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All articles with the "Biotechnology" tag.

Published: Sun, 18 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2018 19:31:26 -0500


Regulations Prevent Some People from Using Google Arts & Culture's Portrait-Matching Feature

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 09:55:00 -0500

(image) Tons of people recently downloaded the Google Arts & Culture app to discover which famous work of art they resembed, filling the internet with side-by-side images of selfies and portraits. While those in Illinois or Texas may be curious if they look like a Rembrandt portrait or Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Google refrained from releasing this portrait-matching feature in those states due to their stringent biometric regulations.

While the app itself has existed for a few years and offers additional features, the selfie feature went viral as scores of people began posting their accurate, or sometimes cruelly inaccurate (and hilarious) matches on social media. Using facial recognition technology, the app compares the image of its user to the thousands of famous portrairs housed in its database, offering up a series of "matches," so users can find their artistic dopplegangers. But people whose phones are registered in the state Illinois and Texas discovered they were unable to use this feature (though they could ask their out-of-state relatives to find their matches for them).

That's because the app uses biometrics or "biometric identifiers," according to the National Law Review, which include fingerprints, voiceprints, and facial geometry that can be used to identify a specific individual. Illinois in particular has led the forefront in biometric privacy lawsuits and regulations—having passed the illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act ("BIPA") in 2008. While other states like Washington and Texas have passed their own versions of BIPA, Illinois remains the most onerous. As a result of this legislation, companies like Facebook, Shutterfly, and others have all been the target of large class action lawsuits regarding their use of biometric data.

Though Google requires users to accept a disclaimer before using the feature that states the app only stores data as it actively seeks for matches, the company feared these security measures may not be enough to satisfy Illinois law. Unlike other states, in Illinois BIPA allows private citizens to sue companies for damages, when typically suits of this nature must be brought by the attorney general of that state.

Consequently, this regulation has deprived citizens of Illinois from enjoying other, possibly more useful features and products. Nest—another company specializing in thermostats and home security—declined to sell a doorbell technology that can recognize visitors in the state.

According to BIPA and the National Law Review, BIPA is an essential regulation, because unlike Social Security numbers and passwords that can be changed if necessary, biometrics are biologically unique and, when compromised, leave an individual without recourse, making this type of potential identity theft all the more dangerous.

But there are tradeoffs. As Matthew Kugler, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law, told The Chicago Tribune, "(Maybe) people would much rather have their selfie feature than this privacy protection. That's something we'll have to see."

GMO Opponents Are Immoral, Argues Purdue University President Mitch Daniels

Thu, 28 Dec 2017 13:35:00 -0500

Mitch Daniels is right: It's past time to tell your anti-GMO friends, family and neighbors they are helping to kill poor people. Today in a Washington Post op-ed, the former Indiana governor and current president of Purdue University cogently argues, "Avoiding GMOs isn't just anti-science. It's immoral." Daniels observes: Of the several claims of "anti-science" that clutter our national debates these days, none can be more flagrantly clear than the campaign against modern agricultural technology, most specifically the use of molecular techniques to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Here, there are no credibly conflicting studies, no arguments about the validity of computer models, no disruption of an ecosystem nor any adverse human health or even digestive problems, after 5 billion acres have been cultivated cumulatively and trillions of meals consumed. And yet a concerted, deep-pockets campaign, as relentless as it is baseless, has persuaded a high percentage of Americans and Europeans to avoid GMO products, and to pay premium prices for "non-GMO" or "organic" foods that may in some cases be less safe and less nutritious. Daniels properly excoriates academic scientists, regulators, along with food and agricultural companies for their cowardly reticence in challenging "an aggressive, often self-interested anti-GMO lobby that is indifferent to the facts and quick with ad hominem attacks." So what should be done? Daniels asserts: It's time to move the argument to a new plane. For the rich and well-fed to deny Africans, Asians or South Americans the benefits of modern technology is not merely anti-scientific. It's cruel, it's heartless, it's inhumane — and it ought to be confronted on moral grounds that ordinary citizens, including those who have been conned into preferring non-GMO Cheerios, can understand. Travel to Africa with any of Purdue University's three recent World Food Prize winners, and you won't find the conversation dominated by anti-GMO protesters. There, where more than half of the coming population increase will occur, consumers and farmers alike are eager to share in the life-saving and life-enhancing advances that modern science alone can bring. Efforts to persuade them otherwise, or simply block their access to the next round of breakthroughs, are worse than anti-scientific. They're immoral. The Journal of Markets and Morality asked me two years ago to debate statistician Nassim Taleb on the question "Do GMOs [genetically modified organisms] present cause for moral concern?" The editor of the journal explained, "The goal of this controversy is to assist our readership (economists, political scientists, theologians, moral philosophers, ethicists) in developing a more informed understanding of the issues at stake in the current state of the GMO debate, addressing concerns of fact, morality, and policy." In my initial essay, I detailed the strong scientific consensus is that current versions of genetically enhanced crops are safe for people and the natural environment. In addition, I pointed out that modern biotech crops could play a big role in helping to increase the availability of healthful food to the poor around the world. I concluded, "Fallacious arguments against developing and growing modern biotech crops is cause for great moral concern." Taleb was invited to participate because he and some colleagues had put together a mish-mash of a paper filled with statistical mystifications and handwaving to argue the modern crop biotechnology could lead to the extinction of the human race. After reading my essay Taleb withdrew from the debate and, for good measure, called me an "idiot." I am not alone in arguing that opposition to modern biotech crops is immoral. Last year, 100 Nobel Laureates signed an open letter demanding that Greenpeace and other activists groups stop killing and blinding poor children in developing countries. Specifically, the laureates urged, "Greenpeace to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and food[...]

GMO Virus Could Save Florida's Orange Groves

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 15:00:00 -0500

(image) Citrus greening is "the most serious threat that the Florida citrus industry has ever faced," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bacterial disease, which tends to turn fruit green after ripening, is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid insect. The devastating disease has infected an estimated 80 percent of Florida's citrus trees, and it has contributed significantly to the 60 percent reduction in the state's harvest of oranges and grapefruit since its peak in the late 1990s.

Now there may a way to fight back. Southern Gardens Citrus has engineered a version of the Citrus tristeza virus to attack the bacterium that causes citrus greening. The virus has been modified to carry a defensin protein found in spinach. When citrus greening bacteria come into contact with the protein, it kills them by perforating their cell walls, causing their contents to leak out. The company inoculates against the bacteria by grafting branches containing the genetically enhanced virus onto other trees. The virus then flows into the trees' vascular system, where it encounters and kills the bacteria.

In February, Southern Gardens Citrus applied for a permit for the environmental release of the virus. The Department of Agriculture is expected to allow Florida citrus growers to start using the virus in early 2019, according to Politico.

Florida growers hope that since the genes of the trees themselves are not being changed, anti-science groups will not damn the oranges and grapefruit from inoculated trees as Frankenfruit. But the public comments posted at Department of Agriculture's website suggest the bioluddites are not about to stand down.

Permissionless Biotech Crop and Livestock Innovation

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 17:46:00 -0500

Obama administration minions issued drafts of biotech crop and livestock regulations just two days before they left office last January. They were apparently motivated by their worry that genetically improved crops and livestock created using precise new genome-editing techniques like CRISPR would escape government oversight. There is good news. The USDA has now withdrawn these proposed regulations. The FDA should immediately follow suit and withdraw the scientifically indefensible regulatory proposals submitted by the Obama Administration. As I reported earlier: Treating each version of new improved livestock as a drug is really bad news for developers and consumers, since it takes years for a new drug to get through the FDA process at an average cost of more than $1 billion. Consider that it took the agency 20 years to approve the Aquabounty salmon that was genetically engineered simply to grow faster. The proposed USDA regulations were designed to change the way the agency approves genetically engineered plants and the draft FDA rules would subject genetically improved livestock to the same onerous process required to get the agency's permission to market new animal drugs. On the face of it, the precision of new genome-editing techniques would seem to call for less, rather than more regulation. The Obama administration proposed that breeders of gene-edited plants submit their new varieties to the USDA for pre-approval. Waiting on agency decisions would very likely slow down the process of developing new biotech crops even more. Under the Obama administration's proposed rules, the FDA would have required pre-approval of genetically improved livestock like Holstein dairy cows engineered to contain the same gene for hornlessness found naturally in Angus beef cattle. Since that gene in Angus cows harms no one, it wouldn't hurt anyone if it were in Holstein cows. So why should breeders have to beg FDA permission to sell hornless Holsteins? Why should breeders have to get regulatory permission at all to sell genetically engineered crop varieties or livestock? Breeders have for nearly 100 years been inducing genetic changes in plants by bathing them in caustic chemicals or blasting them with gamma rays to create hundreds of new crop varieties. The Mutant Variety Database run jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency lists more than 3,000 commercially available crop varieties created using mutagenesis. None of these mutated crop varieties required regulatory approval before their developers could introduce them into the marketplace. Why should crops created using vastly more precise biotech genome-editing need regulation? Animal welfare issues might arise in the cases of gene-edited livestock, but otherwise there is no scientific justification for regulating them as "new animal drugs." The FDA should speedily follow the USDA's salutary lead and withdraw the draft biotech regulations that the Obama administration left behind at that agency. Both agencies should step back and adopt the principle of permissionless innovation with respect to modern biotechnology. Mercatus Institute fellow Adam Thierer defines this as "the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default." He adds, "Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later." Since there is no such compelling case against advanced biotechnology, both agencies should radically reduce the amount of regulation that they currently impose on the development and deployment of modern biotech crops and livestock.[...]

'Becoming Machines Is Part of Our Destiny,' Says Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan [Podcast]

Thu, 07 Sep 2017 13:30:00 -0400

Zoltan Istvan isn't just one of the world's leading transhumanists. He's one of its most unapologetic when it comes to using science and technology to improving and augmenting humanity. "If I could cut off my arm right now, to put on a stronger robotic arm because it's more functional, I would do it," he tells Nick Gillespie in the latest Reason Podcast. "My wife might not like it, but I would do it because it will help me to climb Mount Everest or help me to throw a football or whatever, or even just work and build houses....I think all of us will start merging with machines...I think even religious people will say, 'You know, becoming machines is part of our destiny.'" At 18, Istvan got busted for selling pot, and he still simmers with outrage over drug prohibition and the way he and others are treated by the legal system. He traveled the world as a journalist for National Geographic, made a fortune selling real estate, and published the best-selling and award-winning novel The Transhumanist Wager in 2013 (he wants it to become the Atlas Shrugged of transhumanism). He's run for president on a transhumanist platform and now he's running for governor of California as a Libertarian and wants to transform his home state into a showplace for radical technology that will extend and enrich human life, reduce taxes, and replace bureaucrats, road-builders, and even teachers with cheaper and more-efficient robots. "It's very natural to want to innovate," he explains, "to want to see these amazing technologies and scientific discoveries come about and change the human race and apply this libertarian morphological freedom to everything. And, if you get there, then you're gonna really find a future that I think combines the best worlds of libertarianism as well as transhumanism." Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="300" frameborder="0"> Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie, and this is the Reason podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Today, we are talking with Zoltan Istvan. He wrote a novel in 2013 called "The Transhumanist Wager." He's run for president, or tried to run for president to get to the candidacy of the Libertarian Party. He is a futurist, a transhumanist, and he is a candidate for governor of California on the Libertarian Party ticket. Zoltan, thanks for talking to Reason and the Reason podcast. Zoltan Istvan: Thank you so much for having me. Gillespie: In a recent article in The American Conservative, which is available online, you wrote that whether we like it or not, transhumanism has arrived. How do you define transhumanism and how do we know that it's arrived? Istvan: Transhumanism is now a social movement of a few million people around the world, perhaps more, and they want to use science and radical technology to change the human being, and also to change the human being's experience of the world, of the universe, of everything. Generally, it can be anything from exoskeleton suits to give to disabled people, out of wheelchairs, it can be things like telepathy and brainwave headsets. It can even be things just like driverless cars, but it's essentially radical science and technology, and I think, just look around and check out the news, there's so much of this science technology already hitting us and impacting us. Gillespie: What are some of the examples... I have a pet theory that the future is always kind of fantastic in the abstract but then when it arrives, it almost becomes banal [...]

CRISPR and the Dawn of the New Biotech Revolution

Wed, 03 May 2017 12:15:00 -0400

(image) CRISPR genome editing will transform biotechnology and our lives in the next decade making possible (and cheap*) all kinds of new cures, new crops, new livestock, new industrial processes, and new ways to manage the environmental commons. Just two years ago, Science hailed CRISPR as the scientific breakthrough of 2015 noting, "It's only slightly hyperbolic to say that if scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, CRISPR can now make it happen." Researchers have tweaked CRISPR so that it can find and cut and, if desired, replace essentially any DNA sequence in an organism's set of genes, including those in human beings.

With regard to new cures, researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh have just published results in which they used CRISPR to almost entirely eliminate HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from living experimental animals. Basically, the researchers targeted segments of HIV genes using CRISPR loaded into a viral delivery system that inactivated the HIV genes. Temple University researcher Kamel Khalili said, "Our eventual goal is a clinical trial in human patients."


Another group of researchers announced last week that they are developing a pill that would use CRISPR to target specific microbial pathogens. The idea is that a CRISPR antibiotic pill would instruct harmful bacteria to shred their own genes to bits. The researchers have engineered CRISPR to contain bits of genomic DNA of Clostridium difficile into bacteria-killing viruses called bacteriophages. The next step is to package the engineered phages into Lactobacillus bacteria. Found in yogurt, Lactobacillus would survive passage through the human digestive tract while shedding CRISPR phages that infect and then destroy the targeted pathogens. Unlike current antibiotics, CRISPR pills would kill only the targeted pathogens, leaving benign microorganisms alone.

*Cheap, if the Food and Drug Administration regulators don't stand in the way. The initial signs are not good.

Is the Cure for Aging Just Around the Corner?

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 13:30:00 -0400

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," quipped Benjamin Franklin. For now both remain inevitable, but two exciting new studies suggest that the grim reaper might be put off by novel treatments that can slow and even reverse aging. Peter de Keizer, a molecular geneticist at Erasmus University, reports in the journal Cell that he and his colleagues have developed a technique that kills off senescent cells. Our bodies have two ways of preventing damaged cells from becoming cancerous: kill them off, or cause them to cease replication and thus become senescent. Senescent cells accumulate as we grow older, secreting inflammatory substances that harm neighboring cells and contribute to many age-related diseases, including atherosclerorsis and diabetes. De Keizer and his colleagues have developed a treatment in mice that selectively kills senescent cells while leaving healthy normal cells alone. They discovered that old or damaged cells become senescent rather than die when the FOXO4 protein binds to the tumor suppressor gene p53. They have designed another protein that interferes with the ability of FOXO4 to halt p53 from causing cells to die. De Keizer's team administered the new protein to both fast-aging and normally aged mice. The treatment worked as they had hoped, jumpstarting the ability of p53 to make senescent cells commit suicide. Eliminating senescent cells restored stamina, fur density, and kidney function in both strains of mice. The researchers report that they are continuing to study the rodents to see if the treatment extends their lifespans. They plan to try the treatment to stop brain cancer in human beings, but the ultimate goal is to treat aging as a disease. "Maybe when you get to 65 you'll go every five years for your anti-senescence shot in the clinic. You'll go for your rejuvenation shot," de Keizer told the Tech Times. In the same week, another group of Harvard researchers led by molecular biologist David Sinclair reported in Science about experiments in mice that thwart DNA damage associated with aging and exposure to radiation. As we age, our cells lose their ability to repair the damage to the DNA that makes up our genes. The repair process is orchestrated by the SIRT1 and PARP1 proteins. Both proteins consume the ubiquitous coenzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) to operate. As we grow older, the amount of NAD in our cells declines, thus allowing another protein, DBC1, to inhibit the DNA repair activity of both SIRT1 and PARP1. In their new research, the scientists fed the NAD precursor nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) to mice that were equivalent in age to an 80-year-old person. They also gave it to mice whose DNA had been damaged by radiation. The compound boosted NAD back to youthful levels and restored their ability to repair the DNA damage in both the old and irradiated cells. Sinclair said, "The cells of the old mice were indistinguishable from the young mice, after just one week of treatment." In addition, dosing astronauts traveling to Mars with NMN could counteract the damage that radiation in deep space would cause them. In an earlier experiment by Sinclair and his associates, the muscles of two-year-old mice fed NMN resembled those of six-month-old mice with respect to insulin resistance, inflammation, muscle wasting, and other important markers. Sinclair says that his group plans to launch human NMN trials in the next six months. Other groups have already started and completed safety trials of other NAD precursors in human beings. Leonard Guarente, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Glenn Laboratory for the Science of Aging, reported the results in December of a clinical trial involving 120 people who took the NAD precursor nicotinimide riboside (NR). The trial found that subjects experienced no serious adverse events. The participants ranged in age from 60 to [...]

Rejuvenation By Killing Off Senescent Cells and by Boosting DNA Repair: New at Reason

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 13:30:00 -0400

(image) "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," quipped Benjamin Franklin. For now both remain inevitable, but two exciting new studies suggest that the grim reaper might be put off by novel treatments that can slow and even reverse aging.

Senescent cells accumulate as we grow older, secreting inflammatory substances that harm neighboring cells and contribute to many age-related diseases, including atherosclerorsis and diabetes. Researchers associated with Erasmus University report that they have developed a compound that selectively kills off senescent cells while leaving healthy ones alone. Eliminating senescent cells restored stamina, fur density, and kidney function in aged mice. The researchers report that they are continuing to study the rodents to see if the treatment extends their lifespans. "Maybe when you get to 65 you'll go every five years for your anti-senescence shot in the clinic. You'll go for your rejuvenation shot," speculated one researcher.

As we age, our cells lose their ability to repair the damage to the DNA that makes up our genes. Another team of researchers associated with Harvard University are reporting experiments that increase levels of a compound that restores DNA repair activity back to youthful levels.

Is the Quest to 'Solve Death' Selfishly Immoral?

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 16:15:00 -0400

The thanatophiles are out in the public square again arguing that the pursuit of radical life extension is immoral. One such is University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel who denounced in his review of three new books reporting on the search by various Silicon Valley moguls for technologies and treatments that could slow or even reverse aging. Recall that Emanuel is the man who at age 57 famously declared in 2014: "Seventy-five. That's how long I want to live: 75 years." Why? "By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life," he asserted. So why hanker for death? Emanuel argued: Living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic. Of course, that is exactly what aging does to us all. But if the Silicon Valley and other innovators succeed at slowing and then reversing aging, all of those losses would be eliminated. The point of aging research is not to make us older longer, but to make us younger longer. So what then Emanuel? In his book review Emanuel now declares, "One of the most disturbing aspects of this immortality mania: its utter selfishness." Selfishness? Radical life extension would necessarily mean, he argues, less reproduction in order to keep world population in check. That would therefore end of the "possibility of creating new people with novel characteristics and perspectives. Life would become one long, boring rerun." Evidently, Emanuel believes that oldsters have a duty to die and get out of the way of the younger generations. If anti-aging treatments work, oldsters won't be elderlyl and thus will not soak up social security and Medicare since they will be healthy enough to support themselves. And presumably technological progress will not halt, so it is reasonable to expect all sorts of biotech and digital enhancements that will strengthen physical bodies, sharpen mental acuity, and regulate emotional states. In other words, the perpetually young would be endowed with novel characteristics and perspectives. And in the unlikely event that Emanuel turns out to be right about eternal ennui, there is a solution: You can experience the thrill of dying simply by stopping your longevity treatments. Emanuel is not along. For example, an article over at Wired asserts, "Silicon Valley Would Rather Cure Death Than Make Life Worth Living." The article cites the recent data by Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton that mortality rate for poor white Americans with a high school or less education is rising. Disconnected from community and work, many now succumb to drug overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide: basically dying of despair. Instead of frittering away their talents and their money on the search for immortality, Wired wants Silicon Valley titans to devote their resources to solving the social and economic dysfunctions that are shortening the lives of their less fortunate fellow Americans. Of course, some vast tech fortunes are already being spent on programs aimed at creating better lives for the poor. Ultimately, Wired is posing a false choice. Progress in one area of human endeavor does not preclude progress in other areas. It is highly likely that whatever treatments stem from research on aging will ameliorate many different illnesses including those that afflict poor Americans. For more background see my article, Eternal Youth For All.[...]

Scott Gottlieb: Trump's Nominee for Food and Drug Administration Commissioner

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 14:32:00 -0400

Products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) account for about 20 cents of every dollar of annual spending by U.S. consumers, amounting to more than $2.4 trillion in annual consumption that includes medical products, food and tobacco. The agency regulates medicines, diagnostic tests, medical devices, food safety including those made from modern biotech crops and livestock, food labeling, and tobacco and nicotine products. What the agency's bureaucrats decide has signifcant impact on U.S. economic growth and the livelihoods of Americans. President Donald Trump has nominated physician and American Enterprise Institute scholar Scott Gottlieb to become commissioner of the agency. Gottlieb earlier served as deputy commissioner during the Bush administration. Gottlieb has long been a critic of FDA's increasingly risk-averse culture that is slowing down the approval of new medicines. Defenders of the agency often cite data suggesting that the agency approves new medicines faster than other drug approval agencies abroad. That is true if only the period of time after a drug maker has submitted its New Drug Application (NDA) for approval is taken into account. More consequentially, increasing FDA requirements for longer and more extensive clinical trials before the NDA is submitted has substantially lengthened the periods and raised the costs of getting new treatments from petri dishes to patients' bedsides. Consider that researchers at the Tufts University Center for the Study of Drug Development have estimated that in 1991 it cost $412 million (2013 dollars) to develop and obtain approval for a new pharmaceutical. Last year, they calculated that it now takes more than $2.5 billion, a six-fold increase. Gottlieb, who has been associated with venture capital side of medical innovation, will seek to change the agency's culture from the current highly precautionary approach to one that more readily recognizes that benefits always come with risks. Under his direction, the agency would likely exercise a lighter regulatory hand over the development of new medical apps and diagnostics while seeking to work out the best way to speed up the approval of novel therapeutics based on stem cells and gene-edting technologies like CRISPR. Gottlieb is keen to get generic drugs approved quickly in order to bring down prices for consumers. In an August 2016 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he noted it now takes more than 2 years for the agency to approve a generic drug application and that the costs had risen from $1 million in 2003 to over $15 million now. He added, "This means that a drug may not face brisk generic competition until it exceeds $25 million in annual revenue. Thanks to these changes, infrequently used generics—such as clomipramine for major depression—may now have only one competitor and cost as much as branded drugs." Gottlieb also cited research that estimated the FDA's proposed generic labeling rule would expose generic drug manufacturers, who supply 84 percent of all prescriptions, to failure-to-warn product liability lawsuits, costing more than $5 billion in 2017. That rule is supposed to be finalized in April. As commissioner, Gottlieb might be able to halt it. While not a radical reformer, Gottlieb clearly has a good understanding of how over-regulation has been slowing down innovation in medicines and foods.[...]

Will Gene-Editing Technologies Spark the Next Cold War? They Already Have.

Thu, 15 Dec 2016 11:30:00 -0500

Sure, Donald Trump won Time's coveted Person of the Year award (coveted in the sense of, Who wouldn't want to be in a line of succession that includes Hitler, Stalin, and "You"?). But the runners-up, transhumanist visionary Zoltan Istvan reminds us, were the pioneers of the cheap and easy gene-editing techniques called CRISPR. CRISPR, which stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats," was discovered in 2012 and has really gained steam (sorry to be 19th-century in my metaphors) over the past couple of years. As Reason's Ronald Bailey has written, the low cost and ease of the technology has sparked all sorts of Brave New World-style fears but, more important, it offers immense hopes "to cure disease, correct defective genes, [and] create more productive crops." (Reason's archive on the topic is here.) Writing at Motherboard, Istvan worries that anti-CRISPR attitudes in the United States—emanating from both religious rightists and technophobic leftists—could mean that America will largely be left behind by countries that have fewer hangups. If China or another country vows to increase its children's intelligence via genetic editing (which I estimate they will be able to do in 5-10 years time), and America chooses to remain "au naturel" because they insist that's how God made them, a conflict species-deep will quickly arise. If this scenario seems too bizarre to happen, just consider the Russian Olympic track and field team that was banned in the recent 2016 Games for supposed doping. It's quite possible the same accusatory flavor of "banning" could happen between China and America in the game of life—between its workers, its politicians, is people, its artists, and its media. I wonder if America—approximately 70 percent who identify as Christians—will put up with beings who modified themselves by science to be smarter and more functional entities. This type of idea takes racism and immigration to a whole new level. Istvan lays out three possible scenarios (transhumanists, bless their non-souls, love scenario planning and so should we all). First, a strongly religious Congress, bolstered by a president who wants to keep peace with a large part of his constituency, goes along with a ban on CRISPR tech that sees America falling behind other nations, especially those with authoritarian regimes that force things on their citizens whether they like it or not). Second, a total "transhumanist nightmare" in which a global ban is enacted against all forms of enhancement, out of some mix of technophobia, reactionaryism, and misguided egalitarianism. And third: America could focus more on technology and less on biology and genetics. On my recent 4-month long Immortality Bus tour across America, I found conservative people seem more inclined to use tech accessories or wear a special headset that would make them smarter (for example, by connecting their thoughts Matrix-style into the cloud and AI)—as opposed to structurally changing their brains, as the Chinese likely will do. America could innovate that accessory tech that would keep us ahead of the biological modifications of other nations. Read whole piece here. As an advocate of self-directed evolution and decentralized experiments in living (including experiments with the living, as long as consent is present), here's hoping that the American and global public recognizes the promises of CRISPR not necessarily to "perfect" the human race (whatever than might mean) but to better our condition by warding off disease and aging and by making it easier for all of us to imagine and reach our potential. And then to start over again when we figure out that what we really want to do is something totally different. Must-watch: "The $140 Mail-Order CRISPR Kit: Is unregulated bio-hack[...]

Aging Is a Disease and It's Time to Cure It

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500

Emma Morano turned 117 on Tuesday. The Italian woman is, as far as we know, the oldest person in the world and the only living person who was born in the 1800s. The secret for her longevity? Eating three raw eggs a day and being single since 1938. The person known to have lived the longest ever was Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at 122 years of age. In October, Nature published an article, "Evidence for a limit to human lifespan," by three researchers associated with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Noting that the longest known lifespan has not increased since the 1990s, they argue that there is a fundamental limit to human longevity. The occasional outlier aside, they think that limit is about 115 years. Maybe, maybe not. In the 21st century, almost everything that kills people, except for accidents and other unintentional causes of death, has been classified as a disease. Aging kills, so it's past time to declare it a disease too and seek cures for it. In 2015, a group of European gerontologists persuasively argued for doing just that. They rejected the common fatalistic notion that aging "constitutes a natural and universal process, while diseases are seen as deviations from the normal state." A century ago osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, and senility were considered part of normal aging, but now they are classified as diseases and treated. "There is no disputing the fact that aging is a 'harmful abnormality of bodily structure and function,'" they note. "What is becoming increasingly clear is that aging also has specific causes, each of which can be reduced to a cellular and molecular level, and recognizable signs and symptoms." So why do people age and die? Basically, because of bad chemistry. People get cancer when chemical signals go haywire enabling tumors to grow. Heart attacks and strokes occur when chemical garbage accumulates in arteries and chemical glitches no longer prevent blood cells from agglomerating into dangerous clumps. The proliferation of chemical errors inside our bodies' cells eventually causes them to shut down and emit inflammatory chemicals that damage still healthy cells. Infectious diseases are essentially invasions of bad chemicals that arouse the chemicals comprising our immune systems to try and (too often) fail to destroy them. Also in 2015, another group of European researchers pointed out that we've been identifying a lot of biomarkers for detecting the bad chemical changes in tissues and cells before they produce symptoms associated with aging. Such biomarkers enable pharmaceutical companies and physicians to discover and deploy treatments that correct cellular and molecular malfunctions and nudge our bodies' chemistry back toward optimal functioning. As a benchmark, the researchers propose the adoption of an "ideal norm" of health against which to measure anti-aging therapies. "One approach to address this challenge is to assume an 'ideal' disease-free physiological state at a certain age, for example, 25 years of age, and develop a set of interventions to keep the patients as close to that state as possible," they suggest. Most people's body chemistry is at its best when they are in their mid-twenties. In fact, Americans between ages 15 and 24 are nearly 500 times less likely to die of heart disease, 100 times less likely to die of cancer, and 230 times less likely die of influenza and pneumonia than people over the age of 65 years. For lots of us who are no longer in our twenties, television talk show host Dick Cavett summed it up well: "I don't feel old. I feel like a young man that has something wrong with him." Meanwhile, lots of progress has been made toward ameliorating many of the diseases whose prevalence increases with aging. For[...]

Time to Declare Aging a Disease and Get On with Curing It: New at Reason

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500

(image) Emma Morano turned 117 on Tuesday. The Italian woman is, as far as we know, the oldest person in the world and the only living person who was born in the 1800s. The secret for her longevity? Eating three raw eggs a day and being single since 1938. The person known to have lived the longest ever was Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at 122 years of age.

In October, Nature published an article, "Evidence for a limit to human lifespan," by three researchers associated with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Noting that the longest known lifespan has not increased since the 1990s, they argue that there is a fundamental limit to human longevity. The occasional outlier aside, they think that limit is about 115 years.

Maybe, maybe not. In the 21st century, almost everything that kills people, except for accidents and other unintentional causes of death, has been classified as a disease. Aging kills, so it's past time to declare it a disease too and seek cures for it.

Record Temperatures and Record Grain Yields

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 10:15:00 -0500

Those of us who try to monitor the torrent of climate change studies frequently come across various projections that just seem like a total waste of their researchers' time. The impacts of future climate change on crop productivity nearly a century hence is one such area. This particular blog post is provoked by a new study in Nature Climate Change purporting to predict that wheat yields will fall by 4.1 to 6.4 percent for every 1℃ increase in global average temperature. Some of the same researchers estimated in a 2014 study in the same journal that global wheat production will fall by 6 percent for each degree Celsius of further temperature increase. Other researchers projected that higher temperatures will also significantly lower corn yields in France, the U.S., Brazil, and Tanzania by "4.5, 6.0, 7.8 and 7.1% per °C at the four sites, respectively." While these projections claim to take into account efforts to adapt, the researchers all seem to be technological pessimists who more or less assume that farmers and crop breeders will be stuck using techniques and crop varieties not much different from the ones they have now. Actually, crop breeders in the United Kingdom are already working to create a "super wheat" genetically modified with enhanced photosynthesis. In greenhouses, this boosts yields by 15 to 20 percent and the researchers are planning on field trials next year. In addition, the GMO wheat is even more productive when carbon dioxide levels are higher. In South Australia, researchers are figuring out how to add beneficial microbes (endophytes) that boost wheat yields by 10 percent. American researchers detail in a November 16 article in Science how they are working on another technique to boost photosynthesis that could increase yields by 15 to 20 percent. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the world has warmed at a rate of 0.12 degrees Celsius per decade since 1951 which implies that global average temperature has increased by nearly 0.8 degrees Celsius. Even as the world warmed, the World Bank reports that per hectare yields of coarse grains (including wheat and corn) have increased from an average of 1,400 kilograms per hectare in 1961 to 3,900 kilograms per hectare in 2014, an increase of 280 percent. It bears noting that world grain production (including wheat) reached a record high this year, which has been declared by the World Meteorological Organization to be the warmest year ever in the instrumental temperature record.[...]

Hooray for Factory Farming!

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 15:00:00 -0400

The Union of Concerned Scientists dismisses "industrial farming" as "the outdated, unsustainable system that dominates U.S. food production." Greenpeace urges people to "say no to industrial agriculture" while denouncing "our broken and unsustainable food system." They typically recommend a switch to small-scale organic farming as a supposedly sustainable form of food production. Considering, for example, that organic wheat yields are anywhere from 64 percent to just half of those produced by conventional farming, it's a very interesting definition of "sustainable." In the Sunday New York Times, Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University shows in a wonderful op-ed what unsustainable nonsense is being peddled to a credulous public by clueless activists about the alleged unsustainability of conventional farming. Lusk explains how the dramatic increase in productivity in modern farming since 1950 has prevented the plowing down of hundreds of millions of acres of additional land and the production of more milk and meat growing fewer animals. Lusk notes: Before "factory farming" became a pejorative, agricultural scholars of the mid-20th century were calling for farmers to do just that — become more factorylike and businesslike. From that time, farm sizes have risen significantly. It is precisely this large size that is often criticized today in the belief that large farms put profit ahead of soil and animal health. But increased size has advantages, especially better opportunities to invest in new technologies and to benefit from economies of scale. Buying a $400,000 combine that gives farmers detailed information on the variations in crop yield in different parts of the field would never pay on just five acres of land; at 5,000 acres, it is a different story. These technologies reduce the use of water and fertilizer and harm to the environment. Modern seed varieties, some of which were brought about by biotechnology, have allowed farmers to convert to low- and no-till cropping systems, and can encourage the adoption of nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as clover or alfalfa to promote soil health. Herbicide-resistant crops let farmers control weeds without plowing, and the same technology allows growers to kill off cover crops if they interfere with the planting of cash crops. The herbicide-resistant crops have some downsides: They can lead to farmers' using more herbicide (though the type of herbicide is important, and the new crops have often led to the use of safer, less toxic ones). But in most cases, it's a trade-off worth making, because they enable no-till farming methods, which help prevent soil erosion. These practices are one reason soil erosion has declined more than 40 percent since the 1980s. Improvements in agricultural technologies and production practices have significantly lowered the use of energy and water, and greenhouse-gas emissions of food production per unit of output over time. United States crop production now is twice what it was in 1970. There is one continent where organic agriculture is the dominant form of farming - Africa. Cereal yields in Nigeria average 1,594 kilograms per hectare (kph); in Niger 436 kph; and Kenya 1,628 kph. In the U.S. cereal yield is 7,637 kilograms per hectare - yields are about five times higher. Due to ever more productive factory farming, humanity has very likely reached peak farmland and more land will be returned to nature as more food is grown on less land. What's outdated and unsustainable are environmentalist demands to abandon modern farming technologies.[...]