Lost your head? Just grow a new one

Paul Raven @ 27-04-2010

Well, obviously you can’t regrow your head and brain, but Planarian flatworms can… and the discovery of the gene that (probably) makes this possible has the media doing their customary pulp-sf extrapolation thing and suggesting (albeit sarcastically in the case of El Reg) that we’ll soon be able to grow ourselves a new bonce By Using Science [via SlashDot].

It has a certain Frankensteinian charm, I’ll admit… but surely it’d be marginally more useful to discover a gene that could regrow the rest of the body from the neck downwards? Or am I just falling into the trap of assuming that the nexus of consciousness (and hence personhood) is located between the ears?

Blue genes: poetry encoded in DNA

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2010

Via Lauren Beukes comes the news that Canadian poet Christian Bök has thought of a way to transcend Keats’ epitaph of being “one whose name was writ on water”; he seeks a poetic immortality that could outlive the human species itself, by the expedient of encoding some of his work into the DNA of a hardy strain of bacteria.

… it’s a tricky procedure, and Bök is doing what he can to make it even trickier. He wants to inject the DNA with a string of nucleotides that form a comprehensible poem, and he also wants the protein that the cell produces in response to form a second comprehensible poem.

You can’t fault the guy’s ambition. Who knows – his work might be rediscovered in some nigh-unimaginable future where interest in poetry hasn’t withered away to nearly nothing.

Then again, maybe it’ll stage a comeback – Damien Walter argues that the social media era is ideally suited to poetry’s narrative and expressive concision. I’d very much like to see it happen… but I’ll not hold my breath just yet.

Was Lamarck right along? Why evolution doesn’t work like we thought it did

Paul Raven @ 19-03-2010

I expect most Futurismic regulars, much like myself, think they understand the basics of Darwin’s theory of evolution: random mutations occur in each generation, natural selection culls the poor adaptations, repeat and rinse ad infinitum, and the life a creature lives doesn’t affects its genetic legacy.

Well, here’s the thing: it turns out that the last point there – one which I’ll freely admit to having pedantically called people out on for years – may well not be true at all [via Kate Feld]:

… we’ve come to understand that the awesome power of natural selection – frequently referred to as the best idea in the history of science – lies in the sheer elegance of the way such simple principles have generated the unbelievable complexities of life. From two elementary notions – random mutation, and the filtering power of the environment – have emerged, over millennia, such marvels as eyes, the wings of birds and the human brain.Yet epigenetics suggests this isn’t the whole story. If what happens to you during your lifetime – living in a stress-inducing henhouse, say, or overeating in northern Sweden – can affect how your genes express themselves in future generations, the absolutely simple version of natural selection begins to look questionable. Rather than genes simply “offering up” a random smorgasbord of traits in each new generation, which then either prove suited or unsuited to the environment, it seems that the environment plays a role in creating those traits in future generations, if only in a short-term and reversible way.


Epigenetics is the most vivid reason why the popular understanding of evolution might need revising, but it’s not the only one. We’ve learned that huge proportions of the human genome consist of viruses, or virus-like materials, raising the notion that they got there through infection – meaning that natural selection acts not just on random mutations, but on new stuff that’s introduced from elsewhere. Relatedly, there is growing evidence, at the level of microbes, of genes being transferred not just vertically, from ancestors to parents to offspring, but also horizontally, between organisms.


Among the arsenal of studies at Shenk’s disposal is one published last year in the Journal of Neuroscience, involving mice bred to possess genetically inherited memory problems. As small recompense for having been bred to be scatterbrained, they were kept in an environment full of stimulating mouse fun: plenty of toys, exercise and attention. Key aspects of their memory skills were shown to improve, and crucially so did those of their offspring, even though the offspring had never experienced the stimulating environment, even as foetuses.

“If a geneticist had suggested as recently as the 1990s that a 12-year-old kid could improve the intellectual nimbleness of his or her future children by studying harder now,” writes Shenk, “that scientist would have been laughed right out of the hall.” Not so now.

And cue selective quote-mining by adherents of Creationism and other theologically-compromised pseudosciences in three, two, one…

Should we clone Neanderthals?

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

It’s another hat-tip to Chairman Bruce for flagging up this thoughtful article on whether or not we should clone Neanderthals from their mapped DNA, though I’ve seen others link it since (slow on the uptake, that’s me). But note the thrust of the question: it’s not can we clone them, but should we? Some real sf-nal thinking going on in here:

Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, doesn’t believe that creating a Neanderthal clone would be an ethical problem in and of itself. The problem lies in how that individual would be treated by others. “I don’t think it is fair to put people…into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared,” he says, “and this is equally important, it’s not going to have a peer group. Given that humans are at some level social beings, it would be grossly unfair.” The sentiment was echoed by Stringer, “You would be bringing this Neanderthal back into a world it did not belong to….It doesn’t have its home environment anymore.”

There were no cities when the Neanderthals went extinct, and at their population’s peak there may have only been 10,000 of them spread across Europe. A cloned Neanderthal might be missing the genetic adaptations we have evolved to cope with the world’s greater population density, whatever those adaptations might be. But, not everyone agrees that Neanderthals were so different from modern humans that they would automatically be shunned as outcasts.

“I’m convinced that if one were to raise a Neanderthal in a modern human family he would function just like everybody else,” says Trenton Holliday, a paleoanthropologist at Tulane University. “I have no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do.”

“I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties,” says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. The law does not define what a human being is, but legal scholars are debating questions of human rights in cases involving genetic engineering. “This is a species-altering event,” says Andrews, “it changes the way we are creating a new generation.” How much does a human genome need to be changed before the individual created from it is no longer considered human?

Plenty of food for thought (and fuel for stories) there. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve already read a few stories with cloned and/or back-bred Neanderthals in them – anyone in the audience remember anything similar?

One thing’s for certain – a real Neanderthal would think those New Yorican ‘Paleolithic’ fad-diet hipsters were pretty lame.

Blue-sky bioengineering on the DARPA drawing-board

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2010

If you’re looking for the sort of bat-shit Faustian gambles that form the back-bone of much military science fiction, following the news from the Pentagon’s science and tech division is like supergluing your lips to a firehose… and Wired’s DangerRoom blog is one of the better consumer-level sources to start with (if you don’t mind a bit of snark on the side).

Here’s DangerRoom‘s Katie Drummond on DARPA’s latest wheeze: immortal synthetic organisms with a built-in molecular kill-switch. SRSLY.

As part of its budget for the next year, Darpa is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, with the goal of eliminating “the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.” The plan would assemble the latest bio-tech knowledge to come up with living, breathing creatures that are genetically engineered to “produce the intended biological effect.” Darpa wants the organisms to be fortified with molecules that bolster cell resistance to death, so that the lab-monsters can “ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely.”

Of course, Darpa’s got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they’ll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create “tamper proof” cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, “similar to a serial number on a handgun.” And if that doesn’t work, don’t worry. In case Darpa’s plan somehow goes horribly awry, they’re also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch:

“Develop strategies to create a synthetic organism “self-destruct” option to be implemented upon nefarious removal of organism.”

The project comes as Darpa also plans to throw $20 million into a new synthetic biology program, and $7.5 million into “increasing by several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes.”

That post goes on to quote a professor of biology, who’s keen to point out that DARPA’s view of evolution as a random string of events is going to prove a major stumbling block to any attempts to “improve” the process. As to what sort of genuine advantage over extant military technologies these synthetic organisms would have, the pertinent questions are absent, as are those dealing with the moral and ethical issues surrounding military meddling with fundamental biological processes, and the unexpected ways in which they might go wrong. And to hark back to an earlier post from today: would killing a bioengineered military organism be a legitimate act of war?

Also absent (but somewhat implicit, depending on your personal politics) are any observations that the world’s biggest military budget shows no sign of helping the US gain the upper hand against a nebulous and underfunded enemy armed predominantly with a fifty-year-old machine gun design and explosives expertise that’s a short step up from the Anarchist’s Cookbook… I’m all for wild ideas and blue-sky thinking, but I’m not sure they’re much use as a military panacea any more. The days of peace through superior firepower are long gone, and the more complex you make your weapons, the more likely they are to blow up in your face.

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