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When I talk to my students aboutthe tempestuous relationship between science and religion, I like to bring up the case of Francis Collins. Early in his career, Collins was a successful gene-hunter, who helped identify genes associated with cystic fibrosis and other disorders. He went on to become one of the worlds most powerful scientists. Since 2009, he has directed the National Institutes of Health, which this year has a budget of over $40 billion. Before that he oversaw the Human Genome Project, one of historys biggest research projects. Collins was an atheist until 1978, when he underwent a conversion experience while hiking in the mountains and became a devout Christian. In his 2006 bestselling bookThe Language of God, Collins declares that he sees no incompatibility between science and religion. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome, he wrote. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. Collins just won the$1.3 million Templeton Prize, created in 1972 to promote reconciliation of science and spirituality. (See my posts on the Templeton Foundationhereandhere). This news gives me an excuse to post an interview I carried out with Collins forNational Geographicin 2006, a time whenRichard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others were vigorously attacking religion. Below is an edited transcript of my conversation with Collins, which took place in Washington, D.C. I liked Collins, whom I found to be surprisingly unassuming for a man of such high stature. But I was disturbed by our final exchanges, in which he revealed a fatalistic outlook on humanitys future. Collins, it seems, haslots of faith in God but not much in humanity. John Horgan
Horgan:How does it feel to be at the white-hot center of the current debate between science and religion?
Collins:This increasing polarization between extremists on both ends of the atheism and belief spectrum has been heartbreaking to me. If my suggestion that there is a harmonious middle ground puts me at the white-hot center of debate--Hooray! Its maybe a bit overdue.
Horgan:The danger in trying to appeal to people on both sides of a polarized debate is--
Collins:Bombs thrown at you from both directions!
Horgan:Has that happened?
Collins[sighs]: The majority have responded in very encouraging ways. But some of my scientific colleagues argue that its totally inappropriate for a scientist to write about religion, and we already have too much faith in public life in this country. And then I get someverystrongly worded messages from fundamentalists who feel that I have compromised the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and call me a false prophet. Im diluting the truth and doing damage to the faith.
Horgan:Why do you think the debate has become so polarized?
Collins:It starts with an extreme articulation of a viewpoint on one side of the issue and that then results in a response that is also a little bit too extreme, and the whole thing escalates. Every action demands an equal and opposite reaction. This is one of Newtons laws playing out in an unfortunate public scenario.
Horgan:I must admit that Ive become more concerned lately about the harmful effects of religion because of religious terrorism like 9/11 and the growing power of the religious right in the United States.
Collins:What faith hasnotbeen used by demagogues as a club over somebodys head? Whether it was the Inquisition or the Crusades on the one hand or the World Trade Center on the other? But we shouldnt judge the pure truths of faith by the way they are applied any more than we should judge the pure truth of love by an abusive marriage. We as children of God have been given by God this knowledge of right and wrong, this Moral Law, which I see as a particularly compelling signpost to His existence. But we also have this thing called free will which we exercise all the time to break that law. We shouldnt blame faith for the ways people distort it and misuse it.
Horgan:Isnt the problem when religions say,Thisis the only way to truth? Isnt that what turns religious faith from something beautiful into something intolerant and hateful?
Collins:There is a sad truth there. I think we Christians have been way too ready to define ourselves as members of an exclusive club. I found truth, I found joy, I found peace in that particular conclusion, but I am not in any way suggesting that that is the conclusion everybody else should find. To have anyone say, My truth is purer than yours, that is both inconsistent with what I see in the person of Christ andincrediblyoff-putting. And quick to start arguments and fights and even wars! Look at the story of the Good Samaritan, which is a parable from Jesus himself. Jews would have considered the Samaritan to be a heretic, and yet clearly Christs message is:Thatis the person who did right and was justified in Gods eyes.
Horgan:How can you, as a scientist who looks for natural explanations of things and demands evidence, also believe in miracles, like the resurrection?
Collins:My first struggle was to believe in God. Not a pantheist God who is entirely enclosed within nature, or a Deist God who started the whole thing and then just lost interest, but a supernatural God who is interested in what is happening in our world and might at times choose to intervene. My second struggle was to believe that Christ was divine as He claimed to be. As soon as I got there, the idea that He might rise from the dead became a non-problem. I dont have a problem with the concept that miracles might occasionally occur at moments ofgreatsignificance where there is a message being transmitted to us by God Almighty. But as a scientist I set my standards for miracles very high. And I dont think we should try to convince agnostics or atheists about the reality of faith with claims about miracles that they can easily poke holes in.
Horgan:The problem I have with miracles is not just that they violate what science tells us about how the world works. They also make God seem too capricious. For example, many people believe that if they pray hard enough God will intercede to heal them or a loved one. But does that mean that all those who dont get better arent worthy?
Collins:In my own experience as a physician, I have not seen a miraculous healing, and I dont expect to see one. Also, prayer for me is not a way to manipulate God into doing what we want Him to do. Prayer for me is much more a sense of trying to get into fellowship with God. Im trying to figure out what I should be doing rather than telling Almighty God whatHeshould be doing. Look at the Lords Prayer. It says, Thywill be done. It wasnt, Our Father who are in Heaven, please get me a parking space.
Horgan:Many people have a hard time believing in God because of the problem of evil. If God loves us, why is life filled with so much suffering?
Collins:That isthemost fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with. First of all, if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there. I know I have learned very little about myself or God when everything is going well. Also, a lot of the pain and suffering in the world we cannot lay at Gods feet. God gave us free will, and we may choose to exercise it in ways that end up hurting other people.
Horgan:The physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, has written about this topic. He asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will.
Collins:If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world. Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other. Innocent people die as a result. You cant blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So thats not Gods fault. The harder question is when suffering seems to have come about through no human ill action. A child with cancer, a natural disaster, a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening?
Horgan:Some theologians, such as Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that maybe God isnt fully in control of His creation. The poet Annie Dillard expresses this idea in her phrase God the semi-competent.
Collins:Thats delightful--and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and of time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.
Horgan:I think youre an agnostic.
Horgan:You say that, to a certain extent, Gods ways are inscrutable. That sounds like agnosticism.
Collins:Im agnostic about Gods ways. Im not agnostic about God Himself. Thomas Huxley defined agnosticism as not knowing whether God exists or not. Im a believer! I have doubts. As I quote Paul Tillich: Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Its a part of faith. But my fundamental stance is that God is real, God is true.
Horgan:Im an agnostic, and I was bothered when in your book you called agnosticism a copout. Agnosticism doesnt mean youre lazy or dont care. It means you arent satisfied with any answers for what after all are ultimate mysteries.
Collins:That was a putdown that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still dont find an answer. I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence. I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did.
Horgan:Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. Its the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Dont you worry that science in general and genetics in particularand your work as head of the Genome Project--are undermining belief in free will?
Collins:Youre talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often dont behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience--and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, No, its all an illusion, were just pawns in some computer model. But I dont think that carries you very far.
Horgan:What do you think of Darwinian explanations of altruism, or what you callagape, totally selfless love and compassion for someone not directly related to you?
Collins:Its been a little of a just-so story so far. Many would argue that altruism has been supported by evolution because it helps the group survive. But some people sacrifically give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Like Mother Teresa, Oscar Schindler, many others. That is the nobility of humankind in its purist form. That doesnt seem like it can be explained by a Darwinian model, but Im not hanging my faith on this.
Horgan:If only selflessness were more common.
Collins:Well, there you get free will again. It gets in the way.
Horgan:What do you think about the field of neurotheology, which attempts to identify the neural basis of religious experiences?
Collins:I think its fascinating but not particularly surprising. We humans are flesh and blood. So it wouldnt trouble me--if I were to have some mystical experience myself--to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. Id say, Wow! Thats okay! That doesnt mean that this doesnt have genuine spiritual significance. Those who come at this issue with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say, Ya see? Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go, Cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that! I think our spiritual nature is truly God-given, and may not be completely limited by natural descriptors.
Horgan:What if this research leads to drugs or devices for artificially inducing religious experiences? Would you consider those experiences to be authentic? You probably heard about the recent report from Johns Hopkins that the psychedelic drug psilocybin triggered spiritual experiences.
Collins:Yes. If you are talking about the ingestion of an exogenous psychoactive substance or some kind of brain-stimulating contraption, that would smack of not being an authentic, justifiable, trust-worthy experience. So that would be a boundary I would want to establish between the authentic and the counterfeit.
Horgan:Some scientists have predicted that genetic engineering may give us superhuman intelligence and greatly extended life spans, and possibly even immortality. We might even engineer our brains so that we dont fear pain or grief anymore. These are possible long-term consequences of the Human Genome Project and other lines of research. If these things happen, what do you think would be the consequences for religious traditions?
Collins:That outcome would trouble me. But were so far away from that reality that its hard to spend a lot of time worrying about it when you consider all the truly benevolent things we could do in the near term. If you get too hung up on the hypotheticals of what night happen in the next several hundred years, then you become paralyzed and you fail to live up to the opportunities to reach out and help people now. That seems to be the most unethical stance we could take.
Horgan:Im really asking, Does religion requires suffering? Could we reduce suffering to the point where we just wont need religion?
Collins:In spite of the fact that we have achieved all of these wonderful medical advances and made it possible to live longer and eradicate diseases, we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other, out of our self-righteousness and our determination that we have to be on top. So the death rate will continue to be one per person by one means or another. We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span. But I dont think we will figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other. That will always be our greatest and most distressing experience here on this planet, and that will make us long the most, perhaps, for something more.
In Defense of Disbelief: An Anti-Creed
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Richard Dawkins Offers Advice for Donald Trump, and Other Wisdom
What Should We Do With Our Visions of Heaven and Hell?
Mind-Body Problems(free online book, also available asKindle e-bookandpaperback).
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One of the World's Most Powerful Scientists Believes in Miracles - Scientific American
In March 1988, Popular Mechanics ran an article, written by sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, exploring humanity's future on the moon. With NASA's plans to return to the moon in the coming years and President Trump's recent executive order clearing the way for companies to start mining the moon, Asimov's vision is more relevant than ever.
Reprinted here is the original article in its entirety.
The Lunarian stood in the eternal dark within the crater at the Moons south pole, and thought that silence was so characteristicand soothingand, yes, frighteningabout the Moon. He was not a true Lunarian, of course. He had come from Earth and when his 90-day stint was over, he would return to Earth and try to readjust to its strong pull of gravity.
There was no motion anywhere, no sound of living things. There was light along the crater top, as perpetual as the dark at this portion of the crater floor. Farther along the gently rolling floor, in the direction of the opposite side of the crater, was sunlight, too.
The Lunarian looked in that direction, and the photosensitive glass of his faceplate darkened at once.
The Lunarian thought: It is the year 2028 and the Moon has become our second world.
The line between dark and light swung slowly toward him and away in a 4-week cycle. It would never quite reach the point where he was standing, nor ever quite recede out of sight. If he were to move a few miles into the light, he would see the Sun skimming the crater edge along the horizon, but, of course, the faceplate grew virtually opaque if he accidentally looked in the Suns direction. At intervals, he could see the Earth, or a portion of it, edging above the crater wall. His heart would always melt at that sight. He tried not to think of Earth.
For now, he was on the Moon. He could make out the line of photovoltaic cells in the sunlight and he knew that solar energy, never ending, was powering the world beneath his feetwhich was, as yet, very small. Already, dozens of human beings were housed there and in his lifetime it might well rise to hundreds. An experimental farm existed there, plus a chemical laboratory for the study of lunar soil, a furnace for baking out the small but precious amounts of volatile elements from appropriate ores.
This was not the only Moon base. A much larger one existed near the lunar equator, where the soil was mined and hurled into space to be used as a construction material. A much more specialized one existed on the Moon's far side where a huge radio telescope, insulated from Earth's radio interference by 2000 miles of solid Moon, was being completed.
The Lunarian thought: It is the year 2028 and the Moon has become our second world.
But it is now 1988. We have visited the Moon six times between 1969 and 1972, and 12 men have trod its surface. But those were visits only. We came, lingered and leftso that the total time human beings have spent on the Moon is less than two weeks.
But we have been sharpening our space abilities, and when we return to the Moon, it will be to stay. A day will come in the future after which there will never be a time when human beings will not be living on the Moon.
NASA is already planning Moon bases. In recent years, scientists, engineers, industrialists and scholars have met to discuss scientific, industrial and sociological issues in connection with living on the Moon. Former astronaut Dr. Sally K. Ride, America's first woman in space, recently produced a report outlining this nation's space goals. Satellite studies of the Earth will remain an important priority, along with the lofting of unmanned spacecraft to explore our solar system.
But the "Ride Report also stresses a manned permanent presence on the Moon before we embark on a manned mission to Mars, hoping to fully exploit the Moon's resources and scientific opportunities while boosting our own interplanetary learning curvebefore engaging in a Mars space spectacular.
Whether or not we choose to follow the Ride recommendations, the Moon will probably play an important role in man's future space explorations. But why bother? The Moon is a dead, desolate world, without air or water. It is a large super-Sahara. So what is there to make us want to go there, let alone live there?
Super-Sahara or not, the Moon would be useful, even vital, to us in many ways. Some of those ways are not material in nature. For instance, there is the question of knowledge. The Moon has not been seriously disturbed after the first half-billion years of the existence of the solar system (something that is not true of the Earth). We have been studying 800 pounds of Moon rocks astronauts retrieved, but merely bringing them to Earth has contaminated them, and the astronauts were only able to investigate isolated landing areas. If we can investigate the Moon's substance on the Moon, over extended periods and over every portion of its surface, we might learn a great detail about the early history of the Moon-and, therefore, of the Earth as well.
Unlike man's initial forays to the lunar surface, future trips to the Moon will be greatly aided by a space station positioned in low Earth orbit, by orbital transfer vehicles and by expendable lunar landers. It's envisioned that early lunar pioneers will reside in pressurized modules and airlocksnot unlike the modules currently being designed for the space station but with a significant difference. Because the Moon has no protective atmosphere, early settlers will cover their modules with up to 2 meters of lunar soil, or regolith, to protect them from solar radiation. These modules may give way to larger structures positioned beneath regolith archways or buildings made of lunar concrete as requirements change. Indeed, lunar building materials may one day be a principal lunar export.
Solar collectors, photovoltaic systems and small nuclear powerplants positioned well away from lunar habitats would supply the power needs of an early Moon base. The resulting energy would support not only human explorers but a broad array of science and industrial activities, principally lunar mining and astronomical observation. Wheeled lunar rovers powered by the Sun would provide close-in transportation and cargo handling. Vertically launched rocket vehicles would aid in mapping and distant exploration. Some tasks may be performed by intelligent robots already on the drawing board.
After humans become established on the Moon, some visionaries foresee a complex of habitable dwellings and research labs for geochemical, physical and biological research. A life-giving atmosphere "manufactured on the Moon would promote ecological and agricultural pursuits, helping to make a Moon base self-supporting. Turning to the heavens, special detectors would analyze rays from astrophysical sources, and Moon-based particle accelerators would give new insight into the nature of matter. Spe cial units would process oxygen and refine new ceramic and metallurgical materials. "Moonmovers," adapted from Earthmovers, would excavate building and mining sites.
Think of the nuclear power stations we could build...where safety considerations did not bulk so large. Think of the efficiency of the solar power stations we could build on a world without an interfering atmosphere...
To what purpose? First, but not necessarily foremost, the Moon is a marvelous platform for astronomical observations. The absence of an atmosphere makes telescopic visibility far more acute. The far side of the Moon would allow radio telescopes to work without interference from human sources of light and radio waves. The Moon's slow rotation would allow objects in the sky to be followed, without interference from clouds or haze, for two weeks at a time. Neutrinos and gravity waves, together with other exotic cosmic manifestations, might be detected more easily and studied from the Moon than from the Earth. And, in fact, radio telescopes on the Moon and on the Earth could make observations in combination, allowing us to study in the finest detail the active centers of the galaxies, including our own Milky Way.
The Moon can also be used for experiments we would not wish to perform in the midst of the Earth's teeming life. Think of the genetic engineering we could perform, of the experimental life forms we could devise. We could obtain energy in copious quantities for use not only on the Moon, but for transfer to space structures and even to the Earth. Think of the nuclear power stations we could build (both fission and, eventually, fusion) where safety considerations did not bulk so large. Think of the efficiency of the solar power stations we could build on a world without an interfering atmosphere to scatter, absorb and obscure light.
From the Moon's soil, we would obtain various elements. The Moon's crust is 40-percent oxygen (in combination with other elements, of course). This can be isolated. A common mineral on the Moon is ilmenite, or titanium iron oxide. Treatment with hydrogen can cause the oxygen of ilmenite to combine with the hydrogen, forming water, which can be broken up into hydrogen and oxygen.
But where would the hydrogen come from? Those portions of the Moon we have studied are lacking in the vital light elements: hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. That makes it seem that these "volatiles will have to be imported from Earth (which has plenty), but there may be places where they can be found in small amounts on the Moon, especially in the polar regions where there are places where the Sun rarely shines. Lunar hydrogen can then be used to obtain oxygen, and lunar nitrogen can be used to dilute it. There you have an atmosphere.
Other elements, particularly iron, aluminum and titanium, all very useful structurally, are common in the lunar crust and can be smelted out of the soil. In addition, silicon can be obtained for making computer chips. The Moon will be an active mining base to begin with. Quantities of lunar soil can be hurled off the Moon by a "mass-driver, powered by an electromagnetic field based on solar energy. This would not be difficult because the Moon is relatively small and has a gravitational pull much weaker than that of Earth. It takes less than 5 percent as much energy to lift a quantity of matter off the Moon than it would to lift the same quantity off the Earth.
To build observatories, laboratories, factories and settlements in space, it would make sense to use lunar materials, especially since Earthly resources are badly needed by our planet's population.
Because of the Moon's feebler gravity, it would be a particularly useful site for the building and launching of space vessels. Since far less power would be required to lift a vessel off the Moon's surface than off the Earth's, less fuel and oxygen would be needed and more weight could be devoted to payload.
Eventually, when space settlements are constructed, they may be even more efficient as places where space vessels can be built and launched, but the Moon will retain certain advantages. First, it will be a world of huge spaces and will not have the claustrophobic aura of the space settlements. Second, a lunar gravity, though weak, will be constant. On space settlements, a pseudo-gravitational field based on centrifugal effects may be as intense as Earth's gravitation in places, but will complicate matters by varying considerably with change of position inside the settlement.
The Moon, as an independent world, will represent a complete new turning in human history. Humanity will have a second world.
Then, too, since the Moon exists and is already constructed, so to speak, it can surely be developed first and be used to experiment with artificial ecologies.
Once the lunar colonists discover how to create a balanced ecology based on a limited number of plant and animal species (which may take awhile) that knowledge can be used to make space settlements viable.
Finally, of course, our Moon, with its enormous supply of materials, may eventually become a self-supporting, inhabited body in the solar system, completely independent of Earth. Surely this will become possible sooner than much smaller settlements elsewhere in space can achieve true independence.
The Moon, as an independent world, will represent a complete new turning in human history. Humanity will have a second world. If Earth should be struck by an unexpected catastrophe from without, say by a cometary strike such as the one that may have possibly wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years agoor if humanity's own follies ruin Earth through nuclear war or otherwise then a second world will exist on which humanity will survive and on which human history, knowledge and culture will be remembered and preserved.
Asimov's Dream Coming True?
But when will this colonization take place? Naturally, we can't tell because so much of it depends not on technological ability but on unpredictable economic and political factors.
If all goes well, there is no reason why work on the project cannot be initiated in the 1990s. By 2005, the first outpost could be established, and by 2015, a permanently occupied Moon base may be in existence. After that, it may be that the Moon settlers will have developed their world to the point of being independent of Earth by the end of the 21st century.
On the other hand, if affairs on Earth are so mismanaged that there seems no money or effort to spare for space, or if humanity concentrates its efforts on turning space into a military arena and is not concerned with peaceful development or expansion, or if humanity ruins itself forever by means of a nuclear war in the course of the next few decades, then clearly there will be no Moon base, and perhaps no reasonable future of any kind.
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Isaac Asimov: 'How We'll Live on the Moon' - Popular Mechanics
There is "no evidence" supporting conspiracy theories that the coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, an expert has told parliament.
Claims that COVID-19 was created in a lab were amplified by Donald Trump earlier this month, although the president refused to offer any evidence or give specific details.
The coronavirus outbreak first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year and international blame around the pandemic has incited conspiracy theories about its origin.
Rumours linking the virus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology - based on geographic proximity, and without any endorsement from qualified epidemiologists - have circulated.
But speaking to the House of Lords science and technology committee on Tuesday, Professor David Robertson dismissed the conspiracy theory as "unlikely".
Following the president's comments, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed there was a "significant amount of evidence" supporting the theory but, just two days later, admitted: "We don't have certainty."
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Scientists have discovered that the coronavirus was 96% identical to coronavirus found in bats, one of the many animals sold at a Wuhan seafood market where it is suspected the virus jumped to humans.
British authorities believe it is highly likely the global pandemic is unconnected to the laboratory in Wuhan and was passed from animals to humans naturally.
"You have a virus that you think comes from an exotic species and then you have a wildlife market - that seems the most parsimonious explanation," Professor Robertson said.
He was asked whether a sample of the virus found at the Wuhan Institute of Virology - and thought to be about 40 to 50 years old - could have been behind the initial outbreak.
Professor Robertson, who is the head of viral genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow, firmly responded: "No, absolutely not.
"That's partly what has driven some of these conspiracy theories, is what is the chance they would have this virus in the labs that is close? And actually, even though it is close in sequence, it is not close in time."
"There is really no evidence for this. We can all enjoy a conspiracy theory but you need to have evidence," he added.
Scientists have analysed the entirety of the novel coronavirus' genomic sequence to assess claims that it may have been made in a laboratory or been otherwise engineered.
The value of the genomic sequence could prove vital for those developing a vaccine, but it also contains key details revealing how the virus evolved.
Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in the US, UK and Australia discovered that the virus has proved so infectious because it developed a near-perfect mechanism to bind to human cells.
This mechanism is so sophisticated in its adaptions that the researchers say that it must have evolved and not been genetically engineered in their paper, titled "COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin", published in the journal Nature Medicine.
Dr Josie Golding, the epidemics lead at the Wellcome Trust in the UK, described the paper as "crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumours that have been circulating about the origins of the virus causing COVID-19".
"They conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution, ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering," Dr Golding added.
Researchers from the Hubrecht Institute and Utrecht University generated an in-depth description of the human hormone-producing cells of the gut, in a large collaborative effort with other research teams. These cells are hard to study, as they are very rare and unique to different species of animals. The researchers developed an extensive toolbox to study human hormone-producing cells in tiny versions of the gut grown in the lab, called organoids. These tools allowed them to uncover secrets of the human gut, for example which potential hormones can be made by the gut and how the secretion of these hormones is triggered. These findings offer potential new avenues for the treatment of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.Did you ever wonder where that sudden feeling of hunger comes from when your empty stomach rumbles? Thousands of hormone-producing cells, or enteroendocrine cells, scattered throughout your stomach and intestine just released millions of tiny vesicles filled with the hunger hormone ghrelin into your bloodstream.
Another effect to these hormones can be to increase the release of insulin from the pancreas, which is especially interesting in patients with type II diabetes. These patients are unable to produce sufficient insulin to stabilize their glucose levels on their own. One of the most successful treatments for type 2 diabetes is actually based on a gut hormone, called GLP1. With this treatment some patients are able to control their blood glucose without the need of insulin injections.
Most of our knowledge on enteroendocrine cells is derived from studies in mice. However, mice have a different diet and are therefore likely to sense other signals from their food. The differences are so striking that the counterparts of some human gut hormones do not even exist in mice.
To be able to study all the specific types of enteroendocrine cells, the researchers used another trick that was recently developed in the group of Hans Clevers. Clevers: "In our lab, we have optimized genetic engineering of organoids. We were therefore able to label the hormones that are made by the enteroendocrine cells in different colors and create a biobank of mini-intestines, called the EEC-Tag biobank, in which different hormones are tagged with different colors." When an enteroendocrine cell starts producing a labeled hormone, that cell will appear in the corresponding color. The researchers can use the EEC-Tag biobank to study ten major hormones and different combinations of these hormones within the same organoid.
Joep Beumer (Hubrecht Institute): "Marking all major gut hormones with colors allows us to selectively collect any subset of enteroendocrine cells and study even the rarest enteroendocrine cell types. Combining the EEC-Tag biobank with other cutting-edge techniques allowed us to gain deep insights into the biology of hormone production in the human intestine."
"With the EEC-Tag biobank we can measure hundreds of cells for each enteroendocrine cell subtype. The resulting atlas is a gold mine full of fascinating relationships between hormones, receptors and other genes used by well-defined subsets of enteroendocrine cells, which opens many new directions for future studies," says Jens Puschhof (Hubrecht Institute).
The key characteristic of enteroendocrine cells are the active hormones they secrete. To directly measure these hormones, the researchers collaborated with the group of Wei Wu at Utrecht University. The researchers in this group are specialists at mass spectrometry, a very sensitive method to identify different molecules. In the collection of molecules produced by the mini-intestines, they found many new molecules for which it was unknown that they are secreted in the intestine. These new molecules may have functions in our bodies' response to food that are so far unknown. This discovery underlines our limited knowledge of the hormones produced in our gut and will inspire more detailed studies into the functions of these molecules.
Wei Wu (Utrecht University): "Gut secretions contain a mix of hormones that can be either active or inactive. For the first time, we characterize this diversity in human mini-intestines, to reveal also if these hormones are processed into active functional pieces. Hormone activation is not determined by genes, but rather by the processing of the hormones afterwards. Therefore, this may also hint at an exciting route of intervention for broad-spectrum applications, such as controlling hunger or treating diabetes."
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A Deep Look Into the Guts Hormones - Technology Networks
CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing is one of the most powerful tools available to modern science, but genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in food are subject to some tight regulations. Now, researchers at North Carolina State University have created a new version of CRISPR that lets scientists edit crops without introducing new DNA, meaning they technically arent GMOs.
CRISPR-Cas9 allows for precise cut-n-paste edits to DNA in living cells. An RNA guide sequence directs the system to the target section of the genome. Once there, an enzyme, usually Cas9, snips out the sequence then deletes it or replaces it with something else. In this way, scientists can cut out problem genes, such as those that cause disease, or add new beneficial ones, such as giving crops better pest resistance.
For the new study, the researchers tweaked the process to make a cleaner edit in plants. It uses a process known as lipofection, where positively-charged lipids are used to build a kind of bubble around the Cas9 and RNA mechanisms. When injected into the organism, this bubble binds to and fuses with the cellular membrane, which pushes the CRISPR system into the cell itself. The method also uses a Cas9 protein itself, rather than the Cas9 DNA sequence.
The team tested the method by introducing fluorescent proteins into tobacco plants. And sure enough, after 48 hours the edited plants were glowing, indicating it had worked.
Wusheng Liu/NC State University
The new method has a few advantages over existing ones, the team says. Its easier to target the desired genetic sequence, and opens up new crops that couldnt be edited with existing methods. Plus, the protein only lasts for a few days before degrading, which reduces off-target edits.
But the most important advantage is that the resulting crops arent considered GMOs. Since the new method doesnt use Cas9 DNA, it doesnt introduce foreign DNA into the plant, which is an important distinction.
This was the first time anyone has come up with a method to deliver the Cas9 protein through lipofection into plant cells, says Wusheng Liu, lead author of the study. Our major achievement was to make that happen. Also, since many consumers prefer non-GMO specialty crops, this method delivers the Cas9 protein in a non-GMO manner.
As useful as genetic engineering can be, the term GMO has negative connotations for many people, who believe there are health concerns with eating these crops or meats. Other problems include the chance of modified plants or animals escaping into the wild, where they can spread their new genes to the native population, affecting ecosystems.
As such, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have regulations on which edited crops and animals are allowed in food. And theyve decided that the line is drawn at introducing foreign genes into an organism.
It makes sense. Humans have been genetically-engineering plants and animals for millennia, through selective breeding. Many of our most widely-eaten crops are bigger, tastier, and easier to eat or grow, to the point that they hardly resemble their wild counterparts anymore.
CRISPR and other gene-editing tools can be the next generation of this process. By removing problematic genes or ensuring that specific ones are turned on or off, scientists arent really creating anything new. Some individuals naturally have mutations that do the same thing all the scientists are really doing is removing the element of chance, genetically.
In 2015, a new type of salmon became the first genetically engineered animal approved by the FDA for human consumption. In 2016, a Swedish scientist grew, harvested and served up CRISPR cabbage after approval by the Swedish Board of Agriculture. In both cases, the products were allowed because they were functionally identical to wild-type organisms the scientists had just chosen beneficial genes from an existing natural pool, without introducing foreign DNA.
That said, the rules aren't the same everywhere. In 2018 the Court of Justice of the European Union somewhat controversially ruled that tough GMO laws applied to crops that had been edited even if new DNA hadn't been inserted. The issue will likely remain fragmented, but for the NC State team at least, their crops aren't GMOs according to their own country's regulations.
However, there are still some hurdles to overcome before the new method becomes viable. The team says that lipofection can only be done if the outer wall of the plant cell is removed first. This kind of plant cell, known as a protoplast, allows scientists to more easily tweak the genes, but it isnt possible in all types of crops, and even when it does work, its a complex process.
Instead, the researchers are exploring other options that dont require removing the cell wall at all. One such alternative is to use CRISPR to introduce the Cas9 protein into pollen grains, which can then go on to fertilize another plant. Some of the offspring will have the required genetic edits from day one.
The researchers plan to investigate this latter method in tomatoes and hemp first, before moving onto others.
The new study was published in the journal Plant Cell Reports.
Source: NC State University
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New CRISPR method edits crops without technically making them GMOs - New Atlas
Covid-19 has changed life as we know it. It has also accelerated already rapid trends in innovation and collaboration across the scientific community.
As the pandemic spreads across the globe, researchers are racing to develop diagnostics, vaccines and treatments. In the pursuit of new solutions to tackle SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, researchers have been turning to machine learning, AI and high-throughput experimental automation that aid in development. Another powerful tool they are using to accelerate the process is CRISPR. This gene-targeting and gene-editing technology, based on the mechanism that bacteria naturally use to fight viruses, is already proving useful in our joint fight against this new virus.
CRISPR Advances Covid-19 TestingWe know early detection of SARS-CoV-2 is essential to isolating infected patients and managing appropriate healthcare responses. Recently, researchers at MIT published a rapid CRISPR-Cas13-based COVID-19 detection assay protocol.Since CRISPR can be modified to target nearly any genetic sequence, it can be used to detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA in a patient sample. This assay utilizes an RNA-targeting CRISPR nuclease to help scientists detect the SARS-CoV-2 RNA from patient samples within 60 minutes. More recently, an improved assay was developed by researchers at MIT that was shown to provide faster and more robust results.
Utilizing another CRISPR nuclease that is thermostable, they developed a test that in one step copies the viral RNA in a patient sample, such as saliva, into the more stable DNA and then specifically identifies a SARS-CoV-2 gene sequence. Performing this point-of-care assay requires minimal lab equipment and resources, as it only needs a few reagents and a heat source, delivering results in as little as 40 minutes. Supplementing existing tests with new CRISPR-based approaches can broaden accessibility to Covid-19 testing, a key strategy for stopping the spread through track and trace efforts, as outlined by the World Health Organization.
CRISPR Helps Engineer Future TreatmentsPreviously, the genome-engineering power of CRISPR has been directed at fighting genetic diseases. But more recently, its also being harnessed to fight infectious diseases, now including the new coronavirus.
Understanding how a pathogenic disease operates at the host-pathogen interface is critical to developing new treatments. CRISPR-based genome engineering enables researchers to study how SARS-CoV-2 interacts with human cells and generate the appropriate cell models that could lead to faster discovery of a potential new treatment or an existing drug combination that may provide a treatment solution. Once a potential treatment is identified, CRISPR makes the next step drug target screening more efficient, advancing us more quickly to a viable treatment option.
As an example of this approach in action, researchers are exploring if CRISPR can be used to verify the functional relevance of human genes recently identified to interact with SARS-CoV-2 proteins. The investigation of the molecular mechanisms of the novel virus can ultimately help identify drug combinations that have the best potential to treat those infected.
Current Fight for the Future of Human HealthGenome engineering has been rapidly harnessed by academic and non-profit institutions, the biopharma industry, and scientific pioneers to develop Covid-19 testing and treatment solutions. CRISPR-based genome engineering enables researchers to study how SARS-CoV-2 interacts with human cells and generate the appropriate cell models that could lead to faster discovery of a potential new treatment or an existing drug combination that may provide a treatment solution.
Beyond this, the unprecedented innovation taking place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic will provide a foundation for improving human health in the future. Additionally, as technologies and understanding mature, new approaches, such as engineered cell therapies, will become part of the toolkit in future responses to global health challenges.
The current scientific response is representative of the future of life sciences a future where we integrate multiple technologies and disciplines including high throughput experimental automation, machine learning and agile, programmable tools such as CRISPR to fundamentally change our approach to research and development. We are seeing a new bar being set on the speed of science as the research community comes together, leveraging these technologies to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic at unprecedented velocity. Once the public health crisis subsides and the research halted by the pandemic resumes, the need for these transformative tools, technologies and approaches to life science research and development will be greater than ever.
Photo: wildpixel, Getty Images
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How CRISPR can help us win the fight against the pandemic - MedCity News