Seems that way. If you still have yours.
SciVee had an interesting video from some biology researchers, who think they may have hit on an important key by watching how some animals do it in nature. This article briefly explains the basic science, then offers a video for further viewing. The tip?
bq. "Simply stop eating during the 12-16 hour period before you want to be awake. Once you start eating again, your internal clock will be reset as though it is the start of a new day. Your body will consider the time you break your fast as your new "morning."... If you are travelling from Los Angeles to Tokyo, figure out when breakfast is served in Tokyo, and don't eat for the 12-16 hours before Tokyo's breakfast time."
Yale Environment 360 blog has a piece about evolution and global warming. Which actually starts from a grounded base of science, rather than politics.
"When a severe drought struck southern California, Weis realized that he could use the extra bucket of seeds for an experiment. In 2004 he and his colleagues collected more field mustard seeds from the same sites that Sim had visited seven years earlier. They thawed out some of the 1997 seeds and then reared both sets of plants under identical conditions. The newer plants grew to smaller sizes, produced fewer flowers, and, most dramatically, produced those flowers eight days earlier in the spring. The changing climate had, in other words, driven the field mustard plants to evolve over just a few years. "It was serendipity that we had the seeds lying around," says Weis."
SoCal has had drought cycles before, of course, but the point that some plants and animals can select/adapt rather quickly to changes in their environment seems to be a replicable result. If so, it's likely to take a good chunk (but not all) of the edge off of biodiversity impacts, if global temperatures do warm appreciably due to solar fluctuation, carbon effects. or whatever. We'll see. I especially liked this bit, which is apparently something many genebanks already do on a less systematic basis:
"Weis is now laying the groundwork for that research with something he and his colleagues call the Resurrection Initiative. They are starting to gather seeds and put them in storage. "Fifty years from now, botanists can draw out ancestors from this seed bank and do much more sophisticated experiments on a much bigger scale," says Weis. "It will answer some very nitty-gritty details about the evolutionary process itself. We want to take the serendipity out of it."
Barriers are falling throughout the Anglosphere. Old legal and moral taboos are being discarded, and a new order is rising to supreme power and prestige.
As America is preparing to elect a president who will have supported abortion rights to an unprecedented extent, as Canada comes to terms with the state having appointed arch-abortionist Henry Morgentaler to the Order of Canada, as Australia is coming to terms with yet more liberalization of its abortion laws, the United Kingdom may be making the most consequential steps of all, on a wide variety of bio-science fronts including getting rid of the barrier of consent in using human tissue from a greater range of human beings than have ever been considered fair game for no-consent medical exploitation in the Anglosphere. (link)
From the Telegraph story linked above: Human tissue could be taken from the mentally infirm without their consent and used to create embryos for experimentation, under Government proposals added to a controversial bill.
On Wednesday MPs will vote on a bill which would allow the creation of human/animal hybrid embryos to be used for stem cell research, change the conditions for granting IVF, and possibly liberalise the abortion laws.
It can now be revealed that a Government amendment, agreed after the main parliamentary debates, would allow tissue to be used from people who lack the "mental capacity" to give consent, children whose parents give permission, and anyone who has previously donated samples to hospitals for medical research but can no longer be traced.
"Under the amendment, if a person was deemed unable to give consent their carer would make a decision on their behalf. If the person did not have a carer, researchers would nominate a person to make the judgement. If scientists wanted to use human tissues already donated for research, perhaps during a medical procedure, but were unable to trace the donors because the research had been anonymised or the person had moved house, the samples could also be used."
Catherine Elliot, from the Medical Research Council, said such research could provide a "powerful tool" to examine the development and treatment of different diseases. She said research would "rarely" be carried out without consent, because under the amendment, ethics committees must be satisfied the same research could not have been carried out using tissue from patients who had granted permission.
In general, when human beings figure out a way to benefit by doing debatable things to other human beings who can't fight back, whether it's the direct profit of chattel slavery or the benefits of enjoying a freer sex life without having one's career interrupted by childbirth, they go ahead and do it, and revise morality and law as much as is needed to bless profitable practices with acceptability.
If there's anything the progress of the judge-driven legalization of gay marriage should have taught us, it's that slippery slopes are real. When powerful elites in society are determined to have something all the way, as far as they want, and they press for it constantly and often secretively, without regard for past assurances or expectations of moderation (as in this case, where public assurances that consent was fundamental were set aside behind closed doors), then the changes to law and morality that take place can be so radical that anyone forecasting early in the process what would come later would have been mocked; and compromise positions are in reality compromised positions - untenable and swiftly swept away, like the domestic partnership laws that courts are making into mandates for the gay marriage laws that they were supposed to be instead of.
Safeguards in medical decision-making are sufficiently widely honored in the breach that when the case for further liberalization of, e.g. the laws on assisted suicide is pressed, this is a typical argument: doctors are making these decisions, and acting on them, all the time anyway, and it would be better and less hypocritical for the law to accept it. So there is not much reason to think that guardians of the rights of potential involuntary donors appointed by researchers are not going to give researchers what they want.
Clearly, medical researchers now see profit in getting hold of every bit of tissue that might be valuable to them, and alterations to law and morality to let them get at the goodies whenever they really want to - consent or no consent - are now far advanced behind the scenes. There is no reason to think that pressure to alter law and morality in this direction will end with this legislation in the United Kingdom, whether it passes now or is held up, or that similar proposals will not make their way to whichever country you live in.
This seems like a new Kelo: a warrant for the powerful to take from the powerless what they have, as long as there is some plan, with no binding requirement that the plan be carried out or its benefits be real. Only in this new case the property taken is human tissue, not real estate.
There was a substantial political and legal reaction to Kelo, though it's doubtful if the reaction has been enough to remedy the damage to property rights it did.
What should the political and legal reaction be to proposals to remove consent requirements when researchers want to take human tissue?
Given that compromise solutions often prove to be untenable and slippery slope accelerators for elites who want law and morality altered, and given that medical research is a worthwhile cause (which it certainly is) what worthwhile and acceptable reactions can there be?
Or, is it better to depoliticize such alterations in the balance of property rights, and entrust the alteration of these rights, as far as possible, to back-room committees and institutions such as the courts, that don't have to fear much interference from naysayers and neo-luddites?
Update: the bill passed overwhelmingly, 355 to 129 (link)
It's been somewhat of a commonplace, among those who worry about such things, that the increase in the power and complexity of human civilization and culture has reduced the forces of evolution on the species. After all, so one argument goes, we now enable diabetics and others afflicted with genetically-linked physical or mental illnesses to survive and reproduce, where they would have perished back before we came down from the trees. Darwin might have been right, but had become steadily less relevant to our future.
Turns out Darwin is still very much relevant. A just released paper (PDF, of highly technical nature) details a study suggesting that mutations have been accumulating in the collective human genome at a rate that has increased since the 'cultural phase' of the species began. The senior author, John Hawks, is a blogger and has a more approachable summary here.
This result is another byproduct of sequencing of the human genome. As more individual genomes are documented (usually in part), there has been a global effort to collect information on variations in sequence, called the HapMap Project. Some of these variations turn out to be genetic markers for diseases or more innocuous individual traits. Some of them are apparently benign, having little or no impact on the organism.
The variations tend to accumulate at a more or less constant rate over generations of reproduction of the organism, in more or less random locations in the sequence. The accumulation of variations can then be used as a sort of clock. Tracking which variations tend to be inherited together is also a sort of crib on which sections of the genome are actually functional units. If a longish section of such genetic material is found in a population, with few variations, than it was probably a relatively recent introduction to the genome. The more accumulated benign variations, the more likely that it's older. (Yes, I'm simplifying like crazy - follow the links.)
Applying this metric to the growing collection of human genetic variants suggests that new sequences are being introduced to the human genetic pool at a rate atypically high compared to other complex animal species, and that this increase in rate is actually concentrated in the last few tens of thousands of years. (The author has put out a list of 'rarely asked' (i.e., highly technical) questions regarding the analysis, which will be followed by a layman's FAQ on the same site.
The biggest reason for this is one of those 'right under your nose, obvious when pointed out' things - in retrospect. Quoting the paper: "Human populations have vastly increased in numbers during the past 50,000 years or more." More births, more chances for an adaptive mutation that survives. (Note that none of this implies the adaptations are present in all humans.)
Some of these adaptations fall at the far edges of human cultural history. One classic cited in this post about the study is the development of lactose tolerance, which can be dated to about 8,000 years back, and is well-known to be present in only part of the human population. Presumably this conferred an advantage on humans who had already started hanging out with (and eating) herd beasts by allowing them to also drink their milk.
One of the classic situations for evolution at a species level is the 'radiation' into newly available ecological niches of an existing species. Finds like the lactose gene suggest that human cultural variation may have the side effect of creating new kinds of niches - in this case, becoming mildly symbiotic with dairy animals. Of course, talking about all of this as 'rapid' or 'recent' is a relative matter, we are still talking about thousands of years. If we witness such adaptations during our lifetime, it's going to be because they are newly discovered through genomic analysis, not because there was a mutant born next door. However, if this result does makes into popular culture, it may erode the notion that evolution of higher animals is something that only happens on a geological time scale.
The study is also an exhibit of the spread of genomic techniques and results to other fields. Of the five authors, one is from a bioinformatics lab, two are now at commercial genomics company Affymetrix, and two are anthropologists. Digging in the genome may be more rewarding than digging into prehistoric human sites over the new few years. Likely this isn't the last field to be shaken up by the byproducts of reverse-engineering Mother Nature.
(HT: Glenn Reynolds)
Wretchard's famous 3 Conjectures post has long been a topic of discussion on Winds. His original hypothesis of catastrophic and genocidal escalation due to terrorism's reduced threshold of resort to WMDs was framed in terms of nuclear weapons. Certainly current events in Pakistan and Iran show nukes to be the most pressing WMD threat. But being somewhat of a futurist frame of mind, I have kept an eye on events that will eventually and inevitably lead to the feasibility of precision targetable bioweapons being produced by organizations or even individuals equipped with the levels of sophistication and funding already displayed by Islamist terrorists. When that happens, the bell rings and time is out on the Conjectures (if not before). We will find whether they are true, or whether in the intervening time we have collectively learned that "we must love one another or die".
A fast way to get a start on forecasting is to look around for a relevant experience curve. In its original formulation, an experience curve related the decrease in production costs of a good to cumulative units of production. As now used informally, it often links drops in unit costs to elapsing time. The most famous experience curve in this sense is Moore's Law of progress in computing. which now has 40+ years of successful forecasting to its name.
Moore's is of course no law of nature. It's actually a statement about collective human behavior. By substituting time for units in its formulation, such an experience curve elides the technological and market systems behind production. But doing this successfully is actually a very strong statement. It shows that an exponential feedback loop of user demand, capital investment and technical progress is so strongly established that it may be taken as constant. In fact, such a 'law' may become a self-reinforcing vision, as it sets an implicit schedule for the next steps to be taken by each involved party.
The closest analog in genomics are the so-called Carlson Curves, first described (but not named) by Rob Carlson of the University of Washington. These show the experience curves for the costs of sequencing (analysis) and creation of genetic bases assembled into DNA, the raw material of genes. While the Carlson curves do not have the longevity of Moore's Law, the longest running curve is now up to twenty years experience, and the recent rate of advance is notably faster than in semiconductors.
Carlson himself is cautious about interpretation, pointing out that his observations relate to "improvements in productivity in the lab" rather than "multi-billion dollar integrated circuit fabs" and eschewing any "quantitative prediction of the future". Nonetheless, a stable experience curve running for this period inevitably indicates that the demand, finance and innovation cycle is well established. Carlson further points out that biology "is cheap, and change should come much faster".
The Game Is Changing
There is a problem with Carlson's curves, though. While suggestive of overall rates of progress, they measure the wrong thing.
'Bases' are the raw material of DNA, but a random sequence of them is no more likely to do something interesting than equally random bytes used as a computer's program. In both cases, meaning is created at a higher level of assembly and abstraction. In a post in which he updates the curves Carlson makes this clear: "...the 2.5 megabases per day consists of short, single-stranded pieces. The cost -- labor, time, and monetary -- of assembling genes is another matter entirely". He looks forward to the day when a true 'gene synthesis machine' shows up on the market. That machine will form the first point on a curve that leads straight to the WMD scenario.
I won't hazard a guess on the vendor or architecture of that first machine. However, I think we do have enough information in hand to make reasonable surmises about the nature of the information and economic systems that will surround the gene machine. Significant new data has become available in open source this year, and unsurprisingly much of it revolves around genomic's bad boy, Craig Venter. While I've never met the man, he's clearly a strategic thinker on a grand scale. As an example, he anticipated the experience curves formulated by Carlson, and utilized them in planning his private competition to the government-funded Human Genome sequencing project. Parts of a larger strategy for a much bigger game are now visible.
A Synthetic Biology Platform
Returning to the computing analogy for a moment, extremely few computing systems are built 'from scratch' today. Instead a set of standardized components is obtained, and a few additional software or hardware pieces necessary for the task are created and added. 'Linux' and 'Windows' are shorthand names for two such collections of components. In the trade, they are called platforms. Among their virtues are scale economies, and a standardized and predictable set of behaviors. The evolution of platforms, often in multiple architectural layers, is a mark of a technology that is on an experience curve.
Up until now, synthetic biology has lacked such a predictable platform. This year, Venter and his eponymous Institute have filed broad patent applications over synthetic genomes and the installation of synthetic and other genomes in cells and 'cell-like' organisms, in an unusually wide international filing of over 100 jurisdictions.
These filings appear to relate to an acknowledged project to create a synthetic genome for an bacterium dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium and then bring the encoded organism to life by injecting that genome into an existing cell. This genome is not really 'artificial life', but is based on a naturally occurring organism, Mycoplasma genitalium, apparently by deleting up to one-fifth of its genetic material. That editing likely including knocking out at least one metabolic pathway whose product will have to be artificially supplied for the new bacterium to live, limiting it to existence in test tubes.
The remainder of the edits are unknown, but we can speculate. Remember the 'standardized and predictable' part of a platform? One of the problems of biological test beds, even something as simple as the old standby E. coli bacterium, is the presence of genes that are inactive under normal circumstances, or just plain not understood. They could cause the organism to behave unpredictably under some environmental circumstances, and even more when extraneous genes and their associated proteins are introduced. It's a reasonable bet that Venter is snipping out all of this material that can be found and still have the organism survive. (The choice of a bacterium is itself a bet on predictability. They lack the secondary, mitochondrial, genome of higher organisms, and don't generally engage in that messy recombination of genes called sex.)
Fours years ago, Venter and others built a virus from its genetic code in two weeks. A virus is a parasite, it requires other living systems to reproduce. When Mycoplasma laboratium starts dividing, he will have constructed the world's first self-reproducing synthetic biology platform. Not only is this a science and engineering tour de force, but it's the first step in creating the attendant economic basis of the synthetic biology experience curve.
How Will We Program?
As any long-suffering IT professional can tell you, having a platform doesn't mean you're done. And that's when we think we understand the full 'instruction set' for the platform, which we most certainly do not in the case of carbon-based life. While some instructions are well-enough understood that there can be an undergraduate genetic engineering competition, they are a small fraction of the biosphere's collective genome. And remember this system involves a process, protein folding, so complex that its analysis is a famous distributed computing problem. Figuring out the structure and therefore 'meaning' of an existing gene in this way is an onerous task, let alone figuring out how to code up a new function. So how do we make the synthetic biology platform into something economically viable?
Most likely by borrowing evolution's own machinery, in several ways. Fast reproducing bacteria have been used in 'experimental evolution' experiments for nearly 20 years and 40,000 cellular generations. These have shown the flexibility of the genome in adapting to changing, often harsh, environments imposed in the lab. If the program you want is already out there and is just hiding inside the genome of an existing organism, you may be able to force that gene to the surface and capture it.
But that could take time. There may be a better way. Look for the program you want in thousands or millions of organisms simultaneously. We already know this works in an ad hoc fashion. Bioremediation (or biotransformation) is the use of microbes (and sometimes other organisms) to clean up environmental contaminants. We didn't invent these useful microbes, we found them in nature. If something has been a viable energy source or noxious contaminant in the biological past, there's likely a gene out there for using or degrading it. (I've seen this personally. Many years ago I architected the measurement and control system for an EPA experiment on effects of a benzene derivative on a water ecosystem, in a closed channel. If we put in enough p-cresol to effect the higher organisms, it was also enough of an energy source to bring on a bloom of toxicant-devouring bacteria. End of experiment.)
Enzymes and DNA sequences found in biotransforming bacteria have already been extracted and reused for industrial processes. Now all we need is a way to collect and systematically screen very large assemblies of microbes for desirable activities. Evolution has had a long time to try experiments, and a steadily changing set of environmental and competitive demands for survival, so there's likely a goodly 'library' of functioning code that we can exploit and try to run on our new platform.
If you've been following this area, or this argument so far, you won't be in the least surprised that the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, backed by Craig Venter and using his personal yacht, collected microbial samples from the world's oceans on a voyage from 2004-6. And Venter isn't the only one thinking on a grand scale: The expedition was partially funded by Gordon Moore's personal foundation.
The first order answer to the question is: We won't write programs, we will find them. Collect organisms. Stress them in a way correlated with the behavior you want. Analyze the survivors. Extract candidate programs. Insert in the standard platform and see what happens.
As noted above, an observable experience curve over time diagnoses a working feedback loop. Part of that loop may be evolution of a platform. Windows, Mac OS and Linux all have run through myriad versions over the years, often by incorporating functions that started out in individual programs, but proved generally useful. Moving from the 'counting bases' version of the Carlson curves onto the synthetic biology curve means this feedback loop will start. Generally useful genes discovered and then 'debugged' for particular applications will end up migrating into succeeding generation of Venter's (and competitors') synbio platforms when their function is understood and found to be widely useful. Evolution does this randomly, we'll be doing it deliberately.
To what end? Why walk this road if it leads inevitably to Wretchard's dénouement?
I believe the question is already irrelevant, at least if the intent is to stop. Taking the path is now inevitable, due to the nature of the demand portion of the feedback cycle that already exists. Among the applications claimed in Venter's patent applications is creation of synthetic fuels via microbe, which could include cellulosic ethanol or even hydrogen. The application to remedy of human metabolic disorders is also obvious. And you don't have to buy into the whole Aubrey de Grey SENS agenda to think we'll be learning things that will extend human life and eliminate many of the ills that plague it. There's nothing in history or myth to suggest that mankind will collectively walk away from these opportunities.
I'm hardly the only one to have figured this out. Here's a Military Review article (PDF) by Col. T. X. Hammes that discusses '5th generation' biological warfare (skip down to p.22). He notes some of the same data points suggesting rates of development, and postulates a terrorist reconstruction of the smallpox virus. Maybe, but one can look on smallpox as an analog to a old-fashioned 'dumb bomb', striking anything in its path. Further along the curve I'm suggesting may exist biological 'smart bombs', that can propagate relatively innocuously and then wreak havoc when they reach a target denoted by genetic or environmental markers. That progression is implied by the same escalation of complexity we've seen along the Moore's Law curve that gave us JDAMs.
How long have we got to work this out? It took roughly twenty years to get the PCR technique, key to sequencing DNA, from invention to something done as a high school lab demo. As noted, synthesis of modest length base sequences is now a matter for advanced undergraduates. If we take that low-end lab price point as being a proxy for wide dispersion of the technology, and assuming no acceleration of the experience curve, we've got perhaps another twenty years from when Venter succeeds. Most of those reading this post will see the outcome.
Update / Warning! Check out post #66 by DW, and my reply in post #68: it's essential to click through to the .pdf report and look at the original data for yourself.
According to the CNS news report Planned Parenthood Reports Record Abortions, High Profits (link), "During its 2005-2006 fiscal year, the nonprofit Planned Parenthood Federation of America performed a record 264,943 abortions, attained a high profit of $55.8 million and received record taxpayer funding of $305.3 million."
"For the year July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006, Planned Parenthood received $345.1 million in clinic income, $305.3 million in taxpayer funding and $212.2 million in donations. Total income reached $902.8 million while total expenses came to $847.0 million, leaving a profit of $55.8 million."
"Cybercast News Service previously reported that Planned Parenthood has faced financial struggles for the past several years. The organization's 2003-2004 fiscal year report showed it was performing more abortions at fewer clinics than in the past." (link to report)
Planned Parenthood no longer refers to adoption or reports any adoption referrals. The previous year's CNS report says: "While Planned Parenthood increased its numbers of surgical and chemical abortions, breast exams at its facilities dropped by 13.3 percent. And the organization aborted 138 babies for every adoption referral to an outside agency, according to data in the report." In the latest CNS report, it says that in the previous year, PPFA reported 1,414 adoption referrals, which Jim Sedlak, executive director of Stop Planned Parenthood (STOPP) International said amounted to one adoption for every 180 abortions. (??)
Apart from that oddity, everybody seems to have predictable views on this. Planned Parenthood is proud that it continues to make "enormous strides toward protecting and strengthening the reproductive health and rights of women and men worldwide," under difficult financial conditions, and considers more government funding appropriate, while pro-lifers are less pleased and would prefer less government funding.
Is the news on Planned Parenthood really "enormous strides" or "this up, that down" or mostly "steady as she goes"?
If Planned Parenthood is correct, are the enormous strides it is achieving mostly to the benefit of the reproductive rights of men, the reproductive rights of women, the reproductive health of men, the reproductive health of women, the rights of younger males, the rights of younger females, the health of younger males or the health of younger females? How are societies, in America and across the world, being reshaped by the boom in reproductive rights and health?
Stepping right away from partisan struggles for a moment, is there anything about these numbers that would suggest that abortion is becoming more like a problem that is "solved" to the tolerable satisfaction of all concerned by tinkering at the margins, like other health related government expenditures, or more like issues such as slavery or civil rights, where it was not possible to avoid a clash in which one or more moral viewpoints were delegitimized? Is there any more or less policy "wriggle room" as a result of these figures?
Stepping back into the heated area of "values", is so small a number of human lives as 1,414 in any sense significant? What are these, that financial reporting should be mindful of them? Does it matter why they are no longer reported? Is it better or worse that reporting now omits a statistically irrelevant marginal issue and focuses on the main events? Are there any other issues of values or policy that may arise here?
"The finding, which appears in the journal Science, is based on a small study. But experts say it is likely to alter the course of addiction research, pointing researchers toward new ideas for treatment..."
Here on Winds of Change.NET, one of the important things our commenters do is error checking. Andy X did just that when he looked at a statement Michael Fumento made in "New York Times Stem Cell Coverup". Here's what Fumento said:
"Wade is flat-out wrong. Although I have read the full paper, you need go no further than the online abstract at PubMed to read that the amniotic stem cells were differentiated "into cell types representing each embryonic germ layer, including cells of adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neuronal and hepatic lineages." Translation: The amniotic cells carry the same potential as embryonic stem cells to become each of the 220 cell types in the human body."
Why does this matter? Because the AFS cells in question were not harvested from a fetus, but from routine amniocentisis tests. If Fumento's characterization is true, the practical rationale for allowing fetal harvesting in future would be gravely damaged. Andy X, however, replied that Fumento was deliberately misrepresenting "Isolation of amniotic stem cell lines with potential for therapy" by Atala et. al., a paper that had received notable media coverage of late (though Fumento is correct, not in the New York Times). Andy X also upheld standards here, and went one step further - he brought evidence to that effect.
If true, that's a very serious charge to make against a science writer, whose credibility in faithfully and accurately reporting scientific developments must remain untarnished. I now have a copy of the full research paper that Fumento says he read, and so we can take a look at Andy X's charge.
Bottom line: what Fumento did certainly looks like misrepresentation to me. Here's why...
Fumento, one more time:
"...you need go no further than the online abstract at PubMed to read that the amniotic stem cells were differentiated "into cell types representing each embryonic germ layer, including cells of adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neuronal and hepatic lineages." Translation: The amniotic cells carry the same potential as embryonic stem cells to become each of the 220 cell types in the human body."
There isn't much ambiguity in that last statement. Problem: here's Paragraph #1 of the research paper Fumento says he read in full, and which is NOT publicly accessible for most readers to check:
"Amniotic fluid is known to contain multiple cell types derived from the developing fetus1,2. Cells within this heterogeneous population can give rise to diverse differentiated cells including those of adipose, muscle, bone and neuronal lineages3-6. We now describe lines of broadly multipotent AFS cells, and use retroviral marking to verify that clonal human AFS cells can give rise to adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neurogenic and hepatic lineages, inclusive of all embryonic germ layers. In this respect, they meet a commonly accepted criterion for pluripotent stem cells, without implying that they can generate every adult tissue. (emphasis mine)"
Case. Open. Shut. Later in the paper, there's this:
"....Despite sharing expression of c-Kit, AFS cells appear clearly distinct from ES cells, germline stem cells and certain adult stem cell populations, such as hematopoietic stem cells, on the basis of differences both in a variety of cell surface markers and in gene expression patterns assessed by transcriptional profiling37. Thus, the role of AFS cells in ontogeny is not yet clear.
AFS cells can serve as precursors to a broad spectrum of differentiated cell types. We used retroviral marking of AFS cell clones to rigorously assess their multipotent character. Cells from a marked clone were induced to differentiate along six distinct lineages (adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neurogenic and hepatic).... Human AFS cells can therefore yield differentiated cells corresponding to each of the three embryonic germ layers. The full range of adult somatic cells to which AFS cells can give rise remains to be determined (emphases mine)."
So Fumento is transparently, provably wrong, and that alone must dent his credibility as a science writer. The public can't read most of the research papers to which his subscriptions et. al. give him access, which means they have to trust his characterizations. What this episode demonstrates is that they can't.
Andy X, meanwhile, is dead-on with his characterization in comment #1:
"So it is misleading, you see, to say that these cells carry the same potential as [Embryonic Stem] cells, which can give rise to all somatic and germ cell types, because this has not yet been determined. What you can say is that they potentially have the potential, but this won't be known until it is tested. Clearly this is a much weaker, but more accurate, statement which does not serve the purposes of your post nearly as well."
Recall Fumento's email:
"I have brought to you the experience of 18 years of accurate science and health writing..."
It may have been. In future, however, a question mark should hang over his words. The only questions left are:
1. Does Fumento still have a point re: the potential of AFS cells?
Yes, I believe he's on strong ground there. Here's a couple more excerpts from the paper by Atala et. al., which discusses the potential upsides of amniotic fluid-derived stem (AFS) cells. The paper also describes successful attempts to grow nerve and bone tissue from those cells, and verify those clonal cells as the source:
"We have demonstrated that stem cells can be obtained routinely from human amniotic fluid, using backup cells from amniocentesis specimens that would otherwise be discarded. The AFS cells grow easily in culture and appear phenotypically and genetically stable. They are capable of extensive self-renewal, a defining property of stem cells. The absence of senescence and maintenance of long telomeres for over 250 p.d. far exceeds the typical ‘Hayflick limit’ of about 50 p.d. for many post-embryonic cells, which generally is attributed to the progressive shortening of telomeres30.... Unlike ES [JK: embryonic stem] cells, AFS cells do not form tumors in vivo. A low risk of tumorigenicity would be advantageous for eventual therapeutic applications.
....AFS cells are able to differentiate along adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neurogenic and hepatic pathways. We show the acquisition of lineage-specific functionality by AFS cells differentiated in vitro toward neurons, osteoblasts and hepatocytes....
We conclude that AFS cells are pluripotent stem cells capable of giving rise to multiple lineages including representatives of all three embryonic germ layers. AFS cells hold potential for a variety of therapeutic applications. They are obtained from routine clinical amniocentesis specimens. We have isolated similar stem cell populations from prenatal chorionic villus biopsies and from placental biopsies obtained after full-term pregnancies. In the future, banking of these stem cells may provide a convenient source both for autologous therapy in later life and for matching of histocompatible donor cells with recipients."
That's very good performance, and strongly suggests a broad range of uses. Now, here's an excerpt from Medical News Today's January 7, 2007 coverage of this research paper:
"AFS cells have many advantages:
-- They are easily obtainable
-- As they double every 36 hours they may be grown in large quantities
-- 'Feeders' are not needed to guide them
-- They do not produce tumors
-- Specialized cells generated from AFS cells include all 3 types of cells that exist in the developing embryo - ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm
-- As with embryonic stem cells, AFS cells have the potential of generating every type of adult cell
Atala added that the full range of cells that AFS cells can eventually create remains to be determined. He said his team have managed to produce every cell type they have attempted to, so far (emphasis mine)."
See also the Washington Post's January 8, 2007 article "Scientists See Potential In Amniotic Stem Cells: They Are Highly Versatile And Readily Available", which talks about both the successes to date and some of the caveats. A more in-depth discussion of those caveats is provided over at StemCellPatents.com, whose article notes that:
"This finding, which is supported by previous experimental data, indicates that amniotic fluid may be an ideal source of stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately, the number of cells extracted from amniotic fluid is relatively small and not only requires expansion ex vivo, but also tissue matching, which limits availability. Don't be surprised if an industry springs up around "amniotic stem cell harvesting" in the same way that it did around cord blood."
Fumento, from his article, and this time he's on stronger ground:
"Almost six years ago, scientists at Anthrogenesis Corporation announced they'd discovered stem cells that were readily harvestable in great numbers from placenta and convertible into all germ layers. PubMed now lists over 500 articles concerning "placenta" and "stem cells," indicating that a tremendous number of scientists find amniotic/placenta cells to be of tremendous interest even if Nicholas Wade and The New York Times do not."
So, are there alternatives to embryonic stem cells? Clearly, yes. Have they all been explored? Clearly, no. Have these alternatives generated treatments to date, and is their potential apparently growing? Yes.
Does Fumento have a point re: AFS cells and their potential, therefore, even if proper qualifications are added to his work? Yes. It's not a debate-ending point, but there is a real history of success here. As for the Atala paper, the field is not new but the results are an important success, and they definitely add to the strength of the anti-embryonic stem cell position.
On a larger canvas, the core argument pairs the obvious ethical risks of fetal tissues as a commodity with the point that other options are showing success, and should at the very least be fully explored before we turn to such an ethically risky (ES) alternative. Does the Atala paper strengthen this argument? Not to a debate-ending level, but yes it does and it would be foolish or dishonest to deny that.
2. Did Fumento Lie?
So, Fumento's enthusiasm for AFS was based on some solid ground. Which nevertheless brings us to the linked question - did Michael Fumento intentionally misrepresent the article, i.e. did he lie to his readers? Andy X offers his take in comment #2, after spending his first comment noting quotes in the research paper that contradicted Fumento's characterization:
"So, you either 1) Didn't read the full article, but said you did anyway (i.e., LIE), or 2) Read it but conveniently ignored, missed or purposefully left out the more detailed explanation that didn't support your claim (i.e, LIED). I'm open to credible alternative interpretations...if you (or anyone else) have the ability to provide any."
Andy X is dead wrong here on a critical point - there's a huge difference between conveniently ignoring or purposefully leaving out contradictory material (which amounts to the same thing and is lying), as opposed to simply missing something, or seeing other material in the article that led him to his conclusion.
Now, missing something so fundamental, that appears multiple times in a paper, is itself very damaging to a professional science writer. But it is misleading, you see, to say that this constitutes lying. What you can say with certainty is that Fumento is wrong, and is potentially lying, but this is difficult to know. Clearly this is a much weaker, but more accurate, statement which does not serve the purposes of Andy's comment #2 nearly as well.
It is possible that the additional materials I've pointed to re: the method's record of success (note Atala's quote above re: the cells working for everything they've tried thus far), plus the use of the term "pluripotent" in the research paper's concluding paragraph rather than "multipotent," could lead an ideologically-invested individual to genuinely miss the paper's qualifications and make the statement Fumento made.
Using a "reasonable doubt" standard, I believe Fumento would be absolved of the charge of deliberate misrepresentation (i.e. lying).
The thing is, Fumento is an experienced science writer with, as he reminds us, many articles and books to his credit. What he said is about major, fundamental point in the debate, and his characterization is easily disproven with little effort... IF one has access to the research article itself, which is not publicly available. Furthermore, his bombastic refusal to engage with Andy X's evidence-based points makes one justifiably suspicious. By Fumento's own standards, as (correctly) applied to the New York Times in his work, his writing was dishonest - reflecting his agenda first and the truth second or not at all. If one uses a "balance of probabilities" standard, I believe he's guilty of dishonesty as charged.
For Mr. Fumento, however, it's worse than that. Working life isn't a "reasonable doubt" place. Or even a "balance of probabilities" place. Rather the reverse - if Fumento raises reasonable doubts concerning his credibility, that can and should be reflected in a reduced ability to get himself published in and invited to respected magazines, journals, and forums. A field that lives for The Habit of Truth as its foremost ideal - despite the flawed humanity of its participants, and the rising level of politically-motivated lying one wades through these days.
Fumento has spent a number of years going after some of that lying, and done us all a service thereby. A common regard for fact is necessary if we hope to have the debate and discussions we all need to have - in all debates, but especially so in science-related debates.
Unfortunately, I believe that the evidence adduced above leads to the conclusion that Fumento has now raised a reasonable doubt and more concerning his own credibility, honesty, and accuracy as a science reporter.
That's always a sad thing - but it would be sadder still were we to let it pass.
Newsweek International in its 22 January edition says of the Atala amniocentesis stem cell paper in Nature Biotechnology, "What's more, the stem cells are also found in the placenta, which is thrown away after birth - so doctors may obtain them from all infants, not just those subject to amniocentesis." It proceeds to tell us, however, that "Many scientists are quick to emphasize that comprehensive human trials are still many years away." Really? Then "many scientists" are unaware that if you go to the government's clinical trials.gov website you'll find that there's already a trial underway using placental cells against multiple sclerosis. Too bad many editors don't realize they have science writers who don't understand - or worse, misrepresent - science.
A reader wrote in to the "Public Editor," an online ombudsman at the The New York Times, asking why a study of the potential of amniotic stem cells (and their potential to make embryonic stem cell research obsolete) didn't appear in the newspaper, notwithstanding write-ups on the front pages of The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times.
In fact, virtually everybody who was anybody wrote about it. The Times responded that its "genetics reporter, Nicholas Wade,
. . . looked at the Atala paper last week and deemed it a minor development. Nicholas noted: "It reports finding 'multipotent' stem cells in amniotic fluid. Multipotent means they can't do as much as bona fide embryonic stem cells (which are called 'pluripotent'). So the cells really belong in the adult stem cell category, even though the authors claim an 'intermediate' status for them." Nicholas further noted that there had been previous reports of multipotent stem cells, which were much heralded at the time but then seemed to go nowhere."
I posted the following response:
Wade is flat-out wrong. Although I have read the full paper, you need go no further than the online abstract at PubMed to read that the amniotic stem cells were differentiated "into cell types representing each embryonic germ layer, including cells of adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neuronal and hepatic lineages." Translation: The amniotic cells carry the same potential as embryonic stem cells to become each of the 220 cell types in the human body. As to "similar cells," Wade is right but not in the way he'd have you believe. Amniotic stem cells are the same as those from placenta. Almost six years ago, scientists at Anthrogenesis Corporation announced they'd discovered stem cells that were readily harvestable in great numbers from placenta and convertible into all germ layers. PubMed now lists over 500 articles concerning "placenta" and "stem cells," indicating that a tremendous number of scientists find amniotic/placenta cells to be of tremendous interest even if Nicholas Wade and The New York Times do not.
I could also have added that this was the same newspaper that in 2004, in a Gina Kolata article, declared of adult stem cells "The problem is in putting them to work to treat diseases. So far, no one has succeeded." In fact there were about 70 ASC cures or treatments at the time, dating back to the late 1950s. The bottom line is the Grey Lady supports increased federal funding for ESC research - research that has yet to even be tested on a human being - to the point of outright lying over advances in alternative stem cell therapy. They don't call it "The Slimes" for nothing, folks.
t's enough to make you arf. The obesity epidemic has now gone to the dogs. We've got chubby Chihuahuas; fat foxhounds, pot-bellied poodles, butterball beagles, porcine pit bulls, and rotund Rottweilers. Labradors need liposuction. Read why in my latest article in the American Spectator