Almost seven full hours of wonderfully detailed discussions on the biological, genetic, anatomical and paleo-anthropological development of modern man.
Almost seven full hours of wonderfully detailed discussions on the biological, genetic, anatomical and paleo-anthropological development of modern man.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a new technique that allow us to derive stem cells from human embryos and reprogram them for medical use and research.
For the first time, scientists from the University of Cambridge have showed that is possible to derive naïve pluripotent stem cells from a human embryo. This is considered one of the most flexible types of stem cell, carrying the potential to develop into all types of human tissue aside from the placenta.
There are two sources of human pluripotent stem cells that are being used in medicinal or biomedical research: embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from fertilized egg cells, cells that are commonly discarded from IVF procedures. Pluripotent stem cells are skin cells that are reprogrammed to a pluripotent form. Typically these cells have already been “primed” into specific cell types, however “naïve” cells have had all instructions erased in order to make it much easier to direct them to whatever type of cell is needed.
Naïve-like human induced pluripotent stem cells had recently been created by reprogramming, however it had been unknown whether they could also be obtained directly from the human embryo.
When an egg cell is fertilized by a sperm, it begins to divide and replicate before the embryo takes shape. Around day five, the embryonic cells cluster together to form a structure called the ‘blastocyst’. This occurs before implantation into the uterus. The blastocyst comprises three cell types: cells that will develop into the placenta and allow the embryo to attach to the womb; cells that form the ‘yolk sac’ which provides nutrients to the developing fetus; and the ‘epiblast’ comprising the naïve cells that will develop into the future body.
A New Technique for Pluripotent Stem Cells
In a study published in Stem Cell Reports, a team of scientists from the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Cambridge Stem Cell Institute were able to remove cells from the blastocyst at day six, and grow them individually in culture. They separated the eggs and thus stopped the “communication” between them to prevent them being steered to a particular path of development.
The research was supported by the Medical Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Swiss National Science Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.
“Until now it hasn’t been possible to isolate these naïve stem cells, even though we’ve had the technology to do it in mice for thirty years – leading some people to doubt it would be possible,” explains Ge Guo, the study’s first author, “but we’ve managed to extract the cells and grow them individually in culture. Naïve stem cells have many potential applications, from regenerative medicine to modelling human disorders.”
In principle, these stem cells have no restrictions on what type of adult tissue they will develop into. Dr Jenny Nichols, joint senior author of the study, says that one of the most exciting applications of their new technique would be to study disorders that arise from cells that contain an abnormal number of chromosomes. Ordinarily, the body contains 23 pairs of identical chromosomes (22 pairs and one pair of sex chromosomes), but some children are born with additional copies, which can cause problems – for example, children with Down’s syndrome are born with three copies of chromosome 21.
“Even in many ‘normal’ early-stage embryos, we find several cells with an abnormal number of chromosomes,” explains Dr Nichols. “Because we can separate the cells and culture them individually, we could potentially generate ‘healthy’ and ‘affected’ cell lines. This would allow us to generate and compare tissues of two models, one ‘healthy’ and one that is genetically-identical other than the surplus chromosome. This could provide new insights into conditions such as Down’s syndrome.”
Original article: Scientists Generate “Naïve” Pluripotent Stem Cells from Human Embryo
Mitochondria are double-membraned organelles with variable shapes influenced by metabolic conditions, developmental stage, and environmental stimuli. Their dynamic morphology is a result of regulated and balanced fusion and fission processes. Fusion is crucial for the health and physiological functions of mitochondria, including complementation of damaged mitochondrial DNAs and the maintenance of membrane potential. Mitofusins are dynamin-related GTPases that are essential for mitochondrial fusion. They are embedded in the mitochondrial outer membrane and thought to fuse adjacent mitochondria via combined oligomerization and GTP hydrolysis. However, the molecular mechanisms of this process remain unknown. Here we present crystal structures of engineered human MFN1 containing the GTPase domain and a helical domain during different stages of GTP hydrolysis. The helical domain is composed of elements from widely dispersed sequence regions of MFN1 and resembles the ‘neck’ of the bacterial dynamin-like protein. The structures reveal unique features of its catalytic machinery and explain how GTP binding induces conformational changes to promote GTPase domain dimerization in the transition state. Disruption of GTPase domain dimerization abolishes the fusogenic activity of MFN1. Moreover, a conserved aspartate residue trigger was found to affect mitochondrial elongation in MFN1, probably through a GTP-loading-dependent domain rearrangement. Thus, we propose a mechanistic model for MFN1-mediated mitochondrial tethering, and our results shed light on the molecular basis of mitochondrial fusion and mitofusin-related human neuromuscular disorders14.
Full article: Mitochondrial Fusion
Fascinating article for biology fans.
To boldly go where no one has gone before . . . or not? That is the question when considering whether we should dabble in genetic engineering.
I have been a Trekkie since the early ’70s when I watched Star Trek alone in my parents’ bedroom—since no one else in my family was interested. (My dad believed watching a show filled with bizarre alien characters and space travel was a waste of time.) Years later, The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss fueled my wonder over how many of the technologies and gadgets in Star Trek were possible and how many were just the imaginings of writers who neglected the laws of physics. Since then, I have been periodically amazed at how Star Trek’s writers projected future realities, once thought implausible.
Genetic Engineering Creates an Unnatural Selection
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Unnatural Selection,”1 Captain Picard, Dr. Pulaski, and the Enterprise crew discover a supply ship (USS Lantree), that had recently visited the Darwin Genetic Research Station on Gagarin IV—the entire crew was dead and extremely aged. In response to their disconcerting discovery, Captain Picard utters with trepidation and awe, “My God.”
Upon initial assessment, Dr. Pulaski anxiously informs the bridge crew, “They died of natural causes.” Picard’s response foreshadows the outcome, “Natural causes? What in nature could cause that?” Shortly after this, Picard confesses that the thought of a link between the Lantree crew’s deaths and the research station fills him with “profound apprehension.”
As the story unfolds we learn that children have been genetically designed to have superior physiologies and mental capacities, including advanced immune systems designed to resist disease and aggressively attack potential pathogens from a distance by releasing antibodies into the atmosphere. (It is interesting to note that this episode aired 20 years before the CRISPR/Cas9 system was even discovered.) Unfortunately, the children’s genetic enhancement had an unforeseen, tragic outcome, resulting in a type of humanoid-autoimmunity. Their antibodies—generated to protect them from a relatively harmless flu virus—attacked humanoid DNA in otherwise healthy, unmodified humans, accelerating their aging process. The antibody became a dangerous, infectious pathogen passing easily from one person to another. The children’s superior immunity resulted in Dr. Pulaski’s summary that the genetic design of human beings had led to a new species of humans that is lethal to its predecessors.
Maybe my dad was right—this all sounds pretty farfetched!
But not anymore—at least not on one level. In December 2015, an international panel of scientists met to discuss the future of gene editing of human cells, including somatic cells, germ (reproductive) cells, and stem cells.
Since 2012, a bacterial anti-viral system called CRISPR/Cas9 has been revolutionizing gene editing (changing the DNA sequence of targeted genes to correct or introduce new DNA sequences) making it more easily accessible, affordable, and widespread than previous techniques. Most CRISPR/Cas9 editing is being done in nonhuman organisms; but the potential of modifying human somatic cells to treat human diseases is the goal of many experiments.
The Complications of Editing the Human Genome
Three recent studies in Science demonstrate the potential for treating diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in a mouse model using CRISPR/Cas9 systems.2 Such modifications are not so straightforward. Gene editing has proven inefficient, and delivery of the gene editing mechanism may not hit enough cells to achieve the desired outcome or cure. Unmodified CRISPR/Cas9s also have a high off-target hit rate, which means the target genome is mutated in more places than intended. Many scientists are finding clever solutions to reduce these problems, but these are serious technical hurdles to clear before attempting any kind of gene-editing treatment in humans suffering from genetic diseases like DMD.
As beings made in the image of God we have been given rational minds, imaginations, curiosity, a desire to create, and a mandate to care for creation. We are even given dominion over creation, which allows us to approach nature through scientific experimentation. As a scientist who studies the vast resources of God’s creation, I am amazed by the wonders and rich complexity of the microbial world. CRISPR/Cas9 and other microbial systems providentially provide us with tools to mitigate human disease and suffering and may even herald the cure for many genetic diseases.
However, the way we exercise dominion makes a great difference in how we care for creation and for one another. (For example, we can use nuclear fission for destructive warheads or clean energy.) CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing opens the door to gene-editing in human germ cells. If modified germ cells or embryos were used to establish a pregnancy, the result would be the birth of a genetically modified human being. Any modifications would then be passed on to subsequent generations, affecting the human gene pool and eventually, possibly all of future humanity.
Is It Ever Ethical to “Modify” Humans Made in God’s Image?
It’s important to remember that we are given dominion over creation, not over other human beings. Only God has dominion over us. Problems arise when we glorify our dominion over creation rather than giving glory to the Creator. In other words, we falter for lack of humility.
The Judeo-Christian perspective espouses human dignity because humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). It is difficult to establish the grounds for human dignity or uniqueness apart from a Creator who imparts his image and gives us purpose. The Judeo-Christian voice, thus, must be strong in public dialogue, helping to restrain and shape the future of gene editing to preserve the dignity of humanity.
Significant technical challenges remain before CRISPR/Cas9 can be used to treat diseases in humans. The oversight committee for the International Summit on Human Gene Editing released their summary statement on gene editing in research and clinical applications. In light of how little is still known or well-understood of the human genome (see my previous article) greater caution than called for in this summary statement can be argued, echoing others’ calls for a moratorium on human germ cell manipulation due to safety and ethical issues.
Returning to Star Trek, Dr. Pulaski suggests that, despite the risks, the crew should start experimenting. Picard replies that he wants proof of safety before he exposes his crew.
Unfortunately, if we don’t know the risks hidden in unexplored places in the complexity of the human genome, we can’t have positive proof of safety.
It may sound farfetched, but Star Trek’s episode “Unnatural Selection” is not so far off from scientific possibility. In the midst of this, we should be praying for godly wisdom rather than relying solely on the cry to go boldly where no one has gone before.
Original article: Gene Modification
Our wonders have exceed our wisdom. As with all human propositions, the results are 50/50… half will be miracles and half will be incomprehensible horrors.
If synthetic biologists succeed in creating synthetic life, does this accomplishment prove the theory of naturalistic evolution—that life arose via undirected random processes? Does it make humans like God? The answers to these questions might be found in the creation of humankind in the image of God (imago Dei in Latin).
The Bible says that “God created man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27, NASB), but what does it mean to be created in the image of God? A clue is found in the next verse: “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:28, NASB). We have argued elsewhere that a logical interpretation of Genesis 1:28 is that men and women are formed in the image of God to continue God’s work of bringing order out of chaos.
Humans are the only life-forms on Earth who have the ability to understand and experiment in science. Science has made agriculture much more productive than in biblical times and has developed electricity and machinery, which have vastly improved our quality of life. We believe that this is part of subduing and ruling creation and, thus, is a manifestation of the image of God.
But do we ever become like God? Consider the practice of medicine. Prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God for our lives; but according to James, prayer is also a prescription for healing: “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14, NASB). In fact, some modern statistical studies—admittedly not peer-reviewed, but using standard scientific methodology—have indicated that patients who are prayed over experience better healing and/or fewer complications than patients who are not.
Yet throughout history, humans have also benefitted from medical science. Ancient healers crafted natural remedies, and modern physics and chemistry have developed diagnostic scanners and pharmaceuticals to address a variety of medical issues. Such improvements in medical science have alleviated human suffering and extended human life. But does that make us like God? Such advances have not created anything conceptually new and do not lessen humankind’s dependence on God. Instead, humans are acting as God’s image bearers when we make things better. As the old DuPont advertising slogan stated: “Better things for better living…through chemistry.”
But consider in vitro fertilization. This process has been a boon for couples who have been unable to produce children the natural way. But is this an example of science creating life? Life is not really being created; instead, we are only creating an environment in which God’s natural processes toward life can proceed. Humans might be acting godlike, but humans are not being like God.
That brings us to the question of artificial life. One of the biggest obstacles to the naturalistic creation model is its theory for the origin of life. The earliest life-forms appeared quite soon (in geological time) after the formation of Earth. Probability calculations suggest spontaneous generation of life via random natural processes is virtually impossible within the time frame allowed.
Synthetic biologists are striving to create synthetic life. Based on a detailed review of their progress in 2011, biochemist Fazale Rana says it is “just a matter of time” before they succeed in creating a “minimal life-form,” and he speculates that thereafter “new life-forms will soon become ‘old hat.’” Supporters of naturalistic evolution are elated about this progress because they seem to believe artificial life will prove their explanation of the origin of life.
But they are wrong—such an accomplishment says nothing about naturalistic evolution. If and when artificial life is created, it will be made possible only by teams of experienced and creative scientists with sophisticated equipment. Rana summarizes: “Only by deliberate effort, inordinate ingenuity, and astonishing skill can synthetic biologists even begin the process of making artificial life. Their work empirically demonstrates that even the simplest life-form cannot arise without the involvement of an intelligent agent.”
The notable work of synthetic biologists is simply a derivative of God’s work. Once again, although scientists may be acting godlike, they are not being like God:
As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Artificial biologists not only stand on the shoulders of scientists who went before them, but as God’s image bearers they also stand metaphorically on the shoulders of God.
Furthermore, if science succeeds in creating artificial life, it will actually provide further proof of the implausibility that life could have emerged spontaneously via random natural processes. The creation of life still seems to require an intelligent agent. The probabilities of naturalistic evolution remain vanishingly small, and the summary analysis of astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle seems just as true today as it was in 1982:
If there were some deep principle that drove organic systems towards living systems, the operation of the principle should easily be demonstrable in a test tube in half a morning. Needless to say, no such demonstration has ever been given. Nothing happens when organic materials are subjected to the usual prescription of showers of electrical sparks or drenched in ultraviolet light, except the eventual production of a tarry sludge.
We believe the intelligent agent who created life on Earth is the Judeo-Christian God. This is a faith statement, but it seems more plausible than naturalistic evolution. As synthetic biologists attempt to create artificial life, we believe they will merely scratch the surface in discerning the natural processes that God might have used to bring about the hypernatural miracle of life.
Original article: http://goo.gl/Vx0AQj
Dr Jones is a science and education consultant. He has a B.S. (Hons) from the University of Birmingham in biology; an M.Ed. from Bristol University and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Birmingham. Dr Jones has taught science and religion courses at London and Bristol Universities. He presently works for the Christian Schools’ Trust as their research consultant for curriculum development. He is a member of the Institute of Biology, London.
It is commonly claimed by secular scientists that creationism is a “science stopper.” The contention is that to ascribe anything (e.g., the origin of living organisms) to the direct action of God is to cut off all scientific inquiry. This seems such simple common sense that it has been very persuasive. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to show that the argument is fallacious.
A number of general points can be made. First, the argument is based on ignorance of all the different ways in which Christian faith can enter into science and of how fruitful these have been. After all, many of the great scientists of the past were committed Christians and many of those were consciously exploring the implications of their Christian faith for science. Second, whereas the direct action of God may cut off one type of explanation, others will remain and may even be enhanced. To say that God created the different kinds of animals and plants certainly cuts off explanation in terms of evolutionary continuity. However, it leaves wide-open scientific investigation of every other pattern of relationship (ecological, developmental, etc.) between these kinds. Scientists have been so indoctrinated in the belief that all patterns can only be explained historically in terms of the happenstances of Darwinian evolution that many wouldn’t even know how to look for explanations in other terms. Third, there is abundant documentation of the fact that evolutionary naturalism has often stopped scientific research. To take just one example, the evolutionary assumption that certain organs or features are vestigial has often long delayed the (fruitful) research into their functions.
More specifically, one can appeal to experience and this is where this essay becomes a personal testimony to the scientific fruitfulness of a commitment to creation.
During my undergraduate days when my “heretical” views became known, my professor (Otto Lowenstein, Professor of Zoology) made a point of telling me that no creationist would be allowed to do research in his department! However, he did allow me to do research. From the pressure that was put on me, I can only assume that it was thought that I could be convinced of the error of my ways. If that was the intention, then it badly backfired. Many a visiting scholar was brought into my laboratory to convince me, from their area of expertise, that evolution was indisputably true. Of course, hardly knowing their field, I never had an answer at the time, but after they had gone I would look up the relevant research and carefully analyze it. I always found that the evolutionist case was much weaker than it had seemed and that alternative creationist interpretations were available which were just as or more convincing. My position was further strengthened by the results of my own research.
I had decided to tackle the issue of the identity and nature of the created kinds. This was in response to a common evolutionist challenge that always seemed to me to be a reasonable one. If there are created kinds then they should be identifiable. I wanted to investigate the processes of variation within a kind, and gain some handle on the limits to that variation. I needed to be able to keep and breed large numbers of species. My background was in vertebrate studies, so that meant fish. My supervisor was a fan of the cichlid aquarium fish, so that was quickly settled! Those years of research were fascinating. For all the diversity of species, I found the cichlids to be an unmistakably natural group, a created kind. The more I worked with these fish the clearer my recognition of “cichlidness” became and the more distinct they seemed from all the “similar” fishes I studied. Conversations at conferences and literature searches confirmed that this was the common experience of experts in every area of systematic biology. Distinct kinds really are there and the experts know it to be so. Developmental studies then showed that the enormous cichlid diversity (over 1,000 “species”) was actually produced by the endless permutation of a relatively small number of character states: 4 colors, ten or so basic pigment patterns and so on. The same characters (or character patterns) appeared “randomly” all over the cichlid distribution. The patterns of variation were “modular” or “mosaic”; evolutionary lines of descent were nowhere to be found. This kind of adaptive variation can occur quite rapidly (since it involves only what was already there) and some instances of cichlid “radiation” (in geologically “recent” lakes) were indeed dateable (by evolutionists) to within timespans of no more than a few thousand years. On a wider canvas, fossils provided no comfort to evolutionists. All fish, living and fossil, belong to distinct kinds; “links” are decidedly missing. Incidentally, creationists have no reason to be committed to any particular classification scheme, nor to any particular taxa above the kind level. “Orders,” “classes,” and “phyla” must not be allowed to become hallowed by tradition. They may be correctly identified (higher taxa are real), but there again they may not. Some “missing links” have been artifacts of bad classification systems. Morphology (and now biochemistry) have dominated classification, but ecology may yet prove to be a better guide.
My fish were supposedly strictly freshwater, but were found in the tropical fresh waters of three continents—from the Americas through Africa to Asia. I hypothesized that all, or at least most, fish kinds that survived the Flood must be able to survive both seawater and fresh, and much mixing of the two. After the post-Flood diversification within the kinds we should still find that, in marine kinds, there are some species that can tolerate much fresher water and, in freshwater kinds, some species that can tolerate much saltier water. With my cichlids I found that this was indeed the case. I was able to keep some species in pure seawater for more than two years with no harmful effects—they lived and reproduced normally. Literature searches again revealed that this was a common pattern throughout the fish classes.
I was also looking at heredity and already becoming skeptical of the dogma that “DNA is all” (so linked to reductionistic and evolutionary schemes). I discovered there is substantial evidence that there is more to heredity than genes and genic processes.
Indeed, it is clear that the whole cell system is a minimum unit of organism heredity. Genic processes have much to do with variation within kinds, but probably little to do with the distinction of kinds. Genes are best regarded as triggers in complex developmental systems rather than as creators or causes of organic structures. In this regard I found that there had been a vibrant creationist research program in developmental biology before Darwin that has been partly taken up again by the modern “structuralist” biologists (e.g., Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin). Not surprisingly, the latter evolutionists are anti-Darwinian and anti-Dawkins. However, their work can readily be interpreted in creationist terms. It may, of course, ultimately prove wrong (our science is always approximate and liable to error), but it at least makes the point that creationism is not a science stopper. In my view, evolutionary explanations turn out to be fatally inconsistent.