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

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


Do Your Talents Depend on Your Genes?

Picture Credit:

What if you were able to discover what your talents were the moment you were born? Would it have helped you at all in school if you knew that you were naturally gifted in sports or solving math problems or playing an instrument? According to certain health institutions in China, you no longer have to spend time wondering, thanks to the power of gene sequencing.

According to a recent article by The Telegraph, China is seeing an incredible surge of these so-called “talent detection” facilities that claim to be able to sequence a person’s DNA and uncover that person’s natural talent for a fee of about $500. Despite the dubious nature of these businesses, this type of direct-to-consumer genetic testing has become so popular among competitive Chinese parents that thousands of children are dragged by their mothers to these institutes to have their genomes sequenced in order to gain an extra advantage in the already cut-throat academic environment. As a result, China is already seeing the rise of the “talent detecting” industry, with companies promising to predict the future potential of children as well as their general level of intelligence, their emotional understanding and even their personality.

Wang Junyi, the president of the highly successful 1Gene health institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang explains why these facilities are all the rage in China: “Many of my friends are anxious about deciding what their children should learn, as they fear making stupid decisions could result in lost opportunities. They will be wasting money and destroying their children’s confidence if they push them into something they are not good at, and this is where genetic testing can help.”

Of course, no matter how convincing they may sound, none of these claims are backed by actual scientific evidence. Genealogy expert Chang Zisong at the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine states that all these predictions are ultimately meaningless and that the main reason why these institutions aren’t illegal is because banning them “would suggest that they have scientific value.”

But this opens up the question–how much impact does our DNA have on our talents? After all, the human genome is supposedly our body’s “blueprint.” While using gene sequencing to determine success in becoming the next Einstein or Mozart may be a farce today, would genetically detecting talent ever become standard practice in the future?

Let’s first examine athletic ability. One of the more controversial arguments regarding this subject is the athletic prowess of Jamaican sprinters. For some reason, the world’s best sprinters seem to come from this island nation in the Caribbean. Both Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson, two Olympic champions who hold the title of fastest man and woman in the world respectively, are Jamaican. In addition, Jamaican athletes make up 19 of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100-meter races.

These numbers are a bit too bizarre to be mere coincidences, seeing how Jamaica has a population of only 2.8 million people. Many people have come up with different theories, from the diet of yams in local regions of the country to the island’s aluminum-rich soil. However, scientists who examined the DNA of Jamaican sprinters have suggested the existence of a “speed gene” and located the ACE gene as the culprit.

According to their explanations, this particular gene variant increases the chance of you developing a larger-than-average heart that can pump highly oxygenated blood to your muscles quicker than the average person’s. The data has shown that Jamaicans have a higher frequency of this gene variant than Europeans or even inhabitants of West Africa.

Funnily enough, 75 percent of Jamaicans, both athletes and non-athletes, also possess the ACTN3 gene, which helps develop muscle strength. In contrast, only 70 percent of U.S. international-standard athletes have this desirable variant.

So is your potential athletic ability primarily determined by these two genes? It’s difficult to tell.

For one thing, the genetics of sports is incredibly complicated, and it’s more likely that an entire pathway of genes is involved rather than a specific anomaly. In addition, Yannis Pitsilandis, a biologist at the University of Glasgow studied the genetics of Jamaican sprinters and could not genetically distinguish a subgroup that made them run faster than everyone else. Instead, Pitsilandis argues that Jamaica has a lot of fast sprinters because the entire country promotes the sport of running, similar to how the United States obsesses over the sport of football.

If the data on athleticism is inconclusive, then let’s look at a different but equally desired talent–the ability to solve math problems easily. Unfortunately, there is even less conclusive data surrounding the genetics of academic success. According to a large twin study by researchers from King’s College in London, it may be possible that the genes for math and language skills are inherited from your parents. However, the scientists were unable to determine the exact genes that may be responsible for these skills.

But then what about musical abilities, like becoming a prodigy in playing the violin or piano? As expected, the situation remains murky. While no direct connections between genes and musical ability have been established, some scientists believe that musical accomplishment may actually stem from the desire to practice, which does have genetic ties.

According to research led by psychologist David Hambrick from Michigan State University, a person’s genetics may influence their musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation.

Similarly, a study of over 10,000 identical Swedish twins led by neuroscientist Miriam Mosing of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute found that a person’s propensity to practice music may be inherited by their child by up to 70 percent. However, neither study can really be deemed conclusive, and connections to any specific gene variant have yet to be found.

Based on all this research, it seems that we still have a long way to go before we can rely on gene sequencing technology to predict people’s futures. Even our knowledge on the link between genetics and talent appears shaky at best. Yet despite this, direct-to-consumer gene sequencing has become all the rage recently, and not only among uber-competitive parents in China. In the United States, countless genetic testing companies have found success by offering to read the customer’s DNA and revealing that person’s natural “disposition.” But instead of analyzing DNA to unveil a person’s natural talent, these companies promise to uncover the customer’s ideal diet and exercise regime, giving “reliable” genetic information on their genetic fitness.

Even crazier is that these “lifestyle genetic tests” are offering to uncover more and more ridiculous information “buried” within our DNA. One company even wants to use gene sequencing to determine what comic superhero a customer would be, based on their genes. As the originator of the idea, Stephane Budel, explains: “It gives you your breakdown, like you’re 30 percent Superman, 20 percent Ironman and 50 percent the Hulk.”

Clearly, the human genome is being treated less like a blueprint and more like a personality test on Facebook. Nonetheless, I think it would be advisable for everyone to slow down, take a deep breath and follow what your brain tells you instead of relying on a genome report.

Originally published on March 1, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsTalents may be dependent on individual genetic makeup

The New Age of DNA: How CRISPR Will Change the World

Picture Credit: Samantha Lee | Business Insider

Imagine traveling back in time to the early 1900’s and trying to explain to someone about the modern computer. It’s a box with buttons and a screen that allows people to access and manipulate all sorts of information. They would have no idea what you’re talking about and would brush it off as some sort of fancy mechanical encyclopedia. You’d want to tell them just how much this invention has changed the world, but you might have trouble quantifying the sheer impact of this technological cornerstone of history.

Now, imagine a technological breakthrough of that same magnitude in the twenty-first century—except instead of computers, it’s gene editing. Thanks to the invention of CRISPR-Cas9, we are currently at the cusp of a new DNA revolution. Yet, most people know very little or nothing about what CRISPR is and what it can do.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique gene editing tool that allows scientists to cut out segments of DNA from the genome of any organism and move them around or replace them entirely with stunning precision.

Similar to how bacteria slice off pieces of DNA from invading viruses to absorb, CRISPR relies on a specific RNA molecule to locate the desired sequence of DNA and slice it out. To perform this incision, CRISPR uses a protein known as Cas9, a special enzyme guided by RNA to target and snip out segments of DNA. As co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkley, describes it, CRISPR is essentially “a molecular scalpel for genomes.” Think of it as the cut-and-paste tool in Microsoft Word except with the basic building blocks of life instead of numbers and text.

“You’re only limited by your imagination,” said Dustin Rubinstein, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center. He envisions that CRISPR can transform practically any science of medical field or discipline from cancer research and neuroscience to chemical engineering and energy production.

Some readers may be a little puzzled over the enormous fanfare in science circles around gene editing and CRISPR. Sure, this technology seems groundbreaking, but why should anyone other than scientists care? CRISPR may turn out to be one of many scientific breakthroughs featured in the news that soon disappears from the public eye.

CRISPR is not just a passing science trend. The tool allows humans to modify and rearrange DNA, which determines how the bodies of all living things function. Depending on what part of the genome the changes are made, they can be permanent. It’s possible that tweaking done in an animal or human can be passed down through generations. A tool of this magnitude, like the modern computer, has infinite possibilities.

“It is totally changing how we scientists genetically modified cells and even organisms. What used to take years and potentially millions of dollars can be done in weeks or months for a few thousand bucks,” said Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at the University of California, Davis.

CRISPR has the potential to curtail or even eradicate certain diseases. It’s been shown to be capable of removing the DNA of the virus responsible for causing HIV from a patient’s own genome. In another example, researchers are planning to use CRISPR to treat and possibly cure blindness. After scientists successfully cut out a genetic mutation responsible for blindness in mice, biotechnology companies such as Editas Medicine began devising a way to use a similar technique on humans. This is the first step in a long road that could eventually lead to the eradication of many hereditary diseases, from Huntington’s disease to sickle-cell anemia.

So far, scientists have been experimenting with gene editing on a wide range of areas in order to address problems that have long plagued humankind. Last year, scientists genetically modified the genome of mosquitoes to make them resistant to Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for causing malaria. With CRISPR’s precision and accuracy, the researchers were able to insert the necessary genes into the mosquitoes’ DNA. The mosquitoes could then replicate and pass down those engineered genes onto their offspring even after mating normal mosquitoes, creating a lineage of malaria-resistant mosquitoes.

As further evidence of CRISPR’s futuristic capabilities, Harvard geneticist and CRISPR pioneer George Church believes he can use the tool to genetically modify endangered Indian elephants into “woolly mammoths” capable of surviving in the freezing wilderness of Siberia. As a first step, Church has inserted the mammoth genes for small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of lab grown elephant cells. Other scientists have expressed hopes to resurrect extinct species such as the passenger pigeon (Jurassic Park, anyone?). These ideas may teeter on the border of science fiction, but CRISPR makes it conceivable.

That’s why it’s important to understand the latest developments in CRISPR-Cas9 technology, both its advantages and flaws. Few people are aware of the emerging CRISPR revolution. According to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center, 68% of adults responded that they were “somewhat” worried or “very” worried about human gene editing. But most people have no idea what they are worried about; about 90% knew little or nothing about gene editing in the first place.

Many respondents expressed doubts about using gene editing on human babies to reduce the risk of serious diseases. “It’s messing with nature. Nothing good can come from that,” stated one participant. Another talked about how gene editing would “open the door to more manipulation of humans in an attempt to create a superior race.”

Without more comprehensive understanding about how CRISPR works and how the scientific community is embracing the revolution, it’s easy for misconceptions to form. Once unsubstantiated fear and paranoia take hold, scientists will have a much tougher time implementing the research needed to save countless lives.

The research shows that more knowledge leads to more understanding and acceptance. Pew found that those who were somewhat familiar with gene editing were more inclined to view it as something they might consider using for their child if it were available. We need personal engagement for people to actively seek out information about this tool, if CRISPR is to fulfill its promise.

Like the early computer, CRISPR-Cas9 has incredible potential. Yes, it poses technical challenges and critics have suggested several frightening scenarios if it is misused, but there are many life-changing opportunities as well. We have the chance to challenge various types of cancer at a molecular level, address the environmental damage we’ve caused on the planet, slow the spread of disease and disability and improve the quality of life for everyone.

It’s the responsibility of everyone to be informed about the scientific and ethical issues surrounding its development.

“This is a remarkable technology, with many great uses. But if you are going to do anything as fateful as rewriting the germ line, you’d better be able to tell me there is a strong reason to do it. And you’d better be able to say that society made a choice to do this—that unless there’s broad agreement, it is not going to happen,” stated Eric Lander, the president and founding director of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT.

Originally published on October 4, 2016, in Genetic Literacy ProjectHow CRISPR could change the world—And why that frightens many of us

Nanopore Sequencing & the Problem With Patents

--1359709322C31 (1)
Picture Credit: DNA | Public Domain Pictures

In 2003, researchers from all over the world achieved one of the greatest scientific endeavors of their time: identifying and mapping out the entire human genome. With over 20,000 genes analyzed, the scientific community reaped the benefits of the age of genomics, where scientists could identify the thousands of nucleotide base pairs involved with specific genetic diseases like Huntington’s and pinpoint the mutations that underlie different forms of cancer.

But now, a device from Oxford Nanopore Technologies could bring the same power of DNA sequencing from the laboratory into the palm of your hand. It’s called the MinION and it can sequence the DNA of any given sample in a matter of hours.

For decades, conventional DNA sequencing was widely regarded as a tedious, time-consuming process. In order to identify the genome of a particular sample, a researcher would have to create numerous identical copies of the DNA molecules, break each of those copies into tiny pieces for the machine to read, sequence each fragment individually and finally reassemble those pieces together again. It’s the equivalent to reading a book by shredding it to read each word separately and then taping the pages back together again. In addition, this cumbersome process involved expensive machines the size of refrigerators and took days or weeks to run.

Due to these practical limitations, many researchers have to rely on the products and services of large corporations to obtain the DNA sequence of their samples. Today, the one that currently dominates the sequencing market is Illumina, Inc., a corporate giant worth billions of dollars. At the moment, Illumina provides machines for almost every large sequencing center in the world and now has an almost complete monopoly in the industry. However, Oxford Nanopore Technologies intends to bring down this powerful behemoth with a revolutionary new way of reading DNA called nanopore sequencing, which identifies the nucleotide base pairs directly without breaking apart the DNA molecule.

The idea is rather brilliant. A nanopore is simply a very tiny hole, about 2.5 nanometers wide. Nanopore sequencing relies on the use of an incredibly thin synthetic membrane with numerous nanopores as well as nanopore sensors. When the membrane is submerged in liquid by itself and a current is ran through, a steady electrical pattern is measured as ions pass through the tiny holes.

These patterns change once a DNA sample is placed on the membrane. When the electrical current pulls a DNA molecule through a nanopore, the nucleotide bases block the pore and stop some of the ions from passing by. This blockage alters the current that the sensor is reading and ultimately causes the electrical pattern to dip. What makes this method so effective is that each nucleotide base of DNA blocks the pore in different ways and generates a unique and identifiable change in the current. In other words, one can identify the DNA sequence by simply reading the various spikes in the electrical pattern.

In addition to its speed, easy usage and portability, the MinION also boasts a 99.99 percent accuracy based on a performance of 90 percent without any false positives. Not only that, Oxford Nanopore Technologies set the price of their new, revolutionary sequencing gadget to a mere $1,000. When the MinION was first revealed to the world in 2012, one scientist tweeted: “I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if a million Illumina investors cried out in pain.”

The idea of genetically identifying any organic substance at any place and time has enormous implications. A DNA sequencer like MinION could not only be used in a lab but also in the field with little to no difficulties. During the Ebola outbreak in 2015, microbiologist Nick Loman used his newly-bought MinION to track the progress of the epidemic in real time while other scientists had to wait weeks for the results of their analysis to arrive.

For something as time-sensitive as a deadly epidemic, nanopore sequencing could save tens of thousands of lives. Not only that, Oxford Nanopore aims to make their product available to everyone everywhere. From NASA astronauts in space to high school students, the company envisions a future where DNA sequencing devices can become like telescopes, a formerly expensive scientific instrument that is now available to the everyday consumer.

Unsurprisingly, Illumina is trying everything in its power to stop MinION’s momentum. Last February, the sequencing industry monopolist filed several lawsuits against Oxford Nanopore Technologies claiming that the British company committed patent infringement by using bacteria-derived pores known as Mycobacterium smegmatis porin (Msp) to create their synthetic membrane.

At the moment, Illumina holds the patents for any system that use these Msp. Oxford Nanopore responded almost immediately, accusing the corporate giant of acting on unsubstantiated speculation to prevent the MinION from ever reaching the market all so that Illumina can maintain its monopoly.

This move by Illumina illustrates just one of numerous legal issues that stand in the way of scientific progress. The scientific community is often plagued by patent aggregators, people or companies who enforce patent rights to make a profit or keep such patents away from those who may pose a threat against them. Despite not using their patents for research or manufacturing purposes, these entities prey on smaller companies to force them out of business. Never having proven their ability to produce their own nanopore sequencer, Illumina could very well be yet another patent aggregator trying to neutralize the incoming threat to their business.

Even if the MinION does not contain Msp pores, Illumina could still utilize the doctrine of equivalents. This aspect of patent law claims that Oxford Nanopore Technologies could still be liable for patent infringement as long as the product in question performs the same function as the patented invention in the same way. Originally created to cover the difficulty in describing the invention exactly, the doctrine can now be used to back companies like Oxford Nanopore into a corner.

Depending on the outcome of this legal battle, the entire course of scientific progress can be altered. With such great scientific advancements at risk due to capitalistic greed, it’s time to take another look at our patent system to prevent other innovations from becoming similarly obstructed. Overhauling the patent system is essential to taking money and special interests out of scientific research and thereby crafting an atmosphere more conducive to intellectual cohabitation and progress.

According to phylogenomics researcher Joe Parker, nanopore sequencing can bring about a second age of genomics. If that future can never come to fruition, then the same bleak stasis will certainly sabotage other shining opportunities for society as well.

Originally published on May 4, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsNanopore sequencing research should be encouraged

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

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

Precision Medicine: It’s Best Not to Get Hopes Up

Picture Credit: President Obama | 2016 |

In an ideal world, every person must receive a custom healthcare treatment that matches their biological makeup. We may not live in an ideal world today, but the latest efforts in preci­sion medicine plan on coming as close to it as possible. Despite enthusiasm for this movement, similarly grand ambitions in the past have shown that the results often come up short of the prom­ises made. Personalized medicine is a mode of healthcare where every practice and treatment is tailored specifically to each patient. The idea was to collect genetic information from all indi­viduals to create an all-encompassing database. However, personalized medicine has undergone some changes over the years and has recently re­defined itself as “precision medicine.”

Rather than creating drugs or medical devic­es that are unique to a single patient, precision medicine classifies individuals into small groups based on their susceptibility to a particular dis­ease or their response to a specific treatment. These small groups allow physicians to know what sort of care a patient needs depending on what sub-group the patient is in.

Don’t let the definition change fool you. The name change mainly aims to allow the movement to start afresh. By rebranding itself as precision medicine, the practice gains a second chance af­ter failing previously. Even with this fresh start, precision medicine is still liable to obstacles that personalized medicine stumbled over in the past. For instance, electronically recording the genome of every individual remains expensive. Collecting all that information and acquiring the technology to store it is not something to take lightly.

There are also fears regarding patient privacy concerns and legal liability. This sharing of pa­tient data can easily end badly for both the doctor and the patient. However, precision medicine has only gotten more popular since its re-branding. What makes precision medicine so revolutionary is its focus on individuals rather than on a demographic. Instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach, it takes into account individual differences from genetic makeup to personal lifestyles. The hope is that precision medicine can accelerate the creation of tailored treatments for diseas­es like cancer.

By expanding genetically-based patient trials, scientists and doctors will have much more infor­mation to work with when leading research and providing treatment. A nationwide database of patient genetic and medical information can help guide treatment and reduce uncertainty. Preci­sion medicine also attempts to ensure that drug companies spend time developing treatments for specific groups of patients. Most firms currently try to optimize profits by producing drugs that can benefit large groups of people.

While beneficial to many, this ignores the plights of those with rare medical conditions who must go extreme lengths to get proper care. Precision medicine aims to promote the creation of treatments for a wide range of diseases, common and rare.

There are countless reasons to push for preci­sion medicine. However, I am suspicious at the growing hype over precision as the next great landmark achievement in healthcare. Even with the aforementioned risks, the re-branding has succeeded spectacularly. Precision medicine has entered the forefront of national discussion and the public often views it as the bringer of a new age of healthcare.

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) to push for the nation to adopt this movement, asserting, “My hope is that this becomes the foundation, the architecture, whereby 10 years from now we can look back and say we’ve revolutionized medicine.” The President asked Congress for $215 million to support the initiative. Thanks to Obama’s support, the PMI Cohort program plans on amassing a record of one million U.S. volunteers.

Despite the optimistic outlook on the issue, precision medicine is far from ideal. In addition to the costs and legal issues, there are concerns as to whether a database on genetic information would even be significantly useful. Back in 2003, scientists discovered that even after mapping out the human genome, a person’s genetic code remains as perplexedly complex as ever.

There are too many risks involved in interpreting genetic information. In one case, a woman underwent extreme surgery and had her uterus removed due to an incorrect reading of her ge­netic-test results. Unfortunately, these accidents are not uncommon. There are also problems outside of the scope of the medical field. Once an all-encompassing patient database is established, countless issues involving ethics arise. Say that the ideal scenario of establishing precision medicine comes to fruition. Who would claim ownership for this data? How do we make sure this information isn’t abused and used to deny insurance coverage or jobs? What is to stop insurance companies from raising premium prices once the person’s genetic information is available?

These are all valid points to consider that come with an issue as complicated as this. This leads to concerns about security. Hospitals and other havens of digital, medical information are easy targets for cyber-attacks. Just recently, a string of hospitals in California, Kentucky, and Maryland became victims of information technology breaches and were forced to pay a ransom to convince the hackers to return the databases to normal. If something similar happened to the precision medicine patient database, the consequences could be catastrophic.

The most important message is that we should always carefully consider all the possibilities before launching headfirst into what seems like a great idea. The extreme hype over precision medicine as some great benchmark in health­care will only blind us to the possible pitfalls that might appear. Sure, the likelihood of disaster may be small, but if it does happen, there will sufficient blame-tossing to go around.

Precision medicine makes great promises to dramatically improve the quality of life with one simple end goal. However, one must not get dragged away by the illusions of grandeur. For now, it’s best to approach the issue with caution.

Originally published on April 13, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsRisks of precision medicine need review

The Contagious Nature of Cancer

Picture Credit: Richard Harris | Soft-Shell Clams | 2015 | KERA News

If there is one word that strikes fear into peo­ple’s hearts and conveys a haunting image of sickness and death, it’s cancer. According to the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and the International Agency for Re­search on Cancer (IARC), this disease is a glob­al epidemic that kills 7.6 million people every year, 4 million of whom are below the age of 69. Even worse, experts predict that the death toll is projected to increase to 6 million lives per year by 2025. Scientists are continuing to pursue different fields of research that can shed new light on the nature of this deadly disease. Recently, experts have come across a horrifying discovery: cancer may be contagious.

With every new insight bringing us closer to putting an end to cancer, this finding proves to be a terrifying yet valuable piece of infor­mation. This discovery originated in the 1970s when scientists were puzzled by the outbreak of leukemia in soft-shell clams along the east coast of North America. They found that this type of cancer could be spread to healthy clams by injecting them with the blood of cancer-stricken clams. For decades, research­ers concluded that a virus was transmitting the cancer. It wasn’t until 2015 that a team of experts lead by Stephen Goff from Columbia University finally pinpointed the answer: the cancer itself was spreading to other clams. This meant that the clam leukemia originated from a single host and somehow gained the ability to survive and thrive in other hosts.

As the second leading cause of death in the U.S., a top cause worldwide, cancer was thought to have a single saving grace: its non-infectious nature. While a tumor may outwit all attempts to stop its growth in a patient, the cancer ul­timately dies with its host, unable to infect another victim. However, the idea of cancer being transferred to new hosts is nothing new. In 1964, researchers at the National Cancer In­stitute performed an experiment where they harvested cancer cells in hamsters and injected them into healthy hamsters to encourage the cancer’s evolution. After numerous cy­cles, the tumor developed into a “super tumor” that could spread from hamster to hamster, without a needle, through social contact.

Regarding human cases, there have been a handful of documented cases where doctors, surgeons, and laboratory work­ers accidentally pricked themselves with a sur­gical instrument infected with cancer cells and had tumors proliferate in the wounded area. In almost all these cases, the infected person had to undergo emergency surgery before the tumor grew out of control.

However, these examples were extremely rare, freak incidents caused by accidents and human tampering. Cancer isn’t known for spreading naturally. It may be triggered by a carcinogenic chemical, bacteria or a virus, but the actual cancer cells shouldn’t be able to move from host to host like a pathogen. Yet, with the discovery of the clam leukemia’s contagious nature, the number of known exceptions to this commonly-held belief has increased to three.

The other two exceptions belong to dogs and Tasmanian devils, an aggressive species of marsupial found in Australia. For dogs, the tumor cells are physically transmitted during sexual contact where the tearing of genital tissues provide a bridge for the cancer . This condition, called Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor (CTVT), originated 11,000 years ago from a single dog and has been circulating ever since. With Tasmanian devils, a cancer known as Devil facial tumor (DFT) disease has been spreading as they fight and bite each other’s faces. Having emerged from a single source, this contagious cancer has been completely ravaging the Tas­manian devil population and has ultimately put them on the endangered-species list.

What makes the clam leukemia worrying is that, unlike dogs or Tasmanian devils, this type of cancer is not spread through physical con­tact. Instead, it’s speculated that the clams are drawing in floating cancer cells as they sieve food from the water. It may not be a quick or efficient way for cancer cells to transmit themselves to other hosts, but it’s bound to happen eventually. Goff and his team are already in search of other species that are affected by cancer spread in a similar man­ner. They have already found similar instances in other mollusks in European waters as well as a contagious cancer that affects cockles.

It is terrifying to imagine cancer evolving into a transmissible contagion, especially one that can get into our water supply and cause tumors through contaminated drinking water. However, scientists have relieved fears, stating that no case of cancer naturally transferring to humans has been observed and that transmissible cancers still remain very rare. In addition, natural immunity in humans prevents hu­man-to-human cancer transmissions.

However, what’s worrying is that this scientific revela­tion is just one addition to a growing trend of cases on contagious cancer. In 2013, a man from Medellin, Colombia was diagnosed with can­cer thanks to the spread of cancer cells from a cancer-ridden tapeworm inhabiting the man’s body. On November 2015, scientists study­ing DFT disease found a second type of con­tagious cancer in the Tasmanian devils, mark­ing the discovery of two transmissible cancers within just 30 years.

Whether or not cancer is truly contagious to humans, it’s important to keep track of the progress being made in this field of research. Any development may cause huge shock-waves in the scientific community and prepare us for a grim future ahead. Even if cancer can’t be spread from person to person, researching how tumors are spread in animals can provide more insights on its mechanism and prevention. Whichever direction this research takes, the scientific community should bring more focus on this issue and expand its efforts in finding answers. The idea of contagious cancer may be frightening, but more extensive study could ultimately yield new insights and perhaps even the eternally sought-after cure.

Originally published on March 2, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsResearch reveals implications of clam cancer