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 Quantum Biology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Quantum Biology. Show all posts

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.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Smallpox Afterlife

Shapona, the West African God of Smallpox (1969). Image Source: CDC (ID #15226).

Caption for the above photograph: "This is a statue of Shapona, the West African God of Smallpox. It is part of the CDC’s Global Health Odyssey (GHO) collection of artifacts. A uniquely carved wooden figure, it is adorned with layers of meaningful objects such as a monkey skull, cowrie shells, and nails. Donated in 1995 by Ilze and Rafe Henderson, it was created by a traditional healer who made approximately 50 Shaponas as commemorative objects for the CDC, WHO, and other public health experts attending a 1969 conference on smallpox eradication."

Officially, smallpox was eradicated in 1979. One of the most feared of illnesses, it still exists in disease research centres in the United States and Russia. The disease was eradicated through a global mass vaccination campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. To see photos of the disease symptoms, and of the gruesome occasional reactions to the vaccinations, go to the Centers for Disease Control site (here). The images are not for the faint-hearted.

The last people who naturally contracted two variations of smallpox both survived and are still alive. One was Rahima Banu Begum, who had the last known case of naturally occurring Variola major smallpox in 1975, on Bhola Island in the Bangladesh district of Barisal. In a 2009 interview, she stated that she is still treated poorly by villagers and family members because she once had the disease. The other is Ali Maow Maalin, a Somalian cook who contracted the last case of naturally occurring Variola minor smallpox in 1977. Interviewed most recently in 2006, he now works for the World Health Organization to promote vaccination campaigns.

Smallpox and humans have a long history. The virus emerged around 10,000 BCE. Wiki notes some of the virus's modern history: the disease devastated Native American populations with the arrival of European colonists in the 16th century; with no previous exposure, they died at the rate of 80 to 90 per cent. Sometimes, Europeans infamously spread smallpox to Native Americans on purpose, although historians debate the degree to which this occurred. Smallpox killed about 400,000 Europeans annually at the end of the 18th century. It killed between 300 million and 500 million people in the 20th century.

Vaccination against the disease also had a long history. Intentional exposure of healthy people to another's smallpox scabs was practiced as far back as 1,000 BCE in India; this exposure might cause death, but usually brought on a mild form of the disease, which one might survive, thereafter becoming immune. The smallpox vaccine was the world's very first vaccine to be developed, by Edward Jenner in 1796, through his use of the milder cowpox virus. Similar treatments had preceded Jenner's work as early as the 1770s. The term 'vaccine' comes from the Latin vacca for cow.

The development of a stable vaccine in the 1960s led to the World Health Organization's innoculation campaign between 1967 and 1977. After a fatal 1978 accident at a UK repository, only two repositories of the disease remained: the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Koltsovo, Russia.

Since then, smallpox lurks in hideous sleeping afterlife, always promising to reemerge as the ultimate bio-threat. When one considers that smallpox was humanity's constant companion for some twelve millennia and has only been at bay for a mere 33 years, it is easy to see why it is still a cause for worry. Most disturbing, perhaps, is the possibility that weaponized artificial smallpox could be created as bioengineering gathers pace. But another thread appears through all the fears of pandemics, the politics, the foreign policy and secrecy: the smallpox vaccine offers a potential cure for some cancers

Below the jump, see some points about smallpox which have come to light since 1990.

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.

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).

Sunday, May 26, 2013

'Live' Artificial Jellyfish Made from Rat Cells

Artificial jellyfish life made from rat cells on silicone. Image Source: Discovery.

From the Frankenfuture Files:
A team of scientists has taken the heart cells of a rat, arranged them on a piece of rubbery silicon[e], added a jolt of electricity, and created a “Franken-jelly.” Just like a real jellyfish, the artificial jelly swims around by pumping water in and out of its bell-shaped body. Researchers hope the advance can someday help engineers design better artificial hearts and other muscular organs. ...

Bioengineers John Dabiri from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and Kevin Kit Parker from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University adopted a motto: Copy nature, but not too much. “Some engineers build things out of concrete, copper and steel—we build things out of cells,” says Parker.

The duo and their colleagues stenciled out the ideal jellyfish shape on silicon[e], a material that would be sturdy but flexible, much like the jellyfish itself. They then coached rat muscle cells to grow in parallel bands on the silicon[e] and encased the cells with a stretchy material called elastomer. To get their artificial jellyfish, or medusoid, swimming, the researchers submerged it in a salty solution and ran an electric current through the water, jump-starting the rat cells. The mimic propelled itself rapidly in the water, swimming as effectively as a real jellyfish, the researchers report online today in Nature Biotechnology.
Will humans, whose organs will be repaired and implanted in this manner, still be fully human? You can see a film of the Franken-jelly-rat thing swimming around below the jump.

One commenter at the foot of the Wired article said: "wow, way to try to drum up a story. Shocker: when you stimulate muscle cells, they contract. Glad to see that great taxpayer money going towards this pointless research."

To this, someone responded: "Yep, slam down the whole thing to zapping cells, just like that frog in the lab you never got into cause your creationist parents didint want you to. Never mind that the issue here is isolated cell growth artificially arranged to perform a function outside its original specs. Gee, what would happen if we learnt how to make heart muscle cells grow around damaged tissue in an orderly way to re enable proper heart functions? God forbid we find out."

Another wrote: "As far as I can tell, this research was funded privately ... Seed funding for the Harvard Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering was provided by the university. In 2009, Harvard received the largest philanthropic gift in its history - $125 million - from Hansjörg Wyss for the above mentioned institute. As far as this research being useless, these quotes from the article might give you a clue as to how this particular project could be useful: 'Researchers hope the advance can someday help engineers design better artificial hearts and other muscular organs." "By studying how jellyfish manipulate liquids with their body, Parker says, scientists may be able to come up with more accurate ways to fix or even replace damaged heart valves.' My wife had to have her aortic valve replaced with an artificial valve due to a birth defect - research of this type is VERY meaningful to some people. Try to do two minutes of research before you write off important work with your politicized BS."

Yet another commenter wrote: "I, for one, welcome our new jelly-rat overlords."

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.'"

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some Relief from the Future Would Be Nice

Harvard University molecular geneticist George Church stores his latest book on encoded DNA in a vial. Image Source: Kelvin Ma for the Wall Street Journal.

Some days, I look at the news headlines, and I wish Morrissey were here to write the blog post titles. Honestly. The WSJ reports that (the ironically surnamed) Harvard Professor of Genetics George Church has vastly expanded an amazing jump from the mechanical to the biological. He has figured out how to encode computer data for his entire book into DNA. This finding, building on others' previous work over the past decade, is one of the silver bullets of the Technological Singularity.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fountain of Youth 14: Embrace Your Immortality

Get me outta here. Image Source: Digital Journal.

People are so literal-minded these days. The staunchly faithful believe the end is nigh. The staunchly un-faithful believe the end is not nigh. Either way, the new Millennium's opposing camps of the very religious and the very atheistic seek exactly the same goal: immortality. The irony in this fact - that those who go in for the apocalypse are on the same page as those who go in for the technological singularity - derives from an excess of literal-mindedness.

Here is an example of Millennial literal-mindedness, from a Gen X neuroscientist at Harvard who is attempting to figure out how to download his consciousness onto a computer interface so that he can live forever. From a Chronicle of Higher Education report:
In the basement of the Northwest Science Building here at Harvard University, a locked door is marked with a pink and yellow sign: "Caution: Radioactive Material." Inside researchers buzz around wearing dour expressions and plastic gloves. Among them is Kenneth Hayworth. ...

Hayworth has spent much of the past few years in a windowless room carving brains into very thin slices. He is by all accounts a curious man, known for casually saying things like, "The human race is on a beeline to mind uploading: We will preserve a brain, slice it up, simulate it on a computer, and hook it up to a robot body." He wants that brain to be his brain. He wants his 100 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion synapses to be encased in a block of transparent, amber-colored resin—before he dies of natural causes.

Why? Ken Hayworth believes that he can live forever.

But first he has to die.

"If your body stops functioning, it starts to eat itself," he explains to me one drab morning this spring, "so you have to shut down the enzymes that destroy the tissue." If all goes according to plan, he says cheerfully, "I'll be a perfect fossil." Then one day, not too long from now, his consciousness will be revived on a computer. By 2110, Hayworth predicts, mind uploading—the transfer of a biological brain to a silicon-based operating system—will be as common as laser eye surgery is today.

It's the kind of scheme you expect to encounter in science fiction, not an Ivy League laboratory. But little is conventional about Hayworth, 41, a veteran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a self-described "outlandishly futuristic thinker." While a graduate student at the University of Southern California, he built a machine in his garage that changed the way brain tissue is cut and imaged in electron microscopes. The combination of technical smarts and entrepreneurial gumption earned him a grant from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, a subsidiary of the McKnight Foundation, and an invitation to Harvard, where he stayed, on a postdoctoral fellowship, until April.

To understand why Hayworth wants to plastinate his own brain you have to understand his field—connectomics, a new branch of neuroscience. A connectome is a complete map of a brain's neural circuitry. Some scientists believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, even diseases like autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's—the cures for which might be akin to repairing a wiring error. In 2010 the National Institutes of Health established the Human Connectome Project, a $40-million, multi-institution effort to study the field's medical potential.

Among some connectomics scholars, there is a grand theory: We are our connectomes. Our unique selves—the way we think, act, feel—is etched into the wiring of our brains. Unlike genomes, which never change, connectomes are forever being molded and remolded by life experience. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where "nature meets nurture."

Hayworth takes this theory a few steps further. He looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees something else: a cure for death. In a new paper in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, he argues that mind uploading is an "enormous engineering challenge" but one that can be accomplished without "radically new science and technologies."
Extreme literal-mindedness boils immortality down to an "enormous engineering challenge." The connectome idea also has a metaphysical side. The connectome curiously reworks the concept of fate. This is a really seductive concept in a troubled (or if one prefers, fallen) world: a proposal to alter destiny on the cellular, genetic, atomic, and sub-atomic levels. Change destiny, whether it comes from nature or nurture, like changing a spark plug.

The article paints Hayworth as a dedicated figure, a futurist ahead of his time. And in that regard, he is a great visionary. His work may inadvertently cure terrible diseases or vastly expand our grasp of neural, or even cerebral, processes. But these would be incidental to his primary aim to 'cure' us of death. There is no moment where Hayworth stops and asks: should we be immortal? If death is hard-wired into every living thing on the planet, and even non-living things die, then maybe death exists for a good reason? Maybe it is the lynchpin in the order of the universe? Aside from the possibility that an immortal human could be horrifying, perhaps conquering death would destroy the balance of nature? I am not talking about hocus-pocus. Nor am I talking about cells and synapses, genes and enzymes. I am talking about the purpose of death, which we do not understand. There is a purpose for death in the universe, because even galaxies die. For Hayworth, these are non-issues:
One hundred years from now, he believes, our descendants will not understand how so many of us failed for so long to embrace immortality. In an unpublished essay, "Killed by Bad Philosophy," he writes, "Our grandchildren will say that we died not because of heart disease, cancer, or stroke, but instead that we died pathetically out of ignorance and superstition"—by which he means the belief that there is something fundamentally unknowable about consciousness, and that therefore it can never be replicated on a computer. ...

My [The Chronicle reporter's] conversations with Hayworth took place over several months, and I was struck by how his optimism often gave way to despair. "I've become jaded about whether brain preservation will happen in my lifetime," he told me at one point. "I see how much pushback I get. Even most neuroscientists seem to believe that there is something magical about consciousness—that if the brain stops, the magic leaves, and if the magic leaves, you can't bring the magic back."

I asked him if the scope of his ambitions ever gives him pause. If he could achieve immortality, might it usher in a new set of problems, problems that we can't even imagine? "Here's what could happen," he said. "We're going to understand how the brain works like we now understand how a computer works. At some point, we might realize that the stuff we hold onto as human beings—the idea of the self, the role of mortality, the meaning of existence—is fundamentally wrong."

Lowering his voice, he continued. "It may be that we learn so much that we lose part of our humanity because we know too much." He thought this over for a long moment. "I try not to go too far down that road," he said at last, "because I feel that I would go mad."
Yes. Madness arrives, on schedule, when science heads too far into the outer reaches without support. Hayworth may see philosophers as part of the problem. But it looks like he needs one or two of them to watch his back. It does not matter whether you think the world was created by a divine being (or beings) who set in motion a grand battle between the forces of good and evil - or that the universe (or multiverses) exploded in the Big Bang and can be rationally dissected. The real cultural and historically relevant Millennial phenomenon across the board is a literal-mindedness about everything that formerly belonged to the realm of mystery.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Biotechnological Magnetic Computer Memory

Magnetospirillum magneticum. A magnetotactic bacterium that could be the basis of growing computer memory organically. Image Source: Eff Yeah Microbiology!

The way computers become biological begins with expanded memory. The Economist reports that nanotechnologists have found a way to grow computer memories, thereby mimicking biological memories in cells, by manipulating tiny magnetic elements transmitted by proteins. 
[T]here may be a cheaper option [for manufacturing tiny computer memory components]—namely to mimic Mother Nature, who has been building tiny devices, in the form of living cells and their components, for billions of years, and has thus got rather good at it. A paper published in Small, a nanotechnology journal, sets out the latest example of the technique. In it, a group of researchers led by Sarah Staniland at the University of Leeds, in Britain, describe using naturally occurring proteins to make arrays of tiny magnets, similar to those employed to store information in disk drives.

The researchers took their inspiration from Magnetospirillum magneticum, a bacterium that is sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field thanks to the presence within its cells of flecks of magnetite, a form of iron oxide. Previous work has isolated the protein that makes these miniature compasses. Using genetic engineering, the team managed to persuade a different bacterium—Escherichia coli, a ubiquitous critter that is a workhorse of biotechnology—to manufacture this protein in bulk.

Next, they imprinted a block of gold with a microscopic chessboard pattern of chemicals. Half the squares contained anchoring points for the protein. The other half were left untreated as controls. They then dipped the gold into a solution containing the protein, allowing it to bind to the treated squares, and dunked the whole lot into a heated solution of iron salts. After that, they examined the results with an electron microscope. Sure enough, groups of magnetite grains had materialised on the treated squares, shepherded into place by the bacterial protein. In principle, each of these magnetic domains could store the “one” or the “zero” of a bit of information, according to how it was polarised.
See the original research here

Monday, May 28, 2012

Circadian Misalignments

Image Source: Impactlab.

You may recall this post, about scientists who plan to control the body's internal clock. I09 (via Brain Pickings) discusses a new book by German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, who argues that our social clocks and bodily clocks are not lining up and this is causing obesity, psychological stresses and physical illnesses. Roenneberg's "social jet lag" is induced by the conflicts between natural light, technology, business working hours and time spent socializing. From I09:
Just because you sleep later than your early rising friends doesn't mean you sleep longer than they do; nor does it make you lazier. And yet, the association between the time of day that a person wakes up and how proactive or driven they are is just one example of the many preconceptions that society upholds regarding sleep and productivity.

But here's the problem: these expectations might actually be working against us.

In his recently published book, Internal time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag and Why You're So Tired, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg provides numerous examples of how social expectations surrounding time may be having a detrimental effect on large sections of the human population. ...

Evidence continues to pile up that the late-night schedules of shift workers clash so violently with their internal biological clocks that they actually increase their risk of obesity, diabetes, and a long list of other nasty health effects. Researchers have linked these adverse effects to discordance between the timekeeping mechanisms within our own bodies (the molecules that control the daily cycle of fat production and storage in your liver, for example) and our odd-hour work schedules.

Researchers who study metabolism call this "circadian misalignment." Roenneberg calls it "social jet lag" (a concept he explains quite succinctly in the video featured [below]). Whatever you call it, a growing body of evidence suggests that the disconnect between our internal clocks and societal clocks could be informing aspects of our daily lives ranging from metabolic disorders, to suicide rates, to alcohol consumption, to why older men marry younger women.

You can check your 'chronotype' here at Roenneberg's site CLOCKWORK.org and his contribution to the EU project to train the bodily clock here. Roenneberg's work at Munich University's chronobiology project is here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Scientists Gain Control of Body's Biological Clock

Image Source: Bhavanajagat.

On 29 March 2012, Nature published findings (here) from scientists working under Professor Ronald M. Evans, at Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory (Hat tip: Machines Like Us). They have discovered the switches inside cells which regulate the body's biological clock and determine when we sleep and eat.  Disruption of the brain's biological clock - for example, through excessive night time activity - is a major cause of life-threatening diseases. The ability to control the biological clock promises to remedy these problems; the research confirms that our health is intimately connected to the movements of the sun and earth:
"This fundamentally changes our knowledge about the workings of the circadian clock and how it orchestrates our sleep-wake cycles, when we eat and even the times our bodies metabolize nutrients," says Evans. "Nuclear receptors can be targeted with drugs, which suggests we might be able to target REV-ERBα and β to treat disorders of sleep and metabolism."

Nurses, emergency personnel and others who work shifts that alter the normal 24-hour cycle of waking and sleeping are at much higher risk for a number of diseases, including metabolic disorders such as diabetes. To address this, scientists are trying to understand precisely how the biological clock works and uncover possible targets for drugs that could adjust the circadian rhythm in people with sleep disorders and circadian-associated metabolic disorders.

In mammals, the circadian timing system is orchestrated by a central clock in the brain and subsidiary clocks in most other organs. The master clock in the brain is set by light and determines the overall diurnal or nocturnal preference of an animal, including sleep-wake cycles and feeding behavior. ...

The scientists also found that the REV-ERBs control the activity of hundreds of genes involved metabolism, including those responsible for controlling levels of fats and bile. The mice in which REV-ERBα and REV-ERBβ were turned off had high levels of fat and sugar in their blood—common problems in people with metabolic disorders.

"This explains how our cellular metabolism is tied to daylight cycles determined by the movements of the sun and the earth," says Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor in Salk's Regulatory Biology Laboratory and co-author on the paper. "Now we want to find ways of leveraging this mechanism to fix a person's metabolic rhythms when they are disrupted by travel, shift work or sleep disorders."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Debate on Human Male Extinction

"Human cells carry 23 pairs of chromosomes, including one pair which determine gender." Image Source: SPL via BBC.

Geneticists are debating whether the human male will become extinct between 125,000 years (5,000 generations) and 5 million years from now. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Malaria Studied in 20 Million Year Old Fly

Image Source: Parasites and Vectors.

From Twitter: "Whoa! 20 million year old fly in amber was carrying malaria, and sucking bat blood" (Hat tip: Bug Girl).  This fly, encased in amber, lived in the mid-Tertiary period, a violent time running from the extinction of the dinosaurs, to the beginning of mammals, to the onset of the beginning of the most recent Ice Age. This period featured one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever to occur on the planet (it took place in Colorado).  The Tertiary period was initially classified in the 18th century by Italian geologist Giovanni Arduino as the period of the Biblical Flood.  The tweet refers to an article at Parasites and Vectors, concerning research into the form of malaria carried by this fly.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Very Human Anatomy of the Internet

Tissue Series Quilled Paper anatomical artwork (2011-2012) © Lisa Nilsson. Image Source: Colossal Art & Design.

Machines Like Us reports that the seemingly-infinite potential of the Internet will be limited by the capacities of our brains.  In short: "the total amount of information cannot grow faster than our ability to digest or handle it."  That's probably really good news:
Scientists have found that the capacity of the human brain to process and record information—and not economic constraints—may constitute the dominant limiting factor for the overall growth of globally stored information. These findings have just been published in an article in E[uropean] P[hysical] J[ournal] ... by Claudius Gros and colleagues from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany.
Ref: 1. Gros C., Kaczor G., Marković D., (2012) Neuropsychological constraints to human data production on a global scale, European Physical Journal B (EPJ B) 85: 28, DOI 10.1140/epjb/e2011-20581-3.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fountain of Youth 13: The Psychological Distress of Immortality

What Else Is There? (2012) © by oO-Rein-Oo at Deviant Art. Reproduced with kind perimission.

On January 30, novelist Jonathan Franzen expressed his worries to the Guardian that ebooks would corrode values and diminish an appreciation for paper books (thanks to -J.).  "All the real things are dying off," he sighed.  This provoked plenty of sharp criticism in the comments, for example: "Jonathan Franzen warns that people shouldn't travel by train as the greater than horse carriage speed may suffocate passengers through an involuntary inhalation of ether."

But Franzen made one thought-provoking comment that, if extrapolated, could explain why we age:
"One of the consolations of dying is that [you think], 'Well, that won't have to be my problem'," he said. "Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don't see how you could stand it psychologically."
This got me thinking about the primary cause of ageing.  What if the primary reason we age is not physical, as futurists such as Kurzweil would have us believe?  What if we age because our brains are hard-wired to exist for no more than 100 years at the absolute limit?  What if our brains cannot handle the psychological test of ageing, combined with historic change in our environment?  What if it's our brains that begin short-circuiting the body, forcing it to collapse and ultimately fail?  What if ageing is a measure of how we are mentally able to adapt to change, or not adapt to it?  Conversely, does that mean that the true elixir of life is a case of mind over matter?

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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fountain of Youth 12: Kurzweil on Cheating the Reaper

Image Source: Dark Roasted Blend.

This is a post on why Ray Kurzweil's immortal singularity will never happen.  Kurzweil claims we will obliterate ageing via technological advances. His Boomer sensibilities seek an eternal youth in which a combination of drugs, vitamin and diet therapies and the injection of cell-repairing nanobots will obliterate not just disease, but ageing itself, thereby jolting humanity to its next transhuman evolutionary level. You can see one of his discussions on this topic below the jump.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Robot with a Rat Brain and Other Cyborgs

Spybee. Image Source: Xenophilia.

Here's some slippery slope stuff from the people making robots with living brain cells and another on wiring insects with tiny surveillance equipment for espionage.  On 27 September, the New Scientist noted that scientists in Israel have created an artificial, digital brain, and implanted it in a rat (Thanks to -C.):
Now Matti Mintz of Tel Aviv University in Israel and his colleagues have created a synthetic cerebellum which can receive sensory inputs from the brainstem - a region that acts as a conduit for neuronal information from the rest of the body. Their device can interpret these inputs, and send a signal to a different region of the brainstem that prompts motor neurons to execute the appropriate movement.

"It's proof of concept that we can record information from the brain, analyse it in a way similar to the biological network, and return it to the brain," says Mintz, who presented the work this month at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence meeting in Cambridge, UK.

One of the functions of the cerebellum is to help coordinate and time movements. This, and the fact that it has a relatively straightforward neuronal architecture, make it a good region of the brain to synthesise. "We know its anatomy and some of its behaviours almost perfectly," says Mintz. The team analysed brainstem signals feeding into a real cerebellum and the output it generated in response. They then used this information to generate a synthetic version on a chip that sits outside the skull and is wired into the brain using electrodes.

To test the chip, they anaesthetised a rat and disabled its cerebellum before hooking up their synthetic version. They then tried to teach the anaesthetised animal a conditioned motor reflex - a blink - by combining an auditory tone with a puff of air on the eye, until the animal blinked on hearing the tone alone. They first tried this without the chip connected, and found the rat was unable to learn the motor reflex. But once the artificial cerebellum was connected, the rat behaved as a normal animal would, learning to connect the sound with the need to blink.
A 2008 report, also at the New Scientist, hailed the new era of insect-driven espionage, undertaken by the US Government at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which operates under the simple motto: Creating and Preventing Strategic Surprise.  The report, reproduced at Xenophilia via the Daily Mail, states:
Such mechanised animals, or cyborgs, have many advantages over robots. Sharks, moths and rats, for example, have an amazing sense of smell that allows them to detect the faintest traces of chemicals.

And if you can hide the controls within the creature’s body, it would be virtually indistinguishable from any other animal – and so the perfect spy. Chief among the cyborg inventors is the U.S. military, with its research bureau ploughing money into projects from remote-controlled rats to battery-operated beetles.

Trained to sniff out particular scents, such as human bodies or explosives, the rats’ movements are controlled by electrodes implanted in their brains. Video camera backpacks transmit images of their mission back to the spymaster. Although the U.S. has stopped funding the rat research, the Israeli government is keen to use the creatures to search for survivors of explosions.

While rats might be big enough to carry video cameras and other paraphernalia, their size makes it difficult for them to blend into the background.

With this in mind, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has switched its focus to insects such as moths and beetles. In an attempt to make the insects as inconspicuous as possible, miniaturised brain probes are inserted during the pupa stage.

The idea is the ultra-light implants will naturally integrate into the body of the developing insect.

DARPA’s ultimate aim is to create cyborg insects that can fly more than 300 feet to their target and then stay put until commanded to buzz off again.
Image Source: Xenophilia.

From a New Scientist report, also from 2008, on a robot controlled by rat brain cells:
AFTER buttoning up a lab coat, snapping on surgical gloves and spraying them with alcohol, I am deemed sanitary enough to view a robot's control system up close. Without such precautions, any fungal spores on my skin could infect it. "We've had that happen. They just stop working and die off," says Mark Hammond, the system's creator. This is no ordinary robot control system - a plain old microchip connected to a circuit board. Instead, the controller nestles inside a small pot containing a pink broth of nutrients and antibiotics. Inside that pot, some 300,000 rat neurons have made - and continue to make - connections with each other. As they do so, the disembodied neurons are communicating, sending electrical signals to one another just as they do in a living creature.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Bionic Era Arrives

NBC's new Bionic Woman series (2007).

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.  We have the technology.  An entire generation grew up with that opening line to the 1973-1978 TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man.  The series was based on Martin Caidin's 1970s' series of novels, starting with Cyborg (1972).  Caidin died in 1997, before the bionic era he popularized would come to pass.

Caidin's Cyborg (1972).

 NBC's new Bionic Woman series (2007)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Origins of Life

Image Source: The Outfit.

In another sign that the concepts normally explained by religion and mystical metaphors are set to be explained by science, a report circulated recently that biologists have been invited to CERN to investigate whether colliding particles provided the origins of life (Hat tip: Physics and Physicists).  The mysteries of the Large Hadron Collider deepen. From the report at Wired:
When you think of Cern, the enormous particle accelerator under Geneva, you probably think of particle physics. But the institution is also helping out biologists too.

On 20 May, a small group of biologists and chemists arrived at Cern for a workshop from the institution's experts on how to organise a disparate community of research groups all over the world into a single scientific force. While much of the research at Cern is focused on the beginnings of the Universe, the delegates also held a discussion on the beginnings of life.

Much of the research in the field is currently focused on so-called "autocatalytic sets". These are groups of molecules that undergo reactions where all molecules mutually catalyse each other -- speed up the rate at which the reaction takes place. In this way, the sets are self-sustaining. It's believed that protocells emerged from such a system, but there's a significant question mark over how likely it is for these sets to occur randomly.