Fun Science FRIEDay – Embryonic Gene Editing

The world we currently live in would have seemed like science fiction to humans in the not to distant past. Everyday more and advancements transform sci-fi dreams into reality. Most recently gene editing of human embryos has been birthed into the realm of possibility (cheesy pun intended!). In theory gene editing embryos could allow you to choose preferential traits in your soon to be human flesh-blob. That level of ability does not currently exist, but the latest developments in gene editing are still pretty astonishing.

Eggs before gene editing (left), and eggs after gene editing and already undergoing cell division (right)
(Photo credit: Ma et al. 2017)

In a recent study scientists took a human embryo and edited a dangerous mutation from the genes of that embryo; human reality, meet science fiction. Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, with colleagues in California, China and South Korea, edited embryos, fixing a mutation that causes a common heart condition that can lead to sudden death later in life. The biggest hurdles were producing embryos in which all cells, not just some, were mutation-free, while also avoiding creating unwanted extra mutations during the process. The researchers found that when gene-editing components were introduced with sperm to the egg before fertilization, the success of the process was markedly different from previous approaches. If embryos with the repaired mutation were allowed to develop into babies, they would not only be disease-free but would also not transmit the disease to their descendants.

Read More

Scientific Stockholm Syndrome

In response to unprofessional behavior by another scientist, a marine science colleague recently stated that they were so used to bad behavior in their area of research that they just accepted it as normal, and that they basically had “Stockholm syndrome”. Sadly this all too common, that unprofessional behavior in some fields and areas is so common (whether it be academic bullying and hazing, plagiarizing and stealing ideas and data, or sexism and harassment see The Dark Side of Academia) that it becomes the accepted norm. This is particularly prevalent in fields that are small and insular.

stockholm

Stockholm, despite its associated syndrome, is really quite lovely

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – I can SEE what you’re thinking!

Humans are edging closer and closer to telepathic communication where one human communicates with another purely from thinking. Wait… what’s that you say? We are already there?! Like something out of a sci-fi thriller neuroscientists in Europe and America demonstrated the viability of direct brain-to-brain communications in humans.

"Brain-to-brain (B2B) communication system overview. On the left, the BCI subsystem is shown schematically, including electrodes over the motor cortex and the EEG amplifier/transmitter wireless box in the cap. Motor imagery of the feet codes the bit value 0, of the hands codes bit value 1. On the right, the CBI system is illustrated, highlighting the role of coil orientation for encoding the two bit values. Communication between the BCI and CBI components is mediated by the internet." (Photo credit: Grau et al. 2014)

“Brain-to-brain (B2B) communication system overview.
On the left, the BCI subsystem is shown schematically, including electrodes over the motor cortex and the EEG amplifier/transmitter wireless box in the cap. Motor imagery of the feet codes the bit value 0, of the hands codes bit value 1. On the right, the CBI system is illustrated, highlighting the role of coil orientation for encoding the two bit values. Communication between the BCI and CBI components is mediated by the internet.” (Photo credit: Grau et al. 2014)

Read More

Ethical Debate: Clean Energy and the State of the Union

I’ve been critical of President Obama’s policies concerning science, technology and education in the past. I think he uses a lot of great-sounding rhetoric, but I have yet to see very much in the way of actual results. Despite lofty promises about climate change, we remain without a cap-and-trade system or any sort of meaningful response plan. To make things worse, the administration recently fired their primary adviser for climate change policy. Is all hope lost? Perhaps not.

Read More

Ethical Debate: Evolution, the big easy, and putting your money where your mouth is

One of my favorite parts of being a scientist is attending conferences. In addition to getting feedback on your research from leaders in your field and staying current on other people’s work, conferences are a lot of fun. When the daily sessions end, it’s basically a bunch of cool people who share your interests looking to have a good time after a long day. While most people (including myself) care more about the knowledge transfer than the celebrations (exhibit A- I’m going to a conference in Minnesota next summer) , I’ve known more than a few people who have chosen not to go to certain conferences because the host city was “boring”. This makes it all the more surprising that the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), one of the largest scientific societies in the United States, announced that their 2011 conference would be held in Salt Lake City and not New Orleans (as had originally been proposed).

Guess which city this celebration took place in? Image from NowPublic.com

Read More

Ethical debate: Can an endangered species be a business partner?

Two of the strongest environmental laws in the world are the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Among many other statutes, these laws make it a Federal crime for anyone to harass endangered marine mammal species such as the West Indian manatee.  By the accepted definitions of the word “harass”, this means that  people cannot swim with and certainly cannot touch a manatee. However, at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, visitors can do both of these things- and it’s totally legal!

Read More

Ethical Debate: Killing sharks for science?

ResearchBlogging.org

While attending last year’s American Elasmobranch Society conference, I was asked to fill out a survey concerning my views on lethal shark research. My response, along with those of many other participants, has now been analyzed and written up into a new essay in the Journal of Conservation Biology. Michelle Heupel and Colin Simpendorfer argue that lethal sampling of some individual sharks is sometimes necessary in order to get the data needed to protect those animals’ entire species. However, attitudes about conservation in general and sharks specifically are changing, and many (including these authors) feel that this is starting to affect marine biology as a science.

 

 

Read More

Ethical Debate: Should we have freed Willy?

Jean-Michel Cousteau with an orca. Photo credit: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

The  death of Sea World trainer Dawn Branchaeu revived an old debate over whether it is appropriate to keep orca whales in captivity. Many people are calling for all captive orcas to be set free, but I continue to support aquariums because of the roles they serve as educators and conservationists. Although several readers have pointed out that the sea world incident itself would make for a solid ethical debate, I am instead going to take you back more than 15 years to a movie that started this whole movement: Free Willy.

Read More

Ethical Debate: Bycatch and the Great Skua

ResearchBlogging.org

Most marine conservationists and environmentally conscious citizens believe that fisheries bycatch is a major problem that needs to be solved soon. In most cases, they are correct, but an

interesting paper from Nature shows that bycatch can sometimes be good for certain species. Consider the case of the Great Skua.

Image from BritishEcologicalSociety.org

The Great Skua is a large predatory seabird that lives in northern Europe. In the past, it has been known to feed on many smaller local seabird species, including the Leach’s Storm Petrel, the Northern Fulmar, the Northern Gannet, the Lesser Black-Backed Gull, and the Herring Gull. In the last few decades, Great Skua populations have increased tremendously.

Ordinarily, when the population of a predator increases, the populations of its prey decrease. This doesn’t seem to be the case among populations of the seabird species in northern Europe. How can this be?

The answer to this apparent ecological enigma has to do with fisheries bycatch. The oceans around northern Europe support many large-scale fisheries, such as the sandeel fishery. Like most large-scale fisheries, the sandeel fishery has a significant amount of bycatch (fish that were caught merely because they were swimming near the sandeel) associated with it. Since the fishermen only have a permit to sell sandeel, the bycatch species  are dumped overboard…where they are devoured by Great Skua.

In other words, Great Skua have found a new steady source of food. Great Skua populations have increased without a decrease in the populations smaller seabirds that they ate in the past.

Modern sentiments, however, have turned against bycatch. Efforts to reduce bycatch in commercial fisheries are underway in many countries worldwide. What will this mean for the seabird communities of northern Europe?

Well, it’s possible (and for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume it will definitely happen) that without their new source of food (bycatch dumped over the side of fishing  vessels), Great Skua will return to eating their previous prey- the smaller seabirds of northern Europe. Since there are many more Great Skua than there used to be, this would be very bad news for the smaller seabirds in the area, and could easily make several seabird species endangered.

The question for this week’s ethical debate is simple: Do you think that we should continue with efforts to reduce bycatch in Northern Europe even if it means that local seabird species will become endangered?

I should note that the authors of this paper stated that “it would not be appropriate to maintain current rates of discarding for the sake of seabirds”.

Votier SC, Furness RW, Bearhop S, Crane JE, Caldow RW, Catry P, Ensor K, Hamer KC, Hudson AV, Kalmbach E, Klomp NI, Pfeiffer S, Phillips RA, Prieto I, & Thompson DR (2004). Changes in fisheries discard rates and seabird communities. Nature, 427 (6976), 727-30 PMID: 14973483

~WhySharksMatter