LIFE

WHO IS THE GREATEST BIOLOGIST OF ALL TIME?

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79329040

"So who is the greatest biologist of all time? Good question. For most people it's got to be Darwin. I mean, Darwin is top dog, numero uno. He told us about evolution, he convinced us that evolution happened, and he gave us an explanation for it. I mean, there just wouldn't seem to be any competition. Okay, fine, well you might then say: Mendel. Mendel discovers transmission genetics, and that was pretty good.

WHO IS THE GREATEST BIOLOGIST OF ALL TIME?

[3.11.11]
"So who is the greatest biologist of all time? Good question. For most people it's got to be Darwin. I mean, Darwin is top dog, numero uno. He told us about evolution, he convinced us that evolution happened, and he gave us an explanation for it. I mean, there just wouldn't seem to be any competition. Okay, fine, well you might then say: Mendel. Mendel discovers transmission genetics, and that was pretty good. And I suppose then you have to go pretty far down the list to come to people like Watson and Crick, who just discovered the structure of DNA, which is just a bit of structural biology, really, a bit of biochemistry."
 
"Okay, but who is the real top dog? For me, the answer is absolutely clear. It's Aristotle. And it's a surprising answer because even though I suppose some biologists might know, should they happen to remember their first year textbooks, that Aristotle was the Father of Biology, they would still say, "well, yes, but he got everything wrong." And that, I think, is a canard. The thing about Aristotle - and this is why I love him - is that his thought was is so systematic, so penetrating, so vast, so strange – and yet he's undeniably a scientist."
— Armand Leroi

Leroi

ARMAND LEROI is a Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College London, and the author of Mutants: On Genetic Variatey and The Human Body

Arman Leroi's Edge Bio Page

Map

(Click Image to Enlarge)

An 1817 British Admiralty map of Kolpos Kallonis, the lagoon in Greece where Aristotle began the study of the biological world. Aristotle proposed that organisms were formed and maintained by their "souls," by which he meant the topography of their metabolic and regulatory networks. Superimposed within the lagoon, therefore, is a map of the regulatory network of a yeast cell: Aristotle’s vision realized in the 21st C.

 

CREATION OF A BACTERIAL CELL CONTROLLED BY A CHEMICALLY SYNTHESIZED GENOME

Genetics: Life From a Synthetic Genome
[5.18.10]

I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet. — Freeman Dyson

Introduction
By John Brockman

On May 20th, J. Craig Venter and his team at J.C Venter Institute announced the creation of a cell controlled by a synthetic genome in a paper published in SCIENCE. As science historian George Dyson points out, "from the point of view of technology, a code generated within a digital computer is now self-replicating as the genome of a line of living cells. From the point of view of biology, a code generated by a living organism has been translated into a digital representation for replication, editing, and transmission to other cells."

This new development is all about operating on a large scale. "Reading the genetic code of a wide range of species," the paper says, "has increased exponentially from these early studies.  Our ability to rapidly digitize genomic information has increased by more than eight orders of magnitude over the past 25 years." This is a big scaling up in our technological abilities. Physicist Freeman Dyson, commenting on the paper, notes that "the sequencing and synthesizing of DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life." But it remains to be seen how it will serve in practice.

One question is whether or not a DNA sequence alone is enough to generate a living creature. One way of reading the paper suggests this doesn't seem to be the case because of the use of old microplasma cells into which the DNA was inserted — that this is not about "creating life" since the new life requires an existing living recipient cell. If this is the case, what is the chance of producing something de novo? The paper might appear to be about a somewhat banal technological feat. The new techniques build on existing capabilities. What else is being added, what is qualitatively new?

While it is correct to say that the individual cell was not created, a new line of cells (dare one say species?) was generated. This is new life that is self-propagating, i.e. "the cells with only the synthetic genome are self replicating and capable of logarithmic growth."

The paper concludes with the following:

"If the methods described here can be generalized, design, synthesis, assembly, and transplantation of synthetic chromosomes will no longer be a barrier to the progress of synthetic biology.  We expect that the cost of DNA synthesis will follow what has happened with DNA sequencing and continue to exponentially decrease. Lower synthesis costs combined with automation will enable broad applications for synthetic genomics."

Will the new techniques described in the paper allow us to bring extinct species back to life? Here are three examples of three possible stages after the production of a bacterial cell: 1. generating a human, i.e. a Neanderthal; 2. generating a woolly mammoth; 3. generating a tasmanian wolf.

Generating a Neanderthal, given the recent mapping of the Neanderthal genome by Svante Pääbo, seems to be feasible, but it will raise ethical hackles. Don't hold your breath waiting for someone to try it. Generating a woolly mammoth will not be an ethical problem but it also seems feasible by using an elephant's placenta: inject mammoth DNA into a modern elephant egg from which elephant DNA has been removed, then import the elephant egg into an elephant. A real challenge will be to generate a truly extinct species such as a Tasmanian wolf for which no host cells exist.

What does this mean? We don't know yet, and we may not know for years. For now, all we can do is speculate responsibly. As Freeman Dyson notes:

"I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet."

Life goes on.. but it won't be the same.

To provide context, we have put together a retrospective of Edge events, transcripts, and videos featuring the pioneers in this area who are among the key players in what we are calling "A New Age of Wonder" [click here]

The Edge Reality Club discussion on the paper, "Creation Of A Bacterial Cell Controlled By A Chemically Synthesized Genome," is below.

Reality Club: Rodney Brooks, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, George Church, Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel C. Dennett, Dimitar Sasselov, Antony Hegarty, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Freeman Dyson

EAT ME BEFORE I EAT YOU! A NEW FOE FOR BAD BUGS

Topic: 

  • LIFE
https://vimeo.com/82232759

"Now we are starting to work with organisms that are more likely to appear in a hospital, like staph and influenza, and we have our sights on Clostridia difficile, Pneumococcus aeruginosa, Acetinobacter baumanii and an alarming number of other bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. We are also working on influenza, which has a convenient little feature called M2e."

Eat Me Before I Eat You! A New Foe For Bad Bugs

[3.17.10]

Now we are starting to work with organisms that are more likely to appear in a hospital, like staph and influenza, and we have our sights on Clostridia difficile, Pneumococcus aeruginosa, Acetinobacter baumanii and an alarming number of other bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. We are also working on influenza, which has a convenient little feature called M2e.

Introduction

I sat down with Kary Mullis in New York to talk about his current work which involves instant mobilization of the immune system to neutralize invading pathogens and toxins. This comes into play in the fight against Influenza A and drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

"We are devising a drug that will selectively attach alpha-gal epitopes to Staphylococcus," he says, "This epitope is recognized by your immune system as a symbol for, 'Eat me.' The immune system doesn't know what the Staph bacteria is, but since the alpha-gal epitope is attached to it, it complies with protocol and eats it. It doesn't notice, "This is phony, we're being set up."

"If you're driving through L.A. and you get stopped for speeding and a cop throws a bag of marijuana in your back seat and busts you for it, you get outraged. Using our drugs, you've fooled your immune system in the same way. But it's your system; it's okay to do it, as long as you don't stick the epitope on something you need."

Mullis received the Nobel Prize for his invention of PCR, a method of amplifying DNA. PCR multiplies a single, microscopic strand of the genetic material billions of times within hours. The process has multiple applications in medicine, genetics, biotechnology, and forensics. Mullis points out that PCR, because of its ability to extract DNA from fossils, is in reality the basis of a new scientific discipline, paleobiology.

You don't interview Kary Mullis, you turn the camera on, sit back and experience him. He talks, you listen. He's fascinating, exciting. In this regard, I am pleased to present, unedited, the first half-hour of video, followed by the edited text of the complete conversation.

— JB

KARY MULLIS received a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993, for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The process, which Mullis conceptualized in 1983, is hailed as one of the monumental scientific techniques of the twentieth century. Kary Mullis' Edge Bio Page

TOXO

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79400027

"The parasite my lab is beginning to focus on is one in the world of mammals, where parasites are changing mammalian behavior. It's got to do with this parasite, this protozoan called Toxoplasma. If you're ever pregnant, if you're ever around anyone who's pregnant, you know you immediately get skittish about cat feces, cat bedding, cat everything, because it could carry Toxo. And you do not want to get Toxoplasma into a fetal nervous system. It's a disaster."

TOXO

[12.2.09]

 

 

The parasite my lab is beginning to focus on is one in the world of mammals, where parasites are changing mammalian behavior. It's got to do with this parasite, this protozoan called Toxoplasma. If you're ever pregnant, if you're ever around anyone who's pregnant, you know you immediately get skittish about cat feces, cat bedding, cat everything, because it could carry Toxo. And you do not want to get Toxoplasma into a fetal nervous system. It's a disaster.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY is a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine. His books include A Primate's Memoir, and Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping.

Robert Sapolsky's Edge Bio Page


[24:27 minutes]

 

Beauty's Child: Sexual Selection, Nature Worship and the Love of God

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/80904859

"...I want to engage you in a discussion of the deep history of beauty. By deep I mean as seen from an evolutionary perspective. I am an "evolutionary psychologist".  I believe that to understand and fully appreciate human mental traits, we need to know why they are there — which is to say what biological function they are serving.  Evolutionary psychology has been making pretty good progress. But, as we say, "there are still some  elephants in the living room" — big issues that no one wants to talk about.

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