Masters of Our World: Should We Use Gene Drives to Control the Ecosystem?

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Picture Credit: Michael Morgenstern | Science News

Some have called it a magic wand. Others have referred to it as the beginning of a new scientific revolution. Regardless of how you may see it, it’s a subject matter that shouldn’t be discussed by only scientists.

CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest state-of-the-art gene editing tool that has taken over the scientific community in recent years. While the concept of modifying DNA is certainly not a new invention, CRISPR’s main strength lies its transformation of the complicated process of gene editing into something quick, efficient, precise and ridiculously cheap. In other words, it has the potential to cut out undesirable segments of DNA, eradicate hereditary diseases and even guide humanity to a future where people can shape their body into whatever they want. It’s what discouraged many people from thinking that something like designer babies is “unlikely,” but rather as something “inevitable.”

One area of CRISPR research that has gained a lot of attention recently is the development of gene drive technology, which may give humans the power to modify or even exterminate entire species in the wild. According to evolutionary biologist and gene drive pioneer Kevin Esvelt, the purpose of a gene drive is to use CRISPR to override the traditional rules of Mendelian inheritance and introduce a genetic change in organisms that will be passed down to nearly all of its descendants.

In a typical situation, a parent organism can only pass down its genome to half of its offspring as per the rules of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. As a result, even if scientists were able to genetically modify organisms in the past, they would still encounter immense difficulty in forcing specific genetic changes across an entire population. With gene drive, however, that 50-50 chance of inheritance can skyrocket to as high as 99 percent. This, of course, has groundbreaking implications.

“The ability to edit populations of sexual species would offer substantial benefits to humanity and the environment. For example, RNA-guided gene drives could potentially prevent the spread of disease, support agriculture by reversing pesticide and herbicide resistance in insects and weeds, and control damaging invasive species… [G]ene drives will be capable of influencing entire ecosystems for good or for ill,” stated Esvelt when he first introduced the possibility of using CRISPR to develop gene drives.

We possess the technology to change the world’s ecosystems, but does that mean we should use it? Many people certainly seem to think so, and the proposed benefits seem irrefutable. For instance, one innovative project currently underway is the use of gene drives to eliminate malaria from mosquitoes. Scientists are working on genetically modifying the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, a species known for spreading the malaria parasite so that the female mosquitoes become sterile. That way, once these modified mosquitoes are released into the wild, they can breed with other members of their species and effectively die off. Other scientists are looking towards using gene drive to wipe out invasive species and save endangered native animals.

Esvelt himself has become heavily involved in gene drive technology. His current project aims to reduce the rate of Lyme disease on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts by genetically modifying the island’s white-footed mice to become immune to the disease. Then, ticks will be unable to transfer the bacteria that cause the disease, and the entire transmission cycle will collapse.

However, as promising as all this may sound, it’s doubtful that gene drives will provide a lasting, viable solution. In fact, it’s possible that this technology allows scientists to deal with these serious issues in the wrong way. We may have become too infatuated with how sleek and shiny CRISPR appears to consider better, less risky solutions.

For one thing, ecosystems aren’t so simple that we can just inject new variants of a species into the wild and expect everything to go exactly as we planned. There are too many nebulous factors involved for scientists to be able to correctly predict the outcome of every ecological experiment. One of the test subjects may escape into a different environment or a completely unrelated species may become caught in the crossfire. Most of the time, as Esvelt notes, the gene drive may have little to no effect on the ecosystem at all. Ultimately, it’s arrogant to treat the ecosystem like a math problem with a simple, clean answer.

Even Esvelt seems aware of these limitations, stating, “Let me be the first to say that we do not understand how ecosystems work. They are fantastically complex.”

As if affirming this admittance of ignorance, nature itself seems to have knocked gene drive down several pegs. According to a recent report by population geneticist Philipp Messer, the genetically modified mosquitoes that the team designed to pass down an infertility mutation to all their offspring started developing a resistance to the gene drive. In other words, gene drives may not be the permanent solution that many people claimed it to be. “In the long run, even with a gene drive, evolution wins in the end,” Esvelt commented in response to the news.

But that’s not even the worst part. Upon creating a detailed mathematical model that describes what happens when genetically modified organisms are released, Esvelt discovered that the chances of altered genes spreading to unintended parts of the ecosystem were much higher than he originally predicted.

“I [feel] like I’ve blown it … [Championing this idea was] an embarrassing mistake,” Esvelt admitted.

To be honest, the entire idea of gene drives seemed faulty to begin with, mainly because the desired population modifications were not introduced naturally. Instead of working hand-in-hand with evolution, gene drives attempt to solve ecological problems by simply creating more unsustainable arms races akin to the one we have between antibiotics and bacterial diseases. For instance, even if gene drives eradicated a species of mosquitoes that spread malaria, it wouldn’t be long before a different species of mosquitoes eventually emerged that can spread the bacteria to human hosts.

Instead of making sudden, irreversible changes to the ecosystem, a much more reasonable solution is the one offered by evolutionary biologist Dr. Sharon Moalem in his book The Survival of the Sickest. In it, Dr. Moalem describes how the best way to combat diseases like malaria is to change the conditions of the environment so that the nature of the disease evolves in a way that works in our favor. For example, consider how the widespread use of mosquito nets would not only stop mosquitoes from infecting humans but essentially invalidate mosquitoes in general as vectors for the disease. As a result, evolution may provide an alternative way for malaria to spread, perhaps one that wouldn’t cause the parasite to completely incapacitate the body and instead only slightly weaken it so that the disease can spread similarly to the common cold.

Rather than risk a high-stakes gamble on gene-editing technology, it may be wiser in the long run to contemplate less invasive methods to solve our ecological problems. Humans don’t have a great track record to begin with, after all.

Originally published on November 29, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Gene Drives Wrongfully Hailed as Biological Panacea

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It’s Time to Replace the Lab Mice

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Picture Credit: Alamy | The Guardian

Let’s do a little experiment. Read the following headlines from these recently published scientific articles and try to find the one thing that all of them have in common: “The Pancreas Provides a Potential Drug Candidate for Brain Disease,” “Chimera Viruses Can Help the Fight Against Lymphomas,” “What Was Once Considered Cell Waste Could Now Treat Pancreatic Cancer,” “Cellular Tango: Immune and Nerve Cells Work Together to Fight Gut Infections,” “Scientists Reveal Fire Ant Venom Could be Used as a Skin Treatment.” The answer? All of the listed studies are based on the results of experiments conducted on mice. And that is a huge problem.

Using lab mice to understand how the human body works is nothing new. This practice officially started in 1902 when French biologist Lucien Cuénot used mice to research the nature of genes. Inspired by the works of Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, Cuénot wanted to see if Mendel’s laws of inheritance applied to more than just sweet peas. Beforehand, Mendelian genetics only applied to tested plants, so the Cuénot discovery that animals follow the laws of inheritance sent shockwaves across the scientific community.

Not long after, more scientists began to use mice to explore the field of genetics, establishing mating programs that created inbred strains of mice and leading efforts to fully map the mouse genome. As decades went by, lab mice skyrocketed in popularity and ended up contributing to numerous award-winning discoveries. Out of the 106 times the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded so far, 42 of them involved research on mice or rats in some major way. These studies include the discovery of penicillin, the yellow fever vaccine, the polio vaccine and the HIV-AIDS virus.

It is easy to see how the lab mice became such an iconic symbol of biomedical research. Xavier Montagutelli, the head of the animal facilities at Institut Pasteur in Paris, explains, “[Mice] are small and inexpensive, they reproduce quickly… and they age quickly too, making them ideal for studying age-related complaints. We know how to freeze their embryos, sperm, and ova. We now know how to manipulate their genes…They are remarkable tools.”

Unfortunately, the acceptance of mice as the ideal test subject has led to the rigid assumption that they are some kind of prototypical “blank slate” mammals rather than a species with its own unique features and body mechanisms. As a result, the field of biomedicine has built an entire infrastructure of knowledge around these rodents and has become dependent on their bodily responses to measure clinical success. But they simply don’t work as models of human disease, much less for human drug treatment.

For instance, scientists have used mice to find treatments for tuberculosis for decades. However, mice respond in a drastically different manner in comparison to humans. For one thing, mice don’t cough and aren’t contagious when they have the disease. In addition, the human body triggers an immune response when the bacteria responsible for the disease is detected. Mice don’t have this immune response—they get the disease and die. So it’s no surprise that scientists have found an antibiotic called Linezolid that works spectacularly well on human patients but not on mice.

The opposite can happen as well. In the late 1950s, German doctors prescribed Thaliomide under the drug name Contergan to pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness. Since the drug was successful in mice, they assumed that the same would happen in humans. Instead, Contergan led to countless birth defects and only 40 percent of the children survived. And this isn’t just a fluke, either. Dr. Jean-Marc Cavaillon, head of the cytokines and inflammation unit at Institut Pasteur, explained how researchers have discovered a monoclonal antibody that treats inflammatory conditions in mice but would send human patients to intensive care. “Mice are great for basic research, for understanding overall patterns and grasping mechanisms. But once you start modeling a human disease to find the right treatment, you run up against major differences between us and mice,” he said.

As a result, drug treatments that were successfully tested in mice have a high chance of failure when tested on humans. According to a 2014 study on animal models, researchers have found that, on average, less than eight percent of experimental cancer treatments have successfully transitioned from animal testing to clinical cancer trials. Similarly, researchers trying to find a cure for ALS have submitted about a dozen experimental treatments for clinical testing over the past decade after finding success in mice. But when tested on humans, all but one of them failed and the one that didn’t only showed marginal benefits.

It also doesn’t help that these clinical trials are ridiculously expensive—we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and years’ worth of time. In October 2014, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report about how the clinical trials of three tuberculosis treatments ended in complete failure, despite promising results in lab mice. According to the head researcher, the clinical trials alone cost more than $200 million.

But that raises the question: Can we find a suitable replacement for the lab mouse? Unfortunately, no one can say for sure. It’s not like replacing mice with a different animal will solve everything, since animal testing as a whole is still rather dubious. So far, there are only two major possible alternatives, computer models and in vitro cell culture, neither of which offer much of a substitute since they don’t provide a lot of information regarding the complex interactions of living systems.

In addition, the push to stop the use of lab mice has been very controversial within the scientific community, especially for those who would rather turn a blind eye to the issue. Simply put, lab mice are incredibly cheap, convenient and easy to handle. The initiative would also place a large bulk of biomedical research into jeopardy and cast a shadow of doubt across countless pre-existing studies on disease treatment. Scientists today still continue to experiment on mice and spend millions of dollars on clinical trials, only to wonder why their product didn’t work. But what other choice do they have?

A survey of the National Library of Medicine’s database showed that experiments conducted on mice and rats make up almost half of the 20 million academic citations across the field of biomedicine. Despite all the problems they have caused, lab mice remain deeply entrenched in the field of medical research. Clearly, this isn’t a problem that can be solved in a single day.

But what’s even worse is that many news publications are making it seem as if these experimental treatments have worked on human patients and are bound to hit the shelves in the near future. Remember those headlines mentioned in the beginning of this article? All those articles were based on mouse studies and yet none of them mentioned the word “mice” in the headline. It’s sloppy journalism like this that helps fuel people’s doubt and confusion toward the sciences. In the end, one must always remain diligent when reading about the latest discoveries and findings. Science is already a difficult field to grasp, and diving into the literature blindly won’t make things any easier in the long run.

Originally published on September 21, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsExperiments on mice should not be generalized to humans

How Religion Physically Changes Your Brain

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Picture Credit: JupiterImages | The Huffington Post

It seems that more and more young Americans don’t feel quite as deeply connected to deities as their parents or their grandparents. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans under 30 who “never doubt the existence of God” has dropped from 83 percent in 2007 to 67 percent to 2012. In addition, only 18 percent of Millennials reported that they attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 26 percent of Boomers in the late 1970s.

With more people turning away from God and the church, questions surrounding the scientific implications of this generational trend can’t help but arise: How would this historic trend affect the minds and brains of young Americans, who will become the future of this country? In order to find an answer, we can turn toward a relatively obscure discipline in science: Neurotheology.

Neurotheology is the study of spirituality in the context of neuroscience, striving to explain the religious experience in neuroscientific terms.

“[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer. This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an established neuroscientist and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

So, what do studies of the brain tell us about the impact of religion? In 2014, when Dr. Newberg compared the brain scans of Franciscan nuns, Buddhist monks and staunch atheists in prayer, he found something interesting. The brain scans indicated that praying and meditation caused increased activity in the limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion, and decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the brain region responsible orienting oneself in space and time.

“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” says Newberg. According to him, this discovery explains why spirituality is one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Surprisingly, the connection between the parietal lobe and spirituality runs deep. All the way back in the 1990s, Canadian cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger tried to artificially replicate the mental effects of religion with his invention, the “God helmet,” a helmet that directed complex magnetic fields to parts of the brain including the parietal lobe. While crowds of Evangelical Christians protested outside his lab, Persinger invited participants to test the helmet. To his delight, more than 80 percent of the participants reported sensing a presence in the room that they took to be their deity. As a result, they became deeply emotional and, once the experiment concluded, were filled with a sense of loss.

Persinger theorized that the electromagnetic disruption created by the helmet caused one hemisphere of the participant’s brain to separate from the other and sense it as an entirely separate presence. Funnily enough, Persinger’s experiment then supports the claims of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose 1976 book proposed that the left and right hemispheres are like two separate beings and that signals from the right brain were interpreted by the left brain as the voice of God. Ultimately, this would mean that supernatural occurrences such as divine visions and out-of-body experiences are merely the result of environmental disturbances.

However, there are still skeptics. Graham Ward, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University states that these claims are still shaky at best and that the temporal lobes “light up for any kind of excitement, not just religious experience.”

A more recent research study has found that humans naturally suppress the analytical parts of their brain and more heavily use the parts linked to empathy when they believe in God. Not only that, but the opposite occurs when humans think about the physical world instead. Anthony Jack, a Professor of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University who led the study, claims that humans use two different networks of neurons, one that enables critical thinking and one that promotes empathy. He explains that not only does this discovery broaden our understanding of spirituality in the history of cultures, but it also suggests that a healthy brain can choose which network to depend on and which to suppress when confronted with a logical problem or an ethical dilemma.

This idea that religion may arise from pathways in the brain rather than physical brain regions has been gaining traction recently. In a different study led by researchers at Auburn University showed that subjects who perceived supernatural agents in their daily lives were more likely to use brain pathways associated with fear when asked to think about their religious beliefs. They also found that devout believers tend to use neural pathways connected to language, while atheists tend to use pathways associated with visual imagery.

Most interestingly, while religion has been shown to heavily influence the brain, the brain can actually change how a person views religion. According to Boston University Professor of Neurology Patrick McNamara, changes in brain chemistry caused by Parkinson’s disease has been shown to erode a patient’s faith and devotion to God. These patients, McNamara discovered, lacked the neurotransmitter dopamine, which made him suspect that religiosity is connected to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. This theory fits surprisingly well in the context of a completely different study, one where researchers used functional MRI scans and found that religious and spiritual experiences activate the same reward systems in the brain that become active when listening to music or doing drugs.

But even if spirituality is just a matter of brain chemistry, several theories point to religion as an evolutionary adaptation. A number of reports have found that churchgoers live about seven years longer than atheists and tend to have greater success with recovery from diseases like breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. They are also more likely to have lower blood pressure and less likely to have depression. So while cultural trends may shift away from god, it won’t be all that surprising if religion continues to persist for years to come.

Originally published on April 19, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsNeuroscience of religion reveals hidden cultural trends

Unlocking Axolotl: The Path Towards Regenerative Medicine

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Picture Credit: Utaranews.com

Out of all the various superpowers found in comic books and video games, regeneration is among the most astonishing. The idea of being able to regrow an arm or a leg whenever one is lost in an accident exemplifies a sort of uncanny magical ability straight out of science fiction. However, this ability serves as an adaptive trait for several different animals around the world.

While notable examples include sea stars and certain species of lizards, the most prominent kinds of animals known for their regenerative capabilities are salamanders, a species known for its ability to regrow entire limbs and regenerate parts of major organs like their heart, their eyes and their spinal cord. They possess such impressive regeneration abilities that immunologist James Godwin of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University in Melbourne calls them “a template of what perfect regeneration looks like.”

One specific salamander species that deserves special attention is the axolotl, also known as a Mexican salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum). This amphibian, in particular, has a one-of-a-kind capacity for regeneration and is known for being able to regrow multiple structures like limbs, jaws, skin and even parts of its brain without evidence of scarring throughout their lives.

The sheer amount of damage that an axolotl can recover from is absolutely extraordinary.

“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level–the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm–and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, There’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect,” remarked Professor Stephane Roy at the University of Montreal.

As a result, the axolotl is widely used as a model organism for studying regeneration. But this begs the question: can this amazing regeneration ability be somehow transferred to humans? If human beings had the same regenerative capacity as axolotls, the benefits would far surpass that of regrowing an arm or a leg or a finger. People would be able to repair or regrow their internal organs whenever an organ failure occurs without having to rely on intensive surgery.

For instance, victims of car accidents may end up with major injuries to their backbone, their ribcage and all the soft major organs within, but a regeneration ability equivalent to that of an axolotl may have them walking normally after a mere few months. Not only that, the axolotl is over 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals. Finding the source of this salamander’s regeneration capabilities could lead to unimaginable developments in modern medicine.

However, while the idea sounds fantastic, the execution is much more difficult than it looks. Compared to amphibians, humans have very limited regenerative capabilities, restricted primarily to their skin. So far, research into salamanders has led scientists to pinpoint the blastema, a mass of immature cells typically found in the early stages of an organism’s development, as the key to regeneration. Essentially, when an adult salamander limb is amputated, the outermost layer of skin covers up the wound and sends signals to nearby cells, which prompts the mature cells to form the blastema. From there, the immature cells start to divide and differentiate into specific muscle and nerve cells until a different signal or some form of memory tells the cells to stop regenerating.

For scientists to replicate this effect in humans, they use stem cells, which are also cells that can also differentiate into any type of cell in the body and divide to produce more stem cells. These cells are also known as pluripotent cells since they are capable of developing into several different cell types. However, the blastema that salamanders produce is not completely embryonic. Instead, scientists have found that the cells used for regeneration become slightly less mature versions of the cells they’ve been before. This means researchers don’t have to force adult tissue into becoming pluripotent, making the task a little easier to implement in humans.

The latest development in this field has come from a group of scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), who have designed a new stem cell repair system based on the method used by salamanders to regenerate limbs. According to hematologist John Pimanda, the new technique involves reprogramming bone and fat cells into induced multipotent stem cells (iMS), which can be used to regenerate muscle, bone and cartilage. The team first extract fat cells from the human body, treat them with various growth factors and compounds like 5-Azacytidine (AZA) to turn them into stem cells, and then inject them back into the body to heal tissue.

“This technique is a significant advance on many of the current unproven stem cell therapies, which have shown little or no objective evidence they contribute directly to new tissue formation,” stated Pimanda.

So far, the new technique has been successful in mice, and human trials are expected to begin by late 2017. But several obstacles still stand in the way. One primary challenge is preventing the cells from becoming cancerous as they go through regeneration. Salamanders typically don’t face the risk of malignant tumors whenever they regenerate tissue, and as stated earlier, the axolotl is in fact 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals, despite how often it regenerates body parts. Right now, Pimanda and his team are making sure that the technique leads to controlled tissue repair and that cell regeneration doesn’t spiral out of control.

With progress being steadily made in regenerating bone and muscle, it may be only a matter of time until we reach the regenerative capabilities of salamanders and have self-repairing organs in the future. A revolutionary development like that would certainly save lives and help all types of patients from those suffering from third-degree burns to those who desperately need an organ donor. Until then, researchers will continue to study salamanders and their incredible regeneration abilities to help guide them towards this goal.

Originally published on November 30, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsResearch on regeneration proves beneficial

Is Earth’s Biodiversity Dying…Or Adapting?

 

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Picture Credit: Janet Kessler | Bay Nature

Here’s some grim news: thousands of animal species are disappearing every year and the rate of extinction will only increase in the coming future.

As tragic as that sounds, is it even remote­ly surprising anymore? We’ve gotten so used to hearing bad news about the state of the en­vironment that the image of humanity as this unstoppable, destructive force is pretty much cemented in both popular media and our collec­tive consciousness.

Journalist and author Jeremy Hance admitted, “As an environmental journalist, I sometimes feel it’s my job to simply document the decline of life on planet Earth. The word ‘depressing’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. For many of us—myself included some days—the desperate state of our environment leaves us numb with sadness and, frankly, lost in hopelessness.”

Yet, despite all this doom and gloom, we’re not giving the animals on the planet enough credit. Thanks to all the destruction that we cause, we tend to assume that nature itself is powerless against the overwhelming power of humankind. As true as that might be, it’s a rather arrogant assertion that underestimates the wild­life on the planet. The Earth’s biodiversity may be in danger thanks to humans, but nature isn’t entirely dependent on human activities.

For the environmentally savvy individu­al, there is absolutely no question that Earth’s wildlife is dying at an alarming rate. A study published in 2014 found that 41 percent of all amphibian species on Earth face the threat of extinction, as well as 26 percent of mammal species and 13 percent of bird species. Not only that, upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest are being de­stroyed every day, leading to an estimated loss of 50,000 species a year.

More and more, animals steadily face extinc­tion, from the majestic Siberian tiger to the rusty patched bumble bee.

If this devastating trend continues, scien­tists worry that at least one in every six species could vanish from the face of the planet by the year 2100. Nature doesn’t stand a chance in the face of such overwhelming threats.

But while it’s true that the state of the planet elicits distress, it would be misguided to believe that all wildlife is helpless. Rather, nature is in­credibly clever with how it approaches this dire situation. Because it’s not sheer dominance and size that guarantees survival; it’s adaptability.

For instance, scientists in 2011 discovered four new species of bees in the densely popu­lated and highly urbanized New York City. These bees have been found in Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau Counties, hidden among other species. That is astounding, especially when one considers the rapid decline of bee populations across the planet. Not only that, researchers also identified a new species of frog in New York City as well. The Atlantic Coast leopard frog, or Rana kauffeldi, was first found in Staten Island and is seemingly resistant to the chytrid fungal disease that’s wiping out hundreds of am­phibian species elsewhere in the world.

That’s right: In the age of extinctions and en­dangered animals, new species are being found right at our doorsteps. Even outside of New York City, entomologist Emily Hartop has document­ed 43 new species in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles in just two years. Hartop wants other members of the community to explore urban landscapes and search for new species of spiders, snails, slugs, reptiles and amphibians hiding in the cracks.

“[Urban landscapes] are as important for biodiversity as ancient woodlands,” says Matt Shardlow, the chief executive of the UK conser­vation group Buglife.

However, it’s not just that new species are be­ing found in areas changed by human activity. Animals that have lived for centuries in the undis­turbed wilderness are adjusting to city life and human presence, an amazing testament to the power of adaptation.

A great example of such an animal is the coy­ote, which has changed from a species native to the open plains of western America to one that has spread to every corner of the United States. As om­nivores, coyotes in the city usually come out during the night and search for anything to eat from backyard fruit to wild prey.

After decades of contact with human society, these canines have learned when to safely cross roads by observing traffic patterns and how to hide effectively in hidden concrete dens to avoid humans. But in some areas, coyotes have become so used to humans that they approach people and nip them on the shin to ask for food.

“If no one had seen a coyote before, I wouldn’t take them to a rural environment, I’d go to Den­ver,” says Stewart Breck, a research wildlife bi­ologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Breck under­scores the incredible malleability of the coyote’s environmental fitness.

That’s not all. Many other animals are follow­ing suit in order to survive in an increasingly human-centered world. Sparrows in Bangkok, Thailand have changed their sleeping patterns to stay awake late into the night in order to feed on the swarms of bugs that are drawn towards the city’s bright lights. In Germa­ny, wild boars are known to travel from the rural forest areas to the suburbs of Berlin in order to stay safe during hunting season. Tawny owls in Finland have become browner over the past few decades in response to climate change and the lack of snow.

The Atlantic tomcod, a species of fish found in the Hudson river, have grown resistant to tox­ins and can swim in relatively polluted waters with no ill effect. There really is no end to the different ways animals have adapted to human activities.

“We forget that we are the biggest cause of evolution on the planet right now. We have this view of the wild as a pristine place [and of evo­lution as something that happens] in the wild. But humans in cities are changing the animals now,” remarks Suzanne MacDonald, a biologist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who studies urban raccoons.

Sometimes, endangered animals find refuge where one least expects it. An endangered bird known as the black-crowned night heron has adapted to urban life and is thriving in the heart of Chicago, the third largest city in the United States.

That’s the cardinal rule of nature: It’s all about the ability to adapt to changing environ­ments. In the end, natural selection ensures the survival of the most clever and resourceful crea­tures.

So, let’s end the egotistical belief that, as hu­mans, we ultimately decide the life and death of all animals on the planet. We certainly shouldn’t ignore the destructive impact of human activity, but we shouldn’t look down on nature’s wildlife, either.

Originally published on October 12, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsWhen faced with extinction, wildlife creatively adapts

Turning to Biomimicry: The Unrecognized Importance of Studying Animals

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Picture Credit: Jiuguang Wang | Snake Robot at Robotics Institute | 2011 | Flickr

What comes to mind when you think of biology and making a difference in the world? Cancer research, gene therapy, or the treatment of diseases are generally the most common responses since these fields never fail to generate public buzz. Unsurprisingly, most people probably didn’t think about the study of animals. Zoology is the field responsible for that objective. Or at least it used to be.

Truth be told, zoology is not an area of study that attracts much attention or respect. In the eyes of most people, studying animals for a living seems more like a hobby or even a career fantasy that a naive child would imagine having as an adult. Unless you want to work for a zoo, some might say, it’s silly and unrealistic. Working with animals just seems too much like playing and lacks the seriousness that biochemistry, genetics, and medicine entails. Even on the Internet, the most common answer to why one should study zoology is “because it’s fun.” Another common answer is “because we must protect endangered species.” Given these rather lukewarm responses, it’s no wonder that most people don’t associate zoology with making an impact in the world.

Yet despite signs of zoology’s rapidly fading reputation, the study of animals is still going strong. It just happens to fall under a plethora of different names.

“Zoology is already dead,” stated John Long, Jr., a biology and cognitive science professor at Vassar College. “This old field has been pulled apart and its pieces put into new disciplines like biomimicry, animal behavior, evolution, biomechanics, biorobotics, […and etc.] While we call the study of animals ‘zoology,’ no one calls themselves a ‘zoologist’ anymore.”

While the term “zoology” is now considered outdated, the study of animals has spread across a wide range of different fields from robotics to cognitive science. Scientists and engineers alike have started to use animals to learn more about the workings of machines and the world. This integration has led to more far-reaching contributions to society than one might expect. Of the many categories, two main fields come to mind: robot biomimicry and animal-inspired innovations.

Robot biomimicry refers to machines or robots that imitate the structure and behavior of real animals in a way that takes advantage of that animal’s survival skill. Scientists and engineers study the design and mechanics behind different animals and attempt to make a simpler yet more efficient copies of the mechanism. For example, a team of scientists at Stanford researched how geckos use their toes to climb vertically in order to design a robot that can easily scale walls. A gecko’s toe contains hundreds of flap-like ridges, each of which has millions of tiny hairs with even tinier split ends. This special feature allows geckos to utilize weak attractive or repulsive forces called “van der Waals” forces in order to stick to walls and ceilings on a molecular level. Using an adhesive that incorporates the same strategy, the Stanford team is currently building robots that can climb rough concrete as well as smooth glass surfaces, making them perfect for reaching places that humans cannot normally access.

Similarly, roboticist Howie Choset of Carnegie Mellon University teamed up with researchers to study the locomotion of sidewinders, a species of desert snakes, to build a robot that can travel across rough terrains without getting stuck in ruts. By studying patterns in a sidewinder’s movements, Choset and his team not only built a robot that can help archaeologists explore dangerous archaeological sites, but they also learned more about the snake species in general.

On the other hand, animal-inspired designs use aspects of certain animals to improve something we already have. For instance, scientists at Harvard University have looked into why humpback whales are so agile in the water despite weighing more than 60,000 pounds. They later found that the bumps on the whale’s flippers allow whales to swim with great speed and flexibility. Excited with their discovery, the team designed turbine blades with similar bumps that were so effective at reducing drag, that Canada’s largest producer of ventilation fans licensed the design. This animal-inspired innovation will also be applied to transportation devices. For example, improvements can be made to stabilize airplanes and boost the speed of submarines.

Of course, there are countless other stories of researchers inspired by the creativity found in animals. In Japan, the design of a kingfisher bird’s bill was studied to improve the country’s famous bullet trains. Boat companies around the world are researching shark skin to design boats that are both faster and self-cleaning. Some experts even believe that examining the bioluminescence from fireflies or deep-sea squids could lead to an eco-friendly replacement of public street lamps. Studying animals allows us to use nature as our guide to create revolutionary designs and products. Every species possesses a unique survival mechanism or trait molded by countless centuries of evolution, and many of these could benefit humanity in unimaginable ways. Tapping into this rich reserve of creativity is our way to find new ideas when our own brainstorming comes up dry.

With all this promise, why does the study of animals suffer from such a dearth of public awareness and excitement? It could be because so many people maintain the stereotype that working with animals is synonymous to just playing with them. The preconception of this type of work as a lackadaisical, frivolous endeavor unfortunately remains deeply embedded in society.

Surprisingly, an interesting parallel can be drawn between the study of animals and environmentalism. In his essay, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?”, historian Richard White affirms that the public disdain towards environmentalism stems from its perceived detachment from work. Whether it’s logging, mining, or ranching, many environmentalists protest these encroaching forms of industry and argues that nature should be left pristine and untouched. While the popular slogan of “save the forest” isn’t a bad message, prioritizing the purity of a piece of land over the livelihood of other people has left a negative impression of the movement as a whole. It sends a disturbing signal that a person’s right to enjoy nature and its beauty overrules a person’s will to work in order to feed a family and find success. As White remarks, “Nature has become an arena for human play and leisure. Saving an old-growth forest or creating a wilderness area is certainly a victory for some of the creatures that live in those places, but it is just as certainly a victory for backpackers and a defeat for loggers. It is a victory for leisure and a defeat for work.”

Although White’s paper had stirred up some controversy among environmentalists, there has been a noticeable shift towards environmental work that directly benefits society. Environmentalism now provides a larger focus towards chemical tests on water sources and technology that benefits both nature and humans. As White had stated in his paper, environmentalists have to promote a form of environmentalism that directly promotes the progress of society for the movement to be taken seriously.

Similarly, the study of animals is currently going down the same path. In accordance with the rise of new animal-inspired inventions, a greater focus towards benefiting society may change the public outlook on the field. Thus, we should promote discussions on creative solutions inspired by nature rather than place emphasis on how fun it is to work with animals. Answering how and why different animals survive and flourish in a world ruled by natural selection could inspire wonder within people and ultimately ignite public interest.

After all, research into animals is perhaps humankind’s greatest source of ingenuity and imagination. With it, revolutionary ideas infused with the genius of nature await humankind in the future.

Originally published on April 23, 2016, in Boilerplate MagazineWhen Humans Don’t Have All the Answers – A Turn to Biomimicry

A Bright, Eco-Friendly Future: Bioluminescence as Our Next Light Source

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Picture Credit: Lit by Bioluminescence | Glowee

Imagine a world where the streets glow with a dreamlike shade of blue as if you’re walking in the presence of ethereal spirits wandering the city. While that image sounds too mythical to be real, one start-up company is working to create this otherworldly environment for the future. Glowee, a French company planning on harnessing the power of bioluminescent bacteria, has officially debuted after successfully crowd-funding in May 2015. Their goal: to replace the electric street lamps of France with blue microbial lamps.

Bioluminescence is an organism’s ability to generate light in the dark. This is different from fluorescence, which involves absorbing light from an external source and immediately re-emitting a modified version of that light. While fluorescence is a physical process, bioluminescence is a chemical one that occurs due to an enzyme, luciferase. In the biochemical reaction, luciferase catalyzes the light-emitting pigment luciferin with oxygen in order to create light. For humans, bioluminescence has the potential to be­come a valuable source of renewable energy.

Consider the latest global push towards reduc­ing CO2 emissions and fighting climate change. At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, world leaders came to an agreement that everyone must do everything they can to cut down our energy consumption. While politicians can promise to limit emissions, real progress cannot occur with­out a viable green energy solution. Rather than an immediate transition to green energy, what if we tackled the problem one chunk at a time? This is where inspirations from nature and the creativity of science mesh together. For instance, biolumi­nescence doesn’t require any electricity to pro­duce light. Given this fact, researchers are investi­gating engineered bioluminescence as a possible alternative to regular street lighting.

Replacing electric lamps with bioluminescent ones may seem almost trivial in the face of cut­ting global energy consumption, but reducing the number of public street lamps is a very necessary first step. In truth, lighting up the streets every night is an incredibly expensive task. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. spent a total of $11 billion on outdoor lighting in 2012, 30 percent of which went to waste in areas that didn’t use or need that light. Furthermore, a recent research study determined that there are currently about 300 million total streetlights around the world and that num­ber will grow to 340 million by 2025. With such severe drawbacks that come with electrical lighting, the use of bioluminescent light is a way to alleviate some if not most of that cost.

Today, the race to find the best form of engi­neered bioluminescence continues to bring us various creative inventions and solutions. At Syr­acuse University, a small team of scientists led by Rabeka Alam discovered a way to chemically at­tach genetically-altered luciferase enzymes from fireflies directly onto the surface of nanorods to make them glow. In a process they called Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET), the nanorod produces a bright light whenever the luciferase enzyme interacts with the fuel source and can produce different colors depending on the size of the rod. According to one scientist on the team, “It’s conceivable that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be in­serted into LED-type lights that you don’t have to plug in.”

On the other side of the world, Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has been working to­gether with the tech company Bioglow to create bioluminescent trees to light up the streets. Incorporating important re­search from the University of Cambridge, Roose­gaarde and his team spliced DNA containing the light-emitting properties from bioluminescent organisms into the chloroplasts of plants. As a re­sult, those plants can produce both luciferase and luciferin that allows them to glow at night.

For Glowee, the plan is to harness biolumines­cence by using Aliivibrio fischeri, a species of bioluminescent bacteria found in certain marine animals like the Hawaiian bobtail squid. They first produce a gel containing the bioluminescent bac­teria along with various nutrients that keep the bacteria alive. Then, the gel is used to fill small, transparent containers, allowing the light to glow through. This method not only makes the light source wireless but also customizable depending on its purpose and design. These bioluminescent lamps would certainly appeal to shop owners in France, especially since the French government recently passed a law that forces all businesses to turn off their lights at 1 a.m. to fight light pollution.

Unfortunately, despite countless efforts towards perfecting engineered bioluminescence, it may still be a long while before our streets are lit by genetically-altered plants or bacteria. The two main obstacles in this endeavor are the rel­atively dim nature of the lights as well as their short lifespan. Even with Glowee’s bio-lights, the company’s current prototype can only produce light up to three days. Some argue that the cost and production of these bioluminescent products greatly overshadow their benefits, saying that such eco-friendly alternatives can never catch up to electrical lighting. While there may be lim­itations, all these projects by businesses and in­stitutions signify the public’s growing desire for real change.

A lot of these projects were funded not by the government but by Kickstarter and other funding platforms. Perhaps many of the backers were just mesmerized by the aesthetic appeal, but the public nevertheless recognizes the potential behind engineered bioluminescence. With continuous effort and scientific innovation, a town or a neighbor­hood powered by living organisms instead of electricity can be a reality. By following the ghost­ly blue light ahead, we would take a tremendous first step towards a world where humans and na­ture can truly coexist.

Originally published on March 30, 2016, in The Miscellany News: Scientists note perks of bioluminescence