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Fri, 14 Dec 2018
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Chinese scientist attempts to justify creation of genetically modified babies amid ethics backlash

He Jiankui, gene-edited babies, GMO babies
© Kin Cheung/AP
For the first time in public, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, defended his gene-editing research involving twin babies who were born last month. Other scientists rebuked him.
The scientist who stunned the world by claiming he created the first genetically modified babies defended his actions publicly for the first time on Wednesday, saying that editing the genes of the twin girls while they were embryos would protect them from contracting HIV.

He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, addressed hundreds of scientists gathered at an international gene- editing summit in Hong Kong that has been rocked by ethical questions swirling around his research.

Earlier, He surprised the scientists just as they were gathering for the meeting with his claim, which he outlined in a series of YouTube videos. With the announcement, He bypassed scientific norms of first subjecting his experiment to scrutiny by other scientists.

"First, I must apologize that this result was leaked unexpectedly," He told some 700 attendees. "This study has been submitted to a scientific journal for review."

He faced a skeptical, incensed audience at the 2nd International Summit On Human Genome Editing, which was organized to try to reach a global consensus on whether, how and when it might be permissible to create children from genetically altered human embryos.

In yet another unsettling revelation, He said that "there is another potential pregnancy" involving a gene-edited embryo, but that it is still at an early stage.

Comment: See also:


Who's your daddy? Scientist behind the CRISPR-Cas9 babies says another could be on the way

The Chinese scientist who claimed he helped create a pair of genetically edited twin girls with HIV resistance may have more such babies on the way.

He Jiankui, who was educated at Stanford University and Rice University, revealed today (Nov. 28) there is another "potential pregnancy" at a conference on human-genome editing held at the University of Hong Kong, where an auditorium full of scientists, reporters, and photographers-whose cameras were so loud that they sometimes drowned out his voice-grilled the scientist three days after his controversial claims first came to light.

On Sunday (Nov. 25), the MIT Technology Review and Associated Press both reported that He's experiments resulted in the birth of twin girls named Lulu and Nana. Of the seven couples taking part in his trials, the men are all HIV-positive while the women are not. The couples underwent in-vitro fertilization, in which a sperm is injected in an egg in a petri dish, and then after a few days a living embryo is planted in the mother's womb. In this case, however, there was a small tweak. After the egg was fertilized, He's team injected Crispr-Cas9, a genetic tool that can precisely target and cut a specific gene among 20,000 human genes.

Comment: Not as precise or safe as we thought: CRISPR genome editing can cause big deletions or rearrangements of DNA


NASA's InSight spacecraft lands on Mars, takes selfie after dangerous supersonic landing

Instrument Deployment Camera picture
This photo provided by NASA shows an image on Mars that its spacecraft called InSight acquired using its robotic arm-mounted, Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) after it landed on the planet on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.
Minutes after touching down on Mars, NASA's InSight spacecraft sent back a "nice and dirty" snapshot of its new digs. Yet the dust-speckled image looked like a work of art to scientists. The photo revealed a mostly smooth and sandy terrain around the spacecraft with only one sizable rock visible.

Another photo taken by its robotic arm-mounted camera after it landed on the planet shows a close-up of the spacecraft itself.

"I'm very, very happy that it looks like we have an incredibly safe and boring landing location," project manager Tom Hoffman said after Monday's touchdown. "That's exactly what we were going for."

A better image came hours later and more are expected in the days ahead, after the dust covers come off the lander's cameras.

The spacecraft arrived at Mars after a perilous, supersonic plunge through its red skies that took just six minutes.

"Touchdown confirmed!" a flight controller called out just before 3 p.m. EST, setting off jubilation among scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who had waited in white-knuckle suspense for word to reach across 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) of space.


700-foot-wide space rock with 62 RISK trajectories could strike Earth by 2023... But probably won't

© Muratart/Shutterstock
A large asteroid could be headed toward us in the near future - barreling through space on a risk trajectory that might cause it to collide with Earth.

The news comes from the Express, which cites NASA sources, who revealed that the space rock could end up engaged in not one, but 62 different potential impact trajectories with our planet - each of them waiting to sling the asteroid toward Earth over the next 100 years.

Known as asteroid 2018 LF16, the space rock was last observed by our astronomers on June 16 - notes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) - who calculated its orbit and its potential to become a threat to our planet. The calculations showed asteroid 2018 LF16 could collide with our planet on 62 different dates between now and 2117.

Comment: Check out SOTTs interactive map documenting fireball events over the past 5 years:


Core problem: Human Genome Project reference is based on a single person and missing millions of DNA base pairs

human genome project
The Human Genome Project, which began in the 1990s, was Homo sapiens' successful attempt to map out the entirety of our species' DNA. It produced the human reference genome, a finely polished collection of human DNA that's crucial for genetics research and genetics testing services around the world. Integral as it has been to the science community, two researchers at Johns Hopkins University have discovered that the reference genome is missing a piece or two - well, 296,485,284 base pairs of DNA, to be exact.

The reference genome is an essential map of human genetic material that is used as a basis for comparison. When we sequence our own DNA for insight into health, family history, and future disease risk, we chop up the sequence into lots of little pieces and compare stretches of it to the reference genome, looking for areas where we differ. The fundamental problem with this, the scientists write in a recent paper in Nature Genetics, is that the reference genome is based largely on a single person. Considering the myriad genetic differences among the 7.7 billion people alive today, that's obviously not ideal.

Professor of computer science and biostatistics Steven Salzberg, Ph.D., and Rachel Sherman, a Ph.D. candidate, make the case that this single reference genome doesn't capture the diversity of human genetics. Some populations, they add, differ too much from this reference genome. To make their case, they refer to the genomes of 910 individuals from twenty different countries, all of pan-African descent.

Comment: Seems scientists have been concerned about the incomplete genome for a number of years: Are There Missing Pieces to the Human Genome Project?

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Males can also pass on mitochondrial DNA says new study

© Shy Al Britanni/Getty Images
Passing on mitochondrial DNA was thought to be an exclusively maternal process, but new research suggests otherwise.
Paternal transmission of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) may be possible, a new study suggests - contradicting the accepted view that it is passed on exclusively through maternal inheritance.

The find, made by a team led by Taosheng Huang from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Centre, and Paldeep Atwal, from Mayo Clinic Hospital, Jacksonville, both in the US, may stimulate further study of mtDNA genetics that leads to alternative treatments for mitochondrial diseases.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers present evidence of biparental inheritance of mitochondrial DNA in 17 members of three unrelated multi-generation families. The findings were independently validated using multiple approaches for whole mtDNA sequencing.

"Our results suggest that, although the central dogma of maternal inheritance of mtDNA remains valid, there are some exceptional cases where paternal mtDNA could be passed to the offspring," they write.


The Mars InSight mission is about to touchdown on the red planet - what you need to know

MarsLander illustration
Illustration of the InSight mission lander
The first NASA spacecraft in six years to visit Mars is hours away from completing the difficult and nervy initial stage of its mission. So what should you know about the InSight robotic lander dubbed 'the mole'?

NASA has not landed a craft on Mars since the Curiosity Rover, the plucky aluminium-wheeled probe that has been investigating since 2012 whether life ever existed on the barren planet.

That looks set to change on November 26, when NASA's Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander is expected to drop through the Martian atmosphere and onto the surface.

So what do we know about the InSight robot, which is armed to the teeth with scientific instruments?

Comment: See also:
NASA InSight team on course for Mars touchdown November 26


'Humongous fungus' in Michigan weighs 440 tons and is 2,500 years old

Armillaria gallica fungus on a scrap of wood.
© James B. Anderson
Evidence of the Armillaria gallica fungus on a scrap of wood.
It's nicknamed the "humongous fungus"-an unusually large fungal growth belonging to a single genetic individual. An updated analysis of this gigantic fungal beast shows it's substantially larger and older than scientists initially thought.

This single genetic individual, known as C1, belongs to a species of fungus called Armillaria gallica, otherwise known as the honey mushroom. When University of Toronto biologist James B. Anderson first studied this large growth in 1992, he was astounded by its sheer size. Anderson and his colleagues estimated that it was 1,500 years old, weighed 100,000 kilograms (110 tons) and covered around 37 acres (15 hectares) of forest floor in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The C1 specimen, which has latched onto hundreds, if not thousands, of tree roots, was declared to be among the largest and oldest organisms on Earth.

Nearly 30 years later, and as a final scientific act before his retirement, Anderson decided to return to the Michigan forest to take more precise measurements of C1 and to see if its cells had changed over the decades.

Looking at hundreds of samples taken from 2015 to 2017, Anderson had to revise his earlier estimates. As he points out in his updated study, the gigantic fungus is actually closer to 2,500 years old and it weighs around 400,000 kilograms, or 440 tons. The growth covers about 173 acres (70 hectares), which is roughly the same size as the total floor area of the Pentagon building.


Grave ethical concerns: Chinese scientist claims to have created the first gene-edited babies

© Mark Schiefelbein/AP
A scientist at work at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China. Many mainstream scientists have denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.
A scientist in China claims to have created the world's first genetically edited babies, in a potentially ground-breaking and controversial medical first.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics. This kind of gene editing is banned in most countries as the technology is still experimental and DNA changes can pass to future generations, potentially with unforeseen side-effects.

Many mainstream scientists think it is too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

The researcher, He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting so far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have: an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV.


Elon Musk considers future move to Mars despite "good chance you die there"

elon musk
© David McNew/AFP/Getty Images
Elon Musk speaks near a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in September 2018. 'We think you can come back but we're not sure.'
Elon Musk is considering moving to Mars, and gives himself a 70% chance of doing so.

"I know exactly what to do," the billionaire Tesla founder told Axios on HBO, in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday night. "I'm talking about moving there."

He also implied that such a move might be permanent, saying: "We think you can come back but we're not sure."

The Axios website trailed the interview a day before the scheduled Mars landing of the Insight spacecraft. According to the Associated Press, the Nasa vehicle will use "a mechanical mole to tunnel 16ft deep to measure internal heat, and a seismometer to register quakes, meteorite strikes and anything else that might start the red planet shaking".

Musk, 47, has spoken about his ambition to travel to Mars before. Speaking to Axios, he named the odds - a 70% chance - that he will live to ride one of his SpaceX rockets and explore the red planet.

Comment: Better Musk be the pioneer than some other poor soul: