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Category Archives: Human Genetic Engineering

The Virtues of Not Eating Animals – CounterPunch

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Growing up in a village

I was born in a Greek village where land and food self-sufficiency were everything. My father had a few strips of land where he raised enough food for his family and the family of his brother who lost his life during the war years of the 1940s. My father cultivated wheat, barley, lentils, vine grapes for wine, and olive trees for oil.

Animals made our lives possible and easier. We had a mule, a donkey, goats, sheep, chickens, dogs and cats.

I learned to respect and love these animals. I could not conceive life without them.

My most interesting agrarian memory comes from our harvesting of grapes during the heat of Summer in late August. My sisters and cousins would fill wicker baskets with ripe bunches of white, blue and red grapes, load them on the donkey, and my younger cousin, George, and I would take them home. We would unload the baskets and pour the grapes into the linos, a rectangular stone and cement enclosure a meter high with a cement bottom. One of the stone walls of the linos had a hole that allowed the liquid wine to drain to a small cement pit below.

After filling the linos with the ripe and tasty fruits of Dionysos, George and I washed our legs and entered the soft hills of grapes, which we treaded to pulp while laughing and having fun.

In America

At age eighteen I left the village for America where I discovered the beauty and pleasures of Greek civilization and much, much more. This happened slowly.

Like other young Greeks and most foreign students from many countries, I saw America as a land of opportunity for those with technical knowledge and skills. This pushed my love for the Greek classics to the back recesses of my mind. In 1961, when I arrived in America, I simply wanted some education that would enable me to earn a good living. I had a vague notion of a good life.

However, my education in zoology and Greek history and the history of science and my work on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency brought me face to face with modernity and I did not like it. I could not stand looking at skyscrapers and cringed at seeing gigantic tractors crushing the land. I had the feeling I had to turn to classical thought. If I were to survive the hubris and crimes of technicians armed to the teeth, I would have to have the support of my ancestors.

I read Pythagorean writings with great interest. Pythagoras was a sixth century BCE philosopher of heavens and Earth. He said number was the constituent of everything in the cosmos. He thought music and songs had a healing and educational effect, invigorating humans with inner harmony. He even said he heard the music of the spherical planets moving around the Sun, which he equated to a large fire at the center of the cosmos. He called that firethe House of Zeus. He was in love with animals and life. He was against destroying or eating any living thing, animals in particular. He was certain there was a brotherhood between humans and animals. He urged the Greeks to stop eating meat and never sacrifice animals to the gods.

I read Xenophon, an Athenian military man and historian who flourished in the first half of fourth century BCE. I agreed with his theory and conviction that agriculture was a school for courage, freedom, military training, and the raising of food and civilization.

Then the fourth century BCE philosopher Aristotle came into my life like a breath of fresh air. In contrast to the dry and uninspiring classes I took while studying zoology at the University of Illinois, the writings of Aristotle brought me in touch with the roots of zoology. His works on animals, especially hisHistory of Animals,lifted me to heavens. They were insightful, riveting, enormously important, and pioneering. They explained to me the origins, complexity, and beauty of the animal kingdom, the perfection of nature, and the meaning and importance of the science of zoology, which Aristotle invented.

At work

I cannot say these Hellenic scientific and philosophical insights blended nicely with my life. After a couple of years on Capitol Hill, in 1979, I started working for the US Environmental Protection Agency. For the first time, I began to grasp what America was all about.

I was so embarrassed the United States had fallen so low: pretending its scientists at the EPA and other agencies like the US Department of Agriculture could employ science in the regulation of the abominable chemical weapons it called pesticides. Those deleterious chemicals kill more than unwanted insects and weeds. They kill all life. They should have never reached agriculture, a political, cultural and scientific process of raising food and civilization.

I was confused, and not a little concerned about this gigantic country I had chosen as my second home.

Decoding scientific research

Unable to influence or change policy, I turned to research and writing. Scientists often publish important work. But to protect themselves, they garble their stories and publish them in obscure journals read by few people.

I tracked down dozens of those stories, which I decoded and merged with the highlights of the stories I heard from my EPA colleagues, who also gave me their memos and briefings. In addition, I met a few outstanding scientists who answered my questions: about pesticides, agriculture, animal farms, water, endangered species, biodiversity, politics. They worked for universities or the federal departments of the Interior and Agriculture.

Out of this chronic investigation, the picture that emerged was disturbing and just as deleterious as that about pesticides.

The plight of animals

The industrialization of agriculture started in late nineteenth century. Machines replaced animals in the cultivation of the land and the irrigation and harvesting of crops. The size of the farms expanded without limits. Stone and wooden fences between farms became obsolete. The new mechanized farm surpassed the slave-run plantation. Almost nothing could stand on its way, least of all animals.

The factory farm, sometimes described as meat processing operation, put domesticated animals in the maws of machine feeding, slaughter, and sales to the insatiable appetites of meat-eating humans the industry calls consumers. Armies of academic and for profit corporate scientists issue false claims that confuse the public by legitimizing the inhuman treatment of animals.

Most of these agribusiness scientists teach and do research and extension at land-grant universities funded by the federal and state governments and industry. They are a parody of the original agricultural colleges founded by theMorrill Act of 1862.

Congressman Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont introduced the land grant college bill and President Abraham Lincoln signed it. Morrill and Lincoln inspired that great innovation to help family farmers. Now these 76 schools have become thebrains of agribusiness, thinking and inventing all the gadgetry and machinery and chemicals fueling Americas gigantic farms and agribusiness.

Land-grant universities designed animal farms. It does not bother them that it is wrong treating animals like inanimate things good only for eating.

Animals are living beings. They have feelings of enjoyment and fear. Those who have pet dogs and cats see their pets like their children. I have had dogs all my life. They are my best friends. I speak to them in Greek and English. They look at me straight in the eyes and shake their tales. I saw once a few days old calf in a farm at the Central Valley of California. It had tags on both ears. It turned and looked at me, his big eyes telling me of its horrible fate, taken away from its mother and expecting slaughter soon, so the farmer might sell veal.

At another time, in a visit to China, I saw a white bull in absolute terror written all over its eyes.

Animals probably coevolved with humans and, for millennia, were indispensable to human survival and civilization.

With some exceptions, most people have been eating domesticated and wild animals for millennia. However, the difference between traditional people and modern people eating animals is fundamental.

Traditional people ate animals because they often had to. Those living in mountainous regions with limited access to fishing or growing fruits and vegetables, relied on sheep and goats. Ancient Greeks, for example, ate primarily wheat and barley bread, cheese, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, and every so often they ate the meat of sheep and goats and even sacrificed them to their gods.

In contrast, modern animal farms completely dissolve any contacts people have had with animals or the natural world. They make animals dead meat through mechanical slaughter. Ordering a hamburger is no different from ordering French fries. Both have been made commodities of a cruel factory.

Mechanizing the slaughter of animals is the last straw of human violence against animals. It dehumanizes the relationship of people with animals. It undermines the philosophical and biological connections humans have had with the natural world.

Gaming the system

In practical political terms, the brutal treatment of animals has been increasing corruption among farmers, ranchers, butchers, and consumers. Large farmers / ranchers game the system. Their money power trumps our meager protection of human health and that of the natural world: laws defining and protecting organic food, meaning food raised without synthetic chemicals and without the genetic engineering of crops; laws designed to prevent pollution of the water we drink and laws protecting endanger species.

Large ranchers / meat companies are monopolizing the slaughtering of animals, forcing out of business smaller companies competing with them. In 1986, thelargest 4 poultry processing companiescontrolled 35 percent of the market. In 2015, they slaughtered 51 percent of the countryspoultry.

With the virus plague all over the country and in the slaughtering plants, and with the non-existent regulatory regime of the Trump administration,meat monopoliesendanger workers, farmers and those eating meat.

Meat monopolies are also taking over a large part of the slaughter of grass-fed animals. Which is to say, they occupy a significant niche in organic food production, pretending their organic brand shows a concern for human health and the environment.

The risks and effects of animal farms

Large farmers /ranchers, and slaughter companies put cattle, pigs, and chickens and turkeys by the hundreds and thousands next to each other in confined spaces. According to PETA, an animal welfare organization, factory farm animals are flooding the country with huge amounts of toxic and pathogenicwaste:

Animals on factory farms generate many times the amount of excrement produced by the entire U.S. population, and this waste pollutes the air we breathe and the water we drink. Every second, our nations factory farms create roughly 89,000 pounds of waste, which contains highly concentrated chemical and bacterial toxinsall without the benefit of waste-treatment systems.

At about 2010, theCenters for Disease Control and Preventionissued a study that justifies the concerns of PETA. The study concluded: Concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] or large industrial animal farms can cause a myriad of environmental and public health problems.

The study reported that even the air close to CAFOs is unhealthy:

The most typical pollutants found in air surrounding CAFOs are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter, all of which have varying human health risks.

These risks are serious. The CDC study summarized the health effects of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter in the air:

The CDC report also listed some of the pathogens found in the enormous amounts of manure in the CAFOs:

Sources of infection from pathogens include fecal-oral transmission, inhalation, drinking water, or incidental water consumption during recreational water activities.The potential for transfer of pathogens among animals is higher in confinement, as there are more animals in a smaller amount of space.Healthy or asymptomatic animals may carry microbial agents that can infect humans, who can then spread that infection throughout a community, before the infection is discovered among animals. (emphasis mine)

For us, in 2020, living through the corona virus plague, these results are terrifying. The sources for the pandemic are all over the United States, in thousands upon thousands of CAFOs. Yet, the US government has been turning a blind eye, allowing these festering disease factories to go on.

Despite the grave risks to both animals and people, the owners of these large animal feeding operations refuse to shut them down, much less face the responsibility for the colossal and toxic and pathogenic wastes of their factories. They pour all those rivers of filth and plague into lagoons.

The stench from those wastes is powerful enough to make life unbearable to powerless and, usually, minority communities neighboring animal farms. This is especially blatant in east North Carolina where blacks live not far from millions of pigs confined for feeding and slaughter in giantindustrial hog farms.

CAFOs are equally dangerous to wildlife. Their waste lagoons become death lakes for flying and migrating birds. In addition, during storms, waste lagoons overflow into creeks, rivers and ground water aquifers harming both wildlife and humans.

To prevent plagues among thousands of caged animals and plagues from escaping animal farms, agribusiness workers add antibiotics and hormones to the pesticide-rich and genetically engineered feed animals eat. This guarantees the consumers of those animals also eat meat rich in antibiotics, pesticides, hormones and genetically engineered crops and potentially pathogenic diseases.

The other significant consequences of mass slaughter of animals is water pollution and the gases these animals emit into the atmosphere.

Manure gives off methane and nitrous oxide, which, respectively, are 23 and 300 times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. These emissions from manure have been affecting climate change in a significant degree.

According to theHumane Society, the countrys largest animal protection organization, There is no question that the meat, egg, and dairy industries contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Thesociety encourages each individual to take important, daily steps to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change:

Stop eating meat

For these reasons (ethical, political, environmental and existential), vegetarianism is more timely and important now than ever before.

Stop eating meat. Stop being a consumer cannibalizing other living creatures. That way, you send an unmistakable message to careless administrations, like the hazardous administration of Trump, corporate exploiters, meat monopolists and profiteers and eaters of animals. You tell those unethical and violent business and political guys that you are not going to continue supporting their hazardous business.

Second, abandoning meat means you help our chances of surviving the colossal climate change around the corner.

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Drug factories: GMOs and gene editing are poised to transform medicine. Here’s how. – Genetic Literacy Project

No one likes getting a shot at the doctors office. As kids, we werent used to having a sharp needle prick our skin, let alone by someone doing it on purpose. An estimated 10% of the population is affected by trypanophobia the fear of needles or injections. Luckily, for most, shots are an infrequent occurrence often limited to vaccinations. However, for millions of others, injections are a more frequent fact of life required in dealing with disease. The need for these injections and their associated doctor visits mean the physical discomfort of the treatment is often compounded by a financial burden.

Fortunately, plant biotechnology is poised to drastically improve how we consume medication. Using the modern tools of genetic engineering, researchers are developing plant-based drugs that are cheaper, easier to take and even more effective than their existing counterparts.

Cant more medicines be reformulated for oral delivery?

While many diseases can be treated with orally administered medications, other drugs such as biologics or biopharmaceuticals, medicines derived from living organisms, must be delivered using other strategies. Conventional drugs like aspirin are chemically synthesized and can survive digestion, whereas biologics like hormones, antibodies, enzymes, and other complex organic molecules are vulnerable to degradation by enzymes in our saliva and stomach, as well as environmental conditions like pH and heat. This makes biologics in pill form unlikely to survive the harsh environment of the digestive tract.

Pricey biologics

In addition to the unpleasant nature of biologic injections is their associated costs. Biologics are made by taking the DNA blueprint for the molecule and expressing it in bacterial, yeast, or mammalian cells. Once these cells, typically grown in large vats filled with nutrient media, produce the molecule of interest, it must be isolated and purified. Each step of this process must be exact and carefully maintained as small variations may change the structure and identity of the drug, potentially altering its behavior. This complex manufacturing process in addition to more rigorous FDA regulations mean higher drug prices for consumers. Combined with the price of doctor visits to get these frequent injections or infusions, the annual cost of some biologics can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are more than 200 FDA-approved biologic drugs. While less than two percent of people in the US rely on biologics, they make up 40 percent of prescription drug spending. Identifying a better way to produce and administer biologics has the potential to ease the physical and financial burden associated with these drugs. For this reason, researchers are turning to the original inspiration for medications: plants.

Turning plants into pharmaceutical factories

Evidence for plant use in medicine dates back all the way to the Palaeolithic Age. But instead of trying to find new plants that produce medically relevant compounds, researchers are turning to genetic engineering to express the same biologics currently grown in bacterial, yeast, or mammalian cells.

Producing biologics in plants has a number of advantages. Plants are potentially less costly to grow, requiring inexpensive fertilizers instead of specialized cell culture growth media. Plants can also be grown in fields or greenhouses without requiring sterile environments, meaning that scaling up production would just require more growing area as opposed to additional expensive bioreactors. An added benefit is that plants do not serve as hosts for human pathogens, reducing the likelihood of harm from contaminants that bacterial or mammalian cells may house.

Once the drug-producing plants are grown, the medically relevant proteins may be extracted and purified. But plants allow for this platform to be taken one step further: by turning the biologic- expressing plants into a freeze-dried (lyophilized) powder and placing it into a capsule, the drugs can be delivered orally. Plant cell walls contain cellulose which cannot be digested by enzymes in the stomach but can be broken down by the commensal bacteria living in our intestines. Plant-encapsulated drugs are then released in the blood-rich absorptive environment of the small intestine, where they become bioavailable and distributed to target tissues. By producing these drugs in a lyophilized form, manufacturers can cut out the expensive purification process and the need for cold transport and storage.

Current research efforts

Theres been some reported success using this method, including a March 2020 paper from a team at the University of Pennsylvania describing a lettuce expressing a novel human insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 helps promote skeletal muscle and bone development. For this reason, IGF-1 injections have been used in the treatment of several muscle disorders and have the potential for therapeutic benefit in healing bone fractures.

To study if plant-grown IGF-1 might be an effective replacement for traditional IGF injections, the team modified human IGF-1 to allow for uptake through the gut. They found that their modified version not only stimulated proliferation of several cell types better than current commercial IGF-1, but also that the plant-encapsulated drug could be administered orally to mice and would effectively be delivered to blood serum. The team also found that this administration of the drug significantly increased bone density in diabetic mice as compared to a control group.

In addition to medication production, companies are also looking to utilize some of the benefits of plant-based production for vaccines. Medicago, a Canada-based company seeking approval for their plant-produced flu vaccine, has announced that using this same technology, they have produced a candidate vaccine for COVID-19 in twenty days. By growing the protein for the vaccine in plants, as opposed to using eggs to propagate the virus, Medicago has been able to cut the cost and time required to produce a new vaccine. The vaccine is now awaiting clinical testing and FDA approval.

Similar to the work on orally administered IGF-1, theres also a lot of interest in making edible vaccines. In the future, you may no longer need to go to a clinic to get a seasonal flu vaccine, but instead eat a salad made with vaccine-containing lettuce or tomatoes. This could potentially reduce patient discomfort and increase vaccine compliance, minimizing everybodys risk of contracting infectious diseases. Edible vaccines would also help expand access to immunization in parts of the world were delivering vaccines may be difficult.

Plant-produced pharmaceuticals have the potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people by reducing the physical and financial burden of relying on biologics to stay healthy. There may even come a day when getting a shot at the doctors office is a thing of the past replaced by a quick trip to the grocery store.

Tautvydas Shuipys is a PhD candidate in the Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program at the University of Florida. Follow him on Twitter @tshuipys

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Drug factories: GMOs and gene editing are poised to transform medicine. Here's how. - Genetic Literacy Project

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Gene for "Thinness" Identified that May Help to Resist Weight Gain – Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

An international research team has identified a candidate thinness gene that could help to explain why some people can seemingly stay slim no matter what they eat. A genetic association study that analyzed data from more than 47,000 people in an Estonian biobank implicated ALK as a key gene that may regulate thinness and play a role in resisting weight gain in metabolically healthy thin people. Further studies in animal models showed that deleting ALK resulted in thinner flies and thinner mice, and demonstrated that ALK expression in the brain may be involved in regulating energy expenditure.

ALK is already a recognized anticancer target, and the researchers suggest that targeting the gene may represent a future therapeutic strategy against obesity. If you think about it, its realistic that we could shut down ALK and reduce ALK function to see if we did stay skinny, said Josef Penninger, PhD, director of the Life Sciences Institute and professor of the department of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia. ALK inhibitors are used in cancer treatments already. Its targetable. We could possibly inhibit ALK, and we actually will try to do this in the future. Penninger is senior author of the teams published paper in Cell, which is titled, Identification of ALK in Thinness. The reported studies involved a multidisciplinary team of researchers in Austria, Switzerland, Estonia, China, Australia, Canada, and Sweden, and the U.S.

Theres considerable variability in how susceptible different people are to putting on weight. We all know these people: its around one percent of the population, said Penninger. They can eat whatever they want and be metabolically healthy. They eat a lot, they dont do squats all the time, but they just dont gain weight.

Body mass index (BMI), which is commonly used to classify weight categories, is a highly complex trait that is impacted by genes and environmental cues, the researchers wrote. And while more than 700 common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) have been linked with BMI, only a limited number of genes involved in regulating human body weight have been identified and validated. To date, most studies have focused on susceptibility to obesity, and only a few have looked at the genetic basis of thinness in humans or animal models. Everybody studies obesity and the genetics of obesity, Penninger pointed out. We thought, Lets just turn it around and start a new research field. Lets study thinness.

To do this Penningers team analyzed data from the Estonian Biobank, which includes 47,102 people aged 2044 years. The investigators carried out a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to compare the DNA samples and clinical data of healthy thin individualswho were in the lowest 6th percentilewith normal-weight individuals, in the search for genetic variants linked with thinness. Their results highlighted genetic variants in the ALK gene that were specific to the thin individuals.

Scientists have known that the ALK gene frequently mutates in various types of cancer, and while it is viewed as an oncogene that can drive the development of tumors, the role of ALK outside of cancer isnt understood. ALK has been extensively studied in cancer, but little is known about the biological role of ALK outside the context of cancer, they wrote. The new finding suggested that the ALK gene might play a role as a thinness gene involved in weight-gain resistance.

The researchers investigated the association between ALK and thinness through a series of studies in Drosophila fruit flies, and in mice. Their experiments demonstrated that mice in which the ALK gene was knocked out remained thin and were resistant to diet-induced obesity. Intriguingly, Alk knockout mice were significantly protected against HFD-induced obesity, the researchers wrote. ALK deficiency was also linked with reduced weight gain in a genetic obesity mouse model. Even when the ALK knockout mice had the same diet and activity levels as normal mice, they still demonstrated lower body weight and body fat from an early age, which persisted into adulthood.

Further studies in mice suggested that ALK, which is highly expressed in the brain, plays a role in instructing the fat tissues to burn more fat from food. Expression analysis revealed high Alk mRNA levels in the hypothalamus, especially in the PVN, which is also true for humans, the investigators wrote. Mechanistically, we found that ALK expression in hypothalamic neurons controls energy expenditure via sympathetic control of adipose tissue lipolysis Our genetic and mechanistic experiments identify ALK as a thinness gene, which is involved in the resistance to weight gain.

The findings could help scientists develop therapeutics against ALK as a future strategy against obesity. The team also plans to further study how neurons that express ALK regulate the brain at a molecular level to balance metabolism and promote thinness.

The Estonian Biobank that the team studied was ideal because of its wide age range and its strong phenotype data. We took advantage of the wide age range of the unique Estonian biobank recruitment as well as its strong phenotypic datasets, making ECGUT [Estonian Genome Center of the University of Tartu] an ideal starting point to identify potential variants and genes playing a role in thinness, the scientists noted. Even so, one limitation for replicating these findings is that biobanks that collect biological or medical data and tissue samples dont have a universal standard in data collection, which makes comparability a challenge. The researchers say they will need to confirm their findings with other data banks through meta-analyses. You learn a lot from biobanks, said Penninger. But, like everything, its not the ultimate answer to life, but theyre the starting points and very good points for confirmation, very important links and associations to human health.

The team suggests its work is unique in its combination of populationand genome-wide-scale analyses into the genetic basis of thinness, with in vivo analyses of gene function in mice and flies. Its great to bring together different groups, from nutrition to biobanking, to hardcore mouse and fly genetics, stated Penninger. Together, this is one story including evolutionary trees in metabolism, the evolutionary role of ALK, human evidence, and hardcore biochemistry and genetics to provide causal evidence.

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Colonizing Mars may require humanity to tweak its DNA – Space.com

If humanity is ever going to settle down on Mars, we may need to become a little less human.

Crewed missions to Mars, which NASA wants to start flying in the 2030s, will be tough on astronauts, exposing them to high radiation loads, bone-wasting microgravity and other hazards for several years at a time. But these pioneers should still be able to make it back to Earth in relatively good nick, agency officials have said.

It might be a different story for those who choose not to come home, however. If we want to stay safe and healthy while living permanently on Mars, or any other world beyond our home planet, we may need to make some tweaks to our species' basic blueprint, experts say.

Related: Space radiation threat to astronauts explained (infographic)

Genetic engineering and other advanced technologies "may need to come into play if people want to live and work and thrive, and establish their family, and stay on Mars," Kennda Lynch, an astrobiologist and geomicrobiologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said on May 12 during a webinar hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences called "Alienating Mars: Challenges of Space Colonization."

"That's when these kinds of technologies might be critical or necessary," she said.

Genetic enhancement may not be restricted to the pages of sci-fi novels for much longer. For example, scientists have already inserted genes from tardigrades tiny, adorable and famously tough animals that can survive the vacuum of space into human cells in the laboratory. The engineered cells exhibited a greater resistance to radiation than their normal counterparts, said fellow webinar participant Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, the medical school of Cornell University in New York City.

NASA and other space agencies already take measures to protect their astronauts physically, via spacecraft shielding, and pharmacologically via a variety of medicines. So, it's not a huge conceptual leap to consider protecting them genetically as well, provided that these measures are proven to be safe, Mason said.

"And are we maybe ethically bound to do so?" he said during the webinar. "I think if it's a long enough mission, you might have to do something, assuming it's safe, which we can't say yet."

Tardigrades and "extremophile" microbes, such as the radiation-resistant bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans, "are a great, basically natural reservoir of amazing traits and talents in biology," added Mason, who has been studying the effects of long-term spaceflight on NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. (Kelly spent nearly a year aboard the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016.) "Maybe we use some of them."

Harnessing these traits might also someday allow astronauts to journey farther than Mars, out to some even more exotic and dangerous cosmic locales. For instance, a crewed journey to the Jupiter moon Europa, which harbors a huge ocean beneath its icy shell, is out of the question at the moment. In addition to being very cold, Europa lies in the heart of Jupiter's powerful radiation belts.

"If we ever get there, those are the cases where the human body would be almost completely fried by the amount of radiation," Mason said. "There, it would be certain death unless you did something, including every kind of shielding you could possibly provide."

Genetic engineering at least lets us consider the possibility of sending astronauts to Europa, which is widely regarded as one of the solar system's best bets to harbor alien life. (The Jovian satellite is a high priority for NASA's robotic program of planetary exploration. In the mid-2020s, the agency will launch a mission called Europa Clipper, which will assess the moon's habitability during dozens of flybys. And Congress has ordered NASA to develop a robotic Europa lander as well, though this remains a concept mission at the moment.)

Related: The 6 most likely places to find alien life

Genetic engineering almost certainly won't be restricted to pioneering astronauts and colonists. Recent advances in synthetic biology herald a future in which "designer microbes" help colonists establish a foothold on the Red Planet, Lynch said.

"These are some of the things that we can actually do to help us make things we need, help us make materials to build our habitats," she said. "And these are a lot of things that scientists are researching right now to create these kinds of things for our trip to Mars."

Some researchers and exploration advocates have even suggested using designer microbes to terraform Mars, turning it into a world much more comfortable for humans. This possibility obviously raises big ethical questions, especially considering that Mars may have hosted life in the ancient past and might still host it today, in subsurface lakes or aquifers. (Permanently changing our own genomes for radiation protection or any other reason may also strike some folks as ethically dubious, of course.)

Most astrobiologists argue against terraforming Mars, stressing that we don't want to snuff out or fundamentally alter a native ecosystem that may have arisen on the Red Planet. That would be both unethical and unscientific, Lynch said.

After all, she said, one of the main reasons we're exploring Mars is to determine if Earth is the only world to host life.

"And how can we do that if we go and change the planet before we go and find out if life actually was living there?" Lynch said.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Emerging from stealth, Octant is bringing the tools of synthetic biology to large scale drug discovery – TechCrunch

Octant, a company backed by Andreessen Horowitz just now unveiling itself publicly to the world, is using the tools of synthetic biology to buck the latest trends in drug discovery.

As the pharmaceuticals industry turns its attention to precision medicine the search for ever more tailored treatments for specific diseases using genetic engineering Octant is using the same technologies to engage in drug discovery and diagnostics on a mass scale.

The companys technology genetically engineers DNA to act as an identifier for the most common drug receptors inside the human genome. Basically, its creating QR codes that can flag and identify how different protein receptors in cells respond to chemicals. These are the biological sensors which help control everything from immune responses to the senses of sight and smell, the firing of neurons; even the release of hormones and communications between cells in the body are regulated.

Our discovery platform was designed to map and measure the interconnected relationships between chemicals, multiple drug receptor pathways and diseases, enabling us to engineer multi-targeted drugs in a more rational way, across a wide spectrum of targets, said Sri Kosuri, Octants co-founder and chief executive officer, in a statement.

Octants work is based on a technology first developed at the University of California Los Angeles by Kosuri and a team of researchers, which slashed the cost of making genetic sequences to $2 per gene from $50 to $100 per gene.

Our method gives any lab that wants the power to build its own DNA sequences, Kosuri said in a 2018 statement. This is the first time that, without a million dollars, an average lab can make 10,000 genes from scratch.

Joining Kosuri in launching Octant is Ramsey Homsany, a longtime friend of Kosuris, and a former executive at Google and Dropbox . Homsany happened to have a background in molecular biology from school, and when Kosuri would talk about the implications of the technology he developed, the two men knew they needed to for a company.

We use these new tools to know which bar code is going with which construct or genetic variant or pathway that were working with [and] all of that fits into a single well, said Kosuri. What you can do on top of that is small molecule screening we can do that with thousands of different wells at a time. So we can build these maps between chemicals and targets and pathways that are essential to drug development.

Before coming to UCLA, Kosuri had a long history with companies developing products based on synthetic biology on both the coasts. Through some initial work that hed done in the early days of the biofuel boom in 2007, Kosuri was connected with Flagship Ventures, and the imminent Harvard-based synthetic biologist George Church . He also served as a scientific advisor to Gen9, a company acquired by the multi-billion dollar synthetic biology powerhouse, Ginkgo Bioworks.

Some of the most valuable drugs in history work on complex sets of drug targets, which is why Octants focus on polypharmacology is so compelling, said Jason Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks, and a member of the Octant board, in a statement. Octant is engineering a lot of luck and cost out of the drug discovery equation with its novel platform and unique big data biology insights, which will drive the companys internal development programs as well as potential partnerships.

The new technology arrives at a unique moment in the industry where pharmaceutical companies are moving to target treatments for diseases that are tied to specific mutations, rather than look at treatments for more common disease problems, said Homsany.

People are dropping common disease problems, he said. The biggest players are dropping these cases and it seems like that just didnt make sense to us. So we thought about how would a company take these new technologies and apply them in a way that could solve some of this.

One reason for the industrys turn away from the big diseases that affect large swaths of the population is that new therapies are emerging to treat these conditions which dont rely on drugs. While they wouldnt get into specifics, Octant co-founders are pursuing treatments for what Kosuri said were conditions in the metabolic space and in the neuropsychiatric space.

Helping them pursue those targets, since Octant is very much a drug development company, is $30 million in financing from investors led by Andreessen Horowitz .

Drug discovery remains a process of trial and error. Using its deep expertise in synthetic biology, the Octant team has engineered human cells that provide real-time, precise and complete readouts of the complex interactions and effects that drug molecules have within living cells, said Jorge Conde, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and member of the Octant board of directors. By querying biology at this unprecedented scale, Octant has the potential to systematically create exhaustive maps of drug targets and corresponding, novel treatments for our most intractable diseases.

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Emerging from stealth, Octant is bringing the tools of synthetic biology to large scale drug discovery - TechCrunch

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Climate change and coronavirus: Is the Covid-19 pandemic really a surprise? – DailyO

Walking towards the school gate, as I adjusted the N-99 face mask on my four-year-old, I felt deeply disturbed. The AQI numbers in our city had soared to hazardous levels and the air pollution was causing worrisome adverse effects on the tiny lungs of our children.

Pollution was not the only cause for anxiety. The extreme weather conditions, the rise of vector-borne diseases like dengue and chikungunya, the continuing emergence of novel viruses, the increasing resistance of infectious agents to medication: everything was pointing towards an extremely grim future in the world of health. The thought of our children being the bearers of such a future perplexed me, both as a mother and as a pulmonologist.

Thus started my exploration of the obvious, yet oft-ignored, changes taking place in our ecosystems and led me to my research on climate change.

The AQI numbers in our city had soared to hazardous levels and the air pollution was causing worrisome adverse effects on the tiny lungs of our children. (Photo: Reuters)

The direct effects of climate change on our health are easy to guess. The average global temperature of the earth, which has increased by 1C since the pre-industrial era, is rising at a rate of 0.2C per decade. It may soon reach a level that is irreversible (2.5C above the pre-industrial average). 95 per cent of this global warming is being caused by greenhouse gases, the atmospheric levels of which are increasing alarmingly due to human activities. This global warming is causing melting of ice masses, the rise of sea levels and major alterations in regional precipitation patterns, resulting in unprecedented and extreme weather conditions heatwaves, wildfires, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and snow-storms. These natural calamities are leading to deaths, diseases, malnutritionand mental health issues. Extreme temperatures are causing heat strokes, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Greenhouse effects are leading to diseases because of air pollution.

But what is more important and less obvious is the gradual and persistent damage that is being caused by climate change to the natural habitats and ecosystems of the world, and its quietyet devastating effects on our health.Think about it why are we having newer and frequent viral infections to deal with? Why are our children falling sick so often? Why is every simple viral cough leading to bronchitis? Why is the prescription of anti-inflammatory inhalers, medicines that were reserved for asthmatics, increasing rampantly?

Climate change, human behaviour and emerging infections

75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases, like Influenza, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARSand MERS are zoonotic. It means that they exist in animals but can be transmitted to humans.Most of them are caused by viruses predominantly RNA viruses.

Loss of Biodiversity: Climate change and land loss cause loss of habitat, leading to extinction or relocation of native species, with growing predominance of invasive, resilient species. These become likely to harbour and transmit pathogens (so-called reservoir hosts). In a healthy ecosystem, where biodiversity is high, multiple species dilute the effect of the reservoir species, the so-called dilution effect. Studies on hantavirus, West Nile virus etc. have shown strong links between low biodiversity and high rates of viral transmission.

The average global temperature of the earth, which has increased by 1C since the pre-industrial era, is rising at a rate of 0.2C per decade. (Photo: Reuters)

Migration of species: Global warming causes many species to migrate away from the equator and toward higher altitudes, bringing them in contact with new pathogens, to which they have not evolved resistance. These animals are also stressed and immunosuppressed, hence more susceptible to infection.

Contact with humans: Disruption of pristine forests by anthropogenic activities like mining,road building, urbanisation and livestock ranching brings people into closer contact with forest species, increasing the interaction between them. Ebola fever has had several outbreaks in Africa since 1970 because of increased interaction of local population with fruit bats due to population growth and encroachment into forest areas. Kyasanur forest disease, once limited to Karnataka, has spread to adjacent states over the last five years, because of conversion of forests into plantations and paddy fields, that has brought the locals nearer to monkeys.

Intermediate hosts and inter-species transmission: Although most of the novel viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, are generalist viruses that infect many different hosts, jumping into human species from wildlife species is not easy because of significant biological barriers. Transmission from mammalian species which are genetically closer to humans (the intermediate hosts), like pigs, is easier. Pig farming around forests facilitated the transmission of Nipah virus from bats in Malaysia, and civet cats sold in wet markets transmitted SARS-CoV from bats in China.

The market connection: In informal wet markets, animals are slaughtered, cut up and sold on the spot. The Wuhan wet market soldnumerous wild animals - live pangolins, wolf pups, crocodiles, foxes, civets. Wet markets in Africa sell monkeys, bats, birds, etc. They are a perfect platform for cross-species transmission of pathogens as novel interactions with a range of species occur in one place. 39per cent of the early cases in the SARS outbreak were wildlife food handlers, likely connected to the wet market of Guangdong, China.

The Wuhan wet market sold numerous wild animals, making it a perfect platform for cross-species transmission of pathogens.

Human transmission: Once inside new hosts, most viruses, fortunately, adapt, replicate and transmit inefficiently. Out of the 1,399 recognised human pathogens, 500 are transmissible between humans, and only 100to 150 are sufficiently transmissible to cause epidemics or pandemics. Restrictions occur at many cellular levels like entry into host cells by receptor binding, trafficking within cell, genome replication and gene expression. Each barrier requires a corresponding genetic change or mutation in the virus. RNA viruses, especially single-stranded RNA viruses like coronavirus, replicate rapidly and are prone to mutations due to lack of a proofreading mechanism. Only after extensive replications and re-assortments in the genome of H3N2 influenza A virus, was it capable of causing the 1968 pandemic.

Human behavioural changes: Factors like international travel, international trade of wildlife, urbanisation, and increase in population density further facilitate transmission.

Covid-19: What do we know?

In late December 2019, Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention detected a novel coronavirus in two hospital patients with atypical pneumonia. It sent the samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for further investigation. The genomic sequence of the virus, eventually named SARS-CoV-2, was 96 per cent identical to that of a coronavirus identified in horseshoe bats in a bat-cave in Yunnan during virus-hunting expeditions. It belonged to the SARS group of coronaviruses.

The expeditions were carried out by the Director of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Laboratory, Shi Zhengli (nicknamed Chinas Bat-woman) and her team, from 2004 for over 16 years, in an attempt to isolate the SARS coronavirus. They discovered hundreds of bat-borne coronaviruses with incredible genetic diversity in bat-caves deep inside forests. In bat dwellings, constant mixing of different viruses creates a great opportunity for dangerous new pathogens to emerge and the bats turn into flying factories of new viruses.

But bats were not present at the Wuhan wet market. The wild pangolin, sold for its exotic meat and medicinal scales, became suspect as an intermediate host when a SARS-CoV-2 like coronavirus was discovered in pangolins that were seized in illegal trade markets in southern China.

Whether or not the SARS-CoV-2 was accidentally or deliberately released from the Wuhan Laboratory is a debate not proven. None of the coronaviruses that were under study in this laboratory were identical to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Also, researchers believe that the spike proteins present on the viral surface, that target the ACE2 receptors on human cells, are so effective in binding the virus to the cells, that they could have developed only by natural selection and not by genetic engineering. When computer simulations were carried out, the mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 genome did not work well in binding the virus to human cells, leading to the argument that if scientists were to deliberately engineer the virus, they would not choose mutations that computer models suggested did not work.

A recent analysis done in China estimates that there are now more than 30 strains of the virus spread across the globe.(Photo: Reuters)

Whatever the origin of the virus, the response to develop what is needed to control the present outbreak remains the same, as do the policies needed to prevent such outbreaks in the future.

A recent analysis done in China estimates that there are now more than 30 strains of the virus spread across the globe. This means that it has already mutated 30 times, which filters down to roughly one mutation every two weeks. More studies are needed to determine the effects of these mutations on the virulence and transmissibility of the virus. But going by the rapidity with which Covid is taking over the world, it should be an easy guess.

So really, is the Covid-19 pandemic a surprise? Not at all. It was coming, and so will others.

Covid-19 has thrown us into a world of turmoil and uncertainty. The impacts on health and economy have been devastating. The only thing that is flourishing is nature! Maybe nature will make us see what innumerable climate-related world conferences could not. It is there for us to appreciate in its full glory the blue skies, the clean air, the blooming flowers, the variety of birds and the wild creatures returning to claim the land that was once theirs. Nature is sending us a message. It would do us good to heed to it.

Also read| I don't believe you: Donald Trump, world's biggest climate change denier

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