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?
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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=740877
I am aiming to write a “proper” blog post soon (however, being in the usual mid-term work frenzy, possibly not that soon). So in the meantime, here’s this week’s Sunday Science, featuring spiders and robots, because how can you go wrong with those two things in the same sentence?
Firstly, in honour of the new Blade Runner, a short opinion piece on whether we could ever build a replicant. I note with interest that this also flags up soft robotics, which is a field I’ve been watching with interest for some time now.
And whilst we’re on the subjects, watch the following video and see if it doesn’t remind you of the T-1000 in Terminator 2:
This is research being done at Sussex, my university. Their news piece here.
Now for the spiders, the lovely spiders. Firstly, a nice piece on how modern genetic methods are helping untangle the rather complicated evolutionary history of these marvellous animals. That may be one more for the biologists. For everyone, however, is a fascinating article on the applications of synthetic spider silk: I didn’t know, for example, that they offer great promise for medical grade implants, because bacteria don’t stick to them and the immune system has trouble recognising spider silk due to its structure of repeating small amino acids. This week’s featured image shows vials of synthetic spider silk (Kiyaoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images and Science). To finish, have a nice graphic about that marvellous material as the golden orb-weaver spider makes it.
Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, featuring renewable energy, the results of a big study into gene expression, and rainstorms on Titan.
First, some good news. 2016 saw record growth in renewable energy, with solar energy leading the charge. New solar PV capacity around the world grew by 50%, and solar PV additions rose faster than any other fuel for the first time, surpassing the net growth in coal. China is the lead in this, interestingly. Video below, but the report from the International Energy Agency is well worth reading.
Since we learnt how DNA codes for genes, the great puzzle has been trying to figure out how you turn genes on and off in appropriate cells, such that, for example, your liver cells don’t express brain proteins. The GTEx consortium, which aimed to answer this question, now reports on the variations in gene expression between tissues and individuals. Fairly technical Nature News article with links to the original (open access) papers.
There’s a plethora of online “intelligence” tests of more or less reliability, but here’s one with a difference: Cognitron is an AI-based web server that aims to learn about human intelligence, and develop improved cognitive tests along the way. (No I haven’t done them yet but I plan to!)
And finally, Earth isn’t the only place in the solar system to have intense storms. Titan one of Saturn’s moons, has intense rainstorms – of liquid methane. Featured Image is of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, behind the planet’s rings. The tiny moon Epimetheus is visible in the foreground.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, via Science Daily.
Welcome to today’s Sunday Science, with some weird and wonderful animals, some human quirks, and future life on the oceans..
How did the weevil get its shell? Well, they have bacterial symbionts who live inside them with severely reduced genomes. These bacteria do not much more than churn out the amino acid tyrosine, needed to harden the shells. I love how nature is so weird sometimes. Link is to the full scientific paper, so fairly technical.
A fascinating account of the changes in the onset and duration of puberty, which has changed significantly over the years.
Seasteading, which means living on permanent floating artificial habitats, outside the jurisdiction of any government, seems to be taking a step forward. This long thoughtful piece examines the progress and implications of what was, until now, an idea confined to science fiction and libertarian dreamers.
And finally…did you ever collect tadpoles as a child and try and grow them to frogs? Well, toad tadpoles are less cute than they look: they contain potent heart poisons. The researchers thought this was to ward off competition from frogs, but it seems actually to be do with each other – the more toad tadpoles there are, the more toxic they get.
Credit: This week’s featured image via Nature, by Bert Willaert/NPL.
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.
Here are today’s Sunday Science links, for stories you may have missed in the mainstream media.
Today’s featured image is that iconic mammal the snow leopard, which has been downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. Its fellow mammal, the Christmas island pipistrelle bat, was not so fortunate: it is the first Australian mammal in 50 years to be declared extinct. [Leopard photo Vincent J Musi/NGC, from Nature.]
Defects in next generation solar cells, made of perovskite, can be repaired using light. Perovskite is abundant and cheap, but tends to have flaws which affect its efficiency in solar cells, so this is an important step forward.
A new analysis indicates that achieving the target of limiting global warming to 1.5C set by the Paris Agreement might be more feasible than thought (if still tough going). For a far less technical report on this, there’s a decent news article here.
A dinosaur called Chilesaurus may be the missing link between the plant eaters and theropod dinosaurs, which includes the famous carnivorous ones such as T. rex.
Finally, a sweet little piece on the science in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, including a couple of neat examples of fiction predicting scientific advances (although the psychology stuff I think is a bit unconvincing). Trivia: Holmes is the only fictional character to be made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.