I don’t wanna get off on a rant here … wait, wrong guy.
On a recent episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, contributor Lewis Black examined three different science stories on his recurring “Back in Black” segment. If you didn’t see the show, you’ve probably only heard about one, even though the other two are potentially much more groundbreaking.
I Want to Symbiotically Circulate Your Blood
Not that there isn’t a lot to learn from the “vampire therapy” study that showed older mice can become stronger and improve their memories when treated with the blood of younger mice. The unfortunately nicknamed work – “I like my science trendy,” Black quipped – gruesomely involved the sewing of two mice together so that they shared a common blood stream. More politely called “heterochronic parabiosis,” the technique, which Jocelyn Kaiser of “Science” notes was first attempted 150 years ago, seems to rejuvenate the older mouse’s muscle stem cells while also bolstering the spinal cord and brain.
Sometimes science resembles a Victorian horror novel.
Now before anyone goes all Bram Stoker on the college kids next door, I should point out that it’s probably easier to head straight to the source, as several more studies claim to have isolated the responsible party, a protein called growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11). GDF11 injections have had similar results as the Frankenstein-patchwork method, and has also been used to thicken the cardiovascular tissue of aging mice as well as boosting the production of new blood vessels and olfactory nerves in their brains.
“You can really taste the proteins!”
Of course mice are not people, but we do have our own version of GDF11 coursing through our veins, so maybe the same process could carry over. Tony Wyss-Coray of the parabiosis study wants to begin human trials on Alzheimer’s patients this year. So be careful the next time you visit Grandpa at the home; he might try to pull more than a quarter from behind your ear.
“Grandad, did you just nick my jugular?”
Adding to the Alphabet
Not satisfied to just stitch macroorganisms, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute, home to 3,000 biomedical researchers, have found a way to insert artificially made compounds into our very DNA.
You might remember from high school biology that our genetic material is made up of four different nitrogen-containing nucleobases; adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). Black prefers to think the letters stand for “alcohol, tobacco, cigars and gravy.” Either way, those four little chains make up the basic building blocks of all life on Earth, from ants to trees to crabs and even Grandpa. Until now, that is.
Used to be all there was to you. We may be on the verge of changing that.
Inserting d5SICS – novel because it contains a sulfur atom when no natural nucleobase does – and dNaM into the bacterium’s nucleus was the easy part. Getting the compounds to react as aggressively yet seamlessly as the natural base pairs, so that the bacteria would reproduce with the new stuff along for the ride, was the challenge. The amazing feat was finally accomplished by borrowing an algae transport mechanism to keep the E. coli cells bathed in the necessary triphosphate building blocks.
Clogs up your pool filter, helps facilitate scientific breakthroughs.
Without that added stream, the oddball bases worked their way out of the DNA after a few replications, so there’s no reason to worry about mutant/alien E. coli escaping the lab, finding its way into your burger and turning your organs into liquid shit. But this does open the door to almost unimaginable future applications, allowing us to potentially synthesize never-before-seen proteins and other nanomaterials.
Rather than synthesizing something new, two different research groups have been able to spur growth from something old. The separate groups were each independently able to clone adult human skin cells, one from a 35-year-old and one from a 75-year-old, to make pluripotent, embryonic stem cells matching the donor’s genome. This somatic-cell nuclear transfer could eventually produce disease treatments tailor-made to an individual, or even personalized organ replacements.
The procedure is ethically problematic, though, as it involves stripping a human ovum of its nuclear material and using it to create an embryo (with the donor material) for the sole purpose of harvesting its stem cells. And it doesn’t even work all that well, anyway, as it took one team 39 tries to make it happen. It might not be necessary for each individual to have his own stem cell line, though, as one of the researchers, Robert Lanza, says that since many people have genetically similar immune systems, as few as 100 lines could be applied to over half the U.S. population.
“Open wide, here comes the airplane.”
That’s not enough for Black, who says, “I don’t want a refurbished ticker, I want another ME!” That’s not something that’s in the cards, for several reasons. The cloning of an entire human being is illegal in many countries, and the U.S. will not allocate federal funds for the practice. It’s kind of like banning elephants from driving cars, though, as it seems impossible to bring a human clone to birth even if we tried. The “highest” forms of life that have been successfully cloned, in the common usage of the term, are wolves and pigs. Monkey embryos never seem to take.
Sorry Miles, not happening anytime soon.
Hey! Like these articles? I’ll be LIVE-TWEETING from New York City’s World Science Festival this Friday through Sunday! See if I can relate the latest ideas on gravity waves, human perception and alien life in 140 characters or less! Follow me @russdobler46; I retweet cool science stories every day! There will probably be some beer reviews tweeted in the evening hours.