From domestication to selective breeding and right up to DNA editing, humans have long sought to bend the genetic makeup of animals and plants to our needs. Now an international team has taken a significant step towards building the genome of a complex organism from scratch—a major milestone in the quest for fully synthetic life.
Led by Jef Boeke, a geneticist at New York University Langone Medical Center, the Synthetic Yeast Project (Sc2.0) has now built five new synthetic chromosomes for the single-celled fungus S. cerevisiae, more commonly known as Baker’s yeast.
Boeke’s lab had previously synthesized the first synthetic yeast chromosome in 2014, meaning that more than a third of the organism’s genome—16 chromosomes in total—has now been replaced with engineered alternatives. The consortium has also finished designing the entire genome and expects to have synthesized working versions of all the chromosomes within the year.
Sc2.0 is not the first major effort to create synthetic life. In 2010, geneticist Craig Venter manufactured the entire genome of the bacteria Mycoplasma mycoides and transplanted it into another Mycoplasma species, creating the first self-replicating synthetic organism. This genome was almost identical to the original, but then last year his team released new research in which they had whittled down the organism’s genome to just 473 genes—the bare bones required for life.
The towering trees with their sprawling branches in the redwood forests have always reminded me of neurons in the brain.
Like trees, each neuron extends out tortuous, delicate branches in a quest to make contact with others in its ecosystem. By communicating through thousands of contact points—synapses—dotted along their branches, neurons coordinate their activation patterns across the brain. In this way, bits and pieces of information integrate into unified experiences that are our memories, feelings and awareness of the world.
In other words, the secret of conscious thought may lie in the connections of neuronal trees.
In the 140 years of mapping neuronal projection, scientists have seen it all: stubby ones, lopsided ones, and shockingly long branches that thread all the way from the back of the head, the brainstem, to the very front.
But the brain has more surprises in store.
This week at the BRAIN Initiative meeting in Maryland, Dr. Christof Koch, the president of the Allen Institute of Brain Science based in Seattle, announced the discovery of three neurons with branches that extensively span both hemispheres of the brain.
Incredibly, these neurons sit in the claustrum, a mysterious, thin sheet of cells that Koch believes is the seat of consciousness. Among the three, the largest neuron wrapped around the entire circumference of the mouse brain like a “crown of thorns”—something never seen before.
“A single neuron, projecting across the entire cortex! Absolutely astonishing!” Koch exclaimed during his talk.
Scientists say it's possible to build a new type of self-replicating computer that replaces silicon chips with processors made from DNA molecules, and it would be faster than any other form of computer ever proposed - even quantum computers.
Called a nondeterministic universal Turing machine (NUTM), it's predicted that the technology could execute all possible algorithms at once by taking advantage of DNA's ability to replicate almost perfect copies of itself over billions of years.
The basic idea is that our current electronic computers are based on a finite number of silicon chips, and we're fast approaching the limit for how many we can actually fit in our machines.
To address this limitation, researchers are currently working on making quantum computers a reality - super-powerful devices that replace the bits of electronic computers with quantum-entangled particles called qubits.
Unlike regular bits that can only take on the form of 1 or 0 in the binary code, qubits can take the form of 0, 1, or a superposition of the two simultaneously, which allows them to perform many different calculations at once.
Within the lifetimes of most children today, bioenhancement is likely to become a basic feature of human society. Personalised pharmaceuticals will enable us to modify our bodies and minds in powerful and precise ways, with far fewer side-effects than today’s drugs. New brain-machine interfaces will improve our memory and cognition, extend our senses, and confer direct control over an array of semi-intelligent gadgets. Genetic and epigenetic modification will allow us to change our physical appearance and capabilities, as well as to tweak some of the more intangible aspects of our being such as emotion, creativity or sociability.
Do you find these ideas disquieting? One of the more insidious effects of such self-editing is that it will blur the boundary between persons and things. The reason is simple: bioenhancements are products. They require machines, chemicals, tools and techniques that develop over time. They become obsolete after a number of years. They are likely to be available for purchase on the open market. Some will be better than others, and more expensive than others. Some – like cars or jewellery or your house – will confer a greater or lesser degree of prestige. But if we’re not careful, we ignore the fact that these ‘products’ are altering key aspects of a human being’s selfhood. Without realising it, we drift into an instrumental mode of thought, which would reduce a person to the sum total of her modified or unmodified traits. We could lose sight of the individual’s intrinsic value and dignity, and start comparing people as if they were used vehicles in a car lot.
The virtual reality (VR) industry is currently in its infancy, but in just a few decades it’s possible that virtual environments will be nearly indistinguishable from reality. Along with transforming everyday life, a VR revolution could fundamentally change how we understand and define what is real. In this installment of Aeon In Sight, the renowned Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers considers how VR is reframing and shedding new light on some of philosophy’s most enduring questions about cognition, epistemology and the nature of reality.
New research suggests it is possible to slow or even reverse aging, at least in mice, by undoing changes in gene activity—the same kinds of changes that are caused by decades of life in humans.
By tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryoniclike ones, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reversed the aging of mouse and human cells in vitro, extended the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition and successfully promoted recovery from an injury in a middle-aged mouse, according to a study published Thursday in Cell.
The study adds weight to the scientific argument that aging is largely a process of so-called epigenetic changes, alterations that make genes more active or less so. Over the course of life cell-activity regulators get added to or removed from genes. In humans those changes can be caused by smoking, pollution or other environmental factors—which dial the genes’ activities up or down. As these changes accumulate, our muscles weaken, our minds slow down and we become more vulnerable to diseases.
The new study suggests the possibility of reversing at least some of these changes, a process researchers think they may eventually get to work in living humans. “Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s senior author and an expert in gene expression at Salk. In their study Belmonte and his colleagues rejuvenated cells by turning on, for a short period of time, four genes that have the capacity to convert adult cells back into an embryoniclike state.
In living mice they activated the four genes (known as “Yamanaka factors,” for researcher Shinya Yamanaka, the Nobelist who discovered their combined potential in 2006). This approach rejuvenated damaged muscles and the pancreas in a middle-aged mouse, and extended by 30 percent the life span of a mouse with a genetic mutation responsible for Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome, which causes rapid aging in children.
"The actual path of a raindrop as it goes down the valley is unpredictable, but the general direction is inevitable," says digital visionary Kevin Kelly -- and technology is much the same, driven by patterns that are surprising but inevitable. Over the next 20 years, he says, our penchant for making things smarter and smarter will have a profound impact on nearly everything we do. Kelly explores three trends in AI we need to understand in order to embrace it and steer its development. "The most popular AI product 20 years from now that everyone uses has not been invented yet," Kelly says. "That means that you're not late."
Would you want to alter your future children’s genes to make them smarter, stronger, or better looking? As the state of science brings prospects like these closer to reality, an international debate has been raging over the ethics of enhancing human capacities with biotechnologies such as so-called smart pills, brain implants, and gene editing. This discussion has only intensified in the past year with the advent of the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which raises the specter of tinkering with our DNA to improve traits like intelligence, athleticism, and even moral reasoning.
So are we on the brink of a brave new world of genetically enhanced humanity? Perhaps. And there’s an interesting wrinkle: It’s reasonable to believe that any seismic shift toward genetic enhancement will not be centered in Western countries like the US or the UK, where many modern technologies are pioneered. Instead, genetic enhancement is more likely to emerge out of China. Attitudes toward enhancement
Numerous surveys among Western populations have found significant opposition to many forms of human enhancement. For example, a recent Pew study of 4,726 Americans found that most would not want to use a brain chip to improve their memory, and a plurality view such interventions as morally unacceptable.
A broader review of public opinion studies found significant opposition in countries like Germany, the US, and the UK to selecting the best embryos for implantation based on non-medical traits like appearance or intelligence. There is even less support for editing genes directly to improve traits in so-called designer babies.
Opposition to enhancement, especially genetic enhancement, has several sources. The above-mentioned Pew poll found that safety is a big concern—in line with experts who say that tinkering with the human genome carries significant risks. These risks may be accepted when treating medical conditions, but less so for enhancing non-medical traits like intelligence and appearance. At the same time, ethical objections often arise. Scientists can be seen as “playing God” and tampering with nature. There are also worries about inequality, creating a new generation of enhanced individuals who are heavily advantaged over others. Brave New World is a dystopia, after all.
Here’s what happens. You are lying on an operating table, fully conscious, but rendered otherwise insensible, otherwise incapable of movement. A humanoid machine appears at your side, bowing to its task with ceremonial formality. With a brisk sequence of motions, the machine removes a large panel of bone from the rear of your cranium, before carefully laying its fingers, fine and delicate as a spider’s legs, on the viscid surface of your brain. You may be experiencing some misgivings about the procedure at this point. Put them aside, if you can.
You’re in pretty deep with this thing; there’s no backing out now. With their high-resolution microscopic receptors, the machine fingers scan the chemical structure of your brain, transferring the data to a powerful computer on the other side of the operating table. They are sinking further into your cerebral matter now, these fingers, scanning deeper and deeper layers of neurons, building a three-dimensional map of their endlessly complex interrelations, all the while creating code to model this activity in the computer’s hardware. As the work proceeds, another mechanical appendage – less delicate, less careful – removes the scanned material to a biological waste container for later disposal. This is material you will no longer be needing.
At some point, you become aware that you are no longer present in your body. You observe – with sadness, or horror, or detached curiosity – the diminishing spasms of that body on the operating table, the last useless convulsions of a discontinued meat.
NASA scientists have proposed a bold plan that could give Mars its atmosphere back and make the Red Planet habitable for future generations of human colonists.
By launching a giant magnetic shield into space to protect Mars from solar winds, the space agency says we could restore the Red Planet's atmosphere, and terraform the Martian environment so that liquid water flows on the surface once again.
Mars may seem like a cold, arid wasteland these days, but the Red Planet is thought to have once had a thick atmosphere that could have maintained deep oceans filled with liquid water, and a warmer, potentially habitable climate.
Scientists think Mars lost all of this when its protective magnetic field collapsed billions of years ago, and solar wind – high-energy particles projected from the Sun – has been stripping the Red Planet's atmosphere away ever since.
Now, new simulations by NASA suggest there could be a way to naturally give Mars its thick atmosphere back – and it doesn't require nuking the Red Planet into submission, as Elon Musk once proposed.
Instead, the space agency thinks a powerful-enough magnetic shield launched into space could serve as a replacement for Mars's own lost magnetosphere, giving the planet a chance to naturally restore its own atmosphere.
In new findings presented at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop last week, NASA's Planetary Science Division director, Jim Green, said launching an "artificial magnetosphere" into space between Mars and the Sun could hypothetically shield the Red Planet in the extended magnetotail that trails behind the protective field.
"This situation then eliminates many of the solar wind erosion processes that occur with the planet's ionosphere and upper atmosphere allowing the Martian atmosphere to grow in pressure and temperature over time," the researchers explain in an accompanying paper.
While the team acknowledges that the concept might sound "fanciful", they point to existing miniature magnetosphere research being conducted to protect astronauts and spacecraft from cosmic radiation, and think that the same technology on a larger scale could be used to shield Mars.
Human beings are in danger of being eclipsed by artificial intelligence and need to evolve the ability to communicate directly with machines or risk irrelevance, Elon Musk said in a typically heartwarming speech from everyone’s favorite billionaire technologist.
“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence," Musk told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai, where he also launched Tesla in the United Arab Emirates, according to CNBC. "It's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output."
A conception of evil that carries over from the Abrahamic religions into secular modernity is that of the ‘disorganization of the soul’. The idea here is that evil isn’t something separate from good but something that arises from the malformation or malfunctioning of good parts. Thus, Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost is God’s best angel gone rogue, the template for the villains faced by comic book superheroes. Many if not most mental illnesses, from neurosis to autism, are defined as some sort of ‘disorder’. In a similar but grander vein, cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener regarded entropy – the ultimate expression of disorganization in physics – as the material equivalent of evil, the source of all suffering, decay and death.
Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the universe. Earth is a relatively young planet and the oldest civilizations could be billions of years older than us. But even on Earth, Homo sapiens may not be the most intelligent species for that much longer.
The world Go, chess, and Jeopardy champions are now all AIs. AI is projected to outmode many human professions within the next few decades. And given the rapid pace of its development, AI may soon advance to artificial general intelligence—intelligence that, like human intelligence, can combine insights from different topic areas and display flexibility and common sense. From there it is a short leap to superintelligent AI, which is smarter than humans in every respect, even those that now seem firmly in the human domain, such as scientific reasoning and social skills. Each of us alive today may be one of the last rungs on the evolutionary ladder that leads from the first living cell to synthetic intelligence.
What we are only beginning to realize is that these two forms of superhuman intelligence—alien and artificial—may not be so distinct. The technological developments we are witnessing today may have all happened before, elsewhere in the universe. The transition from biological to synthetic intelligence may be a general pattern, instantiated over and over, throughout the cosmos. The universe’s greatest intelligences may be postbiological, having grown out of civilizations that were once biological. (This is a view I share with Paul Davies, Steven Dick, Martin Rees, and Seth Shostak, among others.) To judge from the human experience—the only example we have—the transition from biological to postbiological may take only a few hundred years.
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