Federal Research On Manipulating Brains And Rewriting DNA Should Worry Us All

The future of evolution is now in our hands. Or rather, the godlike power to alter biology rests in a few scientists’ hands, and we’re all going to pay for it, one way or another. The U.S. government is pouring billions of dollars into understanding genetics and the human brain, and most consequentially, how to manipulate those systems.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched its “BRAIN 2.0” initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnology), ramping up an existing program started eight years ago. Comparable to the Human Genome Project in scope and scale, BRAIN 2.0 grants $600 million to fully map our 86 billion neurons and their uncounted connections. The project is expected to reach a grand total cost of $5 billion by 2026.

In theory, once scientists have created this detailed brain atlas in silicothey can directly alter neural function using digital devices. The director of the BRAIN Initiative, John Ngai, exhibits a troubling fixation on this method.

In a recent interview with Stat News, Ngai noted two concrete results of his current neuro-mapping efforts. One is an advanced brain-computer interface — implanted last year at the University of California, San Francisco — that allows for astounding thought-to-text communication. The other is a major breakthrough in deep brain stimulation at Baylor University, where electrodes are implanted to alter mood and behavior, relieving depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Ngai’s cyborg obsession is shared by his close government partner, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where “man-computer symbiosis” has been a longstanding paradigm. The defense agency’s involvement in the BRAIN Initiative is open and well documented. However, beyond the NIH’s declared mission to heal, our top military minds also have a deep interest in human enhancement. 

“DARPA has been a pioneer in brain-machine interface technology since the 1970s, but we began investing heavily in the early 2000s,” boasted Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “We’ve laid the groundwork for a future in which advanced brain interface technologies will transform how people live and work.” 

This transformation involves neural implants, to an extent, but also non-invasive devices, such as wearable neuro-bands or skull caps. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics,” said DARPA program manager Phillip Alvelda, whose goals include “Bridging the Bio-Electronic Divide” and developing a “High-Resolution, Implantable Neural Interface.”

If successful, the atlas created by BRAIN 2.0 will be a crucial bridge across this “bio-electronic divide.” The neural territory will be mapped and ready to conquer. 

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Why are hard drive companies investing in DNA data storage?

The research community is excited about the potential of DNA to function as long-term archival storage. That’s largely because it’s extremely dense, chemically stable for tens of thousands of years, and comes in a format we’re unlikely to forget how to read. While there has been some interesting progress, efforts have mostly stayed in the research community because of the high costs and extremely slow read and write speeds. These are problems that need to be solved before DNA-based storage can be practical.

So we were surprised to hear that storage giant Seagate had entered into a collaboration with a DNA-based storage company called Catalog. To find out how close the company’s technology is to being useful, we talked to Catalog’s CEO, Hyunjun Park. Park indicated that Catalog’s approach is counterintuitive on two levels: It doesn’t store data the way you’d expect, and it isn’t focusing on archival storage at all.

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Chinese scientists claim to have engineered the world’s first mouse with fully reprogrammed genes

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) claim to have found a novel technique for programmable chromosome fusion successfully producing mice with genetic changes “that occur on a million-year evolutionary scale” in the laboratory.

The findings could shed light on how chromosome rearrangements—the tidy packages of organized genes provided in equal numbers by each parent, which align and trade or blend traits to produce offspring—influence evolution, reported Phys.org on Thursday.

“The laboratory house mouse has maintained a standard 40-chromosome karyotype—or the full picture of an organism’s chromosomes—after more than 100 years of artificial breeding,” said Li Zhikun, a researcher at CAS’s Institute of Zoology.

“Over longer time scales, however, karyotype changes caused by chromosome rearrangements are common. Rodents have 3.2 to 3.5 rearrangements per million years, whereas primates have 1.6,” added Li, co-first author of the study.

The mouse, known as Xiao Zhu, or “Little Bamboo,” was the world’s first mammal with fully reprogrammed genes, according to the South China Morning Post.

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Humanized Yeast: Scientists Create Yeast With Important Human Genes

Delft University of Technology scientists have created baker’s yeast with human muscle genes.

Human muscle genes were successfully inserted into the DNA of baker’s yeast by biotechnologist Pascale Daran-Lapujade and her team at Delft University of Technology. For the first time, scientists have effectively inserted a crucial human characteristic into a yeast cell. Their research was recently published in the journal Cell Reports.

Daran-Lapujade’s lab introduced a characteristic to yeast cells that is regulated by a collection of 10 genes that humans cannot live without; they carry the blueprint for a process known as a metabolic pathway, which breaks down sugar to gather energy and produce cellular building blocks within muscle cells. Because this mechanism is involved in many disorders, including cancer, the modified yeast could be used in medical studies.

“Now that we understand the full process, medical scientists can use this humanized yeast model as a tool for drug screening and cancer research,” Daran-Lapujade says.

Humans and yeast are similar

According to Daran-Lapujade, there are a lot of similarities between yeast and a human being: “It seems weird since yeast lives as single cells and humans consist of a substantially more complex system, but the cells operate in a very similar way.”

As a result, scientists often transfer human genes into yeast. Because yeast removes all other interactions that may exist in the human body, it creates a clean environment in which researchers can analyze a single process.

“As compared to human cells or tissues, yeast is a fantastic organism for its simplicity to grow and its genetic accessibility: its DNA can be easily modified to address fundamental questions,” Daran-Lapujade explains. “Many pivotal discoveries such as the cell division cycle, were elucidated thanks to yeast.”

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Police Are Using Newborn Genetic Screening to Search for Suspects, Threatening Privacy and Public Health

Nearly every baby born in the U.S. has blood drawn in the immediate hours after their birth, allowing the baby to be tested for a panel of potentially life-threatening inherited disorders. This is a vital public health program, enabling early treatment of newborns with genetic disorders; for them, it can be the difference between a healthy life and an early death. But recent news suggests that police are seeking access to these newborn blood samples in criminal investigations. Such use of this trove of genetic material — to hunt for evidence that could implicate a child’s relative in a crime — endangers public trust in this vital health program and threatens all Americans’ right to genetic privacy.

A public records lawsuit filed in New Jersey this month details how police subpoenaed a newborn blood sample to investigate a 1996 cold case. While law enforcement’s desire to use these blood samples in criminal investigations was always a possibility — and one the ACLU has opposed — the increasing use of Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG) has only increased the government’s interest in easy access to people’s DNA. While few have heard of IGG, many have heard of its application to cold cases: One high-profile example is the 2018 identification of the Golden State Killer as former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. In IGG, DNA is isolated from a sample left at a crime scene and a rich genetic profile is created and uploaded to a genealogy website in order to map out family trees. In just four years since IGG first became public, its documented use by police has rapidly grown to nearly 200 investigations.

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Democrat House Intelligence Committee Member Warns: DNA Testing Can Be Used as Bioweapon to Target Americans

Bio-weapons are being developed that use specific DNA to target and kill individuals through their medical profile, a Democrat member of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee warned Friday.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), a U.S. Army veteran, used the Aspen Security Forum to warn Americans to be more judicious about sharing their DNA with private companies due to the coming of new bioweapon types.

His call is a repeat of one made in 2019 when concerns about China acquiring the DNA of American service members prompted the Pentagon to issue an advisory to the entire force against using commercial popular DNA testing kits to trace one’s ancestry.

“You can actually take someone’s DNA, take, you know, their medical profile and you can target a biological weapon that will kill that person or take them off the battlefield or make them inoperable,” Crow, from Colorado, reportedly said.

The congressman said the development of sophisticated bioweapons is worrisome given the popularity of DNA testing services, where people willingly share their genetic mapping with businesses to gain insight on their genealogy and health, the Daily Mail reports.

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‘CRISPR 2.0’ Used To Change Patient’s DNA For First Time

Scientists are rewriting the code of life with a new technology that promises to cure inherited diseases by precisely correcting genetic typos. Known as base editing, the technology empowers researchers to pick a single letter amongst the three billion that compose the human genome, erase it, and write a new letter in its place.

Base editing is an updated version of the gene editing tool CRISPR, which has revolutionized life sciences research and is making strides in treating genetic blood and liver diseases. But some scientists think base editing, sometimes billed as CRISPR 2.0, could be safer and more precise than the original. And this summer, the sequel technology is being used in patients for the first time.

On Tuesday, the Boston biotech firm Verve Therapeutics announced that it had edited the DNA of a person with a genetic condition that causes high cholesterol and predisposes them to heart disease. The base editor is designed to tweak a gene in the liver, curtail the accumulation of cholesterol, and hopefully lower the risk of heart attacks.

Verve chief executive and cofounder Sekar Kathiresan likens the approach to “surgery without a scalpel.” Although the trial is focused on people with the genetic condition familial hypercholesterolemia, Kathiresan hopes that the one-and-done therapy may one day be used more broadly, to permanently reduce the risk of heart disease in millions of people with high cholesterol. “We are completely trying to rewrite how this disease is cared for,” he said.

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Scientists ‘really surprised’ after gene-editing experiment unexpectedly turn hamsters into hyper-aggressive bullies

A team of neuroscience researchers was left “really surprised” after a gene-editing experiment unexpectedly created hyper-aggressive hamsters, according to a statement by Georgia State University (GSU).

The GSU research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), set out to find more about the biology behind the social behavior of mammals.

The scientists used Syrian hamsters and CRISPR-Cas9 — a revolutionary technology that makes it possible to turn on or off genes in cells. The technology knocked out a receptor of vasopressin — a hormone associated with enhanced aggression.

The scientists anticipated that doing so would “dramatically” alter the social behavior of the Syrian hamsters, making them more peaceful. It did change their behavior, but not how they had expected.

“We were really surprised at the results,” said the study’s lead author, GSU professor H. Elliott Albers, in the university’s statement.

“We anticipated that if we eliminated vasopressin activity, we would reduce both aggression and social communication,” Albers continued. “But the opposite happened.”

The hamsters without the receptor displayed “high levels of aggression” towards hamsters of the same sex compared to their counterparts with the receptors intact, the study said.

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Uganda Will Harvest the DNA of its Citizens Under National ID Program

The East African nation of Uganda is announcing plans to begin harvesting and tracking the DNA and biometric data of its citizens under an updated version of the country’s national ID program, which will see genetic information added to the ID cards that Ugandans are legally required to obtain.

Uganda began its national ID program in 2014, giving the cards a 10-year lifespan before they reach expiration.  Under plans recently announced by the nation’s government, when cards start expiring in 2024, Uganda will begin to harvest the DNA of its citizens for use in the revamped national ID program, though it isn’t clear exactly how the government plans to extract the DNA from its citizens.

In addition to information on Ugandan’s DNA profiles, the updated ID cards will feature biometric data and fingerprints, as well as information gathered from the eyes of Ugandan citizens using scan technology. All this, the government says, will help speed up the identity verification process at government offices and administrative centers, as well as assist law enforcement in their investigations. The cards are also digitized, giving the government instant access to citizens’ information via a massive national catalog.

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FDA Says CRISPR Gene-Edited Cattle Safe for Human Consumption

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that short-haired cattle produced through CRISPR gene-editing technology are safe for human consumption. The cattle, known as PRLR-SLICK, were the first to receive an FDA “low-risk determination for enforcement discretion” after the agency determined the intentional genomic alteration (IGA) of the two genome-edited cattle does not raise any safety concerns.

Produced by Acciligen with climate change in mind, the cows have a genetic trait that gives them a short, sleek coat which is said to help the animals cope with hot weather more effectively. The FDA’s low-risk determination means the agency does not expect Acciligen, a “precision breeding” company, to seek regulatory approval before marketing products from the cattle.

The FDA spent years reviewing the two other genetically altered animals approved for human consumption—a faster-growing salmon and a pig the agency determined was safe for consumption by people with meat allergies. However, the review process for the CRISPR beef cattle took less than a year because the FDA noted the gene-editing results in the same slick-hair trait seen in cattle that are found in conventional agriculture. Talking about the Mar. 7, 2022 approval, Steven Solomon, director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, said:

“We expect that our decision will encourage other developers to bring animal biotechnology products forward for the FDA’s risk determination in this rapidly developing field, paving the way for animals containing low-risk IGAs (intentional genomic alterations) to more efficiently reach the marketplace.”

Looking closer at Acceligen, the company website says that most of its workers have backgrounds in the farm industry. The company explains that “precision breeding” is different from conventional breeding or genetically modified organisms (GMO) in that it allows a “highly desired trait” that may typically take years to show up to be expressed in “just one breeding cycle.”  

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