Beginnings Reporting on science and intelligent design

Another cringey cloning advance in China

Science | One researcher says human cloning could happen now, in theory
by Julie Borg
Posted 1/31/19, 12:59 pm

Scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience in China just announced they edited the genes of a group of macaque monkeys to induce mental illness and then cloned one of the males who exhibited the most severe symptoms. The procedure resulted in five cloned monkey babies.

The announcement follows the shocking news in November that an experiment in China resulted in the births of the first gene-edited human babies. Although the latest study involved animals, it presents another chilling reminder that scientific know-how may be rushing ahead of our ability to contain it.

“The more we see this practicing take place in animals, especially in the higher primates, there is the concern, how far is this going to go?” Tara Sander Lee, associate scholar of biochemistry with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, told me.

As the only country that has developed the ability to clone primates, China closely guards the technology. At this point, the process is very inefficient. It took 325 embryos implanted in 65 surrogate females to produce the five gene-edited monkey clones.

“As technology for the cloning of primates has been solved, theoretically humans can be cloned,” Poo Mu-ming, director of the Institute of Neuroscience, said in a statement last year announcing the very first cloned monkeys. “We have no plan to clone humans, and social ethics would by no means allow that practice.”

But that assurance rings a little hollow in light of recent events. After all, laws were in place to prevent the production of gene-edited human babies, but it happened anyway.

“Are the laws and regulations going to be able to catch up in time before some serious damage is done?” Sander Lee asked.

The authors of the study, published in National Science Review, want to produce monkey clones for use by pharmaceutical companies to study the safety and efficacy of new drugs before they test the drugs on humans. The use of clones eliminates genetic variations among the animals that can compromise the reliability of the tests and makes it possible to test various dosages with greater precision, the researchers said. But Sander Lee noted that testing needs to demonstrate a drug’s safety and effectiveness across multiple genetic backgrounds because humans are genetically diverse.

University of California San Diego University of California San Diego A 3D-printed model of the vanes and barbules inside a bird feather

Birds of a feather

Inspired by the way God designed bird feathers, engineers at the University of California, San Diego, are designing a new adhesive that could hold tighter than Velcro.

The researchers, whose study appears in the Jan. 16 issue of Science Advances, printed 3D models that mimic the design of bird feathers. The filaments of feathers have barbs and vanes that zip and unzip when disturbed, always pulling them back into their original position. The design could inspire the development of interlocking, one-directional adhesives like Velcro, Tarah Sullivan, the lead researcher, said in a statement.

The research team also looked into how the underside of the feather captures air and gives the bird lift for flight while the top of the feather blocks air out so the bird can use gravity to lower itself.

The researchers discovered that the barbules, small hook-type structures that connect the feather barbs, are consistently spaced within 8 to 16 micrometers of each other. (A micrometer equals 0.000039 of an inch.) The spacing remains the same for tiny hummingbirds with wingspans of about 4 inches and gigantic condors with up to a 9-foot wingspan. “The first time I saw feather barbules under the microscope I was in awe of their design: intricate, beautiful and functional,” Sullivan said. —J.B.

Creative Commons/Ruthven Creative Commons/Ruthven Detail of the Alexander Mosaic at the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples, Italy

Dispelling a Greek myth

Ancient historical records say that Alexander the Great’s body did not begin decomposing until a week after he died. The people of his day took that as a sign he was a god. But, a new analysis of modern medical literature and ancient accounts offers a better explanation.

In a paper published in the current issue of The Ancient History Bulletin, Katherine Hall, a medical clinician at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said she believes the ancient ruler died of the autoimmune disease Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia in 336 B.C. In the 13 short years of his reign, he conquered nearly the entire known world and introduced the Greek language and culture into the empire. The young king died in Babylon at the age of 32. Hall notes that if Alexander suffered a particular variant of Guillain-Barré syndrome, he would have experienced paralysis that would have caused his pupils to become fixed and dilated, making him appear dead. The paralysis would also lower his need for oxygen, making it more difficult to tell if he was breathing. In ancient times, people diagnosed death by lack of breathing rather than lack of pulse. Hall believes his body did not decompose right away because he wasn’t really dead.

“His death may be the most famous case of pseudothanatos, or false diagnosis of death, ever recorded,” Hall said in a statement. —J.B.

Creative Commons/German Federal Archives Creative Commons/German Federal Archives Rudolf Hess

Dispelling a German myth

Rudolf Hess, deputy Führer to Adolf Hitler and the No. 3 leader in Nazi Germany, attempted to broker a peace deal between Germany and Britain in 1941. His plan failed and resulted in his capture and subsequent trial in Nuremberg, Germany, and incarceration in Berlin. But many, including U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed the man in Spandau Prison was an imposter. Conspiracy theories arose that the real Rudolf Hess escaped justice and settled abroad. Now a study, appearing in Forensic Science International Genetics, offers DNA evidence that Spandau No. 7, the prison designation of the incarcerated man, was indeed Hess.

The prisoner died of suicide in 1987. In 2011, the German government cremated his remains, seemingly destroying any DNA evidence that could clear up the mystery. A military doctor discovered a blood sample at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., taken from the prisoner in 1982 as part of a health check. When a team of forensic researchers compared DNA from the blood sample with samples from one of Hess’ living male relatives, the results showed a 99.99 percent chance that the two were close family members. According to the researchers, such a match could not happen if the prisoner was an imposter, New Scientist reported. —J.B.

iStock/Moiz_Cukurel iStock/Moiz_Cukurel Bats roosting in a tree

The secret of Ebola

The Ebola Zaire virus that killed more than 11,000 people from 2013 to 2016 took West Africa by surprise. Previous outbreaks occurred in Central Africa and Sudan, but the virus had never appeared in West Africa. Scientists have been hunting for the carrier ever since. After testing 11,000 bats, rodents, and domestic animals, they discovered a bat, captured in a cave in 2016 in Liberia, that harbored DNA fragments of the virus.

It remains unclear if the virus is the exact strain that ravaged the area and whether it infected the bat or came from a virus-carrying insect that the bat ate. Jon Epstein, a veterinary epidemiologist and member of the consortium that made the discovery, told Science Magazine the finding should sound an urgent call: Healthcare infrastructure in West Africa must improve, and the country should reinforce public health messages to avoid hunting, eating, or killing bats.

The virus no longer plagues West Africa, but a separate outbreak of Ebola Zaire in the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of miles away, has killed more than 400 people since August 2018 and has become the second-biggest epidemic of the virus on record. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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  • John Cogan's picture
    John Cogan
    Posted: Sat, 02/02/2019 12:01 am

    From eating forbidden fruit, to building a tower to heaven; from cloning macaques to cloning humans; if mankind can figure out a way to do it, right or wrong, he wil do it. 

  • Nat Manzanita
    Posted: Wed, 02/06/2019 06:13 pm

    Regarding the recent cloning and gene-editing results: the lack of oversight and transparency that allows unethical experiments to be performed may have another effect that people aren't talking about as much. Namely, the scientists can make sensational claims that are false but hard to disprove. In my opinion, the hypothesis that the highest-profile genetic results from China are simply fake deserves consideration. In the case of the gene-edited human babies, there's also the possiblity (I think) that the editing was really attempted but failed 'silently' such that even the researcher himself doesn't know it failed.