‘Anti-malarial mosquitoes’ created using controversial genetic technology

Scientists aim to tackle malaria by creating bugs unable to spread the parasite, but caution recommended over unpredictable ecological consequences

Hundreds of genetically modified mosquitoes that are incapable of spreading the malaria parasite to humen have been created in a laboratory as part of a revolutionary approach to combating the disease.

The move marks a major step towards the development of a powerful and controversial technology called a gene drive that aims to tackle the disease by forcing anti-malarial genes into swarms of wild mosquitoes.

The procedure can quickly transform the genetic makeup of natural insect populations, making it a dramatic new tool in the fight against an infection that still claims over 400,000 lives a year. The same technology is being considered for other human diseases and infections that devastate crops.

This is a significant first step, said Prof Anthony James at the University of California, Irvine. The mosquitoes we created are not the final brand, but we know this technology allows us to efficiently generate large populations.

But gene drive technology is so powerful that resulting researchers have recommended scientists in the field to be cautious. A warning published in August in the prestigious publication Science, by squads in the UK, US, Australia and Japan, said that while gene drives have the potential to save lives and bring other benefits, the accidental release of modified organisms could have unpredictable ecological consequences.

They call on scientists to ensure that experimental organisms cannot escape from their labs, be released on purpose, or even find their way out accidentally in the event of a natural disaster. Researchers should also be open about the precautions they take to prevent an unintended release, they said.

In the latest study, mosquitoes were engineered to carry genes for antibodies that target the human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum . When released into the wild, researchers believe the modified insects will breed with normal mosquitoes and pass the anti-malarial genes on to their young, making an ever-increasing proportion of future generations resistant to the malaria parasite.

James and his squad employed a genome editing procedure called Crispr-Cas9 to write anti-malarial genes into the Dna of eggs belonging Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes. A major carrier of the malaria parasite in Asia, the strain is responsible for more than 10% of malaria cases in India.

In lab tests, the modified mosquitoes passed on their anti-malarial genes to 99.5% of their offspring, is recommended that the procedure was incredibly effective and efficient. To track which bugs inherited the antibody genes, the scientists added a tracer gene that devoted carriers red fluorescent eyes.

James, who signed the warn in Science, said more run was needed to perfect the gene drive before modified insects can be tested in field trials. But describing the experimentations in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, he wrote: Strains based on this technology could have a major role in sustaining malaria control and elimination as part of the eradication agenda.

Dr Simon Bullock, a geneticist at the MRCs Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, helped to perfect the use of Crispr genome editing in flies, and also signed the call for precautions over gene drive research. Gene drive technology has great potential to help tackle malaria and other global problems in public health. But the capacities of genetic changes to spread rapidly in the wild population means that great caution should be taken when building gene drive systems in the laboratory.

Accidental or malicious release of a gene drive system into the wild could have unpredictable ecological consequences and thus researchers must use multiple safeguards the hell is robust to human error and nefarious actions. Fortunately, several safeguarding strategies are already available, he said.

But Bullock, who was not involved in the research, was surprised that the California group had not described the safeguards they put in place to ensure the mosquitoes did not escape. Devoted the highly sensitive nature of this technology and their call for transparency in this area of research, Im flabbergasted that the authors have not are set out in the publication detailed information on the containment procedures used in this study and how they were evaluated, he added.

Prof Anthony Shelton who studies pest management at Cornell University in New York said the California-based team was justified in its optimism over the procedure. Before open field test, they need to test their bugs in small arenas and field cages to decide the potential for it to work on a larger scale, he told. In theory this technology should work in the field, but farther exams are needed and only then will the full potential of this breakthrough be realized for the benefit of humanity.

Prof Gregory Lanzaro at University of California, Davis added: Concern that narcotic and insecticide resistance are eroding recent successes in managing malaria has drawn attention to alternative approaches, including the use of genetically modified mosquitoes. This new study marks a significant advance toward the development of this strategy.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Cutting-edge theatre: world’s first virtual reality operation runs live

Dr Shafi Ahmed will carry out surgery live-streamed in virtual reality, a move experts hope will build healthcare more equitable and help medical training

This Thursday afternoon, Shafi Ahmed will lean over a patient and begin a delicate operation to remove cancerous tissue from a male patients bowel. He has performed such procedures many times before. But this time it wont be only his surgical squad who are in the room with him the world will be there too.

Showing from 1pm the approximately two-hour long procedure at the Royal London Hospital is the worlds first operation to be streamed live in 360 -degree video, allowing medical students, trainee surgeons and curious members of the public to immerse themselves in the medical event in real time.

A cancer surgeon at Barts Health NHS Trust, Ahmed believes the approach could attain healthcare more equitable, improving the training of surgeons the world over. With internet connections becoming better, smartphones get ever cheaper and merely a pair of lenses and some cardboard needed to make a virtual reality headset the costs, he says, pale in comparison to the expenditure of students travelling abroad to train. It is actually quite cost effective, he said.

Shot use two 360 -degree cameras and a number of lenses arranged around the theater, the operation can be viewed through the VR in OR app, utilizing a virtual reality headset that is likely to be paired with a smartphone. Those who do not have a headset can watch the video live online.

While videos showcasing surgical procedures have been around for years, Ahmed believes the new approach is more than a mere gimmick. The technology, he argues, brings a valuable new feature to education, letting viewers to focus not just on what the surgeon is doing, but also on what other members of the team are up to. There is likely to be noise, there will be the immersive factor so that will add different layers of educational value, he added.

George Hanna, professor of surgical sciences at Imperial College, London is cautiously optimistic about the benefits of the approach. If this technology allows the transfer of knowledge and abilities[ over] a wider range and in an easier route that would be very beneficial.

But he is quick to add that, compared with existing approaches for sharing scenes from the operating theatre, the new technology offers more of an upgrade than a revolution. It is a good video and broad broadcast with interactive[ possibilities ], he told, stressing that the operation itself is real rather than virtual.

It is not the first time that Ahmed has led the style in embracing modern technology in healthcare. As co-founder of the healthcare company Medical Realities( which will be streaming the operation in collaboration Barts Health and 360 -degree video experts Mativision ), he believes virtual reality, augmented reality and games all play a role in training medical students: two years ago he streamed a live operation using the augmented reality system, Google Glass, permitting viewers to ensure the procedure from a surgeons point of view.

But the new 360 -degree video, says Ahmed, offers a new, immersive approach, allowing users to assure beyond what the surgeon is looking at. Among the developments he envisages, Ahmed is keen to add graphics to the raw footage to provide additional information during the operation, as well as taking questions from those viewing the procedure.

[ During an operation] I am teaching people, talking to them, there is communication going on so itll be just an extension of that, he told. Whats more, in three to five years haptic devices could boost the experience further, he added. Companies are genuinely working on various gloves or bodysuits and devices so that it can replicate touch and feel, he told.

Such technologies, said Ahmed could be a boon to health care. But he added, the role of patients in agreeing to take part should not be forgotten. Ultimately, it is about the operation, about[ the patient ], about his cancer care and that has to be the priority for everyone, he said. The fact that patients have agreed to do this before with the Google Glass and again, it is quite reassuring and quite humbling.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Can a DIY fertility test help you plan when to have a newborn?

A new wave of tech startups is promising women detailed insights into their ability to conceive. But experts are sceptical

Can a DIY fertility test help you plan when to have a newborn?

Stem cell therapies: medical experts call for strict international rules

Experts from 15 countries tell regulation needed to prevent vulnerable patients pursuing unproven and potentially deadly treatments

Medical and legal experts from around the world have unified to call for more stringent regulation of stem cell therapies to prevent people pursuing unproven and potentially deadly treatments overseas.

In a perspective piece for the US journal Science Translational Medicine, 15 experts from countries including the UK, the US, Canada, Belgium, Italy and Japan wrote that national efforts alone would not be enough to counter an industry offering unproven therapies to vulnerable patients.

Stem cell-based interventions are classified under diverse and potentially incompatible national regulatory frameworks, the authors wrote.

Approaches for international regulation not only need to develop consistent regulations over the commercialisation of medical practices and products but also need to give them teeth by developing cross-border partnerships for compliance.

Stem cells found in bone marrow and umbilical cord blood have long been used to successfully treat blood cancers including leukaemia and some immune illness. But those are among the few proven therapies. Legitimate and ethics-approved clinical trials by academic centres are also resulting, investigating the potential of stem cells to treat a wider range of diseases.

But some physicians are directly offering to the general public stem cell treatments for illness still under clinical trial or for which no evidence exists and for which the safety and efficacy is as yet unproven.

Deaths as a result of stem cell treatments have already resulted. In 2013 Sheila Drysdale died in a New South Wales nursing home after undergoing an unproven liposuction stem-cell therapy at a western Sydney clinic. Following Drysldales death, her doctor, Ralph Bright, gave a statement to police in which he claimed that stem-cell therapy could improve comorbidities and that stem cells could move from joints to other parts of the body to improve illnes in distant sites including lungs and brain, vision, mentation and pain.

In his report into Drysdales death, the coroner Hugh Dillon wrote that he could not say what motivated Dr Bright to perform this unproven, dubious procedure on Sheila Drysdale.

But regardless of his motivating, Dr Brights performance as a medical practitioner was, for the reasons outlined above, poor and resulted in Sheila Drysdales death.

The Medical Council of NSW investigated Bright and placed a number of restrictions on his right to practise. Bright is still authorised to practise stem cell therapy for patients with osteoarthritis or who are taking part in research studies approved by an ethics committee. He is also still allowed to treat patients returning for remaining injections of stored cells.

In 2013 a Queensland woman, Kellie van Meurs, died when she travelled to Russia to undergo stem-cell treatment for a rare neurological disorder. She died of a heart attack as a result.

Australias drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, last year sought feedback on the regulation of autologous stem-cell therapies but is yet to publish those submissions. A TGA spokeswoman said the Administration was still examining the options for changes to the legislation to reflect public and industry opinions. The TGA currently considers autologous therapies, which involve treating someone with their own tissue or cells, to be a therapeutic good and, hence, does not govern them. Stem cells used for medical practise and therapeutic purposes are covered by different regulatory frameworks.

Associate Professor Megan Munsie, a University of Melbourne stem cell scientist and a co-author of the paper, said: The notion that stem cells are magical holds court in the community, along with this idea the advances in treatment are being held up by red tape.

Unethical health practitioners exploited this, she said, along with the vulnerability of patients with difficult-to-treat or incurable conditions.

There is a precedent for international regulation of this industry because regulations already exist around narcotics the way they are manufactured, she said.

This could be extended to the regulation to the stem cell and tissue-based therapies. This international stance would then force or foster stronger local regulations.

There have been successful endeavors by scientists to push back against unscrupulous physicians. In Italy scientists and regulators highlighted the unproven yet government-subsidised treatments being offered by the entrepreneur Davide Vannoni and fought to stop him. He was convicted of criminal charges but the sentence was subsequently suspended.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Crap’s Spontaneously Combusting in Upstate New York

Humans dont spontaneously combust, but manure does. A stable full of manure caught fire last week in Throop, New York, leaving the town smelling unpleasant. The horses arent to blame, though. Microbes are.

Manure is a bacterial party. It accumulates billions of microbes as it wends through the digestive system, and even more once it lands outside. Those bacteria ingest organic material in the manure and release hot — lots of heat, in the case of the large compost piles that farmers shovel manure into. The accumulated heat kills harmful bacteria like E. coli , leaving nutrient-rich fertilizer free of pathogens.

Or it erupts into fire like in Throop, where residents smelled burning horse manure long before they assured it. It started in a barn storing the stuff and virtually erupted a valley of dead trees and dry brush before three fire departments put it out. Manure fires are more common than you might think, though they tend to be small. There are exceptions, though. A manure fire in Southern California burned 6,000 acres in 2009, and a 2,000 ton piling of manure in Nebraska burned for three months in 2005.

In each of those fires, the accumulated heat within a manure heap didnt kill all the bacteria. Microbes sometimes survive temperatures of several hundred degrees. Davis Hill, who works on agricultural safety and health at Penn State, has investigated some poultry manure fires like this. We were considering temperatures of likely five or six hundred degrees in certain places, he says. Other various kinds of manure can combust at far lower temperatures. Thats why Rick Koelsch, a livestock and bioenvironmental engineer at the University of Nebraska, recommends tearing apart a manure pile if the core temperature outstrips 180 Fahrenheit.

Breaking up a heap uncovers the hot inner core to cooler outside air. In the winter, this can quickly extinguish smoldering manure. But in the summer, farmers must be more careful. If the air temperature is hot, Koelsch says, the hot dissipates more slowly. Thats how you get a conflagration of caca.

Moisture content also ascertains how hot a manure heap can get. Too much moisture drowns the bacteria before they make much hot. Too little also kills them. When its just right, Koelsch tells, it can create that temperature to a phase where you could get combustion before the bacteria die off.

And then there are air pockets. This pony manure probably has straw in it, Hill says. That straw is likely letting air particles to be trapped inside, and its permitting the temperatures to go a little hotter than it would normally go. The ideal sum of air provides enough oxygen to sustain the bacteria as they heat the pile. But it also could provide enough oxygen to sustain a fire if the temperature gets too high.

The right–or wrong-combination of temperature, moisture, and air can create a pile that hots rapidly and combusts spontaneously before farmers can check the temperature.

Farmers can avoid fires by managing the size of their heaps. Koelsch suggests maintaining a manure pile less than 5 feet deep, since they are dissipate heat more efficiently than large piles.( Assure: the square-cube law ). Occasionally turning the heap helps, too. Bringing stuff from the surface into the middle promotes rotting and releases built-up heat.

In one article, weve hit on microbiology, agricultural sciences, ecology, and thermodynamics. Not bad for flaming pilings of poop.

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Natural selection may prefer younger mothers and higher BMI in humen

New study indicates evolution is still acting on contemporary humans, although over many generations and very weakly

As humen continue to evolve, natural selection appears to be favouring higher body mass indicator( BMI) in men and an earlier age for starting a family in girls, research has revealed.

Researchers utilized data from the UK Biobank, a large genetic and health database of half a million British people aged 45 and over, to look at how numerous traits from body mass index to height and birth weight, as well as particular genetic variations associated with such traits, are linked to the number of children individuals had during their lifespan.

But scientists note that the effects are weak and that it will take many generations before significant changes are seen in humen. In addition, they stress it is not clear if natural selection is acting directly or indirectly on the traits.

” We wanted to try to understand what kinds, and[ to] quantify, the evolutionary forces that are affecting contemporary human traits, including height and BMI ,” said Jaleal Sanjak, a co-author of the research from the University of California, Irvine.

” And also characterise whether selection was pushing the population in one direction or another, or favouring intermediate values or extreme values ,” he added.

The results of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, reveal that for many traits, including height and waist circumference, natural selection appears to be disfavouring extremes.

It also found that while surveys have shown natural selection has disfavoured both very heavy and very light newborns, that selection is now exceedingly weak, and merely seen in females.

” The strength of natural selection is a fraction of what it was, and this birth weight thing is a beautiful instance of that because now neonatal care is so good that you can be very underweight or very overweight and it stimulates no change ,” said Steve Jones, emeritus professor of human genetics at University College London, who was not involved in such studies.

” The interesting thing is not that there are bits of natural selection around- which without question there are. But what is called the opportunity for natural selection has almost disappeared .”

In humen, the team found that natural selection appears to favour a higher body mass index. But with obesity linked to problems with fertility, said Jones,” higher BMI been shown that big muscly hunks are the ones who do better “.

However Sanjak said there might be more to the findings, pointing out that it is difficult to unpick cause and effect.

” The problem here is that the genetic variants that predispose an individual to have a higher BMI also seem to predispose an individual to have more children, that is true. But it could be the case that having more kids has an effect on your BMI .”

He added that it could be that BMI was genetically links between other traits that were under natural selection.

The study, he added, also suggested that natural selection is favouring reduced educational attainment in women.

But, it seems, that is not a straightforward connection, with further analysis disclosing that the result is most likely linked to selection on persons under the age of starting a family, with younger moms less likely to have reached higher levels of education, or less able to reach them once having had children.

The team also showed that starting a family earlier in life appears to be favoured by natural selection in women.

” We understand that having children earlier should mean you have more of them, but the surprising portion was just to find it on the genetic level ,” Sanjak said.

Overall, he said, the results paint an interesting image.” Natural selection is still happening in modern humans- it is observable, we can see it.

” But they are fairly weak impacts and secular tendencies, things due to modern medicine and social change, are likely to be bigger drivers of changes in these traits .”

For example, while natural selection was preferring reduced educational attainment, educational attainment overall was increasing over time.” That is an example of a secular force that is going to swamp the effect of natural selection ,” he said.

Dr Chris Tyler-Smith from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute greeted such studies.

” People sometimes ask,’ Are humen still evolving ?’ because advances in society and healthcare now allow people who might in previous centuries have died young to survive and have children ,” he said.

” But, in my view, unless everyone has exactly the same opportunity of having children, we will inevitably continue to evolve .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Humanity Is Killing Off Thousands of Species. But It’s Creating Them, Too

During World War II, Londoners often attempted shelter from German bombs in the citys subway passageways. There, they encountered another type of adversary: hordes of voracious mosquitoes. These werent your typical aboveground mosquitoes. They were aborigines of the metro, born in ponds of standing water that pockmarked the underground passageways. And unlike their open-air cousins, Londons subterranean skeeters seemed to love biting humans.

Fifty years after the war ended, scientists at the University of London decided to investigate the subway population. They collected eggs and larvae from metro tunnels and garden ponds and reared both populations in the lab. The passageway bugs, they confirmed, preferred feeding on mammals over birds. And when the scientists put males and females from different populations in close quarters designed to encourage mating , not a single pairing created offspring. That sealed the deal: The underground mosquitoes were a whole new species, adapted to life in the subway tunnels people had built.

Its narratives like that one that got Joseph Bull thinking. As a preservation scientist at the University of Copenhagen, he hears a lot about how humans are driving other species extinct. If the current rate stays steady, the planet is on its way to its sixth mass extinction, a severe event on par with the meteorite impact that killed the dinosaurs. But he wondered if there might be a flip side. I hadnt actually insured any kind of analysis of whether all these kinds of activities that humans get up to around the planet, whether and how they cause new species to emerge, he says. The Anthropocenewhile not quite yet an official geological epoch, still a supremely useful conceptis defined by the myriad routes in which humans affect the Earth. Civilization is destructive, but its generative too, sometimes in disturbing styles. A new world will emerge out of the Anthropocene, and it will be shaped by the species humen create and foster as well as the ones they kill off.

The most obvious route that people generate new species is through domestication. By picking out the traits in a wild population that are most beneficial to humans and breeding for them, people can force evolution in different species, Bull says. Wolves become dogs, nubby grass becomes maize, wild boars become pigs.

But humen can drive speciation in other, less purposeful routes. Its important to think about the process of developing new species as a process, Bull says. One of the most dramatic styles people put that process in motion is by moving members of an existing species from one place to another. Sometimes those individuals succumb in the new environment. Sometimes they hang on and interbreed with native species. And sometimes, they take over, like kudzu in the American South or snakes on Guam. Over day, the new surrounding exerts different pressures on the invasive population, causing it to diverge from its ancestors. The invasive species might also change the game for native species, pushing them in new genetic directions( if, of course, it doesnt just drive them extinct ).

Although hunting is one good way to drive a species extinct( just ask the passenger pigeon ), it can also spur evolution by removing certain types of individuals from a species gene poolbirds of an easy-to-see colour, say, or fish large enough to be caught in a net. No new species is known to have been created through hunting alone, Bull says, but dedicated enough time its far away from impossible.

Finally, we have the process that generated the underground mosquito: Peoples inclination to generate whole new ecosystems, including and especially cities. Populations of animals colonize these new surroundings and adapt to their demands, from mosquitoes developing a savor for mammals blood underground to city birds becoming better problem-solvers than their rural relatives.

Keeping these mechanisms in intellect, Bull tallied up humen impact on species in a paper published today by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B . During the last 12,000 years, scientists have recorded 1,359 plant and animal extinctions. Meanwhile, humans have relocated 891 plant and animal species, and domesticated 743 for a total of 1,634 species. It seems that human-driven speciation could be as much a trade mark of the Anthropocene as extinction is.

Of course, extinction, like speciation, is hard to document as its happening. Many species likely disappear before scientists even know they are there. Thats why extinction rates are usually calculated with extrapolations and models, but even they give wildlydifferent numbers. Thats all to say that many more than 1,359 lifeforms are most likely gone extinct in the past 12,000 years. Though its possible humans create species without seeing them, too. Just think of the wild world of antibiotic-resistant microbes, which evolve so fast in response to drugs that its dangerously difficult to keep up.

Number of species, however, is just one style measure the effects humen are having on natureand maybe not the best way. Drive keystone predators like wolves or sharks extinct and entire ecosystems breakdown , no matter how many new species pop up to replace them. Whats more, older species can carry millions of years of evolutionary history in their genes; if they go extinct, that diversity is lost. Anthropogenic species represent a nanosecond of the evolutionary period that many natural species have passed through, says Christopher Dick, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan. In conservation, there is no comparing a 10 -million-year-old tree or turtle species with a decades-old strain of bug or plant.

Bull agrees that speciation and extinction dont cancel each other out. If we only use number of species as a way of measuring progress that someone constructs on preservation, then were missing a loading of other important considerations, he says. We cannot replace something lost with something gained when it comes to nature. Human-driven speciation may turn out to be a calling card of the Anthropocene. But no matter how many species of underground mosquitoes humanity unwittingly creates, they wont make up for what it destroys.

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