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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The New Americana: More Teens Are Suffering From Anxiety, Depression Than Ever Before

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Picture Credit: Reuters | International Business Times

For a long time, teenagers have been characterized—generally by those older than them—as overly moody, self-centered and irrational. It’s not uncommon for adults to complain about how millennials are emotionally unstable, or to brush aside their problems as typical “teenage angst.” But in reality, these millennials have been rather upstanding.

Illegal drug use among teens has been declining for several years, and far fewer adolescents are smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol than almost ever before. Not only that, the National Center for Health Statistics has reported a record low in the teen birth rate in the U.S., while high school graduation rates reached an all-time high of 83.2 percent in 2015.

Yet despite all the good news, researchers have noticed a disturbing trend: American adolescents are developing serious mental health problems at an alarming rate. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about three million teenagers ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in 2015 alone, and more than two million teens reported experiencing depression that impairs their daily activities. What’s even more startling is that this number is predicted to increase. According to a study that tracked depression among young adults across the country, the number of teenagers who reported having symptoms of low self-esteem and problems with sleep and concentration rose by 37 percent just between 2015 to 2016.

And it’s not just depression. Researchers have found that cases of anxiety have spiked in recent times. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders have become the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18.1 percent of Americans every year. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that about 6.3 million teens in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder of some kind. Unfortunately, this widespread phenomenon is not just affecting middle- and high-school students. Anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. According to the American College Health Association, the number of undergraduates reporting to have “overwhelming anxiety” increased significantly from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016.

It’s not normal “teen angst” anymore; it’s a full-scale epidemic that is bound to get worse over time if ignored. But what can be the cause of such a shocking national trend? Unfortunately, not even the researchers know for sure. Usually, there are several conspicuous reasons for adolescents to feel depressed or anxious. Being raised in abusive households, living in poverty or being surrounded by violence are all understandable causes of emotional instability. Yet, teenagers who live in well-off communities and who seemingly should have nothing to worry about tend to suffer the most. What could possibly be causing these adolescents such grief?

Rather than one definite answer, it is most likely the result of several interwoven factors. For instance, anxiety and depression are shown to have a biological component. Scientists have already located several genes that may influence the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, such as variants of the GLRB gene, which has been linked to responses in the brain that cause us to become startled or overly fearful. However, there are other relevant biological factors besides genetics. Just recently, scientists have discovered that our gut bacteria may influence the functioning of brain regions such as the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, both of which are heavily linked to anxiety and depression. These studies found that mice with an imbalance in their gut microbiome were more likely to display anxious and depressive behaviors.

However, many experts agree that environment likely plays a larger role in the rise of mental health issues in adolescents than genetics or gut bacteria. More specifically, researchers suspect that this epidemic of intense anxiety and depression in teens may be caused by the overwhelming pressure placed on them not only to succeed but to perform better than everyone else. As a result of this pressure, both high school and college students have reported that their biggest stressor is the fact that no matter what they do, it’s never enough.

“Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back.’ [But now,] so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy,” stated Madeline Levine, a practicing psychologist and a founder of a non-profit that works on school reform. This news probably comes as a surprise to no one. In 2013, the American Psychological Association reported that American teenagers have become the most stressed age-group in the United States. Various culprits are likely at fault, including sleep deprivation, the uncertainty surrounding job security and the fear of not living up to people’s expectations.

Researchers have also assigned blame to the prevalence of social media and technology. With everyone connected to the internet, it’s difficult for teens to avoid constantly comparing themselves with their peers and worrying about their digital image. Unsurprisingly, many anxious teenagers agree that social media has had a negative influence on their mental health. According to accounts by teenagers attending Mountain Valley, a residential treatment facility for adolescents suffering from severe anxiety disorder, social media played a large role in lowering self-esteem and provoking feelings of anxiety. Not only that, the students also talked about how their smartphones provided a false sense of control, which they could use to avoid talking to people and escape the stresses of school.

As a result, several experts suspect that there may be a connection between the extreme spike in anxiety and depression in recent years and the wide-spread adoption of the iPhone. As Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, puts it, these dramatic trends in teen mental health issues started “exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.”

In the end, researchers have yet to find a conclusive answer to this troubling phenomenon. However, they agree that there is a disturbing lack of resources available to help young adults who are currently struggling with these problems. Studies show that despite the rise in mental health issues, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in mental health treatment for both teenagers and young adults. Not only that, it’s highly likely that the number of adolescents who are actually struggling with anxiety and depression is greater than the reported figure since many people choose not seek help. In fact, the Child Mind Institute reported in 2015 that only 20 percent of young people with diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment.

Thus, it is important to understand the true gravity of the situation and reach out to those who need help. During these times of uncertainty and hardship, it’s crucial for us to take the time to understand these individuals and aid them as best as we can rather than brush their problems aside as mere trivialities.

Originally published on October 19, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsMillennial mental health issues spike, prompt response

Our Infatuation with Solar, Wind Could Make Climate Change Worse

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Picture Credit: Alamy | The Telegraph

During these troubling times of environmental turmoil, in which dangerous levels of carbon dioxide emissions threaten to destabilize the global climate, it’s no surprise that a lot of people are pushing vehemently for greater investment in renewable energy. In fact, despite the childish clamoring of several anti-science government officials, the idea of renewable energy, especially solar and wind energy, is incredibly popular among the vast majority of Americans.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 89 percent of Americans favor building more solar panel farms and 83 percent favor constructing more wind turbine farms. In contrast, only about 41 percent of Americans wanted to expand the coal mining sector, and these numbers aren’t meaningless, either. According to the Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (GSR), renewable energy saw its largest annual increase in energy contribution ever in 2015, despite low prices for fossil fuels.

It’s pretty clear that a large majority of people hold solar and wind energy in high regard. I’d even go as far to say that in this modern, socially conscious age, there isn’t a term more associated with pure good than renewable energy. However, this blind infatuation may just end up jeopardizing our entire fight against climate change. But how in the world can renewable energy possibly lead to a bad thing?

To better illustrate my point, consider the incredible amount of attention and fanfare that the Idaho-based startup company Solar Roadways Inc. got for its idea to replace all the roads in America with structurally engineered solar panels that could generate backup electricity while withstanding vehicle traffic. Founded in 2006, this startup presented a vision of a world in which solar panel roadways not only use LED lights to light up the streets and change the road design but also power entire cities to create a cleaner, greener world.

When people heard about this revolutionary new idea, they fell madly in love with the concept of solar roadways. During the crowdfunding drive at Indiegogo, more than 50,000 backers supported the project and the startup raised more than $2 million, making it the most popular Indiegogo campaign ever. But it wasn’t just green-energy enthusiasts who contributed financially to this enterprise. Even the Department of Transportation stepped in and invested more than $1.6 million into the project.

Unfortunately, all of it turned out to be a bust. When 30 solar roadway panels were finally installed on a public walkway in 2016, 25 of them broke down within a week, and more malfunctions appeared once it rained. But even more disappointing was that the highly anticipated solar roadway, even when fully operational, generated an average of 0.62-kilowatt hours of electricity per day—not even enough energy to power a hairdryer, much less an entire city.

But solar roadways aren’t the only inventions that took advantage of people’s infatuation with renewable energy. In February, a startup company raised more than $350,000 on Indiegogo when it promoted the Fontus water bottle, a self-filling water bottle that uses solar energy to extract water from the air. According to the campaign video, Fontus is designed to draw air into the bottle and capture moisture through condensation as the air cools. Not only that, the device would be powered by a small, mousepad-sized solar panel, making the Fontus perfect for backpackers and bikers going on a trip. Again, problems appeared when scientists pointed out that a solar panel that small is never going to produce the amount of energy needed to make the whole thing work. In fact, it would require a huge, 250-watt, 16-square-foot solar panel working at 100 percent efficiency under ideal circumstances for the Fontus to even come close to fulfilling its promise.

It’s not just solar energy, either. In 2016, the startup VICI Labs made headlines when it promoted the Waterseer, a device that used the wind to “provide up to 11 gallons of safe drinking water” from the air every day. Raising more than $330,000 on Indiegogo, the inventors behind the Waterseer made it seem as if their invention could end all water shortages thanks to the clean power of wind energy, managing to persuade UC Berkeley and the National Peace Corps Association to help contribute to its development. Once again, the power of green energy was overestimated and several thermodynamicists have pointed that the Waterseer wouldn’t work in dry, arid areas— places that need water the most.

The reason why all these bogus crowdfunding campaigns made so much money despite being scientifically dubious is that so many people were willing to believe that renewable energy sources could accomplish anything, even the impossible. They had such a positive outlook on solar panels and wind turbines that they didn’t even stop to consider the possible limitations of those technologies. Of course, this overly optimistic mindset is a natural product of today’s society, in which the increasingly alarming news of the humanity’s pollutant-ridden path towards ruin make it seem as if renewable energy is our only hope for survival. But no matter how beneficial it may be, renewable energy should not be placed on a pedestal. We can’t afford to treat it like some kind of magical energy source that provides unlimited free electricity without any restrictions or drawbacks.

For example, many people tend to think solar panels can provide unlimited energy because they get their power from the sunlight, which should be infinite, right? In reality, however, a typical solar panel can only absorb about 20 percent of the energy that the sun produces. In addition, unless it is specifically designed to track the movement of the sun, the solar panel can lose up to 60 percent of the sun’s energy on top of the lackluster 20 percent energy absorption. Not only that, the hotter the solar panel gets, the less energy it absorbs. It may sound counterintuitive, but for every degree above 25 degrees Celsius a typical solar panel becomes, its maximum power drops by about 0.5 percent.

This isn’t to say that renewable energy is terrible or that we should give up on it. While not entirely efficient, solar and wind power still produces electricity without consuming any limited resources. Yet we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that solving climate change is as simple as building more solar farms and wind turbines.

In fact, doing so without proper planning might do more harm than good. One major consequence of our infatuation with green energy is the rapid decline of nuclear power, the main source of zero-carbon electricity in the United States. Thanks to the popularity of solar and wind farms, nuclear power plants all across the world are on the verge of shutting down for good, which could severely damage our efforts in fighting climate change.

First of all, despite the negative press that it gets, nuclear energy remains quite possibly the cleanest and most viable form of energy that we currently possess. No matter what sort of Greenpeace propaganda you may have heard, nuclear energy is the safest way of producing reliable energy, a statement backed by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Academy of Science. In fact, a 2010 study by those three organizations has found that nuclear power is 40 percent less deadly than the next safest form of energy, wind power. Nuclear energy is also tied for having the lowest carbon footprint, and unlike solar and wind energy, nuclear energy actually stands a chance against the natural gas and coal industries. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, although solar and wind power made up a combined seven percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2016, nuclear energy provided 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity.

But if the problem is that renewable energy isn’t contributing as much as nuclear energy, then can’t we solve this issue by building more solar and wind farms? No, it’s not that simple. One of the biggest problems with solar and wind energy is that they are entirely dependent on the current weather. When the sun doesn’t shine or the winds stop blowing, energy production plummets. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if one could store the excess energy generated on an especially sunny or windy day, but as of right now, a large-scale method of storing the electricity generated by solar and wind farms does not exist. As a result, whenever the weather is unfavorable, state governments must find an alternative energy source. What do they turn to now that many of the expensive nuclear plants are shut down? Answer: natural gas and fossil fuels.

This isn’t just a hypothetical scenario. In Southern Australia, a region in which wind energy makes up more than a quarter of its total energy, the government had to switch back on a gas-fired plant that had been shut down when prices of electricity spiked during a period of light wind. Meanwhile, despite investing heavily in green energy, the German government is supposedly paying billions to keep coal generators in reserve in case the weather suddenly becomes unfavorable. This could be why carbon emissions are still rising in Germany, even though Germans pay the most expensive electricity rates in Europe.

The loss of nuclear energy is serious. According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis, reactors that produce up to 56 percent of America’s nuclear power may shut down and eventually end up becoming replaced by the much cheaper gas-fired generators. If that were to happen, the report estimates, an additional 200 million tons of carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere annually.

But even if nuclear plants weren’t shutting down, we still lack the infrastructure required to actually utilize green energy generated in the first place. We may spend heavily on building countless wind and solar farms, but most of it is wasted if we don’t have a way to distribute that electricity, especially since most farms are hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. Even worse, some estimates posit that constructing all the high-voltage lines needed to transport the electricity could take several decades.

This is a huge problem with solar and wind farms right now. Since there is no infrastructure in place to distribute the power and no way to store the energy generated, solar farms and wind farms across the United States from Texas to California are often turned off or left idling by, leading to massive energy waste.

Again, despite everything that was mentioned, renewable energy is not a bad thing. It is much more favorable to take advantage of solar and wind energy as soon as possible than to wait and do nothing with it. But mindlessly building more and more solar and wind farms simply because solar and wind energy is “objectively good,” will only drag us further away from our goal of a cleaner future. It is undeniable that renewable energy can save the Earth, but that doesn’t mean we should worship it blindly.

Originally published on October 4, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Renewable energy, while urgent, necessitates skepticism

Should We Fear the Rise of A.I.?

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Picture Credit: The Register

Earlier this September, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk stirred up a huge Twitter-storm when he posted that global competition in artificial intelligence (AI) superiority could potentially lead to World War III. This tweet came after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared, “Whoever becomes the leader in [artificial intelligence] will rule the world,” to which Musk tweeted, “It begins….”

Of course, Elon Musk is rather infamous for making grandiose predictions and promises that often fail to come true. In 2016, he announced that his company SpaceX will master space travel and colonize Mars as early as 2024, only to pull the plug less than a year later when he realized that traveling to Mars in 25 minutes isn’t exactly feasible. However, Musk’s tweet about World War III has been one of many such warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence, going so far as to reference the “Terminator” movies.

“AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” he stated at the 2017 National Governors Association in Rhode Island.

But is the situation really that dire? The CEO of robotics and computing company Neurala Massimiliano Versace argues that these doomsday predictions surrounding AI are all largely unsubstantiated. In fact, his biggest complaint so far is that non-experts like Musk who have no clue about how AI actually works seem to be dominating the discussions. In contrast to Musk’s warnings, Versace says that it is much too early to start regulating AI and that doing so would hinder innovation.

Several other critics have also voiced their opinions addressing the robot apocalypse scenario that Musk seems to predict. CEO and co-founder of Google Larry Page made the case that AI is designed to make people’s lives easier so that they have more time to pursue their own interests. Likewise, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg compared fears about AI to early fears about airplanes and encouraged people to “choose hope over fear.”

On the other hand, it’s not like Musk is the only dissenting voice in the room. Renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking similarly expressed how artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates voiced his worries that AI might become a problem after it becomes intelligent enough to dominate the workforce.

However, rather than a “Terminator”-style takeover, the bigger concern for me from a cultural perspective is the direction that AI might take the world in.

It’s undeniable that today’s society places a disproportionate amount of attention on science and technology over any other discipline. Given how dependent on machines we’ve become, it’s no surprise that so many people hold degrees in math-intensive STEM subjects such as computer science, robotics, and electrical engineering and that we place these individuals on lofty pedestals. As a result, pursuing a degree in the humanities is widely seen as a high-risk gamble considering the increasingly bloodthirsty modern arena known as the job market. But the problem here is that the widespread implementation of AI will likely exacerbate this issue even further.

Last March, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin brushed aside all concerns about AI and stated that “In terms of artificial intelligence taking over the jobs, I think we’re so far away from that that it’s not even on my radar screen.” Unfortunately, Mnuchin couldn’t be more wrong. In reality, AI has already started to seep into the workforce.

Let’s list some examples. In San Francisco, Simbe Robotics’s Tally robot can navigate around human shoppers at the supermarket to make sure that everything is stocked, placed and priced properly. Meanwhile, in Japan, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance has already replaced 30 of its employees with an AI system that can analyze and interpret data better and much faster than a human can. Artificial intelligence is also replacing financial analysts in the business sector simply because it can predict market patterns faster.

Not only that, careers thought to be safe from the encroaching tech revolution—such as journalism and teaching—are now at risk as well. For instance, companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights have created AI bots that write countless business and sports articles for clients like Forbes and the Associated Press. The United States military also relies on a computer-generated virtual therapist to screen soldiers in Afghanistan for PTSD, and physical robots are being used in Japan and Korea to teach English. Even actors could be replaced by some kind of technological innovation like with Grand Moff Tarkin in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Given the efficient and cost-effective nature of AI, it won’t be long until these systems are used in practically every industry.

Of course, there are various reassuring arguments out there. A common response is that new jobs will naturally form once old jobs are filled. However, exactly what kind of job do you think will be in demand once more and more companies implement AI in their business? A really insightful article by Clive Thompson has a headline that states it best: “The Next Big Blue-Collar Job Is Coding.” Sure, jobs won’t completely disappear, but I predict that the tech industry will be the only area in dire need of employees.

Another common response is that a greater focus on STEM education will eventually solve everything. Jenny Dearborn, an executive at the software company SAP, argues that young people today have a responsibility to become more educated in technology. “If you want to do health care, major in tech with a healthcare focus. If you want to be a neuroscientist, major in tech with that focus,” she emphasized.

However, that’s easier said than done. The United States already lags behind in STEM education compared to the rest of the world, and considering how our current Secretary of Education is a billionaire who has spent millions of dollars fighting against government regulations and crippling teachers’ unions by taking away their right to strike, I’m not feeling too optimistic. Plus, what if you’re simply not naturally inclined toward skills in STEM? What about people who just don’t enjoy it?

Obviously, the last thing I want to do is bash the STEM disciplines and discourage people from pursuing STEM careers. I truly believe that science and technology can inspire wonder and excitement for everyone. However, I worry that students who discover their passions in the humanities will likely end up squeezed to death under the STEM-oriented educational system even more than they do today. As a college student who once had plans of majoring in the humanities, I’d hate to imagine what job searching will be like in a future where AI made has made that notoriously grueling, overly competitive process even harder.

Originally published on September 14, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsGlobal job industries should prepare for growth in AI

Do Your Talents Depend on Your Genes?

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Picture Credit: tadtoonew.com

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

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

Elon Musk’s Insane Plan to Colonize Mars

 

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Picture Credit: Business Insider

Elon Musk is at it again. During the 67th In­ternational Astronautical Congress held in Guadalajara, Mexico, last Tuesday, Sept. 27, the billionaire entrepreneur formally presented his grand vision to send humanity to Mars.

“What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible, make it seem as though it’s something we can do in our life­times,” Musk announced to a lecture hall filled with eager listeners.

In his presentation, Musk provided every­thing from engineering details to timelines and even a video simulation of an enormous space­craft carrying passengers to the Red Planet to show how much thought he and his company, SpaceX, have put into this incredibly ambitious plan. The audience was electrified as Musk talked about how he would use a huge 40-sto­ry rocket with 42 new and powerful Raptor en­gines to blast through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour.

Then, when he vowed to establish a self-sus­taining Mars colony of one million people in the coming decades, the crowd cheered as if they were at a rock concert.

There was certainly a lot of excitement and fervor at the conference. Not only did Musk de­clare that the first trip to Mars could take place as early as 2024, but he also promised to make the voyage reasonably affordable for everyone. Ac­cording to his calculations, the first few trips may cost about $500,000, but the price may drop to only one-third of that as time passes.

But here’s the thing: Musk is a madman. Hu­manity has made incredible technological leaps in recent times, but space travel isn’t something that should be accomplished on a whim. A lot of logistical issues and complications have to be addressed.

At least under Musk’s current plan, it would be nearly impossible for this “Mars coloniza­tion” scheme to ever succeed.

First and foremost, the rocket has to travel across 54.6 million kilometers of outer space to get to Mars. According to Musk’s blueprint, the SpaceX rocket (nicknamed “BFR” by the compa­ny’s employees, and yes, the acronym is exactly what you think) will have 13,000 tons of thrust to launch the spacecraft all the way to Mars, all powered by extremely cold liquid methane as fuel.

The rocket’s main selling point is that most of it, especially the propellant, will be reusable, which will allow the rocket to refuel itself in space and significantly cut down the cost. How­ever, the big issue here is that no one knows if any of this technology can actually be built. Nothing like this has been done before. While the plan may seem feasible on paper, construct­ing the right machinery and making sure every facet of the spacecraft works properly is an overwhelming task.

To put things into perspective, the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched, the Saturn V, had a thrust of 3,500 tons.

Musk has not only promised to build a rocket with boosters that are 3.5 times more powerful than that of the Saturn V, but the rocket must also be twice the size of Saturn V to effec­tively protect all of its passengers. Don’t for­get that this rocket is also planned to utilize 42 high-powered engines. The record-breaking Saturn V could manage only five.

Most importantly, there’s the issue of cost, about which I won’t bother to go into detail because at this point, anyone can tell that money is definitely going to be an obstacle for an endeavor like this. Yet despite all of these factors, Musk thinks that he can build his revo­lutionary Mars rocket in just a couple of years.

But let’s give Musk the benefit of the doubt. Say that the rocket was successfully built ac­cording to his blueprints and the Mars mission was ready for takeoff. Then the problem chang­es to making sure that all of the passengers sur­vive the voyage. According to Musk’s estimates, the trip would take 80 to 150 days. Scientists find these numbers difficult to believe.

“I couldn’t quite follow where [the estimate] was coming from,” said Bobby Braun, Associate Professor of Space Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “When we send robotic missions to Mars, they tend to take nine months to get there.”

There’s also the issue of radiation exposure. The spaceship must have a shield in place in case a solar flare occurs and discharges dan­gerous waves of subatomic particles. For some reason, Musk didn’t felt the need to take this issue into account, calling it a “relatively minor” concern. Given how he en­visions numerous rockets making over 10,000 trips, the odds of a solar flare happening and killing all the passengers is not something for him to casually brush off.

We also have to examine the plan as a whole. Musk is thinking big. He’s not satisfied with just visiting Mars; he wants humankind to claim it for future civilizations. Musk has stated that his ultimate goal is to turn humanity into a “mul­tiplanetary species” so that our kind doesn’t die out in one fell swoop when an asteroid hits Earth.

But this goal introduces a plethora of ques­tions that Musk has failed to address in his talk. How will this self-sustaining civilization be cre­ated? How will the inhabitants acquire essential life-support systems that create breathable air and obtain water? How will they obtain food?

Since initial trips between Earth and Mars will be few and far-between (speaking of which, how will the rocket have enough fuel to travel back to Earth?), the first inhabitants will have to live off of the land. Unfortunately, the soil on Mars is suspected to contain deadly con­centrations of perchlorates, which are toxic to humans. Not only that, Mars itself has dangerous levels of radiation due to its thin atmosphere. These are all logistical issues that Musk never really addressed. He didn’t even mention exactly where on Mars would be most suitable for human life.

Last but not least, Musk doesn’t have a partic­ularly impressive track record. He is rather infa­mous for falling short of his ambitious promises. Several times, his company, Tesla Motors, has failed to reach over 20 targets for improvement that Musk himself had set.

It also doesn’t help that just recently, one of his rockets exploded during fueling just two days before it was scheduled to launch. Honestly, this is the guy who spoke on live television about nuking Mars to create two mini-suns in order to make the plan­et inhabitable. He’s not exactly someone I would trust with my life.

But if nothing else, Musk is getting people to talk excitedly about space exploration again. Considering how NASA is in constant danger of being defunded due to dwindling public inter­est, this is quite a feat. Maybe Musk’s ambitious, if not fantastical, plan to colonize Mars may in­spire others to form a more legitimate one.

Former astronaut Tom Jones comments: “I think he’s not going to be able to deliver on those promises…[but] I think it’s less important to him that he actually get to Mars personally than that he lay down some steps that will help somebody else get there.”

Originally published on October 5, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsEntrepreneur Elon Musk must tame his imagination