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One step closer to made-to-order babies

Scientists engineer an immature human egg in the lab

One step closer to made-to-order babies

Japanese scientists have created a way to turn human blood cells into human eggs in a lab. While the technique may help millions of people suffering from infertility, the implications and ethical concerns are legion.

In the study, published this month in the journal Science, researchers turned adult human blood cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPPSCs), which can become any cell type in the body. When they placed the iPPSCs into miniature ovaries they made from mouse embryonic cells, the iPPSCs grew into immature human egg cells.

“The entire experiment happened entirely within an incubator within a laboratory,” Amander Clark, a developmental biologist at UCLA, told NPR.

The eggs were too immature for fertilization and could not produce a baby, but the researchers said using the method to make mature human eggs and sperm was the next step.

Scientists tout this technique as a way to help infertile people, but it could also allow scientists to mass-produce human eggs and even lead to human cloning. Researchers could theoretically produce babies from anyone’s blood, hair, or skin cells, from deceased relatives to famous people.

“A woman might want to have George Clooney’s baby,” Ronald Green, a Dartmouth bioethicist, told NPR. “And his hairdresser could start selling his hair follicles online. So we suddenly could see many, many progeny of George Clooney without his consent.”

While researchers barrel ahead, the needed discussions about where to draw the line aren’t really happening, Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, wrote in an op-ed for National Review.

“Other than some government funding restrictions, scientists are generally ethically bound only by their own consciences,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”

The Council on Bioethics under President George W. Bush attempted to initiate ethical conversation about such matters, Smith said, but mainstream media and liberal bioethicists attacked the council for its conservative perspective and ignored its work.

“‘Anything goes,’ or leaving our biotechnological future up to the experts, is not a wise or sustainable approach,” he added.

A bug-splattered car windshield

A bug-splattered car windshield

Where have all the flying insects gone?

Have you noticed fewer squashed bugs on your windshield lately? Scientists have, and they are getting concerned. They fear flying insects such as bees, butterflies, moths, and fireflies—beneficial pollinators and key links in the food chain—are on the decline.

Limited data on insect populations from decades ago make scientific analysis difficult, but a handful of studies suggest an alarming decline of flying insects.

One 2006 study estimated a 14 percent decrease in ladybugs in the United States and Canada from 1987 to 2006. Last year, a study published in the journal PLOS found an 82 percent mid-summer decline in the number and weight of insects captured in traps scattered throughout 63 German nature preserves over a 27-year period. Other observations in remote places in Greenland showed an 80 percent decline of flying insects since 1996.

Researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno, have observed insect populations at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica since 1991. Decades ago, bugs covered a big insect trap sheet under a black light at the station. Now, “there’s no insects on that sheet,” Lee Dryer, one of the researchers, said.

Scientists remain unsure what is causing the decline, but suspected culprits include habitat loss, weed killer and insecticides, single-crop agriculture, invasive species, light pollution, and highway traffic. Many scientists said warmer temperatures likely have little, if any, effect.

Although flying insects seem like pests, we rely on them, said Doug Tallamy, a University of Delaware entomologist.

“You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects,” he said, adding that without flying insects, “the world would start to rot.” —J.B.

A bug-splattered car windshield

A bug-splattered car windshield

When octopuses make love, not war

Researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine claim they discovered an evolutionary link between octopuses and humans—their reaction to drugs.

In the experiments, published in Current Biology, the scientists gave eight octopuses the mood-altering drug ecstasy and observed that the octopuses began to show increased social behavior. In other words, they touched and kissed their cages more frequently. They also showed interest in visiting the chamber of a male octopus, a situation they avoided when not drugged.

The scientists likened this behavior to that displayed by humans, who often want to touch each other more when high on ecstasy. The researchers admitted that the octopus brain is more similar to the brain of a snail than that of a human, but claimed the increased affectionate behavior showed that in both humans and octopuses, ecstasy binds to brain cells that alter mood. They offered this as evidence of evolution.

But many animals display physiological functions similar to humans. It’s more likely this study shows God used certain repeating patterns in creation—and that drugged octopuses are more affectionate. —J.B.

Possible plastic alternative

Many experts are increasingly concerned about plastic pollution, particularly in oceans. Others warn that the chemical BPA, often found in plastics, can cause genetic abnormalities. And researchers at Washington State University recently discovered that the chemicals used to replace BPA in plastics could cause similar abnormalities in mice. Now researchers in Finland say lignin, a complex polymer, might be a nontoxic, biodegradable substitute for plastic.

For years, scientists have attempted to work with lignin, but due to its complicated structure, processing it proved challenging. In a study published in Nature, researchers discovered a simple method to create ball-like particles from lignin. The biodegradable particles, only 200 nanometers in size, make it much easier to work with the substance. These particles can mix with water and other mediums, are easy to mold, and are simple to mass produce, making them good candidates for a variety of applications.

More research must take place before manufacturers can market lignin products. —J.B.

Sharp like an owl

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are studying barn owls to try to understand which brain circuits control attention. When it comes to focus, the expert predators have a lot in common with people, Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor who oversees the owl lab at Johns Hopkins, told NPR.

By measuring activity in key areas of the midbrain while the owls focus on certain stimuli, the researchers identified a group of neurons that appears to allow the owls to ignore unimportant sights and sounds.

Next, the researchers will investigate whether people possess these same brain cells. If so, the information could provide a new target for treating disorders that impair attention such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease, Mysore said. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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