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WHO committee calls for sharing of gene-editing tools with poorer nations – CTV News

§ July 17th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on WHO committee calls for sharing of gene-editing tools with poorer nations – CTV News

FRANKFURT -- A World Health Organization (WHO) committee said on Monday that human genome editing technologies to treat serious disease should be shared more generously, to allow poorer nations to benefit from the highly dynamic scientific field.

"WHO should work with others to encourage relevant patent holders to help ensure equitable access to human genome editing interventions," the 18-member committee said in a report.

Established in late 2018 after a Chinese scientist said he had edited the genes of twin babies, the committee of gene-editing experts was asked to make recommendations on national and international governance mechanisms for human genome editing.

Underlining the WHO's existing stance, the report strongly opposed making modifications to the genetic code in humans that would be passed on to future generations, known as heritable germline genome editing.

"No-one in their right mind should contemplate doing it because the techniques are simply not safe enough or efficient enough and we're not ready in terms of looking at all the ethical considerations," said Robin Lovell Badge of Britain's Francis Crick Institute, a committee member.

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What are GMOs? The truth about genetically-modified organisms and if they’re safe to eat – Insider

§ July 17th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on What are GMOs? The truth about genetically-modified organisms and if they’re safe to eat – Insider

For decades, scientists have been bioengineering foods like corn and soybeans to make them sturdier and safer from pests, among other traits.

Because GMOs are entirely new food products developed in a lab, many people are worried that they will harm their health, even though there's no evidence that they cause illness or disease. Here are the facts on GMOs and why they're safe to eat.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have genetic material that has been altered in a way that would not happen in nature if left to grow on its own.

That's because scientists take DNA for a specific desired trait from one organism, and insert it into another. This is different from conventional breeding, a practice thousands of years old, where farmers breed existing crops to be bigger or to produce more grain. These methods take more time and produce less precise results.

GMO foods are engineered to be:

So far, there is no evidence that GMOs harm human health.

One of the most comprehensive studies to date is one published in 2016 from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Researchers looked at 20 years of scientific research and found that among countries with wide adoption of GMOs, rates of illnesses were similar to countries with low adoption.

Further, the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Department of Agriculture regulate and test GMOs to make sure they are non-toxic and don't cause allergies or cancer, says Felicia Wu, PhD, distinguished professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University.

Importantly, just because a food is genetically modified doesn't mean it is nutritionally different from any other food. "After modifications to its genes, a crop or food produces a new protein. But once we consume that protein, we break it down in our digestive systems into amino acids just like any other protein. It doesn't change our DNA," Wu says.

Benefits of GMOs include:

Potential drawbacks of GMOS include:

According to a new law, any GMO food or product in the United States must be labeled with "bioengineered" effective January of 2022. Meanwhile, the European Union already requires all GMO foods to have labels, though Canada does not.

Important: All certified organic food in the US is GMO-free.

Most corn and soybean crops in the US are genetically modified, so they are commonly found in the American food supply, especially in processed foods like cereal and chips. Other common GMO foods include:

GMOs have been engineered in a laboratory to have specific characteristics that make them resistant to pesticides and insects, grow faster, and stay fresher longer.

Most of the corn and soybean crops in the US are genetically modified, along with some produce and salmon.

Despite consumer worries, decades of research and evidence suggest that eating GMOs does not pose a risk to human health. Scientists rigorously study GMO safety, and a number of government agencies inspect their research to make sure GMOs are safe before humans or animals eat them.

However, if you are concerned about the environmental or health impacts, you can shop organic food knowing it will be GMO-free.

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Book Review: Lessons Learned From the Wayward Brain – Undark Magazine

§ July 17th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Book Review: Lessons Learned From the Wayward Brain – Undark Magazine

When someone close to you develops signs of mental illness, you spring into detective mode. You ask questions, but the answers seem vague and incomplete. You scour your memory for any years-old signs, any warnings that might have seemed innocuous in the moment but raise red flags in retrospect.

You wonder: If anyone had noticed then, would things be different now? And if they refuse to seek treatment, you think, it doesnt have to be this way if only you could figure out how to break through.

If this sounds familiar, you might be interested in Projections: A Story of Human Emotions by Karl Deisseroth and A Sense of Self: Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are by Veronica OKeane, two recent entrants in the vast arena of nonfiction books that explore both the biology of mental illness and how the brain works in general. Both authors use patient stories as conduits to talk about advancements in neuroscience, illuminating the brains various structures and the connections between them.

BOOK REVIEW Projections: A Story of Human Emotions, by Karl Deisseroth (Random House, 256 pages).

Patient narratives across both books show that not all who receive psychiatric treatment survive the storm in their minds, while others regain a sense of themselves that was lost. And though scientists may be inconceivably far away from revealing how a 3-pound fatty organ in the skull gives rise to all the complexities of mental life, at least the questions can be well posed, as Deisseroth puts it.

Deisseroth, a professor at Stanford University, is best known for developing new and influential technologies for studying the brain. But in this book he draws from his work as an emergency psychiatrist at a hospital in Silicon Valley, and explores how confronting people in crisis influenced the way he investigates the brain in both humans and animals, potentially laying the groundwork for future clinical treatments. It is enthralling to consider: the experiences of suffering human beings, and thoughts about mouse and fish brains, are informing each other, he writes.

Presenting a cast of characters encountered in the cramped, windowless Room Eight of the hospital, Deisseroth reflects on a broad swath of his psychiatry experiences, from his residency in the early 2000s to his more recent patient work. His book resembles a series of connected short stories interwoven with recent findings from research on the neural circuits that give rise to mental illness. At times it may feel like reading fiction because it partly is Deisseroth freely uses his imagination in his portrayal of patients and their inner lives. But he pulls these threads together with his own memoir-ish voice, revealing the struggles, frustrations, and triumphs of someone driven to understand both the cold science of the brain and the hot mess of the mind.

A man loses his pregnant wife in a car accident and doesnt know why he cant cry. A patent lawyer believes her neighbor has installed a satellite dish to channel her thoughts. After a breakup, a 19-year-old begins cutting his arms. Deisseroth ends up in a dramatic chase when a patient slips out of the exam room, only to find shed gone to binge-eat and vomit. Unlike Psychology 101 disease prototypes, these feel like real people. And while theyre actually projections, filtered through the lens of a doctor who fictionalizes details to protect patients privacy, they are vivid reminders that mental health can be a fragile, elusive thing.

But psychotherapy and imagination arent the only ways Deisseroth peers into the brain. Seeking answers to tough questions that have confounded psychiatrists for decades, Deisseroth helped pioneer a technology called optogenetics. Once patients leave the hospital, Deisseroth has no control over their behavior, let alone their brains. But with optogenetics, he and other researchers can turn on and off individual neural circuits, or even neurons themselves at least, in laboratory animals.

In optogenetics, researchers hijack genes called microbial opsins from bacteria and algae and encode them in the brain cells of lab animals mostly mice, rats, and fish. These exotic genes lead to the creation of proteins with a special power to convert light to electrical current. Normally, most neurons dont turn on in the presence of light (although a 2019 study questions that assumption). But as a result of this feat of genetic engineering, scientists can activate individual brain cells by delivering light to them. With unprecedented precision, they can then investigate how different parts of the brain participate in both typical behaviors and symptoms of mental illness.

It is enthralling to consider: the experiences of suffering human beings, and thoughts about mouse and fish brains, are informing each other, Deisseroth writes.

The impact of optogenetics has been far-reaching in revealing the brains inner workings, at least in animal models. And after more than 15 years of laboratory study, its potential is moving into the human realm. In May 2021, too recent to make it into this book, scientists reported in Nature Medicine that a blind patient regained partial vision as a result of optogenetic therapy.

But in terms of innovations in psychiatric patient care, what are the lessons from optogenetics? A lot of this work is still in its infancy. Deisseroth says his laboratory research informs the psychiatric patient care that he continues to give, yet many of the landmark studies are about causations and chemical pathways in genetically modified mice, not humans. Scientists can model eating disorders in rodents, but no one is talking about removing the skull flaps of people with anorexia, genetically modifying particular brain cells and zapping them with light to restart the drive to eat normally. Nor might it be that simple. Yet there is some hope that by understanding the fundamental mechanisms at work, new treatments could one day be developed.

One of the most direct feedback loops between Deisseroths hospital and lab work is a patient named Charles, who changed Deisseroths thinking about autism. Charles comes to Deisseroth as a young information technology specialist who, among other social impairments, consistently avoids eye contact. One morning, Deisseroth asks him what makes him look away. Charles tells him, It overloads the rest of me.

This introspection is so profound to Deisseroth that he says it justifies his entire career progression: All the extra years of both MD and Ph.D. training, all the pain and personal challenges of internship, all the call nights as a single father, worrying about my lonely son. This alone was enough.

While information overload seems like an abstract concept, it could be rooted in too much firing of excitatory cells, which stimulate other neurons, compared to inhibitory cells, which do the opposite. In 2011, Deisseroths team used optogenetics to increase the activity of excitatory cells in the prefrontal cortex of mice, which appeared to cause them to be less social with other mice. This part of the book is a bit technical, but the bottom line is that an imbalance in cellular activity could play a role in the asocial behaviors associated with autism.

Tantalizingly, it appears that this imbalance might be corrected. In 2017, Deisseroths team reversed social impairment in mice carrying genetic mutations associated with autism through opposite methods in the prefrontal cortex making inhibitory cells fire more, or lowering the activity in excitatory cells. In fact, such experiments suggest that social avoidance can be turned on or off in adult mice, a revelation that may generate new hope for future interventions in adult humans.

BOOK REVIEW A Sense of Self: Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are, by Veronica OKeane (W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pages).

Deisseroths most compelling narratives detail brief encounters with patients in vulnerable, distressing circumstances. Veronica OKeane, on the other hand, describes longer-term relationships with her patients in A Sense of Self: Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are although patient stories take more of a backseat to science in this book. She is a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, and has been practicing for more than 30 years. Like all psychiatrists, as a patient once said to me, I am like a detective, she writes.

OKeane draws from her clinical experiences to offer a comprehensive tour of the current state of knowledge about how memory operates in the brain. Individuals with psychiatric illnesses have a great deal to tell neuroscience, and the larger world, about the processes involved in the organization of memory, she writes.

A Sense of Self at times reads like a textbook, complete with a few diagrams. Anyone who has read a neuroscience book previously will recognize H.M., who was famously unable to form new memories after undergoing brain surgery, as well as Phineas Gage, who was impaled with an iron rod and how the tragic circumstances of their impairments taught the fledging field of neuroscience a lot about what does what in the brain.

But what makes OKeanes book engaging is how she incorporates references to literature and folklore, putting a different spin on familiar stories like Lewis Carrolls Through the Looking- Glass, in which Alices adventures closely mimic feelings of psychosis.

Another is Charlotte Perkins Gilmans 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper, about a woman trapped in the wall of her bedroom. Its often portrayed as a tale of the oppression of women at that time, but OKeane has a different take: Its a perfect description of experience of what we now call postpartum psychosis, she writes.

Postpartum psychosis, a condition seldom spoken about, can make otherwise healthy new mothers lose sight of what is real and what is not. Perkins Gilman herself experienced postpartum psychosis, and years later, after her cancer treatments failed, ended her own life in 1935.

OKeane describes a patient, Edith, who developed delusions about her baby being an imposter, as well as her own husband. With the help of antipsychotic medications, Edith heals and comes back to reality. Yet she still feels terror when she sees the gravestone that she had believed to be the site of her babys burial the memories are real, she tells the author. This distinction set me on a long-term pathway of inquiry about the nature of the matter of memory, OKeane writes.

Some who suffer psychosis are so accustomed to the voices in their heads and other delusions that they decline medicine to make them go away. They feel scared to let go of their inner lives and participate in the same reality that others share.

Like much of life, mental health can be seen as a matter of achieving some kind of equilibrium. Everyone, psychotic or not, operates by balancing ones inner world full of thoughts, feelings, and memories with the external world and all of the stuff of society. If there is anything that I have learned from my work with mentally ill patients it is that the achievement of an easy equilibrium between oneself and the world is what determines ones happiness, OKeane writes.

As it happens, OKeane also briefly touches on innovations in optogenetics. She focuses on an experiment by Susumu Tonegawa using optogenetics to implant false memories in mice, which I covered as a CNN reporter in 2013. By genetically altering neurons and shining blue light on them, scientists made mice believe they had been shocked in one chamber, even though they were shocked in a different chamber. The mice eventually froze up in fear even when the researchers were not activating the memory in their brains.

OKeanes take on this research is that artificial modification of memory is fascinating, but that in some sense the mouse memories arent false because the neural matter of the experience is formed regardless. Just as Edith regarded her hallucinations about her babys death as real memories, these mice have real memories of something that never occurred. Edith brought home to me how memory is, in essence, neurally coded experience, OKeane writes.

As we go about our lives, according to OKeane, we tag experiences with emotions, which are then triggered later as we are reminded of them, but we never re-live them in quite the same way. Is there ever a boundaried memory untouched by the present, like a walled cement garden? she writes. The answer in her view is decidedly no, for each time we recall a moment, it is colored by who we have become since it happened.

If there is anything that I have learned from my work with mentally ill patients it is that the achievement of an easy equilibrium between oneself and the world is what determines ones happiness, OKeane writes.

OKeanes book will be useful for anyone looking for a deep dive into how memory works, but it is not as much of a page-turner as Projections. Still, I was moved by both authors concerns for their patients and acknowledgement that science has only scratched the surface of learning how psychiatric illness works at a fundamental level in the brain. The double-edged sword here is that you are not alone, but also, no one really understands.

Yet, there is hope. The stories in both works reveal a range of humanity that is barely understood by people who devote their lives to the study of mental illness and is often stigmatized by those who do not. They are in some sense thank-you notes to the patients who have taught the authors about the nature of the brain and given them more to investigate in the future.

And while a person battling with delusions of paranoia may seem far removed from academic papers on genetically engineered mice, both authors argue that the gap between laboratory insights and clinical practice is narrowing. As this science develops, psychiatric illness will become a major target of investigation, and I believe this will be the beginning of the ending of the stigmatization of psychiatric illness, OKeane writes.

An important caveat here, she adds, is that most of my patients do not feel similarly optimistic.

Elizabeth Landau is a science journalist and communicator living in Washington, D.C. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Quanta Magazine, Smithsonian, and Wired, among other publications. Find her on Twitter at @lizlandau.

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Replication of COVID-19 Virus Can Be Blocked Using CRISPR, Early Lab Tests Show – IFLScience

§ July 17th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Replication of COVID-19 Virus Can Be Blocked Using CRISPR, Early Lab Tests Show – IFLScience

Researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to use the CRISPR gene-editing tool to stop SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, from replicating in infected human cells. The demonstration was done in culture cells in the lab so it is not a forthcoming treatment yet, but this approach could be revolutionary in the medium and long term.

As reported in Nature Communications, the team used the enzyme CRISPR-Cas13b to bind itself to the part of the virus genetic code its RNA used for replication. The enzyme degrades this bit of information leaving the virus unable to replicate.

The flexibility of CRISPR-Cas13 which only needs the viral sequence means we can look to rapidly design antivirals for COVID-19 and any new emerging viruses, senior author Professor Sharon Lewin, from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Australia, said in a statement.

CRISPR has been studied as a way to change pieces of DNA so that certain diseases can be treated and even prevented. It is employed in the creation of genetically modified plants and animals, although its use in humans is still limited and, in some cases, controversial. Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr Jennifer Doudna have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of CRISPR.

Using CRISPR to attack viruses is an interesting approach. The team demonstrated that their approach is capable of dealing with the original version of the virus as well as the alpha variant. It is also effective ininhibiting versions of the virusthat haveminute mutations that differ from what they have been trained against.

This ability might make it incredibly versatile as a treatment against not just this virus but maybe future versions as well. It could also be applied to other viruses and might be a way to create a treatment for viruses as soon as they begin to spread in humans.

Unlike conventional anti-viral drugs, the power of this tool lies in its design-flexibility and adaptability, which make it a suitable drug against a multitude of pathogenic viruses including influenza, Ebola, and possibly HIV, lead author Dr Mohamed Fareh, from the University of Melbourne explained.

While the promise of this approach is exciting, it is important and unfortunate to remember that treatments in humans using CRISPR are likely years away. Given the success of the in-vitro approach, the team is now planning animal studies and then hopefully moving onto clinical trials in humans.

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Debate rages about glyphosate-based herbicides, but farmers around the world use them – Columbia Missourian

§ July 17th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Debate rages about glyphosate-based herbicides, but farmers around the world use them – Columbia Missourian

As North America enters its peak summer growing season, gardeners are planting and weeding and groundskeepers are mowing parks and playing fields. Many are using the popular weed killer Roundup, which is widely available at stores like Home Depot and Target.

In the past two years, three U.S. juries have awarded multimillion-dollar verdicts to plaintiffs who asserted that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Bayer, a German chemical company, bought Roundups inventor, Monsanto, in 2018 and inherited some 125,000 pending lawsuits, of which it has settled all but about 30,000. The company is now considering ending U.S. retail sales of Roundup to reduce the risk of further lawsuits from residential users, who have been the main source of legal claims.

As scholars who study global trade, food systems and their effects on the environment, we see a bigger story: Generic glyphosate is ubiquitous around the globe. Farmers use it on a majority of the worlds agricultural fields. Humans spray enough glyphosate to coat every acre of farmland in the world with half a pound of it every year.

Glyphosate is now showing up in humans, but scientists are still debating its health effects. One thing is clear, though: Because its an effective and very cheap weedkiller, it has become pervasive.

Research on glyphosates possible human health effects in inconclusive, but concern is rising over its heavy use worldwide.

When glyphosate was commercialized under the Roundup brand name in 1974, it was widely viewed as safe. Monsanto scientists claimed that it would not harm people or other nontarget organisms and did not persist in soil and water. Scientific reviews determined that it did not build up in animal tissue.

Glyphosate killed more target weed species than any other herbicide before or since. Farmers started spraying it on fields to prepare for the next cropping cycle.

In the 1990s, Monsanto began packaging glyphosate with crops that were genetically modified to be resistant to it, including corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Farmers who used these Roundup Ready seeds could apply a single herbicide to manage weeds during the growing season, saving time and simplifying production decisions. Roundup became the highest-selling and most profitable herbicide ever to appear on the global market.

In the late 1990s, as the last patents for glyphosate expired, the generic pesticide industry began to offer low-cost versions. In Argentina, for example, prices dropped from $40 per liter in the 1980s to $3 in 2000.

In the mid-1990s, China began to manufacture pesticides. Weak environmental, safety and health regulations and energetic promotion policies initially made Chinese glyphosate very cheap.

China still dominates the pesticide industry it exported 46% of all herbicides worldwide in 2018 but now other countries are getting into the business, including Malaysia and India. Pesticides used to flow from Europe and North America to developing nations, but now developing countries export many pesticides to wealthy nations. More pesticide factories in more places leads to oversupply and even lower prices, with critical implications for human health and the environment.

Thanks to cheap globalized manufacturing, glyphosate has become ubiquitous on farmland worldwide and in human bodies. Researchers have detected it in the urine of children in remote villages in Laos and babies in New York and Seattle.

The question of whether glyphosate causes cancer in humans has been hotly debated. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, classified it as a probable human carcinogen based on limited evidence of cancer in humans from actual real-world exposures and sufficient evidence of cancer in experimental animals.

There also are questions about possible linkages between glyphosate and other human health problems. A 2019 study found that children whose mothers experienced prenatal exposure to glyphosate had a significantly higher risk of autism spectrum disorder than a control population.

Studies have found that glyphosate causes liver and kidney damage in rats and alters honey bees gut microbiomes. Mice exposed to it have shown increased disease, obesity and birth abnormalities three generations after the exposure. Although glyphosate breaks down in the environment relatively quickly, it is present in aquatic systems at a volume large enough to be detected in blood samples from Florida manatees.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority maintain that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and does not threaten human health when used according to the manufacturers directions.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the world community adopted several groundbreaking agreements to restrict or monitor sales and use of hazardous pesticides. These agreements the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions target compounds that are either acutely toxic or persist in the environment and accumulate in animals, including humans. Glyphosate does not appear to meet these criteria, but humans may be more exposed to it because of its ubiquity in soil and water and on food.

Today a handful of countries, including Luxembourg and Mexico, have banned or restricted the use of glyphosate, citing health concerns. In most countries, however, it remains legal with few restrictions.

Scientists are unlikely to reach consensus soon about glyphosates health and environmental impacts. But that has also been true of other pesticides.

For example, DDT which is still used in developing countries to control mosquitoes that spread malaria and other diseases was banned in the U.S. in 1972 for its effects on wildlife and potential harm to humans. But it was not thought to cause cancer in humans until 2015, when scientists analyzed data from women whose mothers were exposed to DDT while pregnant in the 1960s, and found that these women were more than four times as likely to develop breast cancer than others who were not exposed. This study was published 65 years after the first congressional testimony on DDTs human health impacts.

In 1946, health officials who believed incorrectly that polio was spread by insects ordered widespread fogging with DDT in San Antonio, Texas, decades before the pesticides health and environmental effects were understood.

Science can take a long time to reach conclusive results. Given how widely glyphosate is used now, we expect that if it is definitively found to harm human health, its effects will be widespread, difficult to isolate and extremely challenging to regulate.

And finding a cheap silver bullet to safely replace it could be hard. Many substitutes on the market today are more acutely toxic. Nonetheless, theres a need for better options, because weeds are developing resistance to glyphosate.

In our view, growing concerns about glyphosates effectiveness and possible health impacts should accelerate research into alternative solutions to chemical weed control. Without more public support for these efforts, farmers will turn to more toxic herbicides. Glyphosate looks cheap now, but its true costs could turn out to be much higher.

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These 12 individuals have a rare genetic quirk that prevents ‘self-eating’ in cells – Livescience.com

§ July 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on These 12 individuals have a rare genetic quirk that prevents ‘self-eating’ in cells – Livescience.com

Scientists uncovered a rare genetic quirk in 12 people, from five different families, that leaves their cells unable to properly recycle their worn-out parts. Such mutations could be lethal, but these individuals have survived and instead live with neurodevelopmental conditions.

Normally, cells dispose of broken internal machinery, dysfunctional proteins, toxins and pathogens through a process called autophagy, which translates from Greek as "self-eating." In the process, cells package all their trash into special bags, called autophagosomes, which then fuse with the cell's garbage disposal, the lysosome. Lysosomes contain digestive enzymes that break down all the trash so that the component parts can be reused by the cell.

In humans, when autophagy goes awry, the subsequent buildup of cellular junk can contribute to various diseases, from neurodegenerative disorders to cancer, according to a 2020 report in the New England Journal of Medicine. This dysfunction can occur when mutations crop up in one of about 20 key genes involved in autophagy.

Related: 5 ways your cells deal with stress

And according to animal studies, if any of these 20 genes are severely impaired or completely disabled, it's usually impossible for the animal to survive. For instance, genetically modified mouse pups born without an essential autophagy gene called ATG7 die within 24 hours of birth, according to various reports. And deleting the same gene from adult mice causes them to die of infection or neurodegeneration within months, according to a 2014 report in the journal Cancer Discovery.

"The studies from mice suggest you can't live without them," meaning the 20 core genes, said senior author Robert Taylor, a professor of mitochondrial pathology at Newcastle University in England. "So, we thought that was the same in humans." But now, Taylor and his team have identified 12 people with defective ATG7 genes that leave them with little to none of the protein that the gene encodes, they reported June 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

The ATG7 protein jumpstarts the process of building autophagosomes, the cell's special garbage bags, supposedly making it crucial to the entire autophagy process. The fact that the 12 identified individuals have survived, albeit with neurological disorders, "tells us something, that there is something that we don't know yet about autophagy biology that must be compensating for this process in humans," Taylor said.

"An obvious question is what allows these patients to survive so long with greatly diminished autophagic capacity?" said Daniel Klionsky, a cell biologist and professor at the University of Michigan's Life Sciences Institute, who was not involved in the study. If other mechanisms do compensate for the lack of ATG7, the next step is to identify them and determine whether those mechanisms can be manipulated as a form of treatment for such genetic disorders, Klionsky told Live Science in an email.

Since mutations in autophagy-related genes often have lethal consequences, "it is difficult to find an adequate number of patients to have meaningful results" when researching such genetic changes in humans, Klionsky noted. The fact that the team was able to find this number of people with ATG7 mutations "makes the findings more robust," he said.

The researchers found the first two study participants through a clinic that specializes in mitochondrial diseases, as some of their symptoms seemed consistent with mitochondrial conditions, Taylor said. The patients two sisters whose respective ages were 28 and 18 both showed mild-to-moderate learning difficulties, muscle weakness and a lack of coordination, known as ataxia, as well as hearing loss, eye abnormalities and facial dysmorphisms.

Brain scans taken of the elder sister revealed cerebellar hypoplasia, a condition where the cerebellum, located behind the brainstem, fails to develop properly. This region of the brain is critical for coordinating movement. The corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the two halves of the brain, also appeared unusually thin toward the back of the brain.

In seeing the shared symptoms between the sisters and striking brain scans from the eldest, "We realized that the best way to approach this was genetically, and we took it from there," Taylor said. The team found that both sisters carried recessive mutations in the ATG7 gene that greatly reduced or eliminated its ability to make ATG7 protein.

"And we thought, 'This can't be right,'" given the disastrous effects of ATG7 deficiencies seen in mice, Taylor said. "And yet we were able to show ... that actually, we can't detect ATG7 in the muscle [or] in the cells that we've grown from the first family." Hoping to better understand these counterintuitive results, the team went in search for more individuals with similar ATG7 mutations to the sisters.

Related: Genetics by the numbers: 10 tantalizing tales

"You can't make a compelling case with one family," whereas finding several families with the same combination of genetic mutations and clinical symptoms would strengthen their findings, Taylor said. "Then you start to kind of do the detective work that puts all this together and makes you think, 'We're onto something.'"

So the study's lead author Jack Collier, then a doctoral student in Taylor's lab, used an online tool called GeneMatcher to find the 10 other patients in the researchs cohort of 12. The tool, developed with support from the Baylor-Hopkins Center for Mendelian Genomics, is intended to connect patients, researchers and clinicians with an interest in the same genes.

Through GeneMatcher, the team identified four more families, located in France, Switzerland, Germany and Saudi Arabia. The family members who carried ATG7 mutations ranged from 6 weeks to 71 years in age and showed a similar suite of neurological symptoms, although the severity of the symptoms varied between individuals. In general, the patients showed neurodevelopmental deficits, facial dysmorphisms and ataxia. One or more patients from each family also underwent brain scans, and like the first patient, had underdeveloped cerebellums and thin corpus callosums.

In all but the first two patients, the team found some residual ATG7 protein in sampled muscle cells, as well as in fibroblasts cells in connective tissue that secrete collagen that the team grew from patient samples. And even in the first two sisters, some proteins involved in autophagy still cropped up in their cells, albeit in very low quantities. This hinted that the individuals' genetic mutations didn't completely suppress autophagy.

Looking closer at the mutations, the researchers found that each patient carried slightly different variations of the ATG7 gene, Taylor said. A mutation occurs when one DNA building block is swapped out for another, and the location of this swap along the DNA strand determines how the mutation will change the resulting protein. Using computer models, the team mapped out where all the patients' mutations appeared and found a general theme: The mutations cropped up in highly conserved portions of the DNA sequence, meaning they're usually the same across a wide range of organisms, from yeast to mice to humans.

In fact, the ATG7 gene is highly conserved in all eukaryotic cells the complex cells that make up animals, plants, fungi and protists. Because of this, the team could test how mouse and yeast cells were affected by the mutations seen in the human patients. In lab dish studies, the mutations reduced or eliminated autophagy in both mouse and yeast cells, strengthening the case that the same was happening in the human patients' bodies.

"It is difficult to carry out experiments with humans," Klionsky said. "Certainly, the inclusion of data from mouse and yeast studies makes the results much stronger."

Related: How to speak genetics: A glossary

That said, many questions about these mysterious mutations remain unanswered. Namely, how do people survive when their cells can't "eat themselves" through the usual means?

The cells must be dealing with dysfunctional proteins and broken machinery to some degree, "because accumulations of cellular 'junk' was not observed," Ian Ganley, a principal investigator whose lab studies autophagy at the University of Dundee in Scotland, wrote in a commentary in NEJM. This indicates that some other mechanism fills in for the lack of ATG7-related autophagy, Ganley wrote.

Identifying such mechanisms will be key to developing treatments to syndromes where autophagy is impaired, whether due to a genetic quirk as described in the new study or in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, he added. Such treatments could include drugs that boost the activity of these alternative mechanisms, helping cells to rid themselves of junk more efficiently, Taylor said. Another option could be gene therapy, where working copies of faulty autophagy genes are inserted into the genome to replace the mutant versions, Klionsky said.

For now, Taylor and his team plan to run experiments in cells to better understand how the mutations impact specific tissues, such as the brain and muscles, Taylor said. To this end, the team has already begun developing a line of induced pluripotent stem cells those that can mature into any cell in the body from patient samples. With those stem cells, the researchers can create fibroblasts and brain cells to see how the mutation impacts those cells.

"At the moment, we're still trying to understand some of the biology but want to do that in a relevant system," Taylor said. Only then can the team tackle the question of which potential treatments might be able to boost autophagy when it falters.

Originally published on Live Science.

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While debate rages over glyphosate-based herbicides, farmers are spraying them all over the world – The Conversation US

§ July 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on While debate rages over glyphosate-based herbicides, farmers are spraying them all over the world – The Conversation US

As North America enters its peak summer growing season, gardeners are planting and weeding, and groundskeepers are mowing parks and playing fields. Many are using the popular weed killer Roundup, which is widely available at stores like Home Depot and Target.

In the past two years, three U.S. juries have awarded multimillion-dollar verdicts to plaintiffs who asserted that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Bayer, a German chemical company, bought Roundups inventor, Monsanto, in 2018 and inherited some 125,000 pending lawsuits, of which it has settled all but about 30,000. The company is now considering ending U.S. retail sales of Roundup to reduce the risk of further lawsuits from residential users, who have been the main source of legal claims.

As scholars who study global trade, food systems and their effects on the environment, we see a bigger story: Generic glyphosate is ubiquitous around the globe. Farmers use it on a majority of the worlds agricultural fields. Humans spray enough glyphosate to coat every acre of farmland in the world with half a pound of it every year.

Glyphosate is now showing up in humans, but scientists are still debating its health effects. One thing is clear, though: Because its an effective and very cheap weedkiller, it has become pervasive.

When glyphosate was commercialized under the Roundup brand name in 1974, it was widely viewed as safe. Monsanto scientists claimed that it would not harm people or other nontarget organisms and did not persist in soil and water. Scientific reviews determined that it did not build up in animal tissue.

Glyphosate killed more target weed species than any other herbicide before or since. Farmers started spraying it on fields to prepare for the next cropping cycle.

In the 1990s Monsanto began packaging glyphosate with crops that were genetically modified to be resistant to it, including corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Farmers who used these Roundup Ready seeds could apply a single herbicide to manage weeds during the growing season, saving time and simplifying production decisions. Roundup became the highest-selling and most profitable herbicide ever to appear on the global market.

In the late 1990s, as the last patents for glyphosate expired, the generic pesticide industry began to offer low-cost versions. In Argentina, for example, prices dropped from $40 per liter in the 1980s to $3 in 2000.

In the mid-1990s, China began to manufacture pesticides. Weak environmental, safety and health regulations and energetic promotion policies initially made Chinese glyphosate very cheap.

China still dominates the pesticide industry it exported 46% of all herbicides worldwide in 2018 but now other countries are getting into the business, including Malaysia and India. Pesticides used to flow from Europe and North America to developing nations, but now developing countries export many pesticides to wealthy nations. More pesticide factories in more places leads to oversupply and even lower prices, with critical implications for human health and the environment.

Thanks to cheap globalized manufacturing, glyphosate has become ubiquitous on farmland worldwide and in human bodies. Researchers have detected it in the urine of children in remote villages in Laos and babies in New York and Seattle.

The question of whether glyphosate causes cancer in humans has been hotly debated. In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, classified it as a probable human carcinogen based on limited evidence of cancer in humans from actual real-world exposures and sufficient evidence of cancer in experimental animals.

There also are questions about possible linkages between glyphosate and other human health problems. A 2019 study found that children whose mothers experienced prenatal exposure to glyphosate had a significantly higher risk of autism spectrum disorder than a control population.

Studies have found that glyphosate causes liver and kidney damage in rats and alters honey bees gut microbiomes. Mice exposed to it have shown increased disease, obesity and birth abnormalities three generations after the exposure. Although glyphosate breaks down in the environment relatively quickly, it is present in aquatic systems at a volume large enough to be detected in blood samples from Florida manatees.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority maintain that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and does not threaten human health when used according to the manufacturers directions.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the world community adopted several groundbreaking agreements to restrict or monitor sales and use of hazardous pesticides. These agreements the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions target compounds that are either acutely toxic or persist in the environment and accumulate in animals, including humans. Glyphosate does not appear to meet these criteria, but humans may be more exposed to it because of its ubiquity in soil and water and on food.

Today a handful of countries, including Luxembourg and Mexico, have banned or restricted the use of glyphosate, citing health concerns. In most countries, however, it remains legal with few restrictions.

Scientists are unlikely to reach consensus soon about glyphosates health and environmental impacts. But that has also been true of other pesticides.

For example, DDT which is still used in developing countries to control mosquitoes that spread malaria and other diseases was banned in the U.S. in 1972 for its effects on wildlife and potential harm to humans. But it was not thought to cause cancer in humans until 2015, when scientists analyzed data from women whose mothers were exposed to DDT while pregnant in the 1960s, and found that these women were more than four times as likely to develop breast cancer than others who were not exposed. This study was published 65 years after the first congressional testimony on DDTs human health impacts.

Science can take a long time to reach conclusive results. Given how widely glyphosate is used now, we expect that if it is definitively found to harm human health, its effects will be widespread, difficult to isolate and extremely challenging to regulate.

And finding a cheap silver bullet to safely replace it could be hard. Many substitutes on the market today are more acutely toxic. Nonetheless, theres a need for better options, because weeds are developing resistance to glyphosate.

In our view, growing concerns about glyphosates effectiveness and possible health impacts should accelerate research into alternative solutions to chemical weed control. Without more public support for these efforts, farmers will turn to more toxic herbicides. Glyphosate looks cheap now, but its true costs could turn out to be much higher.

This article has been updated to remove a reference to glyphosate detection in breast milk, which was based on a study that was not peer-reviewed.

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Beer yeast genetically engineered to detect and treat gut inflammation – New Atlas

§ July 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Beer yeast genetically engineered to detect and treat gut inflammation – New Atlas

Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital have engineered yeast used in baking, wine-making and brewing to treat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The microbes have been modified to secrete an anti-inflammatory molecule in response to signs of gut inflammation and has proven effective in preclinical tests.

Our gut microbiome is increasingly implicated in everything from cancer to neurodegenerative disease but it is still unclear exactly how we can translate these novel findings into clinical treatments. Fecal transplants are probably the most primitive microbiome-modifying treatment we have developed, while probiotics simply rely on upping specific levels of naturally occurring bacteria.

Perhaps the most futurist microbiome therapy under investigation is the idea of genetically engineered probiotics. Here researchers modify bacteria to either eat up molecules we dont want in our body or secrete molecules we know have positive therapeutic effects.

Over the last few years a variety of preliminary studies have demonstrated engineered bacteria killing colorectal cancer, treating diabetes, and clearing out excess ammonia. Now a new study, published in Nature Medicine, is demonstrating how a CRISPR-engineered yeast can detect gut inflammation and treat it.

"We've taken yeast the very yeast that's used to make beer and we've given it the ability to sense inflammation and secrete an anti-inflammatory molecule," explains corresponding author Francisco Quintana. "We call this new platform 'Y-bots' (yeast robots) and see the potential here for developing therapeutics that can treat diseases of the gut tissue and more."

The researchers describe the engineered yeast as self-tunable, meaning the secretion of its anti-inflammatory molecule is directly linked with detectable levels of a different pro-inflammatory molecule. So the microbes hypothetically should be able to deliver localized inflammatory treatments depending on the signals it receives in the gut. No inflammation equals no secreted medication, lots of inflammation equals lots of anti-inflammatory metabolites.

As with most similar engineered bacteria experiments the research is still in preclinical stages. The new study details tests in IBD mouse models showing the engineered yeast does effectively suppress gut inflammation with an efficacy similar to or higher than current treatments. But no human trials have been embarked upon thus far.

Those interested in filling their gut with these designer probiotics shouldnt hold their breath. These kinds of treatments are still years away from clinical applications, with many not even up to the stage of safety testing in humans.

But, thinking about what medicine could look like in a few decades time, these kinds of engineered microbes present us with a fascinating futurist idea. Beyond just gut inflammation, microbes could hypothetically be modified to both diagnose many diseases and produce any number of different metabolites as treatments.

"We want to use the tools of synthetic biology to engineer what can be found in nature," says Quintana. "By engineering probiotics, our goal is to create more personalized, localized and highly controlled medications for treating diseases of the gut and beyond."

The new study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Source: Brigham and Womens Hospital

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The Recovery Room: News beyond the pandemic July 2 Medical News Today – Medical News Today

§ July 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on The Recovery Room: News beyond the pandemic July 2 Medical News Today – Medical News Today

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated the headlines and our daily lives for more than a year. Medical News Today has covered this fast-moving, complex story with live updates on the latest news, interviews with experts, and an ongoing investigation into the deep racial disparities that COVID-19 has helped unmask.

However, this has not stopped us from publishing hundreds of fascinating stories on a myriad of other topics.

In this final edition of the Recovery Room, we begin with the third edition in our series of articles that seeks to find out whats exciting cancer researchers. Together, these articles provide an essential insight into emerging treatments and diagnostic techniques. Youll find links to all three below.

We also look at food addiction, one of the most controversial topics in nutrition. Some people claim to be addicted to coffee, but, as another of our recent articles shows, this may not be a bad thing, as drinking any type of coffee reduces the risk of a range of liver diseases.

This weeks selected articles also include news of the discovery of an ancient strain of the bacteria that went on to cause the Black Death in medieval Europe, evidence of the physiological damage that homophobia causes, and MNTs evidence-backed guide to the healthiest herbs and spices.

We highlight this research below, along with several other recent stories that you may have missed amid all the COVID-19 fervor.

We begin with the second part ofMNTs report from the front lines of cancer research. Inpart one and part two, we spoke with scientists working on immunotherapies, magnetically responsive bacteria, personalized medicine, and more.

This week, we learn about the latest advances in chimeric antigen receptor technology T-cell (CAR-T) therapy, how artificial intelligence may make cancer surgery more precise, and how swimming microrobots may revolutionize targeted drug delivery.

The final article in the series is every bit as fascinating as parts one and two. If you enjoyed them, you might also find our recent feature on whats exciting dementia researchers interesting.

Learn more about the latest cancer research.

This week, Honest Nutrition tackled one of the most controversial topics in nutrition: Is it really possible to become addicted to food?

In it, we first look at the definition of food addiction and how it compares with addiction to other substances, such as illicit drugs. Then, we take a deep dive into the science of compulsive overeating, including its roots in the brains reward system, the foods most likely to stimulate it, and its underlying psychology.

Whether compulsive eating qualifies as a true addiction, which foods cause it, and whether it is a cause or symptom of obesity are all hotly debated, as you will see.

We also offer advice on how to give up unwanted eating behaviors, including where to seek help, and explain why small adjustments to behavior may be more effective than drastic changes.

Learn more about food addiction.

Scientists have discovered a new class of drugs that prevents the repair of damaged DNA. POLQ inhibitors can kill cancerous cells that have a BRCA mutation, but, crucially, they appear to leave healthy cells unharmed. The researchers are, therefore, hopeful that POLQ inhibitors will cause fewer side effects than their predecessors.

However, researchers have only demonstrated this in laboratory-based experiments using animals and miniature organs called organoids. Clinical trials are now necessary to determine whether the potential benefits of the new drugs still apply in humans.

Learn more about the new POLQ inhibitor drugs.

A new study involving nearly 500,000 participants has shown that drinking any kind of coffee including decaffeinated coffee reduces a persons risk of developing liver problems.

Drinking 34 cups per day provided the greatest protection against chronic liver disease, fatty liver disease, liver cancer, and death from chronic liver disease. The greatest reduction in risk occurred with coffee made from ground beans. However, this study does not examine the mechanisms behind how coffee benefits the liver, so researchers need to carry out more trials to find which molecules are responsible.

This article was one of our most popular this week, having had more than 68,000 page views so far.

Learn more about coffee and liver disease.

Do weight loss supplements actually work? According to a new systematic review of randomized controlled trials, there is no high quality evidence that they do. However, despite the study finding that none of the tested products were effective, the worldwide annual sales of weight loss supplements total $30 billion.

To learn more about how the researchers conducted the study, which weight loss supplements they reviewed, and the difference between statistical and clinical significance, click below.

Learn more about the effectiveness of weight loss supplements.

What are the best ways to reduce a persons cholesterol levels, and how long does it take? This was the topic of another popular article this week, which also looks at what cholesterol is, normal and high cholesterol levels, and how this substance affects health.

Cholesterol-lowering drugs can reduce the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad, cholesterol in 68 weeks, though it may sometimes take longer. Our editorial team also looks at which changes to a persons habits may gradually and consistently lower their LDL levels over time, including eating a balanced diet and becoming more active.

Learn more about ways to reduce cholesterol.

Are branded drugs better than cheaper generic drugs? MNT looked at the differences and weighed the evidence this week.

One analysis of reports found that generic drugs may not have the same clinical effect for cardiovascular conditions and associated them with a higher risk of hospital visits. However, this was only a correlation rather than proof that generic drugs played a role in the increased hospital visits. It may be that some of the people taking the generic drug in larger quantities were already predisposed to worse health outcomes.

Although more research is necessary to determine whether branded drugs are better than generic versions for certain conditions, the American College of Physicians says that doctors should prescribe the generic when it is available.

Learn more about the difference between generic and branded drugs.

The bacteria that caused the Black Death, Yersinia pestis, appeared in humans 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to new research that MNT reported on this week.

The remains of a 5,000-year-old hunter-gather found in present-day Latvia yielded the oldest strain of Y. pestis that scientists have yet discovered. The circumstances of his burial indicate that this strain was less contagious and deadly than the strain that afflicted Europe in the Middle Ages.

Researchers now hope that studying the genetic differences between this ancient strain of Y. pestis and the strains responsible for more recent outbreaks may help reveal how zoonotic diseases adapt to their hosts over time.

Learn more here.

What is the effect of homophobia on the physical health of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people who experience it? According to a new study involving LGB people, the effects include elevated heart rate and heart rate variability, increased systolic blood pressure, and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. These effects may explain why LGB individuals suffer disproportionately from a variety of health problems.

The researchers simulated homophobia using an experimental scenario in which a prerecorded, unseen questioner interviewed 134 LGB volunteers. They led one group of the participants all of whom thought that they were watching the interviews live to believe that the interviewer held homophobic attitudes, while the other group believed that the interviewer held positive attitudes toward LGB people and LGB rights.

The first group experienced a more significant and long lasting increase in heart rate, systolic blood pressure, and salivary cortisol levels.

Learn more about the effect of homophobia on physiological health.

Finally, this week, we published a new article looking at the herbs and spices that evidence shows may have health benefits for some people. The evidence that any of these herbs and spices can cure diseases is lacking, but it appears that they may help improve certain symptoms and contribute to a persons overall long-term health.

In the article, MNT weighs the evidence for the benefits of turmeric, ginger, cumin, peppermint, echinacea, cinnamon, chili powder, parsley, oregano, and cardamom. As well as being beneficial for health, these seasonings often make delicious additions to a wide range of recipes. To discover which herbs and spices may deliver which specific benefits, click below.

Learn more about the health benefits of these herbs and spices.

This is the final edition of the Recovery Room for now. We hope we have succeeded in providing a taste of the variety of topics that MNT covered over the past year.

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Get the females and beat the disease – Mint

§ June 20th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Get the females and beat the disease – Mint

But I also thought of mosquitoes.

Now I have never been to Florida. But the state is known for its mosquitoes. The humorist Dave Barry lives there and has often mentioned the insects in his columns: ... as the Sun set, we experienced a sensation that I will never forget: The sensation of being landed on by every mosquito in the Western Hemisphere. There were so many of them that they needed Air Traffic Control mosquitoes to give directions."

Long story short: Florida has swarms of mosquitoes. They are constantly biting residents of and visitors to the state, so much so that I feel for the person I know who is going there. Still, get this: in an effort to fight the mosquito menace last April, a biotech firm went to the Keys to release ... more mosquitoes. Hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes, brought to the Keys as eggs actually, allowed to hatch there and live out their lives.

What hare-brained scheme is this, you may wonder. Many people have so wondered, and in the Keys, there has been plenty of oppositionso it is a controversial programme. Yet, it at least deserves some thought, especially given that swarms of mosquitoes are a feature of life in much of India too.

The mosquitoes introduced into the Keys were genetically engineered.

A little background, first. There are plenty of mosquitoes in Florida, certainly, and it cant be pleasant to suffer their bites. But only the species Aedes aegypti actually carries diseaseschikungunya, dengue and moreand they make up only 4% of the mosquito population in Florida. Whats more, only female mosquitoes actually bite humans. Males feed on nectar and their sole purpose in life is to mate with females and produce more mosquitoes. None of this is meant to say that we should ignore these pests. But it does suggest a possible way to fight them thats more efficient than blanket applications of insecticide: target the females.

Its true, the male and the female of the species do look different, but thats if you get a chance to peer closely at them. So, its in no way practical to visually identify only the female mosquitoes in a given area and whack them dead. But what if theres a way to ensure that when a mosquito pair reproduces, the female, and only the female, offspring die? What if such death comes early in their lives, even before they attack humans for the first time? Carnage like this means that the offspring left alive will mostly be males. They will mate with the remaining females, with the same morbid results for the resulting female offspring. Over time, youd expect the mosquito population to become more and more male. With less and less females to mate with, the Aedes aegypti population will naturally decline.

Genetic engineering (or genetic modification) offers a way to accomplish more or less this. Though with various plant species especially, plenty of controversy surrounds the process. Consider:

Proponents point out that humans have been doing such engineering indirectly for many millennia: breeding plants and animals selectively for certain desirable characteristics. For example, modern corn looks nothing like the grass-like Mexican plant with rudimentary ears, teosinte, that it is descended from. Thats because we humans have for uncounted generations selected plants with juicier, bigger and more succulent ears and kernels and used only those plants to generate their next crop. Much the same applies to plenty of other crops and domesticated animals.

Critics, though, say that todays techniques of actually modifying genes are entirely different from selective breeding, and theres definite danger there. For example, the wind can carry pollen from genetically modified (GM) crops to fields of non-modified crops, causing unpredictable and undesirable problems. Besides, the GM crop industry is dominated by a few large biotech firms. So, the prospect of widespread use of such crops raises serious concerns about monopolies, especially for small farmers like in India.

The fear that genetic engineering can have unpredictable consequences is why many residents of the Keys opposed the new genetically-engineered male mosquitoes.

Still, lets look at how they were engineered and then released. These Aedes aegypti males have had their DNA altered: scientists have edited" two particular genes into particular locations in the mosquitos genome:

* a fluorescent marker" gene that glows in red light, which will later be used to identify engineered mosquitoes.

* a self-limiting" gene.

When the insects reproduce, both genes are passed on to their offspring. The self-limiting" gene has no effect on males. But in larval females, it inhibits the storage of a specific protein that would otherwise build up as the insect grows. The result is that the female dies before it can mature.

This is the theory, of course. But these engineered mosquitoes have been released in Brazil, Panama and even Indiain the last two years, over a billion of them. The British biotech company that produced them, Oxitec, reports that in those areas, the populations of Aedes aegypti shrank by over 90%. Youd think that would certainly have an effect on the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases.

What of unpredictable consequences? The Brazil trial suggested that the self-limiting gene did not kill all the female offspring before they could mate, because other genes from the engineered mosquitoes appeared among other local mosquitoes. What effect this will have on the local ecosystem is not yet clear. But this is the kind of fallout of genetic engineering that worries many people.

Still, in April, Oxitec placed boxes containing eggs of the engineered mosquitoes in six different locations in the Florida Keys. Each week between May and August, about 12,000 of the mosquitoes will hatch from their eggs and emerge into the Florida air, ready to find willing females to mate with. Every now and then, Oxitecs researchers will collect mosquitoes and use red light to identify the engineered ones. They want to know such details as their life spans, the distance they have travelled from their boxes, and how many of the females who inherit the self-limiting gene have actually died. All this will shape a second and larger trial later this year, when Oxitec plans to release 20 million engineered mosquitoes. Data from these trials will help decide whether it is worth releasing mosquitoes more widely across the US.

Clearly, theres still plenty to learn about genetically engineered mosquitoes. But till now, insecticides have been our weapons of choice against mosquitoes. They kill the insects, sure, but also other insects we would rather save, like honeybees.

Consider this parallel to cancer. Our weapon of choice there one thats just as blunt as insecticidesremains chemotherapy. It kills cancer cells, sure, but also plenty of other cells in our bodies. What if we instead found a way to introduce a particular kind of cancer cell into the body, one that would single out and kill the malignant cells?

We dont know of such a cell (yet, anyway), but thats how to think of genetically engineered mosquitoes. And if you think about it some more, theres also a parallel of sorts to vaccines for a certain virus that we are all a little too familiar with these days.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip DSouza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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Inside the Anti-GMO Movement’s Obsession With Virology Research and Lab Leaks Mother Jones – Mother Jones

§ June 20th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Inside the Anti-GMO Movement’s Obsession With Virology Research and Lab Leaks Mother Jones – Mother Jones

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

The Center for Food Safety is the kind of organization that most progressive foodies can get behind: Its website features photos of graceful monarch butterflies and dairy cows with big, doleful eyes. Its recent campaign slogans implore supporters to tell EPA to stop this brain-damaging pesticide! and protect dolphins and birds from floating factory farms! It advocates for farmworker rights, humane treatment of animals, and protection of pollinators.

Oh, yes, and theres one more thing: The 24-person nonprofit, whose revenue in 2019 was about $5.2 million, wants the US government to stop supporting certain kinds of high-level virology research. Last month, the group sued the National Institutes of Health in an attempt to force the agency to reveal information about its funding for what is known as gain-of-function researchthe term refers to a category of lab work that seeks to understand how viruses create pandemics. Sometimes, but not always, the research involves manipulating viruses to make them more virulent and contagious to study how they evolve.

Virologists say this kind of research is vital and has led to many important medical discoveries, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Center for Food Safety argues that gain-of-function research is too dangerous to pursue. A pathogen released from a lab could result in catastrophic consequences to the human environment, CFS staff attorney Victoria Yundt warned in a recent press release about the NIH law suit. Andrew Kimbrell, a public interest attorney who founded the Center for Food Safety in 1997, was also quoted in the release saying, The NIHs refusal to make public the research it is funding to enhance the transmissibility, infectiousness, and lethality of potential pandemic viruses is grossly irresponsible.

Why would this lefty food and farms groupand they arent alonerail against high-level virology research? The key to the answer has to do with the Center for Food Safetys long opposition to the practice of genetic engineering. In a recent phone call, I spoke to CFSs Kimbrell, who explained what he sees as the connection. You genetically engineer bacteria and plants, then you genetically engineer animals, then you genetically engineer embryosall that has happened, with some promise, but also a tremendous amount of danger and threat, he said. Now, viruses are not technically an organism, but they are living biological elements. So, they fit certainly within that narrative: Just because we can do something doesnt mean we should do something.

Kimbrell said he absolutely thinks the pandemic was the result of an accidental lab release. Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, he believes, used gain-of-function to enhance a coronavirus. The virus then escaped out of the lab, spread uncontrollably, and caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, in effect, gain-of-function research caused the pandemic.

Kimbrell isnt the only genetic-engineering critic who has come out against gain-of-function research and in favor of the lab-leak theory. Over the past few months, many organizations that once busied themselves warning the public about pesticides in breakfast cereal and the evil deeds of Monsanto have pivoted to protesting gain-of-function work. Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit that advocates against pesticides and genetic engineering of food, published a hall of shame series on virology researchers who use the technique. As we follow the evidenceand follow the moneywe come face to face with a cast of out-of-control Mad Scientists, militarists and biotech/bio-pharmaceutical entrepreneurs, one recent post reads.

US Right to Know, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency around genetically modified food, announced in May that it is expanding its investigative work into other urgent public health matters, including the origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.s anti-vaccination advocacy group Childrens Health Defense, which has also criticized genetic engineering, has taken up the campaign against gain-of-function and embraced the hypothesis that these experiments made COVID-19 more dangerousnot to mention that it then may have escaped from a lab. The website of the International Center for Technology Assessment, an anti-GMO group that Andrew Kimbrell founded alongside Center for Food Safety, now seems almost entirely devoted to criticizing gain-of-function and promoting the lab-leak hypothesis.

Over the last year, I have watched online anti-vaccine groups radicalize parents, starting with questions about shots and then moving them into pandemic-denying conspiracy theory adherents. Ive noticed that even in our politically polarized world, the political spectrum isnt always a straight line; sometimes its a circle where at a certain point in the back, the far left and the far right converge.

I am now watching the same dynamic play out in anti-GMO groups, as environmentalists who worry about pollinators get drawn into a dark narrative that vilifies vital research. With tens of thousands of followers on social media, anti-GMO groups have the potential to turn the tide of public opinion; hanging in the balance is science that could potentially help prevent the next pandemic.

Also at stake is the reputation of scientists themselves. When I asked Kimbrell why researchers would willingly undertake gain-of-function experiments if they really were both dangerous and unnecessary, he told me that he believes that the basic motivation could be found in the inflated egos of researchers. For some reason, theres always this altruistic halo around scientists, but you know, they created nuclear weapons, science has created all the chemicals that are polluting our air and our environment, he said. I think theres a huge amount of sort of just, Lets do it, because we can and its exciting. Like crossword puzzles.

Since the lab-leakhypothesis has dominated the news recently, let me back up. My suspicion is that no one will ever know for sure where the virus came from, though most scientists agree that the United States and China must conduct a thorough investigation into its origins. Scientists also agree about the paramount importance of lab safety; if youre interested in learning more about lab leaks, I urge you to read this piece by Rowan Jacobsen that Mother Jones published a year ago.

To be fair to the opponents of gain-of-function research, most experts agree that some extreme versions of this work are truly reckless. As Jacobsen wrote, lab leaks have occurred with some frequency over the past few decades. An early controversy over gain-of-functionresearchcame to a head in 2011, when University of Wisconsin researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka announced that his lab had successfully modified the highly lethal H5N1 bird flu to make it airborne among ferrets. After much media criticism of this experiment, in 2014, the Obama administration placed a moratorium on most gain-of-function experiments the US funded throughout the world. The Trump administration mostly lifted the restriction in 2017, though at the onset of the pandemic, the former president decried the practice and claimed that the US funding of such work in China was a relic of the Obama administration. (That wasnt exactly true; after all it was his administration who did away with the moratorium.)

Last month, after more stories about the Wuhan lab appeared, the US Senate approved an amendment put forth by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would permanently halt US funding of gain-of-function research in China. While many still deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise, Sen. Paul said in a press release. The passage of my amendment ensures that this never happens in the future.

Yet the virus researchers I spoke with emphasized that not all gain-of-function research is dangerousto the contrary, most of it is quite routine and has been crucial in advancing disease research and treatment. Gerald Keusch, an infectious disease specialist who is a co-director of Boston Universitys National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, points out that the term gain-of-function is frustratingly broad and describes a large swath of virus work. Most scientists will say that gain-of-function is too crude a terminology, he told me. It encompasses things that are necessary and safe, to things that are necessary but somewhat risky, to things that are maybe not necessary and highly risky. And they all get wrapped under the same term. He points out that some landmark medical breakthroughs happened because of gain-of-function: For example, the technique led to University of North Carolina scientists discovery that the drug remdesivir could treat COVID-19. Indeed, work under the broad category of gain-of-function also may have contributed to the vaccine research on other coronaviruses that hastened the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, Keusch added.

The outcry over gain-of-function research has cast a pall of suspicion over other, completely unrelated kinds of pandemic research. Peter Daszak, thepresident of nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, has seen this play out firsthand. EcoHealth Alliance, which has an annual budget that ranges from $10 million to $17 million, a US-based staff of about 50, and some contractors abroad, came under scrutiny last April, when media reports revealed that the organization had earmarked about $600,000 of a $3.4 million NIH grant to fund preapproved research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In the wake of these reports, the Trump administration canceled the entire NIH grant for EcoHealth Allianceeven the parts that had nothing to do with the Wuhan lab.

This move struck Daszak as bizarre. We dont even have a lab, he told me. We do things like produce a book on how to live safely with wildlife or educate community leaders. Despite the actual nature of his work, over the past year, he and EcoHealth Alliance somehow have become the symbols of gain-of-function research. The GMO-transparency group US Right to Know recently filed 74 requests under the Freedom of Information Act that tied up EcoHealths board members and funding agencies for months. They know that a small organization like ours cannot keep up with that level of work, Daszak said. He finds irony in anti-GMO groups crusade against his work. Youve got these anti-GMO groups trying to shut us down when here we are trying to achieve the same goal, he said, which is a more balanced relationship with nature.

The overlap that Daszak describes reflects a complicated political dynamic. The anti-GMO movement used to reside comfortably on the left: A 2001 ABC News survey found that Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to believe that genetically modified foods were unsafe, and Democratic politicians have fought hard for the mandatory labeling of these foods. Science writers have called the movement against GMOs the lefts anti-science problem. But that may be changing: A 2016 Pew survey found that equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans believe that GMOs are worse for peoples health. That same year, when the Senate was divided over a controversial GMO-labeling bill, many Democrats argued it didnt go far enough in requiring companies to disclose genetically engineered ingredients. But others defended the measure. It will provide fair and objective information without stigmatizing foods that are completely safe, Indianas Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly said. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) spoke of the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe. (The bill passed 6330, and the law set to go into effect later this year.)

But now, this past year, anti-GMO groups gain-of-function criticism has drawn more attention from the right. Center for Food Safetys Kimbrell said that in the weeks since his group sued the NIH over gain-of-function transparency, he has been invited to speak on several right-wing talk shows. (He declined.) And until recently, the idea that COVID-19 could have come from a lab was considered mostly a right-wing theory, promoted with a few racist dog whistles by President Trump and his supporters. Anti-GMO groups dont typically endorse that kind of rhetoric, but with their embrace of the lab-escape theory, they couldnt help but attract it. I noted a xenophobic flavor to many of the comments on several of the groups social media posts referencing COVID. In response to a recent US Right to Know post, one commenter referred to COVID-19 as the China virus and President Biden as China Joe.

Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist and misinformation expert with Baylor College of Medicine points out that the uproar over gain-of-function research plays right into the conservative narrative about greedy pharma companies and power-hungry scientists. Hotez notes that the right-leaning anti-vaccine groups that he tracks have begun to embrace anti-GMO rhetoric, insisting that mRNA vaccines genetically modify humans. (They dont.) In the past we said, this is far left and far right, but I am seeing more far-right dominance. Its becoming much more of a mainstream GOP dynamic.

Kimbrell doesnt see it this way. His group has always attracted a small contingent of libertarians, he said, accounting for perhaps 5 or 10 percent of the supporters. He noted that he has encouraged his staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19; he opted for the Johnson & Johnson shot because he was skeptical of the mRNA technique the Moderna and Pfizer used to develop their shots. Were bipartisan, were trying to have humans, as a species, live in a mutually enhancing world with the rest of nature, and thats generally viewed as progressive, he said. Im not quite sure why.

Progressives have a long history of advocating for diplomacy and cooperation over threats and hostile overtures. But these are strange times, with the far left and the far right bonding over vaccines, and conspiracy theories, and now, pandemic virology research. This dynamic can be dangerous not only to science, but also to the researchers who conduct this work.

In recent months, the paranoia about EcoHealth has spilled over into Daszaks personal life. He and his staff have received dozens of death threats. After someone sent an envelope of white powder to his home, he decided to hire security personnel to protect his family.

Baylors Hotez noted that threats to scientists have increased dramatically over the past year. He says that when prominent activists cast scientists as evil power brokers, it fosters an atmosphere of animosity toward researchers. Anti-science groups are trying to paint a picture of scientists as evildoers rather than the humanitarians that most of us are, he said. Most of us became scientists to help, to do something for humanity. Hotez himself has received many recent threats related to his vaccine advocacy, some of them anti-Semitic in nature.

Beyond his own personal safety, Daszak worries about the implications for infectious disease research: If the United States stops virology work in China its likelyscientists accessto a place where these viruses come fromwill be blocked. The tensions over the lab-leak theory may escalate to the point where scientific cooperation breaks down. And well certainly never get to conduct a thorough investigation into the origins of the pandemic, Boston Universitys Keuschsaid,noting, The best hope is that somehow in the back channels, we will figure out how to lower the heat, increase the light, convince the Chinese its in their interest to be transparent.

Will the diplomatic back channels prevail in time to prevent the next pandemic? Thats anybodys guess, because pathogens emerge, change, and spread all around us, all the time. Just last week, Chinese authorities reported the first human case of a rare bird flu. The idea that the United States wouldnt be able to monitor and study this pathogen alarms Daszak. If we dont do that work, its really damaging to future public health risk, he said. Well never know whats coming next.

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

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Going to other planets is a moral duty, its just a matter of making it safe – The Irish Times

§ June 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Going to other planets is a moral duty, its just a matter of making it safe – The Irish Times

A fine line exists between science fiction and predicting the future using our best current knowledge of science and technology. This is a line which Christoper E. Mason straddles in his new book, The Next 500 years Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, published in April.

The author proposes a 10-phase, 500-year programme, to re-engineer the human genome so humans can tolerate the extreme environments of space, with the ultimate goal of achieving human settlement on other planets, perhaps even beyond our solar system.

It certainly sounds like science fiction, but for the vast part its definitely not. Mason is a geneticist and computational biologist who has been a principal investigator and co-investigator on no less than seven NASA missions.

The book is ambitious and its author certainly optimistic. From gene therapies for protection against radiation in space (known to cause cancer) to exo-wombs artificial wombs outside the human body which can protect females, and babies, from the often dangerous process of pregnancy Masons vision is extraordinary.

He writes about conducting studies of genetically-modified individuals on generation ships where generations of people live and die across space. Bizarre and inspiring, these ideas certainly help us think about the future; one where multi-planetary habitation is a reality.

Why did you write this book and why now? The book is essentially a combination of everything Ive seen in the field of genetics and across science these past few decades. I think that today were at a transition point. During the past few decades we had been missing a fundamental knowledge of genetics and exoplanets, which I call the twin engines of discovery.

On one hand we now have the the ability to sequence genomes and understand genetics. Everyone always thinks that the human genome had been mapped and completed years ago, but as I describe in the book, the process of discovering new genes is still ongoing.

The tools and technologies that let us map genomes have rapidly accelerated over the past 10 years. Then, on the other hand, over the past twenty five years, we went from knowing zero exoplanets to thousands of candidates today, and more being discovered every week. Together, this acceleration in our knowledge set the stage for the book.

What is the state-of-the-art in genome engineering today? Most readers will have heard of Crispr at this point. Its not the first genome editing tool which was developed, but its the one thats easiest to use. Today, you go in and edit the genome, much like you would think of opening and editing a document in a word processor. But its not perfect yet.

The original version of Crispr had what are called off-target effects where you try to edit one location, but then you have to also deal with some other location in the genome too. But theres a new version now called prime editing released last year, which is more accurate.

I think this is an iterative process, well keep improving it. Dont forget its only really been about seven or eight years since Crispr was first developed. Also, there will probably come new editing methods which replace Crispr, and I think those tools will continue to improve.

What about plans to send people to Mars in the coming decade, could genome engineering be used that soon? Currently there are still a lot of open questions about the long term safety and efficacy of any genome engineering, whether its in a bacteria, or in a human cell. We spent the last decade really trying to understand the human genome in great detail, including what happens to the genome in space. But I still think we probably need another two decades of some more pure fundamental discovery, before I really think it will be mature enough to deploy.

As for Mars, it just depends on how well we can protect the astronauts. I dont think were even close to having lots of people going safely to Mars yet. In the book I suggest a lot of the really big trials will begin from 2040 onwards, because were still learning a lot today.

Every day were learning about new genes, and I think that will continue for a while yet. But essentially, what we really want to do is perform a multi-generational clinical trial. We would start with a handful of people and watch them and their offspring over, say, three generations.

What is the moral reasoning for doing this? What would you say to the sceptics? I view going to other planets as a moral duty because were the only species that has the awareness of extinction. Its just a matter of making it safe, and so I talked a great length about safety and efficacy in the book, as you do for any clinical trial, for any therapeutic.

These are questions that are still being addressed, which is also why I dont think well actually have a lot of really good answers for another 20 years. It will be a while before I would feel personally comfortable to try large scale genome editing in people.

That being said, there are already clinical trials. Were modifying humans therapeutically using Crispr. You have to weigh up the risks of any therapy versus the suffering of people with the disease. We already have therapeutic applications of Crispr being used in people today, where weve decided that the risk of the therapy is worth it, because the disease is far worse. So I think at some point it will become more unethical to not provide the opportunity for people to rid themselves of some condition.

What strategies do you use to make predictions on a 500-year timescale? Some of the things coming up ahead we already know about today. Its just putting the facts together. Take the moon Titan, for example. We already know a lot of its physical properties, so projections for its human exploration are made using that knowledge. The 500 year perspective presumes that the drive for exploration will continue. As for further ahead than that, theres an old saying, the best way to predict the future is to invent it!

Then eventually, going millions of years ahead, which I discuss in the final chapter of the book, prediction is simply driven by cosmological factors. Weve got about a billion years until the Sun starts to boil the oceans. Thats a lot of time, sure, but its also a finite time. I think eventually we, as a species, need to think about space exploration not just for exploration purposes, but for survival. I think its sad if we die out because it would represent the loss of life as we know it, and as far as we know, the only life in the universe.

Do you consider yourself a futurist? I actually dont know if I consider myself a futurist because I view this book very much as a series of reasonable projections. I guess thats what futurism kind of is, but I feel like as soon as you say your work is in the realm of futurism people think its just naked speculation. That it isnt, because were trying to seriously project forward based on things we already know.

Then again Isaac Asimov was writing about life and societies millions of years in the future. That kind of thing gives you an idea of what might be. Its one of the most unique features of humans that we have the capacity to, say, call yourself a futurist, or to think like you are in the future. Its a defining feature of our species that should be cherished and highlighted. I definitely see this kind of future thinking as being itself, quite literally, the the raw fuel of inspiration.

Dr Conor Purcell writes about science, society and culture. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell some of his other articles atcppurcell.tumblr.com

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Biotechnologys potential and how it is already changing the world – Daily Maverick

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Ellen Jorgensen: On Biotechs Potential and the Complexities of Regulation Big Tech

Biotechnology is changing the world we live in. The field, which uses biological processes for industrial and other purposes, especially through genetic manipulation of microorganisms, according to Big Tech (a platform presented by the Centre for International Governance Innovation), is undergoing massive growth. Biotech has also come under the public microscope, as genetically modified embryos and the like cause major controversy.

In this episode of Big Tech, hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen interview Dr Ellen Jorgensen the chief scientific officer at Aanika Biosciences and co-founder of Genspace, a community biology lab about the future of biotechnology and the rise of the DIY biohacker.

Jorgensen explains that her community of biohackers involves biotechnology done in an unconventional space by people who arent normally engaging in it. For the most part, biotechnology is only accessible to researchers in labs or academic spaces like universities the average person is not able to walk into a lab and conduct an experiment, and renting the space can cost thousands of dollars, she says.

Jorgensen is trying to democratise the sciences, allowing more people access to the world of biohacking.

Some of the most interesting experiments Ive seen have been a collaboration between someone who doesnt know science but has a really interesting idea, and a friend of theirs who is a practising scientist. And between the two of them theyll start a company, and theres no space for that sort of stuff in the society, Jorgensen says.

This inspired the start of Genspace, the community biology lab that gives access to anybody who wants to explore the natural world but who would not normally have access to the equipment, knowledge and space to do so.

Jorgensen says the lab is used by people from all disciplines, from bio-artists who want to engage in biotech for their artistic practice, to teachers who want to stage some of their lessons and try things out in our space before they spend a lot of money on a kit for their classroom, as well as the ordinary Joe who is just curious and wants to learn more. These are the biohackers of the natural world.

Biotech in a changing world

Gene editing is one of the biggest science stories of the decade, according to a Vox article, but its also one of the most controversial.

CRISPR is one of the main gene-editing systems, and it works to exploit a quirk in the immune systems of bacteria to edit genes in other organisms plants, mice, even humans. With CRISPR they can now make these edits quickly and cheaply, in days rather than weeks or months, the article explains, allowing you to control which genes get expressed, which in turn gives the ability to delete undesirable traits and, potentially, add desirable traits with more precision than ever before.

Pretty cool, and it understandably excited the scientific community, but it also raised a lot of questions about the ethics of it, and the fact that we now have to contend with questions weve never had to think of before. These are questions that the podcast hosts bring up, and Jorgensen does not shy away from them.

Should everybody have access to biotechnology? Owen points out that over the past decade there really has been a change in the technological capacity, which leads him to question the ethics of the world opening up to biotech.

But Jorgensen points out the beauty of experimenting in the natural world, arguing that everyone should be able to do it.

Anyone can discover something if theyre lucky enough we see amazing things coming out of grassroots biology, she says. Nature is everywhere, DNA is everywhere, DNA is available to anyone.

Skok counters that surely when such knowledge opens up beyond the scientific community it can get into the wrong hands it could be a terrorist, for all you know. He isnt wrong, Jorgensen admits, but at the same time she argues that this is true of most things there are always going to be bad actors.

As to the grow your own baby debate, which Owen brings up, Jorgensen says its a lot more complicated than we have been led to believe.

Theres all of this hysteria about how CRISPR, which is one of the main gene-editing systems, is so simple that anyone can use it. Thats a bit of a myth, Jorgensen explains. Yes, it is fairly easy when working with a laboratory organism, such as a strain of bacteria. When it comes to designer babies, you need a lot more equipment and very specific facilities the chances are not very high that your neighbour is doing it in their garage, she assures. DM/ML

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Bill Gates Releasing Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in Florida? Here’s the Whole Story – Snopes.com

§ June 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on Bill Gates Releasing Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in Florida? Here’s the Whole Story – Snopes.com

A multi-year research project to genetically modify Aedes aegypti, a mosquito species that is known to carry and transmit infectious diseases to humans, was slated to move from the lab to the fields of Texas and Florida in mid-2021. Under the project, thousands of A. aegypti were altered to make their reproduction more difficult, thus slowing and eventually preventing the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika, malaria, and dengue fever. But when the internet caught wind that Bill Gates may have been behind the project, posts circulated on social media that questioned the real motivation behind the project.

Snopes readers asked our team to dig deeper into the project and its rumored funding. In short, we found that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did award grants to biotech company Oxitec for its work to develop a new strain of genetically modified mosquitoes nicknamed Friendly to help reduce the spread of malaria. In April 2021, it was announced that approximately 150,000 mosquitos would be released across six locations in Florida.

But before we dig too much deeper into Oxitecs most recent project, it is important to note that this is not the first endeavor to genetically modify A. aegypti mosquitoes and subsequently release them into the wild. Researchers have been exploring this concept for more than a decade. In 2010, releases of altered males in the Cayman Islands led to an 80% suppression rate, and in 2011, 2012 and again in 2015, Oxitec released earlier generations of their genetically modified mosquitoes in areas of Brazil all research that was described in the scientific journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Oxitec is a research company that specializes in biological solutions to control pests that transmit disease, destroy crops, and harm livestock among these, A. aegypti. A look through the Gates Foundation grant documents revealed that upwards of $5.8 million was allocated to Oxitec in June 2018 for malaria-related projects around the world over 43 months. The purpose of this grant was described as follows: transfer a self-limiting genetic platform into a malaria vector for future application in Meso-America and the Caribbean to reduce or eliminate this mosquito where it transmits malaria.

A second grant of nearly $1.4 million in September 2020 was awarded as part of a year-long project to prepare and engage partners for potential self-limited mosquito trials specific to malaria in Africa and North America. A third 14-month grant for nearly $1.3 million was awarded to the same company in March 2021 for agricultural development.

Snopes contacted Oxitec to determine how much of that funding was specific to the African trial but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

On May 1, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved an experimental use permit to field test genetically modified mosquitoes but required that the company receive state and local approval before moving forward (read more about the docket and approval process). Under these parameters, the EPA required that the study be conducted over a two-year period in Monroe County, Florida, beginning in the summer of 2020 and in Harris County, Texas, beginning in 2021, for a total of 6,600 acres across the two states. In response to this authorization, the agency received more than 31,000 public comments, most of which urged that the EPA not permit testing or delay it until more information was made available. The EPA issued a 150-page response to those comments, explaining its decision to move forward.

In June 2020, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services followed through and granted experimental use permit OX5034 for testing in the state. Then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases announced its involvement with the project in a July 2020 letter written by Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Dubbed the FKMCD-OXITEC Mosquito Project, the investigational agreement in Florida was approved by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Board of Commissioners along with seven State of Florida agencies.

A. aegypti is endemic to Africa but has spread across the sub-tropical and temperate regions around the planet. This species is particularly invasive because the eggs are able to remain dormant in dry conditions for months, spreading by way of people and transported goods, before hatching when it rains. The A. aegypti mosquito is just 4% of the entire mosquito population in the Florida Keys, but is responsible for nearly all of the mosquito-borne disease transmitted to humans.

But it is only the female mosquito that can transmit diseases like chikungunya, Zika, dengue, and malaria because only female mosquitoes bite humans, which is how they transmit bacteria in their saliva into the human bloodstream. To combat this, Oxitec researchers identified a protein called tetracycline Trans-Activator Variant as a tool to suppress mosquito populations.

Male mosquitoes have been genetically modified to carry a self-limiting gene known as OX5034. Female offspring that inherit OX5034 protein will die before reaching adulthood, leaving only the non-biting males to survive. These gene-carrying males will then mate with females in the field, and since only their non-biting male offspring will survive, the expectation is that the self-limiting gene will be passed along again to future offspring. The mosquitoes were also altered to carry an inert fluorescent marker called DsRed2-OX5034, which will help researchers identify the genetically modified mosquitoes in the wild. Eventually, the presence of these genes will decline and be bred out in a short amount of time given A. aegypti lives between eight and 10 days and this is a short-term trial.

The self-limiting gene prevents offspring of our released male insect from surviving to adulthood, and a fluorescent marker gene produces a protein throughout the body of the insects, which glows when exposed to a specific color of light. This helps us to track our insects in the wild, explained Oxitec.

Placement of the first mosquito boxes in Florida was rolled out the week of April 26, 2021, across six statewide locations. We will update this article as more information becomes available.

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So, where did Covid-19 come from? | The Strategist – The Strategist

§ June 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on So, where did Covid-19 come from? | The Strategist – The Strategist

The arrival of the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, which has killed 3.5 million people and counting, should have been the moment when the World Health Organization came into its own.

This is its primary rationale and justification: to be the worlds frontline agency for preparing for, hopefully averting, but otherwise mitigating and managing a deadly new pandemic. Instead, it finds itself lurching from one crisis of credibility to another and taking trust in public health institutions and experts as collateral damage.

In May, an independent review panel set up by the WHO branded the confused global response to the pandemic as a toxic cocktail.

The WHO was initially tardy in acknowledging and alerting the world to the coronavirus outbreak, deferring dangerously to Chinas sensitivities and pronouncements.

Since then it has issued constantly mutating, confusing and sometimes downright inconsistent messaging on humanhuman transmission, mask efficacy, the costbenefit equation of lockdowns, testing protocols and outpatient treatment options for infected people. Now the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab in Wuhan, long derided as fanciful and possibly racist, is gaining increasing mainstream traction.

In April 2020, Tom Sauer and I published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists musing about the implications of intensive-care unit bed capacity as the new norm for assessing the acceptable risk threshold for nuclear weapons. That debate is not germane to todays topic.

In its original formulation, our article began: A novel coronavirus emerged from the wet markets of Wuhan, China, late last year by hopping across from animals to humans. The bulletin proposed the following change: A novel coronavirus emerged from either the wet markets or biosafety laboratories of Wuhan. I demurred, relying primarily on the firmly stated conclusion of the WHO. Experts dismissed outright the idea of the deliberate weaponisation of a previously known virus, or that it had been manipulated in a lab.

The published article read: hopping in one way or another from other animals to humans.

I felt vindicated two days later. In a press release on 30 April 2020, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated: The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.

Now I feel deflated, thanks in no small measure to an article in the bulletin on 5 May by science writer Nicholas Wadeback to that in a moment.

On 19 February 2020, 27 prominent scientists wrote an open letter in The Lancet condemning conspiracy theories that questioned the natural origins of the virus. When Republican Senator Tom Cotton suggested early last year that the virus might have come from the Wuhan lab, he was buried under a media pile-on from the New York Times (Cotton repeats fringe theory), the Washington Post (Cotton keeps repeating an already debunked conspiracy theory), The Guardian (floated a conspiracy theory) and CNN (the height of irresponsibility from a public official).

A possible explanation for the media groupthink on the lab-leak theory has been dubbed Trump derangement syndromea view that everything Donald Trump did as president was wrong. In an interview with National Geographic on 5 May 2020, Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, explained that this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated. Instead, the evidence strongly indicates that it evolved in nature and then jumped species. Chris Cillizza wrote on the CNN website on the same day that Fauci just crushed Donald Trumps theory on the origins of the coronavirus.

In an interview with the Straits Times in May 2020, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan was adamant that, based on genome markers, the novel coronavirus was not synthesised in a lab. What we do know, she insisted, is that this is a naturally occurring virus, that it was not artificially synthesised in the lab.

On 15 September, Li-Meng Yan, a virologist, told Tucker Carlson on Fox News: I can present solid scientific evidence to our audience that this virus, Covid-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus, actually is not from nature. It is a man-made virus created in the lab. PolitiFact gave her a pants on fire fact-check rating. The WHO team reported in February that it was extremely unlikely that the virus originated in a lab.

However, scientists have still not been able to substantiate the natural origin claim.

In his long and explosive article for the bulletin, Wade, who has written on science for Nature,Scienceand the New York Times, carefully explains why the most likely origin of the Covid-19 pandemic is an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab. His analysis is backed by his now former New York Times science reporter colleague Don McNeill, despite initial deep scepticism. PolitiFact has now retracted its pants on fire criticism.

Meanwhile, the plot has thickened about the role of the WIV. In two articles on 23 and 24 May, the Wall Street Journal detailed fresh US intelligence assessments based on WIV researchers struck by flu in November 2019.

Three scientists in a highly protected lab, in the same week, falling sick enough to require hospitalisation is a statistical improbability as a chance event. Adding to suspicions, the WIV has refused to share the raw data, safety logs and lab records on its extensive research on coronaviruses in bats.

There are unanswered questions also about another incident in southwest China in 2012, when six miners fell sick and three died. WIV scientists, called in to investigate, collected samples from bats in the mine and identified several novel coronaviruses.

Among those demanding a proper investigation into the origins of Covid-19 are 18 scientists whove called on Chinas labs and agencies to open their records.

At a Senate hearing on 11 May, Fauci conceded that the lab-leak hypothesis was a real possibility and said he was totally in favor of a full investigation of whether that could have happened.

To his credit, even WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in March that the lab-leak possibility required further investigation. At the meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva on 25 May, the US called for independent and transparent new studies on when, where and how the pandemic began.

However, the WHO cannot legally compel China to agree to and cooperate with another international inquiry, and theres virtually no chance of China capitulating to US-led Western pressure to do so.

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The next step to GMO wheat – Country Guide

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Bioceres, an Argentine biotech company, has released a genetically modified wheat variety that is both drought-tolerant and resistant to glufosinate-ammonium. Known as HB4, it was approved late in 2020 although it still faces a number of significant hurdles, first of which is convincing Brazil, Argentinas largest export market, to accept the innovation.

Also, of course, theres the issue of winning over end-users and consumers.

Will they win?

Wheat has been left behind in the technological revolution that has transformed corn, soybeans and canola. Its not surprising, perhaps. Wheat has a history as the staff of life, and theres a reverence about it that puts it in a different category than other field crops.

Science has something to say about it as well. Wheat is the most complex in terms of its genetic structure. It contains three distinct genomes totalling more than 16 billion base-pairs (for comparison, humans boast about three billion).

But technological hurdles tend to crumble these days, and in 2018, the international science community finally completed a 13-year race to sequence the crops DNA, which will enable further exploration of genomic improvements in wheat, possibly leading to innovations through CRISPR and other forms of gene editing.

Thats one of the reasons why its taken so long to get to this point, says Ellen Sparry, general manager of C&M Seeds and president of Seeds Canada. Thats been the challenge with traditional ways of introducing traits naturally. Its taken until the wheat genome was sequenced to take progress to the next level.

Despite the technological opportunity, though, theres still that issue of wheat as an emotional and political issue. Sparry notes that in discussions within the wheat industry, shes heard wheat being referred to as a religion. An anti-GM organization GRAIN.org published an online petition in November 2020 titled Hands off our bread, listing 20 reasons why the HB4 variety should be rejected.

In Canada, wheat varieties must be registered with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) before they can be introduced, and end-users of wheat have a voice in deciding whether a variety actually brings merit to the marketplace.

Based on consumer concerns, dont look for a GM-wheat variety from South America to make any inroads in Canada in the near future.

The other consideration is agronomic. Is a variety like Argentine HB4 really needed here? A drought-tolerant spring cultivar might spark interest in parts of Saskatchewan where they get 10 to 15 centimetres (four to six inches) of rain per growing season. But breeding a drought-tolerant, glufosinate-ammonium-resistant winter wheat variety for southern Ontario begs the question of whether its warranted.

Dr. Gavin Humphreys worked in Western Canada with what was Agriculture and Agri-Food Canadas (AAFC) Cereal Research Centre in the 1990s and early 2000s. He worked with Roundup Ready wheat and he wonders about the need for herbicide tolerance, especially given wheats ability to out-compete most weed species.

Its not as though other chemicals arent working, adds Humphreys, a researcher and wheat breeder with AAFC-Ottawa, where hes been for the past seven years. There are also some herbicide-resistant wheats that have been developed using non-GMO mechanisms. In Western Canada, there are at least two Clearfield-resistant wheats. Syngenta has marketed one of them and the Crop Development Centre (CDC) in Saskatoon has marketed one or two varieties that have Clearfield resistance.

For the seed sector, cereals are also the poor cousins in the return-on-investment picture, relative to corn, soybeans and canola. That leaves most of the development of wheat and other cereals primarily to the public sector. The government is also sensitive to producer needs, market needs and those of the marketers and the industry, so theres less of a push for it.

Consumers often view wheat, more so than corn and soybeans, as being more basic, wholesome and directly related to the food they eat, says Sparry. In my mind, its a question of what will be acceptable to customers. Perhaps itll be a GM wheat with a particular nutritional trait something like Golden Rice but its hard to know what that acceptable trait may be.

Still, Canada, like Argentina, is reliant on trading partners. With HB4s release, Argentina must worry about Brazils acceptance, especially since that country buys roughly 40 per cent of the Argentine wheat crop. The same challenge exists in Canada, with Japan and the European Union holding Canadian wheat mostly from the West to higher quality standards, including non-GM specifications.

I would expect that because of security in the marketplace, the inability for a company to ensure that a GM variety is kept in a completely closed system would create a real push-back, says Humphreys. There would have to be a very strong argument made as to registering a GM wheat variety, particularly in Western Canada because of its potential impact on the markets, including those lucrative export markets.

He also raises a point about the potential however limited it might be for cross pollination of a GM wheat variety. Although its a self-pollinating crop, Humphreys estimates roughly five per cent of a 20-million-acre wheat crop in Western Canada has the potential to out-cross with rye, triticale or some wild grasses. That means the trait could get out of wheat into other crops or species, adding to the issue of crop security and maintaining markets elsewhere in the world.

Last, theres the harsh reality of dealing with the regulatory system in Canada, a process which Sparry concedes is difficult, especially with the perception that ours is progressive. But compared to many other countries, were falling behind.

An additonal challenge is communicating the science around GM and why its important for food safety and security.

It does sometimes feel that public perception carries more weight in the adoption of technologies such as GM than the science behind it, Sparry says.

But theres a farm reality too that shouldnt get lost sight of, she adds. I hear that more and more on my international travels, she says. Other jurisdictions such as Argentina are adopting technology at a faster pace than we are in Canada. The fear of falling behind on a global perspective is real.

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The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19s Origins – Vanity Fair

§ June 4th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19s Origins – Vanity Fair

Gilles Demaneuf is a data scientist with the Bank of New Zealand in Auckland. He was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome ten years ago, and believes it gives him a professional advantage. Im very good at finding patterns in data, when other people see nothing, he says.

Early last spring, as cities worldwide were shutting down to halt the spread of COVID-19, Demaneuf, 52, began reading up on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. The prevailing theory was that it had jumped from bats to some other species before making the leap to humans at a market in China, where some of the earliest cases appeared in late 2019. The Huanan wholesale market, in the city of Wuhan, is a complex of markets selling seafood, meat, fruit, and vegetables. A handful of vendors sold live wild animalsa possible source of the virus.

That wasnt the only theory, though. Wuhan is also home to Chinas foremost coronavirus research laboratory, housing one of the worlds largest collections of bat samples and bat-virus strains. The Wuhan Institute of Virologys lead coronavirus researcher, Shi Zhengli, was among the first to identify horseshoe bats as the natural reservoirs for SARS-CoV, the virus that sparked an outbreak in 2002, killing 774 people and sickening more than 8,000 globally. After SARS, bats became a major subject of study for virologists around the world, and Shi became known in China as Bat Woman for her fearless exploration of their caves to collect samples. More recently, Shi and her colleagues at the WIV have performed high-profile experiments that made pathogens more infectious. Such research, known as gain-of-function, has generated heated controversy among virologists.

To some people, it seemed natural to ask whether the virus causing the global pandemic had somehow leaked from one of the WIVs labsa possibility Shi has strenuously denied.

On February 19, 2020, The Lancet, among the most respected and influential medical journals in the world, published a statement that roundly rejected the lab-leak hypothesis, effectively casting it as a xenophobic cousin to climate change denialism and anti-vaxxism. Signed by 27 scientists, the statement expressed solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China and asserted: We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.

The Lancet statement effectively ended the debate over COVID-19s origins before it began. To Gilles Demaneuf, following along from the sidelines, it was as if it had been nailed to the church doors, establishing the natural origin theory as orthodoxy. Everyone had to follow it. Everyone was intimidated. That set the tone.

The statement struck Demaneuf as totally nonscientific. To him, it seemed to contain no evidence or information. And so he decided to begin his own inquiry in a proper way, with no idea of what he would find.

Demaneuf began searching for patterns in the available data, and it wasnt long before he spotted one. Chinas laboratories were said to be airtight, with safety practices equivalent to those in the U.S. and other developed countries. But Demaneuf soon discovered that there had been four incidents of SARS-related lab breaches since 2004, two occuring at a top laboratory in Beijing. Due to overcrowding there, a live SARS virus that had been improperly deactivated, had been moved to a refrigerator in a corridor. A graduate student then examined it in the electron microscope room and sparked an outbreak.

Demaneuf published his findings in a Medium post, titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a review of SARS Lab Escapes. By then, he had begun working with another armchair investigator, Rodolphe de Maistre. A laboratory project director based in Paris who had previously studied and worked in China, de Maistre was busy debunking the notion that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a laboratory at all. In fact, the WIV housed numerous laboratories that worked on coronaviruses. Only one of them has the highest biosafety protocol: BSL-4, in which researchers must wear full-body pressurized suits with independent oxygen. Others are designated BSL-3 and even BSL-2, roughly as secure as an American dentists office.

Having connected online, Demaneuf and de Maistre began assembling a comprehensive list of research laboratories in China. As they posted their findings on Twitter, they were soon joined by others around the world. Some were cutting-edge scientists at prestigious research institutes. Others were science enthusiasts. Together, they formed a group called DRASTIC, short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. Their stated objective was to solve the riddle of COVID-19s origin.

State Department investigators say they were repeatedly advised not to open a Pandoras box.

At times, it seemed the only other people entertaining the lab-leak theory were crackpots or political hacks hoping to wield COVID-19 as a cudgel against China. President Donald Trumps former political adviser Steve Bannon, for instance, joined forces with an exiled Chinese billionaire named Guo Wengui to fuel claims that China had developed the disease as a bioweapon and purposefully unleashed it on the world. As proof, they paraded a Hong Kong scientist around right-wing media outlets until her manifest lack of expertise doomed the charade.

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The Wuhan Lab and the Gain-of-Function Disagreement – FactCheck.org

§ May 24th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on The Wuhan Lab and the Gain-of-Function Disagreement – FactCheck.org

Chinas Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 3, when members of the World Health Organization-convened team investigating the origins of the coronavirus visit. Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images.

Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the day the report was publicly released on March 30. Let me say clearly that as far as WHO is concerned all hypotheses remain on the table.

In a May 11 Senate hearing, Paul raised the issue of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and said some in the government werent interested in investigating the lab-leak theory. The Kentucky senator said that government authorities, self-interested in continuing gain-of-function research say theres nothing to see here. He went on to assert a tie between U.S. researchers and the Wuhan Institute of Virology and accused them of juicing up super-viruses, asking Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, if he still supported the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan.

Fauci responded that the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In a subsequent interview on Fox & Friends on May 13, Paul said he didnt know whether SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab. Nobody knows, he said. But he posited that if it did, Fauci, among others, could be culpable for the entire pandemic, adding, Im not saying that happened. I dont know.

Paul made the money-is-fungible argument, saying the NIH gave money to the lab, regardless of what that particular grant funded. But then asserted that NIH funding furthered risky gain-of-function research. The answer to the question of whether it did or didnt depends on whom you ask and their definition of gain-of-function.

Hours after his May 11 exchange with Paul, Fauci said at a fact-checking conference hosted by PolitiFact.com that it would almost be irresponsible to not collaborate with Chinese scientists given that the 2003 SARS outbreak originated in China. So we really had to learn a lot more about the viruses that were there, about whether or not people were getting infected with bad viruses.

He called the EcoHealth collaboration a very minor collaboration as part of a subcontract of a grant, and said Paul conflated that with the claim that therefore we were involved in creating the virus, which is the most ridiculous, majestic leap Ive ever heard of.

Fauci said he wasnt convinced that the coronavirus developed naturally. I think that we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we find out to the best of our ability exactly what happened.

Fox News Tucker Carlson raised these issues on his show on May 11, saying: The guy in charge of Americas response to COVID turns out to be the guy who funded the creation of COVID. Were speaking of Tony Fauci and the gain-of-function experiments at the Wuhan laboratory that the U.S. government with his approval paid for. Theres no evidence that the Wuhan laboratory, with or without funding from an NIH grant, created SARS-CoV-2.

The night before, Carlson referred to a May 2 article on Medium by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. In that piece, Wade wrote about two main theories of SARS-Co-V-2s origin: One is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people. The other is that the virus was under study in a lab, from which it escaped. Wade asserted that the clues point in a specific direction a lab-leak. But he said at the outset: Its important to note that so far there is no direct evidence for either theory. Each depends on a set of reasonable conjectures but so far lacks proof.

Gain-of-function is a term that could describe any type of virology research that results in the gain of a certain function. But the type thats controversial, including among scientists, is research that causes a pathogen to be more infectious, particularly to humans.

In 2014, the U.S. government put a pause on new funding of gain-of-function research, which it defined this way: With an ultimate goal of better understanding disease pathways, gain-of-function studies aim to increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility. A 2016 paper on the ethics of gain-of-function research said: The ultimate objective of such research is to better inform public health and preparedness efforts and/or development of medical countermeasures.

The pause intended to provide time to address concerns about the risks and benefits of these studies applied to certain research on influenza, MERS and SARS.

Specifically, the funding pause will apply to gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route, the White House said in an Oct. 17, 2014, announcement.

As a Nature article at the time explained, there had been fierce debate among scientists on exactly what research should be deemed too risky. And some confusion on where the line would be drawn for this pause.

Viruses are always mutating, the article said, and [Arturo] Casadevall [then a microbiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City], says that it is difficult to determine how much mutation deliberately created by scientists might be reasonably anticipated to make a virus more dangerous the point at which the White House states research must stop.

In July 2014, a group of scientists and experts called the Cambridge Working Group issued a statement calling for such a pause of [e]xperiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation, as well as comparison against safer experimental approaches.

Well over 300 scientists have since signed on to the statement, which expressed concern about the risk of accidental infection in lab studies that created highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza.

The debate over this type of research dates back to at least 2011, when research was done on flu strains made to spread in ferrets.

Paul cited the Cambridge Working Group in his May 11 and 13 remarks. But the group has not made any statement about work in Wuhan, Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of the founder members of the group, said on Twitter.

Lipsitch further said that some members of the working group may categorically oppose all GOF studies that enhance virulence, transmission, or immune escape. My personal view is that some such studies can be justified on risk-benefit grounds, while those on flu to date cannot.

On Dec. 19, 2017, the U.S. governments pause, or moratorium, was lifted. The Department of Health and Human Services announced a framework for evaluating whether funding should be granted for research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, or PPPs. It said research on PPPs was essential to protecting global health and security, but the risks needed to be considered and mitigated.

The framework defined a potential pandemic pathogen as one that was both likely highly transmissible and likely capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations and likely highly virulent and likely to cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans. And an enhanced PPP was a PPP resulting from the enhancement of the transmissibility and/or virulence of a pathogen.

The framework said enhanced PPPs dont include naturally occurring pathogens that are circulating in or have been recovered from nature.

So, did the NIHs grant to EcoHealth fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab? There are differing opinions on that. As noted above, whether research is likely or reasonably anticipated to enhance transmissibility can be subjective.

EcoHealth and the NIH and NIAID say no. EcoHealth Alliance has not nor does it plan to engage in gain-of-function research, EcoHealth spokesman Robert Kesslertold us in an email. Nor did the grant get an exception from the pause, as some have speculated, he said. No dispensation was needed as no gain-of-function research was being conducted.

The NIAID told the Wall Street Journal: The research by EcoHealth Alliance, Inc. that NIH funded was for a project that aimed to characterize at the molecular level the function of newly discovered bat spike proteins and naturally occurring pathogens. Molecular characterization examines functions of an organism at the molecular level, in this case a virus and a spike protein, without affecting the environment or development or physiological state of the organism. At no time did NIAID fund gain-of-function research to be conducted at WIV.

And in a May 19 statement, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said that neither NIH nor NIAID have ever approved any grant that would have supported gain-of-function research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans.

Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University and a critic of gain-of-function research, told the Washington Post that the EcoHealth/Wuhan lab research was unequivocally gain-of-function research. He said it met the definition for gain-of-function research of concern under the 2014 Pause. That definition, as we said, pertained to projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.

Alina Chan, a molecular biologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, said in a lengthy Twitter thread that the Wuhan subgrant wouldnt fall under the gain-of-function moratorium because the definition didnt include testing on naturally occurring viruses unless the tests are reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility and/or pathogenicity. She said the moratorium had no teeth. But the EcoHealth/Wuhan grant was testing naturally occurring SARS viruses, without a reasonable expectation that the tests would increase transmissibility or pathogenicity. Therefore, it is reasonable that they would have been excluded from the moratorium.

Chan, who has published research about the possibility of an accidental lab leak of the virus, also said: But we need to separate this fight about whether a particular project is GOF vs whether it has risk of lab accident + causing an outbreak.

The University of Iowas Perlman told us the EcoHealth research is trying to see if these viruses can infect human cells and what about the spike protein on the virus determines that. (The spike protein is what the coronavirus uses to enter cells.) The NIH, he said, wouldnt give money to anybody to do gain-of-function research per se especially in China, and he didnt think there was anything in the EcoHealth grant description that would be gain of function. But he said theres a lot of nuance to this discussion.

This was not intentional gain of function, Perlman said, adding that in this type of research these viruses are almost always attenuated, meaning weakened. The gain of function would be what comes out of the research unintentionally, but the initial goal of the project is what you would want to look at: can these viruses infect people, how likely would they be to mutate in order to do that, and lets get a catalog of these viruses out there.

Perlman also said that making a virus that could infect human cells in a lab doesnt mean the virus is more infectious for humans. Viruses adapt to the cell culture, he said, and may grow well in a cell culture but then, for instance, not actually infect mice very well.

Back in February, MIT biologist Kevin Esvelt told PolitiFact.com that a 2017 paper published with the help of the EcoHealth grant involved, as PolitiFact described it, certain techniques that seemed to meet the definition of gain-of-function research. But Esvelt said the work reported in this specific paper definitely did NOT lead to the creation of SARS-CoV-2, because of differences between the virus studied and SARS-CoV-2.

In the May 11 hearing, Paul also pointed to the work of Ralph S. Baric, a professor of epidemiology and a microbiologist who studies coronaviruses at the University of North Carolina. Paul described Barics research as gain of function in collaboration with the Wuhan lab. A 2015 paper by Baric, Shi and others, published with NIH funding in the journal Nature Medicine, examined the potential of SARS-like bat coronaviruses to lead to human disease. Researchers created a chimeric virus with the spike protein of the bat coronavirus and a mouse-adapted SARS backbone and found viruses could replicate in human airway cells.The study said the creation of chimeric viruses was not expected to increase pathogenicity.

Fauci told Paul at the hearing: Dr. Baric does not do gain-of-function research, and if it is, its according to the guidelines and it is being conducted in North Carolina, not in China.

In a statement to us, Baric said: Our work was approved by the NIH, was peer reviewed, and P3CO reviewed, meaning reviewed under the HHS 2017 framework. We followed all safety protocols, and our work was considered low risk because of the strain of coronaviruses being studied. It is because of our early workthat the United States was in a position to quickly find the first successful treatment for SARS-CoV-2 and aneffective COVID-19 vaccine.

Kelsey Cooper, Pauls communications director, told us there is ample evidence that the NIH and the NIAID, under his direction, funded gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, citing Ebrights statements. In light of those facts, the question Dr. Paul asked was whether the government has fully investigated the origin of the disease, which it clearly has not. This research and the lab should be thoroughly investigated and opened to public scrutiny.

Perlman told us that he thought Faucis response in the May 11 exchange was correct that no money was given for gain-of-function research. But, he added, theres a scientific discussion to be had on the benefits and risks of research making recombinant viruses, which involves rearranging or combining genetic material. The politicization of the issue, Perlman said, doesnt do anybody good.

Editors note:SciChecks COVID-19/Vaccination Projectis made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation hasno controlover our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.

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The Recovery Room: News beyond the pandemic May 21 – Medical News Today

§ May 24th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on The Recovery Room: News beyond the pandemic May 21 – Medical News Today

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated the headlines and our daily lives for more than a year. Medical News Today has covered this fast-moving, complex story with live updates on the latest news, interviews with experts, and an ongoing investigation into the deep racial disparities that COVID-19 has helped unmask.

However, this has not stopped us from publishing hundreds of fascinating stories on a myriad of other topics.

We have a varied selection this week, starting with a must-read Special Feature reporting from the frontiers of cancer research. We asked a number of scientists about what most excited them in their field and present their responses below, together with a video of the highlights.

Medical Myths returns with a debunking of nine common misconceptions about arthritis, and our latest Honest Nutrition article challenges some myths surrounding genetically modified foods.

We finish with a startling report on how animals can breathe through their intestines, together with new articles on bees, the function of dreams, and the benefits of pink drinks along the way.

We highlight this research below, along with several other recent stories that you may have missed amid all the COVID-19 fervor.

To support National Cancer Research Month, MNT published a significant new article highlighting research that the leading cancer experts we approached are most excited about. Its a world of centrosomes, immunotherapies, theranostics, miniproteins, and radiopharmaceuticals unfamiliar terms that Tim Newman deftly explains in this latest Special Feature.

Its also a story of hope, as previously undruggable cellular processes yield new advances in targeted cancer therapies. Read the article and watch the video highlights to find out more about the astonishing advances in one of the most exciting fields in biomedicine.

Learn more here.

May is also Arthritis Awareness Month, so the latest edition in our Medical Myths series is well-timed. The article tackles nine myths about the condition, covering the symptoms, prevention, and supplementation.

Is arthritis something only older adults develop? Is all joint pain a symptom of arthritis? Should people with arthritis exercise? Can changes in the weather really exacerbate symptoms?

We address these questions and more in the article, which begins by summarizing the different forms of arthritis and their prevalence across the globe.

Learn more here.

Next, we reported new evidence for why we dream in this fascinating article. Researchers propose that the purpose of dreaming is to add flexibility to the models of the world that brains create during waking hours.

Researchers developed the idea by using deep neural networks, a type of machine learning algorithm that can learn to perform various tasks. There is a tendency for these neural networks to overfit what they have learned from new experiences. This means that they fail to generalize what they have learned to new situations. However, researchers found that it is possible to overcome this by adding strangeness or randomness to incoming data.

So, it may be the strangeness of dreams that gives them their biological function improving how the brain uses what it has learned to respond to unexpected scenarios in waking life.

Learn more here.

Our most popular article this week, with over 280,000 page views so far, was our investigation of the scientific evidence that supports starting your day with a glass or two of water.

Can drinking water first thing in the morning really encourage weight loss, boost your mood and mental performance, and significantly improve the appearance of your skin? Our editors consider the evidence, as well as the potential risks.

Learn more here.

Thursday, May 20, was World Bee Day, and this week MNT published a summary of the crucial role that the 20,000 known bee species play.

As well as producing honey, beeswax, and compounds that can kill cancer cells, bees pollinate over 90% of the worlds major crops. Without them, much of our food would not grow. Their social behavior has also inspired a better understanding of how humans interact on a large scale and reveal our effect on the environment.

However, bee populations are declining because of the effects of pesticides and the growth of towns and cities, so this article ends with advice on how we can each monitor and help protect their vital role in ecosystems everywhere.

Learn more here.

New research, reported in MNT this week, has found that people with a healthy heart performed significantly better in cognitive ability tests than those with a less healthy heart.

This was a large study with more than 29,763 participants living in the United Kingdom. The link between heart health and cognitive ability remained significant even after taking lifestyle and demographic factors into account.

However, scientists do not fully understand the precise mechanisms that power this association and need to carry out more research to explain the link. One possibility is the presence of beta-amyloid proteins in heart tissue, fragments of which scientists often associate with Alzheimers disease.

Learn more here.

The latest edition in our Honest Nutrition series focuses on genetically modified (GM) foods what they are, how and why they are created, and the common myths surrounding them.

Are GM foods dangerous, and do they cause allergies in some people? Are concerns about the effect GM crops have on the environment valid? Our editors look at the evidence and also assess the positive impact GM foods have on food availability and, in some cases, nutritional content.

Learn more here.

Can the color of a drink have a positive effect on a persons athletic performance? A new study, the first of its kind to test how a drinks color can affect exercise, suggests that it may be possible.

Researchers selected pink drinks because many people across the world perceive them as sweet and rich in energy. The study was small, with only 10 participants, but those who consumed the pink beverage ran further and a little faster than those who did not. They also reported that they enjoyed the experience more than the control group, who drank the same liquid without pink dye.

Read the article to learn more about this unusual combination of gastronomy and performance nutrition.

Learn more here.

A new study suggests that people can be vaccinated against misinformation by strengthening their awareness of possible manipulation.

Prebunking works by alerting individuals to the techniques that the purveyors of fake news typically use, in this case, by using a specially developed game to expose how misinformation spreads. The game, called Go Viral!, appears to work. In one test, 74% of people who played the game could spot misinformation compared to 55% of people who played Tetris instead.

Read the article to learn more about Go Viral! and perhaps play it yourself.

Learn more here.

Finally, this week, surprising new research challenges the fundamentals of how humans breathe. Scientists have discovered that pigs and rodents can, in certain circumstances, use their intestines for respiration. Although some species can breathe through their intestines, whether mammals retained the ability remained unknown until now.

To discover the ins and outs of this remarkable study and its implications for artificial respiration in humans who are critically ill, follow the link below.

Learn more here.

We hope that this weeks Recovery Room has provided a taste of the stories that we cover atMNT. We will be back with a new selection next week.

We publish hundreds of new stories and features every month. Here are some upcoming articles that may pique our readers interest:

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The Recovery Room: News beyond the pandemic May 21 - Medical News Today

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First genetically modified mosquitoes released in US – Livescience.com

§ May 11th, 2021 § Filed under Genetically Modified Humans Comments Off on First genetically modified mosquitoes released in US – Livescience.com

The biotech firm Oxitec has released its genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, with the goal of suppressing wild, disease-carrying mosquito populations in the region. This is the first time genetically modified mosquitoes have been released in the U.S.

Oxitec previously released its modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama and Malaysia, and the company reported that local A. aegypti populations fell by at least 90% in those locations, Live Science previously reported. A. aegypti can carry diseases such as Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever, and releasing modified mosquitoes offers a way to control the population without using pesticides.

Oxitec's modified mosquitoes, all male, have been engineered to carry a lethal gene; when the modified pests mate with wild female mosquitoes, the lethal gene gets passed on to their offspring. Though the gene does not affect the males' survival, it prevents female offspring from building an essential protein and thus causes them to die before reaching maturity.

Only female mosquitoes bite people (male mosquitoes exclusively drink nectar), so the modified mosquitoes and their surviving male offspring can't pass diseases to humans.

Related: Zika prevention: The buzz on genetically modified mosquitoes

A. aegypti mosquitoes make up about 4% of the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys but cause the vast majority of mosquito-borne disease transmitted to humans in the area, Nature reported. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) board typically budgets $1 million a year to control the pest, resorting to costly measures such as spraying aerial insecticides, according to Gizmodo.

Releasing hundreds of millions of genetically modified mosquitoes may be a less expensive and more effective option, the board concluded, especially as mosquito populations become resistant to pesticides over time.

FKMCD first approached Oxitec in 2010, and after a decade of regulatory assessments and local pushback, both the board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally approved the plan to release the genetically modified mosquitoes in the Keys, according to Nature. In late April, the company placed boxes of mosquito eggs at six locations in Cudjoe Key, Ramrod Key and Vaca Key, according to Nature. Over the next 12 weeks, about 12,000 newly hatched male mosquitoes should emerge from the boxes.

This release will serve as an initial trial so that Oxitec can collect data before running a second trial with nearly 20 million mosquitoes later this year, Nature reported. The company will capture mosquitoes throughout the trial to observe how far the insects travel from their boxes, how long they live and whether female mosquitoes are actually picking up the lethal gene and dying off. To make it easier to track the modified mosquitoes, Oxitec introduced a gene that causes the mosquitoes to glow under a specific color of light.

The trial faces strong opposition from a small subset of Florida Keys residents, as well as the Center for Food Safety and the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, Live Science previously reported. Concerned that the egg boxes might be vandalized, Oxitec placed them on private property and did not disclose their exact locations to the public, Nature reported.

"When something new and revolutionary comes along, the immediate reaction of a lot of people is to say 'wait,'" Anthony James, a molecular biologist who focuses on bioengineered mosquitoes at the University of California, Irvine who is not involved in the Oxitec project, told Nature. "So the fact that [Oxitec] was able to get the trial on the ground in the United States is a big deal."

Questions remain about whether the genetically modified mosquitoes will have unintended effects on local mosquitoes, animals or the ecosystem at large, Live Science previously reported.

For instance, after Oxitec released genetically modified mosquitoes in Jacobina, Brazil, genes from the insects cropped up in local mosquito populations, hinting that the lethal gene failed to kill off some female offspring before they could mate. Their hybrid offspring did not carry the lethal gene, but instead carried genes from the original Cuban and Mexican mosquito populations first used to create the genetically modified mosquitoes, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Scientific Reports. It's unclear whether or how these new genes might have altered the mosquitoes' biology.

Molecular biologist Natalie Kofler, founder of Editing Nature, an organization that advocates for the responsible use of gene editing, told Nature that she hopes the Oxitec trial will be conducted "in a way that's transparent, and in a way that can make some community members feel better about the whole situation," and that the data will offer insight into how the pests might affect local species and ecosystems.

Originally published on Live Science.

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