biology, General opinion, genetic modification, History of science, medicine, Organ transplantation, Science, science fiction, SF and science

Franken fears, Franken futures (part 2)

Moving from AI back to biology, how close are we to creating life out of replacement parts? Or nothing at all? Well, we could probably clone a human being any day. This really isn’t the big deal it sounds like: there have been human clones as long as there have been humans: they’re called identical twins. In terms of the ethics, I imagine the worst is that you’d just get some unhealthily grieving people trying to clone their dead Dad, which isn’t a good idea. Clone armies to wage your wars? Well, no, it’s not going to get any faster to grow a human being and raise it to adulthood, and, for the moment, we don’t have those artificial wombs (nor are we likely to, taking an embryo from the moment of conception). You’d probably go for those AI drones instead.

Making a different form of human is another thing entirely. Continue reading

biology, genetic modification, Opinion, Opinion piece, Robotics, Science, Science and society, science fiction, SF and science

Franken fears, Franken futures, part 1

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s hugely influential Frankenstein this year, which numerous news outlets are obviously picking up on. If you’ve never read it, do; it’s astounding, even today. (I’d recommend the first edition, as being more forceful than later editions). I’ll consider a few thoughts on the fears it still touches on today, then move onto the science of how we might replace human parts, or the whole, in part 2. Continue reading

biology, evolution, genetic modification, medicine, Organ transplantation, Robotics, Science, science news

Sunday Science 12/11/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with skin regeneration, bees and pesticides, evolving bacterial ecosystems, and sensitive robot skin.

First up, a major breakthrough which did make the mainstream news was the story of a boy with a lethal condition which had resulted in the loss of most of his skin, who had genetically engineered skin grafts (pictured) and is now living essentially a normal life. There’s a Nature opinion piece here which has a more scientific slant, putting this research in context. The original research article is here, and open access (be warned it has a distressing photo of the child pre-treatment). Although extremely rare, these genetic diseases do affect nearly half a million people worldwide, and are agonising and often fatal.


I’ve blogged before about  “soft robotics” inspired by biology. A couple of stories I missed earlier include this piece on an artificial “skin” for robots that can be stretched and detect vibration and shear forces, crucial for handling objects. Also, other scientists have developed robotic skin that can change shape and colour, inspired by cephalopods, which is rather cool. (Research article may be found here, but it’s behind the Science paywall).

There has been an ongoing long-term experiment observing thousands of generations of the bacteria E.coli, to observe evolution in action. The latest results reveal that – even in bacteria – ecological interactions arise spontaneously, and the bacteria form little specialised sub-populations. Link is to an opinion piece; the full-text article link can be found from that for the technically minded.

There’s been a lot in the press recently about calls to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. The UK has long resisted efforts in the EU to ban them – now it seems that it will push for a full ban.  There’s a thoughtful opinion piece here that weighs up the evidence behind this. (I should note a disclaimer in that Prof Dave Goulson, quoted in the piece, works at my institution).


Photo: Nature Press.

biology, Explainer, genetic modification, News, Opinion piece, Science, Science and society, SF and science

Our genetic future is arriving

The rapidly expanding field of gene editing had another breakthrough this week, which was excitedly reported in the news  as a potentially revolutionary new way of treating genetic disease. Is this a real possibility, or just hype? And what have the researchers done that’s so special?

Continue reading

biology, genetic modification, medicine, Science, science news

Sunday Science 29/10/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science. The big science news of the past week has been the latest advance in gene editing. This deserves a longer look, so I’ll be sending out a post on that later today/tomorrow. This week I’ve got a focus on medical/biological advances.

Firstly, after many years, the first gene therapy has been approved on NHS.  This is for so-called “bubble baby” syndrome, which is a genetic condition called adenosine deaminase deficiency, or ADA-SCID. Sufferers have a severely compromised immune system and must live in a sterile environment as much as possible. It’s very rare, but usually fatal. The gene therapy replaces the faulty gene in bone marrow cells, which are then transplanted back to the patient, and is lifelong.

A new drug has been approved for treating  sleeping sickness.  This is an endemic and problematic parasitic disease in Africa, one of many “neglected tropical diseases.” This week’s featured image shows trypanosome parasites in a blood sample from an infected patient. I actually previously blogged about the potential of this drug in a piece about these diseases a while back, so it’s good to see it’s promise fulfilled. Previous treatments have had high toxicity or been difficult to administer: this is a pill to be taken orally.

Finally, a study has been done that shows for the first time how the brain maps connections from an artificial prosthetic limb, in those cases where where residual limb nerves are rerouted towards intact muscles and skin regions to control a robotic limb. (I recently blogged about prosthetics versus transplants here). There is surprisingly good control, but the brain doesn’t interpret them exactly as it does the original limb, so more work is needed to improve the mobility and sensation from these devices. Studies like this can help researchers design artificial limbs both more useful and more natural feeling to use.


Photo credit: CDC/Dr. Myron G. Schultz – CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL), Public Domain,

biology, Developmental biology, evolution, genetic modification, Miscellaneous, Science, Science and society, science news, SF and science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 01/10/17

Here is the this week’s Sunday Science, including truly wearable tech, tsunami-borne sea creatures and duck penises.

Do you have one of those smartwatches which measures your heart rate when you exercise? Does your smartphone automatically keep track of how many steps you take each day. Well, the future both for this and for medical monitoring may lie more in flexible, wearable sensors, or the bodynet, as this fascinating piece in Nature of the latest merging of scifi with science fact explores.

Male ruddy ducks regenerate their penis every year, apparently, one of those glorious facts you never knew you needed in your life. However, they may grow an extra-long (as in, 18cm!) or an extra-short one (only 0.5cm), due to fierce sexual competition.

Salmon have returned to a river in Derbyshire for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

Continuing the CRISPR revolution, it has been used to genetically engineer human embryos to study early embryo development, revealing an important role for a gene in embryo implantation and miscarriage risk.

This week’s featured image is of marine sea slugs from a Japanese vessel from Iwate Prefecture, washed ashore in Oregon in April 2015 [Image credit Mark Chapman via Science Daily]. Thousands of creatures were washed across the ocean as a consequence of the Japanese tsunami, a study published in Science magazine discovered. Such “rafting” events are natural, of course, but what’s not natural is the extent of this migration, much of which was enabled by animals riding along on our non-degradable plastic waste. Nearly 300 species have appeared on the west coast of the US and Hawaii. This is potentially setting in motion a radical ecological experiment.

biology, Explainer, genetic modification, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday science stories 13/08/17

An absolutely fascinating account about human breast milk, which turns out to be an incredibly sophisticated substance full of beneficial microbes, antibodies and even cells. Made me feel a lot less abnormal about my still-breastfeeding 2 1/2 year old!

Genetically modified salmon have been approved for human consumption in Canada These fish continuously produce growth hormone so they reach maturity (and hence marketability) much sooner. I wouldn’t be worried about eating it, but I do have some concerns about escapees – would they potentially out-compete wild salmon?

What should you buy if you have the cash to spare? Time, apparently, as opposed to things. Buying time makes you happy. This is the link to the actual scientific paper, hence a bit dry, but it’s not hugely technical.

Finally, this week’s featured image shows the FlyPi, a 3D printed fluorescent microscope system based on a Raspberry Pi computer system that has been developed by the Baden lab here at Sussex University. They can be built for less than 100 Euros, compared to the 1000s that even a basic microscope usually costs. Website includes link to the original paper, with full technical detail, and other resources.