there.[4]

So, this news from Virginia holds more than the usual interest for me (I’m in British Columbia). From an Aug. 8, 2017 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert),

Environmental scientists led by the Virginia Tech College of Science have discovered that the burning of coal produces incredibly small particles of a highly unusual form of titanium oxide.

When inhaled, these nanoparticles can enter the lungs and potentially the bloodstream.

The particulates — known as titanium suboxide nanoparticles — are unintentionally produced as coal is burned, creating these tiniest of particles, as small as 100 millionths of a meter [emphasis mine], said the Virginia Tech-led team. When the particles are introduced into the air — unless captured by high-tech particle traps — they can float away from power plant stacks and travel on air currents locally, regionally, and even globally.

As an example of this, these nanoparticles were found on city streets, sidewalks, and in standing water in Shanghai, China.

The findings are published in the latest issue of Nature Communications under team leader Michael F. Hochella Jr., University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences with the College of Science, and Yi Yang, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Other study participants include Duke University, the University of Kentucky, and Laurentian University in Canada.

“The problem with these nanoparticles is that there is no easy or practical way to prevent their formation during coal burning,” Hochella said, adding that in nations with strong environmental regulations, such as the United States, most of the nanoparticles would be caught by particle traps. Not so in Africa [a continent not a nation], China, or India, where regulations are lax or nonexistent, with coal ash and smoke entering the open air.

“Due to advanced technology used at U.S.-based coal burning power plants, mandated by the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, most of these nanoparticles and other tiny particles are removed before the final emission of the plant’s exhaust gases,” Hochella said. “But in countries where the particles from the coal burning are not nearly so efficiently removed, or removed at all, these titanium suboxide nanoparticles and many other particle types are emitted into the atmosphere, in part resulting in hazy skies that plague many countries, especially in China and India.”

Hochella and his team found these previously unknown nanoparticles not only in coal ash from around the world and in the gaseous waste emissions of coal plants, but on city streets, in soils and storm water ponds, and at wastewater treatment plants.

“I could not believe what I have found at the beginning, because they had been reported so extremely rarely in the natural environment,” said Yang, who once worked as a visiting professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences with Hochella. “It took me several months to confirm their occurrence in coal ash samples.”

The newly found titanium suboxide — called Magnéli phases — was once thought rare, found only sparingly on Earth in some meteorites, from a small area of rock formations in western Greenland, and occasionally in moon rocks. The findings by Hochella and his team indicate that these nanoparticles are in fact widespread globally. They are only now being studied for the first time in natural environments using powerful electron microscopes.

Why did the discovery occur now? According to the report, nearly all coal contains traces of the minerals rutile and/or anatase, both “normal,” naturally occurring, and relatively inert titanium oxides, especially in the absence of light. When those minerals are burned in the presence of coal, research found they easily and quickly converted to these unusual titanium suboxide nanoparticles. The nanoparticles then become entrained in the gases that leave the power plant.

When inhaled, the nanoparticles enter deep into the lungs, potentially all the way into the air sacs that move oxygen into our bloodstream during the normal breathing process. While human lung toxicity of these particles is not yet known, a preliminary biotoxicity test by Hochella and Richard Di Giulio, professor of environmental toxicology, and Jessica Brandt, a doctoral candidate, both at Duke University, indicates that the particles do indeed have toxicity potential.

According to the team, further study is clearly needed, especially biotoxicity testing directly relevant to the human lung. Partnering with coal-power plants either in the United States or China would be ideal, said Yang.

More troubling, the study shows that titanium suboxide nanoparticles are biologically active in the dark, making the particles highly suspect. Exact human health effects are yet unknown.

“Future studies will need to very carefully investigate and access the toxicity of titanium suboxide nanoparticles in the human lung, and this could take years, a sobering thought considering its potential danger,” Hochella said.

As the titanium suboxide nanoparticle itself is produced incidentally, Hochella and his team came across the nanoparticle by accident while studying a 2014 coal ash spill in the Dan River, North Carolina. During the study of the downstream movement of toxic metals in the ash in the Dan River, the team discovered and recognized the presence of small amounts of the highly unusual titanium suboxide.

The group later produced the titanium suboxide nanoparticles when burning coal in a lab simulation.

This new potential air pollution health hazard builds on already established findings from the World Health Organization. It estimates that 3.3 million premature deaths occur worldwide per year due to polluted air, Hochella said. In China, 1.6 million premature deaths are estimated annually due to cardiovascular and respiratory injury from air pollution. Most Chinese megacities top 100 severely hazy days each year with particle concentrations two to four times higher than WHO guidelines, Yang said.

Direct health effects on humans is only one factor. Findings of thousands of scientists have determined that the biggest driver of warming of the planet and the resulting climate change is industrial-scale coal burning. The impact of titanium suboxide nanoparticles found in the atmosphere, in addition to greenhouse gases, on animals, water, and plants is not yet known.

They’ve used an unusual unit of measurement, “100 millionths of a meter,” nanoparticles are usually described in nanometers.

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

Discovery and ramifications of incidental Magnéli phase generation and release from industrial coal-burning by Yi Yang, Bo Chen, James Hower, Michael Schindler, Christopher Winkler, Jessica Brandt, Richard Di Giulio, Jianping Ge, Min Liu, Yuhao Fu, Lijun Zhang, Yuru Chen, Shashank Priya, & Michael F. Hochella Jr. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 194 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-00276-2 Published online: 08 August 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

This put me in mind of the famous London smog, which one doesn’t hear about much anymore. For anyone not familiar with that phenomenon, here’s more from the Great Smog of London Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The Great Smog of London, or Great Smog of 1952 sometimes called the Big Smoke,[1] was a severe air-pollution event [emphasis mine] that affected the British capital of London in December 1952. A period of cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants – mostly arising from the use of coal [emphasis mine]– to form a thick layer of smog over the city. It lasted from Friday, 5 December to Tuesday, 9 December 1952 and then dispersed quickly when the weather changed.

It caused major disruption by reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas, far more severe than previous smog events experienced in the past, called “pea-soupers”. Government medical reports in the following weeks, however, estimated that up until 8 December, 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were made ill by the smog’s effects on the human respiratory tract. More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities was considerably greater, about 12,000.[2]

London had suffered since the 1200s from poor air quality,[3] which worsened in the 1600s,[4][5] but the Great Smog is known to be the worst air-pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom,[6] and the most significant in terms of its effect on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health.[2][4] It led to several changes in practices and regulations, including the Clean Air Act 1956. …

Making spider silk stronger by feeding graphene and carbon nanotubes to spiders

Spider silk is already considered a strong and tough material but now scientists have found a way to enhance those properties. From an August 15, 2017 Institute of Physics Publishing press release (also on EurekAlert),

…  researchers in Italy and the UK have found a way to make Spidey’s silk a lot stronger, using various different spider species and carbon nanotubes or graphene.

The research team, led by Professor Nicola Pugno at the University of Trento, Italy, succeeded in having their spiders produce silk with up to three times the strength and ten times the toughness of the regular material.

Their discovery, published today in the journal 2D Materials, could pave the way for a new class of bionicomposites, with a wide variety of uses.

Professor Pugno said: “Humans have used silkworm silks widely for thousands of years, but recently research has focussed on spider silk, as it has extremely promising mechanical properties. It is among the best spun polymer fibres in terms of tensile strength, ultimate strain, and especially toughness, even when compared to synthetic fibres such as Kevlar.

“We already know that there are biominerals present in in the protein matrices and hard tissues of insects, which gives them high strength and hardness in their jaws, mandibles and teeth, for example. So our study looked at whether spider silk’s properties could be ‘enhanced’ by artificially incorporating various different nanomaterials into the silk’s biological protein structures.”

To do this, the team exposed three different spider species to water dispersions containing carbon nanotubes or graphene.

After collecting the spiders’ silk, the team tested its tensile strength and toughness.

Professor Pugno said: “We found that the strongest silk the spiders spun had a fracture strength up to 5.4 gigapascals (GPa), and a toughness modulus up to 1,570 joules per gram (J/g). Normal spider silk, by comparison, has a fracture strength of around 1.5 GPa and a toughness modulus of around 150 J/g.

“This is the highest fibre toughness discovered to date, and a strength comparable to that of the strongest carbon fibres or limpet teeth. These are still early days, but our results are a proof of concept that paves the way to exploiting the naturally efficient spider spinning process to produce reinforced bionic silk fibres, thus further improving one of the most promising strong materials.

“These silks’ high toughness and resistance to ultimate strain could have applications such as parachutes.”

“Furthermore, this process of the natural integration of reinforcements in biological structural materials could also be applied to other animals and plants, leading to a new class of “bionicomposites” for innovative applications.”

Remember this? “You are what you eat.” If you’ve ever had doubts about that saying, these spiders should be laying them to rest.

Sadly, this news release doesn’t explain much about the decision to feed the spiders graphene or carbon nanotubes, which are identical other than in their respective shapes (sheet vs tube)  and whether those shapes did or did not affect the strength of the silk.

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

Spider silk reinforced by graphene or carbon nanotubes by Emiliano Lepore, Federico Bosia, Francesco Bonaccorso, Matteo Bruna, Simone Taioli, Giovanni Garberoglio, Andrea C Ferrari, and Nicola Maria Pugno. 2D Materials, Volume 4, Number 3 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1088/2053-1583/aa7cd3 Published 14 August 2017

© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.

Pugno was most recently mentioned here in a May 29, 2015 posting where he was listed as an author for a paper on synthesizing spider silk. Prior to 2015 I was familiar with Pugno’s name due to his work on adhesiveness in geckos.

Congratulate China on the world’s first quantum communication network

China has some exciting news about the world’s first quantum network; it’s due to open in late August 2017 so you may want to have your congratulations in order for later this month.

An Aug. 4, 2017 news item on phys.org makes the announcement,

As malicious hackers find ever more sophisticated ways to launch attacks, China is about to launch the Jinan Project, the world’s first unhackable computer network, and a major milestone in the development of quantum technology.

Named after the eastern Chinese city where the technology was developed, the network is planned to be fully operational by the end of August 2017. Jinan is the hub of the Beijing-Shanghai quantum network due to its strategic location between the two principal Chinese metropolises.

“We plan to use the network for national defence, finance and other fields, and hope to spread it out as a pilot that if successful can be used across China and the whole world,” commented Zhou Fei, assistant director of the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology, who was speaking to Britain’s Financial Times.

An Aug. 3, 2017 CORDIS (Community Research and Development Research Information Service [for the European Commission]) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the technology,

By launching the network, China will become the first country worldwide to implement quantum technology for a real life, commercial end. It also highlights that China is a key global player in the rush to develop technologies based on quantum principles, with the EU and the United States also vying for world leadership in the field.

The network, known as a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) network, is more secure than widely used electronic communication equivalents. Unlike a conventional telephone or internet cable, which can be tapped without the sender or recipient being aware, a QKD network alerts both users to any tampering with the system as soon as it occurs. This is because tampering immediately alters the information being relayed, with the disturbance being instantly recognisable. Once fully implemented, it will make it almost impossible for other governments to listen in on Chinese communications.

In the Jinan network, some 200 users from China’s military, government, finance and electricity sectors will be able to send messages safe in the knowledge that only they are reading them. It will be the world’s longest land-based quantum communications network, stretching over 2 000 km.

Also speaking to the ‘Financial Times’, quantum physicist Tim Byrnes, based at New York University’s (NYU) Shanghai campus commented: ‘China has achieved staggering things with quantum research… It’s amazing how quickly China has gotten on with quantum research projects that would be too expensive to do elsewhere… quantum communication has been taken up by the commercial sector much more in China compared to other countries, which means it is likely to pull ahead of Europe and US in the field of quantum communication.’

However, Europe is also determined to also be at the forefront of the ‘quantum revolution’ which promises to be one of the major defining technological phenomena of the twenty-first century. The EU has invested EUR 550 million into quantum technologies and has provided policy support to researchers through the 2016 Quantum Manifesto.

Moreover, with China’s latest achievement (and a previous one already notched up from July 2017 when its quantum satellite – the world’s first – sent a message to Earth on a quantum communication channel), it looks like the race to be crowned the world’s foremost quantum power is well and truly underway…

Prior to this latest announcement, Chinese scientists had published work about quantum satellite communications, a development that makes their imminent terrestrial quantum network possible. Gabriel Popkin wrote about the quantum satellite in a June 15, 2017 article Science magazine,

Quantum entanglement—physics at its strangest—has moved out of this world and into space. In a study that shows China’s growing mastery of both the quantum world and space science, a team of physicists reports that it sent eerily intertwined quantum particles from a satellite to ground stations separated by 1200 kilometers, smashing the previous world record. The result is a stepping stone to ultrasecure communication networks and, eventually, a space-based quantum internet.

“It’s a huge, major achievement,” says Thomas Jennewein, a physicist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “They started with this bold idea and managed to do it.”

Entanglement involves putting objects in the peculiar limbo of quantum superposition, in which an object’s quantum properties occupy multiple states at once: like Schrödinger’s cat, dead and alive at the same time. Then those quantum states are shared among multiple objects. Physicists have entangled particles such as electrons and photons, as well as larger objects such as superconducting electric circuits.

Theoretically, even if entangled objects are separated, their precarious quantum states should remain linked until one of them is measured or disturbed. That measurement instantly determines the state of the other object, no matter how far away. The idea is so counterintuitive that Albert Einstein mocked it as “spooky action at a distance.”

Starting in the 1970s, however, physicists began testing the effect over increasing distances. In 2015, the most sophisticated of these tests, which involved measuring entangled electrons 1.3 kilometers apart, showed once again that spooky action is real.

Beyond the fundamental result, such experiments also point to the possibility of hack-proof communications. Long strings of entangled photons, shared between distant locations, can be “quantum keys” that secure communications. Anyone trying to eavesdrop on a quantum-encrypted message would disrupt the shared key, alerting everyone to a compromised channel.

But entangled photons degrade rapidly as they pass through the air or optical fibers. So far, the farthest anyone has sent a quantum key is a few hundred kilometers. “Quantum repeaters” that rebroadcast quantum information could extend a network’s reach, but they aren’t yet mature. Many physicists have dreamed instead of using satellites to send quantum information through the near-vacuum of space. “Once you have satellites distributing your quantum signals throughout the globe, you’ve done it,” says Verónica Fernández Mármol, a physicist at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. …

Popkin goes on to detail the process for making the discovery in easily accessible (for the most part) writing and in a video and a graphic.

Russell Brandom writing for The Verge in a June 15, 2017 article about the Chinese quantum satellite adds detail about previous work and teams in other countries also working on the challenge (Note: Links have been removed),

Quantum networking has already shown promise in terrestrial fiber networks, where specialized routing equipment can perform the same trick over conventional fiber-optic cable. The first such network was a DARPA-funded connection established in 2003 between Harvard, Boston University, and a private lab. In the years since, a number of companies have tried to build more ambitious connections. The Swiss company ID Quantique has mapped out a quantum network that would connect many of North America’s largest data centers; in China, a separate team is working on a 2,000-kilometer quantum link between Beijing and Shanghai, which would rely on fiber to span an even greater distance than the satellite link. Still, the nature of fiber places strict limits on how far a single photon can travel.

According to ID Quantique, a reliable satellite link could connect the existing fiber networks into a single globe-spanning quantum network. “This proves the feasibility of quantum communications from space,” ID Quantique CEO Gregoire Ribordy tells The Verge. “The vision is that you have regional quantum key distribution networks over fiber, which can connect to each other through the satellite link.”

China isn’t the only country working on bringing quantum networks to space. A collaboration between the UK’s University of Strathclyde and the National University of Singapore is hoping to produce the same entanglement in cheap, readymade satellites called Cubesats. A Canadian team is also developing a method of producing entangled photons on the ground before sending them into space.

I wonder if there’s going to be an invitational event for scientists around the world to celebrate the launch.

2017 Research as Art Awards at Swansea University (UK)

It’s surprising I haven’t stumbled across Swansea University’s (UK) Research as Art competitions before now. still, I’m happy to have done so now.

Picture: Research as Art winner 2017. “Bioblocks: building for nature”. How the tidal lagoon could be a habitat for marine creatures.

A July 14, 2017 news item on phys.org announces the results of 2017 Research as Art competition,

Fifteen stunning images, and the fascinating stories behind them—such as how a barn owl’s pellets reveal which animals it has eaten, how data can save lives, and how Barbie breaks free—have today been revealed as the winners of the 2017 Research as Art awards.

The overall winner is Dr Ruth Callaway, a research officer from the College of Science. Her entry, Bioblocks: building for nature, illustrates how children and researchers have been exploring ways in which the tidal lagoon proposed for Swansea Bay could become a new habitat for marine creatures.

A July 14, 2017 Swansea University press release, which originated the news item, describes the competition in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Research as Art is the only competition of its kind, open to researchers from all subjects, and with an emphasis on telling the research story, as well as composing a striking image.

It offers an outlet for researchers’ creativity, and celebrates the diversity, beauty, and impact of research at Swansea University – a top 30 research university.

86 entries were received from researchers across all Colleges of the University.

A distinguished judging panel of senior figures selected a total of fifteen winners. Along with the overall winner, there were judges’ awards in four categories relating to engagement – imagination, inspiration, illumination, and the natural world – and 10 highly-commended entries.

Judging panel:

Prof. Gail Cardew – Professor of Science, Culture and Society at the Royal Institution
Dan Cressey, Reporter, Nature News
Flora Graham – Digital Editor of NewScientist
Barbara Kiser, Books and Arts Editor, Nature

Overall winner Dr Ruth Callaway described the image in her winning entry:

“Over 200 children used cubes of clay to sculpt ecologically attractive habitats for coastal creatures. These bioblocks demonstrate that humanmade structures can support marine life, while children and their families have gained a better understanding of the unique resilience of sea creatures.

It is hoped that the diverse and complex habitat will enable more species to use this new material as a living space: crevices and holes will provide shelter; variable textures and overhangs will allow animals and seaweed to cling to the material.”

Dr Ruth Callaway added:

“Innovative projects such as the Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay are inspiring, but they also throw up lots of questions and complex environmental challenges.

For marine scientists, the project creates unprecedented research opportunities to explore how the construction process could reduce negative impact on the coastal environment.

The EU-funded SEACAMS project and the company Tidal Lagoon Power work in collaboration, and we explore novel ways of enhancing biodiversity. Discussing these ideas with the public both informs the wider community about our work and triggers new research ideas.”

Competition founder and Director Dr Richard Johnston, Associate Professor in materials science and engineering at Swansea University, said:

“Research as Art is an opportunity for researchers to reveal hidden aspects of their research to audiences they wouldn’t normally engage with. This may uncover their personal story, their humanity, their inspiration, and emotion.

It can also be a way of presenting their research process, and what it means to be a researcher; fostering dialogue, and dissolving barriers between universities and the wider world.”

You can find out more about the competition, which seems to date from 2012, on the Research as Art competition page and more about the SEACAMS project here.

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

After giving a basic explanation of the technology and some of the controversies in part 1 and offering more detail about the technology and about the possibility of designer babies in part 2; this part covers public discussion, a call for one and the suggestion that one is taking place in popular culture.

But a discussion does need to happen

In a move that is either an exquisite coincidence or has been carefully orchestrated (I vote for the latter), researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have released a study about attitudes in the US to human genome editing. From an Aug. 11, 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release (also on EurekAllert),

In early August 2017, an international team of scientists announced they had successfully edited the DNA of human embryos. As people process the political, moral and regulatory issues of the technology — which nudges us closer to nonfiction than science fiction — researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Temple University show the time is now to involve the American public in discussions about human genome editing.

In a study published Aug. 11 in the journal Science, the researchers assessed what people in the United States think about the uses of human genome editing and how their attitudes may drive public discussion. They found a public divided on its uses but united in the importance of moving conversations forward.

“There are several pathways we can go down with gene editing,” says UW-Madison’s Dietram Scheufele, lead author of the study and member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that compiled a report focused on human gene editing earlier this year. “Our study takes an exhaustive look at all of those possible pathways forward and asks where the public stands on each one of them.”

Compared to previous studies on public attitudes about the technology, the new study takes a more nuanced approach, examining public opinion about the use of gene editing for disease therapy versus for human enhancement, and about editing that becomes hereditary versus editing that does not.

The research team, which included Scheufele and Dominique Brossard — both professors of life sciences communication — along with Michael Xenos, professor of communication arts, first surveyed study participants about the use of editing to treat disease (therapy) versus for enhancement (creating so-called “designer babies”). While about two-thirds of respondents expressed at least some support for therapeutic editing, only one-third expressed support for using the technology for enhancement.

Diving even deeper, researchers looked into public attitudes about gene editing on specific cell types — somatic or germline — either for therapy or enhancement. Somatic cells are non-reproductive, so edits made in those cells do not affect future generations. Germline cells, however, are heritable, and changes made in these cells would be passed on to children.

Public support of therapeutic editing was high both in cells that would be inherited and those that would not, with 65 percent of respondents supporting therapy in germline cells and 64 percent supporting therapy in somatic cells. When considering enhancement editing, however, support depended more upon whether the changes would affect future generations. Only 26 percent of people surveyed supported enhancement editing in heritable germline cells and 39 percent supported enhancement of somatic cells that would not be passed on to children.

“A majority of people are saying that germline enhancement is where the technology crosses that invisible line and becomes unacceptable,” says Scheufele. “When it comes to therapy, the public is more open, and that may partly be reflective of how severe some of those genetically inherited diseases are. The potential treatments for those diseases are something the public at least is willing to consider.”

Beyond questions of support, researchers also wanted to understand what was driving public opinions. They found that two factors were related to respondents’ attitudes toward gene editing as well as their attitudes toward the public’s role in its emergence: the level of religious guidance in their lives, and factual knowledge about the technology.

Those with a high level of religious guidance in their daily lives had lower support for human genome editing than those with low religious guidance. Additionally, those with high knowledge of the technology were more supportive of it than those with less knowledge.

While respondents with high religious guidance and those with high knowledge differed on their support for the technology, both groups highly supported public engagement in its development and use. These results suggest broad agreement that the public should be involved in questions of political, regulatory and moral aspects of human genome editing.

“The public may be split along lines of religiosity or knowledge with regard to what they think about the technology and scientific community, but they are united in the idea that this is an issue that requires public involvement,” says Scheufele. “Our findings show very nicely that the public is ready for these discussions and that the time to have the discussions is now, before the science is fully ready and while we have time to carefully think through different options regarding how we want to move forward.”

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

U.S. attitudes on human genome editing by Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, Emily L. Howell, Kathleen M. Rose, Dominique Brossard1, and Bruce W. Hardy. Science 11 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 553-554 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3708

This paper is behind a paywall.

A couple of final comments

Briefly, I notice that there’s no mention of the ethics of patenting this technology in the news release about the study.

Moving on, it seems surprising that the first team to engage in germline editing in the US is in Oregon; I would have expected the work to come from Massachusetts, California, or Illinois where a lot of bleeding edge medical research is performed. However, given the dearth of financial support from federal funding institutions, it seems likely that only an outsider would dare to engage i the research. Given the timing, Mitalipov’s work was already well underway before the recent about-face from the US National Academy of Sciences (Note: Kaiser’s Feb. 14, 2017 article does note that for some the recent recommendations do not represent any change).

As for discussion on issues such as editing of the germline, I’ve often noted here that popular culture (including advertising with the science fiction and other dramas laid in various media) often provides an informal forum for discussion. Joelle Renstrom in an Aug. 13, 2017 article for slate.com writes that Orphan Black (a BBC America series featuring clones) opened up a series of questions about science and ethics in the guise of a thriller about clones. She offers a précis of the first four seasons (Note: A link has been removed),

If you stopped watching a few seasons back, here’s a brief synopsis of how the mysteries wrap up. Neolution, an organization that seeks to control human evolution through genetic modification, began Project Leda, the cloning program, for two primary reasons: to see whether they could and to experiment with mutations that might allow people (i.e., themselves) to live longer. Neolution partnered with biotech companies such as Dyad, using its big pharma reach and deep pockets to harvest people’s genetic information and to conduct individual and germline (that is, genetic alterations passed down through generations) experiments, including infertility treatments that result in horrifying birth defects and body modification, such as tail-growing.

She then provides the article’s thesis (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black demonstrates Carl Sagan’s warning of a time when “awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” Neolutionists do whatever they want, pausing only to consider whether they’re missing an opportunity to exploit. Their hubris is straight out of Victor Frankenstein’s playbook. Frankenstein wonders whether he ought to first reanimate something “of simpler organisation” than a human, but starting small means waiting for glory. Orphan Black’s evil scientists embody this belief: if they’re going to play God, then they’ll control not just their own destinies, but the clones’ and, ultimately, all of humanity’s. Any sacrifices along the way are for the greater good—reasoning that culminates in Westmoreland’s eugenics fantasy to genetically sterilize 99 percent of the population he doesn’t enhance.

Orphan Black uses sci-fi tropes to explore real-world plausibility. Neolution shares similarities with transhumanism, the belief that humans should use science and technology to take control of their own evolution. While some transhumanists dabble in body modifications, such as microchip implants or night-vision eye drops, others seek to end suffering by curing human illness and aging. But even these goals can be seen as selfish, as access to disease-eradicating or life-extending technologies would be limited to the wealthy. Westmoreland’s goal to “sell Neolution to the 1 percent” seems frighteningly plausible—transhumanists, who statistically tend to be white, well-educated, and male, and their associated organizations raise and spend massive sums of money to help fulfill their goals. …

On Orphan Black, denial of choice is tantamount to imprisonment. That the clones have to earn autonomy underscores the need for ethics in science, especially when it comes to genetics. The show’s message here is timely given the rise of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences gave germline gene editing the green light, just one year after academy scientists from around the world argued it would be “irresponsible to proceed” without further exploring the implications. Scientists in the United Kingdom and China have already begun human genetic engineering and American scientists recently genetically engineered a human embryo for the first time. The possibility of Project Leda isn’t farfetched. Orphan Black warns us that money, power, and fear of death can corrupt both people and science. Once that happens, loss of humanity—of both the scientists and the subjects—is inevitable.

In Carl Sagan’s dark vision of the future, “people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority.” This describes the plight of the clones at the outset of Orphan Black, but as the series continues, they challenge this paradigm by approaching science and scientists with skepticism, ingenuity, and grit. …

I hope there are discussions such as those Scheufele and Brossard are advocating but it might be worth considering that there is already some discussion underway, as informal as it is.

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

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

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

Having included an explanation of CRISPR-CAS9 technology along with the news about the first US team to edit the germline and bits and pieces about ethics and a patent fight (part 1), this part hones in on the details of the work and worries about ‘designer babies’.

The interest flurry

I found three articles addressing the research and all three concur that despite some of the early reporting, this is not the beginning of a ‘designer baby’ generation.

First up was Nick Thieme in a July 28, 2017 article for Slate,

MIT Technology Review reported Thursday that a team of researchers from Portland, Oregon were the first team of U.S.-based scientists to successfully create a genetically modified human embryo. The researchers, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, changed the DNA of—in MIT Technology Review’s words—“many tens” of genetically-diseased embryos by injecting the host egg with CRISPR, a DNA-based gene editing tool first discovered in bacteria, at the time of fertilization. CRISPR-Cas9, as the full editing system is called, allows scientists to change genes accurately and efficiently. As has happened with research elsewhere, the CRISPR-edited embryos weren’t implanted—they were kept sustained for only a couple of days.

In addition to being the first American team to complete this feat, the researchers also improved upon the work of the three Chinese research teams that beat them to editing embryos with CRISPR: Mitalipov’s team increased the proportion of embryonic cells that received the intended genetic changes, addressing an issue called “mosaicism,” which is when an embryo is comprised of cells with different genetic makeups. Increasing that proportion is essential to CRISPR work in eliminating inherited diseases, to ensure that the CRISPR therapy has the intended result. The Oregon team also reduced the number of genetic errors introduced by CRISPR, reducing the likelihood that a patient would develop cancer elsewhere in the body.

Separate from the scientific advancements, it’s a big deal that this work happened in a country with such intense politicization of embryo research. …

But there are a great number of obstacles between the current research and the future of genetically editing all children to be 12-foot-tall Einsteins.

Ed Yong in an Aug. 2, 2017 article for The Atlantic offered a comprehensive overview of the research and its implications (unusually for Yong, there seems to be mildly condescending note but it’s worth ignoring for the wealth of information in the article; Note: Links have been removed),

… the full details of the experiment, which are released today, show that the study is scientifically important but much less of a social inflection point than has been suggested. “This has been widely reported as the dawn of the era of the designer baby, making it probably the fifth or sixth time people have reported that dawn,” says Alta Charo, an expert on law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s not.”

Given the persistent confusion around CRISPR and its implications, I’ve laid out exactly what the team did, and what it means.

Who did the experiments?

Shoukhrat Mitalipov is a Kazakhstani-born cell biologist with a history of breakthroughs—and controversy—in the stem cell field. He was the scientist to clone monkeys. He was the first to create human embryos by cloning adult cells—a move that could provide patients with an easy supply of personalized stem cells. He also pioneered a technique for creating embryos with genetic material from three biological parents, as a way of preventing a group of debilitating inherited diseases.

Although MIT Tech Review name-checked Mitalipov alone, the paper splits credit for the research between five collaborating teams—four based in the United States, and one in South Korea.

What did they actually do?

The project effectively began with an elevator conversation between Mitalipov and his colleague Sanjiv Kaul. Mitalipov explained that he wanted to use CRISPR to correct a disease-causing gene in human embryos, and was trying to figure out which disease to focus on. Kaul, a cardiologist, told him about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)—an inherited heart disease that’s commonly caused by mutations in a gene called MYBPC3. HCM is surprisingly common, affecting 1 in 500 adults. Many of them lead normal lives, but in some, the walls of their hearts can thicken and suddenly fail. For that reason, HCM is the commonest cause of sudden death in athletes. “There really is no treatment,” says Kaul. “A number of drugs are being evaluated but they are all experimental,” and they merely treat the symptoms. The team wanted to prevent HCM entirely by removing the underlying mutation.

They collected sperm from a man with HCM and used CRISPR to change his mutant gene into its normal healthy version, while simultaneously using the sperm to fertilize eggs that had been donated by female volunteers. In this way, they created embryos that were completely free of the mutation. The procedure was effective, and avoided some of the critical problems that have plagued past attempts to use CRISPR in human embryos.

Wait, other human embryos have been edited before?

There have been three attempts in China. The first two—in 2015 and 2016—used non-viable embryos that could never have resulted in a live birth. The third—announced this March—was the first to use viable embryos that could theoretically have been implanted in a womb. All of these studies showed that CRISPR gene-editing, for all its hype, is still in its infancy.

The editing was imprecise. CRISPR is heralded for its precision, allowing scientists to edit particular genes of choice. But in practice, some of the Chinese researchers found worrying levels of off-target mutations, where CRISPR mistakenly cut other parts of the genome.

The editing was inefficient. The first Chinese team only managed to successfully edit a disease gene in 4 out of 86 embryos, and the second team fared even worse.

The editing was incomplete. Even in the successful cases, each embryo had a mix of modified and unmodified cells. This pattern, known as mosaicism, poses serious safety problems if gene-editing were ever to be used in practice. Doctors could end up implanting women with embryos that they thought were free of a disease-causing mutation, but were only partially free. The resulting person would still have many tissues and organs that carry those mutations, and might go on to develop symptoms.

What did the American team do differently?

The Chinese teams all used CRISPR to edit embryos at early stages of their development. By contrast, the Oregon researchers delivered the CRISPR components at the earliest possible point—minutes before fertilization. That neatly avoids the problem of mosaicism by ensuring that an embryo is edited from the very moment it is created. The team did this with 54 embryos and successfully edited the mutant MYBPC3 gene in 72 percent of them. In the other 28 percent, the editing didn’t work—a high failure rate, but far lower than in previous attempts. Better still, the team found no evidence of off-target mutations.

This is a big deal. Many scientists assumed that they’d have to do something more convoluted to avoid mosaicism. They’d have to collect a patient’s cells, which they’d revert into stem cells, which they’d use to make sperm or eggs, which they’d edit using CRISPR. “That’s a lot of extra steps, with more risks,” says Alta Charo. “If it’s possible to edit the embryo itself, that’s a real advance.” Perhaps for that reason, this is the first study to edit human embryos that was published in a top-tier scientific journal—Nature, which rejected some of the earlier Chinese papers.

Is this kind of research even legal?

Yes. In Western Europe, 15 countries out of 22 ban any attempts to change the human germ line—a term referring to sperm, eggs, and other cells that can transmit genetic information to future generations. No such stance exists in the United States but Congress has banned the Food and Drug Administration from considering research applications that make such modifications. Separately, federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health are banned from funding research that ultimately destroys human embryos. But the Oregon team used non-federal money from their institutions, and donations from several small non-profits. No taxpayer money went into their work. [emphasis mine]

Why would you want to edit embryos at all?

Partly to learn more about ourselves. By using CRISPR to manipulate the genes of embryos, scientists can learn more about the earliest stages of human development, and about problems like infertility and miscarriages. That’s why biologist Kathy Niakan from the Crick Institute in London recently secured a license from a British regulator to use CRISPR on human embryos.

Isn’t this a slippery slope toward making designer babies?

In terms of avoiding genetic diseases, it’s not conceptually different from PGD, which is already widely used. The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.

“There’s the worry that this could be used for enhancement, so society has to draw a line,” says Mitalipov. “But this is pretty complex technology and it wouldn’t be hard to regulate it.”

Does this discovery have any social importance at all?

“It’s not so much about designer babies as it is about geographical location,” says Charo. “It’s happening in the United States, and everything here around embryo research has high sensitivity.” She and others worry that the early report about the study, before the actual details were available for scrutiny, could lead to unnecessary panic. “Panic reactions often lead to panic-driven policy … which is usually bad policy,” wrote Greely [bioethicist Hank Greely].

As I understand it, despite the change in stance, there is no federal funding available for the research performed by Mitalipov and his team.

Finally, University College London (UCL) scientists Joyce Harper and Helen O’Neill wrote about CRISPR, the Oregon team’s work, and the possibilities in an Aug. 3, 2017 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

The genome editing tool used, CRISPR-Cas9, has transformed the field of biology in the short time since its discovery in that it not only promises, but delivers. CRISPR has surpassed all previous efforts to engineer cells and alter genomes at a fraction of the time and cost.

The technology, which works like molecular scissors to cut and paste DNA, is a natural defence system that bacteria use to fend off harmful infections. This system has the ability to recognise invading virus DNA, cut it and integrate this cut sequence into its own genome – allowing the bacterium to render itself immune to future infections of viruses with similar DNA. It is this ability to recognise and cut DNA that has allowed scientists to use it to target and edit specific DNA regions.

When this technology is applied to “germ cells” – the sperm and eggs – or embryos, it changes the germline. That means that any alterations made would be permanent and passed down to future generations. This makes it more ethically complex, but there are strict regulations around human germline genome editing, which is predominantly illegal. The UK received a licence in 2016 to carry out CRISPR on human embryos for research into early development. But edited embryos are not allowed to be inserted into the uterus and develop into a fetus in any country.

Germline genome editing came into the global spotlight when Chinese scientists announced in 2015 that they had used CRISPR to edit non-viable human embryos – cells that could never result in a live birth. They did this to modify the gene responsible for the blood disorder β-thalassaemia. While it was met with some success, it received a lot of criticism because of the premature use of this technology in human embryos. The results showed a high number of potentially dangerous, off-target mutations created in the procedure.

Impressive results

The new study, published in Nature, is different because it deals with viable human embryos and shows that the genome editing can be carried out safely – without creating harmful mutations. The team used CRISPR to correct a mutation in the gene MYBPC3, which accounts for approximately 40% of the myocardial disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a dominant disease, so an affected individual only needs one abnormal copy of the gene to be affected.

The researchers used sperm from a patient carrying one copy of the MYBPC3 mutation to create 54 embryos. They edited them using CRISPR-Cas9 to correct the mutation. Without genome editing, approximately 50% of the embryos would carry the patients’ normal gene and 50% would carry his abnormal gene.

After genome editing, the aim would be for 100% of embryos to be normal. In the first round of the experiments, they found that 66.7% of embryos – 36 out of 54 – were normal after being injected with CRIPSR. Of the remaining 18 embryos, five had remained unchanged, suggesting editing had not worked. In 13 embryos, only a portion of cells had been edited.

The level of efficiency is affected by the type of CRISPR machinery used and, critically, the timing in which it is put into the embryo. The researchers therefore also tried injecting the sperm and the CRISPR-Cas9 complex into the egg at the same time, which resulted in more promising results. This was done for 75 mature donated human eggs using a common IVF technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection. This time, impressively, 72.4% of embryos were normal as a result. The approach also lowered the number of embryos containing a mixture of edited and unedited cells (these embryos are called mosaics).

Finally, the team injected a further 22 embryos which were grown into blastocyst – a later stage of embryo development. These were sequenced and the researchers found that the editing had indeed worked. Importantly, they could show that the level of off-target mutations was low.

A brave new world?

So does this mean we finally have a cure for debilitating, heritable diseases? It’s important to remember that the study did not achieve a 100% success rate. Even the researchers themselves stress that further research is needed in order to fully understand the potential and limitations of the technique.

In our view, it is unlikely that genome editing would be used to treat the majority of inherited conditions anytime soon. We still can’t be sure how a child with a genetically altered genome will develop over a lifetime, so it seems unlikely that couples carrying a genetic disease would embark on gene editing rather than undergoing already available tests – such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis or prenatal diagnosis – where the embryos or fetus are tested for genetic faults.

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As might be expected there is now a call for public discussion about the ethics about this kind of work. See Part 3.

For anyone who started in the middle of this series, here’s Part 1 featuring an introduction to the technology and some of the issues.