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News, Science - General

Genetically-engineered babies have now been born

Human experimentation has been happening around the world for the past four decades, with research scientists actively carrying out experiments on human embryos. The stated objective, in usually something noble-sounding: to learn more about human biology, or to possibly treat some disease conditions. And while few scientists will admit to an interest in cloning people, or in actually producing genetically-altered individuals, this is the direction our society is heading. Indeed, modern society does not value unborn babies enough to protect them, and at the same time society is terribly afraid of genetic abnormalities. Under these conditions – little respect for unborn human life, and little respect for those with genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome – it would seem human cloning and gene alteration is inevitable. But it isn’t acceptable yet. That became clear when, on November 26, 2018, the scientific and medical world reacted in horror to the announcement by Dr. Jiankui He at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had created modified human embryos. These embryos had been implanted in their mother, and in early November, twin baby girls had been born in China. This was a world-wide first – the first genetically-edited full-term human babies.  What happened Ever since the 1970s introduction of in vitro fertilization of human eggs with sperm outside the womb, the stage was set for scientists to experiment on such embryos. Many people, mindful of the special nature of humans at every level of development, protested against such work. Even some scientists were nervous about the implications of these experiments. However, for many, the concern was only that individuals damaged in laboratory experiments should not be allowed to develop to term. They were okay with the human experimentation – they just didn’t want these babies to be born. As a result, a general understanding was reached between ethicists and scientists, that no experiments on embryos would continue longer than 14 days – at this point these embryos were to be destroyed. The 14-day limit was chosen because it is at this point that the embryos begin to develop specialized tissues and thus becomes more obviously human (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). But as the experimentation has become more sophisticated, scientists have begun to promote the idea of a longer timeline for their investigations. Thus, a conference was held in May at Rice University at which 30 American scientists and ethicists discussed “whether and how to move the boundary” (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). About the same time, Nature magazine published an announcement concerning such research:

“At present, many countries …prohibit culture beyond 14 days, a restriction that reflects the conclusions of the 1984 UK Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology (also known as the Warnock Report. Whether this rule should be relaxed is currently being debated” (May 3, 2018 p. 6, emphasis mine).

Scientists are clearly seeking to relax the rules governing their studies. “Germ-line changes” Research on human embryos has continued worldwide since those early days. However, all parties once agreed that on no account should modified embryos be implanted into a mother and be allowed to develop. The reasons included society’s disapproval of experiments on people, but especially because such individuals would carry “germ-line changes.” Changes to most cells in the human body have no impact on future generations – these changes die with that individual. However, changes to the gametes (egg and sperm) are called germ-line changes because these modifications will be passed on to each subsequent generation. It is not that the scientists involved actually object to germ-line changes. The problem is that they want their results to be predictable and “safe.” Any uncertainties could lead to catastrophic results, ensuing hostile public opinion and big lawsuits. It would be far better to proceed cautiously. Thus, it is illegal in the US and many other countries to alter genes of human embryos or gametes. However, within the last decade, another new biomedical technology has appeared on the scene that has drastically streamlined gene editing in numerous organisms. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology has made gene editing much easier and much more precise.* Obviously, it was a mere matter of time before someone used this to try his hand at gene editing in human embryos. The scientific community offered no serious objections when Dr. Jiankui He of China presented an account of such work at a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York during the spring of 2018. At this conference, Dr. He discussed the editing of embryos from seven couples. However, at that point, this man made no mention that any of these embryos had been implanted into their mothers. Dr. He “edits” babies to be HIV-resistant According to a Nov. 28 news item at Nature.com (David Cyranoski's "CRISPR-baby scientist fails to satisfy critics") Dr. He recruited couples in which the male was HIV positive but the female was normal. Individual sperm cells were washed to remove any viruses and the cells were injected into eggs along with CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes carrying a gene for resistance to HIV infection. A total of 30 fertilized embryos resulted of which 19 were deemed viable (able to live) and apparently healthy. These were tested for the CCR5 mutation which confers resistance to HIV infection. From one couple, two of four embryos tested positive for the mutation. One embryo carried the mutated gene on one chromosome and a normal gene on the other, while the other embryo carried the mutation on both maternal and paternal chromosomes. These embryos were implanted into the mother who successfully gave birth to twin baby girls early in November. No information was forthcoming on the fate of the other embryos, although Dr. He now says that another woman may be pregnant. The response of the scientific community has been shock and horror. But why are they so horrified? Is this not what they have been working towards? The scientific community is afraid because the risks of this procedure at this preliminary stage of research, are substantial. There are, at present, major questions as to whether the genetic modifications will actually have the desired effect. A well-known problem is that the CRISPR apparatus sometimes cuts the chromosomes at other places as well as/ or instead of the desired location. This off-target effect has been found to be a major problem in some studies. In addition, most genes are known to influence a number of seemingly unrelated traits. This phenomenon is called pleiotropic impact of one gene on other genes. These risks are particularly serious when we consider that these are germ-line changes, that will impact subsequent generations from this individual. Response The same Nov. 28 Nature.com news item declared:

“Fears are now growing in the gene-editing community that He’s actions could stall the responsible development of gene editing in babies.”

Indeed, a commentator on one website reflected that “if this experiment is unsuccessful or leads to complications later in life … set the field of gene therapy back years if not decades.” In view of these concerns, many individuals and medical and scientific institutions released statements expressing condemnation for this gene-editing work. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, declared that the NIH “does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.” The Chinese Academy of Sciences declared that Dr. He’s work “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law." A colleague and friend of Dr. He suggested that the gene-editing work lacked prudence, that it could, unfortunately, serve to create distrust in the public. Obviously, an important concern on the part of the scientists was that the promise of this technology not be rejected by the public. Dr. David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute (heavily involved in CRISPR research), insisted of He’s work: “It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society.” Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, summed up the feelings of many colleagues when he said:

“It’s possible that the first instance came forward as a misstep, but that should not lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider more responsible pathway to clinical translation.”

In other words, many scientists seek to continue to pursue the goals also sought by Dr. He, only the rest of them will proceed more slowly and carefully. Conclusion It is largely Christian objections to treating human embryos as things, rather than as persons (made in the image of God), that has led to the ethical rules that control this research. It is a vestige of our Judeo-Christian heritage which limits scientists from just doing whatever they want. They have to obtain permission from ethics committees to conduct their particular research program. Of course, Christians want to see this work made completely illegal, but if political realities make such a ban impossible, then we can still seek to restrict this work as much as possible. It is interesting that a news feature in Nature (July 5, 2018 p. 22) articulated the fascination and unease that some scientists derive from this work. Bioethicist Dr. Jennifer Johnston of the Hastings Center in upstate New York, reflected on the respect that the human embryo commands even in secular observers:

“That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings …..  It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

Are there any good results from this controversy over genetically-engineered babies? Perhaps there is one. The event may cause more people to pay critical attention to the experiments that are, every day, conducted on human embryos. Let the whole world know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, from the very first cell onward, and manipulation in laboratories should have no place in our society. For further study * For more on this topic, see: Dr. Helder’s book No Christian Silence on Science pages 32-39 for a discussion on Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (ie. CRISPR). Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s book  A Crack in Creation: the new power to control evolution, page 281. Dr. Helder's article, providing further background to CRISPR, Natural Firewalls in Bacteria

Science - General

WONDERFUL WHALES: Design on a gigantic scale

When we look at nature, we can hardly miss the design that is everywhere so apparent in living creatures. We recognize it every time we see aspects of an organism that are elegant, beautiful and useful. There are many famous examples of design in nature, traits that are not only beautiful, but which work beautifully as well....but one can look anywhere! Some examples are more interesting to us than others, but all are worth considering. Design done big Consider for example the difficulties that the largest animals on earth, the rorqual whales must overcome to obtain enough food. The blue whale is the most famous and largest example of a rorqual. Another is the humpback. Such big animals are not going to be good at chasing smaller more agile prey. Their solution is to find very thick schools of small fish, and then to lunge forward and gulp in a huge mouthful of water containing lots of fish. The whales engulf the water and fish before the latter have a chance to panic and escape. The whales then push the water back out of their mouths through a special filtering system like Venetian blinds, which in this case is called baleen. What is left in the mouth, the whale swallows. It all sounds relatively uncomplicated, but it is not. Without a number of special and unique design features, these whales would starve. 1. Pleated throats The rorqual whales are named for their specially pleated throats (extending from mouth to navel) which can expand tremendously to accommodate 60 - 80 cubic meters of water and prey, "a volume equal to or greater than that of the individual rorqual itself" (Pyenson et al. Nature, 2012 p. 498, emphasis mine). 2. Filtration system The prey must now be separated out from all that water. What the whale does is push the water out of its mouth through a sieve-like structure which replaces teeth. This filtering system or baleen, consists of keratin, like our fingernails and hair. The baleen whale’s “suspension feeding system” – which involved feeding on, and straining out, suspended food particles from water – is unique among mammals and the pleated throat of the rorquals is unique to this even smaller group of baleen whales. That is not the end of the story. Without further special design features these whales would still be "dead in the water." No group other than the rorqual whales engulfs a massive volume of water in a single gulp. In order to do this, the animal lunges forward, accelerating to high speed, and then gulping in that huge volume of water, all within six seconds. But how does the whale know what volume of water to engulf? And how does it manage to engulf a volume larger than its own body? How does it know what water to gulp? If the whale just went around gulping random volumes of water, it would certainly starve – schools of fish are patchy in their distribution, and thus cannot be found in any old place. 3. The hair of their chinny chin For a start, the whale has bristles on its chin which function sort of like whiskers. These allow the animal to identify schools of fish that are sufficiently dense. Now the whale must take advantage of this dense concentration of fish. To do this, the rorqaul must control the rate of mouth opening and throat-pouch expansion so as to maximize the intake volume. All this must happen while the whale is lunging forward at high speed. 4. Jaw that splits down the middle We now discover more unique design features of the rorquals. The lower jaw consists of left and right halves which are only loosely connected by fibres, and also are only loosely connected to the skull. This allows for great flexibility of the mouth opening. As the rorquals lunge forward, they rotate the components of the jaw so that the opening is close to 90 degrees at the peak of the lunge. The tongue becomes convex and the throat pleats expand. Soon the jaws clamp around a huge volume of water and the whale begins the process of expelling the water and retaining the fishy harvest. 5. Always new wonders to find New research has shown that the rorquals enjoy the benefits of yet another design feature which enables them to be successful in this unusual lifestyle. In the centre of the lower jaw (between the two loosely connected halves) is a special and completely unique sensory organ. In its basic design it is something like the semicircular canals in our inner ear which allow us to figure out the orientation of our bodies. Inside the canals in our ears, there is clear gel and particles which occupy one position or another. Similarly, in the jaws of these whales there is a structure which has papillae (soft projections) surrounded by a gel-like matrix. This seems much like the mechanoreceptors in our inner ears. Apparently, this organ in the whale jaw informs the animal as to the extent of the rotation of the jaws and the expansion of the pleats during mouth opening. The rorquals alone possess this organ between the unfused halves of the lower jaw. Scientists consider that this sensory organ plays a fundamental role in the extreme feeding method of these largest animals on earth. Conclusion It is evident from details of the lifestyle of the rorquals that even apparently uncomplicated methods of feeding require special design features. The rorquals are certainly an example of irreducible complexity. Even with baleen instead of teeth, if they didn’t have the unique unfused lower jaw, pleats in the throat, the special sensory organ in the jaw, and the sensitive bristles on their chin, these largest of animals could never survive. Evolutionists have no adequate explanations for how these unique features could have developed through spontaneous processes. This is an excerpt from Dr. Margaret Helder's “No Christian Silence on Science” which you can buy here and which we review here....

Science - General

How the nose knows!

Of the five senses that keep us in touch with the world, one that we tend to take for granted is the sense of smell. Compared to the others, this sense may not seem very complicated or amazing. Nevertheless a little research reveals that our sense of smell is not only exquisitely designed, but it is also poorly understood by biologists. Of all our senses, that of smell seems to be the most complicated. Eye and ear vs. nose When we consider the other senses, we discover that with our sight, color involves only three kinds of receptor: specifically for green, red and blue light. All visual images come from messages to the brain sent from these three color receptors as well as from a receptor for light itself. The ear, on the other hand, could be thought the most sensitive human organ. The hair cells in the inner ear are designed to detect bass tones (low frequency sound waves) or treble tones (high frequency sound waves) or anything in between. Besides that they are able to detect extremely soft, low energy sound, and louder tones up to billions of times more energetic. However, all the receptors are much alike, whether they detect low or high pitched sounds. But the sense of smell is quite a different proposition. Imagine a sense which involves 350 entirely different kinds of receptor. It is evident that smell is more interesting than we might have expected. The nose is huge! Biologists expect that the number of odors which an organism can detect, is proportional to the number of relevant genes. In people, about 350 different genes code for 350 different receptors. The reason that we need so many receptors is because of the great chemical diversity in odor-causing molecules in the air. The receptor molecules in the nose are located on tiny projections emerging from nerve cells. These projections are situated in the mucous membranes high up in the nose. When an odor molecule collides with an appropriate receptor, the two fit together like lock and key. The receptor protein then initiates a chain of chemical reactions in the nerve cell’s membrane so that the electrical condition in the nerve cell changes. As a result, the nerve cell sends an electrical impulse toward the brain. The stimulation of different combinations of the 350 different kinds of receptor in the nose, results in the perception of at least 10,000 different odors. Each receptor responds to just one part of a molecule’s structure. Thus, if there are several reactive sites on the surface of one molecule, several different receptors may be stimulated at the same time by this one type of molecule. The blending in the brain of the different messages, leads to the sensation of a specific odor. Some smells are mixtures of large numbers of aromatic molecules. Wines, for example, may consist of as many as 200 different kinds of molecule, and that lovely aroma of coffee contains about 500 different kinds of molecule. Although we understand these basics, the chemistry of our sense of smell is nevertheless far from clear. Some molecules with very different compositions nevertheless smell much the same. Moreover, some molecules that are extremely alike, nevertheless elicit entirely different sensations of smell. Mirror images of an organic molecule called carvone, for example, smell either like cumin or peppermint, depending upon which arrangement the component atoms assume. Fearfully and wonderfully made We really don't appreciate the wonder that are noses are, and how important the sense of smell is...at least, not until our noses are clogged. In each nostril, an area about two square centimeters in diameter lies high up in the nasal cavity, just below the brain. This area is packed with tiny thread like extensions from the myriad nerve cells. Each nerve cell deals only with one kind of chemical receptor. Thus all the cilia leading to one nerve cell, have only one kind of receptor on them. Many nerve cells with identical receptors are connected by “wiring” which passes through the skull into collector systems called glomeruli in the brain. The glomeruli are located in two small extensions of the brain which are called olfactory bulbs. These bulbs are about the size of small grapes and there is one above each nostril. The bulbs are lined by the glomeruli, small collection centers, each for the extensions from about 2000 identical nerve cells. Since there are about 350 kinds of receptor, this means there are also 350 kinds of nerve cells. Groups of identical nerve cells send messages to one collection centre or glomerulus. Thus all the messages going to one glomerulus come from stimulation of the same kind of receptor. From the glomeruli, the messages pass to other nerve cells which transmit further into the brain. How the stimulated parts of the brain make any sense of the incredible plethora of messages, is something scientists do not yet understand. Better than a dog’s nose? An article in the online journal Public Library of Science Biology (May 2004) was entitled “Unsolved Mystery – The Human Sense of Smell: Are We Better Than We Think?” The popular perception, so author Gordon Shepherd declares, is that the human sense of smell is vastly inferior to that of some other mammals such as dogs, cats and rodents. Well maybe we should think again! Although humans have only 350 functional olfactory receptor genes, compared to much higher numbers for other mammals, it turns out that humans perform extremely well in odor detection tests. For example, when tested for the lowest amount of a chemical which they can detect, people performed better than dogs in some tests and much better than rats in others. Moreover, humans outperformed even the most sensitive machines (such as the gas chromatograph) designed to detect air-borne chemicals. Thus the author concludes “humans are not poor smellers …. But rather are relatively good, perhaps even excellent smellers.” The author ponders how it is that people have such excellent noses when they have so “few” detector molecules compared to other mammals. The popular evolutionary interpretation is that people lost their sense of smell as they gained in brain power and bipedal locomotion. Obviously the scientists need to reconsider. A very brainy nose We now know that people smell very well with far fewer kinds of receptor than animals require. The reason people are able to do this, apparently, lies in the much more sophisticated interpretive capability of the human brain. For any individual odor, the brain calculates how many different kinds of receptor are simulated and what is the relative proportion of these stimulated receptors. Scientists have also recently discovered that smell perception involves many more areas of the brain than previously thought. The regions dedicated to odor interpretation include the olfactory cortex, olfactory tubercle, entorhinal cortex, parts of the amygdala, parts of the hypothalamus, the mediodorsal thalamus, the medial and lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and parts of the insula ("Unsolved Mystery..." p. 574). Dr. Shepherd points out that all these regions of the brain are involved in the immediate distinguishing of an odor. If memory is also involved, as is typical with smells, then the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain also become involved. It is the view of Dr. Shepherd that people need such a sophisticated system for identifying smells. Not only do we need to identify natural smells, but we also create all sorts of artificial aromas such as those from cooking and manufacturing. The design of our olfactory system (for smell) thus involves not only the hardware such as nerve receptors and wiring in the brain, but also software design so that these inputs can be interpreted. It is evident that scientists who try to draw conclusions about organisms based on comparisons of their chemical components, may be in for a surprise. Dr. Shepherd therefore remarks: “The mystery being addressed here is a caution …. against any belief that behavior can be related directly to genomes, proteomes, or any other type of ‘-ome’” (p. 575). None of these measures adequately characterizes an organism and its capabilities. An experiment to try on your friends/victims Now that we have established that the human sense of smell is extremely remarkable, we can turn our attention to the results of this gift. Most people understand, whether they are trained in biology or not, that our sense of smell is extremely important to our sense of taste. In this context, you might like to try a simple experiment on your friends or enemies. Separately puree some raw potato, apple and onion. Place each sample in an airtight container and provide each container with a medicine style dropper (or pipette). Now invite your friend (victim?) to undergo a taste test. Have the individual hold their nose and open their mouth. Drop a sample of puree on the tongue (apple first). As long as the nose is held, the person will not be able to identify the flavor except to say that it is sweet. Allow the individual to breathe through the nose in order to identify the sample. Repeat with the other samples with the onion administered last because after that the person will a) refuse to cooperate further b) chase you out of town c) run for a glass of water or d) all of the above. Anyway, the experiment is lots of fun and it amply demonstrates the role of smell in flavor appreciation. Apparently the flavors of coffee, wine and chocolate are all largely controlled by our sense of smell as are those of many other foods. That is why food is tasteless when one is suffering from a cold. In recent years, many people have become interested in the ways in which odors affect peoples’ moods. Obviously there is nothing like the aroma of freshly baked bread or of cinnamon buns to raise one’s spirits. It is said that the penetrating but pleasant fragrance of lily-of-the-valley or of peppermint enable some individuals to concentrate better on a given task. In some cultures the scents of lemon, jasmine or lavender may have the same effect. Other people have found that spiced apple scent or heliotropine (like vanilla and almond scents combined) are able to exert a relaxing effect. Not surprisingly, culture can affect our responses to certain stimuli. For example, a manufacturer tested three detergent samples which were identical except for scent. Test subjects in Toronto and Montreal were asked to compare the cleaning abilities of these three products. The people in Montreal (largely French speaking) preferred the sample which smelled the most like perfume. In Toronto (largely English speaking), on the other hand, the test subjects suspected that something this good smelling must not work very well. Thus they rated the perfumed product as least effective. The amusing thing is that all three samples were identical except for fragrance. There was no difference in their cleaning effectiveness. Now that we know the nose… Through the ages there have existed commercial interests which attempt to exploit the human sense of smell for commercial gain. Obviously the companies which market expensive perfumes and colognes top this list. There are other more subtle applications as well. The aroma of fresh baking can be purchased by store owners who keep their product protected in display cases. Furniture salesmen may spray an artificial scent of leather around their showrooms. Movie theaters may spray an artificial odor of fresh popcorn into the air. If there is a way to exploit people, we can be sure that someone will think of it. The use of scent has simply become another tool in that process. For most people, smells that remind one of beautiful locations or happy events are the best scents of all. The scents of the sea shore, or of freshly mown grass, or of a roast beef dinner all conjure happy memories (or happy anticipation) in most of us. Now that we understand how complicated the design of our odor detection system really is, we will be doubly thankful for the wonderful gift of smell. This was first published in the July/August 2004 issue. Dr. Margaret Helder is the author of "No Christian Silence on Science" which you can buy here....