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Chen Qiufan, garbage, and Chinese science fiction stories

Garbage has been dominating Canadian news headlines for a few weeks now. First, it was Canadian garbage in the Philippines and now it’s Canadian garbage in Malaysia. Interestingly, we’re also having problems with China, since December 2018, when we detained a top executive from Huawe, a China-based international telecommunicatons company, in accordance with an official request from the US government and, in accordance, with what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the ‘rule of law’. All of this provides an interesting backdrop (for Canadians anyway) on the topic of China, garbage, and science fiction.

A May 16, 2019 article by Anjie Zheng for Fast Company explores some of the latest and greatest from China’s science fiction writing community,

Like any good millennial, I think about my smartphone, to the extent that I do at all, in terms of what it does for me. It lets me message friends, buy stuff quickly, and amass likes. I hardly ever think about what it actually is—a mass of copper wires, aluminum alloys, and lithium battery encased in glass—or where it goes when I upgrade.

Chen Qiufan wants us to think about that. His debut novel, Waste Tide, is set in a lightly fictionalized version of Guiyu, the world’s largest electronic waste disposal. First published in Chinese in 2013, the book was recently released in the U.S. with a very readable translation into English by Ken Liu.

Chen, who has been called “China’s William Gibson,” is part of a younger generation of sci-fi writers who have achieved international acclaim in recent years. Liu Cixin became the first Chinese to win the prestigious Hugo Award for his Three Body Problem in 2015. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Liu, became China’s first science-fiction blockbuster when it was released in 2018. It was the highest-grossing film in the fastest-growing film market in the world last year and was recently scooped up by Netflix.

Aynne Kokas in a March 13, 2019 article for the Washington Post describes how the hit film, The Wandering Earth, fits into an overall Chinese-led movie industry focused on the future and Hollywood-like, i. e. like US movie industry, domination,

“The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, takes place in a future where the people of Earth must flee their sun as it swells into a red giant. Thousands of engines — the first of them constructed in Hangzhou, one of China’s tech hubs — propel the entire planet toward a new solar system, while everyone takes refuge from the cold in massive underground cities. On the surface, the only visible reminders of the past are markers of China’s might. The Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower and a stadium for the Shanghai 2044 Olympics all thrust out of the ice, having apparently survived the journey’s tsunamis, deep freeze and cliff-collapsing earthquakes.

The movie is China’s first big-budget sci-fi epic, and its production was ambitious, involving some 7,000 workers and 10,000 specially-built props. Audience excitement was correspondingly huge: Nearly half a million people wrote reviews of the film on Chinese social network site Douban. Having earned over $600 million in domestic sales, “The Wandering Earth” marks a major achievement for the country’s film industry.

It is also a major achievement for the Chinese government.

Since opening up the country’s film market in 2001, the Chinese government has aspired to learn from Hollywood how to make commercially appealing films, as I detail in my book “Hollywood Made in China.” From initial private offerings for state media companies, to foreign investment in films, studios and theme parks, the government allowed outside capital and expertise to grow the domestic commercial film industry — but not at the expense of government oversight. This policy’s underlying aim was to expand China’s cultural clout and political influence.

Until recently, Hollywood films dominated the country’s growing box office. That finally changed in 2015, with the release of major local blockbusters “Monster Hunt” and “Lost in Hong Kong.” The proliferation of homegrown hits signaled that the Chinese box office profits no longer depend on Hollywood studio films — sending an important message to foreign trade negotiators and studios.

Kokas provides some insight into how the Chinese movie industry is designed to further the Chinese government’s vision of the future. As a Canadian, I don’t see that much difference between the US and China industry’s vision. Both tout themselves as the answer to everything, both target various geographic regions for the ‘bad guys’, and both tout their national moral superiority in their films. I suppose the same can be said for most countries’ film industries but both China and the US can back themselves with economic might.

Zheng’s article delves deeper into garbage, and Chen Qiufan’s science fiction while illuminating the process of changing a ‘good guy’ into a ‘bad guy’,

Chen, 37, grew up a few miles from the real Guiyu. Mountains of scrap electronics are shipped there every year from around the world. Thousands of human workers sort through the junk for whatever can be reduced to reusable precious metals. They strip wires and disassemble circuit boards, soaking them in acid baths for bits of copper, tin, platinum, and gold. Whatever can’t be processed is burned. The water in Guiyu has been so contaminated it is undrinkable; the air is toxic. The workers, migrants from poor rural areas in China, have an abnormally high rate of respiratory diseases and cancer.

For the decades China was revving its economic engine, authorities were content to turn a blind eye to the human costs of the recycling business. It was an economic win-win. For developed countries like the U.S., it’s cheaper to ship waste to places like China than trying to recycle it themselves. And these shipments create jobs and profits for the Chinese.

In recent years, however, steps have been taken to protect workers and the environment in China. …

Waste Tide highlights the danger of “throw-away culture,” says Chen, also known in English as Stanley Chan. When our personal electronics stop serving us, whether because they break or our lust for the newest specs get the better of us, we toss them. Hopefully we’re conscientious enough to bring them to local recyclers that claim they’ll dispose of them properly. But that’s likely the end of our engagement with the trash. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fiction, and science fiction in particular, is an apt medium for Chen to probe the consequences of this arrangement. “It’s not journalism,” he says. Instead, the story is an imaginative, action-packed tale of power imbalances, and the individual characters that think they’re doing good. Waste Tide culminates, expectedly, in an insurgency of the workers against their exploitative overlords.

Guiyu has been fictionalized in Waste Tide as “Silicon Isle.” (A homophone of the Chinese character “gui” translates to “Silicon,” and “yu” is an island). The waste hell is ruled by three ruthless family clans, dominated by the Luo clan. They treat workers as slaves and derisively call them “waste people.”

Technology in the near-future has literally become extensions of selves and only exacerbates class inequality. Prosthetic inner ears improve balance; prosthetic limbs respond to mental directives; helmets heighten natural senses. The rich “switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones.” Those with fewer means hack discarded prosthetics to get the same kick. When they’re no longer needed, synthetic body parts contaminated with blood and bodily fluids are added to the detritus.

At the center of the story is Mimi, a migrant worker who dreams of earning enough money to return home and live a quiet life. She strikes up a relationship with Kaizong, a Chinese-American college graduate trying to rediscover his roots. But the good times are short-lived. The boss of the Luo clan becomes convinced that Mimi holds the key to rousing his son from his coma and soon kidnaps the hapless girl.

For all the advanced science, there is a backwards superstition that animates Silicon Isle. [emphasis mine] The clan bosses subscribe to “a simple form of animism.” They pray to the wind and sea for ample supplies of waste. They sacrifice animals (and some humans) to bring them luck, and use local witches to exorcise evil spirits. Boss Luo has Mimi kidnapped and tortured in an effort to appease the gods in the hopes of waking up his comatose son. The torture of Mimi infects her with a mysterious disease that splits her consciousness. The waste people are enraged by her violation, which eventually sparks a war against the ruling clans. [emphasis mine]

A parallel narrative involves an American, Scott Brandle, who works for an environmental company. While in town trying to set up a recycling facility, he stumbles onto the truth about the virus that may have infected Mimi: a chemical weapon developed and used by the U.S. [emphasis mine] years earlier. Invented by a Japanese researcher [emphasis mine] working in the U.S., the drug is capable of causing mass hallucinations and terror. When Brandle learns that Mimi may have been infected with this virus, he wants a piece of her [emphasis mine] too, so that scientists back home can study its effects.

Despite portraying the future of China in a less-than-positive light, [emphasis mine] Waste Tide has not been banned–a common result for works that displease Beijing; instead, the book won China’s prestigious Nebula award for science fiction, and is about to be reprinted on the mainland. …

An interview with Chen (it’s worthwhile to read his take on what he’s doing) follows the plot description in this intriguing and what seems to be a sometimes disingenuous article.

The animism and the war against the ruling class? It reminds me a little of the tales told about old Chine and Mao’s campaign to overthrow the ruling classes who had kept control of the proletariat, in part, by encouraging ‘superstitious religious belief’.

As far as I’m concerned the interpretation can go either or both ways: a critique of the current government’s policies and where they might lead in the future and/or a reference back to the glorious rising of China’s communist government. Good fiction always contains ambiguity; it’s what fuels courses in literature.

Also, the bad guys are from the US and Japan, countries which have long been allied with each other and with which China has some serious conflicts.

Interesting, non? And, it’s not that different from what you’ll see in US (or any other country’s for that matter) science fiction wiring and movies, except that the heroes are Chinese.

Getting back to the garbage in the Philippines, there are 69 containers on their way back to Canada as of May 30, 2019. As for why all this furor about Canadian garbage in the Philippines and Malaysia, it’s hard to believe that Canada is the only sinner. Of course, we are in China’s bad books due to the Huawei executive’s detention here (she is living in her home in Vancouver and goes out and about as she wishes, albeit under surveillance).

Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if indirect pressure is being exerted by China or if the Philippines and Malaysia have been incentivized in some way by China. The timing has certainly been interesting.

Political speculation aside, it’s probably a good thing that countries are refusing to take our garbage. As I’m sure more than one environmentalist would be happy to point out, it’s about time we took care of our own mess.

Two approaches to memristors

Within one day of each other in October 2018, two different teams working on memristors with applications to neuroprosthetics and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing) announced their results.

Russian team

An October 15, 2018 (?) Lobachevsky University press release (also published on October 15, 2018 on EurekAlert) describes a new approach to memristors,

Biological neurons are coupled unidirectionally through a special junction called a synapse. An electrical signal is transmitted along a neuron after some biochemical reactions initiate a chemical release to activate an adjacent neuron. These junctions are crucial for cognitive functions, such as perception, learning and memory.

A group of researchers from Lobachevsky University in Nizhny Novgorod investigates the dynamics of an individual memristive device when it receives a neuron-like signal as well as the dynamics of a network of analog electronic neurons connected by means of a memristive device. According to Svetlana Gerasimova, junior researcher at the Physics and Technology Research Institute and at the Neurotechnology Department of Lobachevsky University, this system simulates the interaction between synaptically coupled brain neurons while the memristive device imitates a neuron axon.

A memristive device is a physical model of Chua’s [Dr. Leon Chua, University of California at Berkeley; see my May 9, 2008 posting for a brief description Dr. Chua’s theory] memristor, which is an electric circuit element capable of changing its resistance depending on the electric signal received at the input. The device based on a Au/ZrO2(Y)/TiN/Ti structure demonstrates reproducible bipolar switching between the low and high resistance states. Resistive switching is determined by the oxidation and reduction of segments of conducting channels (filaments) in the oxide film when voltage with different polarity is applied to it. In the context of the present work, the ability of a memristive device to change conductivity under the action of pulsed signals makes it an almost ideal electronic analog of a synapse.

Lobachevsky University scientists and engineers supported by the Russian Science Foundation (project No.16-19-00144) have experimentally implemented and theoretically described the synaptic connection of neuron-like generators using the memristive interface and investigated the characteristics of this connection.

“Each neuron is implemented in the form of a pulse signal generator based on the FitzHugh-Nagumo model. This model provides a qualitative description of the main neurons’ characteristics: the presence of the excitation threshold, the presence of excitable and self-oscillatory regimes with the possibility of a changeover. At the initial time moment, the master generator is in the self-oscillatory mode, the slave generator is in the excitable mode, and the memristive device is used as a synapse. The signal from the master generator is conveyed to the input of the memristive device, the signal from the output of the memristive device is transmitted to the input of the slave generator via the loading resistance. When the memristive device switches from a high resistance to a low resistance state, the connection between the two neuron-like generators is established. The master generator goes into the oscillatory mode and the signals of the generators are synchronized. Different signal modulation mode synchronizations were demonstrated for the Au/ZrO2(Y)/TiN/Ti memristive device,” – says Svetlana Gerasimova.

UNN researchers believe that the next important stage in the development of neuromorphic systems based on memristive devices is to apply such systems in neuroprosthetics. Memristive systems will provide a highly efficient imitation of synaptic connection due to the stochastic nature of the memristive phenomenon and can be used to increase the flexibility of the connections for neuroprosthetic purposes. Lobachevsky University scientists have vast experience in the development of neurohybrid systems. In particular, a series of experiments was performed with the aim of connecting the FitzHugh-Nagumo oscillator with a biological object, a rat brain hippocampal slice. The signal from the electronic neuron generator was transmitted through the optic fiber communication channel to the bipolar electrode which stimulated Schaffer collaterals (axons of pyramidal neurons in the CA3 field) in the hippocampal slices. “We are going to combine our efforts in the design of artificial neuromorphic systems and our experience of working with living cells to improve flexibility of prosthetics,” concludes S. Gerasimova.

The results of this research were presented at the 38th International Conference on Nonlinear Dynamics (Dynamics Days Europe) at Loughborough University (Great Britain).

This diagram illustrates an aspect of the work,

Caption: Schematic of electronic neurons coupling via a memristive device. Credit: Lobachevsky University

US team

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) announced the publication of a ‘memristor paper’ by a team from the University of Southern California (USC) in an October 16, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Just like their biological counterparts, hardware that mimics the neural circuitry of the brain requires building blocks that can adjust how they synapse, with some connections strengthening at the expense of others. One such approach, called memristors, uses current resistance to store this information. New work looks to overcome reliability issues in these devices by scaling memristors to the atomic level.

An October 16, 2018 AIP news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the particulars of this particular piece of memristor research,

A group of researchers demonstrated a new type of compound synapse that can achieve synaptic weight programming and conduct vector-matrix multiplication with significant advances over the current state of the art. Publishing its work in the Journal of Applied Physics, from AIP Publishing, the group’s compound synapse is constructed with atomically thin boron nitride memristors running in parallel to ensure efficiency and accuracy.

The article appears in a special topic section of the journal devoted to “New Physics and Materials for Neuromorphic Computation,” which highlights new developments in physical and materials science research that hold promise for developing the very large-scale, integrated “neuromorphic” systems of tomorrow that will carry computation beyond the limitations of current semiconductors today.

“There’s a lot of interest in using new types of materials for memristors,” said Ivan Sanchez Esqueda, an author on the paper. “What we’re showing is that filamentary devices can work well for neuromorphic computing applications, when constructed in new clever ways.”

Current memristor technology suffers from a wide variation in how signals are stored and read across devices, both for different types of memristors as well as different runs of the same memristor. To overcome this, the researchers ran several memristors in parallel. The combined output can achieve accuracies up to five times those of conventional devices, an advantage that compounds as devices become more complex.

The choice to go to the subnanometer level, Sanchez said, was born out of an interest to keep all of these parallel memristors energy-efficient. An array of the group’s memristors were found to be 10,000 times more energy-efficient than memristors currently available.

“It turns out if you start to increase the number of devices in parallel, you can see large benefits in accuracy while still conserving power,” Sanchez said. Sanchez said the team next looks to further showcase the potential of the compound synapses by demonstrating their use completing increasingly complex tasks, such as image and pattern recognition.

Here’s an image illustrating the parallel artificial synapses,

Caption: Hardware that mimics the neural circuitry of the brain requires building blocks that can adjust how they synapse. One such approach, called memristors, uses current resistance to store this information. New work looks to overcome reliability issues in these devices by scaling memristors to the atomic level. Researchers demonstrated a new type of compound synapse that can achieve synaptic weight programming and conduct vector-matrix multiplication with significant advances over the current state of the art. They discuss their work in this week’s Journal of Applied Physics. This image shows a conceptual schematic of the 3D implementation of compound synapses constructed with boron nitride oxide (BNOx) binary memristors, and the crossbar array with compound BNOx synapses for neuromorphic computing applications. Credit: Ivan Sanchez Esqueda

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

Efficient learning and crossbar operations with atomically-thin 2-D material compound synapses by Ivan Sanchez Esqueda, Huan Zhao and Han Wang. The article will appear in the Journal of Applied Physics Oct. 16, 2018 (DOI: 10.1063/1.5042468).

This paper is behind a paywall.

*Title corrected from ‘Two approaches to memristors featuring’ to ‘Two approaches to memristors’ on May 31, 2019 at 1455 hours PDT.

Unusual appetite for gold

This bacterium (bacteria being the plural) loves gold, which is lucky for anyone trying to develop artificial photosynthesis.From an October 9, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

A bacterium named Moorella thermoacetica won’t work for free. But UC Berkeley [University of California at Berkeley] researchers have figured out it has an appetite for gold. And in exchange for this special treat, the bacterium has revealed a more efficient path to producing solar fuels through artificial photosynthesis.

An October 5, 2018 UC Berkeley news release by Theresa Duque (also on EurekAlert but published on October 9, 2018), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

M. thermoacetica first made its debut as the first non-photosensitive bacterium to carry out artificial photosynthesis (link is external) in a study led by Peidong Yang, a professor in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. By attaching light-absorbing nanoparticles made of cadmium sulfide (CdS) to the bacterial membrane exterior, the researchers turned M. thermoacetica into a tiny photosynthesis machine, converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into useful chemicals.

Now Yang and his team of researchers have found a better way to entice this CO2-hungry bacterium into being even more productive. By placing light-absorbing gold nanoclusters inside the bacterium, they have created a biohybrid system that produces a higher yield of chemical products than previously demonstrated. The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published on Oct. 1 in Nature Nanotechnology (link is external).

For the first hybrid model, M. thermoacetica-CdS, the researchers chose cadmium sulfide as the semiconductor for its ability to absorb visible light. But because cadmium sulfide is toxic to bacteria, the nanoparticles had to be attached to the cell membrane “extracellularly,” or outside the M. thermoacetica-CdS system. Sunlight excites each cadmium-sulfide nanoparticle into generating a charged particle known as an electron. As these light-generated electrons travel through the bacterium, they interact with multiple enzymes in a process known as “CO2 reduction,” triggering a cascade of reactions that eventually turns CO2 into acetate, a valuable chemical for making solar fuels.

But within the extracellular model, the electrons end up interacting with other chemicals that have no part in turning CO2 into acetate. And as a result, some electrons are lost and never reach the enzymes. So to improve what’s known as “quantum efficiency,” or the bacterium’s ability to produce acetate each time it gains an electron, the researchers found another semiconductor: nanoclusters made of 22 gold atoms (Au22), a material that M. thermoacetica took a surprising shine to.

A single nanocluster of 22 gold atoms

Figure: A single nanocluster of 22 gold atoms – Au22 – is only 1 nanometer in diameter, allowing it to easily slip through the bacterial cell wall.

“We selected Au22 because it’s ideal for absorbing visible light and has the potential for driving the CO2 reduction process, but we weren’t sure whether it would be compatible with the bacteria,” Yang said. “When we inspected them under the microscope, we discovered that the bacteria were loaded with these Au22 clusters – and were still happily alive.”

Imaging of the M. thermoacetica-Au22 system was done at UC Berkeley’s Molecular Imaging Center (link is external).

The researchers also selected Au22 ­– dubbed by the researchers as “magic” gold nanoclusters – for its ultrasmall size: A single Au22nanocluster is only 1 nanometer in diameter, allowing each nanocluster to easily slip through the bacterial cell wall.

“By feeding bacteria with Au22 nanoclusters, we’ve effectively streamlined the electron transfer process for the CO2 reduction pathway inside the bacteria, as evidenced by a 2.86 percent quantum efficiency – or 33 percent more acetate produced within the M. thermoacetica-Au22 system than the CdS model,” Yang said.

The magic gold nanocluster is the latest discovery coming out of Yang’s lab, which for the past six years has focused on using biohybrid nanostructures to convert CO2 into useful chemicals as part of an ongoing effort to find affordable, abundant resources for renewable fuels, and potential solutions to thwart the effects of climate change.

“Next, we’d like to find a way to reduce costs, improve the lifetimes for these biohybrid systems, and improve quantum efficiency,” Yang said. “By continuing to look at the fundamental aspect of how gold nanoclusters are being photoactivated, and by following the electron transfer process within the CO2 reduction pathway, we hope to find even better solutions.”

Co-authors with Yang are UC Berkeley graduate student Hao Zhang and former postdoctoral fellow Hao Liu, now at Donghua University in Shanghai, China.

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

Bacteria photosensitized by intracellular gold nanoclusters for solar fuel production by Hao Zhang, Hao Liu, Zhiquan Tian, Dylan Lu, Yi Yu, Stefano Cestellos-Blanco, Kelsey K. Sakimoto, & Peidong Yang. Nature Nanotechnologyvolume 13, pages900–905 (2018). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-018-0267-z Published: 01 October 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For lovers of animation, the folks at UC Berkeley have produced this piece about the ‘gold-loving’ bacterium,

Genes, intelligence, Chinese CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) babies, and other children

This started out as an update and now it’s something else. What follows is a brief introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins; a brief examination of parents, children, and competitiveness; and, finally, a suggestion that genes may not be what we thought. I also include a discussion about how some think scientists should respond when they know beforehand that one of their kin is crossing an ethical line. Basically, this is a complex topic and I am attempting to interweave a number of competing lines of query into one narrative about human nature and the latest genetics obsession.

Introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins

Back in November 2018 I covered the story about the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui , who had used CRISPR technology to edit genes in embryos that were subsequently implanted in a waiting mother (apparently there could be as many as eight mothers) with the babies being brought to term despite an international agreement (of sorts) not to do that kind of work. At this time, we know of the twins, Lulu and Nana but, by now, there may be more babies. (I have much more detail about the initial controversies in my November 28, 2018 posting.)

It seems the drama has yet to finish unfolding. There may be another consequence of He’s genetic tinkering.

Could the CRISPR babies, Lulu and Nana, have enhanced cognitive abilities?

Yes, according to Antonio Regalado’s February 21, 2019 article (behind a paywall) for MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review, those engineered babies may have enhanced abilities for learning and remembering.

For those of us who can’t get beyond the paywall, others have been successful. Josh Gabbatiss in his February 22, 2019 article for independent.co.uk provides some detail,

The world’s first gene edited babies may have had their brains unintentionally altered – and perhaps cognitively enhanced – as a result of the controversial treatment undertaken by a team of Chinese scientists.

Dr He Jiankui and his team allegedly deleted a gene from a number of human embryos before implanting them in their mothers, a move greeted with horror by the global scientific community. The only known successful birth so far is the case of twin girls Nana and Lulu.

The now disgraced scientist claimed that he removed a gene called CCR5 [emphasis mine] from their embroyos in an effort to make the twins resistant to infection by HIV.

But another twist in the saga has now emerged after a new paper provided more evidence that the impact of CCR5 deletion reaches far beyond protection against dangerous viruses – people who naturally lack this gene appear to recover more quickly from strokes, and even go further in school. [emphasis mine]

Dr Alcino Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped identify this role for CCR5 said the work undertaken by Dr Jiankui likely did change the girls’ brains.

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” he told the MIT Technology Review.

The connection immediately raised concerns that the gene was targeted due to its known links with intelligence, which Dr Silva said was his immediate response when he heard the news.

… there is no evidence that this was Dr Jiankui’s goal and at a press conference organised after the initial news broke, he said he was aware of the work but was “against using genome editing for enhancement”.

..

Claire Maldarelli’s February 22, 2019 article for Popular Science provides more information about the CCR5 gene/protein (Note: Links have been removed),

CCR5 is a protein that sits on the surface of white blood cells, a major component of the human immune system. There, it allows HIV to enter and infect a cell. A chunk of the human population naturally carries a mutation that makes CCR5 nonfunctional (one study found that 10 percent of Europeans have this mutation), which often results in a smaller protein size and one that isn’t located on the outside of the cell, preventing HIV from ever entering and infecting the human immune system.

The goal of the Chinese researchers’ work, led by He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology located in Shenzhen, was to tweak the embryos’ genome to lack CCR5, ensuring the babies would be immune to HIV.

But genetics is rarely that simple.

In recent years, the CCR5 gene has been a target of ongoing research, and not just for its relationship to HIV. In an attempt to understand what influences memory formation and learning in the brain, a group of researchers at UCLA found that lowering the levels of CCR5 production enhanced both learning and memory formation. This connection led those researchers to think that CCR5 could be a good drug target for helping stroke victims recover: Relearning how to move, walk, and talk is a key component to stroke rehabilitation.

… promising research, but it begs the question: What does that mean for the babies who had their CCR5 genes edited via CRISPR prior to their birth? Researchers speculate that the alternation will have effects on the children’s cognitive functioning. …

John Loeffler’s February 22, 2019 article for interestingengineering.com notes that there are still many questions about He’s (scientist’s name) research including, did he (pronoun) do what he claimed? (Note: Links have been removed),

Considering that no one knows for sure whether He has actually done as he and his team claim, the swiftness of the condemnation of his work—unproven as it is—shows the sensitivity around this issue.

Whether He did in fact edit Lulu and Nana’s genes, it appears he didn’t intend to impact their cognitive capacities. According to MIT Technology Review, not a single researcher studying CCR5’s role in intelligence was contacted by He, even as other doctors and scientists were sought out for advice about his project.

This further adds to the alarm as there is every expectation that He should have known about the connection between CCR5 and cognition.

At a gathering of gene-editing researchers in Hong Kong two days after the birth of the potentially genetically-altered twins was announced, He was asked about the potential impact of erasing CCR5 from the twins DNA on their mental capacity.

He responded that he knew about the potential cognitive link shown in Silva’s 2016 research. “I saw that paper, it needs more independent verification,” He said, before adding that “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”

The problem, as Silva sees it, is that He may be blazing the trail for exactly that outcome, whether He intends to or not. Silva says that after his 2016 research was published, he received an uncomfortable amount of attention from some unnamed, elite Silicon Valley leaders who seem to be expressing serious interest in using CRISPR to give their children’s brains a boost through gene editing. [emphasis mine]

As such, Silva can be forgiven for not quite believing He’s claims that he wasn’t intending to alter the human genome for enhancement. …

The idea of designer babies isn’t new. As far back as Plato, the thought of using science to “engineer” a better human has been tossed about, but other than selective breeding, there really hasn’t been a path forward.

In the late 1800s, early 1900s, Eugenics made a real push to accomplish something along these lines, and the results were horrifying, even before Nazism. After eugenics mid-wifed the Holocaust in World War II, the concept of designer children has largely been left as fodder for science fiction since few reputable scientists would openly declare their intention to dabble in something once championed and pioneered by the greatest monsters of the 20th century.

Memories have faded though, and CRISPR significantly changes this decades-old calculus. CRISPR makes it easier than ever to target specific traits in order to add or subtract them from an embryos genetic code. Embryonic research is also a diverse enough field that some scientist could see pioneering designer babies as a way to establish their star power in academia while getting their names in the history books, [emphasis mine] all while working in relative isolation. They only need to reveal their results after the fact and there is little the scientific community can do to stop them, unfortunately.

When He revealed his research and data two days after announcing the births of Lulu and Nana, the gene-scientists at the Hong Kong conference were not all that impressed with the quality of He’s work. He has not provided access for fellow researchers to either his data on Lulu, Nana, and their family’s genetic data so that others can verify that Lulu and Nana’s CCR5 genes were in fact eliminated.

This almost rudimentary verification and validation would normally accompany a major announcement such as this. Neither has He’s work undergone a peer-review process and it hasn’t been formally published in any scientific journal—possibly for good reason.

Researchers such as Eric Topol, a geneticist at the Scripps Research Institute, have been finding several troubling signs in what little data He has released. Topol says that the editing itself was not precise and show “all kinds of glitches.”

Gaetan Burgio, a geneticist at the Australian National University, is likewise unimpressed with the quality of He’s work. Speaking of the slides He showed at the conference to support his claim, Burgio calls it amateurish, “I can believe that he did it because it’s so bad.”

Worse of all, its entirely possible that He actually succeeded in editing Lulu and Nana’s genetic code in an ad hoc, unethical, and medically substandard way. Sadly, there is no shortage of families with means who would be willing to spend a lot of money to design their idea of a perfect child, so there is certainly demand for such a “service.”

It’s nice to know (sarcasm icon) that the ‘Silicon Valley elite’ are willing to volunteer their babies for scientific experimentation in a bid to enhance intelligence.

The ethics of not saying anything

Natalie Kofler, a molecular biologist, wrote a February 26, 2019 Nature opinion piece and call to action on the subject of why scientists who were ‘in the know’ remained silent about He’s work prior to his announcements,

Millions [?] were shocked to learn of the birth of gene-edited babies last year, but apparently several scientists were already in the know. Chinese researcher He Jiankui had spoken with them about his plans to genetically modify human embryos intended for pregnancy. His work was done before adequate animal studies and in direct violation of the international scientific consensus that CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technology is not ready or appropriate for making changes to humans that could be passed on through generations.

Scholars who have spoken publicly about their discussions with He described feeling unease. They have defended their silence by pointing to uncertainty over He’s intentions (or reassurance that he had been dissuaded), a sense of obligation to preserve confidentiality and, perhaps most consistently, the absence of a global oversight body. Others who have not come forward probably had similar rationales. But He’s experiments put human health at risk; anyone with enough knowledge and concern could have posted to blogs or reached out to their deans, the US National Institutes of Health or relevant scientific societies, such as the Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genome Editing (see page 440). Unfortunately, I think that few highly established scientists would have recognized an obligation to speak up.

I am convinced that this silence is a symptom of a broader scientific cultural crisis: a growing divide between the values upheld by the scientific community and the mission of science itself.

A fundamental goal of the scientific endeavour is to advance society through knowledge and innovation. As scientists, we strive to cure disease, improve environmental health and understand our place in the Universe. And yet the dominant values ingrained in scientists centre on the virtues of independence, ambition and objectivity. That is a grossly inadequate set of skills with which to support a mission of advancing society.

Editing the genes of embryos could change our species’ evolutionary trajectory. Perhaps one day, the technology will eliminate heritable diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis. But it might also eliminate deafness or even brown eyes. In this quest to improve the human race, the strengths of our diversity could be lost, and the rights of already vulnerable populations could be jeopardized.

Decisions about how and whether this technology should be used will require an expanded set of scientific virtues: compassion to ensure its applications are designed to be just, humility to ensure its risks are heeded and altruism to ensure its benefits are equitably distributed.

Calls for improved global oversight and robust ethical frameworks are being heeded. Some researchers who apparently knew of He’s experiments are under review by their universities. Chinese investigators have said He skirted regulations and will be punished. But punishment is an imperfect motivator. We must foster researchers’ sense of societal values.

Fortunately, initiatives popping up throughout the scientific community are cultivating a scientific culture informed by a broader set of values and considerations. The Scientific Citizenship Initiative at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trains scientists to align their research with societal needs. The Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics offers genomics training that also focuses on integrating indigenous cultural perspectives into gene studies. The AI Now Institute at New York University has initiated a holistic approach to artificial-intelligence research that incorporates inclusion, bias and justice. And Editing Nature, a programme that I founded, provides platforms that integrate scientific knowledge with diverse cultural world views to foster the responsible development of environmental genetic technologies.

Initiatives such as these are proof [emphasis mine] that science is becoming more socially aware, equitable and just. …

I’m glad to see there’s work being done on introducing a broader set of values into the scientific endeavour. That said, these programmes seem to be voluntary, i.e., people self-select, and those most likely to participate in these programmes are the ones who might be inclined to integrate social values into their work in the first place.

This doesn’t address the issue of how to deal with unscrupulous governments pressuring scientists to create designer babies along with hypercompetitive and possibly unscrupulous individuals such as the members of the ‘Silicon Valley insiders mentioned in Loeffler’s article, teaming up with scientists who will stop at nothing to get their place in the history books.

Like Kofler, I’m encouraged to see these programmes but I’m a little less convinced that they will be enough. What form it might take I don’t know but I think something a little more punitive is also called for.

CCR5 and freedom from HIV

I’ve added this piece about the Berlin and London patients because, back in November 2018, I failed to realize how compelling the idea of eradicating susceptibility to AIDS/HIV might be. Reading about some real life remissions helped me to understand some of He’s stated motivations a bit better. Unfortunately, there’s a major drawback described here in a March 5, 2019 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) online news attributed to Reuters,

An HIV-positive man in Britain has become the second known adult worldwide to be cleared of the virus that causes AIDS after he received a bone marrow transplant from an HIV-resistant donor, his doctors said.

The therapy had an early success with a man known as “the Berlin patient,” Timothy Ray Brown, a U.S. man treated in Germany who is 12 years post-transplant and still free of HIV. Until now, Brown was the only person thought to have been cured of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Such transplants are dangerous and have failed in other patients. They’re also impractical to try to cure the millions already infected.

In the latest case, the man known as “the London patient” has no trace of HIV infection, almost three years after he received bone marrow stem cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that resists HIV infection — and more than 18 months after he came off antiretroviral drugs.

“There is no virus there that we can measure. We can’t detect anything,” said Ravindra Gupta, a professor and HIV biologist who co-led a team of doctors treating the man.

Gupta described his patient as “functionally cured” and “in remission,” but cautioned: “It’s too early to say he’s cured.”

Gupta, now at Cambridge University, treated the London patient when he was working at University College London. The man, who has asked to remain anonymous, had contracted HIV in 2003, Gupta said, and in 2012 was also diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In 2016, when he was very sick with cancer, doctors decided to seek a transplant match for him.

“This was really his last chance of survival,” Gupta told Reuters.

Doctors found a donor with a gene mutation known as CCR5 delta 32, which confers resistance to HIV. About one per cent of people descended from northern Europeans have inherited the mutation from both parents and are immune to most HIV. The donor had this double copy of the mutation.

That was “an improbable event,” Gupta said. “That’s why this has not been observed more frequently.”

Most experts say it is inconceivable such treatments could be a way of curing all patients. The procedure is expensive, complex and risky. To do this in others, exact match donors would have to be found in the tiny proportion of people who have the CCR5 mutation.

Specialists said it is also not yet clear whether the CCR5 resistance is the only key [emphasis mine] — or whether the graft-versus-host disease may have been just as important. Both the Berlin and London patients had this complication, which may have played a role in the loss of HIV-infected cells, Gupta said.

Not only is there some question as to what role the CCR5 gene plays, there’s also a question as to whether or not we know what role genes play.

A big question: are genes what we thought?

Ken Richardson’s January 3, 2019 article for Nautilus (I stumbled across it on May 14, 2019 so I’m late to the party) makes and supports a startling statement, It’s the End of the Gene As We Know It We are not nearly as determined by our genes as once thought (Note: A link has been removed),

We’ve all seen the stark headlines: “Being Rich and Successful Is in Your DNA” (Guardian, July 12); “A New Genetic Test Could Help Determine Children’s Success” (Newsweek, July 10); “Our Fortunetelling Genes” make us (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16); and so on.

The problem is, many of these headlines are not discussing real genes at all, but a crude statistical model of them, involving dozens of unlikely assumptions. Now, slowly but surely, that whole conceptual model of the gene is being challenged.

We have reached peak gene, and passed it.

The preferred dogma started to appear in different versions in the 1920s. It was aptly summarized by renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger in a famous lecture in Dublin in 1943. He told his audience that chromosomes “contain, in some kind of code-script, the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.”

Around that image of the code a whole world order of rank and privilege soon became reinforced. These genes, we were told, come in different “strengths,” different permutations forming ranks that determine the worth of different “races” and of different classes in a class-structured society. A whole intelligence testing movement was built around that preconception, with the tests constructed accordingly.

The image fostered the eugenics and Nazi movements of the 1930s, with tragic consequences. Governments followed a famous 1938 United Kingdom education commission in decreeing that, “The facts of genetic inequality are something that we cannot escape,” and that, “different children … require types of education varying in certain important respects.”

Today, 1930s-style policy implications are being drawn once again. Proposals include gene-testing at birth for educational intervention, embryo selection for desired traits, identifying which classes or “races” are fitter than others, and so on. And clever marketizing now sees millions of people scampering to learn their genetic horoscopes in DNA self-testing kits.[emphasis mine]

So the hype now pouring out of the mass media is popularizing what has been lurking in the science all along: a gene-god as an entity with almost supernatural powers. Today it’s the gene that, in the words of the Anglican hymn, “makes us high and lowly and orders our estate.”

… at the same time, a counter-narrative is building, not from the media but from inside science itself.

So it has been dawning on us is that there is no prior plan or blueprint for development: Instructions are created on the hoof, far more intelligently than is possible from dumb DNA. That is why today’s molecular biologists are reporting “cognitive resources” in cells; “bio-information intelligence”; “cell intelligence”; “metabolic memory”; and “cell knowledge”—all terms appearing in recent literature.1,2 “Do cells think?” is the title of a 2007 paper in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences.3 On the other hand the assumed developmental “program” coded in a genotype has never been described.


It is such discoveries that are turning our ideas of genetic causation inside out. We have traditionally thought of cell contents as servants to the DNA instructions. But, as the British biologist Denis Noble insists in an interview with the writer Suzan Mazur,1 “The modern synthesis has got causality in biology wrong … DNA on its own does absolutely nothing [ emphasis mine] until activated by the rest of the system … DNA is not a cause in an active sense. I think it is better described as a passive data base which is used by the organism to enable it to make the proteins that it requires.”

I highly recommend reading Richardson’s article in its entirety. As well, you may want to read his book, ” Genes, Brains and Human Potential: The Science and Ideology of Intelligence .”

As for “DNA on its own doing absolutely nothing,” that might be a bit of a eye-opener for the Silicon Valley elite types investigating cognitive advantages attributed to the lack of a CCR5 gene. Meanwhile, there are scientists inserting a human gene associated with brain development into monkeys,

Transgenic monkeys and human intelligence

An April 2, 2019 news item on chinadaily.com describes research into transgenic monkeys,

Researchers from China and the United States have created transgenic monkeys carrying a human gene that is important for brain development, and the monkeys showed human-like brain development.

Scientists have identified several genes that are linked to primate brain size. MCPH1 is a gene that is expressed during fetal brain development. Mutations in MCPH1 can lead to microcephaly, a developmental disorder characterized by a small brain.

In the study published in the Beijing-based National Science Review, researchers from the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of North Carolina in the United States and other research institutions reported that they successfully created 11 transgenic rhesus monkeys (eight first-generation and three second-generation) carrying human copies of MCPH1.

According to the research article, brain imaging and tissue section analysis showed an altered pattern of neuron differentiation and a delayed maturation of the neural system, which is similar to the developmental delay (neoteny) in humans.

Neoteny in humans is the retention of juvenile features into adulthood. One key difference between humans and nonhuman primates is that humans require a much longer time to shape their neuro-networks during development, greatly elongating childhood, which is the so-called “neoteny.”

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

Transgenic rhesus monkeys carrying the human MCPH1 gene copies show human-like neoteny of brain development by Lei Shi, Xin Luo, Jin Jiang, Yongchang Chen, Cirong Liu, Ting Hu, Min Li, Qiang Lin, Yanjiao Li, Jun Huang Hong Wang, Yuyu Niu, Yundi Shi, Martin Styner, Jianhong Wang, Yi Lu, Xuejin Sun, Hualin Yu, Weizhi Ji, Bing Su. National Science Review, nwz043, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwz043 Published: 27 March 2019

This appears to be an open access paper,

Transgenic monkeys and an ethical uproar

Predictably, this research set off alarms as Sharon Kirkey’s April 12, 2019 article for the National Post describes in detail (Note: A link has been removed)l,

Their brains may not be bigger than normal, but monkeys created with human brain genes are exhibiting cognitive changes that suggest they might be smarter — and the experiments have ethicists shuddering.

In the wake of the genetically modified human babies scandal, Chinese scientists [as a scientist from the US] are drawing fresh condemnation from philosophers and ethicists, this time over the announcement they’ve created transgenic monkeys with elements of a human brain.

Six of the monkeys died, however the five survivors “exhibited better short-term memory and shorter reaction time” compared to their wild-type controls, the researchers report in the journa.

According to the researchers, the experiments represent the first attempt to study the genetic basis of human brain origin using transgenic monkeys. The findings, they insist, “have the potential to provide important — and potentially unique — insights into basic questions of what actually makes humans unique.”

For others, the work provokes a profoundly moral and visceral uneasiness. Even one of the collaborators — University of North Carolina computer scientist Martin Styner — told MIT Technology Review he considered removing his name from the paper, which he said was unable to find a publisher in the West.

“Now we have created this animal which is different than it is supposed to be,” Styner said. “When we do experiments, we have to have a good understanding of what we are trying to learn, to help society, and that is not the case here.” l

In an email to the National Post, Styner said he has an expertise in medical image analysis and was approached by the researchers back in 2011. He said he had no input on the science in the project, beyond how to best do the analysis of their MRI data. “At the time, I did not think deeply enough about the ethical consideration.”

….

When it comes to the scientific use of nonhuman primates, ethicists say the moral compass is skewed in cases like this.

Given the kind of beings monkeys are, “I certainly would have thought you would have had to have a reasonable expectation of high benefit to human beings to justify the harms that you are going to have for intensely social, cognitively complex, emotional animals like monkeys,” said Letitia Meynell, an associate professor in the department of philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“It’s not clear that this kind of research has any reasonable expectation of having any useful application for human beings,” she said.

The science itself is also highly dubious and fundamentally flawed in its logic, she said.
“If you took Einstein as a baby and you raised him in the lab he wouldn’t turn out to be Einstein,” Meynell said. “If you’re actually interested in studying the cognitive complexity of these animals, you’re not going to get a good representation of that by raising them in labs, because they can’t develop the kind of cognitive and social skills they would in their normal environment.”

The Chinese said the MCPH1 gene is one of the strongest candidates for human brain evolution. But looking at a single gene is just bad genetics, Meynell said. Multiple genes and their interactions affect the vast majority of traits.

My point is that there’s a lot of research focused on intelligence and genes when we don’t really know what role genes actually play and when there doesn’t seem to be any serious oversight.

Global plea for moratorium on heritable genome editing

A March 13, 2019 University of Otago (New Zealand) press release (also on EurekAlert) describes a global plea for a moratorium,

A University of Otago bioethicist has added his voice to a global plea for a moratorium on heritable genome editing from a group of international scientists and ethicists in the wake of the recent Chinese experiment aiming to produce HIV immune children.

In an article in the latest issue of international scientific journal Nature, Professor Jing-Bao Nie together with another 16 [17] academics from seven countries, call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing to make genetically modified children.

They would like an international governance framework – in which nations voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met – to be created potentially for a five-year period.

Professor Nie says the scientific scandal of the experiment that led to the world’s first genetically modified babies raises many intriguing ethical, social and transcultural/transglobal issues. His main personal concerns include what he describes as the “inadequacy” of the Chinese and international responses to the experiment.

“The Chinese authorities have conducted a preliminary investigation into the scientist’s genetic misadventure and issued a draft new regulation on the related biotechnologies. These are welcome moves. Yet, by putting blame completely on the rogue scientist individually, the institutional failings are overlooked,” Professor Nie explains.

“In the international discourse, partly due to the mentality of dichotomising China and the West, a tendency exists to characterise the scandal as just a Chinese problem. As a result, the global context of the experiment and Chinese science schemes have been far from sufficiently examined.”

The group of 17 [18] scientists and bioethicists say it is imperative that extensive public discussions about the technical, scientific, medical, societal, ethical and moral issues must be considered before germline editing is permitted. A moratorium would provide time to establish broad societal consensus and an international framework.

“For germline editing to even be considered for a clinical application, its safety and efficacy must be sufficient – taking into account the unmet medical need, the risks and potential benefits and the existence of alternative approaches,” the opinion article states.

Although techniques have improved in recent years, germline editing is not yet safe or effective enough to justify any use in the clinic with the risk of failing to make the desired change or of introducing unintended mutations still unacceptably high, the scientists and ethicists say.

“No clinical application of germline editing should be considered unless its long-term biological consequences are sufficiently understood – both for individuals and for the human species.”

The proposed moratorium does not however, apply to germline editing for research uses or in human somatic (non-reproductive) cells to treat diseases.

Professor Nie considers it significant that current presidents of the UK Royal Society, the US National Academy of Medicine and the Director and Associate Director of the US National Institute of Health have expressed their strong support for such a proposed global moratorium in two correspondences published in the same issue of Nature. The editorial in the issue also argues that the right decision can be reached “only through engaging more communities in the debate”.

“The most challenging questions are whether international organisations and different countries will adopt a moratorium and if yes, whether it will be effective at all,” Professor Nie says.

A March 14, 2019 news item on phys.org provides a précis of the Comment in Nature. Or, you ,can access the Comment with this link

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing; Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg and specialists from seven countries call for an international governance framework.signed by: Eric S. Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg, Catherine Bourgain, Bärbel Friedrich, J. Keith Joung, Jinsong Li, David Liu, Luigi Naldini, Jing-Bao Nie, Renzong Qiu, Bettina Schoene-Seifert, Feng Shao, Sharon Terry, Wensheng Wei, & Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker. Nature 567, 165-168 (2019) doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00726-5

This Comment in Nature is open access.

World Health Organization (WHO) chimes in

Better late than never, eh? The World Health Organization has called heritable gene editing of humans ‘irresponsible’ and made recommendations. From a March 19, 2019 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Online news webpage,

A panel convened by the World Health Organization said it would be “irresponsible” for scientists to use gene editing for reproductive purposes, but stopped short of calling for a ban.

The experts also called for the U.N. health agency to create a database of scientists working on gene editing. The recommendation was announced Tuesday after a two-day meeting in Geneva to examine the scientific, ethical, social and legal challenges of such research.

“At this time, it is irresponsible for anyone to proceed” with making gene-edited babies since DNA changes could be passed down to future generations, the experts said in a statement.

Germline editing has been on my radar since 2015 (see my May 14, 2015 posting) and the probability that someone would experiment with viable embryos and bring them to term shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Slow science from Canada

Canada has banned germline editing but there is pressure to lift that ban. (I touched on the specifics of the campaign in an April 26, 2019 posting.) This March 17, 2019 essay on The Conversation by Landon J Getz and Graham Dellaire, both of Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada) elucidates some of the discussion about whether research into germline editing should be slowed down.

Naughty (or Haughty, if you prefer) scientists

There was scoffing from some, if not all, members of the scientific community about the potential for ‘designer babies’ that can be seen in an excerpt from an article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic (originally published in my ,August 15, 2017 posting titled: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?),

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.”

Then about 15 months later, the possibility seemed to be realized.

Interesting that scientists scoffed at the public’s concerns (you can find similar arguments about robots and artificial intelligence not being a potentially catastrophic problem), yes? Often, nonscientists’ concerns are dismissed as being founded in science fiction.

To be fair, there are times when concerns are overblown, the difficulty is that it seems the scientific community’s default position is to uniformly dismiss concerns rather than approaching them in a nuanced fashion. If the scoffers had taken the time to think about it, germline editing on viable embryos seems like an obvious and inevitable next step (as I’ve noted previously).

At this point, no one seems to know if He actually succeeded at removing CCR5 from Lulu’s and Nana’s genomes. In November 2018, scientists were guessing that at least one of the twins was a ‘mosaic’. In other words, some of her cells did not include CCR5 while others did.

Parents, children, competition

A recent college admissions scandal in the US has highlighted the intense competition to get into high profile educational institutions. (This scandal brought to mind the Silicon Valey elite who wanted to know more about gene editing that might result in improved cognitive skills.)

Since it can be easy to point the finger at people in other countries, I’d like to note that there was a Canadian parent among these wealthy US parents attempting to give their children advantages by any means, legal or not. (Note: These are alleged illegalities.) From a March 12, 2019 news article by Scott Brown, Kevin Griffin, and Keith Fraser for the Vancouver Sun,

Vancouver businessman and former CFL [Canadian Football League] player David Sidoo has been charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with a far-reaching FBI investigation into a criminal conspiracy that sought to help privileged kids with middling grades gain admission to elite U.S. universities.

In a 12-page indictment filed March 5 [2019] in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, Sidoo is accused of making two separate US$100,000 payments to have others take college entrance exams in place of his two sons.

Sidoo is also accused of providing documents for the purpose of creating falsified identification cards for the people taking the tests.

In what is being called the biggest college-admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, Sidoo has been charged with nearly 50 other people. Nine athletic coaches and 33 parents including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. are among those charged in the investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues.

According to the indictment, an unidentified person flew from Tampa, Fla., to Vancouver in 2011 to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in place of Sidoo’s older son and was directed not to obtain too high a score since the older son had previously taken the exam, obtaining a score of 1460 out of a possible 2400.

A copy of the resulting SAT score — 1670 out of 2400 — was mailed to Chapman University, a private university in Orange, Calif., on behalf of the older son, who was admitted to and ultimately enrolled in the university in January 2012, according to the indictment.

It’s also alleged that Sidoo arranged to have someone secretly take the older boy’s Canadian high school graduation exam, with the person posing as the boy taking the exam in June 2012.

The Vancouver businessman is also alleged to have paid another $100,000 to have someone take the SAT in place of his younger son.

Sidoo, an investment banker currently serving as CEO of Advantage Lithium, was awarded the Order of B.C. in 2016 for his philanthropic efforts.

He is a former star with the UBC [University of British Columbia] Thunderbirds football team and helped the school win its first Vanier Cup in 1982. He went on to play five seasons in the CFL with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and B.C. Lions.

Sidoo is a prominent donor to UBC and is credited with spearheading an alumni fundraising campaign, 13th Man Foundation, that resuscitated the school’s once struggling football team. He reportedly donated $2 million of his own money to support the program.

Sidoo Field at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium is named in his honour.

In 2016, he received the B.C. [British Columbia] Sports Hall of Fame’s W.A.C. Bennett Award for his contributions to the sporting life of the province.

The question of whether or not these people like the ‘Silicon Valley elite’ (mentioned in John Loeffler’s February 22, 2019 article) would choose to tinker with their children’s genome if it gave them an advantage, is still hypothetical but it’s easy to believe that at least some might seriously consider the possibility especially if the researcher or doctor didn’t fully explain just how little is known about the impact of tinkering with the genome. For example, there’s a big question about whether those parents in China fully understood what they signed up for.

By the way, cheating scandals aren’t new (see Vanity Fair’s Schools For Scandal; The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses—Plus Oxford! Edited by Graydon Carter, published in August 2018 and covering 25 years of the magazine’s reporting). On a similar line, there’s this March13, 2019 essay which picks apart some of the hierarchical and power issues at play in the US higher educational system which led to this latest (but likely not last) scandal.

Scientists under pressure

While Kofler’s February 26, 2019 Nature opinion piece and call to action seems to address the concerns regarding germline editing by advocating that scientists become more conscious of how their choices impact society, as I noted earlier, the ideas expressed seem a little ungrounded in harsh realities. Perhaps it’s time to give some recognition to the various pressures put on scientists from their own governments and from an academic environment that fosters ‘success’ at any cost to peer pressure, etc. (For more about the costs of a science culture focused on success, read this March 2, 2019 blog posting by Jon Tennant on digital-science.com for a breakdown.)

One other thing I should mention, for some scientists getting into the history books, winning Nobel prizes, etc. is a very important goal. Scientists are people too.

Some thoughts

There seems to be a great disjunction between what Richardson presents as an alternative narrative to the ‘gene-god’ and how genetic research is being performed and reported on. What is clear to me is that no one really understands genetics and this business of inserting and deleting genes is essentially research designed to satisfy curiosity and/or allay fears about being left behind in a great scientific race to a an unknown destination.

I’d like to see some better reporting and a more agile response by the scientific community, the various governments, and international agencies. What shape or form a more agile response might take, I don’t know but I’d like to see some efforts.

Back to the regular programme

There’s a lot about CRISPR here on this blog. A simple search of ‘CRISPR ‘in the blog’s search engine should get you more than enough information about the technology and the various issues ranging from intellectual property to risks and more.

The three part series (CRISPR and editing the germline in the US …), mentioned previously, was occasioned by the publication of a study on germline editing research with nonviable embryos in the US. The 2017 research was done at the Oregon Health and Science University by Shoukhrat Mitalipov following similar research published by Chinese scientists in 2015. The series gives relatively complete coverage of the issues along with an introduction to CRISPR and embedded video describing the technique. Here’s part 1 to get you started..

Snakebite? Roll out the nanoparticles

An October 4, 2018 news item on Nanowerk highlights some recent research into treating snakebites (Note: A link has been removed),

Venomous snakebites affect 2.5 million people, and annually cause more than 100,000 deaths and leave 400,000 individuals with permanent physical and psychological trauma each year.

Researchers reporting in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases (“Engineered nanoparticles bind elapid snake venom toxins and inhibit venom-induced dermonecrosis”) have now described a new approach to treating snake bites [sic], using nanoparticles to bind to venom toxins and prevent the spread of venom through the body.

Caption: “Synthetic polymer nanoparticles bind elapid snake venom toxins and inhibit venom-induced dermonecrosis.” Credit: Shea, et al. CC BY 4.0: Redistribution allowed with credit

An October 4, 2018 PLOS news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The standard treatment for snakebites is the intravenous administration of IgG immune molecules that recognize venoms. However, such antivenom therapies must be administered quickly–and by trained healthcare workers– to be effective and are highly specific to particular venoms. There is an ongoing need for a snakebite treatment which can be used in a rural setting and works against the bites of diverse venomous snakes.

In the new work, Kenneth Shea, of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues engineered nanoparticles that bind to and sequester an array of phospholipases A2 (PLA2) and three-finger toxin (3FTX) molecules found in Elapidae snake venoms. The Elapidae family is a large family of venomous snakes that includes cobras, kraits, tiger snakes, sea snakes, coral snakes and mambas, among other species. The researchers tested the ability of the nanoparticles to block Naja nigricollis (black-necked spitting cobra) venom in mice that received varying doses of the nanoparticles, injected into the skin. Envenomings by this snake in sub-Saharan Africa inflict serious cutaneous necrosis that may leave permanent tissue damage in the victims.

In experiments on isolated cells, the nanoparticles were found to sequester a wide range of Elapidae PLA and 3FTX venoms. Moreover, with collaborator José María Gutiérrez from the Instituto Clodomiro Picado (Universidad de Costa Rica), experiments with mice demonstrated that injections of the nanoparticles at the site of venom injection significantly mitigated the typical necrotic effects–including blistering and ulcers– of the spitting cobra venom. The nanoparticles administered to mice that had not received venom did not have an effect on skin and did not induce systemic toxicity.

“The stable, low-cost nanoparticles have the potential to be administered subcutaneously immediately after the bite at the site of envenoming by this spitting cobra to halt or reduce the extent of local damage and mitigate the systemic distribution of toxins post-envenoming,” the researchers say.

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

Engineered nanoparticles bind elapid snake venom toxins and inhibit venom-induced dermonecrosis by Jeffrey O’Brien, Shih-Hui Lee, José María Gutiérrez, Kenneth J. Shea. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 12(10): e0006736 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0006736 Published: October 4, 2018

This paper is open access. By the way, PLOS stands for Public Library of Science.

Probing the physical limits of plasmons in organic molecules with fewer than 50 atoms

A Sept. 5, 2018  news item on ScienceDaily introduces the work,

Rice University [Texas, US] researchers are probing the physical limits of excited electronic states called plasmons by studying them in organic molecules with fewer than 50 atoms.

A Sept. 4, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert published on Sept. 5, 2018), which originated the news item, explains what plasmons are and why this research is being undertaken,

Plasmons are oscillations in the plasma of free electrons that constantly swirl across the surface of conductive materials like metals. In some nanomaterials, a specific color of light can resonate with the plasma and cause the electrons inside it to lose their individual identities and move as one, in rhythmic waves. Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) has pioneered a growing list of plasmonic technologies for applications as diverse as color-changing glass, molecular sensing, cancer diagnosis and treatment, optoelectronics, solar energy collection and photocatalysis.

Reporting online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, LANP scientists detailed the results of a two-year experimental and theoretical study of plasmons in three different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Unlike the plasmons in relatively large metal nanoparticles, which can typically be described with classical electromagnetic theory like Maxwell’s [James Clerk Maxwell] equations, the paucity of atoms in the PAHs produces plasmons that can only be understood in terms of quantum mechanics, said study co-author and co-designer Naomi Halas, the director of LANP and the lead researcher on the project.

“These PAHs are essentially scraps of graphene that contain five or six fused benzene rings surrounded by a perimeter of hydrogen atoms,” Halas said. “There are so few atoms in each that adding or removing even a single electron dramatically changes their electronic behavior.”

Halas’ team had experimentally verified the existence of molecular plasmons in several previous studies. But an investigation that combined side by side theoretical and experimental perspectives was needed, said study co-author Luca Bursi, a postdoctoral research associate and theoretical physicist in the research group of study co-designer and co-author Peter Nordlander.

“Molecular excitations are a ubiquity in nature and very well studied, especially for neutral PAHs, which have been considered as the standard of non-plasmonic excitations in the past,” Bursi said. “Given how much is already known about PAHs, they were an ideal choice for further investigation of the properties of plasmonic excitations in systems as small as actual molecules, which represent a frontier of plasmonics.”

Lead co-author Kyle Chapkin, a Ph.D. student in applied physics in the Halas research group, said, “Molecular plasmonics is a new area at the interface between plasmonics and molecular chemistry, which is rapidly evolving. When plasmonics reach the molecular scale, we lose any sharp distinction of what constitutes a plasmon and what doesn’t. We need to find a new rationale to explain this regime, which was one of the main motivations for this study.”

In their native state, the PAHs that were studied — anthanthrene, benzo[ghi]perylene and perylene — are charge-neutral and cannot be excited into a plasmonic state by the visible wavelengths of light used in Chapkin’s experiments. In their anionic form, the molecules contain an additional electron, which alters their “ground state” and makes them plasmonically active in the visible spectrum. By exciting both the native and anionic forms of the molecules and comparing precisely how they behaved as they relaxed back to their ground states, Chapkin and Bursi built a solid case that the anionic forms do support molecular plasmons in the visible spectrum.

The key, Chapkin said, was identifying a number of similarities between the behavior of known plasmonic particles and the anionic PAHs. By matching both the timescales and modes for relaxation behaviors, the LANP team built up a picture of a characteristic dynamics of low-energy plasmonic excitations in the anionic PAHs.

“In molecules, all excitations are molecular excitations, but select excited states show some characteristics that allow us to draw a parallel with the well-established plasmonic excitations in metal nanostructures,” Bursi said.

“This study offers a window on the sometimes surprising behavior of collective excitations in few-atom quantum systems,” Halas said. “What we’ve learned here will aid our lab and others in developing quantum-plasmonic approaches for ultrafast color-changing glass, molecular-scale optoelectronics and nonlinear plasmon-mediated optics.”

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

Lifetime dynamics of plasmons in the few-atom limit by Kyle D. Chapkin, Luca Bursi, Grant J. Stec, Adam Lauchner, Nathaniel J. Hogan, Yao Cui, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. PNAS September 11, 2018 115 (37) 9134-9139; published ahead of print August 27, 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805357115

This paper is behind a paywall.

A snout weevil at the end of the rainbow

I’ve never heard of a snout weevil before but it seems to be a marvelous creature,

Caption: Left: A photograph of the ‘rainbow’ weevil, with the rainbow-colored spots on its thorax and elytra (wing casings). Right: A microscope image of the rim of a single rainbow spot, showing the different colors of individual scales. Credit: Dr Bodo D Wilts

From a Sept. 11, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers from Yale [University]-NUS College and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland have discovered a novel colour-generation mechanism in nature, which if harnessed, has the potential to create cosmetics and paints with purer and more vivid hues, screen displays that project the same true image when viewed from any angle, and even reduce the signal loss in optical fibres.

Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Science (Life Science) Vinodkumar Saranathan led the study with Dr Bodo D Wilts from the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg. Dr Saranathan examined the rainbow-coloured patterns in the elytra (wing casings) of a snout weevil from the Philippines, Pachyrrhynchus congestus pavonius, using high-energy X-rays, while Dr Wilts performed detailed scanning electron microscopy and optical modelling.

They discovered that to produce the rainbow palette of colours, the weevil utilised a colour-generation mechanism that is so far found only in squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses, which are renowned for their colour-shifting camouflage.

A Sept. 11, 2018 Yale-NUS College news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more on the weevil and on the research,

P. c. pavonius, or the “Rainbow” Weevil, is distinctive for its rainbow-coloured spots on its thorax and elytra (see attached image). These spots are made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues, ranging from blue in the centre to red at the outside, just like a rainbow. While many insects have the ability to produce one or two colours, it is rare that a single insect can produce such a vast spectrum of colours. Researchers are interested to figure out the mechanism behind the natural formation of these colour-generating structures, as current technology is unable to synthesise structures of this size.

“The ultimate aim of research in this field is to figure out how the weevil self-assembles these structures, because with our current technology we are unable to do so,” Dr Saranathan said. “The ability to produce these structures, which are able to provide a high colour fidelity regardless of the angle you view it from, will have applications in any industry which deals with colour production. We can use these structures in cosmetics and other pigmentations to ensure high-fidelity hues, or in digital displays in your phone or tablet which will allow you to view it from any angle and see the same true image without any colour distortion. We can even use them to make reflective cladding for optical fibres to minimise signal loss during transmission.”

Dr Saranathan and Dr Wilts examined these scales to determine that the scales were composed of a three-dimensional crystalline structure made from chitin (the main ingredient in insect exoskeletons). They discovered that the vibrant rainbow colours on this weevil’s scales are determined by two factors: the size of the crystal structure which makes up each scale, as well as the volume of chitin used to make up the crystal structure. Larger scales have a larger crystalline structure and use a larger volume of chitin to reflect red light; smaller scales have a smaller crystalline structure and use a smaller volume of chitin to reflect blue light. According to Dr Saranathan, who previously examined over 100 species of insects and spiders and catalogued their colour-generation mechanisms, this ability to simultaneously control both size and volume factors to fine-tune the colour produced has never before been shown in insects, and given its complexity, is quite remarkable. “It is different from the usual strategy employed by nature to produce various different hues on the same animal, where the chitin structures are of fixed size and volume, and different colours are generated by orienting the structure at different angles, which reflects different wavelengths of light,” Dr Saranathan explained.

The research was partly supported though the National Centre of Competence in Research “Bio-Inspired Materials” and the Ambizione program of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to Dr Wilts, and partly through a UK Royal Society Newton Fellowship, a Linacre College EPA Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellowship, and Yale-NUS College funds to Dr Saranathan. Dr Saranathan is currently part of a research team led by Yale-NUS College Associate Professor of Science Antonia Monteiro, which has recently been awarded a separate Competitive Research Programme (CRP) grant by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) to examine the genetic basis of the colour-generation mechanism in butterflies. Dr Saranathan and Dr Monteiro are both also from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Science. In addition, Dr Saranathan is affiliated with the NUS Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative.

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

Literal Elytral Rainbow: Tunable Structural Colors Using Single Diamond Biophotonic Crystals in Pachyrrhynchus congestus Weevils by Bodo D. Wilts, Vinodkumar Saranathan. Samll https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201802328 First published: 15 August 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Iridescent giant clams could point the way to safety, climatologically speaking

Giant clams in Palau (Cynthia Barnett)

These don’t look like any clams I’ve ever seen but that is the point of Cynthia Barnett’s absorbing Sept. 10, 2018 article for The Atlantic (Note: A link has been removed),

Snorkeling amid the tree-tangled rock islands of Ngermid Bay in the western Pacific nation of Palau, Alison Sweeney lingers at a plunging coral ledge, photographing every giant clam she sees along a 50-meter transect. In Palau, as in few other places in the world, this means she is going to be underwater for a skin-wrinkling long time.

At least the clams are making it easy for Sweeney, a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania. The animals plump from their shells like painted lips, shimmering in blues, purples, greens, golds, and even electric browns. The largest are a foot across and radiate from the sea floor, but most are the smallest of the giant clams, five-inch Tridacna crocea, living higher up on the reef. Their fleshy Technicolor smiles beam in all directions from the corals and rocks of Ngermid Bay.

… Some of the corals are bleached from the conditions in Ngermid Bay, where naturally high temperatures and acidity mirror the expected effects of climate change on the global oceans. (Ngermid Bay is more commonly known as “Nikko Bay,” but traditional leaders and government officials are working to revive the indigenous name of Ngermid.)

Even those clams living on bleached corals are pulsing color, like wildflowers in a white-hot desert. Sweeney’s ponytail flows out behind her as she nears them with her camera. They startle back into their fluted shells. Like bashful fairytale creatures cursed with irresistible beauty, they cannot help but draw attention with their sparkly glow.

Barnett makes them seem magical and perhaps they are (Note: A link has been removed),

It’s the glow that drew Sweeney’s attention to giant clams, and to Palau, a tiny republic of more than 300 islands between the Philippines and Guam. Its sun-laden waters are home to seven of the world’s dozen giant-clam species, from the storied Tridacna gigas—which can weigh an estimated 550 pounds and measure over four feet across—to the elegantly fluted Tridacna squamosa. Sweeney first came to the archipelago in 2009, while working on animal iridescence as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Whether shimmering from a blue morpho butterfly’s wings or a squid’s skin, iridescence is almost always associated with a visual signal—one used to attract mates or confuse predators. Giant clams’ luminosity is not such a signal. So, what is it?

In the years since, Sweeney and her colleagues have discovered that the clams’ iridescence is essentially the outer glow of a solar transformer—optimized over millions of years to run on sunlight and algal biofuel. Giant clams reach their cartoonish proportions thanks to an exceptional ability to grow their own photosynthetic algae in vertical farms spread throughout their flesh. Sweeney and other scientists think this evolved expertise may shed light on alternative fuel technologies and other industrial solutions for a warming world.

Barnett goes on to describe Palau’s relationship to the clams and the clams’ environment,

Palau’s islands have been inhabited for at least 3,400 years, and from the start, giant clams were a staple of diet, daily life, and even deity. Many of the islands’ oldest-surviving tools are crafted of thick giant-clam shell: arched-blade adzes, fishhooks, gougers, heavy taro-root pounders. Giant-clam shell makes up more than three-fourths of some of the oldest shell middens in Palau, a percentage that decreases through the centuries. Archaeologists suggest that the earliest islanders depleted the giant clams that crowded the crystalline shallows, then may have self-corrected. Ancient Palauan conservation law, known as bul, prohibited fishing during critical spawning periods, or when a species showed signs of over-harvesting.

Before the Christianity that now dominates Palauan religion sailed in on eighteenth-century mission ships, the culture’s creation lore began with a giant clam called to life in an empty sea. The clam grew bigger and bigger until it sired Latmikaik, the mother of human children, who birthed them with the help of storms and ocean currents.

The legend evokes giant clams in their larval phase, moving with the currents for their first two weeks of life. Before they can settle, the swimming larvae must find and ingest one or two photosynthetic alga, which later multiply, becoming self-replicating fuel cells. After the larvae down the alga and develop a wee shell and a foot, they kick around like undersea farmers, looking for a sunny spot for their crop. When they’ve chosen a well-lit home in a shallow lagoon or reef, they affix to the rock, their shell gaping to the sky. After the sun hits and photosynthesis begins, the microalgae will multiply to millions, or in the case of T. gigas, billions, and clam and algae will live in symbiosis for life.

Giant clam is a beloved staple in Palau and many other Pacific islands, prepared raw with lemon, simmered into coconut soup, baked into a savory pancake, or sliced and sautéed in a dozen other ways. But luxury demand for their ivory-like shells and their adductor muscle, which is coveted as high-end sashimi and an alleged aphrodisiac, has driven T. gigas extinct in China, Taiwan, and other parts of their native habitat. Some of the toughest marine-protection laws in the world, along with giant-clam aquaculture pioneered here, have helped Palau’s wild clams survive. The Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center raises hundreds of thousands of giant clams a year, supplying local clam farmers who sell to restaurants and the aquarium trade and keeping pressure off the wild population. But as other nations have wiped out their clams, Palau’s 230,000-square-mile ocean territory is an increasing target of illegal foreign fishers.

Barnett delves into how the country of Palau is responding to the voracious appetite for the giant clams and other marine life,

Palau, drawing on its ancient conservation tradition of bul, is fighting back. In 2015, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, which prohibits fishing in 80 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone and creates a domestic fishing area in the remaining 20 percent, set aside for local fishers selling to local markets. In 2016, the nation received a $6.6 million grant from Japan to launch a major renovation of the Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center. Now under construction at the waterfront on the southern tip of Malakal Island, the new facility will amp up clam-aquaculture research and increase giant-clam production five-fold, to more than a million seedlings a year.

Last year, Palau amended its immigration policy to require that all visitors sign a pledge to behave in an ecologically responsible manner. The pledge, stamped into passports by an immigration officer who watches you sign, is written to the island’s children:

Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.

The pledge is winning hearts and public-relations awards. But Palau’s existential challenge is still the collective “we,” the world’s rising carbon emissions and the resulting upturns in global temperatures, sea levels, and destructive storms.

F. Umiich Sengebau, Palau’s Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism, grew up on Koror and is full of giant-clam proverbs, wisdom and legends from his youth. He tells me a story I also heard from an elder in the state of Airai: that in old times, giant clams were known as “stormy-weather food,” the fresh staple that was easy to collect and have on hand when it was too stormy to go out fishing.

As Palau faces the storms of climate change, Sengebau sees giant clams becoming another sort of stormy-weather food, serving as a secure source of protein; a fishing livelihood; a glowing icon for tourists; and now, an inspiration for alternative energy and other low-carbon technologies. “In the old days, clams saved us,” Sengebau tells me. “I think there’s a lot of power in that, a great power and meaning in the history of clams as food, and now clams as science.”

I highly recommend Barnett’s article, which is one article in a larger series, from a November 6, 2017 The Atlantic press release,

The Atlantic is expanding the global footprint of its science writing today with a multi-year series to investigate life in all of its multitudes. The series, “Life Up Close,” created with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education (HHMI), begins today at TheAtlantic.com. In the first piece for the project, “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer travels to Greenland to report on the potentially dangerous microbes emerging from thawing Arctic permafrost.

The project is ambitious in both scope and geographic reach, and will explore how life is adapting to our changing planet. Journalists will travel the globe to examine these changes as they happen to microbes, plants, and animals in oceans, grasslands, forests, deserts, and the icy poles. The Atlantic will question where humans should look for life next: from the Martian subsurface, to Europa’s oceans, to the atmosphere of nearby stars and beyond. “Life Up Close” will feature at least twenty reported pieces continuing through 2018.

“The Atlantic has been around for 160 years, but that’s a mere pinpoint in history when it comes to questions of life and where it started, and where we’re going,” said Ross Andersen, The Atlantic’s senior editor who oversees science, tech, and health. “The questions that this project will set out to tackle are critical; and this support will allow us to cover new territory in new and more ambitious ways.”

About The Atlantic:
Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. The Atlantic is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief.

About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Department of Science Education:
HHMI is the leading private nonprofit supporter of scientific research and science education in the United States. The Department of Science Education’s BioInteractive division produces free, high quality educational media for science educators and millions of students around the globe, its HHMI Tangled Bank Studios unit crafts powerful stories of scientific discovery for television and big screens, and its grants program aims to transform science education in universities and colleges. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

Getting back to the giant clams, sometimes all you can do is marvel, eh?

Altered virus spins gold into beads

They’re not calling this synthetic biology but I’ m pretty sure that altering a virus gene so the virus can spin gold (Rumpelstiltskin anyone?) qualifies. From an August 24, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

The race is on to find manufacturing techniques capable of arranging molecular and nanoscale objects with precision.

Engineers at the University of California, Riverside, have altered a virus to arrange gold atoms into spheroids measuring a few nanometers in diameter. The finding could make production of some electronic components cheaper, easier, and faster.

An August 23, 2018 University of California at Riverside (UCR) news release (also on EurekAlett) by Holly Ober, which originated the news item, adds detail,

“Nature has been assembling complex, highly organized nanostructures for millennia with precision and specificity far superior to the most advanced technological approaches,” said Elaine Haberer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in UCR’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering and senior author of the paper describing the breakthrough. “By understanding and harnessing these capabilities, this extraordinary nanoscale precision can be used to tailor and build highly advanced materials with previously unattainable performance.”

Viruses exist in a multitude of shapes and contain a wide range of receptors that bind to molecules. Genetically modifying the receptors to bind to ions of metals used in electronics causes these ions to “stick” to the virus, creating an object of the same size and shape. This procedure has been used to produce nanostructures used in battery electrodes, supercapacitors, sensors, biomedical tools, photocatalytic materials, and photovoltaics.

The virus’ natural shape has limited the range of possible metal shapes. Most viruses can change volume under different scenarios, but resist the dramatic alterations to their basic architecture that would permit other forms.

The M13 bacteriophage, however, is more flexible. Bacteriophages are a type of virus that infects bacteria, in this case, gram-negative bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, which is ubiquitous in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. M13 bacteriophages genetically modified to bind with gold are usually used to form long, golden nanowires.

Studies of the infection process of the M13 bacteriophage have shown the virus can be converted to a spheroid upon interaction with water and chloroform. Yet, until now, the M13 spheroid has been completely unexplored as a nanomaterial template.

Haberer’s group added a gold ion solution to M13 spheroids, creating gold nanobeads that are spiky and hollow.

“The novelty of our work lies in the optimization and demonstration of a viral template, which overcomes the geometric constraints associated with most other viruses,” Haberer said. “We used a simple conversion process to make the M13 virus synthesize inorganic spherical nanoshells tens of nanometers in diameter, as well as nanowires nearly 1 micron in length.”

The researchers are using the gold nanobeads to remove pollutants from wastewater through enhanced photocatalytic behavior.

The work enhances the utility of the M13 bacteriophage as a scaffold for nanomaterial synthesis. The researchers believe the M13 bacteriophage template transformation scheme described in the paper can be extended to related bacteriophages.

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

M13 bacteriophage spheroids as scaffolds for directed synthesis of spiky gold nanostructures by Tam-Triet Ngo-Duc, Joshua M. Plank, Gongde Chen, Reed E. S. Harrison, Dimitrios Morikis, Haizhou Liu, and Elaine D. Haberer. Nanoscale, 2018,10, 13055-13063 DOI: 10.1039/C8NR03229G First published on 25 Jun 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For another example of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, see my July 18, 2018 posting: Genetic engineering: an eggplant in Bangladesh and a synthetic biology grant at Concordia University (Canada).

For anyone unfamiliar with the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale about spinning straw into gold, see its Wikipedida entry.

Change the shape of water with nanotubes

An August 24, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes a ‘shapeshifting’ water technique,

First, according to Rice University engineers, get a nanotube hole. Then insert water. If the nanotube is just the right width, the water molecules will align into a square rod.

Rice materials scientist Rouzbeh Shahsavari and his team used molecular models to demonstrate their theory that weak van der Waals forces between the inner surface of the nanotube and the water molecules are strong enough to snap the oxygen and hydrogen atoms into place.

Shahsavari referred to the contents as two-dimensional “ice,” because the molecules freeze regardless of the temperature. He said the research provides valuable insight on ways to leverage atomic interactions between nanotubes and water molecules to fabricate nanochannels and energy-storing nanocapacitors.

An August 24, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert and received via email), which originated the news item, delves further,

Shahsavari and his colleagues built molecular models of carbon and boron nitride nanotubes with adjustable widths. They discovered boron nitride is best at constraining the shape of water when the nanotubes are 10.5 angstroms wide. (One angstrom is one hundred-millionth of a centimeter.)

The researchers already knew that hydrogen atoms in tightly confined water take on interesting structural properties. Recent experiments by other labs showed strong evidence for the formation of nanotube ice and prompted the researchers to build density functional theory models to analyze the forces responsible.

Shahsavari’s team modeled water molecules, which are about 3 angstroms wide, inside carbon and boron nitride nanotubes of various chiralities (the angles of their atomic lattices) and between 8 and 12 angstroms in diameter. They discovered that nanotubes in the middle diameters had the most impact on the balance between molecular interactions and van der Waals pressure that prompted the transition from a square water tube to ice.

“If the nanotube is too small and you can only fit one water molecule, you can’t judge much,” Shahsavari said. “If it’s too large, the water keeps its amorphous shape. But at about 8 angstroms, the nanotubes’ van der Waals force [if you’re not familiar with the term, see below the link and citation for my brief explanation] starts to push water molecules into organized square shapes.”

He said the strongest interactions were found in boron nitride nanotubes due to the particular polarization of their atoms.

Shahsavari said nanotube ice could find use in molecular machines or as nanoscale capillaries, or foster ways to deliver a few molecules of water or sequestered drugs to targeted cells, like a nanoscale syringe.

Lead author Farzaneh Shayeganfar, a former visiting scholar at Rice, is an instructor at Shahid Rajaee Teacher Training University in Tehran, Iran. Co-principal investigator Javad Beheshtian is a professor at Amirkabir University, Tehran.

Supercomputer resources were provided with support from the [US] National Institutes of Health and an IBM Shared Rice University Research grant.

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

First Principles Study of Water Nanotubes Captured Inside Carbon/Boron Nitride Nanotubes by Farzaneh Shayeganfar, Javad Beheshtian, and Rouzbeh Shahsavari. Langmuir, DOI: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.8b00856 Publication Date (Web): August 23, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the purposes of the posting, van der Waals force(s) are weak adhesive forces measured at the nanoscale. Humans don’t feel them (we’re too big) but gecko lizards can exploit those forces which is why they are able to hang from the ceiling by a single toe.  There’s a more informed description here in the van der Waals force entry on Wikipedia.