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The Beauty and Benefits of Science

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 4:00pm
Cynthia Fox

“Genetic engineering is moving faster than anything we have ever seen.”

With these words, Harvard University genomics pioneer George Church captured the excitement of many talks at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The theme was "The Beauty and Benefits of Science," and the air was often electric, as thousands of scientists tromped in and out of a Boston blizzard to celebrate each other's latest—often rapidly evolving—work.

Lifespan extension genetics have advanced dramatically in two decades, Cynthia Kenyon told one crowd. Kenyon, a molecular biologist with the University of California, San Francisco, famously doubled the lifespan of C. elegans with a single gene mutation in the early 1990s.

Once we thought we “just wear out with age, like a car," she said. "We were amazed to see that changing a single gene, Daf-2, doubled the life of C. elegans."

The field took off after she published her first Nature paper on the topic in 1993. Today, Kenyon said, many groups have found genes that extend lifespan in non-human animals via antioxidants, reactive oxygen species, molecular chaperones, metabolic proteins, etc. They have found genetic manipulation of the insulin-like growth factor receptor pathway extends the lives of fruit flies and mice. They have found that a drug regulating that pathway, rapamycin, extends the lifespan of mice, as does telomerase gene therapy. They have found that infusing young mouse blood into old mice prompts muscle regeneration.

And they have found some of the above processes at work in longer-lived humans.

Many "why's" have been explained. In harsh environments, certain creatures turn on lifespan extension genes to enhance survival. Massachusetts General Hospital geneticist Gary Ruvkun found "immortal" germ-line genes, normally "off" in adult C. elegans, turn back on in long-lived mutants. Anne Brunet of Stanford University found lifespan extending epigenetic changes that don't permanently alter genes can be inherited in C. elegans.

The upshot: 20 years out, Kenyon's lab is well-armed to pursue small molecules to extend human lifespan. Some of that work will be published soon. “Absolutely fascinating” things are brewing in the field, she said.

Church noted a key reason for this in another talk. Moore's Law accurately predicts computer science evolves so fast because processing power—the number of transistors on an integrated circuit—doubles every two years. But genetics is evolving faster, said Church, whose work includes the Personal Genome Project, which is sequencing genomes of 100,000 people.

In 2003, he said, it cost $3 billion and 13 years to sequence the human genome. Now, we are months from the one-day, $1,000 genome. Many related techniques are improving. The 1990s generation of gene therapies used viral vectors that invaded genomes unpredictably, causing some cancers. But highly specific designer nucleases—proteins that cut and target DNA sequences coopted by scientists—are revolutionizing gene therapy.

"There has been a progress curve of exponential change over a very short period of time," Church said.

AAAS President William Press put it another way. Noting that US science faces $54 billion in budget cuts if Congress doesn't act by March 1, he said annual return on federal investment in science is between 20 to 60%. "We are the geese that lay the golden eggs," he said.

Among other conference topics:

  • The tenacity of mussles has led to a tenacious "super glue" polymer to close surgical wounds, said Washington and Northwestern University researchers.
  • Exercise makes us smarter. Even in old age, it leads to hikes in brain grey matter volume and white matter integrity, said the University of Illinois' Arthur Kramer.
  • Listening to Mozart doesn't (necessarily) make us smarter, said the University of Toronto's E. Glenn Schellenberg. The “Mozart Effect” is simply about changes in emotional state.
  • Miguel Nicolelis, Duke University, implanted a device into a rat's brain that allows it to detect infrared light. (Source: Duke University)Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis gave a rat a new sense: the ability to detect infrared light via a brain implant. It was “the first time we were able to add a sensory ability to an animal," Nicolelis said. This new sense may be given to humans with prosthetic legs emitting infra-red light, giving movement feedback to their brains faster than nerves.
  • Silvestro Micera, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, created a prosthetic hand that similarly offers lifelike sensory feedback from fingertips, wrists, and palms.
  • Psychopath brains possess amygdales—emotion centers—18% smaller than normal, said University of Pennsylvania neuro-criminologist Adrian Raine.
  • Paolo Macchiarini, Karolinska Institute, transplanted into patients five bioengineered tracheas made of scaffolds infused with their own stem cells.
  • Oxazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, bypasses water treatment plants to affect fish who can behave recklessly after contacting small amounts of it. This may result in happier fish—until they are wiped out by (undrugged) predators, said an Umea University researcher.
  • The technology of teaching is changing radically for the first time since the 14th century, said Research Google Director Peter Norvig. Since more than 100,000 people registered for his online Stanford University course on artificial intelligence, there has been a boom in Massive Online Open Classes. New approaches aim to maximize interactivity in the face of historic class sizes.
  • Experiments reveal how far we have come: we may have fingerprints because the ridges helped our ancestors swing in trees, said Dartmouth College Anthropologist Nate Dominy.
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