Eliminating disease or creating super-humans? Three reasons why we should be researching CRISPR

Unlocking the secrets within (source)

The concept of humankind being able to eliminate world hunger, wipe out genetic disease and direct our own evolution is one confined to the libraries of science-fiction, right?

Wrong.

A powerful new gene-editing technology called CRISPR-cas9 (simply referred to as ‘crisper’) has taken the scientific world by storm, and the potentials seem endless. However, those who know of it are divided on its prospective use.

Growing support for the technology has been accompanied by a committed opposition. Opponents claim its application carries too many uncertainties, and call for a ban on research.

What is CRISPY crisper CRISPR?

CRISPR can alter any organism’s DNA through using an RNA guide molecule (which encodes a genetic change and seeks out the section of target DNA) and a protein called cas9 (which cuts the DNA and replaces it with the change).

CRISPR fascinates scientists due to the unprecedented speed and precision at which it can do this. The simple method allows modification of any known genetic sequence, including that of the germline (meaning changes will be passed on reproductively).

Many arguments over CRISPR’s safety were silenced following research that reported zero unintended genetic effects from its application. With this technical barrier removed, and the CRISPR debate as hot as ever, I’m going to provide three reasons why research must continue:

  1. People dying from debilitating disease is… not good

CRISPR offers the possibility to remove conditions from the germline that have no other potential treatments. Cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer’s are only a few degenerative conditions that the technology could eliminate.

Not deadly enough? How about curing cancer? CRISPR allows the study of poorly understood genes (including those related to cancer) which advances drug development for unlimited conditions.

Treating humans with novel biotechnology isn’t your cup of tea? No worries.

  1. Uses outside of human application

Potential applications (source)

CRISPR can be used to genetically improve the yield of staple crops, increasing food security in a growing global population. With current predictions stating that global food demand may increase up to 98% by 2050, continued CRISPR research may prove invaluable in preventing mass starvation.

CRISPR also has environmentalists covered, with research showing the ability of modified yeast to produce precursors of various biofuels and polymers. Because who doesn’t love a future of clean energy and building different things?

3. Chill guys, it’s only research

Research does not imply clinical application, and calls for a research ban as we ‘don’t know enough’ are not only contradictory, but fail to address the core issue.

Humanity may need CRISPR. Its potential may conceivably pass that of any other biotechnology in history, and great care must be taken in decisions on its use when the time comes. Overarching safeguards exist to prevent ethical and social abuse of biotechnology, and halting research now may only disarm ourselves from means to solve future problems.

CRISPR offers a new world, perhaps we should be innovative enough to see what that world looks like.

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In support of shark deterring technology

Shark attacks have been increasing in Australia in the last two decades, scientists put this down to more people in the water, which boosts the likelihood of encountering a shark.

Even though shark attacks are still extremely rare, something about their goriness plays at the forefront of my mind.

Avoiding the ocean is the most effective way to avoid shark attacks. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option for the many Australians who, like myself, have seawater running through their veins. A compromise must be reached.

Any measures taken to avoid shark attacks should a) actually work, and b) respect the right of all creatures to exist in their natural habitat. These aren’t ridiculous expectations, but most of our current interventions don’t measure up.

Culling sharks and netting beaches are ridiculously human-centred. There is no proof that they reduce shark attacks, they only give the illusion of safety.

Electronic shark deterrents are something I have always supported in theory, but never been sure about. That changed in July 2016 when I read about scientists testing one of these devices, and low and behold it worked! The Freedom7 is available from Shark ShieldTM and costs a whopping $749.

No it doesn’t electrocute the sharks

The device is an electro-transmitting antenna which attaches to your ankle on a 2.2 metre cord. The antenna sends out small electric fields into the water. Sharks have electrical receptors that pick up signals from the water. The deterrent works by overloading these receptors, causing some discomfort. But don’t feel too bad, the sharks can avoid this by swimming away (from the device and you).

The scientists put the Freedom7 next to some delicious tuna chunks, and found that inquisitive sharks held back, keeping an average distance of 1.3 meters. Hold on, that means that the device is longer than the deterrent field. Here’s a helpful diagram:

A man wearing a Shark Shield™, showing the estimated deterrent thresholds for Great White Sharks. (From the paper: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0157717)

I don’t know about you but I would really appreciate my head being inside that bubble.

Shark Shield are on the right track. But why haven’t they altered their device since this research came out last year? It’s not like they aren’t aware of this shortcoming, this image comes straight from their website.

Not only is this image concerning, the numbers don’t make sense. (From: https://sharkshield.com/shop/freedom7/)

A safe ocean for humans and sharks

These results are promising, and a step towards co-existing with sharks. If you’re worried about shark attacks, here are five things you can do right now:

  1. Contact Shark Shield and ask them why they haven’t shortened the cord.
  2. Buy one, and loop the end of the cord back on itself.
  3. Demand that local governments take down shark nets that kill so many creatures unnecessarily, costing millions to maintain.
  4. Support your local governments to install and monitor less murderous alternatives.
  5. Remember you are 228 times more likely to drown at the beach than be involved in a fatal shark attack. If you want to invest in something, consider donating money to your local surf lifesavers, who are often first responders in shark attacks and drownings.
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Eating the world healthy again

We should all know by now that eating fruit and vegetables is good for us. Yet a survey done by CSIRO shows that most Australians aren’t getting anywhere near this. If Australia’s Go for 2&5 campaign isn’t working, hopefully research published in PNAS early last year will convince people to eat better for the world.

Currently, the food system creates more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With our growing population, this percentage will increase. If changes aren’t made to the way we consume food in the world there is a real risk that food prices will sky rocket, or worse Continue reading

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Take your Grandma for a Wii

Can you see your grandparent sitting in that chair?

Aged care can be a lonely & unstimulating experience (source: livinglifeasme)

Depressing, isn’t it.

For many of our beloved older generation, opportunities to stay healthy can be limited due to the constraints of aged-care facilities.

Staffing costs to assist residents in maintaining an active body and mind can be prohibitive. Particularly in government funded facilities, this can make it difficult for our loved ones in-care to get what they need to maximise their health and happiness.

But, there may be a solution. Take them for a Wii!

A comprehensive new study by European scientists which combined the results of 17 individual trials, has shown overwhelmingly that video games which combine physical activity with mental challenges can boost brain health. These games are also known as exergames, the most common of which can be played on the Nintendo Wii gaming console.

Exergame benefits go beyond physical activity. Benefits to thinking capacity, attention and behavioural control were also recorded.

These positive effects were not only observed in healthy older people, but also in people suffering dementia and other conditions that affect the brain.

In a statement, study author Dr Joseph Firth said “Physically-active video games have, according to our research, greater impact on brain functioning than regular physical activity alone – suggesting that their benefits are more than just moving around,”

Why should exergames be better than a walk and a sudoku?

Animal research has found that combining physical activity with environments that encourage problem solving leads to the creation of more new brain cells than either strategy does on its own.

Could the same thing be happening with exergames?

We don’t yet have a way to see the creation of cells in the living human brain, so we can’t know for sure. But the data is persuasive.

And there are social benefits too – gaming encourages social interaction.

A Wii bowling tournament has health & social benefits (source: digthatbox)

So, why don’t we put exergames in aged care facilities?

Imagine if your next visit to relatives in care involved more than just a cuppa and a chat. Imagine, playing a game together that has benefits for you both, and your relationship.

The Australian Government released the Aged Care (Living Longer Living Better) Act in 2013 with aims to improve the effectiveness of aged care.

It seems clear that investing in exergames represents a cost-effective way for the government to support the physical and mental health of older Australians.

 

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Freshwater may not be so precious in the near future- New desalination tech

“Filling cup with saltwater” Credit: myoutdoorslife

 

71% of the Earth’s surface is water, yet around 700 million people still suffer from water scarcity. By 2030, almost half of the world’s population will be living in high water-stressed areas. While world population is projected to reach 8.3 billion in the same year.

This means there are less clean water to share between more people. Naturally, people are worried about future water security. Clean drinking water is one of our most scarce resources, but scientists may have found a solution to change that.

A group of scientists at the University of Manchester, created a membrane using graphene oxide, it is capable of removing 97% of salt from seawater. Graphene is a thin sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a special wafer-like formation.

Scientists can also control the pore size in the membrane precisely. “When the capillary size is around one nanometre, which is very close to the size of the water molecule, those molecules form a nice interconnected arrangement like a train,” said Rahul Nair, lead researcher of this project.

This specific nanotech is known as graphene oxide membrane, GOM for short.

Why should I care?

To meet world water demands by 2030, GOM should be our choice of infrastructure upgrade, construct more desalination plants and retrofit current 16,000 plants worldwide, because they are using a polymer-based process that is inefficient and expensive.

Unlike potable reuse water that has to go through lots of processing and treatments to make it clean, the image of drinking the stuff you flushed down the drains isn’t very nice, right?

GOM is safe for your health and our environment

It has no health effects, there is zero residue from GOM in the water after filtration. GOM is basically Carbon, the second most abundant element in the human body, so it is natural.

GOM can remove more impurities than water purification filters on the market, typically have a pore size of 0.02 micron, GOM’s is much smaller at around one nanometre, so effective at physically stopping bacteria, virus and protozoa.

What we don’t know about GOM

GOM still holds a lot of uncertainty. Nair and his team still need to demonstrate the durability of the membranes under prolonged contact with seawater, resistant to salts and biological material and not affect water quality produced. In addition, how to produce GOM inexpensively at industrial scales.

What can I do about it?

To support the work by Rahul Nair and his team, you can send them an email, spread awareness by sharing this article on social media and with your friends.

Research is expensive, you can help support for federal funding of nanotech, through your votes of your local senate, or talk to your local government about implementing GOM desalination in the future.

Graphene oxide membrane may have important contributions to the world, so join this movement.

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Global warming good for plants: Fact or fiction?

Western Sydney University’s ‘EucFACE’ experiment enriching a forest with carbon dioxide. Credit: WSU

There is global agreement in the scientific community that climate change is happening, but is it really as bad as it sounds? A recent article by The Blaze suggests global warming is good for plants. They argue that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a main ingredient of photosynthesis, will lead to enhanced growth of crops, making farmers happy.

On the flipside, new research from Western Sydney University says an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is useless if the other ingredients for plant growth are missing – like in many parts of Australia.

So, who’s right?

Let’s check the facts:

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CPASian Chris Ingles revolutionises Middle-earth geology

Ingles & Orthia 2016 Middle-earth mapFor fifty years fans of Lord of the Rings have struggled to make sense of the geology of the world depicted in Tolkien’s work – Middle-earth – in terms of contemporary earth science.

But according to CPAS graduate Chris Ingles – a former earth science and science communication student – they never got it right. Until now.

Chris completed a sci com research project in 2014 re-analysing the geological evidence about Middle-earth from the Lord of the Rings books to better understand the geological history of that world.

What he found challenged the prevailing literature on this topic. In particular, lots of previous writers hypothesised the role of plate tectonics in forming Middle-earth’s many mountain ranges. But Chris used cutting edge geological theory alongside new literary evidence to show this would not be possible.

Here we present Chris’s paradigm-challenging paper, co-authored with supervisor Lindy Orthia.

To cite this work: Ingles C. and Orthia L.A. (2016) A New Synthesis on the Geology of Middle-earth: Genesis, Orogeny and Tectonics. Canberra: Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, The Australian National University. http://sandpaw.weblogs.anu.edu.au/files/2016/06/Ingles-Orthia-2016-Middle-earth-geology.pdf.

Ingles & Orthia 2016 Middle-earth geology

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How to Time Travel Back to Ancient Lands

Have you ever wanted to look into the ancient past?

Imagine walking through ancient rainforest and stepping back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The good news is, that these forests still exist. However, they are under threat.

Many of you have probably heard of the Wollemi Pine.

One day in 1994 it was stumbled upon in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, by David Noble, a National Parks officer. It was like no other tree he had seen before and was later found to be one of the oldest and rarest trees left in existence.

Australia’s environment has often been noted as unique, due to its isolation after it broke away from the supercontinent Gondwana and Antarctica about 45 million years ago.

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Fusion makes the Sun shine, but won’t make the world go round

fusion4

Nuclear Fusion. Credit: http://interestingenergyfacts.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/nuclear-fusion-facts.html

Nuclear fusion, or fusion for short, is what powers the Sun: deep in the Sun’s core, the nuclei, or central parts, of hydrogen atoms smash together, releasing energy in the process.

If we got this going on Earth, it could provide us with clean energy for millions of years. From just one gram of hydrogen, which we could extract from water, fusion could produce more energy than 15,000 tonnes of petrol, with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

However, fusion in labs has always taken more energy to get started than it produced.

But in 2014, the internet erupted with news. A team from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the U.S. had managed to get nuclear fusion going by using a giant laser to supply energy to a sample of hydrogen fuel.

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Is this our chance to recreate evolution?

I’m sure you all learnt about fossils when you were in primary school. The thought of fossils probably sparks images in your head of dinosaurs or little rocks with shapes of animals on them, right?

The truth is, there’s a lot more to fossils than just discovering rocks with pictures in them. Fossils are magically rare occurrences; and as a community it is vital for each and every one of us to recognize the importance of fossils and to not undermine their value.

ghbi_a_1049163_f0001_b

Use of surface microscopy shows muscle attachment points in alligator (A), rabbit (B), turkey (C) and tyrannosaur (D). http://www.tandfonline.com.virtual.anu.edu.au/doi/figure/10.1080/08912963.2015.1049163

This is why the emergence of a new technology known as surface microscopy is a topic worth talking about.

This new technology- surface microscopy, can inspect fossils more precisely and accurately than ever before. It has shown to be vastly superior to any previous method of investigating fossils.

But why do we need to be able to study fossils more precisely?

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