Total Synthesis of E. Coli, Nature

Can we reprogram a bacteria's genome from scratch? A research team led by Jason Chin at the University of Cambridge proved that the answer is yes. A triumph for synthetic biology, the study reduced 64 codons to 61 codons in total and removed an essential tRNA required for normal cell function. A previous study has redesigned E. Coli genome into 1-million base-pair long while this study used a 4 million bp long genome. To replace the bacteria's original DNA, they synthesized the DNA in parts and substituted the original genome piece by piece. With the entirely artificially designed genome, the bacterial survived but grew slower and developed longer rods. 

This study is proof of concept that we can encode anything into bacteria for various function. We can introduce synthetic machinery into bacteria to turn them into advanced factories for pharmaceuticals and design them in a way so that they couldn't be invaded by viruses or survive outside of the lab. The evolutionary notion of life is being diluted over the years as humans take the wheel of designing functional organisms.

Now, try to conduct the synthesis with 2-carbon starting material.

Is biology redefining what it means to be human?

Biology may not only be redefining life, but also human. The picture shows neurons growing from reprogrammed human skin cells as a model system of the human brain. CRISPR creates the opportunity to edit human genome to prevent diseases or design a baby. In his new book How to Grow a Human: Adventures in Who We Are and How We Are Made, Nature's former editor and science writer Philip Ball contemplates how biology developed and where it's going. He argues that pure, objective science does not exist and science does not develop in vacuum: questions, results, and conclusions are shaped by their cultural milieu. He retells the history of biology and introduces us to prominent scientists and the political, economic and social forces that influenced their work. For instance, zoologist Theodor Schwann’s exposure to German Romantic philosophies of universality probably inspired him to extend cell theory from plants to animals. Yamanaka was motivated to circumvent regulatory restrictions on the use of stem cells from human embryos.

Next, Ball leads us around the science-fiction-like forefront of emerging technologies, where human organs for transplantation are grown in pigs, and parents use gene editing to customize their offspring. He points out how chimaeric organisms disrupt our ideas about the “natural order”, evoking images of Frankenstein. And he shows how terms such as “test-tube baby” and “designer baby” are laced with cultural and religious judgements about how conception should proceed.

Ball facilitates an informed conversation about our future by inviting us into the grey zone where binary answers don’t exist and complexity reigns. That ambiguity grows as he discusses the ethical and societal implications of new technologies such as CRISPR gene editing, and growing models of the brain and embryos in culture. How do we ensure equity in an era when intelligence could be decided by gene editing? How do we understand our moral obligations to an organ grown outside the human body that might experience pain, memory and emotion? In exploring innovations that blur our concept of identity, rights and death, Ball forces us to ask how and why. To investigate those questions, we must expand our ethical frameworks.

Ball also points out a chronology of biology: the homogeneity of the protagonists. Stories of biology have been told by old, white men where women and people of color are missing from the narrative. He also recounts how the prejudices of some scientists — such as French surgeon Alexis Carrel’s white-supremacist ideologies in the early twentieth century, and British biologist Julian Huxley’s enthusiasm for eugenics a few decades later — influenced biological theories and practice.

Ball's tour through biology exhibits the translational power of biological research but also shows the uncertainties biology faces in the future. It just shows how important it is for humanities to create an ethical framework to initiate discussions about whether and how to grow a human, to account for how identity, gender, power and mortality influence science, and how science stories will be told in the future.

Record-breaking Deep Dive Finds New Species as well as Plastic Pollution

American explorer Victor Vescovo has descended nearly 11km (10927m) to the deepest place in the ocean - the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, setting a new record for the deepest dive ever achieved by human. The submersible used by Victor was built with a core of 9cm-thick titanium pressure hull that could withstand the immense pressure at the bottom of the ocean: 1,000 atms, which is the equivalent of 50 jumbo jets piled on top of a person.
The team believed that they have discovered multiple new species in deep water including four new species of prawn-like crustaceans called amphipods, a creature called a spoon worm 7,000m-down, and a pink snailfish at around 8,000m. Spending four hours exploring the bottom of the trench, the team also discovered brightly coloured rocky outcrops, possibly created by microbes on the seabed, and collected samples of rock from the seafloor.
Another important finding by the explorers was the presence of plastic pollution 11km under sea-level. The team found a plastic bag and some sweet wrappers. Though this is not the first time for the explorers to discover the presence of plastic pollution in such expedition, the discovery still raised concern about the severity of plastic pollution. Millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, but little is known about where a lot of it ends up. The scientists are now planning to test the creatures collected by the expedition team to see if they contain microplastics, which was found by a recent study found to be a widespread problem, even for animals living in the deep.
ISP Sci. Rev. 20 (2019)
Editor: Shiwei Wang, Rossoneri Jing
Integrated Science Program
Northwestern University

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