A bird that once darkened the skies of the 19th-century U.S. no longer exists, except as well-preserved museum specimens bearing bits of DNA. An ambitious new effort aims to use the latest techniques of genetic manipulation to bring the passenger pigeon back, as North Dakotan Ben Novak, a would-be de-extinction scientist working on the Revive & Restore project at the Long Now Foundation, told the crowd at the TEDxDeExtinction event here on March 15.
"This pigeon flock was a biological storm that was rejuvenating resources and allowing other animals to thrive," Novak said of the storms of Ectopistes migratorius feces that used to fall like rain on the landscape of eastern North America. Plus, with the regrowth of forest on the east coast "there is more passenger pigeon habitat every year."
But if a bird looks like an extinct passenger pigeon, has some of the genetic code of the passenger pigeon, but does not act like a passenger pigeon because it is raised by other breeds and few in number: is it a true passenger pigeon? That is just one of the questions posed by the idea of de-extinction—deliberately resurrecting species killed off by human activity or inactivity. And that question may just challenge one of the fundamental concepts of biology: what determines a distinct species.
Welcome to the new era of the hybrid. Species have always been promiscuous and enjoyed porous boundaries, but synthetic biologists and other scientists seem set to blur those boundaries out of existence.
On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew 7,800 mi above the surface of Pluto and sent back fascinating images of the dwarf planet and its large (and intriguing) moon Charon. Many of the images show unexpected beauty and complexity on Pluto’s surface. While the data are still coming in from the encounter, Dr. Moore shows the latest photos and fills us in on the current thinking among the New Horizons team members about Pluto, its moons, and the unexplored frontier that lies beyond.
CRISPR gene drives allow scientists to change sequences of DNA and guarantee that the resulting edited genetic trait is inherited by future generations, opening up the possibility of altering entire species forever. More than anything, the technology has led to questions: How will this new power affect humanity? What are we going to use it to change? Are we gods now? Join journalist Jennifer Kahn as she ponders these questions and shares a potentially powerful application of gene drives: the development of disease-resistant mosquitoes that could knock out malaria and Zika.
Over 100,000 asteroids and their colors, as seen by a single remarkable survey telescope. This animation shows the orbital motions of over 100,000 of the asteroids observed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), with colors illustrating the compositional diversity measured by the SDSS five-color camera.
The relative sizes of each asteroid are also illustrated. All main-belt asteroids and Trojan asteroids with orbits known to high precision are shown. The animation is rendered with a time-step of 3 days. The compositional gradient of the asteroid belt is clearly visible, with green Vesta-family members in the inner belt fading through the blue C-class asteroids in the outer belt, and the deep red Trojan swarms beyond that. Occasional diagonal slashes that appear in the animation are the SDSS survey beams; these appear because the animation is rendered at near the survey epoch.
Dr. Gabor Forgacs is a theoretical physicist turned tissue-engineer turned entrepreneur. His companies are pioneering 3D bio-printing technologies that will produce tissues for medical and pharmaceutical uses, as well as for consumption, in the form of meat and leather.
Cyborgs, brain uploads and immortality - How far should science go in helping humans exceed their biological limitations? These ideas might sound like science fiction, but proponents of a movement known as transhumanism believe they are inevitable.
In this episode of The Stream, we talk to bioethicist George Dvorsky; Robin Hanson, a research associate with Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute; and Ari N. Schulman, senior editor of The New Atlantis, about the ethical implications of transhumanism.
Geneticist Jennifer Doudna co-invented a groundbreaking new technology for editing genes, called CRISPR-Cas9. The tool allows scientists to make precise edits to DNA strands, which could lead to treatments for genetic diseases ... but could also be used to create so-called "designer babies." Doudna reviews how CRISPR-Cas9 works -- and asks the scientific community to pause and discuss the ethics of this new tool.
Should scientists edit the human genome, striking out undesirable traits like so many typos? “My own views are still forming,” says Jennifer Doudna, who with her research partner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, developed a powerful gene editing technique at her University of California, Berkeley lab several years ago (TED Talk: We can now edit our DNA. But let’s do it wisely). “I’m still trying to get a handle on how and when and why would we want to use this.”
“This” is a genetic editing process that uses an enzyme with the ungainly name of CRISPR-Cas9 to precisely slice into a strand of DNA, snipping out genetic material with the precision of a scalpel. Aside from offering an unexpectedly high level of precision at removing specific As, Ts, Gs and Cs, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique opens a new Pandora’s box: when used on embryos, the genetic changes can be inherited from parent to child.
Since its invention, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique been used to put lab rats, monkeys, even non-viable human embryos under the genetic knife. But an ethical question hangs over whether the technique should be applied to living human embryos, where an edited gene can be inherited from one generation to the next. One fix could strike out a genetic illness from a family’s bloodline; one mistake could irrevocably alter the human genome in ways we can’t know.
That’s why Doudna, along with a panel of influential genetic scientists, has called for a worldwide pause on any experiment with the human genome. It’s also why she’s helping to convene a three-day summit this December at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., where she and others will debate how far the world should take this technology. Doudna hopes the attendees will agree to some framework, any framework, for guiding responsible experimentation.
Gene editing is a polarizing issue, and her informal survey of the research community has turned up wildly divergent opinions. Some researchers favor a complete ban on edits to human embryos, preferring alternative treatments for genetic illnesses (in vitro screening, for instance, that identifies embryos with harmful mutations). Others believe that constraints on research could delay or prevent still-undiscovered cures. Doudna does not expect to solve these differences in three days, but she hopes that the opinions of scientific heavyweights can help shape the conversation. “Highly respected scientists do have a role to play in making a statement that invites people at least to consider their viewpoint,” she says. Bioethicists, lawyers, patient advocacy groups and government regulators will also be there to have their say. If that sounds like an unwieldy conversation, well, it will be. Fortunately, for Doudna, there’s a playbook for this sort of powwow.
The ability to create accurate disease models of human monogenic and complex genetic disorders is very important for the understanding of disease pathogenesis and the development of new therapeutics. Although proof of principle using adult stem cells for disease modeling has been established, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have been demonstrated to have the greatest utility for modeling human diseases. Additionally, the latest advances in programmable nucleases have empowered researchers with genome editing tools, such as CRISPR/Cas9, that substantially improve their ability to make precise changes at a defined genomic locus in a broad array of cell types including stem cells. While the utility of these tools is improving, there are several key factors, including design and delivery that should be taken into account to ensure maximum editing efficiency and specificity. Already, these tools have allowed us to efficiently knock out genes and generate single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) iPSCs. This ability to modify target genomic loci with high efficiency will facilitate the generation of novel genetically modified stem cells for research and therapeutic applications.
UCSC has built the Cancer Genomics Hub (CGHub) for the US National Cancer Institute, designed to hold data for all major NCI projects. To date it has served more than more than 10 petabytes of data to more than 320 research labs. Cancer is exceedingly complex, with thousands of subtypes involving an immense number of different combinations of mutations. The only way we will understand it is to gather together DNA data from many thousands of cancer genomes so that we have the statistical power to distinguish between recurring combinations of mutations that drive cancer progression and "passenger" mutations that occur by random chance. Currently, with the exception of a few international research projects, most cancer genomics research is taking place in research silos, with little opportunity for data sharing. If this trend continues, we lose an incredible opportunity. Soon cancer genome sequencing will be widespread in clinical practice, making it possible in principle to study as many as a million cancer genomes. For these data to also have impact on understanding cancer, we must begin soon to move data into a network of compatible global cloud storage and computing systems, and design mech- anisms that allow genome and clinical data to be used in research with appropriate patient consent.
The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health was created to address this problem. Our Data Working Group is designing the future of large-scale genomics for cancer and other diseases. This is an opportunity we cannot turn away from, but involves both social and technical challenges.
In the future, a woman with a spinal cord injury could make a full recovery; a baby with a weak heart could pump his own blood. How close are we today to the bold promise of bionics—and could this technology be used to improve normal human functions, as well as to repair us? Join Bill Blakemore, John Donoghue, Jennifer French, Joseph J. Fins, and P. Hunter Peckham at "Better, Stronger, Faster," part of the Big Ideas Series, as they explore the unfolding future of embedded technology.
A half-century ago, astronomers began trying to "eavesdrop" for radio messages from nearby star systems. They haven't found any intelligent messages yet, but many new ideas have come up to increase our chances. Seth Shostak (SETI Institute) summarizes them in this video.
From ancient single-celled organisms evolved multicellular animals whose immense numbers of specialized cell types—skin, muscle, nerve—allow division of labor. Each cell type forms in the right place, is suited to its task, and activates certain genes. Powerful cell-to-cell communication systems organize structured tissues such as lungs, limbs and brain. Dr. Scott will discuss half-billion-year-old genes that have been gradually modified to give rise to the vast diversity of animals.
Scientists say a world that's 490 light-years away qualifies as the first confirmed Earth-sized exoplanet that could sustain life as we know it — but in an environment like nothing we've ever seen. The planet, known as Kepler-186f, is "more of an Earth cousin than an Earth twin," Elisa Quintana, an astronomer at the SETI Institute at NASA Ames Research Center, told the journal Science. Quintana is the lead author of a report on the planet published by Science this week.
"This discovery does confirm that Earth-sized planets do exist in the habitable zones of other stars," Quintana said during a Thursday news briefing at NASA Headquarters.
Kepler-186f goes around an M-type dwarf star that's smaller and cooler than our sun. But it orbits much closer to its parent star than Earth does, within what would be Mercury's orbit in our own solar system. Those two factors combine to produce an environment that could allow for liquid water on the surface, assuming that the planet had a heat-trapping atmosphere.
"The star, to our eyes, would look slightly orange-y," about a third again as big as our sun but only a third as bright, said co-author Thomas Barclay, a staff scientist for NASA's Kepler mission who is also affiliated with NASA and the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute. At midday, Kepler-186f's landscape might look similar to what we see on Earth an hour before sunset, he told NBC News. Or it might not: If the planet lacked an atmosphere to retain and redistribute its sun's warmth, it would be a cold, dry, lifeless world.
Kepler-186f probably rates as the most potentially Earthlike planet discovered so far, said Jim Kasting, a geoscientist at Penn State University who did not play a role in the Science study. But he told NBC News that it's still "less likely to be habitable than planets around more sunlike stars." Even better prospects for alien habitability might well be identified in the months and years to come.
Kepler-186f is just the latest discovery to be pulled out of terabytes' worth of data collected by the Kepler mission. Before it went on the fritz last year, the Kepler space telescope stared at more than 150,000 stars in a patch of sky, looking for the telltale dimming of starlight as planets passed over the stars' disks. Nearly 1,000 exoplanets have been confirmed using Kepler data, and almost 3,000 more candidates are still awaiting confirmation.
It takes years of observation to confirm the pattern of dimming and brightening that's associated with alien planets, particularly if the planets are small and far from their parent stars. In February, astronomers reported that at least four worlds circled the dwarf star known as Kepler-186 or KOI-571. In this week's Science paper, Quintana and her colleagues confirm the existence of Kepler-186f as the fifth and outermost world. They report that Kepler-186f is about 10 percent wider than Earth, tracing a 130-day orbit around its sun at a mean distance of 0.35 astronomical units. (An astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and our sun, which is 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.) That would put Kepler-186f on the cooler, outer side of the star's habitable zone — the range of orbital distances where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface.
Astronomers have confirmed the existence of other planets in their stars' habitable zone, but those prospects are super-Earth-size. Smaller habitable-zone candidates also have been found, but they have yet to be confirmed as planets.
Barclay said Kepler-186f was particularly promising because it's less than 1.5 times the size of Earth. Planets in that size range are more likely to be rocky with a thinner atmosphere, like Earth, Mars and Venus. But worlds exceeding that size stand a better chance of retaining a thick atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, like the giant planet Neptune.
"While those planets also could be rocky, they don't remind us of home," Barclay said. Could we actually detect signs of life on Kepler-186f? That's a tough one. The astronomers behind the discovery acknowledge that the planet might be just too far away for follow-up studies. The SETI Institute has been searching for radio signals from the Kepler-186 system over a wide frequency range (1 to 10 GHz), but so far nothing has been detected.
Kasting, the author of "How to Find a Habitable Planet," said worlds around M-class dwarf stars faced several disadvantages in the habitability department. For one thing, such planets generally end up being tidally locked to their stars — meaning that one side of the planet is always facing its parent sun while the other is always turned away.
Alex Kipman wants to create a new reality — one that puts people, not devices, at the center of everything. With HoloLens, the first fully untethered holographic computer, Kipman brings 3D holograms into the real world, enhancing our perceptions so that we can touch and feel digital content. In this magical demo, explore a future without screens, where technology has the power to transport us to worlds beyond our own.
What are continued fractions? How can they tell us what is the most irrational number? What are they good for and what unexpected properties do they possess? How did Ramanujan make good use of their odd features to make striking discoveries? We will look at how they have played a role in the study of numbers, chaos, gears and astronomical motions.
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