We are all Ponce: The Quest for Longevity

Brenda Cooper @ 10-03-2010

When I was very little, some early-grade teacher lost in the mists of memory told me the story of how Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon spent much of his life searching for the Fountain of Youth. Now that I’m approaching one of those decade birthdays, I can finally relate. Besides, as the leading edge of the baby boom starts retiring, this seems like a good time to take a peek at the science around longevity. Continue reading “We are all Ponce: The Quest for Longevity”


Paul Raven @ 04-01-2010

It’s a new year, and we have new fiction at Futurismic once again, courtesy of a familiar face. We’ve published more stories by Jason Stoddard than any one other author, and if you can read White Swan and still wonder why that is… well, I don’t know what to tell you!

“White Swan” sees Jason taking on a different style and voice, and very successfully. It’s a tale of small bright hopes in a dark and difficult future, and a shining example of why optimistic sf doesn’t have to be unrealistic, trite or panglossian. Read and enjoy. 🙂

White Swan

by Jason Stoddard

The tiny room stinks of kid-sweat and puke, and greasy Portland rain, endless, rattles the thin plastic window. Little Beny thrashes in his narrow bed, clawing unseen monsters.

This is the hardest time, Lili Antila thinks.

Hardest because she knows Beny’s cries are echoing through the thin walls to reach his mother and father, who drip exhausted tears on screens bright with electronic hope. Hardest because this is when she always thinks, What if it doesn’t work this time? Hardest because it brings back gauze-wrapped memories of bright-lit hospital rooms and hard-faced doctors and soft sheets rough like sandpaper on her own changing skin–

Lili blinks back tears and turns to the wall, which is playing one of her favorite movies on a window not much bigger than her hand: Bad Girl. A black-and-white James Dunn is waxing on about his dream of owning a radio store. Lili knows what a radio store is. A physical location to house goods for sale, electronics so hopelessly primitive that they were not even interactive. She also knows it is a sad and impossible dream in the First Depression. The screen is smart enough to know this, and it displays the movie with no floaters, no contextual hints.

There is a scuffle of feet at the door. A polite noise. Lili waits for Freya to walk up behind her. She can feel Freya’s body heat in the chill room. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: WHITE SWAN by Jason Stoddard”

The regeneration game

Paul Raven @ 04-07-2009

salamanderExciting results from the world of biology, with implications for human medicine: researchers looking at the limb regeneration process in salamanders have discovered that it works in a different way to what they thought previously. [image by jurvetson]

Rather than having their cellular clocks fully reset and reverting to an embryonic state, cells in the salamanders’ stumps became slightly less mature versions of the cells they’d been before. The findings could inspire research into human tissue regeneration.

“The cells don’t have to step as far back as we thought they had to, in order to regenerate a complicated thing like a limb,” said study co-author Elly Tanaka, a Max Planck Institute cell biologist. “There’s a higher chance that human or mammalian cells can be induced into doing the same thing.”


They found that salamander regeneration begins when a clump of cells called a blastema forms at the tip of a lost limb. From the blastema come skin, muscle, bone, blood vessels and neurons, ultimately growing into a limb virtually identical to the old one.

Researchers, many of whom hoped their findings could someday be used to heal people, hypothesized that as cells joined blastemas, they “de-differentiated” and became pluripotent — able to become any type of tissue. Embryonic stem cells are also pluripotent, as are cells that have been genetically reprogrammed through a process called induced pluripotency.

Such cells have raised hopes of replacing lost or diseased tissue. They’re also difficult to control and prone to turning cancerous. These problems may well be the inevitable growing pains of early-stage research, but could also represent more fundamental limits in cellular plasticity.

If Tanaka’s right that blastema cells don’t become pluripotent, then the findings raise another possibility — not just for salamanders, but for people. Rather than pushing cellular limits, perhaps researchers could work within nature’s parameters.

Another step towards transhuman immortality, perhaps? It’s fun seeing such science fictional subjects in ‘regular’ news venues, if only to watch journalists asking the sort of questions science fiction has always hinged on – like Khaled Diab at The Guardian, for example, trying to imagine what the world would be like if Aubrey De Grey is right about the immortality singularity:

Should people’s lives be extended indefinitely? If not, should society or the individual choose when to pull the plug? Should a 250-year-old physical teen be treated as an adult and served alcohol or not? Would society take long-term threats, such as the environment, more seriously because people will actually live to see the consequences? Does living so long rob future generations of their right to life? Would you like to live in a society without death?

I figure that, if it happens, we’ll work out a way to cope during the journey – much like Jamais Cascio suggests we’ll cope fine with intelligence augmentation, because it’s an iterative process rather than a momentary leap of change.

Of course, De Grey has already secured himself one form of immortality – the only form of it in which I’d be interested, anyway. I’m sympathetic to the transhumanist project, but the thought of living forever just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve always theorised that without the ticking clock of mortality we’d have very little to motivate us to create anything new or unique; you struggle to produce a legacy to fill the void of your leaving, if you will. Of course, my attitudes may change as I get older… but even so, if offered the choice right now I’d settle for a standard lifespan minus the gradual decline into senescence and frailty at the end. Death doesn’t scare me, but dying slowly sure does.

Should people’s lives be extended indefinitely? If not, should society or the individual choose when to pull the plug? Should a 250-year-old physical teen be treated as an adult and served alcohol or not? Would society take long-term threats, such as the environment, more seriously because people will actually live to see the consequences? Does living so long rob future generations of their right to life? Would you like to live in a society without death?

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The key to ending ageing?

Paul Raven @ 26-06-2009

This week’s inescapable big science story is that of Brooke Greenberg, the teenage girl whose physical and mental development has seemingly  stalled at the stage of an 11 month old infant. In addition to the lamentable tabloid freak-show component to the story, however, is the claim from a researcher that Brooke’s genetic make-up may hold the key to arresting the ageing process.

Walker thinks that Brooke is the first recorded case of what he describes as “developmental disorganization”. His hypothesis is that the cause is disruption of an as-yet unidentified gene, or genes, that hold the key to ageing by orchestrating how an organism matures to adulthood, reproduces, then gradually ages and dies.

Walker believes that Brooke lacks this “regulator” of development – first proposed in 1932 by British marine biologist, George Parker Bidder. Like Bidder, Walker believes that the regulator guides organisms through to adulthood, but also works beyond then to orchestrate ageing and, eventually, death.

It bears repeating that this is one man’s hypothesis rather than a species-wide day-pass to the fountain of youth, but let’s assume for a moment he’s right. The first ethical question here is whether Brooke should be treated as a potential source of human immortality rather than simply as an unfortunate girl in need of a lifetime of care. Personally I don’t see a problem with researching the implications of a condition alongside giving palliative care for it, as discussed in the neo-eugenics post the other day.

The second ethical question – and, to my mind, the much more important one – is whether we’re right to be chasing after human immortality as a goal. It’s a much fuzzier line; while I don’t see any problem with wanting to extend the human lifespan and eradicate the negative aspects of the physical ageing process (a matter on which I am somewhat on-side with the transhumanists), I’m not sure that we’re yet in a geopolitical state as a species where we could cope with radically extended lifespans.

Most of our modern wars revolve around resources, and resources are becoming scarcer because people already live much longer than they did a century or two ago; how much more of an issue will energy supply be in developed nations when the average life expectancy has an extra handful of decades tacked onto it? Will birth rates decline in proportion to increased lifespan, and if not, how will we cope with a population that is both expanding and greying?

Should we be thankful for the anti-ageing movement?

Paul Raven @ 27-11-2008

ageing stencilHuman life expectancy keeps increasing steadily, thanks not only to medicine and technology but to social and cultural progress, too. Potential next steps on the ladder could well come from both camps: an example from the med-tech side might be custom-grown replacement organs from pigs; whereas a change in dietary habits could probably be classified as a cultural change informed by science (although drinking ‘heavy water’ sounds a bit too much like snake-oil to me). [image by r000pert]

But the question is: how far should we go? Outspoken longevity evangelists like Aubrey de Gray claim a millennium-long life is not only possible but within our grasp, but such ideas have their opponents as well – some arguing from faith-based perspectives, others not. [via grinding.be]

Would you choose to extend your life-span, and if so how far?

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