With technology reminiscent of Jurassic Park, scientists plan to revive long-extinct species like the passenger pigeon.
The practice of cloning has long been stigmatized. Although the potential benefits have yet to be definitively weighed against the possible ethical repercussions, according to National Geographic, a technology called de-extinction is now within reach.
In the past decade alone, scientific tools and procedures have improved so that the idea of successfully cloning animals has moved from a vague fantasy to a tenable reality. Environmentalist Stewart Brand has been researching the possibility of bringing back the passenger pigeon, a species hunted to extinction in 1914. Ben Novak is a genetics student heading up the passenger pigeon research for environmentalist Stewart Brand’s Revive & Restore organization. “We’re going to build from scratch the code that is a passenger pigeon, one gene at a time, [and] compare it to its closest relative. Then we’re going to introduce DNA into the living cell of a Band-tailed pigeon,” he explains in a video from TIME Magazine. “When you introduce an extinct animal’s egg cell into a new mother, then you’ve changed the game, which has been done.”
Novak is referring to past attempts to clone the Pyrenean ibex. In 2003, Spanish and French reproductive physiologists were able to revive the cells of the extinct goat. The team used the preserved cells of the last ibex, who had died in 1989, to inject nuclei into goat eggs and implant the eggs in surrogate mothers. Few implantations resulted in pregnancies, and most pregnancies ended in miscarriage. However, one birth resulted in a clone of the Pyrenean ibex. The animal was born with respiratory defects and died within ten minutes, a short-lived and bittersweet first success at de-extinction.
Although technology has much improved since 2003, the revival of a once-extinct species is still years away and would only be possible for species that died out within the past couple tens of thousands of years. The events of Jurassic Park will not be relived any time soon. However, with the current advances in biotechnology, both scientists and the public may soon have to question whether bringing back extinct species is a reality they are willing to face. “One of the things we’ve gotten used to is the horrifying realization that extinction is forever,” Brand says. “But what if the new truth is that de-extinction is forever?”
Of course, there are several issues to work past before de-extinction becomes widely accepted. Revived species would be living in an environment vastly different from the one they inhabited before extinction, and the possibility of new diseases rapidly wiping them out is a real possibility. Protestors call the technology an expensive distraction from the more pressing matter of dwindling populations of living species. Since many of these species were killed through human interference and hunting, questions of whether the world is even ready to welcome these species back have been raised.
Supporters of de-extinction counter these reservations with suggestions of increased biological diversity and benefits to medical studies. With further research, the expenses of biotechnology should decrease rapidly. Scientists can research the protection of nearly extinct species while working on de-extinction, and as Church points out, “It’s hard to say in advance what’s distraction and what’s salvation.” As far as the complaints that scientists are attempting to play God or meddle unnecessarily, Novak says, “It was our direct activity that caused that extinction. For me, biotech is the future of conservation, because our meddling is not unnatural. It is what species do.”
Photo by John Goode, licensed under Creative Commons.
Easy enough for kids and amateur scientists to use, you might say DNA barcoding is inherently democratic.
In 2008, I happened to see an intriguing news story about two New York City high school girls who had used a new DNA-based identification method to determine if their neighborhood sushi restaurants were selling mislabeled fish. That was my first encounter with the technique known as DNA barcoding. Since then, I have helped hundreds of amateur scientists use barcoding to question the identity of everything from 'heirloom' oranges to 'beef' meatballs to the diversity of Alaskan plants.
The idea of identifying species through a very short genetic sequence, rather like the manner in which a supermarket barcode identifies products, was first proposed in a 2003 paper by Dr. Paul Hebert, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. The beauty of barcoding is that even non-specialists can obtain barcodes from tiny amounts of tissue and conclusively identify a species. Compare this to standard taxonomic identification, which requires intact specimens (often impossible in situations where you want to know the identity of foodstuffs) and an expert able to distinguish subtle anatomical differences between closely-related species using morphological features like the shape and color of the organism's parts. As The New York Times put it in their article about the abovementioned 'SushiGate' kids:
"What may be most impressive about the experiment is the ease with which the students accomplished it. Although the testing technique is at the forefront of research, the fact that anyone can take advantage of it by sending samples off to a laboratory meant the kind of investigative tools once restricted to Ph.D.'s and crime labs can move into the hands of curious diners and amateur scientists everywhere."
Readers of GeneWatch are probably more aware than most of the astounding rate at which DNA science in general is progressing. What they may not know is that there is a growing movement to democratize the technology, to put it into the hands of the public for the greater good. Professional scientists like myself have been inspired to found open, public-serving laboratories that are accessible to anyone who wants to pursue a safe and useful project. Genspace, which I co-founded and direct, is a nonprofit community biolab located in Brooklyn, NY. We provide workspace, access to equipment, and mentorship in the biosciences. Genspace offers adult education courses, free public events such as open barcoding nights, low-cost lab space for inventors, and is a place for students to work on projects for science competitions. One of the best uses of community labs is the kind of DIY investigation that can tell you more about your environment, health, or food. Is that goat cheese made with cow's milk? Bring it in and we'll teach you to barcode it. Want to know if your soy milk is Roundup Ready? We can teach you to determine that too, it's an even simpler protocol than barcoding. We want everyone to become more literate in the biosciences in order to join the discussion about them from a position of knowledge as opposed to forming opinions based on ignorance and fear. And I strongly feel that the best way to learn is hands-on in the lab.
Barcoding is a regular activity at Genspace. It's a great way for amateurs to participate in real science. Although the DNA barcodes of most common species have been deposited into public databases, most of the millions of species on earth have not been barcoded yet. This gives the student or citizen scientist an opportunity to contribute to the growing public database of DNA barcodes. Genspace first began teaching barcoding as part of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's 2011-2012 Urban Barcode Project, a science competition for high school students. Genspace worked closely with their Harlem DNA Lab and acted as its satellite site in Brooklyn for teacher training and open lab hours to mentor students in barcoding, a relationship that continues today.
Our newest barcoding project focuses on the importance of identifying organisms to help monitor the biological effects of global climate change. Accelerating habitat destruction is particularly evident in the Alaskan landscape, where glaciers recede practically before our eyes and environmentalists attempt to preserve species diversity in the face of opposing economic interests. In Genspace's Alaska Barcode Project, we invite the general public to monthly open nights where we teach them to barcode plant samples collected from remote locations in interior Alaska. The goal is twofold: to create a baseline survey of plants in particular areas such as the Skolai Valley in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and to add new identifying barcodes to the Barcode of Life Database to empower future amateur scientists to conduct similar surveys.
Part of the DNA sequence of the chloroplast gene rbcL has been designated as one of the two barcode regions for plants (the matK gene is the other region but is not used at Genspace). Barcoding a specimen starts with extracting its DNA. You only need a small piece, the diameter of a pencil eraser, to get plenty of DNA for barcoding. In a tiny plastic tube, the sample is mixed with a few drops of a solution that disrupts the cellular structure and then ground into a paste using a little plastic pestle. The DNA is then absorbed onto silica, which is washed with salt-containing buffers until all other cellular components are gone. The clean DNA is eluted off the silica with water and the barcoding region amplified using a procedure called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The amplification is necessary to get enough material in the tube to send out for sequencing.
PCR is a standard lab technique that has become mostly automated. Prepackaged mixtures of enzymes and reaction components such as the PCR primers that target the barcoding region can be bought cheaply in bulk. All one has to do is add a minute quantity of your DNA to the PCR mix and stick it into a preprogrammed machine. What comes out is ready to be sent off for sequencing at a fee-for-service facility doing hundreds of sequencing reactions daily. The total cost for the whole procedure can be less than $20 per sample.
Our barcoding nights have been very popular. They educate people and make them more informed about cutting-edge science. There is also a social component to the project where participants often engage in discussions about the promise and the repercussions of the technology.
It wasn't that long ago that major scientific contributions were made by curious amateurs, and science itself was less of a profession and more of a hobby. The popularity of our barcoding nights might be predictive of the resurgence of such citizen science, where a diverse cross-section of the general population are enthusiastic participants in scientific inquiry. It's empowering to be able to use the latest breakthroughs to answer questions of importance to you. I can think of no better use of my time than to continue to facilitate this empowerment through my work at Genspace. And please do stop by and barcode something if you are in the neighborhood!
Ellen Jorgensen, PhD, is co-founder and President of Genspace, where she spearheads the Urban Barcode Project and other programs. She was an invited speaker at TEDGlobal 2012. Reprinted with permission from GeneWatch (Nov/Dec. 2013), a bimonthly publication of the Council for Responsible Genetics and America's first and only magazine dedicated to monitoring biotechnology's social, ethical, and environmental consequences.
Photo by Col Ford and Natasha de Vere, licensed under Creative Commons.
Arctic Cod may hold the key to a more efficient method for storing blood.
Maintaining an adequate supply of blood has always been a challenge for hospitals. While refrigeration and freezing can provide a blood bank with reserves, the limited shelf life of blood and the additives used for preservation have made blood storage far from efficient, and reliance on new donors perpetual. But a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Warwick has demonstrated that nature might have a solution.
Summarized by Peter Dunn-Warwick for Futurity and first published in the journal Nature Communications, the study took a closer look at the antifreeze properties of fish that live in sub-freezing waters such as the arctic cod. Scientists isolated the specific proteins that prohibit freezing in fish blood, and were able to mimic the properties of those proteins in a polymer alcohol that can be added to human blood for efficient storage. Matthew Gibson of the University of Warwick summed up the multiple benefits of using polymer alcohol in freezing blood: “Firstly, it reduces the growth of ice crystals during thawing, secondly it reduces the need for organic solvents, and crucially, it reduces the time between defrosting and having transfusion-ready blood by eliminating the need to remove solvent.”
Although further testing is needed, scientists are hopeful that polymer alcohol will not only enhance blood storage techniques, but also bolster treatments for certain cancers and neurological ailments.
Photo by NOAA Photo Library, licensed under Creative Commons.
New advancements in EEG technology allow the average consumer to unleash their inner Jedi via headset.
The ability to influence objects with sheer brain power has typically been designated to the realm of science fiction, but new advancements in EEG technology allow the average consumer to gain insight into the inner workings of their mind via headset. EEG, which stands for electroencephalography, is a tool used in neuroscience to pick up patterns in the brain’s electrical activity, such as those that occur while sleeping or during epileptic seizures. EEGs have been used in hospitals to detect epilepsy and monitor the activity caused by other brain conditions, but recent efforts have been made to pair affordable EEG headsets with products such as computer programs, cell phones, toys, and video games in order to develop mental control and relaxation. Many of these products are being offered within an open source model, allowing users to further develop and experiment with EEG technology at home.
Amy Standen of KQED Science reports that NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile EEG headset costs only around $100 and is powered by a single AAA battery. Paired with the Puzzlebox Orbit Brain-Controlled Helicopter (priced at $89), the headset measures attention levels by requiring users to clear their thoughts and focus their concentration to power the helicopter while infrared signals on the gadget guide its flight. Richard and Erica Warp combined their knowledge of composing and neuroscience to develop another use for EEG headsets, the NeuroDisco computer program. The program composes music based on the brainwaves read from sixteen sensors placed around the scalp—the more focused you are, the more pleasant the notes produced.
This type of instant feedback allows users to understand how the brain influences certain results and subsequently alter their way of thinking to achieve change. As Adam Gazzaley of the University of California-San Francisco tells Standen, EEG programs may even help those diagnosed with ADHD. “Instead of being given a box of pills, they put an EEG cap on and they play a video game that looks at how they pay attention to relevant information, how they ignore information, how they sustain attention, how they deal with multiple tasks,” Gazzaley suggests. Then, devices such as the brain-controlled helicopter could provide an entertaining method of developing focus and mental relaxation. The affordability of EEG headsets will hopefully lead to further innovative uses of its potential and the continuing effort to bring such technology out of the hospital and into the hands of the everyday consumer.
Photo by David Huerta, licensed under Creative Commons.
The Oru Kayak aims to sustainably and affordably reconnect urbanites with the natural world around them.
The collapsible boat marketed to urbanites is not a new idea. But one California inventor and entrepreneur might have found the perfect combination of efficiency, sustainability, and affordability with his improvement on the collapsible kayak, reports Pat Joseph in the Summer 2013 issue of California.
Inspired by origami, Oru Kayak founder Anton Willis has successfully developed an all- plastic boat that’s fully recyclable, extremely durable, and able to be folded into its carrying case that can be stored in a closet or under the bed. It can withstand the folding/unfolding process up to 20,000 times, but most importantly, it actually works, and has been positioned as the ideal water vehicle for the urban dweller who’s interested in exploring their city’s waterways. And while Willis doesn’t recommend it for the weekend warrior, the Oru Kayak is even durable enough to handle the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, demonstrating that it’s capable of handling pretty much any scenario an urban boater might come across:
As Joseph explains in his article, the Oru Kayak represents a new breed of collapsible boats as it’s lighter than comparable boats (it’s just about 25 pounds), more compact, and cheaper (the boat alone sells for $1,095). A successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 got the ball rolling in a big way, proving that there was hungry market for Willis’ idea.
But the physical attributes of the boat only tell part of the story as far as Willis is concerned. From a philosophical perspective, this boat represents another extension of the mission at the heart of every project Willis has taken on; that is, his heartfelt desire to help urban people reconnect with the natural surroundings that are so easy for urbanites to miss or take for granted. His company’s product tester, Roberto Gutierrez, summed up Willis’ drive by saying, “For Anton, it’s not so much about selling stuff; it’s about getting people in boats and exploring the world around them. If selling Oru Kayaks can accomplish that, I think he’s happy.”
Photo of New York City from the Hudson River; courtesy of the Oru Kayak user gallery.
Scientific analysis of ancient Roman concrete suggests it was stronger, more durable, and more environmentally sound than modern concrete.
The simple fact that we can still visit the buildings and monuments of the ancient Romans illustrates that they knew what they were doing when it came to developing long-lasting building materials. Many historians even credit the Romans with inventing what we call concrete through their use of a very simple process:
But as Conservation reports in its Fall 2013 issue, it’s only recently that scientists have broken down the structure, chemical composition, and mechanical properties of ancient Roman concrete to the point of being able to glean useful information for contemporary concrete production.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, summarized their findings in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society, and found the ancient Roman combination of limestone, volcanic ash, and seawater required far less heat (which means far less fuel) for solidification than modern concrete does. This suggests that contemporary application of the ancient Roman method may yield stronger, more durable concrete with a much smaller environmental footprint.
Image courtesy isawnyu, licensed under Creative Commons.
The April launch of the Digital Public Library of America brings the knowledge-sharing we love about local libraries to the internet.
This article originally appeared at Shareable.
Public libraries exist to ensure that people have free and open access to information. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which launched in April, aims to provide that same access to information and materials, in the digital realm.
A project several years in the making, there are three facets to the DPLA: it’s an open portal that provides access to a variety of resources including documents, photographs, historic artifacts, film footage, art and other culturally significant materials; it's a tech platform for people to build upon (think apps that reveal geotagged materials); and it's an innovation and advocacy organization that works to make, and keep, content openly available to the public.
Launching with over two million materials from museums, libraries, schools, cultural centers and more, the DPLA is just getting started. The grand vision is to have the library be an ever-growing hub for librarians, students, teachers, artists, developers, historians and anyone else who is interested in seeing, learning about, using, repurposing, expanding and sharing materials.
John Palfrey, president of the Board of Directors of the DPLA sees the library as a symbol of the networked age. As he put it, “The most exciting idea is that we cannot begin to imagine the extraordinary things that librarians and their many partners can accomplish with this open platform and such extraordinarily rich materials...We will create new knowledge together and make accessible, free to all, information that people need in order to thrive in a democracy.”