Showing posts with label genetic engineering. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genetic engineering. Show all posts

Sunday, December 14, 2014

De-extinction

The awkward term “de-extinction” designates the idea of recreating a living organism that had become extinct. This idea gives rise to two quite different questions:

• First, of course, it’s a matter of deciding how to attempt to perform such a de-extinction operation, at a purely technological level.

• Second, there’s the question of the ethical implications of such an act. In other words: Would we have a right, morally and socially, to perform such-and-such a de-extinction operation?

The de-extinction of dinosaurs would appear to be a failure at both levels. So, you should feel free to go ahead with plans for a nice wedding, say, with no fear of unexpected interruptions.


Things get somewhat more complicated when we envisage the de-extinction of Neanderthals.


Let’s suppose that we did in fact succeed in carrying out a successful de-extinction operation. What would you then do with such a fellow? It would be unwise to let him wander around freely as if he were a normal citizen of the world, because he would surely run into trouble, for countless obvious reasons. You could always try to get him adopted by a nice family of well-off God-fearing American Republicans. Or maybe you might think about packing him off to an outback cattle station in Australia to work as a jackeroo. But, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there would be certain unknown unknowns… including the ugly idea that our Neanderthal friend might be enticed into becoming a militant in a jihadist organization.

The de-extinction of a woolly mammoth would appear to be a far more reasonable project.


On the one hand, with the help of modern elephants, the operation is probably feasible, and there would be room enough in the wilderness of lands such as Canada or Siberia to organize an ideal home-place for the resurrected creature, and maybe create a family environment.

In my native Australia, there are two fascinating candidates for de-extinction. The first is an amazing creature that was last seen as recently as 1985: the Gastric brooding frog.


Its mode of reproduction was really weird. The female swallows her fertilized eggs and then uses her stomach as a womb, finally giving birth to baby frogs through her mouth (as you can see in the above photo).

The other perfect candidate for de-extinction is the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which became extinct in 1936.


An Australian scientist, Mike Archer, has made a brilliant presentation of the case for de-extinction of these two creatures. Click here to watch his fascinating talk on this subject. At one point in his talk, Archer presents an old-timer who led him to his bush hut which used to be visited by Tasmanian tigers. And he introduces the marvelous theme of maybe keeping these animals as pets. Personally, I almost broke into tears of emotion when I heard Mike Archer making his case for this aspect of a de-extinction project. I looked fondly at this painting of a Thylacine and her pup:


And I said to myself that, since my dog Fitzroy has now developed the regular habit of sleeping inside the house, his charming old kennel is free to receive a guest.


So, if ever Mike Archer were looking for a nice place to house one of his future Thylacine pups, Fitzroy and I would be more than happy to receive such an adorable creature at Gamone. As for the idea of also accepting the Neanderthal fellow, to look after the tiger pup, I’m prepared to look into the question… but I would probably prefer a Neanderthal maiden who wouldn’t mind combining her Thylacine-care activities with housekeeping work at Gamone.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spider goats

Spiders are in the news these days. A Japanese professor of chemistry, Shigeyoshi Osaki, who has been studying spider silk for the last 35 years, has succeeded in collecting and processing a sufficient quantity of silk from several hundred Golden Orb spiders to make a set of violin strings. Specialists are most impressed by the mellow timbre of sounds produced by these strings, which can be heard here:


In a quite different domain, there has been a lot of talk these days about the fabulous work in genetic engineering carried out by a US professor of molecular biology, Randy Lewis, whose specialty is the breeding of an exotic creature: the spider goat. At first sight, the concept of a goat that is part spider, biologically speaking, is rather frightening.


But that spectacular image from the Next Nature website [access] is belied by an actual photo of Randy Lewis cuddling one of his spider kids, which look and behave exactly like normal little loveable animals.


Randy Lewis has extracted from spiders the gene for web construction, and then inserted it into the genetic context, in a goat ovule, that concerns lactation. In a nutshell, the female kid born with such a DNA cocktail will produce milk containing strands of the same protein that would be referred to, out in the wide world, as a spider's web.

Before accepting his present position at Utah State University, Randy Lewis had started his research in synthetic biology in Wyoming, where he was once interviewed on the nature and purpose of his activities in the domain of spider goats:


The Guardian in the UK has just published an interesting up-to-date article on this subject [access].

I'm convinced that spider goats might be considered as a spectacular symbol of the vast array of developments that await us in the domain of genetic engineering. An observer might ask: What is the supposed right of scientists such as Randy Lewis to fiddle with the archaic natural biology of an innocent animal such as a goat, and transform its offspring into monsters whose milk is full of spider webs? That kind of question, to my mind, is misguided, if not stupid. There are many excellent reasons behind the goal of learning how to manufacture artificial spider webs. Spider goats would appear to be a plausible approach to meeting this challenge. These weird creatures of modern science, capable of producing in their milk the substance of spider webs, do not appear to suffer in any way whatsoever as a consequence of this research. So, why might we imagine any kind of evil in this domain?


Admittedly, there are lots of question marks, and it would be potentially dangerous to look upon spider goats as if they were ordinary animals. In fact, they remain extraordinary creatures, and researchers are obliged to respect stringent procedures for isolating these animals from ordinary farmyard goats. For example, it would be unthinkable, for the moment, to produce a new variety of cheese based upon the milk of spider goats. Researchers in genetic engineering realize that, like Prometheus, they would appear to be intent upon stealing the secrets of fire, as it were, from the gods. So, they must be constantly careful, in all that they do. However they've finally learned enough about the mysteries of creation and evolution to be able to communicate with the gods on a peer-to-peer basis.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lego life

Back at the time I became interested in so-called artificial intelligence, and started work on my book entitled Machina Sapiens, I did not imagine that the most direct link between computing concepts (such as programming) and human beings would be established, not through attempting to simulate what we think of as intelligence, but rather by synthesizing life itself. Craig Venter has just made a gigantic breakthrough in this domain.



Obviously, this activity is Promethean. Man is starting to play with the fire of the gods, and nobody knows where this work will lead. But it's unthinkable that it could be halted.