The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'genetic engineering'


A private group of genetic engineers in the US have a plan to create light-emitting plants for “sustainable natural lighting”. The plants will include the luciferase gene, as present in fireflies and genetically modified rabbits commissioned by artists; the ultimate aim is to provide a better than carbon-neutral replacement for street lights and household lamps.

To create the glowing plants, the team will first generate modified genes with the Genome Compiler software, then insert them into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage (they make sure to point out that the plant is not edible). The main gene, luciferase, is the same one that makes fireflies light up the night.
As luciferase is not sufficiently bright to light a street, or even a living room, the project will require optimisation; the engineers already have enhanced the gene's light output to an extent.

A Kickstarter campaign was started to fund the research, with those (in the US) contributing $40 or more to receive a packet of glowing plant seeds in return. To day, the campaign, which aimed for $65,000, has raised $216,536, with 33 days to go.

It'll be interesting to see if this is successful; will we see streets lit by fluorescing trees, or find ourselves putting a plantshade over the bedside plant when going to sleep? And will plants that emit a useful amount of light need to be fed large quantities of a sufficiently high-energy plant food to keep glowing?

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Researchers in South Carolina are getting closer to developing practical vat-grown meat, with no animals involved in its production:

If wine is produced in winery, beer in a brewery and bread in a bakery, where are you going to grow cultured meat? In a "carnery," if Mironov has his way. That is the name he has given future production facilities.
Dr. Mironov has taken myoblasts -- embryonic cells that develop into muscle tissue -- from turkey and bathed them in a nutrient bath of bovine serum on a scaffold made of chitosan (a common polymer found in nature) to grow animal skeletal muscle tissue. But how do you get that juicy, meaty quality? Genovese said scientists want to add fat. And adding a vascular system so that interior cells can receive oxygen will enable the growth of steak, say, instead of just thin strips of muscle tissue.
The researchers believe that cultured meat will eventually become cheaper than meat grown the traditional way, and also will allow for a greater variety of gastronomic possibilities.

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Genetic engineering has built a better mouse, with extraordinary physical abilities:

The mouse can run up to six kilometres (3.7 miles) at a speed of 20 metres per minute for five hours or more without stopping. Scientists said that this was equivalent of a man cycling at speed up an Alpine mountain without a break. Although it eats up to 60 per cent more food than an ordinary mouse, the modified mouse does not put on weight. It also lives longer and enjoys an active sex life well into old age – being capable of breeding at three times the normal maximum age.
American scientists who created the mice – they now have a breeding colony of 500 – said that they were stunned by their abilities, especially given that the animals came about as a result of a standard genetic modification to a single metabolism gene shared with humans.
I do hope the colony's well guarded; can you imagine the mayhem that would ensue if they ever broke out?

The article goes on to mention some other achievements of genetic engineering, including the "spinach pig" (a pig containing a spinach gene, which is healthier to eat; not to be confused with the "green pig").

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An interesting MSNBC article speculating on the future of human evolution, and interviewing scientists including Richard Dawkins:

Some environmentalists say toxins that work like estrogens are already having an effect: Such agents, found in pesticides and industrial PCBs, have been linked to earlier puberty for women, increased incidence of breast cancer and lower sperm counts for men.

"One of the great frontiers is going to be trying to keep humans alive in a much more toxic world," he observed from his Seattle office. "The whales of Puget Sound are the most toxic whales on Earth. Puget Sound is just a huge cesspool. Well, imagine if that goes global."

If we count humanity's technology as part of the evolving package &emdash; the extended phenotype, as Dawkins called it &emdash; then that will become part of the future of humanity, even if only due to the inevitable increase in pollution of an increasingly crowded Earth. Our descendants will have microscopic flotillas of nanobots in their bloodstreams, hunting down toxins and zapping proto-cancerous mutations. Perhaps corporations will remain the dominant species on earth, and the nanobots will be rented from the corporation that owns the patents for them; any human unlucky or imprudent enough to miss a payment can look forward to dying of massive organ failure, turning into a mass of tumours or having their suddenly naked immune system eaten alive by superbugs within 24 hours. Unless you live in the future's equivalent of Brazil or somesuch, in which case you'd get free open-source nanobots, considered by the America of the future to be pirated. But I digress.

Further on, the article speculates about whether humanity will diverge into different species, looking at Eloi/Morlocks scenarios, whether any sort of apocalyptic scenario could divide humanity into enough separate subgroups for them to evolve separately, and the question of body enhancement:

"You're talking about three different kinds of humans: the enhanced, the naturals and the rest," Garreau said. "The enhanced are defined as those who have the money and enthusiasm to make themselves live longer, be smarter, look sexier. That's what you're competing against."
In Garreau's view of the world, the naturals will be those who eschew enhancements for higher reasons, just as vegetarians forgo meat and fundamentalists forgo what they see as illicit pleasures. Then there's all the rest of us, who don't get enhanced only because they can't. "They loathe and despise the people who do, and they also envy them."

Then there is the question of germline genetic engineering, which could create instant races of superhumans or monsters, the AI singularity and even the vaguely retro-sounding prospect of spacefaring.

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A company in the US is planning to start marketing genetically engineered hypo-allergenic cats for people who suffer from cat allergies. The cats will cost US$3,500 (indexed for inflation) and will be available in 2007; of course, to protect Allerca's intellectual property, the cats will come pre-neutered (think of it as genetic rights management). Interested parties can reserve one by ponying up US$250, which also gets them an "attractive personalized Reservation Certificate". Allerca are planning to expand into other species of "lifestyle pets" (perhaps an odorless, non-salivating dog could be in the works?) (via /.)

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Some years after Eduardo Kac's glowing rabbit, more artists are using genetic engineering. Among recent art/biotech works are a cactus which expresses human hair (and is supposed to be some sort of statement about sexuality, of course), butterflies with mutated patterns on their wings, and winglike shapes made out of cultured pig tissue.

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Contrarian idea of the day: genetically engineered organisms may be our best hope for averting environmental catastrophe: (via worldchanging)

In 2001 a group of scientists announced that they had engineered a transgenic tomato plant able to thrive on salty water--water, in fact, almost half as salty as seawater, and fifty times as salty as tomatoes can ordinarily abide.
Salt-tolerant crops might bring millions of acres of wounded or crippled land back into production. "And it gets better," Alex Avery told me. The transgenic tomato plants take up and sequester in their leaves as much as six or seven percent of their weight in sodium. "Theoretically," Alex said, "you could reclaim a salt-contaminated field by growing enough of these crops to remove the salts from the soil."
most agronomists agree that some substantial yield improvements are still to be had from advances in conventional breeding, fertilizers, herbicides, and other Green Revolution standbys. But it seems pretty clear that biotechnology holds more promise--probably much more. Recall that world food output will need to at least double and possibly triple over the next several decades. Even if production could be increased that much using conventional technology, which is doubtful, the required amounts of pesticide and fertilizer and other polluting chemicals would be immense. If properly developed, disseminated, and used, genetically modified crops might well be the best hope the planet has got.

Of course, to the Khmer Vert that is the dogmatic wing of the Green movement, any tampering with Mother Gaia's blessing is anathema and an absolute evil, so they won't have a bar of this. Though hopefully more neophilic heads will prevail, when people realise that we can't return to an idealised, "natural" hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle. Human civilisation, in its present form, is deeply unnatural and dependent on technology, and the only way to reduce its footprint on the planet will be by technological means.

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The future of household pets looks like the Night Pearl, a genetically-modified tropical fish that glows in the dark and doesn't need aquarium lights. This could lead to a revolution in designer pets, including non-allergenic cats, odourless dogs, and exotic-looking pets requiring very little maintenance and doubling as lighting fixtures, as well as numerous unintended consequences:

And that is the scenario that worries British aquarium enthusiasts. 'One idea being explored is to add genes - taken from cold water fish - that will allow tropical fish to live in unheated aquarium,' said Derek Lambert, editor of Today's Fishkeeper. 'Just imagine what would happen if they got released. You could end up with strange coloured GM tropical fish in our waters.'

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From his recent book of essays A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins on genetic engineering, and why (some) public opposition is more based on superstition than fact:

What, then, of the widespread gut hostility, amounting to revulsion, against all such "transgenic" imports? This is based on the misconception that it is somehow "unnatural" to splice a fish gene, which was only ever "meant" to work in a fish, into the alien environment of a tomato cell. Surely an antifreeze gene from a fish must come with a fishy "flavour". Surely some of its fishiness must rub off. Yet nobody thinks that a square-root subroutine carries a "financial flavour" with it when you paste it into a rocket guidance system.

Which suggests that people intuitively understand biology in terms of Aristotelian essences; i.e., a fish is a fish because it has the quality of fishness, and there's a strong gut feeling that natural organisms aren't merely the sum of their DNA, but are natural because they carry Mother Gaia's blessing in their essence or something like that, and You Can't Tamper With Nature. Which is interesting as a study in psychology (much as "naïve physics" is), but when it comes to policy-making, it comes down to legislation-by-disgust, which is never a good thing.

(An insight: the difference between "natural" and "artificial" is whether someone knows or once knew how it was made.)

Dawkins, of course, doesn't dismiss all concern about genetic engineering; any sane scientist would agree that there needs to be sufficient testing for unintended effects. However, that's a far cry from the burn-down-the-laboratories attitude of some of the more ludditic doomsayers; which, Dawkins argues, given the popularity of such views in the Green movement, could hurt the Greens' credibility on other issues.

And as heated as opposition to genetic engineering is, it could be a storm in a teacup compared to the upcoming row over nanotechnology.

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Here's a new scam for you, Lev: Who Knew It Would Be So Easy To Impersonate A Priest?

The thing you have to realize is, when you dress up like a priest, people want to believe you're a priest. I recently visited a small town in Missouri where no one knew me and started walking around in my priest outfit. Within a few hours, I was invited to a week's worth of home-cooked meals. Man, did I eat good! And you know what? Not a single person asked me to show my priest ID card before serving up the roast turkey and mashed potatoes.

And in the same Onion:

BREMERTON, WA-- A head of genetically modified broccoli shrieked its numerous benefits at shoppers Monday in a Seattle-area Safeway. "I contain 40 percent more vitamin A than non-modified broccoli!" the head screeched at terrified produce-aisle customers. "I can fight off insects and disease without the use of pesticides!" Monsanto, makers of the vegetable, stressed that genetic-modification technology is still in its infancy, and that more pleasantly voiced broccoli should hit store shelves by 2003.

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Scientists in the US have created a genetically modified piglet with a glowing snout and trotters. The piglet's DNA contains jellyfish genes, turning its snout and trotters fluorescent yellow. Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac does not appear to be involved. (via Found)

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The next genetically modified animals have been announced: a US company plans to offer allergy-proof cats for people with cat allergies; the cats will be available in 2003, or so it is hoped, and will sell for $1,000. (Wonder if they'll be pre-sterilised to protect Transgenic Pets' intellectual property.) The announcement has been condemned by animal-rights groups opposed to Man tampering with God's handiwork.

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Coming soon to a McLympiad near you: genetically engineered posthuman athletes capable of outperforming ordinary humans.

In a 1995 survey, nearly 200 aspiring American Olympians were asked if they would take a banned substance that would guarantee victory in every competition for five years and would then cause death; more than half answered yes.

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An American or Canadian company has developed transgenic goats that produce spider silk in their milk. (via Slashdot)

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The Onion looks at the appeal of genetically engineered foods:

  • Stay fresh, crisp and colorful for weeks, even in human digestive tract
  • 15% "Beefsteak Tomato" no longer just a fanciful name

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