When it comes to genetic engineering, we’re amateurs. Sure, we’ve known about DNA’s structure for more than 60 years, we first sequenced every A, T, C, and G in our bodies more than a decade ago, and we’re becoming increasingly adept at modifying the genes of a growing number of organisms.
But compared with what’s coming next, all that will seem like child’s play. A new technology just announced today has the potential to wipe out diseases, turn back evolutionary clocks, and reengineer entire ecosystems, for better or worse. Because of how deeply this could affect us all, the scientists behind it want to start a discussion now, before all the pieces come together over the next few months or years. This is a scientific discovery being played out in real time.
Today, researchers aren’t just dropping in new genes, they’re deftly adding, subtracting, and rewriting them using a series of tools that have become ever more versatile and easier to use. In the last few years, our ability to edit genomes has improved at a shockingly rapid clip. So rapid, in fact, that one of the easiest and most popular tools, known as CRISPR-Cas9, is just two years old. Researchers once spent months, even years, attempting to rewrite an organism’s DNA. Now they spend days.
Scientists funded by the Defense Department have just announced a breakthrough that could allow researchers to create in 220 days an extremely detailed picture of the brain that previously would have taken 80 years of scans to complete.
The military has been looking to build better brain hacks for decades with results that ranged form the frightening to the comical. This latest development could revolutionize the study of the brain but also the national security applications of neuroscience.
Scientists at Stanford University who developed the new way to see the brain in greater detail, outlined in the journal Nature Protocols, said that it could mark a new era of rapid brain imaging, allowing researchers to see in much greater detail not only how parts of the brain interact on a cellular level but also to better understand those interactions across the entire brain.
“I absolutely believe this is going to transform the way that we study the brain and how we perform neuroscience research,” said Justin Sanchez, program manager for the Neuro Function, Activity, Structure, and Technology, or Neuro-FAST, program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which funded the research. “What we’re saying here today is that we can develop new technology that changes how we observe and interact with the circuits of the brain.”
Brain scans are now starting to peer down to the molecular level, revealing what brain cells are telling one another, researchers say.
This new technique could illuminate the behavior of the human brain at its most fundamental level, yielding insights on disorders such as addiction, the scientists added. Right now the technique has been tested only on rats.
“This demonstrates a new way to study the brain — no one has ever mapped brain activity in this way before,” said study author Alan Jasanoff, a bioengineer and neuroscientist at MIT.
One of the key ways researchers use to scan brains is magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. These scanners immerse people in strong magnetic fields and then hit them with radio waves, encouraging atoms — usually hydrogen atoms — to emit signals that yield insights on the body.
By using MRIs to look at the hydrogen atoms in water, scientists can follow the flow of blood in the brain, shedding light on brain activity. However, this strategy, known as functional MRI, or fMRI, essentially reveals only what parts of the brain are talking, not what different areas of the brain are saying to each other.
Now scientists are using novel molecules that can help them use fMRI to see what specific messages brain cells are sending each other.
Scientists studying brain diseases may need to look beyond nerve cells and start paying attention to the star-shaped cells known as “astrocytes,” because they play specialized roles in the development and maintenance of nerve circuits and may contribute to a wide range of disorders, according to a new study by UC San Francisco researchers.
In a study published online April 28, 2014 in Nature, the researchers report that malfunctioning astrocytes might contribute to neurodegenerative disorders such as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and perhaps even to developmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
David Rowitch, MD, PhD, UCSF professor of pediatrics and neurosurgery and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, led the research.
The researchers discovered in mice that a particular form of astrocyte within the spinal cord secretes a protein needed for survival of the nerve circuitry that controls reflexive movements. This discovery is the first demonstration that different types of astrocytes exist to support development and survival of distinct nerve circuits at specific locations within the central nervous system.
Okay, we’re slightly kidding about the bad 3D movie thing. But British researchers really did get a million dollar grant to outfit praying mantises with tiny little 3D glass to try and figure out how the insects’ stereoscopic 3D vision works.
Mantis are the only invertebrates (with the exception of the mantis shrimp, I think) who can see in stereo, so part of the point of this research is to try and figure out how this capability evolved in the insects, and whether it’s similar to how stereo vision works in us vertebrates. If this research reveals that the mantis has stereo vision that works differently somehow, it could lead to new techniques for perceiving depth in computer vision and robotics.
The testing itself involves using beeswax to glue the world’s smallest pair of polarized glasses to the mantis’ face, and then showing them 3D movies of moving objects to see how they react. The insect brains are fooled into thinking that the movies are in 3D, just like humans are, so you can imagine that if the mantis flinches at virtual 3D objects coming at them (like we do), the researchers can then make inferences about whether they’re seeing things the same way that humans are.
And for all you bug lovers out there, rest assured that the glasses are removable without any harm to the insects, and after every test they’re put back in a special mantis pleasure palace where they’re fed and pampered. So basically, their lives consist of eating, relaxing, and watching 3D movies. We should all be so lucky.
Scientists have developed an “off-switch” for the brain to effectively shut down neural activity using light pulses.
In 2005, Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light in a technique he dubbed ‘optogenetics’.
Research teams around the world have since used this technique to study brain cells, heart cells, stem cells and others regulated by electrical signals.
However, light-sensitive proteins were efficient at switching cells on but proved less effective at turning them off.
Now, after almost a decade of research, scientists have been able to shut down the neurons as well as activate them.
Mr Deisseroth’s team has now re-engineered its light-sensitive proteins to switch cells much more adequately than before. His findings are presented in the journal Science.
Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said this improved “off” switch will help researchers to better understand the brain circuits involved in behavior, thinking and emotion.
“This is something we and others in the field have sought for a very long time,” Mr Deisseroth, a senior author of the paper and professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioural sciences said.
“We’re excited about this increased light sensitivity of inhibition in part because we think it will greatly enhance work in large-brained organisms like rats and primates.”
Sitting in a small, computer-lined room trying to remember a succession of different-coloured words scrolling past on a screen doesn’t sound like the cutting edge of scientific research. However, academics at the University of East London are using word tests to assess the impact synaesthesia can have on memory – and the potential it might have to ward off the decline in cognitive function that can affect the elderly.
Synaesthesia, the neurological condition that causes a blending of the senses – colours can be connected to letters and numbers, smells and tastes to music or touch to vision – has long been linked to creativity: famous synaesthetes include Sibelius and more recently Pharrell Williams.
But among the wider population it has remained a mysterious condition, although it is known to affect at least 4.4% of adults across its many forms.
Railguns aren’t the only thing the U.S. Navy is bragging about this week. Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. announced they have successfully turned seawater into fuel.
When your car runs out of gas, you find a gas station and fill it up. For ships and planes, however, there aren’t any stations out in the middle of the ocean. Instead, the Navy’s vessels are refueled by oil tankers that come to them.
All of that will change in the future. By extracting carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas simultaneously from seawater, and then using a catalytic converter, scientists created fuel that looks and smells pretty much the same as regular ol’ petroleum-based fuel.
The advantages of seawater-based fuel is twofold. First, the ships don’t need to be redesigned in order to use the new seawater-based fuel since it’s basically the same. Second, the ability to create fuel from all that water around aircraft carriers means less dependence on oil. The U.S. Navy envisions ships will be able to create their own fuel for themselves and for planes. So long oil tankers!
“Game-changing” as the breakthrough is, the U.S. Navy says ships that generate their own fuel from seawater aren’t going to start sailing the seas anytime soon — they’re at least ten years away. For now, the U.S. Navy’s scientists are focusing on how to produce larger quantities of seawater-based fuel.
Everything we do — all of our movements, thoughts and feelings – are the result of neurons talking with one another, and recent studies have suggested that some of the conversations might not be all that private. Brain cells known as astrocytes may be listening in on, or even participating in, some of those discussions. But a new mouse study suggests that astrocytes might only be tuning in part of the time — specifically, when the neurons get really excited about something. This research, published in Neuron, was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health.
For a long time, researchers thought that the star-shaped astrocytes (the name comes from the Greek word for star) were simply support cells for the neurons.
It turns out that these cells have a number of important jobs, including providing nutrients and signaling molecules to neurons, regulating blood flow, and removing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters from the synapse. The synapse is the point of information transfer between two neurons. At this connection point, neurotransmitters are released from one neuron to affect the electrical properties of the other. Long arms of astrocytes are located next to synapses, where they can keep tabs on the conversations going on between neurons.
If you thought the post on twins sharing consciousness was awesome, wait until you hear this.
A 44-year-old French man one day went to the trip to the doctor’s because he felt a pain in his left leg. He’s a married man with two kids and a steady job. Doctor’s found that he had hydrocephalus as a child (when your brain is filled with fluids) so they decided to run some brain scans.
What they found was that the majority of his head was filled with fluid. Over time, the buildup caused his lateral ventricles to swell so much that his brain had been flattened to a thin sheet. Doctors estimated that his brain mass had been reduced by at most 70%, affecting the areas in charge of motion, language, emotion, and, well, everything.
Shockingly, he was fine. While his IQ was only 75, he wasn’t mentally challenged. He held a steady job, raised a family, and didn’t have trouble interacting with others. Over time, his brain had adapted to all that pressure, and even though he had fewer neurons that most, Jacques was still a fully functional human being. The doctors drained the fluid and while his brain is much smaller now, he is still a healthy individual with a normal life.
Viruses are incompetent but smart little things. Unable to make proteins on their own, they hijack ours for their own nefarious purposes. But what if we gave the viruses broken proteins? An incredibly rare genetic disorder in a brother and sister pair does exactly that, making them immune to many classes of viruses—and suggesting new possibilities for antiviral treatments.
The immunity to viruses for these siblings, however, comes at a cost. Their cases, reported recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, are only the second and third ever described of this rare genetic disorder. The first was in a baby who died at 74 days. The 11-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl in this report have suffered developmental delays, hearing loss, fragile bones, and a weakened immune system. That makes it all the more remarkable that they rarely got ear infections or the flu.
By collecting rainwater, students of the Technological University of Mexico (UNITEC) were able to generate electricity using a microturbine and supplying the vital liquid to homes in a poor community in Iztapalapa, in Mexico City.
This system is similar to that used in dams, which uses rainwater to rotate a microturbine and generate electricity. Currently, it is only possible to recharge portable 12 volt batteries, whose energy is sufficient to power LED lamps but not to provide power to the entire house.
The system called “Pluvia” collects rain from the roof of the house, where the surface must be adapted so the water will flow into a gutter, if unable to modify the ceiling, sheets to simulate a slope are added, routing fluid in one direction, said Omar Enrique Leyva Coca , who developed the project with Romel Brown and Gustavo Rivero Velázquez .
Today psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire announces the results of a two-year study into dream control. The experiment shows that it is now possible for people to create their perfect dream, and so wake up feeling especially happy and refreshed.
In 2010, Professor Wiseman teamed-up with app developers YUZA to create ‘Dream:ON’ — an iPhone app that monitors a person during sleep and plays a carefully crafted ‘soundscape’ when they dream. Each soundscape was carefully designed to evoke a pleasant scenario, such as a walk in the woods, or lying on a beach, and the team hoped that these sounds would influence people’s dreams. At the end of the dream, the app sounded a gentle alarm and prompted the person to submit a description of their dream.
The app was downloaded over 500,000 times and the researchers collected millions of dream reports. After studying the data, Professor Wiseman discovered that the soundscapes did indeed influence people’s dreams.
Richard Wiseman, professor in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “If someone chose the nature landscape then they were more likely to have a dream about greenery and flowers. In contrast, if they selected the beach soundscape then they were more likely to dream about the sun beating down on their skin.”
Inspired by natural materials such as bone — a matrix of minerals and other substances, including living cells — MIT engineers have coaxed bacterial cells to produce biofilms that can incorporate nonliving materials, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dots.
These “living materials” combine the advantages of live cells, which respond to their environment, produce complex biological molecules, and span multiple length scales, with the benefits of nonliving materials, which add functions such as conducting electricity or emitting light.
The new materials represent a simple demonstration of the power of this approach, which could one day be used to design more complex devices such as solar cells, self-healing materials, or diagnostic sensors, says Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering. Lu is the senior author of a paper describing the living functional materials in the March 23 issue of Nature Materials.
“Our idea is to put the living and the nonliving worlds together to make hybrid materials that have living cells in them and are functional,” Lu says. “It’s an interesting way of thinking about materials synthesis, which is very different from what people do now, which is usually a top-down approach.”
Here’s a good deed you can do without parting with a single thing. Synthetic voices for people who have lost the ability to speak only come in generic types—think of Stephen Hawking’s voice—but one fascinating project wants to build custom voices for each person. To do that they need your help: specifically, a recording of your voice.
VocalID is the brainchild of two speech scientists, who are turning their research into a much larger project. Voice is intensely personal and, like a prosthetic leg or arm, it makes sense it should be customized to each person.
Here’s how it works—and don’t worry, this does not mean someone will be walking around with the same voice as you out there:
After recording a couple hours of audio in, say, a quiet room with an iPhone, you send it to VocalID, where a program called ModelTalker chops it up into the basic units of speech that can be recombined as novel words and sentences. In that same step, characteristics of the patient’s voice—based on what limited sounds they can make—are blended in to the donor’s to create a whole new one. You can listen to how it works out on VocalID’s website.
VocalID is still in its beginning stages, and they’re looking for help from everyone including voice donors, financial support, and programmers. A priority is making voice donation even easier, cutting down recording time, especially for kids. But as it stands already, your voice is just about the easiest thing to donate.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Liebniz was a philosopher and mathematician in search of a model. In the late 1600s Leibniz decided there was a need for a new, purer arithmetic than our common decimal system. Leibniz discovered the model for this new arithmetic in the five-millennia-old book that is at the heart of Chinese philosophy: the I-Ching, or Book of Changes.
This ancient text was such an influence on Liebniz that he titled his article on the new arithmetic: “Explanation of the binary arithmetic, which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi”. Fu Xi was the legendary first author of the I-Ching. The arithmetic Liebniz described was binary code, which is used in almost every modern computer, from iPhones to China’s own Tihane-2 supercomputer.
To understand what Liebniz glimpsed in the I-Ching, we need to unlearn something that, in the digital era, most of us take for granted. When we listen to an MP3, look at a digital photo or watch the latest DVD box set of Game of Thrones, we are experiencing a digital representation of reality. That representation is basically just a string of binary signals that we commonly notate as 1s and 0s. Liebniz’s insight was that even the most complex aspect of reality could potentially be represented in the binary form as 1s and 0s.
It sounds like the next purposefully bad SyFy channel production: “Zombie moss! It came from beneath the Antarctic!” Researchers pulled up a sample of moss that had been sitting frozen for the last 1,500 years. Remarkably, it came back to life and started to grow again. This isn’t quite the same as an unfrozen caveman lawyer, but it’s pretty cool.
The moss sample came from a frozen core extracted from a moss bank in the Antarctic. It was sliced and placed in an incubator set to maintain normal light and temperature conditions geared for growth. A few weeks later, the sample began to grow. Carbon dating places the age of the moss at at least 1,530 years old.
Philip Rosedale, creator of Second Life, and Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, have created a way for you to see each thought as it flies through your mind. The Glass Brain project was on display at SXSW, and gave visitors a chance to see how their brains react to different stimuli.
For a long time, we’ve known that spider’s silk is the bee’s knees. It’s so incredibly dense and possesses such herculean strength that it can theoretically be used to create bulletproof skin (skin, not just vests). And it conducts heat far better than copper, our usual conductor. The stuff is five times as strong as steel, but harvesting large quantities of it proves difficult at best.
That’s changed, as we can now commercially produce spider’s silk. AMSilk has figurted out how to do it without having a billion black widows running around some horrible barn. That wouldn’t work anyway, since spiders are cannibalistic and angry creatures. They’d eat each other before creating enough silk to make a nice shirt, much less a bulletproof vest. Instead, the company uses something that’s almost equally horrifying: the bacteria E. coli! That’s right, AMSilk uses the bacteria known for horrible food poisoning to create a material that’s useful for all sorts of things.