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Subverting God’s design

Scientists create healthy mouse babies from same-sex parents

Baby mice iStock/familylifestyle

Subverting God’s design

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences circumvented God’s perfect design and used stem cells and gene-editing techniques to produce healthy mouse pups from two females—no fathers required.

God created mammals with a set number of pairs of chromosomes, which vary among species: 23 pairs for humans and 20 for mice. Each pair represents one chromosome inherited from the mother and one from the father. During embryonic development, a mechanism called genomic imprinting shuts off certain genes from each parent. Usually, because of imprinting, embryos that don’t receive genetic material from both a mother and a father die or develop genetic abnormalities.

The Chinese researchers managed to get around this, creating mouse pups by using stem cells with only the mother’s set of genes and DNA, according to the study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. They deleted three imprinting regions from one female’s stem cells and injected them into the eggs of another female mouse. The stem cells fertilized the eggs, which grew into embryos. From 210 such embryos the researchers produced 29 normal, live pups that lived to adulthood and produced babies.

The scientists used a similar technique to produce 12 mice with two genetic fathers and a surrogate mother, but they survived only 48 hours after birth.

When researchers first developed gene-editing techniques in the 1970s, they hailed them as a boon for research, with the potential to treat many human diseases. But, more recently, the discovery of faster, cheaper, and more efficient gene-modifying tools has enabled researchers to run experiments that have nothing to do with treating disease but have much to do with ethical dilemmas and moral decisions, as this new research shows.

Before scientists can use this technique on humans, they need to identify imprinted genes unique to each species and address ethical concerns about producing many offspring that either die or have severe abnormalities. This research represents a small but first step down a slippery slope toward designing our own version of humanity.

“This research shows us what’s possible,” Wei Li, one of the researchers, said in a statement.

Corn leaf aphids used in research

Corn leaf aphids used in research Associated Press/Photo by Meena Haribal/Boyce Thompson Institute

Insect allies or weapons of bioterrorism?

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is hatching a highly controversial plan to protect crops.

The project, called the Insect Allies program, would infect bugs with lab-modified viruses and then turn them loose in farm fields. The insects would infect crops with the virus, which would edit the plants’ genes to strengthen them against droughts, frost, floods, pesticides, diseases, or even biological warfare, according to the organization’s website. But critics are concerned the technology could easily be used for bioterrorism if it should fall into the wrong hands.

Currently, many farmers use genetically engineered seeds, but that forces them to anticipate, before planting, what types of environmental conditions might threaten their crops. If a farmer wrongly predicts plenty of rainfall and does not use seeds engineered for drought resistance, an unexpected dry spell could devastate the crops. With the Insect Allies program, the genetic engineering could take place in the fields after the crops have been planted, at any time. The modifications would affect only one growing season.

But, in a paper published in the journal Science, an international team of lawyers and scientists argue that the Insect Allies program involves uncontrolled means of releasing synthetic viruses into the environment, and terrorists could easily use the technology for biological warfare.

People need to know about this program, which would hugely affect farmers, seed producers, and the public, wrote Guy Reeves, one of the paper’s authors. “There is hardly any public debate about the far-reaching consequences of proposing the development of this technology,” he said in a statement. “The Insect Allies program is largely unknown, even in expert circles.” —J.B.

Corn leaf aphids used in research

Corn leaf aphids used in research Associated Press/Photo by Meena Haribal/Boyce Thompson Institute

No farewell for Hubble yet

Many people lamented the possible demise of the 28-year-old Hubble telescope like the departure of an old friend when NASA recently announced the spacecraft went into safe mode after one of its gyroscopes suffered a mechanical failure. Gyroscopes help Hubble turn and lock onto new targets. The safe mode suspended the spacecraft’s observations and oriented its solar panels toward the sun to ensure sufficient power.

Hubble fans grew even more morose when the spacecraft’s backup gyroscope also failed. But NASA assured them it isn’t the end of Hubble’s space career. All its other instruments remain fully functional, and NASA expects Hubble to produce excellent observations for years to come.

In 2009, astronauts installed six new gyroscopes on Hubble, three of which failed only after achieving or exceeding their average life expectancy. If the operations team can fix Hubble’s recent problem, the spacecraft will return to its normal, three-gyro operations. If not, the team will configure the spacecraft for one-gyro operations, which is not quite as efficient but still workable.

Meanwhile, the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, launched in 2009, likely faces a more imminent death. Last month, NASA’s Kepler team placed the spacecraft in sleep mode to preserve its dwindling fuel supply, NASA reported. The team reawakened it two weeks later to beam its most recent data on more than 30,000 stars and galaxies in the constellation Aquarius back to Earth. Experts expect Kepler will run out of fuel sometime this year. J.B.

Researchers discover a new world under the sea

Nearly 3 miles beneath the sea, about 250 miles east of Australia’s Tasmanian coast, lies a hidden world no one knew existed. When Australian researchers set out to map the area’s seafloor, they discovered an unknown chain of underwater volcanoes towering 1.9 miles above the seafloor. The volcanoes, or seamounts, vary in size and shape from sharp peaks and small, cone-shaped hills, to wide, flat plateaus.

The researchers believe the volcanic range likely teems with life and may provide an underwater highway for migrating marine animals. “This is a very diverse landscape and will undoubtedly be a biological hotspot that supports a dazzling array of marine life,” Tara Martin, an Australian marine geoscientist, said in a statement.

While the scientists moved over the chain of seamounts, at least 28 humpback whales and a pod of 60 to 80 long-finned pilot whales visited the ship. But marine life wasn’t the only surprise for the researchers. The volcanoes also seemed to attract large numbers of seabirds, including four species of albatross and four species of petrel.

The scientists are planning two more voyages in the next two months to gain more information about this underwater world. —J.B.

Rare polio-like illness on the rise

Cases of a mysterious polio-like illness that recently struck six children in Minnesota are now popping up in other states. Reports of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a disease that generally affects children, have increased since 2014. Minnesota usually sees only about one case per year. In the past four years, health professionals have reported only 350 cases in the entire United States, but 62 cases in 22 states have been confirmed in recent weeks, Live Science reported.

AFM affects the nervous system and causes muscle weakness—particularly in the arms and legs—impaired reflexes, facial drooping, difficulty moving the eyes, difficulty swallowing, and slurred speech.

No cure for AFM exists, and the cause remains unknown. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention similar neurologic diseases result from a variety of causes, including viruses, environmental toxins, and genetic disorders. The CDC notes the rare condition still afflicts fewer than one in a million people in the United States each year. 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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