Scientists in China, led by Junjiu Huan, a researcher at Sun Yt-sen University in Guangzhou reported in the online journal, Protein & Cell, that they had successfully altered the genome of “non-viable” human embryos using a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. This is a hugely important step because, unlike modifying non-germline cells, edits of the genome of an embryo is a germline modification, that can be passed on to future generations.
Although the team had a laudable goal in mind, to modify the gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder, B-thalassemia, the report touched off a firestorm of concern, including a statement from Francis S. Collins, MD, Ph.D, Director of the National Institutes of Health condemning this line of research:
“The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.”
In that statement, he also said that the NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.
This will not stop scientists in other parts of the world from pursuing this line of research, in fact, there are said to be at least four groups in China that are working on gene editing in human embryos. Further, the fact that the gene-editing technique CROSPR/CAS9 is easy to use means that other research is likely to follow.
Since bans and restrictions are hardly ever good, long term strategies for anything, it is clear that the global scientific community needs to move rapidly to develop well thought out policies to guide safe and ethical research in this arena. A commenter on this story that appeared in Nature News, Mike Blasticky, summed it up best when he said,
“If it is possible to do…it will be done.”
Although most of us don’t read the journal Nature Chemical Biology, an article with the rather dense title, “An enzyme-coupled biosensor enables (S)-reticuline production in yeast from glucose,” was quickly translated into headlines like these:
- Home-brewed heroin? Scientists create yeast that can make sugar into opiates (The Guardian)
- Genetically Modified Yeast Will Make it Possible to Home-Brew Opiates (Wired)
- A Way to Brew Morphine Raises Concerns Over Regulation (NY Times)
- ‘Home-brew’ morphine from brewer’s yeast now possible: Study (Reuters)
What actually happened was a bit less dramatic, but nevertheless an important story. Researchers at University of California Berkeley and Concordia University in Canada reported they were able to grow a morphine precurser, S-reticuline, from glucose in brewer’s yeast. This was considered to be one of the last essential steps necessary to being able to synthesize morphine in the lab. No one has yet created a yeast strain capable of going through all of the steps necessary to produce morphine from glucose, although an article in the NY Times says several labs are trying and one, the Stanford lab of Christina Smokle, is thought to be close.
Again, the importance of the article is what will be done with this science? Will everyone who wants to brew morphine from the comfort of their home do it? Will organized crime swoop in and create morphine factories that smell every bit like a brewery? Or will this just be used to produce lower cost pain medications? (Wait, I must be smoking something to even suggest that!)
Calls for regulation have already been popping up, but once again, the cat is already (almost) out of the bag. Regardless of what happens with this particular experiment in synthetic biology (a.k.a. SynBio), one thing is clear. The tools of the trade are becoming easier to use and the science is now accessible to all. It is highly unlikely that the glucose to morphine pathway will be the only one on the radar screen of wanna-be home brewers.
Although most stories about this breakthrough were framed as allowing intentional control of a robotic limb, the implications are far greater. Here is what happened. A neural prosthetic, a device that can substitute for lost neural function, was implanted in Erik Sorto, a man who has been quadriplegic since being shot more than a decade ago.
Neural prosthetics have been used with paralyzed patients before, but they have not produced the smooth movements characteristic of intact humans. What was different in this case was that the prosthesis was implanted in the area of the brain controlling intention to move as opposed to the motor cortex itself.
The posterior parietal cortex (PPC) is the area of the brain where the intent to move is formed. Signals are relayed from there to the motor cortex, the spinal cord, and the arms or legs which execute the movement.
For this study, two neural prostheses, small electrode arrays, were implanted in different areas of Sorto’s brain—the region that controls reach and another that controls grasp. The 96 electrodes in each of the arrays can record the activity of single neurons in the PPC. The arrays connect via a cable to computers that process the signals and, are you ready for this, decode the brain’s intent. This information was transmitted to the robotic arm. Just by imagining the movement he wanted to make, Sorto was able to control the arm.
What is so fascinating and important about this story is that intent is part of what makes up consciousness. Intent is the rudiment of will and with will comes plans, dreams, and aspirations—all of which are an important part of our humanity. So, being able to map and then decipher the electrical signals of intent could well be an important step on the pathway towards understanding the neurophysiology of consciousness.
In case you can’t clearly see where that could lead, this story in The Telegraph may help:
“Humans could download their brain on to a computer and live forever inside a machine, a Cambridge neuroscientist has claimed. Dr Hannah Critchlow said that if a computer could be built to recreate the 100 trillion connections in the brain their it would be possible to exist inside a programme….”