genetic engineering


I’ll say it again: Scientists have created a synthetic stingray that’s propelled by living muscle cells and controlled by light.


But the ultimate goal isn’t a cyborg sea monster - it’s a human heart.

“I want to build an artificial heart, but you’re not going to go from zero to a whole heart overnight,” says Kit Parker, a bioengineer and physicist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “This is a training exercise.”

Full, fascinating story here.


The World Under Our Feet is Filled With Smart Roots

A tiny tomato seed is planted just a quarter-inch below ground and watered. In about a week, the first stirrings of life become apparent–a tiny seedling punches up through the soil’s surface and unfurls baby cotyledon leaves. Over the ensuing weeks, the tiny plant grows to as much as eight feet high, with branches, dark green leaves and, later, bright yellow flower clusters and fruits cutting a robust silhouette. 

At the same time, that same expansion is happening just out of sight below ground. As the seedling emerges, the first white root starts plunging into the soil, providing support and searching for the water and nutrients the aboveground portion needs to fuel growth. Root growth is a critical aspect of plant health and agriculture, yet the process has remained obscured from view because it happens in the dirt. Careful inspection by scientists still generally requires they dig the plant up and remove the soil. 

Now researchers say they have a new way of watching the intricacies of root growth thanks to input from an unexpected source–fireflies. A science team has figured out how to get roots to glow by adding genes into them that produce the enzymes fireflies use to produce light. 

Keep reading


On 6 February 2012, a female black-footed cat kitten, Crystal, was born to a domestic cat surrogate after interspecies embryo transfer.

A black-footed cat served as the surrogate mother for [2011′s] litter. Researchers next sought to show that vastly more plentiful domestic cats can serve as surrogate mothers in efforts to save the small wild cat from extinction.

“Being able to use domestic cats adds another extra dimension to that, being able to produce more,” said Earle Pope, acting director of the center. Only 53 of the cats, which are native to South Africa, live in zoo collections in the United States.

(source for text, images from Dara o’Briain’s Science Club)

Pollution-fighting plants Scientists at the University of Washington are engineering poplar trees that can clean up contamination sites by absorbing groundwater pollutants through their roots. The plants then break the pollutants down into harmless byproducts that are incorporated into their roots, stems and leaves or released into the air. 
In laboratory tests, the transgenic plants are able to remove as much as 91 percent of trichloroethylene — the most common groundwater contaminant at U.S. Superfund sites — out of a liquid solution. Regular poplar plants removed just 3 percent of the contaminant. source 

Is it possible to bring back an extinct species?

Using DNA extracted from dead tissues of well-preserved passenger pigeons, UC Santa Cruz biologists Beth Shapiro and Ben Novak are piecing together the entire genome sequence of the passenger pigeon, a species that went extinct 100 years ago.

By comparing the genome to that of their closest genetic relatives, the band-tailed pigeon, scientists will be able to distinguish the genes that give passenger pigeon its unique traits.

And once the particular genes are identified, they can recreate the DNA and then insert the synthesized passenger pigeon DNA into the embryo of the band-tailed pigeon. If the eggs hatch successfully, it will be the rebirth of the extinct bird.

The potential to resurrect extinct species also brings the possibility to restore biodiversity and preserve species on the verge of extinction. However, the ethics of the de-extinction effort is still debated among conservation scientists.

Shapiro recently wrote a book, “How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction,” that examines the scientific and ethical challenges involved with any effort to bring back extinct creatures.

GIF & image credit: KQED & Hemisphere magazine
The Misleading War on GMOs: The Food Is Safe. The Rhetoric Is Dangerous.
Is genetically engineered food dangerous? Many people seem to think it is. In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms. Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon...

Some people, to this day, believe GE papayas are dangerous. They want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.

Twenty years after the debut of genetically engineered food, it’s a travesty that the technology’s commercial applications are still so focused on old-fashioned weedkillers. Greenpeace and Chipotle think the logical response to this travesty is to purge GMOs. They’re exactly wrong. The relentless efforts of Luddites to block testing, regulatory approval, and commercial development of GMOs are major reasons why more advanced GE products, such as Golden Rice, are still unavailable. The best way to break the herbicide industry’s grip on genetic engineering is to support the technology and push it forward, by telling policymakers, food manufacturers, and seed companies that you want better GMOs

The USDA’s catalog of recently engineered plants shows plenty of worthwhile options. The list includes drought-tolerant corn, virus-resistant plums, non-browning apples, potatoes with fewer natural toxins, and soybeans that produce less saturated fat. A recent global inventory by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization discusses other projects in the pipeline: virus-resistant beans, heat-tolerant sugarcane, salt-tolerant wheat, disease-resistant cassava, high-iron rice, and cotton that requires less nitrogen fertilizer. Skim the news, and you’ll find scientists at work on more ambitious ideas: high-calcium carrots, antioxidant tomatoes, nonallergenic nuts, bacteria-resistant oranges, water-conserving wheat, corn and cassava loaded with extra nutrients, and a flaxlike plant that produces the healthy oil formerly available only in fish.

That’s what genetic engineering can do for health and for our planet. The reason it hasn’t is that we’ve been stuck in a stupid, wasteful fight over GMOs. On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public. The only way to end this fight is to educate ourselves and make it clear to everyone—European governments, trend-setting grocers, fad-hopping restaurant chains, research universities, and biotechnology investors—that we’re ready, as voters and consumers, to embrace nutritious, environmentally friendly food, no matter where it got its genes. We want our GMOs. Now, show us what you can do.
Algae has been engineered to kill cancer cells and leave healthy cells unharmed
90% of cancer cells destroyed!
By Signe Dean

Scientists have genetically engineered tiny algae to kill up to 90 percent of cancer cells in the lab, while leaving healthy ones unharmed, and the treatment has also been shown to effectively treat tumours in mice without doing damage to the rest of the body.

Developing medicine that only attacks tumour cells and leaves the rest of the body alone is one of the biggest challenges in cancer drug therapy. Such targeted chemotherapy helps to avoid some of the devastating side-effects associated with typical chemo treatment, when all fast-dividing cells in the body are bombarded with toxic drugs – including hair follicles, nails, and bone marrow.

That’s why researchers have been working on nanoparticle-based cancer drug delivery, and have been sending drug-loaded, porous silica particles into the body to target tumour cells. However, the manufacturing of these types of nanoparticles is expensive and requires industrial chemicals, such as hydrofluoric acid.

Now an international team of scientists from Australia and Germany have genetically engineered a diatom algae that can get the synthetic nanoparticle job done just as nicely.

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CRISPR in a nutshell


Could this be the most powerful scientific tool?

Described as “the biggest biotech discovery of the century” by the scientific community, CRISPR-Cas has been all the rage in labs around the world for its exceptional ease and accuracy in editing the gene of almost any organism.

In 2012, UC Berkeley’s world-renowned RNA expert and biochemist Jennifer Doudna was part of a research team that discovered that you could use the CRISPR system as a programmable tool: scientists can precisely target a gene sequence, cutting and changing the DNA at that exact point. 

CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” are repeated DNA sequences that are an essential component of a bacteria’s defense system against viruses.

And what started out as a study to understand the bacterial immune system unwittingly resulted in a powerful technology that has the potential to cure genetic diseases, create more sustainable crops, and even render animal organs fit for human transplants.

We’ve had gene-editing technology for decades, but now, “we’re basically able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes,” says Doudna.

“All the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers.”

GIF source: Business Insider

Human embryos successfully edited by Chinese researchers via CRISPR-Cas9

By Antonio Regalado -

In an ethically charged first, Chinese researchers have used gene editing to modify human embryos obtained from an in-vitro fertilization clinic.

The 16-person scientific team, based at the Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, set out to see whether it could correct the gene defect that causes beta-thalassemia, a blood disease, by editing the DNA of fertilized eggs.


Ref:   CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes. Protein & Cell (2015) | DOI:10.​1007/​s13238-015-0153-5

Gene Editing Technology Could Have Serious Consequences, Researchers Say

Scientists have developed a method for editing the genes of practically any plant or animal. This method, known as CRISPR, allows researchers to fix genetic defects that cause disease in humans, for example. However, modified genes are spreading through entire populations faster than researchers thought possible and this poses serious biological risks, according to a new study.

Researchers from Cornell University developed a mathematical model that identifies “gene drive” or how quickly and extensively one of these modified genes spreads throughout a population, according to Business Insider.

To test their model, researchers introduced a mutation, or allele, into a few individual fruit flies. Introducing an allele allows researchers to control malaria in mosquitos and pesticide resistance in plants, for example. However, the rate at which the allele spread suggests the gene editing system could spread to unintended species, according to the Cornell Chronicle.

“The time for these CRISPR alleles to spread and become fixed in a population is on the order of tens of generations,” Rob Unckless, first author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, told the Cornell Chronicle. “That’s incredibly fast.”

When a mosquito with a gene drive mates with a wild-type mosquito, the CRISPR mutation (blue) can potentially spread quickly through a population. (Photo : Cornell Chronicle )
Federal advisory committee greenlights first CRISPR clinical trial
The technique's first test in people could begin as early as the end of this year.

CRISPR, the genome-editing technology that has taken biomedical science by storm, is finally nearing human trials.

On 21 June, an advisory committee at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a proposal to use CRISPR/Cas9 to help augment cancer therapies that rely on enlisting a patient’s T cells.

“Cell therapies [for cancer] are so promising but the majority of people who get these therapies have a disease that relapses,” says study leader Edward Stadtmauer, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Gene editing could improve such treatments and eliminate some of their vulnerabilities to cancer and the body’s immune system, he says.

This first trial is small and designed to test whether CRISPR is safe for use in people, rather than whether it cures cancer or not. It will be funded by a US$250 million immunotherapy foundation formed in April by former Facebook president Sean Parker. The trial itself does not yet have a budget. The University of Pennsylvania will manufacture the edited cells, and will recruit and treat patients along with centers in California and Texas.

The researchers will remove T cells from 18 patients with melanoma, sarcoma, or myeloma, and perform three CRISPR edits on them. One edit will insert a gene for a protein engineered to detect cancer cells and instruct the T cells to target them, and a second edit removes a natural T cell protein that could interfere with this process. The third is defensive: removing the gene for a protein that identifies the T cells as immune cells and preventing the cancer cells from disabling them. The researchers will then infuse the edited cells back into the patient.

Continue Reading.

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

by Rachel Laudan in Jacobin

As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.

The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.

Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Even today, natural can be a shock when we actually encounter it. When Jacques Pepin offered free-­range chickens to friends, they found “the flesh tough and the flavor too strong,” prompting him to wonder whether they would really like things the way they naturally used to be. Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink. Fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten.

Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger when the days were short. The weather turned cold, or the rain did not fall. Hens stopped laying eggs, cows went dry, fruits and vegetables were not to be found, fish could not be caught in the stormy seas.

Natural was usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied from fifty to ninety percent of the calories in most societies have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible. Other plants, including the roots and fibers that were the life support of the societies that did not eat grains, are often downright poisonous. Without careful processing green potatoes, stinging taro, and cassava bitter with prussic acid are not just indigestible, but toxic.

Nor did our ancestors’ physiological theories dispose them to the natural. Until about two hundred years ago, from China to Europe, and in Mesoamerica, too, everyone believed that the fires in the belly cooked foodstuffs and turned them into nutrients. That was what digestion was. Cooking foods in effect pre-digested them and made them easier to assimilate. Given a choice, no one would burden the stomach with raw, unprocessed foods.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.

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*This was a very good piece! If it had gotten into the ecological side of these historical changes, it would have perhaps been better.

I encounter a lot of this ‘luddism’ in the permaculture movement, and struggle with trying to articulate a permacultural praxis that is modern, technological, and accessible.

Whenever I write about GM crops, science advocates criticise my anti-patent stance (which I actually take from reading the works of a futurist!) and my cautious-about-genetic-drift stance; meanwhile, organic advocates vehemently criticise my refusal to condemn genetic engineering wholesale. There is little room for a cautious optimism in that debate. I think there is a third potential position: one where genetic engineering is decentralised, open-source, and accessible.

I’ve been obsessed with biospheres and space travel for as long as I can remember. When I am writing about things like agroforestry, it’s not about returning to an idyllic past: it’s about engineering a better future on this world and others. I think many of the problems of modern agriculture can be better understood as scientific, not neccessarily moral.

How these “resurrection plants” may be an answer to drought-resistant crops

Many eyes have been on these small mosses as they may leave clues for ways to engineer crops that can withstand a drought.

Scientists at UC Berkeley and around the country are studying Tortula mosses’ incredible ability to revive itself after it’s been long dried out — hence garnering the name “resurrection plants.”

These mosses are great at repairing their damaged cells, so even if they become completely dehydrated and stopped photosynthesizing, they are able to regrow once they obtain water.

Watch the inner workings of these amazing plants at KQED Science