Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Showing posts with label Bioethics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bioethics. Show all posts

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Symbols of Immortality 4: The Fake Human Burger

No sooner did labs begin developing the ability to 3D print a fake hamburger, than Oxford-based evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, stampeded straight for the less obvious question: why not 3D print a burger made of artificial human meat?

Inside the Quest to Make Lab Grown Meat | WIRED (16 February 2018). Video Source: Youtube.

Give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. It may have been a Swiftian joke. Maybe it was clickbait. Dawkins was Oxford's professor for the 'Public Understanding of Science' until 2008, so he must know about outreach.

A 3D printer creating fake meat. Image Source: ByFlow via BBC.

Over the past few years, the major news outlets have promised that lab grown meat is coming to your table and that this is a good thing: Washington Post, BBC, Bloomberg, The Economist, Reuters. Motherboard and the BBC have covered the topic since the new year. BBC reported that Dutch firm ByFlow has started selling its 3D meat printers to restaurants. ByFlow's motto is: "Think. Design. Eat." Memphis Meats (backed by Bill Gates) and Mosa Meat are two artificial meat start-ups which will start selling fake meat for public consumption by 2021. Another cellular agriculture company is New Harvest.

In the third week of February 2018, news outlets reported that the US Cattlemen's Association filed a petition to the US Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA) against the Silicon Valley start-ups which are creating lab-grown meat. You can read their petition here. They focused primarily on the definition of real meat as created from animals which have been raised and slaughtered, so that fake meat cannot be labeled as genuine meat, thereby misleading consumers.

The Meat of the Future: How Lab-Grown Meat Is Made (2 October 2015). Video Source: Youtube.

Lab meat, also known as clean meat, is touted as cruelty free, especially to vegetarians. Vegan Insight reported on 16 March 2018 that 41 per cent of Britons will eat "lab-grown clean meat and fish" in the next decade.

Image Source: Belchonock/Depositphotos via New Atlas.

It is one small step to Dawkins' fake human meat. Fake cannibalism will probably get a lot of support. Under the video below the jump, one girl commented: "As a vegan, I'd be happy to eat cultured human meat. I'm actually very curious and not grossed out at all."

Joe Rogan's interviewee in this video, Sam Harris, said (here) that there was "zero ethical problem ... if this was never attached to an animal, we're dealing with concepts here," that is, the vegan girl would be eating an object cultivated in a vat of human cells.

This issue highlights a moral blind spot in technological progress; it proves that technology is skewing the human ability to judge right from wrong.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Science and Tech: Headlines and History in February 2016

The world's first flexible smartphone lets you hold and use your mobile phone like an old-fashioned book. Gif source: Engadget.

Recent scientific and high tech headlines struck a positive note, with some discordant undertones. Several cutting-edge experiments create synthetic or mechanical versions of what we already have in organic form, revealing the underlying meta-mentality of researchers. The European Commission's Digital Single Market announced the arrival of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' in late January, 2016. In early February, there was a discussion at Quora about converting energy into matter: E=mc2 says energy and mass are interchangeable. Are energy and matter states of a same thing? Is matter a rigid form of energy? Great discoveries, such as the possible cure for blindness this week, are beneficial; yet that same desire to overcome physical debilitation, limitations and illnesses becomes problematic in other examples, as when parents assert the right to edit their children's genes.

The flood of news in such a short amount of time reveals vast resources diverted to these spheres, with very little to no resources comparatively devoted to putting this work into human perspective. The headlines show how difficult it is to keep track of the explosion of innovations on an ongoing basis; and they reveal how necessary it is to do so (hat tips: Engadget, ErekAlert, Graham Hancock):
  • Quartz (3 February 2016): Germany is getting closer to nuclear fusion—the long-held dream of unlimited clean energy
  • BBC (11 February 2016): Einstein's gravitational waves 'seen' from black holes
  • BBC (11 February 2016): Why you really should get excited about gravitational waves
  • Engadget (12 February 2016): Watch DARPA's tiny drone do 45 MPH indoors, autonomously ... and then crash into countless expensive pieces
  • Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (12 February 2016): Researchers Create ‘Mini-Brains’ in Lab To Study Neurological Diseases
  • Independent (13 February 2016): Chinese nuclear fusion scientists achieve temperatures three times hotter than the sun The temperatures were roughly equal to a 'mid-sized thermo-nuclear explosion'
  • Guardian (14 February 2016): Race is on for next breakthrough as physicists target dark matter: Scientists from South Dakota to Australia seek material believed to make up quarter of universe as researchers in China investigate another mystery particle
  • University College London / EurekAlert (15 February 2016): Virtual reality therapy could help people with depression: "Patients in the study wore a virtual reality headset to see from the perspective of a life-size 'avatar' or virtual body. Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body. This is called 'embodiment'. While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child. As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion. After a few minutes the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them. ... 'People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives,' explains study lead Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology). 'In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion.'"
  • Engadget (15 February 2016): Johns Hopkins grows tiny brains in petri dishes for lab testing: "Most new drugs tested on mice don't work on humans, because we're 'not 150-pound rats,' says Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School's Dr. Thomas Hartung. He and his team believe the 'mini-brains' they've designed and grown in the lab are better test subjects for drug development, since they're derived from human cells. These mini-brains are truly tiny at 350 micrometers in diameter, or about the size of a housefly."
  • PhysOrg (15 February 2016): No more keys or cards? Technology goes under the skin
  • Guardian (15 February 2016): Cancer researchers claim 'extraordinary results' using T-cell therapy ‘This is unprecedented’ says researcher after more than half of terminally ill blood cancer patients experienced complete remission in early clinical trials
  • Guardian (16 February 2016): WHO paves way for use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat Zika: Consequences of Zika outbreaks could be ‘staggering’ says WHO as it advocates further trials and assessments for controversial mosquito control techniques
  • Ars Technica (16 February 2016): The NSA’s SKYNET program may be killing thousands of innocent people: "Ridiculously optimistic" machine learning algorithm is "completely bullshit," says expert: "Last year, The Intercept published documents detailing the NSA's SKYNET programme. According to the documents, SKYNET engages in mass surveillance of Pakistan's mobile phone network, and then uses a machine learning algorithm on the cellular network metadata of 55 million people to try and rate each person's likelihood of being a terrorist."
  • Engadget (16 February 2016): Doctors reveal they can 3D print body parts and tissue
  • Sky News (16 February 2016): 'Extraordinary' Cancer Breakthrough Revealed: Terminally ill patients are left symptom free after treatment with modified cells - described as a "potential paradigm shift"
  • Discovery News (16 February 2016): Hawking: Gravitational Waves Could Revolutionize Astronomy
  • Engadget (17 February 2016): Flexible smartphones may be coming sooner than you think
  • EurekAlert (17 February 2016): DNA evidence shows that salmon hatcheries cause substantial, rapid genetic changes
  • EurekAlert (17 Feburary 2016): New predictor of cancer: When your biological age is older than your chronological age, the risk of getting and dying of cancer rises
  • EurekAlert (17 February 2016): Progress toward an HIV cure highlighted in special issue of AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses
  • Yahoo (17 February 2016): The Hubble Space Telescope Just Snapped Photos of the Biggest Black Hole We've Ever Observed: "So how big is it, exactly? Well, according to our best estimates, the supermassive black hole is roughly 21 billion times the size of the Sun, and its event horizon (an area so dense and powerful that light can’t escape its gravity) measures 130 billion kilometers in diameter. That’s about 15 times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit around the Sun, according to scientists at the Hubble Space Telescope."
  • PhysOrg (18 February 2016): Five-dimensional black hole could 'break' general relativity: "Ring-shaped black holes were 'discovered' by theoretical physicists in 2002, but this is the first time that their dynamics have been successfully simulated using supercomputers. Should this type of black hole form, it would lead to the appearance of a 'naked singularity', which would cause the equations behind general relativity to break down. The results are published in the journal Physical Review Letters."
  • Guardian (18 February 2016): Robots could learn human values by reading stories, research suggests. Scientists have been running tests where artificial intelligences cultivate appropriate social behaviour by responding to simple narratives
  • Baltimore Sun (18 February 2016): Woman's blindness apparently reversed by stem cell treatment
  • Economist (20 February 2016): Wireless: the next generation. A new wave of mobile technology is on its way, and will bring drastic change
  • Daily Mail (20 February 2016): Earth really IS special: None of the 700 million trillion planets in our known universe are similar to our own, study finds
  • HuffPo (20 February 2016): Lost Tapes Reveal Apollo Astronauts Heard Unexplained ‘Music’ On Far Side Of The Moon. "If you’re behind the moon and hear some weird noise on your radio, and you know you’re blocked from the Earth, then what could you possibly think?"
  • Science Alert (22 February 2016): NASA researchers are working on a laser propulsion system that could get to Mars in 3 days. "There is no known reason why we cannot do this."
  • Wired (22 February 2016): Nasa's laser-powered engine could get us to Mars in 72 hours (if it works)
  • Reuters (22 February 2016): Brazil to fight Zika by sterilizing mosquitoes with gamma rays
  • Science Daily (22 February 2016): Bat 'super immunity' could help protect people
  • PhysOrg (22 February 2016): Study shows plants appear able to forget memories when they are not useful
  • Science Alert (23 February 2016): NASA has been inundated with a record number of astronaut applications. Real-life space cadets
  • Space.com (23 February 2016): Plans Being Devised for Human Outpost Near the Moon
  • Discovery News (23 February 2016): Self-Driving Flying Car to Take Off in Two Years
  • Nature (23 February 2016): Should you edit your children’s genes?
  • ErekAlert (23 February 2016): DNA 'Trojan horse' smuggles drugs into resistant cancer cells
  • ABC News (23 February 2016): Vaccinating wildlife with GM viruses could stop diseases jumping to humans, scientists suggest
  • Engadget (23 February 2016): Boston Dynamics presents the 'next generation' Atlas robot. Google's humanoid robot-builders have created a version that's smaller, lighter and more agile
The confirmed discovery of gravitational waves (11 February 2016), when two American research institutes recorded the merging of two black holes a billion years ago, has huge implications. Image Source: BBC via Twitter.

A 3D printed, human-size ear (16 February 2016). Image Source: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine / Engadget.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Chimeran Consciousness

Still from the dark sci-fi film, Splice (2009), which depicted a secret lab experiment with a human-animal chimera as the main character. Image Source: Collider. The trailer is here, and full film (while the link lasts) is here © Warner Bros., reproduced under Fair Use.

On 6 January 2016, MIT Technology Review published an article about US government monitoring of the bio-tech sector as labs create human-animal chimeras and farms grow human organs inside pigs and sheep. The National Institutes of Health expressed concern because embryonic chimeras are in danger of developing expanded human consciousness and tried to slow the rapid pace of scientific experimentation by cutting labs' funding. It didn't work; the labs immediately found money elsewhere:
The effort to incubate organs in farm animals is ethically charged because it involves adding human cells to animal embryos in ways that could blur the line between species.

Last September [2015], in a reversal of earlier policy, the National Institutes of Health announced it would not support studies involving such “human-animal chimeras” until it had reviewed the scientific and social implications more closely.

The agency, in a statement, said it was worried about the chance that animals’ “cognitive state” could be altered if they ended up with human brain cells.

The NIH action was triggered after it learned that scientists had begun such experiments with support from other funding sources, including from California’s state stem-cell agency. The human-animal mixtures are being created by injecting human stem cells into days-old animal embryos, then gestating these in female livestock.

Based on interviews with three teams, two in California and one in Minnesota, MIT Technology Review estimates that about 20 pregnancies of pig-human or sheep-human chimeras have been established during the last 12 months in the U.S., though so far no scientific paper describing the work has been published, and none of the animals were brought to term. ...

The experiments rely on a cutting-edge fusion of technologies, including recent breakthroughs in stem-cell biology and gene-editing techniques. By modifying genes, scientists can now easily change the DNA in pig or sheep embryos so that they are genetically incapable of forming a specific tissue. Then, by adding stem cells from a person, they hope the human cells will take over the job of forming the missing organ, which could then be harvested from the animal for use in a transplant operation.

“We can make an animal without a heart. We have engineered pigs that lack skeletal muscles and blood vessels,” says Daniel Garry, a cardiologist who leads a chimera project at the University of Minnesota. While such pigs aren’t viable, they can develop properly if a few cells are added from a normal pig embryo. Garry says he’s already melded two pigs in this way and recently won a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Army, which funds some biomedical research, to try to grow human hearts in swine. ...

The worry is that the animals might turn out to be a little too human for comfort, say ending up with human reproductive cells, patches of people hair, or just higher intelligence. “We are not near the island of Dr. Moreau, but science moves fast,” NIH ethicist David Resnik said during the agency’s November meeting. “The specter of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out’ would be very troubling to people.”

The chance of an animal gaining human consciousness is probably slim; their brains are just too different, and much smaller. Even so, as a precaution, researchers working with farm-animal chimeras haven’t yet permitted any to be born, but instead are collecting fetuses in order to gather preliminary information about how great the contribution of human cells is to the animals’ bodies. ...

[S]cientists will have to prove that human cells can really multiply and contribute effectively to the bodies of farm animals. That could be challenging since, unlike rats and mice, which are fairly close genetically, humans and pigs last shared an ancestor nearly 90 million years ago.

To find out, researchers in 2014 decided to begin impregnating farm animals with human-animal embryos, says Pablo Ross, a veterinarian and developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, where some of the animals are being housed. Ross says at Davis he has transferred about six sets of pig-human embryos into sows in collaboration with the Salk Institute and established another eight or 10 pregnancies of sheep-human embryos with Nakauchi. Another three dozen pig transfers have taken place outside the U.S., he says.

These early efforts aren’t yet to make organs, says Ross, but more “to determine the ideal conditions for generating human-animal chimeras. ... My view is that the contribution of human cells is going to be minimal, maybe 3 percent, maybe 5 percent. But what if they contributed to 100 percent of the brain? What if the embryo that develops is mostly human? It’s something that we don’t expect, but no one has done this experiment, so we can’t rule it out.”
The US National Institutes of Health investigation is entitled, NIH Research Involving Introduction of Human Pluripotent Cells into Non-Human Vertebrate Animal Pre-Gastrulation Embryos. Researchers who brought their work up for scrutiny remain frustrated by its negative public image because they see the medical value of their contributions.

Nevertheless, this is why this blog has repeatedly defended the education and financial support of professionals and practitioners from the so-called useless or unprofitable arts and humanities, to comment upon moral and philosophical aspects of the approaching Singularity. For my 2013 post on the human-animal genetic experiments, go here. See the NIH public enquiry from November 2015 below the jump.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Countdown to Hallowe'en: The Ghosts of Unit 731

Unit 731 victim. Image Source: Wiki.

In the past century, crimes against humanity were committed in a spirit of secular confidence. Decency - or backwardness - had once prevented certain aspects of human existence from being quantified. But in the 20th century, a perfect blend of brutality and scientific advancement swept away both decency and backwardness. During times of conflict and oppression, older prohibitions fell by the wayside. Wherever researchers and doctors worked beyond the pale, beyond scrutiny and controls, human beings were probed and experimented upon using scientific and industrial methods. War removed barriers to the quest for knowledge. This was a phenomenon of the time, a mentality which combined limitless savagery with a bizarrely searching rationality. It became a blind worship at the altar of knowledge, which had to be gathered at any cost to win victory. Indeed, one of the purposes of war in advanced societies is that conflict removes barriers to research, permitting explorations of the unthinkable. The Nazi concentration camps are the most famous examples of this phenomenon, but human experimentation occurred in other places.

Less well known but no less horrifying than the Nazi concentration camps was Unit 731, a covert Japanese research and development centre which operated during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. It was located in the Pingfang district of Harbin, in the state of Manchukuo, that is, Japanese-occupied China. Officially known as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army (関東軍防疫給水部本部 Kantōgun Bōeki Kyūsuibu Honbu), Unit 731 was the site of some of the worse war crimes in history. It was constructed between 1934 and 1939; by the fateful year 1941, it was known simply as Unit 731. The victims were mainly Chinese, with some southeast Asians, Russians and Pacific Islanders; they included infants and the elderly. Women were impregnated by rape and then became subjects of experiments along with their foetuses. Some 200,000 people died at the unit.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Coming Siege Against Cognitive Liberties

Image Source: Nature.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on how researchers are debating the legal implications of technological advances in neuroscanning:
Imagine that psychologists are scanning a patients' brain, for some basic research purpose. As they do so, they stumble across a fleeting thought that their equipment is able to decode: The patient has committed a murder, or is thinking of committing one soon. What would the researchers be obliged to do with that information?

That hypothetical was floated a few weeks ago at the first meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues devoted to exploring societal and ethical issues raised by the government's Brain initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), which will put some $100-million in 2014 alone into the goal of mapping the brain. ...

One commissioner ... has been exploring precisely those sorts of far-out scenarios. Will brain scans undermine traditional notions of privacy? Are existing constitutional protections sufficient to guard our freedom of thought, or are new laws required as fMRI scanners and EEG detectors grow evermore precise?

Asking those questions is the Duke University associate professor of law Nita A. Farahany ... . "We have this idea of privacy that includes the space around our thoughts, which we only share with people we want to ... . Neuroscience shows that what we thought of as this zone of privacy can be breached." In one recent law-review article, she warned against a "coming siege against cognitive liberties."

Her particular interest is in how brain scans reshape our understanding of, or are checked by, the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution. Respectively, they protect against "unreasonable searches and seizures" and self-incrimination, which forbids the state to turn any citizen into "a witness against himself." Will "taking the Fifth," a time-honored tactic in American courtrooms, mean anything in a world where the government can scan your brain? The answer may depend a lot on how the law comes down on another question: Is a brain scan more like an interview or a blood test? ...

Berkeley's [Jack] Gallant says that although it will take an unforeseen breakthrough, "assuming that science keeps marching on, there will eventually be a radar detector that you can point at somebody and it will read their brain cognitions remotely." ...

Moving roughly from less protected to more protected ... [Farahany's] categories [for reading the brain in legal terms] are: identifying information, automatic information (produced by the brain or body without effort or conscious thought), memorialized information (that is, memories), and uttered information. (Contrary to idiomatic usage, her "uttered" information can include information uttered only in the mind. At the least, she observes, we may need stronger Miranda warnings, specifying that what you say, even silently to yourself, can be used against you.) ...

In a book to be published next month, Mind, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience (Oxford University Press), Michael S. Pardo and Dennis Patterson directly confront Farahany's work. They argue that her evidence categories do not necessarily track people's moral intuitions—that physical evidence can be even more personal than thought can. "We assume," they write, "that many people would expect a greater privacy interest in the content of information about their blood"—identifying or automatic information, like HIV status—"than in the content of their memories or evoked utterances on a variety of nonpersonal matters."

On the Fifth Amendment question, the two authors "resist" the notion that a memory could ever be considered analogous to a book or an MP3 file and be unprotected, the idea Farahany flirts with. And where the Fourth Amendment is concerned, Pardo, a professor of law at the University of Alabama, writes in an e-mail, "I do think that lie-detection brain scans would be treated like blood draws." ...

[Farahany] says ... her critics are overly concerned with the "bright line" of physical testimony: "All of them are just grappling with current doctrine. What I'm trying to do is reimagine and newly conceive of how we think of doctrine."

"The bright line has never worked," she continues. "Truthfully, there are things that fall in between, and a better thing to do is to describe the levels of in-betweenness than to inappropriately and with great difficulty assign them to one category or another."

Among those staking out the brightest line is Paul Root Wolpe, a professor of bioethics at Emory University. "The skull," he says, "should be an absolute zone of privacy." He maintains that position even for the scenario of the suspected terrorist and the ticking time bomb, which is invariably raised against his position.
"As Sartre said, the ultimate power or right of a person is to say, 'No,'" Wolpe observes. "What happens if that right is taken away—if I say 'No' and they strap me down and get the information anyway? I want to say the state never has a right to use those technologies." ... Farahany stakes out more of a middle ground, arguing that, as with most legal issues, the interests of the state need to be balanced against those of the individual. ...

The nonprotection of automatic information, she writes, amounts to "a disturbing secret lurking beneath the surface of existing doctrine." Telephone metadata, another kind of automatic information, can, after all, be as revealing as GPS tracking.

Farahany starts by showing how the secrets in our brains are threatened by technology. She winds up getting us to ponder all the secrets that a digitally savvy state can gain access to, with silky and ominous ease.
Much of the discussion among these legal researchers involves thinking about cognitive legal issues (motivations, actions, memories) in a way that is strongly influenced by computer-based metaphors. This is part of the new transhuman bias, evident in many branches of research. This confirms a surprising point: posthumanism is not some future hypothetical reality, where we all have chips in our brains and are cybernetically enhanced. It is an often-unconsidered way of life for people who are still 100 per cent human; it is a way that they are seeing the world.

This is the 'soft' impact of high technology, where there is an automatic assumption that we, our brains, or the living world around us, are like computers, with data which can be manipulated and downloaded.

In other words, it is not just the hard gadgetry of technological advances that initiates these insidious changes in law and society. If we really want to worry about the advent of a surveillance state, we must question the general mindset of tech industry designers, and people in general, who are unconsciously mimicking computers in the way they try to understand the world. From this unconscious mimicry comes changes to society for which computers are not technically responsible.

A false metaphorical correlation between human and machine - the expectation that organic lives must be artificially automated  - is corrosive to the assumptions upon which functioning societies currently still rest. These assumptions are what Farahany would call, "current doctrine." We take 'current doctrine' for granted. But at the same time, we now take for granted ideas that make 'current doctrine' increasingly impossible to maintain.

This is not to say that change is unnecessary or that technology has not brought vast improvements.

But is it really necessary for everything to go faster and faster? Do we need to be accessible to everyone and everything, day and night? Should our bosses, the police, the government, corporations, the media, let alone other citizens, know everything we do and think in private? Do we really need more powerful technology every six months? Why is it necessary that our gadgets increasingly become smaller, more intimate, and physically attached to us? Why is it not compulsory for all of us to learn (by this point) to a standard level how computers are built and how they are programmed?

We are accepting technology as a given, without second guessing the core assumptions driving that acceptance. Because we are not questioning what seems 'obvious,' researchers press on, in an equally unconsidered fashion, with their expectations that a total surveillance state is inevitable.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Therapeutic Memory Implants

Image Source: Yahoo.

From Yahoo News:
[A] team of researchers successfully implanted false memories in mice.

To implant the memories, the researchers something called used optogenetics — the use of optics and genetics to control individual neurons in the brain. They first genetically engineering mice so that they would have light-sensitive proteins — called Channelrhodopsin-2 or ChR2 — in their hippocampus, which is the part of the brain used in forming memories. Therefore, when the mouse formed memories, the researchers could effectively see which regions of the hippocampus were activated. Also, using light they could activate those areas to have the mouse recall those memories, and they achieved that by having a thin fibre optic cable implanted in the mouse's head.

Placing the mouse into a box — called Chamber A — they let it calmly explore for 10 minutes, forming memories about its environment, and they recorded where the memories were formed ... .

The next day, they placed the mouse into a different box — Chamber B — with a different environment, and they used light through the fibre optic cable to activate the memories it formed the day before. At that time, while the mouse was remembering Chamber A, they delivered mild shocks through the floor of the box, which caused the mouse to freeze in place ... .

"Here, we were trying to artificially make an association between the light-reactivated memory and the foot shocks. We were just trying to artificially connect the two," said Steve Ramirez, a graduate student at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who participated in the research, according to Discovery News.

Then, putting the mouse back into Chamber A, the mouse froze in fear, apparently remembering that its feet had been shocked in this chamber, even though the shocks took place in the completely different environment of Chamber B (panel 3 of the image above).
"They appeared to be recalling being shocked in box A, even though that had never happened," Ramirez said, according to Discovery News. "A false memory had been formed and recalled."
Given the fictional applications we've seen for this kind of work, it's easy to see the dark side of this research and its potential use in a dystopian future, but this could have some remarkable therapeutic uses in the present day. Imagine a trauma victim recalling the memories of their trauma, and then having happier memories stimulated to alleviate their stress.
Discovery News expanded on this story with reference to therapeutic applications for veterans with PTSD:
For example, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD could be asked to remember a stressful time, while a physician stimulated a part of the hippocampus known to produce more pleasant memories.
Ramirez noted that the technique used on humans would probably not involve a fiber optic cable, since that's invasive. But it could involve some kind of drug-induced stimulation, since there are already a number of drugs that target specific brain regions -- recreational drugs, for instance, target reward centers. The trick would be making one that focused on a protein or receptor unique to the hippocampus.
The experiment also sheds light on how humans form false memories, said Tonegawa. There are some dramatic examples of people suddenly having a memory of a traumatic event, such as childhood sexual abuse. But sometimes whether the memory is true or not becomes controversial. Tonegawa said his team's most recent work provides an animal model of how false memories can appear. Further work needs to be done to show if false memories look different from the real thing.
Readers of more dystopian science fiction might ask if this could be used for mind control. Ramirez said he is conscious of that, even though such an experiment with current technology would never pass muster with an ethics review board. "It's important to be having these conversations now," he said.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Powerful Promises of Synthetic Life

Synbiosafe DVD cover (2009) © Markus Schmidt and Camillo Meinhart. Image Source: Synbiosafe.

More breathless excitement: MSN reports that scientists are on track to build a synthetic yeast life form by 2017 (via Machines Like Us):
British scientists are taking part in a global effort to build the first synthetic life form whose cell structure resembles that of plants, animals and humans.

The researchers have been given almost STG1 million ($A1.67 million) in government funding to help them construct one of the organism's 16 chromosomes.

They are part of an international consortium committed to creating an artificial version of yeast by 2017.

It will be the first time scientists have built the whole genome, or genetic code blueprint, of a "eukaryotic" organism whose DNA is stored within a nucleus.

All animals and plants fall into this category. Bacteria and blue-green algae are examples of more primitive organisms that lack nuclei.

Three years ago a team led by American geneticist Craig Venter created a synthetic bacterium genome from scratch in what was described as a landmark achievement.

The new project takes the creation of artificial life to the next level by making the jump to a eukaryotic organism.

Professor Paul Freemont, a leading member of the team from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London, said: "It's a massive leap forward. Yeast is a eukaryote - it's a much more complicated cell. These are chromosomes that mimic the chromosomes in our own cells."

But he made it very clear this was not a first step towards attempting to build Frankenstein-like human life in a lab.
The Imperial College site for the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation notes:
Synthetic Biology is the engineering of biology. It is an exciting new area of research combining science and engineering to design and build new biological functions and systems, and to understand existing biological life through its rational re-design.
Is there any cause for larger moral concern, or concern about weaponized synthetic biology? Scientific American mulled these questions over vaguely in a 2010 article. While the writer,

Excerpt from Adventures in Synthetic Biology (2007). Image Source: MIT/Nature via h+ magazine.

In 2007, Wired reported on a bit of MIT publicity outreach, published through Nature, which was designed to make synthetic biology more friendly and accessible to the public, and especially to children interested in studying science: "MIT’s Synthetic Biology Working Group partnered with cartoonist Chuck Wadey, to create a comic book, Adventures in Synthetic Biology, to showcase the principles of the field." You can see the whole comic, starring Bacteria Buddy, Device Dude, and System Sally, here.

In 2007-2008, a project, Synbiosafe, won 236,000 euros to explore the ethical and safety issues associated with synthetic biology. The grant came from an EU program, New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST). The Synbiosafe project was coordinated by Austrian scientist Dr. Markus Schmidt. Just his affiliation - with the Organisation for Internal Dialogue and Conflict Management (IDC) - should clarify where researchers think synthetic biology could go.

Schmidt's personal site notes that he works
in the area of technology assessment of novel bio-, nano- and  converging technologies (such as synthetic biology); [he] explores the interface between science, society and art; and [he] engages in documentary film production and art-science exhibitions. Schmidt is founder of Biofaction and co-founder of IDC.
IDC's project list shows the spheres which synthetic biology touches: environmental pollution; a sustainable energy policy for Africa; promoting biodiversity conservation in Cambodia; improved agricultural portfolios in Europe and Asia; biosafety and genetically modified crops in South Africa.

That's comforting: "Survival of the fittest – the constant battle for resources, the dynamic equilibrium between growth & decline, survival & adaption - is as valid at a human scale as at a microscopic scale." Yeast Pixels 1.0 art installation by pavillon 35/ Silvia Hüttner. Image Source: Pavillon 35.

Biofaction's work tends to concern the 'softer' impacts of synthetic biology, such as an exhibition this summer on how artists understand this technology, or this artistic collective, Pavillon 35 [sic: this is German for 'pavilion']. You can see Pavillon 35's bioart projects here. They have also launched a video game, Synmod, which teaches synthetic biology through science gamification. You can download the Synmod app here.

It looks like the limitations on the burgeoning merger of biology and engineering may not come from ethical considerations, but simply from patents. Like many aspects of today's exploding Tech Revolution, property rights exert a drag and pull effect. They slow things down. That might be a good thing, in some cases, because deeper thinking about what is going on during the tech boom can be thin on the ground in places.

Nevertheless, patents also worryingly corner the market for big players. The question that comes up behind all our new, shiny tech, again and again, is energy, and who controls it. In this case, biofuels are a central focus of this research. The promise of biofuels awakes competition and power grabs just as ruthless as any in the petroleum or nuclear industries. From The Council for Responsible Genetics:
[I]n 2007 the J. Craig Venter Institute applied for a frighteningly broad patent of its "minimal bacterial genome" called Mycoplasma laboratorium. This organism was an attempt to create life with the minimum number of genes by cutting out as many DNA sequences as possible without removing its ability to reproduce or survive. U.S. patent numbers US2007 0264688 and US2007 0269862 describes creation of the first-ever, entirely synthetic living organism-a novel bacterium whose entire genetic information is constructed from synthesized DNA (but whose genome is a near-replica of a naturally occurring genome).

This patent claims exclusive monopoly on the genes in the minimal bacterial genome, the entire organism made from these genes, a digital version of the organism's genome, any version of that organism that could make fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen, any method of producing those fuels that uses the organism, the process of testing a gene's function by inserting other genes into the synthetic organism, and a set of non-essential genes. These patents are not restricted to any specific cell type-it currently applies to prokaryotes and eukaryotes - or size of a synthetic genome.

While these patents have yet to be granted, the claim shows the extent to which some synthetic biologists are testing the limits in the battle to control the fundamental building blocks of life and actual living organisms. While it is likely this specific patent application's scope will be limited to cover only bacterial cells, such a patent would still grant Venter and company an exclusive license to create synthetic fuel-producing bacteria and the tools to create such organisms. Conveniently, Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, has contracts with both Exxon Mobile and BP to produce "next-generation" biofuels from synthetic cells (or at least genetically engineered cells that contain synthetic DNA sequences).

Amyris Biotechnologies is a synthetic biology company that used genetically engineered yeasts that contain synthetic DNA to break down sugarcane to produce isoprenoids-which are then being converted to biofuels, industrial chemicals, among other products. Patent US 7,659,097, granted to Amyris in February 2010, covers the production of many different isoprenoids created though a number of different microbes. Amyris already has deals with major oil and chemical companies to turn Brazilian sugarcane into high-value commodities. Again, Amyris' "biosynthetic pathways" are near-copies of metabolic pathways found in nature with some "tweaking" of the DNA pathways to allow the yeast to do some things that traditional genetic engineering could not accomplish.

The novel challenge created by the emerging field of synthetic biology is that not only can natural or synthesized DNA be patented, but the processes used to synthesize DNA and create synthetic organisms can also be patented. Furthermore, the living organisms created with synthetic DNA are covered in these patents, as are the products they are engineered to produce. ...
What must be done
While it is clear to us that current court rulings would likely support the patenting of synthetic genomes as developed by Venter's lab and other researchers, Congress should prevent the patenting of DNA sequences that simply copy naturally occurring DNA. To do otherwise would in effect allow another way to patent natural occurring organisms and their DNA-just make synthetic copies of them. That is in no one's interest but the patent holders'.   
See the videos below the jump which promote and debate various synthetic biology concepts. There is also a Youtube playlist of 2011 talks delivered at the Royal Academy of Engineering here; the first video in that playlist is below the jump.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Times Outside of History 10: De-Extinctioning at Pleistocene Park

Omission: The Fossil Record (1991) © by Alexis Rockman.

The news was recently full of the discovery of the best-ever preserved woolly mammoth, which raised cloning hopes. CNN:
Researchers from the Northeast Federal University in Yakutsk found the 10,000-year-old female mammoth buried in ice on the Lyakhovsky Islands off the coast of northeast Russia.

Scientists say they poked the frozen creature with a pick and dark liquid blood flowed out.

"The fragments of muscle tissues, which we've found out of the body, have a natural red color of fresh meat. The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice," said Semyon Grigoriev, the head of the expedition and of the university's Mammoth Museum, in a statement on the university's website. ...

Grigoriev told The Siberian Times newspaper it was the first time mammoth blood had been discovered and called it "the best preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology."

"We suppose that the mammoth fell into water or got bogged down in a swamp, could not free herself and died. Due to this fact the lower part of the body, including the lower jaw, and tongue tissue, was preserved very well," he said.

Grigoriev called the liquid blood "priceless material" for the university's joint project with South Korean scientists who are hoping to clone a woolly mammoth, which has been extinct for thousands of years.

The controversial Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is headed up by Hwang Woo-suk -- the disgraced former Seoul National University scientist who claimed in 2004 that he had successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells before admitting he had faked his findings.

Typically, researchers contemplating revival of an extinct species do not think about the species but about human motivations. We are 'atoning for past sins,' or 'proving what we can do' if the money is right.

Is seems less challenging, morally speaking, to resurrect relatively recently extinct species, such as the aurochs, the baiji dolphin, the Japanese sea lion, the Caribbean monk seal, the thylacine, the passenger pigeon, or the dodo bird. In 2000, the last Pyrenean ibex died. In 2009, a clone brought the species back from extinction for the seven minutes that it remained alive.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ellen Ripley Meets Therapeutic Nihilism

Still from Alien3 (1992) © Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox. Image Source: Alien Explorations.

In 1991, David Fincher directed the Alien sequel, Alien3, which was a decade and a half ahead of its time. The film was nearly ruined by studio interference and production problems. It had previously gone through versions to which science fiction author William Gibson, Eric Red (writer of the cult horror films The Hitcher and Near Dark), future Riddick director David Twohy, and New Zealand director Vincent Ward all separately contributed.

What audiences and critics found more difficult was the gloomy, apocalyptic plot. Alien3 marked the new era of the compromised protagonist. It was a fraught with despair, a difficult narrative for audiences accustomed to triumphant cinematic conclusions. The heroine, Ellen Ripley, is even more heroic because she is not going to win.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Zero Scrap Value

One Horse Shay. Image Source: Wiki.

We all have to die one day. Since the '60s in the west, death has no longer been considered a part of the social contract, so people don't talk about death and dying the way they used to. Instead, they talk about not dying, about cheating the Reaper - as though anti-ageing and potentially not dying at all somehow is the next stage after your retirement package. They do this rather than face mortality with dignity.

This blog sometimes explores anti-ageing from the perspective of the most high profile Baby Boomers who are interested in the topic. They are ever in search of the Fountain of Youth. For a different point of view, I asked my dad and his friend, both tough old septuagenarian Silent Generation fellows, about death. They liked Dennis Hopper's ad for retirement planning, pulled after his death from cancer in 2010, where Hopper sits at a crossroads and says, "Ya gotta have a plan."

The Ameriprise financial planning ad, aimed at Boomers, runs:
"So here you are, a little confused. Did you think the road to retirement was an expressway? Come on, this isn't some random road trip. Your dreams are out there somewhere. You can't start this journey without knowin' where you're goin'. You my friend, you need a plan." 
 You can see it here on Youtube. You can see other Ameriprise ads aimed at Boomers, here and below.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Problem with Memory 8: Scientists use Magnets to Change Memories, Morals

Image Source: Kim Zetty.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned a reader's mysterious radical discrepancy in memory from the memories of those around him. Today, a natural but disturbing possible explanation for his experience comes from the field of medical research, where scientists are performing experiments on the effect magnets have on the brain.

Magnetic fields, when applied to the brain, can improve memory and video game play. But they can also change your moral compass. In other words, 'moral compass' is not just a figure of speech. It reflects a real relationship between human morality and magnetic fields.

A reporter's ability to speak is temporarily interrupted due to exposure to magnetic fields. Video Source: Mercola.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Millennial Chimeras

Image Source: Tribe.

More news from back at the lab: the mythological chimera is coming alive in Millennial medical and genetic experiments. In the Greek myths, the original chimera we know dated from around 350 BCE; it was a female creature with the combined anatomy of a lion, snake and goat (see it here). 'Chimera' used in the modern cultural sense (as here, in a recent post at Ghost Hunting Theories) has come to mean any multi-part monster or hybridized fantastic creature. Often, these creatures' liminal nature and extraordinary anatomy and abilities saw them associated in ancient times with spirits, religions, deities or divine power.

The growing scientific capacity of our society so disturbs the popular imagination that some Millennial conspiracy theorists speculate that the chimeras in Greek mythology were in fact genetic chimeras created by ancient alien scientists. In this way, they reenforce an imaginative continuity with the cultural context of the deep past; and they do this at the very point where today's findings are placing that connection with the past under its greatest moment of stress.

Recent mentions of chimeras or quasi-chimeras include:
  • 1997: The Vacanti Earmouse
  • August 2003: Rabbit-human fusion - "Researchers at the Shanghai Second Medical University in China reported that they had successfully fused human skin cells and dead rabbit eggs to create the first human chimeric embryos."
  • January 2004: Pigs with human blood - pig-human chimera cells surprise researchers: "Pigs grown from fetuses into which human stem cells were injected have surprised scientists by having cells in which the DNA from the two species is mixed at the most intimate level. It is the first time such fused cells have been seen in living creatures. ... The adult pigs that had received human stem cells as fetuses were found to have pig cells, human cells and the hybrid cells in their blood and organs."
  • April 2005: Cat-human hybrid proteins - "Allergic to cats? Then you’ll appreciate this experiment. The feline Fel d 1 protein found in cat saliva contains an allergen that affects humans. When cats lick themselves, the saliva on their fur dries and turns into dust. In April 2005, scientists at the University of California created a human-cat hybrid when they fused the Fel d 1 protein with a human protein known to suppress allergic reactions. The feline protein would bind to immune cells that would cause the reaction and the human protein would tell the immune cells to calm down. When tested in mice, the chimeric protein stifled the allergy, and researchers hope they can be used in the future to treat allergy sufferers."
  • 2005-present: Mouse-human brain - "Irving Weissman, Stanford University professor and cofounder of the biotech company StemCells Inc., was granted permission by Stanford to create a mouse-human hybrid in 2005. Weissman and his team transplanted human-brain stem cells into the brains of mice with the intention to study neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. In his initial experiment, the human cells only made up less than 1 percent of the mouse brain. ... In 2010, Stanford researchers announced they transformed mouse skin cells into fully functional neurons in a laboratory dish for the first time. They also announced in May [2012] that they successfully used mouse stem cells to develop sensory hair cells, which could combat human hearing loss."
  • 2007: Sheep with human livers - "scientists at the University of Nevada School of Medicine created a sheep whose blood contained 15% human cells and 85% sheep cells." From Discovery News: " In 2007, scientists at the University of Nevada-Reno announced they could grow livers made up of 20 percent human cells in sheep. Dr. Esmail Zanjani injected either human adult stem cells derived from bone marrow, or human embryonic stem cells, into growing sheep fetuses. Zanjani said he uses sheep because the circulation systems of sheep and humans are similar."
  • 2008: Cow eggs with human cells - "British researchers were given approval to conduct human-animal hybrid research in 2008 ... . The nucleus of the cow egg ... was removed, and replaced with the nucleus of a human cell such as a skin cell. Once the egg was allowed to develop and multiply it would become a early-stage cloned embryo called a blastocyst. Scientists could then extract the stem cells from this blastocyst to use in disease treatments."
  • February 2010: Mouse-human liver - "Using a mouse that was having liver problems of its own, the researchers replaced its liver with one that was made up of 95 percent human cells to study treatments for Hepatitis. Shown here is a cluster of mouse liver cells that have been replaced with human cells (shown in green). Typically, small animals can't be infected with Hepatitis, only humans and chimps can, but this "humanized" mouse not only became infected, it successfully responded to drug treatments."
  • 19 June 2011: Pigs could grow human organs in stem cell breakthrough.

"Is it OK to inject human cells into other animals like laboratory mice and create hybrids? A few weeks ago [in July 2011], scientists announced they had mixed human DNA into cows in order to make them produce human breast milk. (One justification for this was that it would help children in underdeveloped countries.)" Image Source: Zoe.

In research published in 2013, scientists reveal they have implanted human brain cells in mice in order to investigate brain cell functions to treat certain diseases (Hat tip: Evo Terra; George Dvorsky).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Countdown to Hallowe'en 19: Return of the Dead

Image Source: Byte Size Biology.

For this month's Countdown to Hallowe'en blogathon, I am writing horror posts which relate to themes on this blog. However, some Millennial Bad Ideas I cover are so horrific in their own right that they are a horror story or film waiting to happen. No one has fictionalized them yet.

Some archaeologists and Prehistory theorists imagine that the history of advanced humans runs back tens of thousands of years earlier than thought, with environmental disasters such as Ice Ages and Atlantean flood events periodically wiping humankind's collective memory of what came before. (See my regular posts on Prehistory here.)

Others, however, look to a future in which the secrets of the deep past may simply be brought back to life and studied. I09 recently dismissed the cloning of Woolly Mammoths, but with new specimens turning up in Russian permafrost, that possibility persists. The horrific Millennial reality for today is the debate on the DNA research on, and potential cloning of, the Neanderthal. Apparently, the feat could be accomplished for about $30 million. By contrast, sending astronauts to Mars would cost somewhere between $40 and $80 billion.

This is a Millennial take on already popular zombies and immortality of the resurrected: a separate human species became extinct, but could be revived by modern science. While there is nothing wrong with the work to decode the Neanderthal genome, the misapplication of that knowledge would be another matter.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Responsible Parenting

Bufo marinus. Image Source: NT News.

Someone should call the editors at the OED. There is a new definition of 'responsible parenting.' In another of those stories in which scientists gain ever greater abilities to do amazing things, but seem not to register any implications of said things, The Telegraph reports on an Oxford professor's comment that, "genetically engineering 'ethical' babies is a moral obligation. ... Genetically screening our offspring to make them better people is just 'responsible parenting.'"

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Recipe for Millennial Immortality

From the annals of Millennial anxieties and weird politics: The Rantings of a Gothic Atheist had a remarkable post up at the end of January about a law which could come into effect in November 2012 in Oklahoma, USA. The Bill bans the use of human foetuses in food production. Ohh-kay. In fact, the Bill's author refers to the highly politicized debate in the United States on the use of embryonic stem cells in research and industry.