Tag Archives: Genetics

Science events and an exhibition concerning wind in the Vancouver (Canada) area for July 2019 and beyond

it’s not quite the bumper crop of science events that took place in May 2019, which may be a good thing if you’re eager to attend everything. First, here are the events and then, the exhibition.

Nerd Nite at the Movies

On July 10, 2019, a new series is being launched at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) Centre. Here’s the description from the Nerd Nite Vancouver SciFact vs SciFi: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies event page,

SciFact vs SciFiction: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies v1. Animal

This summer we’re trying something a little different. Our new summer series of talks – a collaboration between Nerd Nite and VIFF – examines the pseudo-science propagated by Hollywood, and seeks to sift real insights from fake facts, in a fun, playful but peer-approved format. Each show will feature clips from a variety of movies on a science theme with a featured scientist on hand all done Nerd Nite style with drinks! We begin with biology, and our first presenter is Dr Carin Bondar.

Dr Bondar has been the host of Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science, and she’s the author of several books including “Wild Moms: The Science Behind Mating in the Animal Kingdom”. Tonight she’ll join Kaylee [Byers] and Michael [Unger] from Nerd Nite to discuss the sci-facts in a variety of clips from cinema. We’ll be discussing the science in Planet of the ApesThe BirdsArachnophobiaSnakes on a Plane, and more!

When: July 10 [2019]
Where: Vancouver International Film Centre
When: 7:30 – 8:30 – This talk will be followed by a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (9pm). Double bill price: $20
Tickets: Here!

The VIFF Centre’s SciFact vs SciFi: Animals According to Hollywood event page has much the same information plus this,

SciFact vs SciFi: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies continues:

July 31 [2019] – Dr. Douglas Scott: The Universe According to Hollywood
Aug 14 [2019] – Mika McKinnon: Disaster According to Hollywood
Aug 28 [2019] – Greg Bole: Evolution According to Hollywood

This series put me in mind what was then the New York-based, ‘Science Goes to the Movies’. I first mentioned this series in a March 10, 2016 posting and it seems that since then, the series has lost a host and been embraced by public television (in the US). You can find the latest incarnation of Science Goes To The Movies here.

Getting back to Vancouver, no word as to which movies will accompany these future talks. If I had a vote, I’d love to see Gattaca accompany any talk on genetics.

That last sentence is both true and provides a neat segue to the next event.

Genetics at the Vancouver Public Library (VPL)

Coming up on July 23, 2019, a couple of graduate students at the University of British Columbia will be sharing some of the latest information on genetics. From the VPL events page,

Curiosities of the Natural World: Genetics – the Future of Medicine

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 (7:00 pm – 8:30 pm)
Central Library
Description

Since their discovery over a century ago, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s have seemed like diseases without a cure. The advent of genetic treatments and biomarkers are changing the outcomes and treatments of these once impossible-to-treat conditions.

UBC researchers, Adam Ramzy and Maria-Elizabeth Baeva discuss the potential of genetic therapies for diabetes, and new biomarkers and therapeutics for Alzheimer ’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

This program is part of the Curiosities of the Natural World series in partnership with UBC Let’s Talk Science, the UBC Faculty of Science, and the UBC Public Scholars Initiative

Suitable for: Adults
Seniors

Additional Details:
Alma VanDusen and Peter Kaye Rooms, Lower Level

It’s hard to know how to respond to this as I loathe anything that has ‘future of medicine’ in it. Isn’t there always going to ‘a’ future with medicine in it?

Also, there is at least one cautionary tale about this new era of ‘genetic medicine’: Glybera is a gene therapy that worked for people with a rare genetic disease. It is a cure, the only one, and it is no longer available.

Kelly Crowe in a November 17, 2018 article for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news writes about Glybera,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia spent decades developing the treatment for people born with a genetic mutation that causes lipoprotein lipase disorder (LPLD).

LPLD affects communities in the Saguenay region of northeastern Quebec at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.

Glybera was never sold in North America and was available in Europe for just two years, beginning in 2015. During that time, only one patient received the drug. Then it was abandoned by the company that held its European licensing rights.

The problem was the price.

The world’s first gene therapy, a remarkable discovery by a dedicated team of scientists who came together in a Vancouver lab, had earned a second, more dubious distinction:

The world’s most expensive drug.

It cost $1M for a single treatment and that single treatment is good for at least 10 years.

Pharmaceutical companies make their money from repeated use of their medicaments and Glybera required only one treatment so the company priced it according to how much they would have gotten for repeated use, $100,000 per year over a 10 year period. The company was not able to persuade governments and/or individuals to pay the cost.

In the end, 31 people got the treatment, most of them received it for free through clinical trials.

Crowe has written an exceptionally good story (November 17, 2018 article) about Glybera and I encourage you to read in its entirety. I warn you it’s heartbreaking.

I wrote about money and genetics in an April 26, 2019 posting (Gene editing and personalized medicine: Canada). Scroll down to the subsection titled ‘Cost/benefit analysis’ for a mention of Goldman Sachs, an American global investment banking, securities and investment management firm, and its conclusion that personalized medicine is not a viable business model. I wonder if part of their analysis included the Glybera experience.

Getting back to the July 23, 2019 talk at the VPL’s central branch, I have no doubt the researchers will be discussing some exciting work but the future might not be as rosy as one might hope.

I wasn’t able to find much information about either Adan Ramzy or Maria-Elizabeth Baeva. There’s this for Ramzy (scroll down to Class of 2021) and this for Baeva (scroll down to Scholarships).

WINDS from June 22 to September 29, 2019

This show or exhibition is taking place in New Westminster (part of the Metro Vancouver area) at the Anvil Centre’s New Media Gallery. From the Anvil Centre’s WINDS event page,

WINDS
New Media Gallery Exhibition
June 22  – September 29
Opening Reception + Artist Talk  is on June 21st at 6:30pm
 
Chris Welsby (UK)
Spencer Finch (UK)
David Bowen (USA)
Nathalie Miebach (Germany/USA)
 
Our summer exhibition features four exciting, multi-media installations by four international artists from UK and USA.  Each artist connects with the representation, recreation and manifestation of wind through physical space and time.  Each suggests how our perception and understanding of wind can be created through pressure, sound, data, pattern, music and motion and then further appreciated in poetic or metaphoric ways that might connect us with how the wind influences language, imagination or our understanding of historic events.
 
All the artists use sound as a key element ; to emphasize or recreate the sonic experience of different winds and their effects, to trigger memory or emotion, or to heighten certain effects that might prompt the viewer to consider significant philosophical questions. Common objects are used in all the works; discarded objects, household or readymade objects and everyday materials; organic, synthetic, natural and manmade. The viewer will find connections with past winds and events both recent and distant.  There is an attempt to capture or allude to a moment in time which brings with it suggestions of mortality,  thereby transforming the works into poignant memento-mori.

Dates
June 22 – September 29, 2019

Price
Complimentary

Location
777 Columbia Street. New Media Gallery.

The New Media Gallery’s home page features ‘winds’ (yes, it’s all in lower case),

Landscape and weather have long shared an intimate connection with the arts.  Each of the works here is a landscape: captured, interpreted and presented through a range of technologies. The four artists in this exhibition have taken, as their material process, the movement of wind through physical space & time. They explore how our perception and understanding of landscape can be interpreted through technology. 

These works have been created by what might be understood as a sort of scientific method or process that involves collecting data, acute observation, controlled experiments and the incorporation of measurements and technologies that control or collect motion, pressure, sound, pattern and the like. The artists then take us in other directions; allowing technology or situations to render visible that which is invisible, creating and focussing on peculiar or resonant qualities of sound, light or movement in ways that seem to influence emotion or memory, dwelling on iconic places and events, or revealing in subtle ways, the subjective nature of time.  Each of these works suggest questions related to the nature of illusive experience and how or if it can be captured, bringing inevitable connections to authorship, loss, memory and memento mori

David Bowen
tele-present wind
Image
Biography
Credits

Spencer Finch (USA)
2 hours, 2 minutes, 2 seconds (Wind at Walden Pond, March 12, 2007)
Image
Biography
Credits

Nathalie Miebach (USA)
Hurricane Noel III
Image
Biography
Credits

Chris Welsby (UK)
Wind Vane
Image
Biography
Credits

Hours
10:00am – 5:00pm Tuesday – Sunday
10:00am – 8:00pm Thursdays
Closed Monday

Address
New Media Gallery
3rd Floor Anvil Centre
777 Columbia Street
New Westminster, BC V3M 1B6

If you want to see the images and biographies for the artists participating in ‘winds’, please go here..

So there you have it, science events and an exhibition in the Vancouver and area for July 2019.

The Backstreet Boys sing genetics (not really) but their latest album is called “DNA”

Other that the promotional artwork, cover art and the title, the Backstreet Boys pop band does not seem to have taken science or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)/genetics to heart in their latest oeuvre. As for what chickens have to do with it, I I gather this is some sort of humorous nod to a past hit song. Still, I am weirdly fascinated by this January 25, 2019 video news item on Billboard,

Having looked at the list of songs on the DNA album (they’re listed in the Billboard news item where they’ve embedded audio samples), I can’t find anything that suggests an interest in genetics but perhaps you can: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart? Nobody Else? Breathe? New Love? Passionate? Is It Just Me? Chances? No Place? Chateau? The Way It Was? Just Like You Like it? OK? Anyone who can figure out how the songs relate to DNA, please let me know in the Comments.

Frankly, that’s as much analysis as I can offer on the topic. Thankfully, Karen James (an independent educator, researcher, and consultant in molecular biology) has written a February 5, 2019 article (I Want DNA That Way; The Backstreet Boys’ new album and tour features a very old-school depiction of DNA) for slate.com where she unpacks the imagery in the promotional material and on the cover (Note: Links have been removed),

The Backstreet Boys are back. Credit: Dennis Leupold [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

The Backstreet Boys released a new album. I never thought I’d start a science article—or any article—with that sentence, but here we are.

We are here because the promotional artwork for the album (above) is a photograph of the boy band (man band?) lit by a projection of DNA bands. The image, and the album’s title, DNA, jumped out of my Twitter timeline because I’m a geneticist, I work with DNA, and I’ve seen countless images just like it in textbooks and research articles. I’ve even made them myself in the lab.

What struck me as funny (both funny-ha-ha and funny-odd) is that the lab methods that could have produced this image are old—older even than the Backstreet Boys’ first album. One of the methods—called Sanger sequencing—was published in 1977, making it even older than two of the Backstreet Boys themselves, scientist Kristy Lamb pointed out. Genetics is a particularly fast-moving science. New technologies are constantly emerging and eclipsing prior ones. Yet this 40-year-old imagery persists, and not just in the promotional artwork for DNA. Just do a Google image search for “DNA sequencing” and you’ll see plenty of images like this mixed in with the double helices and long GATTACA readouts.

After her description of Sanger sequencing James offers another ‘sequencing’ possibility, almost as old as the Sanger technique,

Careful readers might have noticed that I suggested there was more than one method that produces images like this. At first glance, I thought the projection in the Backstreet Boys’ publicity photo was modified from an image made with Sanger sequencing. But when I looked again in preparation for writing this article, I had second thoughts. Why aren’t the lanes clustered in groups of four? Why are some of the bands in adjacent lanes the same size? (They shouldn’t be if you’re doing Sanger sequencing.) It could be that the photo was heavily modified with individual lanes copied and pasted. Indeed, some of the lanes are even identical to each other (*suppresses fake ivory tower scoff*).

Or it could be that this image was made with another old method: DNA fingerprinting. Made famous in so many crime TV shows, DNA fingerprinting was invented in 1984 by Alec Jeffreys, who, though he did not win a Nobel Prize, was made a knight of the British Empire for his contribution to science, among many other prestigious awards, which is nice.

I suspect the Backstreet Boys weren’t going for a tongue-in-cheek reference to their own advancing age. While today’s DNA sequencing methods produce images that scarcely resemble those produced by Sanger sequencing and DNA fingerprinting, the old-school imagery is still everywhere. The Backstreet Boys’ promotional team probably just went with a stock image that looked compelling and worked well as a projection.

James returns to her theme, why use imagery associated with outdated techniques? (Note: Links have been removed),

But that doesn’t answer the real question: Why is 40-year-old imagery still so ubiquitous? As science writer and editor Stephanie Keep tweeted, one reason may be that, despite its age, the Sanger method is still taught in high school classrooms: “It’s so visual and intuitive.” It’s true. When I teach students about DNA sequencing, I always start with Sanger sequencing and use that as the basis for explaining newer technologies, adding more complexity as I go, following the historical timeline.

Another reason the old imagery is still in use may be that the images produced by newer, so-called next-generation sequencing methods aren’t visually scored by a scientist sitting at a lab bench, but by computers. As such, the images themselves often go unseen by human eyes [emphasis mine], despite their colorful beauty.

Interesting, eh? The latest imagery is not seen by human eyes. So the newest imagery is intended for machines. James presents an example of the ‘new’ imagery,

An image generated using a next-generation DNA sequencing method.. Credit: Illumina [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

According to James, this image was not easily obtained according to one of her tweets. [https://twitter.com/kejames/status/1092888034322845696] So, big thanks to Illumina (there’s also a Wikipedia entry about the company). Getting back to James’ and her article, she asks why the band titled their latest album, DNA,

But why did the Backstreet Boys call their album DNA in the first place? The official RCA Records press release announcing the album says, “BSB analyzed their individual DNA profiles to see what crucial element each member represents in the groups DNA.” It links to a YouTube video that supposedly explains “how their individual strains, when brought together, create the unstoppable and legendary Backstreet Boys.”

The video is a futuristic, spy movie–esque montage, complete with a computerized female voice describing the various characteristics of each Backstreet Boy. Reader, I confess: I cringed. There were so many tropes and misconceptions about DNA packed into the 83-second video, I would have to write a follow-up to this just to explore them. The cringeworthiness doesn’t end there, though. The cover of DNA has each Backstreet Boy on his own spiral staircase.

The staircases are surely meant to evoke the structure of DNA: the famous double helix. But there’s a problem, as the social media account for the journal Genome Biology tweeted: The staircases are spiraling in the wrong direction. DNA is usually right-handed. If you stick out your right thumb, your fingers will naturally curl in a right-handed spiral as you move your hand in the direction your thumb is pointing. The Backstreet Boys’ staircases are left-handed.

Here’s the promotional trailer for DNA,

It’s everything James says it is. As for those wrongly spiraling DNA staircases,

RCA Records [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

Thank you to Karen James for this illuminating article. If you have time, I encourage you to read her piece in its entirety:
I Want DNA That Way; The Backstreet Boys’ new album and tour features a very old-school depiction of DNA.

As for why the Backstreet Boys called their album DNA and you likely guessed. it would seem to be a promotional gimmick meant to leverage the perceived interest in commercial DNA testing by companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry, amongst others.

Book commentaries: The Science of Orphan Black: The Official Companion and Star Trek Treknology; The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive

I got more than I expected from both books (“The Science of Orphan Black: The Official Companion” by Casey Griffin and Nina Nesseth and “Star Trek Treknology; The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive” by Ethan Siegel) I’m going to discuss by changing my expectations.

The Science of Orphan Black: The Official Companion

I had expected a book about the making of the series with a few insider stories about the production along with some science. Instead, I was treated to a season by season breakdown of the major scientific and related ethical issues in the fields of cloning and genetics.I don’t follow those areas exhaustively but from my inexpert perspective, the authors covered everything I could have hoped for (e.g., CRISPR/CAS9, Henrietta Lacks, etc.) in an accessible but demanding writing style  In other words, it’s a good read but it’s not a light read.

There are many, many pictures of Tatiana Maslany as one of her various clone identities in the book. Unfortunately, the images do not boast good reproduction values. This was disconcerting as it can lead a reader (yes, that was me) to false expectations (e.g., this is a picture book) concerning the contents. The boxed snippets from the scripts and explanatory notes inset into the text helped to break up some of the more heavy going material while providing additional historical/scripting/etc. perspectives. One small niggle, the script snippets weren’t always as relevant to the discussion at hand as the authors no doubt hoped.

I suggest reading both the Foreword by Cosima Herter, the series science consultant, and (although it could have done with a little editing) The Conversation between Cosima Herter and Graeme Manson (one of the producers). That’s where you’ll find that the series seems to have been incubated in Vancouver, Canada. It’s also where you’ll find out how much of Cosima Herter’s real life story is included in the Cosima clone’s life story.

The Introduction tells you how the authors met (as members of ‘the clone club’) and started working together as recappers for the series. (For anyone unfamiliar with the phenomenon or terminology, episodes of popular series are recapitulated [recapped] on one or more popular websites. These may or may not be commercial, i.e., some are fan sites.)

One of the authors, Casey Griffin, is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California (USC) studying in the field of developmental and stem cell biology. I was not able to get much more information but did find her LinkedIn profile. The other author also has a science background. Nina Nesseth is described as a science communicator on the back cover of the book but she’s described as a staff scientist for Science North, a science centre located in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Her LinkedIn profile lists an honours Bachelor of Science (Biological and Medical Sciences) from Laurentian University, also located in Sudbury, Ontario.

It’s no surprise, given the authors’ educational background, that a bibliography (selected) has been included. This is something I very much appreciated. Oddly, given that Nesseth lists a graduate certificate in publishing as one of her credentials (on LinkedIn), there is no index (!?!). Unusually, the copyright page is at the back of the book instead of the front and boasts a fairly harsh copyright notice (summary: don’t copy anything, ever … unless you get written permission from ECW Press and the other copyright owners; Note: Herter is the copyright owner of her Foreword while the authors own the rest).

There are logos on the copyright page—more than I’m accustomed to seeing. Interestingly, two of them are government logos. It seems that taxpayers contributed to the publication of this book. The copyright notice seems a little facey to me since taxpayers (at least partially) subsidized the book, as well, Canadian copyright law has a concept called fair dealing (in the US, there’s something similar: fair use). In other words, if I chose, I could copy portions of the text without asking for permission if there’s no intent to profit from it and as long as I give attributions.

How, for example, could anyone profit from this?

In fact, in January 2017, Jun Wu and colleagues published their success in creating pig-human hybrids. (description of real research on chimeras on p. 98)

Or this snippet of dialogue,

[Charlotte] You’re my big sister.

[Sarah] How old are you? (p. 101)

All the quoted text is from “The Science of Orphan Black: The Official Companion” by Casey Griffin and Nina Nesseth (paperback published August 22, 2017).

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

Getting back to the book, copyright silliness aside, it’s a good book for anyone interested in some of the  science and the issues associated with biotechnology, synthetic biology, genomes, gene editing technologies, chimeras, and more. I don’t think you need to have seen the series in order to appreciate the book.

Star Trek Treknology; The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive

This looks and feels like a coffee table book. The images in this book are of a much higher quality than those in the ‘Orphan Black’ book. With thicker paper and extensive ink coverage lending to its glossy, attractive looks, it’s a physically heavy book. The unusually heavy use of black ink  would seem to be in service of conveying the feeling that you are exploring the far reaches of outer space.

It’s clear that “Star Trek Treknology; The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive’s” author, Ethan Siegel, PhD., is a serious Star Trek and space travel fan. All of the series and movies are referenced at one time or another in the book in relationship to technology (treknology).

Unlike Siegel, while I love science fiction and Star Trek, I have never been personally interested in space travel. Regardless, Siegel did draw me in with his impressive ability to describe and explain physics-related ideas. Unfortunately, his final chapter on medical and biological ‘treknology’ is not as good. He covers a wide range of topics but no one is an expert on everything.

Siegel has a Wikipedia entry, which notes this (Note: Links have been removed),

Ethan R. Siegel (August 3, 1978, Bronx)[1] is an American theoretical astrophysicist and science writer, who studies Big Bang theory. He is a professor at Lewis & Clark College and he blogs at Starts With a Bang, on ScienceBlogs and also on Forbes.com since 2016.

By contrast with the ‘Orphan Black’ book, the tone is upbeat. It’s one of the reasons Siegel appreciates Star Trek in its various iterations,

As we look at the real-life science and technology behind the greatest advances anticipated by Star Trek, it’s worth remembering that the greatest legacy of the show is its message of hope. The future can be brighter and better than our past or present has ever been. It’s our continuing mission to make it so. (p. 6)

All the quoted text is from “Star Trek Treknology; The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive” by Ethan Siegel (hard cover published October 15, 2017).

This book too has one of those copyright notices that fail to note you don’t need permission when it’s fair dealing to copy part of the text. While it does have an index, it’s on the anemic side and, damningly, there are neither bibliography nor reference notes of any sort. If Siegel hadn’t done such a good writing job, I might not have been so distressed.

For example, it’s frustrating for someone like me who’s been trying to get information on cortical/neural  implants and finds this heretofore unknown and intriguing tidbit in Siegel’s text,

In 2016, the very first successful cortical implant into a patient with ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] was completed, marking the very first fully implanted brain-computer interface in a human being. (p. 180)

Are we talking about the Australia team, which announced human clinical trials for their neural/cortical implant (my February 15, 2016 posting) or was it preliminary work by a team in Ohio (US) which later (?) announced a successful implant for a quadriplegic (also known as tetraplegic) patient who was then able to move hands and fingers (see my April 19, 2016 posting)? Or is it an entirely different team?

One other thing, I was a bit surprised to see no mention of quantum or neuromorphic computing in the chapter on computing. I don’t believe either was part of the Star Trek universe but they (neuromorphic and quantum computing) are important developments and Siegel makes a point, on at least a few occasions, of contrasting present day research with what was and wasn’t ‘predicted’ by Star Trek.

As for the ‘predictions’, there’s a longstanding interplay between storytellers and science and sometimes it can be a little hard to figure out which came first. I think Siegel might have emphasized that give and take a bit more.

Regardless of my nitpicking, Siegel is a good writer and managed to put an astonishing amount of ‘educational’ material into a lively and engaging book. That is not easy.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed both books and am very excited to see grounded science being presented along with the fictional stories of both universes (Star Trek and Orphan Black).

Yes, both books have their shortcomings (harsh copyright notices, no index, no bibliography, no reference notes, etc.) but in the main they offer adults who are sufficiently motivated a wealth of current scientific and technical information along with some elucidation of ethical issues.

New principles for AI (artificial intelligence) research along with some history and a plea for a democratic discussion

For almost a month I’ve been meaning to get to this Feb. 1, 2017 essay by Andrew Maynard (director of Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) and Jack Stilgoe (science policy lecturer at University College London [UCL]) on the topic of artificial intelligence and principles (Note: Links have been removed). First, a walk down memory lane,

Today [Feb. 1, 2017] in Washington DC, leading US and UK scientists are meeting to share dispatches from the frontiers of machine learning – an area of research that is creating new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI). Their meeting follows the publication of a set of principles for beneficial AI that emerged from a conference earlier this year at a place with an important history.

In February 1975, 140 people – mostly scientists, with a few assorted lawyers, journalists and others – gathered at a conference centre on the California coast. A magazine article from the time by Michael Rogers, one of the few journalists allowed in, reported that most of the four days’ discussion was about the scientific possibilities of genetic modification. Two years earlier, scientists had begun using recombinant DNA to genetically modify viruses. The Promethean nature of this new tool prompted scientists to impose a moratorium on such experiments until they had worked out the risks. By the time of the Asilomar conference, the pent-up excitement was ready to burst. It was only towards the end of the conference when a lawyer stood up to raise the possibility of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that the scientists focussed on the task at hand – creating a set of principles to govern their experiments.

The 1975 Asilomar meeting is still held up as a beacon of scientific responsibility. However, the story told by Rogers, and subsequently by historians, is of scientists motivated by a desire to head-off top down regulation with a promise of self-governance. Geneticist Stanley Cohen said at the time, ‘If the collected wisdom of this group doesn’t result in recommendations, the recommendations may come from other groups less well qualified’. The mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts was a prominent critic of the biotechnology experiments then taking place in his city. He said, ‘I don’t think these scientists are thinking about mankind at all. I think that they’re getting the thrills and the excitement and the passion to dig in and keep digging to see what the hell they can do’.

The concern in 1975 was with safety and containment in research, not with the futures that biotechnology might bring about. A year after Asilomar, Cohen’s colleague Herbert Boyer founded Genentech, one of the first biotechnology companies. Corporate interests barely figured in the conversations of the mainly university scientists.

Fast-forward 42 years and it is clear that machine learning, natural language processing and other technologies that come under the AI umbrella are becoming big business. The cast list of the 2017 Asilomar meeting included corporate wunderkinds from Google, Facebook and Tesla as well as researchers, philosophers, and other academics. The group was more intellectually diverse than their 1975 equivalents, but there were some notable absences – no public and their concerns, no journalists, and few experts in the responsible development of new technologies.

Maynard and Stilgoe offer a critique of the latest principles,

The principles that came out of the meeting are, at least at first glance, a comforting affirmation that AI should be ‘for the people’, and not to be developed in ways that could cause harm. They promote the idea of beneficial and secure AI, development for the common good, and the importance of upholding human values and shared prosperity.

This is good stuff. But it’s all rather Motherhood and Apple Pie: comforting and hard to argue against, but lacking substance. The principles are short on accountability, and there are notable absences, including the need to engage with a broader set of stakeholders and the public. At the early stages of developing new technologies, public concerns are often seen as an inconvenience. In a world in which populism appears to be trampling expertise into the dirt, it is easy to understand why scientists may be defensive.

I encourage you to read this thoughtful essay in its entirety although I do have one nit to pick:  Why only US and UK scientists? I imagine the answer may lie in funding and logistics issues but I find it surprising that the critique makes no mention of the international community as a nod to inclusion.

For anyone interested in the Asolimar AI principles (2017), you can find them here. You can also find videos of the two-day workshop (Jan. 31 – Feb. 1, 2017 workshop titled The Frontiers of Machine Learning (a Raymond and Beverly Sackler USA-UK Scientific Forum [US National Academy of Sciences]) here (videos for each session are available on Youtube).

Curiosity Collider Café: Nov. 16, 2016 in Vancouver (Canada)

It’s time for another Curiosity Collider art/science event.  to get you excited (from a Nov. 8, 2016 announcement received via email),

Dance. Genetics. Digital Media. Photography. Science Illustration. Join us to create new ways to experience science.

Our #ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science. Meet, discover, connect, create. Where will your curiosity for science take you? How will you express science through art?

From the Curiosity Collider events page,

Collider Cafe: Scientific. Expression.

When
8:00pm on Wednesday, November 16th, 2016. Door opens at 7:30pm.

Where
Café Deux Soleils. 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).

Cost
$5.00 cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

***

Where would your curiosity for science take you? How would you express science through art? Join our upcoming “Collider Cafe: Scientific. Expression.” to hear from these speakers about their ideas and to chat with them about collaborations.

 

Julie-anne Saroyan (artistic producer | project manager, Small Stage)

Alina Sotskova (dancer | photographer | psychologist)

Armin Mortazavi (cartoonist | scientist)

Jen Burgess (natural science illustrator)

Karissa Milbury (scientist – genetics | public scholar)

You can find individual websites by clicking on each presenter’s name (if you have the time, it’s worth it for the most part). Milbury’s, unfortunately, is simply a LinkedIn page although you do find out she’s a PhD candidate who’s working at Telus World of Science. As for Saroyan, I found a biography for her on the Small Stage website,

Julie-anne loves sharing dance with everyone.

She co-founded the company and kicked off the series Dances for a Small Stage in Vancouver.  Since then, Julie-anne has she has produced many dance events- including all installments of the MovEnt series Dances for a Small Stage in Vancouver, at the Canada Dance Festival (2006), BC Scene (2009) and Magnetic North Theatre Festival + Canada Dance Festival (2015) at The National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Saroyan has established herself in dance industry as a skilled and dedicated professional in identifying, developing, and mentoring emerging dance artists.  She has successfully developed Dances for a Small Stage as a breeding ground for new choreographic talent and as a stable, sustainable artistic venture.

They don’t seem to be holding their ‘open mic/request for collaborator’ subevent where they invite members of the audience to stand up and talk for 60 secs. about a proposed project and put in a request for a collaborator. Perhaps next time, eh?

Breakthrough (science in six episodes on the National Geographic Channel)

US producing partners (television and movies), Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have decided to make science sexy according to the headline for an Oct. 30, 2015 article by Reid Nakamura for The Wrap. Reading the article which has no mention of sexiness reveals the producing partners had something else in mind,

In the era of “too much TV,” Grazer argues that people taking risks is what will help the industry survive. “People just have to make quality programs,” he said in an interview with TheWrap. “Taking chances usually will produce some trend creation that is really valuable to our business.”

Howard added that because “Breakthrough” has the potential to stand out.

“In reality, I don’t really agree that there’s too much, but there’s never enough good stuff that really does break through,” he said. “And it’s getting harder and harder to get fresh ideas, but I think that in all honesty, something like Brian and I coming in and doing this kind of science series offers that potential. Because it’s a different mindset creating this kind of content.”

To date, four episodes have been broadcast (from the Breakthrough episode page on the Internet Movie DataBase [IMDB]),

Fighting Pandemics

Viral outbreaks can become deadly pandemics in a matter of days. To prevent catastrophe, courageous scientists are fighting back with new treatments and vaccines.

More Than Human

Advances in science are fusing biology and technology to make us better, stronger, faster, and smarter; manipulating our genetic code; building exoskeletons that give us super strength; giving hope to people with traumatic spine injuries.

Decoding the Brain

After millennia of speculation about what goes on inside the human brain, we now have the tools to explore its hidden reaches. These tools are leading to research that may help those suffering from afflictions such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. They are also shedding light on the mystery of consciousness and what makes us who we are.

In recent years, close study of the aging process has opened up new ways that could help us all live healthier for longer. Can we move beyond treating individual diseases, and instead treat the aging process itself? But would a longer life necessarily be a better life? A loose-knit group of researchers believe the real breakthrough is extending our health span – the period of life spent free of disease.

Energy on the Edge

Not yet broadcast

Water Apocalypse

Not yet broadcast

Strangely there is no science advisor listed as part of the crew for these programmes and, even more strangely, the researcher for the series, A. Christine Maxfield, is a travel writer and tv host who seems not to have any science background or previous experience with science programmes.

Once an episode has been broadcast it is possible to view it online afterwards but you do need to be a subscriber. The first three episodes can be found here.

Some of the promotional material seems a bit odd to me. For example, there’s this in the material promoting The Age of Aging episode (broadcast Nov. 29, 2015) directed by Ron Howard and in which he also appears,

… Ron Howard explores the latest scientific studies trying to answer one question. Can aging be cured?

I find the thinking fundamentally disturbing. Aging is not a disease; it’s a process or a series of processes leading to death. If it’s thought of as a disease, then there’s an implication that it can be cured. However, I have no objection to aging as well as possible. On that note, there’s some rather interesting research coming out of Switzerland, from a Dec. 1, 2015 ETZ Zurich press release on EurekAlert,

Researchers at ETH Zurich and the JenAge consortium from Jena have now systematically gone through the genomes of three different organisms in search of the genes associated with the ageing process that are present in all three species – and thus derived from the genes of a common ancestor. Although they are found in different organisms, these so-called orthologous genes are closely related to each other, and they are all found in humans, too.

In order to detect these genes, the researchers examined around 40,000 genes in the nematode C. elegans, zebra fish and mice. By screening them, the scientists wanted to determine which genes are regulated in an identical manner in all three organisms in each comparable ageing stage – young, mature and old; i.e. either are they upregulated or downregulated during ageing.

As a measure of gene activity, the researchers measured the amount of messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules found in the cells of these animals. mRNA is the transcript of a gene and the blueprint of a protein. When there are many copies of an mRNA of a specific gene, it is very active; the gene is upregulated. Fewer mRNA copies, to the contrary, are regarded as a sign of low activity, explains Professor Michael Ristow, coordinating author of the recently published study and Professor of Energy Metabolism at ETH Zurich.

Out of this volume of information, the researchers used statistical models to establish an intersection of genes that were regulated in the same manner in the worms, fish and mice. This showed that the three organisms have only 30 genes in common that significantly influence the ageing process.

Reduce gene activity, live longer

By conducting experiments in which the mRNA of the corresponding genes were selectively blocked, the researchers pinpointed their effect on the ageing process in nematodes. With a dozen of these genes, blocking them extended the lifespan by at least five percent.

One of these genes proved to be particularly influential: the bcat-1 gene. “When we blocked the effect of this gene, it significantly extended the mean lifespan of the nematode by up to 25 percent,” says Ristow.

The researchers were also able to explain how this gene works: the bcat-1 gene carries the code for the enzyme of the same name, which degrades so-called branched-chain amino acids. Naturally occurring in food protein building blocks, these include the amino acids L-leucine, L-isoleucine and L-valine.

When the researchers inhibited the gene activity of bcat-1, the branched-chain amino acids accumulated in the tissue, triggering a molecular signalling cascade that increased longevity in the nematodes. Moreover, the timespan during which the worms remained healthy was extended. As a measure of vitality, the researchers measured the accumulation of ageing pigments, the speed at which the creatures moved, and how often the nematodes successfully reproduced. All of these parameters improved when the scientists inhibited the activity of the bcat-1 gene.

The scientists also achieved a life-extending effect when they mixed the three branched-chain amino acids into the nematodes’ food. However, the effect was generally less pronounced because the bcat-1 gene was still active, which meant that the amino acids continued to be degraded and their life-extending effects could not develop as effectively.

Conserved mechanism

Ristow has no doubt that the same mechanism occurs in humans. “We looked only for the genes that are conserved in evolution and therefore exist in all organisms, including humans,” he says.

In the present study, he and his Jena colleagues from the Leibniz Institute on Aging, the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, the Jena University Hospital and the Friedrich Schiller University purposefully opted not to study the impact on humans. But a follow-up study is already being planned. “However we cannot measure the life expectancy of humans for obvious reasons,” says the ETH professor. Instead, the researchers plan to incorporate various health parameters such as cholesterol or blood sugar levels in their study to obtain indicators on the health status of their subjects.

Health costs could be massively reduced

Ristow says that the multiple branched-chain amino acids are already being used to treat liver damage and are also added to sport nutrition products. “However, the point is not for people to grow even older, but rather to stay healthy for longer,” [emphasis mine] says the internist. The study will deliver important indicators on how the ageing process could be influenced and how age-related diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure could be prevented. In light of unfavourable demographics and steadily increasing life expectancy, it is important to extend the healthy life phase and not to reach an even higher age that is characterised by chronic diseases, argue the researchers. With such preventive measures, an elderly person could greatly improve their quality of life while at the same time cutting their healthcare costs by more than half.

” … the point is not for people to grow even older, but rather to stay healthy for longer, ” I couldn’t agree more. Good luck with the gene work.

Finally, the next episode of Breakthrough, Energy on the Edge, is due to be broadcast in the US on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015 on the National Geographic Channel.

Genes and jazz: a July 17, 2015 performance in Vancouver (Canada)

A geneticist and a jazz musician first combined forces for Genes and Jazz at a 2008 Guggenheim museum event where it was first conceptualized (and performed?). Vancouver will be lucky enough to enjoy a live performance on July 17, 2015 as part of the 2015 Indian Summer Festival (July 9 – 18, 2015). Here’s more from the festival event page,

What happens when you cross a Nobel prize-winning geneticist with one of New York’s most sought after jazz quintets? Genes & Jazz. Part jazz concert, part scientific talk by one of the world’s finest scientific minds, Genes & Jazz is where the seemingly dichotomous worlds of science and the arts meet.

Dr. Harold Varmus won the Nobel Prize in 1989 for his work on the proto-oncogene, which enhanced our understanding of cancer. [emphasis mine] His son, jazz trumpeter Jacob leads the Jacob Varmus Quintet. [emphasis mine] Together they explore the ways that genes and notes affect complex organisms and compelling music. The father-son duo compares cell biology to the development of musical compositions.

“Mutation is essential to species diversity just as stylistic variation is essential to the arts,” says Dr. Varmus. “Without genetic error, there would be no evolution. Without variety, there would be no development in art, literature or music. Variety is essential to progress.”

Genes & Jazz was sparked in 2008 as part of the ‘Works & Process’ series at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Logistics (from the ticket purchase page),

    July 17 – July 17 [2015]
Vancouver Playhouse
600 Hamilton Street at Dunsmuir
Vancouver, BC
Admission: $25 / $40 / $60

For anyone wondering about how the jazz might sound, there’s this from the ticket purchase page,

“…lyrical and self-assured, more Miles Davis than Dr. John.” – The New Yorker

I think the first  person to link jazz with biology was Dr. Mae-Won Ho in a 2006 Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) lecture: Quantum Jazz; the meaning of life, the universe, and everything (free version). The fully referenced and illustrated lecture is available for members only. Here’s an excerpt  from the lecture,

Quantum jazz is the music of the organism dancing life into being, from the top of her head to her toes and fingertips, every single cell, molecule and atom taking part in a remarkable ensemble that spins and sways to rhythms from pico (10-12) seconds to minutes, hours, a day, a month, a year and longer, emitting light and sound waves from atomic dimensions of nanometres up to metres, spanning a musical range of 70 octaves (for that is the range of living activities). And each and every player, the tinniest molecule not withstanding, is improvising spontaneously and freely, yet keeping in tune and in step with the whole.

There is no conductor, no choreographer, the organism is creating and recreating herself afresh with each passing moment.

That’s why ordinary folks like us can walk and chew gum at the same time, why top athletes can run a mile in under four minutes, and kung fu experts can move with lightning speed and perhaps even fly effortlessly through the air, like in the movie Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon. This perfect coordination of multiple tasks carried out simultaneously depends on a special state of wholeness or coherence best described as “quantum coherence”, hence quantum jazz.

Quantum coherent action is effortless action, effortless creation, the Taoist ideal of art and poetry, of life itself.

Dr. Ho also gave an interview about her influences and ‘quantum jazz’ which is reproduced in ISIS report 23/06/10 (presumably 23 June 2010),

ATHM [Alternative therapies in health and medicine]: Please tell us a little bit about your background and schooling.

Ho: I was born in Hong Kong; started school in Chinese and then transferred to an English school for girls, run by Italian nuns. I got exposed to serious Western ideas late-ish in life, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was quite good in school, and the nuns let me do whatever I liked; didn’t have to listen if I got bored. So I escaped the worst of reductionist Western education because ideas that didn’t fit just rolled off my back. I guess that explains why I’m always at odds with whatever the conventional theory is in every single field that I go into.

I was in the convent school until I entered Hong Kong University to read biology and then biochemistry as a PhD. Again, I learned almost nothing useful during that time. Maybe I exaggerate: I learned, by myself, of things I liked to learn about. After I finished university, I got a postdoctoral fellowship, and began to change fields because I didn’t like the kind of research I was doing. I began to revolt against neo-Darwinism and the reductionist way of looking at things in bits.

I had gone into biochemistry for my Ph.D. because of something I heard from one of the professors who quoted Albert St. Györgyi – the father of biochemistry—that life was interposed between two energy levels of an electron. I thought that was sheer poetry. That made me want to know, “what is life?”

So I went into biochemistry thinking I would find the answer there. But it was very dull because biochemistry then was about cutting up and grinding up everything, separating, purifying. Nothing to tell you about what life is about.

Biology as a whole was studying dead, pinned specimens. There was nothing that answered the question, what is biological organization? What makes organisms tick? What is being alive? I especially detested neo-Darwinism because it was the most mind-numbing theory that purports to explain anything and everything by “selective advantage”, competition and selective advantage.

I spent a lot of time criticizing neo-Darwinism until I got bored. What neo-Darwinism leaves out is the whole of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, all science in fact. You don’t even need any physiology or developmental biology if everything can be explained in terms of selective advantage and a gene for any and every character, real or imaginary.

Finally, I met some remarkable people and learned a lot from them, and completely changed my field of research to try and answer that haunting question, “what is life?” I wrote a book on the ‘physics of organisms’, not ‘biophysics’, which is largely about the structure of dead biological materials and physical methods used in characterizing them. The physics of organisms is about living organization, quantum coherence and other important concepts.

Varmus and Ho may or may not be familiar with each other’s work linking jazz with biology. It wouldn’t be the first time that two or more people came to similar conclusions without reference to each other. At a guess, I’d say Ho’s approach is more about the poetry or the metaphor while Varmus’ approach is more about the music.

Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) takes centre stage with Michael Kobor

Moving out of the back room to the centre stage at The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. at Seymour St., Vancouver, Canada), the next Café Scientifique Vancouver talk will be given by Michael Kobor on Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013 at 7:30 pm. Here’s the talk description, from the announcement,

A Dialogue in Epigenetics: How Does the Environment Get Under Our Skin?

The scientific community has known for some time that both genetics and the environment influence our health and well-being. While extensive research has focused on how our genes affect health outcomes, environmental factors have had less attention. Now a new area of research, known as epigenetics, is expanding upon our knowledge of the human genome. Epigeneticists study how our environment can have a long-term impact on the activity of our genes. Of particular concern to health researchers are the effects of socioeconomic conditions on children, and how early life stress may impact individuals and their genes down the road. Dr. Michael Kobor and his research team make use of recent advances in technology to study this interface between genetics and environment. And it is becoming clearer that what’s written in our DNA is only part of the story. Neither ‘nature,’ nor ‘nurture’ alone, is entirely one’s fate.

Kobor has his own lab (Kobor Lab) at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, here’s more from his bio page,

Genes can be influenced by the environment, which means our lifestyle can impact the expression of our genes. Epigenetics is the field that studies the relationship between our environment and our genes.

“Epigenetics is a very important component for studying human health,” says Dr. Kobor. “There is increasing evidence that epigenetic modifications are altered in a variety of diseases, such as cancer, and neurodegenerative disease.”

….

MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS & PUBLICATIONS

UBC Faculty of Medicine, Distinguished Achievement Award for Excellence in Basic Science Research – 2012

Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Early Career UBC Scholar – 2012

Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar Award – 2005

Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Scholar Award – 2006

Kobor MS, Archambault J, Lester W, Holstege FC, Gileadi O, Jansma DB, Jennings EG, Kouyoumd- jian F, Davidson AR, Young RA, Greenblatt J. An unusual eukaryotic protein phosphatase required for transcription by RNA polymerase II and CTD dephosphorylation in S. cerevisiae. Molecular Cell. 1999 Jul;4(1):55–62.

Kobor MS, Venkatasubrahmanyam S, Meneghini MD, Gin JW, Jennings JL, Link AJ, Madhani HD, and Rine J. A Protein Complex Containing the Conserved Swi2/Snf2-Related ATPase Swr1p Deposits Histone Variant H2A.Z into Euchromatin. PLoS Biology. 2004 May; 2(5):E131.

Given the description for the talk is free of jargon (unless you consider “DNA” and “epigenetics” to be jargon), I would expect the talk itself to follow suit.

Human enhancement, brains, and transhumanism: what does nano have to do with it?

A Sept. 14, 2011 conversation on Slate.com about Extreme Human Enhancement started with this provocative title, Should We Use Nanotech, Genetics, Pharmaceuticals, and Augmentations To Go Above and Beyond Our Biology? The official discussants are Kyle Munkittrick, Brad Allenby, and Nicholas Agar. Here’s a little more about Kyle, Brad, and Nicholas, from page one of the the Slate discussion,

Nicholas Agar is an associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He is the author, among other things, of Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement (2010) and Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement (2004).

Brad Allenby is the Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics; a professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering; and the founding director of the Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management at Arizona State University. He is co-author with Daniel Sarewitz of The Techno-Human Condition.

Kyle Munkittrick is a bioethicist and a program director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. He blogs at Pop Bioethics and Discover magazine’s Science Not Fiction. [Note: I have made some formatting changes.]

Nanotechnology and the other technologies are mentioned in passing, the focus of the discussion is ‘should we or shouldn’t we enhance ourselves’ along with some comments as to whether or not humans have a biological imperative to create and apply technology to the planet and to ourselves.

This Slate discussion is a way of publicizing a Future Tense event in Washington, DC being held today, Sept. 15, 2011.

This conversation is part of a Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State. On Thursday, Sept. 15, Future Tense will be hosting an event in Washington, D.C., on the boundaries between humans and machines, “Is Our Techno-Human Marriage in Need of Counseling?” [I removed the RSVP]

You can watch the livestreamed event here.

Coincidentally, Brain Gear is opening today. From the host’s (University of Groningen in The Netherlands) website page,

BRAIN GEAR, A conference in Groningen on September 15 and 16.
Neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, regulators and artists discuss the available and emerging technologies to repair and enhance the brain.

Professor Andy Miah, one of the invited speakers at Brain Gear, has made his presentation, Neurodevices for the Posthuman Mind,  available for viewing at Prezi.

I find all this quite exciting given my paper, Whose electric brain? about memristors, artificial synapses, and cognitive entanglement. I have currently raised $460 towards my presentation at ISEA 2011 (International Symposium Electronic Arts). Thank you to everyone who has given funds toward my dream at DreamBank.