Published: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 10:06:24 -0500
Thu, 15 Dec 2016 11:30:00 -0500Sure, 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-hacking the future of science?" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/odE8dNcklks" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">[...]
Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500Emma 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 example, the five-year survival rate for cancer patients in 1975 was 50 percent; today it is about 68 percent. The annual rates of heart disease and strokes in the U.S. have fallen from 500 and 130 per 100,000 respectively in 1970 to about 175 and 35 per 100,000 today. Si[...]
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.
Wed, 30 Nov 2016 10:15:00 -0500
(image) 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.
Mon, 26 Sep 2016 15:00:00 -0400The 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.[...]
Fri, 09 Sep 2016 13:30:00 -0400Beyond Human: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Extending Our Lives, by Eve Herold, St. Martin's Press, 291 pages, $26.99 "Transhumanism is becoming more respectable, and transhumanism, with a small t, is rapidly emerging through conventional mainstream avenues," Eve Herold reports in her astute new book, Beyond Human. While big-T Transhumanism is the activist movement that advocates the use of technology to expand human capacities, small-t transhumanism is the belief or theory that the human race will evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of deliberate technological interventions. As the director of public policy research and education at the Genetics Policy Institute, Herold knows these scientific, medical, and bioethical territories well. Movements attract countermovements, and Herold covers the opponents of transhuman transformation too. These bioconservatives range from moralizing neocons to egalitarian liberals who fear the new technologies somehow threaten human dignity and human equality. "I began this book committed to exploring all the arguments, both for and against human enhancement," she writes. "In the process I have found time and again that the bioconservative arguments are less than persuasive." (Herold cites some of my own critiques of bioconservatism in her book.) Herold opens with a tale of Victor Saurez, a man living a couple of centuries from now who at age 250 looks and feels like a 30-year-old. Back in dark ages of the 21st century, Victor was ideologically set against any newfangled technologies that would artificially extend his life. But after experiencing early onset heart failure, he agreed have a permanent artificial heart implanted because he wanted to know his grandchildren. Next, in order not to be a burden to his daughter, he decided to have vision chips installed in his eyes to correct blindness from macular degeneration. Eventually he agreed to smart guided nanoparticle treatments that reversed the aging process by correcting the relentlessly accumulating DNA errors that cause most physical and mental deterioration. Science fiction? For now. "Those of us living today stand a good chance of someday being the beneficiaries of such advances," Herold argues Consider artificial hearts. In 2012 Stacie Sumandig, a 40-year-old mother of four, was told that she would be dead within days due to heart failure caused by a viral infection. Since no donor heart was available, so she opted to have the Syncardia Total Artificial Heart (TAH) installed instead. The TAH completely replaces the natural heart and is powered by batteries carried in backpack. It enabled Sumandig to live, work, and take care of her kids for 196 days before a donor heart became available. As of this month, 1,625 TAHs have been implanted; one person lived with one for 4 years before receiving a donor heart. In 2015, an ongoing clinical trial began in which 19 patients received permanent TAHs. Herold goes on to describe pioneering research on artificial kidneys, livers, lungs, and pancreases. "Artificial organs will soon be designed that are more durable and perhaps more powerful than natural ones, leading them to become not only curative but enhancing," she argues. In the future, people will be loaded up with technologies working to keep them healthy and alive. (One troubling issue this raises: What do we do when someone using such biomedical technologies chooses to die? Who would be actually be in charge of deactivating those technologies? Would the law treat deactivation by a third party as tantamount to murder? In such cases, something akin to today's legalized physician-assisted dying may have to be sanctioned.) Artificial organs have considerable competition too. Herold, unfortunately, does not report on the remarkable prospects for growing transplantable human organs inside pigs and sheep. Nor does she focus much attention on therapies using stem cells [...]
Wed, 06 Jul 2016 17:45:00 -0400
(image) "Federal courts have just days to stop Vermont's unconstitutional, costly, and misguided genetically modified (GMO) food-labeling law from taking effect," warned Reason contributors Baylen Linnekin and Julie Kelly a little over a week ago. Vermont's law took effect on July 1. In that same article, Linnekin and Kelly noted that the U.S. Senate was inching "toward a compromise that would, if passed, prohibit laws like Vermont's from taking effect. But even if that bill were to become law, it won't come in time to halt Vermont's law from taking effect next week."
Better late than never. The Senate has taken a procedural step that will lead to the passage of a bill that would mandate federal GMO labeling of foods, either on-package or by means of QR codes. Since foods made with ingredients from modern biotech crops are no more dangerous or nutritionally different than those made from conventional or organic crops, such labels are likely to mislead consumers. However, the new federal requirements will prevent the proliferation of widely varying state labeling mandates. Of course, a non-fraudulent voluntary system of process labeling akin what is done now with regard to kosher and halal products would be much preferable.
In any case, infuriated activists showered the senators with $2,000, apparently to symbolize their being "bought-off" by Big Gene. The thoroughly dishonest and scientifically illiterate Friends of the Earth issued a press release:
This bill is a travesty, an undemocratic and discriminatory bill which preempts state laws, while offering no meaningful labeling for GMOs. If accepted, Americans will remain in the dark about what we feed our families. We are deeply disappointed in the members of Congress who supported this bill and who did not stand with the vast majority of Americans who want mandatory on-package GMO labeling.
Last week, 100 Nobel Laureates called Greenpeace's opposition to biotech crops "a crime against humanity." FOE's unceasing efforts to mislead the public about biotech crops is also a crime.
Tue, 05 Jul 2016 19:17:00 -0400
(image) Twenty years ago today, a domestic sheep named Dolly was born. She was the first mammal cloned using the nucleus of an adult cell. Her creators in Scotland held off announcing that their achievement until February, 1997. Headlines immediately cited ethical concerns and many advocated the banning of the technique, especially an attempts to clone a human being. In my May, 1997 article "The Twin Paradox" I reported a bunch of these bioethical pronunciamentos:
But Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) ... introduced a bill to ban the federal funding of human cloning or human cloning research. "I want to send a clear signal," said the senator, "that this is something we cannot and should not tolerate. This type of research on humans is morally reprehensible."
Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, hurriedly said that human cloning should be immediately banned. Perennial Luddite Jeremy Rifkin grandly pronounced that cloning "throws every convention, every historical tradition, up for grabs."At the putative opposite end of the political spectrum, conservative columnist George Will chimed in: "What if the great given--a human being is a product of the union of a man and woman--is no longer a given?"
In addition to these pundits and politicians, a whole raft of bioethicists declared that they, too, oppose human cloning. Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center said flat out: "The message must be simple and decisive: The human species doesn't need cloning." George Annas of Boston University agreed: "Most people who have thought about this believe it is not a reasonable use and should not be allowed.... This is not a case of scientific freedom vs. the regulators."
Assuming human cloning is safe (and no one knew back in 1997 how safe or unsafe the technique would prove to be), I could discern no ethical reason why the birth of a younger identical twin would be any more immoral than the births of same-age identical twins.
Dolly's creation turns out not to be an ethical cautionary tale, but rather an example of how complicated biology is and how slowly biotechnological progress takes place. Twenty years later, no one has cloned a human being. But Dolly's birth did spark a great deal of research into the possible therapeutic uses of adult, embryonic, and induced pluripotent stem cells.
By the way, if anyone wants to clone me, please just go ahead.
Wed, 29 Jun 2016 13:08:00 -0400
(image) An open letter today signed by 100 Nobel Prize Laureates calls upon the anti-technology activist group "Greenpeace to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general." The laureates point out that "scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity."
The laureates specifically demand that Greenpeace stop its attacks on Golden Rice which has been genetically enhanced to produce a vitamin A precursor as a way to prevent millions of deaths and cases of blindness annually in poor countries where the grain is the chief food staple. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in between 250,000 and 500,000 children each year, half of whom die within 12 months, according to the World Health Organization. A study by German researchers in 2014 estimated that activist opposition to the deployment of Golden Rice has resulted in the loss of 1.4 million life-years in just India alone.
Among the signatories are David Baltimore, Paul Berg, Elizabeth Blackburn, Steven Chu, Daniel Kahneman, and Harold Varmus.
The laureates' letter states:
WE CALL UPON GREENPEACE to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general;
WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace's campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace's actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.
How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a "crime against humanity"?
Actually, Greenpeace and other anti-biotech activists such as Naomi Klein and Vandana Shiva have long surpassed that threshold.
Mon, 13 Jun 2016 11:05:00 -0400
(image) In 1992, average life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 75.8 years. By 2008 that had risen by over 2 years to 78.1 years. The most recent data (2013) from the Centers for Disease Control finds that it is now 78.8 years on average. A rough calculation finds that life expectancy is increasing at a rate of about 2 months for every year that passes. In general, longer life is a good, but longer healthier life is even better. The good news is that even as life expectancy lengthens, healthy life expectancy is increasing even faster, according to a new National Bureau of Economic Research study by researchers associated with Harvard University. The researchers focus on increases in life expectancy for American over age 65 and report:
Years of healthy life expectancy at age 65 increased by 1.8 years over that time period, while disabled life expectancy fell by 0.5 years....[and then] we identify the medical conditions that contribute the most to changes in healthy life expectancy. The largest improvements in healthy life expectancy come from reduced incidence and improved functioning for those with cardiovascular disease and vision problems. Together, these conditions account for 63 percent of the improvement in disability-free life expectancy.
The increase in disability-free life expectancy for Americans over age 65 is largely the result of improved medical care. Specifically, cataract surgery and prophylactic treatments that prevent heart disease such as medications to lower blood pressure have significantly reduced the incidence of disabilities experienced by earlier generations at younger ages. This is good news, but the health care system is still far away from longevity escape velocity, that is, when increases in life expectancy rise faster than the time that passes. In other words, longevity escape velocity will be achieved when instead of rising at merely 2 months per year, life expectancy lengthens faster than 12 months per year.
For more background, see my Reason cover article, "Eternal Youth for All!"
Wed, 01 Jun 2016 12:00:00 -0400
In the United States, modern biotech crop varieties make up 89 percent of the corn planted each year, 94 percent of the soybeans, and 91 percent of the cotton. In February, agricultural researchers at Purdue University investigated what would happen if anti-biotech activists were successful in getting such crop varieties banned.
Their study calculated that eliminating all genetically modified crops in the U.S. would reduce corn yields by 11.2 percent, soybean yields by 5.2 percent, and cotton yields by 18.6 percent.
To maintain current production, U.S. farmers would then have to plow down an additional 250,000 acres of forests and pastureland. A global ban would require the conversion of 2.7 million acres of forests and pastures into cropland. None of that would be free: U.S. food prices would rise $14 billion to $24 billion per year.
A 2014 meta-analysis by German researchers found that the global adoption of biotech crops has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and boosted farmer profits by 68 percent. There's no question that banning biotech crops would undermine environmentalists' professed goal of protecting the natural world.
Fri, 27 May 2016 13:30:00 -0400Regulation killed biotech crop innovation. In the 1980s, at the dawn of the crop biotechnology era, scores of startups eagerly applied new bioengineering techniques to modify and enhance crop varieties. They have all vanished. Now the good news: The new CRISPR gene-editing technology may revive and restore competition and variety to the seed market. But only if activists and regulators stay out of the way. Today activists argue that the big four crop biotech companies—Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences—have monopolized the world's seed markets, commanding more than half the world's commercial seed supply. In the U.S. they sell 80 percent of seed corn and 70 percent of soybeans planted. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an antitrust investigation of Monsanto, but it ultimately decided not to take action. Long gone are the myriad early agbiotech startups—DNA Plant Technology, Agracetus, Crop Genetics International, Advanced Genetic Sciences, Biotechnica Agriculture, United Agriseeds, Molecular Genetics, Agrigenetics, and so on. Researchers at Calgene, founded in 1980, predicted that the first commercial biotech crops would be in the field by 1988. Instead, the first successful commercial biotech crops were not deployed until 1996. By the mid-1990s, most of the independent agbioech startups were no more; many of them had been bought up by the big chemical companies that now dominate commercial crop biotechnology. Consequently, the seed market for most commercial crops is highly concentrated. This is largely the result of regulation. Thanks to anti-biotech agitation, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cobbled together a system for regulating biotech crops in the 1980s. Over time, the rules have become ever more rococo. As a result, according to one recent industry estimate, it costs $136 million to get a new crop variety from discovery through the regulatory approval process. These costs pose a huge barrier to entry for any startups that might want to introduce a new genetically enhanced tomato, spinach, artichoke, or apple, much less extensively planted field crops like corn, soybean, and canola. Enter CRISPR, a new genome editing technique that enables bioengineers to essentially change and rearrange bits of DNA sequence in an organism's genome wherever they want. The chief factor fueling the strict regulation of agricultural biotechnology is the fear that genes transferred among microorganisms, animals, and plants would somehow get out of control. Yet CRISPR does not necessarily involve moving DNA from one organism to another. For example, the Pennsylvania State plant pathologist Yinong Yang has used the technique to engineer the common white button mushroom to resist browning. He did that by using CRISPR to delete a few base pairs from a gene. In October, Yang asked the USDA if his edited mushroom requires the agency's approval to grow and market. In April, the agency replied that since the mushroom contained no foreign DNA, it did not fall under its regulations. Some researchers in Israel have used CRISPR to create cucumbers that resist several plant disease viruses. Again, since no foreign genes or DNA was introduced into the pickle precursors, they should not fall under the purview of current U.S. biotech regulations. Similarly, British researchers have used CRISPR to change how seeds develop in barley and broccoli. Chinese researchers have used gene-editing to create a wheat variety that resists powdery mildew. Sadly, some activists are calling crop varieties created by CRISPR "hidden GMOs" and are demanding that they be regulated. Why "hidden"? Because there is no easy way to tell a crop variety modified using[...]
Fri, 27 May 2016 13:30:00 -0400
(image) Regulation killed biotech crop innovation. In the 1980s, at the dawn of the crop biotechnology era, scores of startups eagerly applied new bioengineering techniques to modify and enhance crop varieties. They have all vanished. Today, the seed market for most commercial crops is highly concentrated. This is largely the result of regulation. Now for the good news: The new CRISPR gene-editing technology may revive and restore competition and variety to the seed market. But only if activists and regulators stay out of the way.
Tue, 24 May 2016 15:25:00 -0400
You might have heard that Americans overwhelmingly favor mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. That's true, according to a new study: 84 percent of respondents said they support the labels.
But a nearly identical percentage—80 percent—in the same survey said they'd also like to see labels on food containing DNA.
The study, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal last week, also found that 33 percent of respondents thought that non-GM tomatoes "did not contain genes" and 32 percent thought that "vegetables did not have DNA." So there's that.
University of Florida food economist Brandon R. McFadden and his co-author Jayson L. Lusk surveyed 1,000 American consumers and discovered that "consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food." In fact, the authors say, "the findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as motivation for public policy surrounding GM food."
My summary for laymen: When it comes to genetically modified food, people don't know much, they don't know what they don't know, and they sure as heck aren't letting that stop them from having strong opinions.
However, the authors do offer another, more charitable way to read their findings, suggesting that rather than simply throw up our hands and say that Americans are the Jon Snows of GM food, we should consider the possibility that the results "indicate how consumers psychological[ly] handle difficult questions."
Perhaps "individuals attempt to economize on scarce cognitive resources by unconsciously substituting an easier question for a hard one. Rather than seriously weighing the pros and cons of a mandatory labeling, the similarity in responses to the DNA labeling question suggests people may instead be substituting these questions with a simper question like, 'do you want free information about a topic for which you know very little?' This psychological process would lead to similar levels of support to two very different policy questions." Leaving aside the sick burn implied by the phrase "scarce cognitive resources" for a minute, this is a good point.
What's more, the researcher found that even posing basic questions about GM food caused people to re-evaluate how much they knew, downgrading their own perceptions of their knowledge levels, while simultaneously becoming more confident about the safety of GM foods.
UPDATE with fun fact: High fructose corn syrup and other highly refined foods made with GM crops actually don't contain DNA, apparently.
Fri, 20 May 2016 13:30:00 -0400More than 120,000 Americans are currently on waiting lists for lifesaving organ transplants. Every day some 22 of them die before they can receive a transplant. Wouldn't it be great if organs precisely matched to their recipients could be grown inside domesticated animals, such as pigs or sheep? Scientists are trying to achieve just this goal, but some ethicists are opposed to the research. At Stanford University, stem cell researcher Hiromitsu Nakauchi has made some significant steps toward growing human organs inside of animals. As a proof of principle experiment, he grew a rat pancreas in a mouse. He did this by disabling the gene for generating a pancreas in a mouse embryo, then injecting the embryo with stem cells from rats. The rat stem cells took up this vacated "organ niche" and differentiated into fully functioning pancreases. Such cross-species mixtures are called chimeras, after the creature from Greek mythology that was part lion, part goat, and part serpent. Nakauchi also successfully used this method to grow a functioning pancreas in a pig using stem cells from a genetically different pig. Nakauchi is now working with Pablo Ross, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, to create human-pig and human-sheep embryos to see if the technique can produce human organs. The genes for generating specific organs are disabled and human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are injected into pig and sheep embryos. Induced pluripotent stem cells are adult cells that have been genetically reprogramed to an embryonic stem-cell-like state. Once reprogrammed, iPSCs can grow into different types of cells and tissues. For example, reprogrammed skin cells would be able to differentiate into liver cells or heart cells. Once the human-pig and human-sheep chimeric embryos are created, they are installed in the wombs of pigs and sheep, where they are allowed to gestate for 28 days before being removed for examination. Normal gestation is 114 days and 152 for pigs and sheep respectively. For now, they stop short of full gestation in an effort to avoid ethical controversy. Last year, the National Institutes of Health imposed a moratorium on funding any research in which human pluripotent cells are introduced into non-human animal embryos. But why would anyone object to this potentially lifesaving research? "You're getting into unsettling ground that I think is damaging to our sense of humanity," the New York Medical College biologist Stuart Newman told NPR this week. Sufficiently unsettling, in fact, that some U.S. senators tried to outlaw human-animal chimera research back in 2009. In the same NPR report, Jason Robert, a bioethicist at Arizona State University, said, "One of the concerns that a lot of people have is that there's something sacrosanct about what it means to be human expressed in our DNA." He added that some people might consider that inserting human DNA into "other animals and giving those other animals potentially some of the capacities of humans that this could be a kind of violation—a kind of, maybe, even a playing God." One issue that worries folks like Newman and Robert is the possibility that human stem cells, instead of growing into transplantable hearts, kidneys or livers, might migrate to the brains of animals or to their reproductive organs. Would human neurons in the brains of pigs generate something like human consciousness? It is worth noting that mice, into which glial cells obtained from donated human fetuses were injected into their brains when they were pups, learned much faster to fear a sound associated with a mild electric shock than did their normal confreres. But while the human brain c[...]