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Science Policy Around the Web – March 06, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Technology and Health

Is That Smartphone Making Your Teenager’s Shyness Worse?

The development of new technologies, especially computers and smartphones, has greatly changed people’s lifestyles. People can telework without going to offices, and shop online without wandering in stores. While this has brought about convenience, it has also generated many adverse effects. People tend to spend more time with their devices than with their peers. Parents of shy teenagers ask, “Is that smartphone making my teenager’s shyness worse?”

Professor Joe Moran, in his article in the Washington Post, says that the parents’ concern is reasonable. The Stanford Shyness Survey, which was started by Professor Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s, found that “the number of people who said they were shy had risen from 40 percent to 60 percent” in about 20 years. He attributed this to new technology like email, cell phones and even ATMs. He even described such phenomena of non-communication as the arrival of “a new ice age”.

Contrary to Professor Zimbardo’s claims, other findings showed that the new technology provided a different social method. As an example, teenagers often use texting to express their love without running into awkward situations. Texting actually gives them time and space to digest and ponder a response. Further, Professor Moran said that the claim of Professor Zimardo was made before the rise of social networks;  shy teenagers can share their personal life online even if they don’t talk in public. He also talks about the paradox of shyness, where shyness is caused by “our strange capacity for self-attention”, while “we are also social animals that crave the support and approval of the tribe.” Therefore, new technologies are not making the shyness worse, in contrast social networks and smartphones can help shy teenagers find new ways to express that contradiction. (Joe Moran, Washington Post)


Biologists Propose to Sequence the DNA of All Life on Earth

You may think that it is impossible to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth, but at a meeting organized by the Smithsonian Initiative on Biodiversity Genomics and the Shenzhen, China-based sequencing powerhouse BGI, researchers announced their intent to start the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP). The news was reported in Science. There are other ongoing big sequencing projects such as the UK Biobank, which aims to sequence the genomes of 500,000 individuals.

The significance of the EBP will greatly help “understand how life evolves”, says Oliver Ryder, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California. Though the EBP researchers are still working on many details, they propose to carry out this project in three steps. Firstly, they plan to sequence the genome of a member of each eukaryotic family (about 9000 in all) in great detail as reference genomes. Secondly, they would sequence species from each of the 150,000 to 200,000 genera to a lesser degree. Finally, the sequencing task will be expanded to the 1.5 million remaining known eukaryotic species with a lower resolution, which can be improved if needed. As suggested by EBP researchers, the eukaryotic work might be completed in a decade.

There are many challenges to starting this project. One significant challenge is sampling, which requires international efforts from developing countries, particularly those with high biodiversity. The Global Genome Biodiversity Network could supply much of the DNA needed, as it is compiling lists and images of specimens at museums and other biorepositories around the world. As not all DNA samples in museum specimens are good enough for high-quality genomes, getting samples from the wild would be the biggest challenge and the highest cost. The EBP researchers also need to develop standards to ensure high-quality genome sequences and to record associated information for each species sequenced. (Elizabeth Pennisi, ScienceInsider)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 6, 2017 at 8:41 am

Evolution provides us with many genetic power tools – how do we use them wisely?

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

The Red Queen Hypothesis in evolutionary biology: “Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place.” (Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”)

DNA is a very ubiquitous molecule, sufficient to span the observable universe at least 20 times. Most of this DNA comes from viruses, either in the form of active viruses or in its inactive form incorporated in viral, bacterial, plant, fungal, and animal genomes. To limit the spread of viruses, it is not surprising that evolution has created many ways to contain the spread of these inactivated viruses. We have adopted some of these antiviral mechanisms for our own use.

The discovery of the first bacterial antiviral system, the restriction enzyme, led to the founding of Genentech and thereby the modern biotechnology industry. Despite the ease with which restriction enzymes can be used to cut and paste pieces of DNA together, they are currently limited to use in test tubes (in vitro).

A few years ago, a new genetic tool was discovered that could modify genetic material in living creatures (in vivo). Again, it was a bacterial anti-virus mechanism. This new technology is called CRISPR and its in vivo use brings with it the possibility to edit DNA in order to correct genetic diseases in patients themselves. Just as a slew of restriction enzymes with unique cutting characteristics have been found, a similar scenario seems to be happening with CRISPR with the discovery of more nucleases used to cut specific DNA sequences. The original nuclease used with CRISPR is cas9, but recently another nuclease (cpf1) was discovered. Where cas9 is efficient in deleting genes, cpf1 seems to be good for making small modifications. In the foreseeable future more cas9-like nucleases will be discovered, each with potentially their own unique characteristics, in addition to ongoing efforts to genetically engineer a better cas9 nuclease.

Ethical questions about the use of CRISPR in humans, especially in human sperm and eggs, have arisen. On December 1-3, 2015, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society, hosted a three-day international summit on the use of CRISPR in human embryos. Although germline editing is strongly discouraged pending continued technological and ethical deliberations over the next few years, it remains a scientific possibility. Based on a single Chinese study, it is still unclear if this route is realistic. After all, cloning mammals has proven much harder than feared in the 1990s, as has creating a petrol-producing algae by genetic editing. Nevertheless, this has not stopped genetic entrepreneurs like Google and Bill Gates from jumping on the CRISPR bandwagon to kick-start the second revolution in biotechnology. One big unknown factor that still remains looming over the development of both the technology and any regulation is the potential misuse of any do-it-yourself CRISPR kits.

In addition to making individual genetic changes at will like those with CRISPR, forces that work on population genetics can be employed. Again they have their roots in evolution. One such potential powerful force is gene drive. Gene drive is caused by a genetic sequence that does not obey the Mendelian inheritance rules (where there is a 50-50 shot for a gene to be passed on from parent to offspring). It is therefore possible to introduce a gene that could, for example, get rid of the malaria parasite by introducing a few GMO mosquitoes into a population of natural mosquitoes. Through gene drive over time the entire population of mosquitoes will carry the malaria-fighting gene. The implication would be that the malaria parasite would not be able to passed on to humans and thus malaria would be eradicated. This sounds like a dream scenario!

However, using gene drive on mosquitoes to eradicate malaria does open a new can of worms. Both for the good – as the need to fumigate would be reduced also reducing the creation of fumigation-resistant insects, including mosquitoes – and for the bad, namely unwanted ecological consequences as a result from for instance horizontal gene transfer. Another unwanted consequence of the gene drive technology would be the near-certainty that it will spread across political borders. To handle such foreseeable international disputes, international regulatory collaboration will be required. One solution to overcome these unwanted consequences of gene drive could be use genetically engineered mosquitoes that would not be able to produce any off spring.

Whatever happens on the side of technology development, genetically modifying organisms remains controversial for the time being. Just think about the hype surrounding the recent FDA approval (after 19 years) of faster-growing “Frankenfish” for human consumption. Part of the problem resides in the highly technical details and extensive use of jargon that permeate the biological sciences. At times, it can be challenging for even scientists to keep up with the fast pace of development in the field of genetics. Once can only imagine what must then be demanded of the public and policy makers. Just look at what CRISPR itself stands for: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. From the acronym alone, it is not clear what CRISPR does or means. Only through extensive communication between scientists and the public can a bridge be made that allows for exchange of knowledge about both the technical details and sincere concerns. The absence of many scientists on social media does not help this and actually widens the knowledge gap.

Nevertheless, various scientists have raised their voices about the potential power of gene drive as well as their professional concerns. Sure, gene drive can be used to do many things such as immunize animals that carry human diseases, control insect-borne diseases, spread pest-specific pesticides and herbicides, reduce populations of rodents and other pests, control invasive species, and aid threatened species. Yet, the power of gene drive also brings with it the fear for the unknown. What happens if a gene “goes wild” and crosses the species barriers through horizontal gene transfer? Will we be able to detect this quick enough to control it? What damage will it do if we can’t control it? Will there be any damage? For instance, cross-pollination between GMO crops and natural variants has been observed, albeit their incidences are relatively low and its broader ecological effect mostly unknown. To help curb these concerns, some solutions have been brought forward to help contain gene drive such as by designing it like Lego pieces, where only a complete set would be functional.

These concerns were considered so great that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences felt the need to create a workshop focused specifically on gene drive, in addition to the earlier international summit about the ethics of human genome editing. In short, the meeting showed that while gene drive has potential promises, both scientific and regulatory uncertainties remain, as well as fear about its potential irreversibility if it were to go wild. In other words, more research is needed covering all aspects of gene drive, including educating the public across the globe about the pros and cons.

Just as atomic energy produces both electricity and atomic bombs, thereby bridging the worlds of physics and societal needs, bacterial immune systems and evolutionary forces bridge basic biological research with applied biotechnologies. Society as a whole is moving more and more towards a society where genetics is a driving force for change – in medicine, global health, agriculture, pest-control, the judicial system and in combating terrorism. Understanding the basic principles of biology, genetics, and evolution are a must for policy makers of today and even more so of tomorrow. How else will they be able to support or debate a bill that is guided by or deals with genetic information and manipulation? After all, selective breeding and building a highly interconnected world have resulted in new species (of pets, livestock, and crops) and forced other species to adapt to changes in the environment we made (such as geographical barriers like roads and deforestation, and climate change). Therefore, careful ethical consideration of the wise use of powerful genetic tools and forces is critical, both for use in human, as well as any potential ecological implications. Gene drive as a tool has great potential, since after all, most of the DNA on earth came from the driving forces of selfish genetic elements. Evolution has provided us with many powerful tools and with great power comes great responsibility.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 7, 2014

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D

photo credit: subarcticmike via photopin cc


Newly discovered fossil could prove a problem for creationists

Ichthyosaurs were dolphin-like reptiles that lived during the time of the dinosaurs. These aquatic predators are thought to have evolved from land-dwelling ancestors that eventually returned to the water. Because of gaps in the fossil record, a definitive link between these proposed terrestrial reptiles and the ichthyosaur has been lacking. A study recently published in Nature identifies a semiaquatic reptile that appears to partially fill that gap. The creature, named Cartorhynchus lenticarpus, was recovered from China’s Anhui Province in 2011. Close analysis of the specimen identified C. lenticarpus as the oldest ichthysauriform identified to date. Unlike its descendant, C. lenticarpus had a shorter snout as well as large flippers, flexible wrists, and thicker bones which would have allowed them to troll shallow waters without being swept away by coastal waves. This animal lived approximately 4 million years after the earth’s largest mass extinction. Lead author of the study, Ryosuke Montani, said the amphibian “was probably one of the first predators to appear after that extinction.”  The next step? Find C. lenticarpus’ predecessor.  (Rachel Feltman, The Washington Post)


Ebola Outbreak – Vaccine Research

Nasal spray vaccine has potential for long-lasting protection from Ebola virus

A nasal spray vaccine developed by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin provided long-term protection in a non-human primate model after challenge with 1,000 plaque-forming units of Ebola Zaire, the strain responsible for the current outbreak in West Africa. The nasal vaccine resulted in 100 percent survival (3 out of 3 animals) 150 days post-immunization, in contrast to only 50% survival in primates vaccinated by standard intra-muscular injection. Results of the study, co-authored by Dr. Maria Croyle, graduate student Kristina Jonsson-Schmunck, and colleagues from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg were published this week in the online edition of Molecular Pharmaceuticals. While the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to rage with a fatality rate as high as 70%, there remains no licensed vaccine. Officials have declared the outbreak a public health emergency. According to Jonsson-Schmunck, “There is a desperate need for a vaccine that not only prevents continued transmission from person to person, but also aids in controlling future incidents.” This is the first study to examine the longevity of an Ebola vaccine and the first to demonstrate efficacy from a single-dose, non-injectable formulation. Use of a nasal spray is preferable to needle-based vaccines in terms of both cost and safety. A Phase I clinical trial is planned to test the vaccine’s efficacy in human subjects. (ScienceDaily, Mark Prigg, MailOnLine)


Federal Science Policy

After Election 2014: COMPETES Reauthorization

In the coming year, Congress will likely seek to reauthorize important legislation governing research and science education. The America COMPETES Act expired last year and has yet to be extended although two different congressional committees have emerged with strikingly opposed revisions to the previous 2010 COMPETES law. Democratic Senator John Rockefeller (who has chosen to retire and will not be returning to the Senate in January) introduced S. 2757 in July. This bill seeks to make good on the 2007 and 2010 COMPETES Act by doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The increase in NSF funding would be applied to all fields of research, including the social sciences and the NSF’s current peer review system would be maintained. The bill also provides for the continuation of federal outreach and educational activities. In stark contrast, Republican Representative Lamar Smith has crafted the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. FIRST authorizes NSF programs for only 1 year with a small increase in the current budget. However, the bill also specifically allocates the funds within the foundation’s six research directorates, slashing funding for the social sciences. Smith’s bill has raised strong opposition from the scientific community who are not only pushing for a substantial, long-term budget, but are equally committed to their own peer review process for awarding research dollars. Although Republicans will control both the House and Senate come January, COMPETES may still have a fighting chance. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the anticipated new head of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, expressed support for COMPETES legislation in 2013; and fellow Republican Senator John Thune, predicted chair of the commerce and science committee, while not coming out in support of COMPETES reauthorization, has endorsed the development of a research facility in his home state of South Dakota. Regardless of whether House and Senate can agree, the White House will still play a major role in dictating policy, making a lengthy battle over reauthorization likely. (Jeffrey Mervis, ScienceInsider)



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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm