In the August 2002 issue of Reason science writer Ron Bailey has written an excellent article surveying the prospects for various anti-aging techniques to slow and even reverse aging. He covers everything from the efficacy of antioxidants to the future prospects for gene therapy, artificial chromosomes, organ replacements, cell therapy, and nanotechnology.
I'm including a couple of excerpts to whet your appetites for the full article. In the first excerpt the discussion is about cell therapy to reseed cell populations. Note that there are adult stem cell reservoirs throughout the body used for everything from new memory formation, tissue repair, to immune cell generation. The stem cells in all those reservoirs age. Replacement of those aged cells with rejuvenated cells would partially restore youthfulness of the body:
Stem cells have been found in adult tissues, in umbilical cord blood from newborns, and in embryos. All have shown some promise. William Haseltine, the CEO of Human Genome Sciences, recently predicted in The Washington Post that it will one day be possible to "reseed the body with our own cells that are made more potent and younger, so we can repopulate the body." But stem cell transplants are at least 10 years away -- or even longer, if Leon Kass and his allies succeed in banning therapeutic cloning. Since the chorus calling for a ban includes President Bush, the prospects for research in this area are not as bright as they ought to be.
Aubrey de Grey's suggestion here is to use some form of gene therapy to move the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genes into the nucleus where they are no longer close to the pathways that produce ATP energy molecules. Those pathways are responsible for a large fraction of the total number of free radicals generated in the body (by throwing off superoxide) and are a major cause of aging.
The Cambridge gerontologist Aubrey de Grey wants to genetically engineer mitochondrial genes into the nuclei of cells, where they would be better protected from the ravages of free radicals. He believes that once those genes are better protected they will not be so quickly mutated into the free radical death spiral. Once the vicious circle of mitochondrial mutations producing ever more free radicals is broken, longer life should result, he argues.
Aubrey's suggestion can be combined with the idea of reseeding adult stem cell reservoirs. Some day it will be possible to take some tired old adult stem cells from the body, do gene therapy to repair and rejuvenate them and also perform the gene therapy that also moves the mtDNA genes into the nucleus. Then reintroduce the rejuvenated adult stem into the body, The advantage of this approach is that as the adult stem cells gradually reproduced and differentiated into other cell types various portions of the body would gradually become the improved younger and more slowing aging cell types. Other genetic improvements besides the mtDNA-to-nucleus improvement could be introduced using this approach.
One of the lessons here is that while it will certainly become possible to genetically engineer progeny to be more resistant to aging those of us already alive with our own flawed genomes are not stuck with the hand that nature initially dealt us. Most of the genetic improvements that will be doable to progeny will also be doable to us if we can only live long enough to be around when the techniques become available. Gene therapy to make youthful replacement adult stem cells is not the only way this will be done. Another way would be thru organ replacement. It will some day be possible to take a cell sample from a person, apply rejuvenating and repair gene therapies and gene therapies that make the cells more resistant to aging. Then grow a new liver, stomach, or other organ from the rejuvenated cells and surgically put in the newer and longer lasting organ.
If you want to read even more then a great place to start is Aubrey de Grey's book The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging.
P.S. I'm not going to post any more FuturePundit articles today because your time would be better spent reading Ron's full article if you haven't already read it. ;)
A Virginia company is now offering a service to separate Y and X chromosome bearing sperm to control the sex of offspring. This technique is not perfectly accurate but it does tip the odds considerably. Also, each try is not guaranteed to result in a pregnancy.
From their FAQ page:
From their Results page:
What is the chance of getting the desired gender?
Currently, MicroSort sperm separation for female gender selection (XSort) results in an average of 88% X-bearing sperm in the sorted specimen. MicroSort sperm separation for male gender selection (YSort) currently results in an average of 73% Y-bearing sperm in the sorted specimen. These data are determined by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) which allows the number of X- and Y-bearing sperm cells to be counted from a fraction of the sorted sample. A child of the desired gender cannot be guaranteed because the current technology does not completely exclude either female or male sperm cells from the enriched sample. Please view the Current Results page and our Journal Publication
The MicroSort Clinic average cumulative IUI pregnancy rate is 17% per treatment cycle. MicroSort IUI pregnancy rate for the year 2000 was 21.5% per treatment cycle.
Pregnancies & Births
As of June 2002, a total of 460 pregnancies have been achieved using MicroSort; 295 babies have been born so far with many more due to deliver.
Microsort's services can be used long distance. A Belgian doctor in Ghent is providing sex selection services using Microsort:
A BELGIAN doctor defended has himself defiantly for offering to allow couples to choose the sex of their child, for a payment of 6,300 euros.
Dr. Frank Comhaire, a professor in fertility problems at the University of Ghent, has already started treating five women from a number of European countries, according to Belga news agency.
According to the article Belgium may soon outlaw this practice. Though if other clinics in Europe started offering it interested Belgians could get around the law. At the extreme they could travel to Virginia and use a clinic near Microsort for the service. An American woman has posted on a web page the breakdown of her costs for using the Microsort technique. Her total cost including tests, travel and hotel was $5,134.00 USD. The Microsort fee was $3,100.00.
There is even a way to increase the probability that the resulting pregnancy will yield the desired sex. In this article in The Guardian a woman reporter posing as a potential client visited Belgian Doctor Comhaire's clinic:
But to do one further check, to make sure through a pre-implantation diagnosis that the embryo is in fact the desired sex, will cost a further €6,000 (£3,800). This will give a '99 per cent chance of success' - for a final price tag of just over £8,000.
and people are willing to cross national borders to use the service:
The customers come from all over Europe, he said - 'from Spain, from Norway, from the UK, from Berlin'. He said several British couples had attended already and had been 'successful' - but he would not divulge their numbers or how many were pregnant.
Many popular articles about future evolutionary trends of the human race are as naive as science fiction show that portray humans in future centuries not much changed from what they like now. A recent example of this is a new study that claims blondes will disappear within 2 centuries:
A study by experts in Germany suggests people with blonde hair are an endangered species and will become extinct by 2202.
Researchers predict the last truly natural blonde will be born in Finland - the country with the highest proportion of blondes.
The argument is that since blondeness is a recessive gene and fairly rare in the total human population as more people breed with people from other parts of the world the odds of two people giving their offspring blonde genes will go down. Plus, there is an added argument that real blondes are not breeding as rapidly as the rest of the human populace.
The problem with any such argument is that it ignores the coming ability of people to control what genes they give their offspring. Once genetic engineering of offspring becomes possible the number of blondes will increase for the simple reason that many women who now dye their hair blonde will want their daughters to have the benefit of genetically based blondeness. So I expect the number of blondes to start dramatically increasing within 30 years.
When regular sex becomes used only for recreation and offspring are genetically engineered each new generation of the human race will look like what the previous generation held as ideal. Since blondeness is extremely popular expect future generations become more blonde than ever.
We are getting close to the era of replacement body parts:
U.S. doctors said Thursday they have managed to grow living pig teeth in rats, a feat of biotechnology that experts said could spark a dental revolution.
10 years till we can get new teeth:
The researchers said they hope that within five years they will have developed techniques to grow teeth of a specific size and shape, and that within 10 years it will be possible to regenerate human teeth.
Update: Science Daily has a more detailed report. Note that the estimate here is for 10 to 15 years with more qualifiers:
The Forsyth results, demonstrated in some two dozen experiments, represent the first successful generation of mature tooth crowns containing both dentin and enamel. The results also suggest that it may be possible to grow teeth of a particular size and shape, according to Pamela C. Yelick, PhD, the principal investigator, an Assistant Member of the Staff at Forsyth.
Previous researchers had used alternative approaches to form partial tooth structures including dentin and pulp, but none had grown complete structures that included enamel.
The Forsyth team is the first to report using dissociated tooth tissues (tooth buds enzymatically digested into single cells) combined with polymer scaffolding (a technique used elsewhere to regrow other bodily human tissues) to regenerate teeth.
Also of great importance is the discovery that dental stem cells appear to exist in porcine third molar tissues. "Finding putative epithelial and mesenchymal dental stem cell populations in mammals suggests that similar cells might exist in human beings," Yelick said.
Yelick predicts that within five years, "we will know whether dental stem cells can be manipulated to bioengineer teeth. To generate a human tooth might take an additional five to ten years."
Update: More details on how it was done:
The Forsyth researchers adapted techniques developed by Joseph Vacanti, MD, director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Vacanti has used these techniques to successfully regenerate neonatal intestines, which are derived from specialized epithelial and mesenchymal cells. Likewise, teeth are derived from specialized dental epithelial and mesenchymal cells (see glossary, below).
The Yelick team began by isolating porcine tooth buds. They minced the buds into small clusters of cells, then used enzymes to dissociate the clusters into single cells.
The researchers used these cells to seed biodegradable polymer scaffolds at a sufficient density to support tissue growth, then implanted the scaffolding near the intestines of rats. The main purpose of the scaffolding, made of a polymer material, was to serve as a supporting matrix for the forming tissue.Next Steps
Within 20-to-30 weeks, small (2x2x2 millimeter) tooth crowns containing both dentin (a bone-like material found under the enamel) and enamel had formed.
The researchers’ finding of putative (assumed) dental stem cell populations in mammals suggests that similar cells might exist in humans, but scientists do not yet know the exact location of such cells. In the near future, the Forsyth researchers plan further study on how the regenerated teeth grow, how they interact with the scaffolding, and how best to grow teeth of a specific size and shape.
The researchers believe that within five years, they will have developed the techniques needed to grow such teeth and that within ten years, human tooth regeneration may be possible. DIAGRAM:
A diagram of the tooth formation process is available on the World Wide Web at http://bite-it.helsinki.fi/
Just as there are drugs that lift people out of depression there may some day be drugs that make a person feel even better than cocaine does but without addiction:
NeuroSearch AS of Denmark is developing an anticocaine and antialcohol drug that raises the body's normal level of three chemicals -- dopamine, serotonin and noadrenalin -- and thereby boosts the pleasure a person feels. "It fools the brain into thinking that the person has taken alcohol or cocaine," says Ole Graff, medical director for NeuroSearch. Unlike cocaine, though, NeuroSearch's drug enhances the user's mood in a gentle and gradual way. Animal tests suggest the company's drug isn't addictive.
The article above also discusses anti-addiction vaccines.
Tens of millions in the US and other countries try mind altering drugs for fun or escape. The biggest problem with this experimentation is that some percentage of the experimenters will move on to addiction:
If a person tries a drug once, what is the likelihood that he will become dependent on it? "Surprisingly high," said Kleber, who has studied the syndrome. In the case of nicotine, 32 percent of those who smoke will get hooked, according to a federal study. For heroin, the study shows, it's 23 percent; for cocaine, between 17 and 23 percent; for alcohol, 15 percent; and for marijuana, 9 percent.
Widespread affluence provides the money needed to fuel a black market that is at best difficult to control. The costs of drug abuse include physical damage that the drugs cause, an enormous cost in the criminal justice system to catch, try and incarcerate the sellers and users, the increased likelihood of the commission of other crimes by drug users, and the harm done to families, and ruined careers. Neither more strenuous enforcement or legalization promise to cause a substantial net decrease in those costs (all law-and-order and libertarian protestations to the contrary).
In light of the above is there any scientific and technological solution to the problem of human cravings for mind altering drugs? Well, yes, vaccines hold out the promise of treating existing addiction and even of preventing addiction from happening in the first place:
According to Dr. Frank Vocci, director of NIDA's Treatment Research and Development division, the antidrug vaccines can provide a powerful weapon against substance addiction, especially when combined with therapy and psychiatric medicine. And vaccines, which unleash an onslaught of drug-busting antibodies, can do what traditional treatment can't. "If a patient is in an emergency room with high methamphetamine levels and experiencing a cardiovascular crisis," says Vocci, "antibodies would bind the drug up and cause the individual to excrete it." In other words, an injection of antibodies could reduce the specter of death by overdose to a bad '70s flashback.
Though scientists have long used vaccines to trick the immune system into thwarting lethal diseases, the antidrug vaccines are a new breed, designed to attack pleasure-inducing chemicals that the brain craves. Some of these new vaccines use antibodies that bind to the illegal drug, render it inactive, and then leave the bloodstream.
If a vaccine has persistent effects that last for years should parents be allowed to force their children to be vaccinated? Should a government be allowed to force an entire population to be vaccinated? Or should a mandatory vaccination be a condition for a drug abusing criminal who seeks parole or probation? Some day these questions will cease to be hypothetical.
The only consistently reliable way found to slow the aging process across a large number of species is calorie restriction (CR). Cut calorie content of a diet to 30% less than an organism naturally eats and max and average lifespans will typically go up by 20% or 30%. CR is practiced by relatively few people because it is difficult to do and has some side effects (eg a gaunt appearance). A human study of the long term effects of CR has not been done because it would take a very long time to prove that CR really does increase lifespan (though shorter term studies have been done). The life extending effects have only been demonstrated in shorter lived species because its much easier (ie it takes a lot less time) to do lifespan experiments on shorter lived species. However, the physiological effects that happen during CR in other species (eg lower blood insulin and other factors easily measured in blood tests) also happen to humans on CR and human metabolism has enough in common with other species that it is reasonable to expect that CR will increase human life span.
As Scientific American reports in a lengthy interesting article, species more like humans are being studied on CR regimes and preliminary results look promising:
The rat findings have been replicated many times and extended to creatures ranging from yeast to fruit flies, worms, fish, spiders, mice and hamsters. Until fairly recently, the studies were limited to short-lived creatures genetically distant from humans. But long-term projects under way in two species more closely related to humans--rhesus and squirrel monkeys--suggest that primates respond to caloric restriction almost identically to rodents, which makes us more optimistic than ever that CR mimetics could help people.
The monkey projects--initiated by our group at the National Institute on Aging in the late 1980s and by a separate team at the University of Wisconsin- Madison in the early 1990s--demonstrate that, compared with control animals that eat normally, caloric-restricted monkeys have lower body temperatures and levels of the pancreatic hormone insulin, and they retain more youthful levels of certain hormones (such as DHEAS, or dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate) that tend to fall with age.
Some scientists believe that it may be possible to use a pharmacological agent to flip metabolism into the mode that CR puts the into. As this article indicates, the search is on for compounds that will emulate the metabolic changes that CR causes. The most thoroughly investigated compound to date is 2-deoxy-D-glucose. The problem with it is that its therapeutically effective dose in rats is very close to its toxic dose. If a safe and effective compound can be found then it will be possible to achieve most of the benefit fhat CR provides in terms of slowing aging without the need to feel hungry or have a gaunt appearance.
The researchers found that the median life span--the age by which half of the dogs had died--was nearly 2 years longer among the calorie-restricted dogs (13 years, versus 11.2 years). The dieting dogs also tended to go longer without needing treatment for chronic conditions--age 12, on average, compared with age 10. In both groups of animals, osteoarthritis was the most common medical problem, but the calorie-restricted dogs developed the condition an average of 3 years later than their litter-mates.
The intent of the Personalized Medicine Research Project is to collect enough genetic and health record information about a large enough number of people that it will become possible to discover more genetic variations that contribute to disease.
Marshfield Clinic's publicly funded Personalized Medicine Research Project will collect DNA from 80,000 people and match the genetic profiles with medical histories and other information in a statistical database.
Researchers at the clinic, a not-for-profit health care provider southwest of Wausau, Wis., with 400,000 patients, and a pioneer in genetic research, said they hope to discover the genetic components of common disorders such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes and to tailor the health care of individuals based on their genetic profiles.
The medical records that the project staff will enter into databases will become more useful with time as the genetic assay technologies become cheaper and more powerful. As the number of people enrolled in this project increases and as the assay methods become more powerful an increasing number of medically important genetic variations will be discovered.
The article also makes an argument for returning to the moon. It could be done for a very small fraction of the cost of a Mars trip. Click thru to the second page of the article for details. While NASA wastes large amounts of money on other projects at least the military is working to get more information about the moon:
"The DoD is embarking on a rather major program to develop technologies for microsatellites and the ability to get them into space," said U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Simon Worden, deputy director of operations for the U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Several small satellites could be directed to the Moon, to orbit well as land on it. Such an effort could be accomplished in a few years time, Worden said.
These ultra-small spacecraft would ride their way into geosynchronous transfer orbit as a secondary payload on some craft with another primary mission. The tiny probes would then make a propulsive beeline to the Moon. Trip time to the Moon: some 97 days.
A commentator in Papau New Guinea points out it will some day be possible to bring ancient mythical creatures to life using genetic engineering:
Today, scientists are pushing back the borders of the impossible to make it scientifically possible to conceive or create creatures of such exotic mix by biologically engineering, limps, trunk or organs of other creatures.
It would not be too far fetched an idea to venture that the other mythical creatures such as the sphinx, the phoenix, the centaur, and hydra, which all had heads of humans and bodies of some other animal, are today plausible. The bio-technology is here, only mankind's values, ethics, morals and responsibilities will dictate whether or not such feats are undertaken.
When this becomes possible to do some people will agree to have this done to them as a way to make money. They'll be able to turn themselves into highly paid tourist attractions. After all, it would be reversible. Think about how this would work: Do genetic engineering to design a body that is based on a description of a centaur, grow the centaur body, do the surgery to attach it, work for several years as a centaur. Once the bank account is full have another human body grown for yourself (which would be younger and even improved) and then have your head reattached.
"We fully expect Spheral Solar(TM) Technology to revolutionize the solar energy industry for two reasons," said Klaus Woerner, ATS President and Chief Executive Officer. "First, the SST unique design only requires a fraction of the raw materials - particularly the silicon - used in traditional multicrystalline solar cells to produce the same amount of energy. Based on technical design enhancements made over the past year to SST, we have achieved a sunlight-to-energy conversion ratio that is competitive with conventional multicrystalline solar cells. Therefore, we expect to generate energy at far less cost per watt. In effect, we're talking about a new era for solar energy, where our technology can stand on its own in the marketplace, as a viable energy alternative."
"Second", added Mr. Woerner "SST is lightweight, pliable and break resistance, which means it can be formed into a variety of shapes and sizes to develop innovative new products that can be seamlessly and attractively integrated into consumer products and even the most complex building designs. Spheral Solar(TM) Technology will allow ATS to lead the world to more quickly.
On the web site of ATS's subsidiary Spheral Solar the company claims its technology will be cost competitive with fossil-fuel based electricity in some regions:
A significant breakthrough in renewable energy, Spheral Solar Power cells produce electricity at considerably lower cost than conventional solar technology, and on a cost-par with fossil-fuel based electricity in many regions of the world. Once commercially available, Spheral Solar™ cells will make solar power feasible for a vast array of new applications and markets, changing the dynamics of the photovoltaic industry, forever.
Their solar cells can bend to fit over structures: (update: no page still exists with this content)
Spheral Solar™ cells are strong. Unlike traditional, rigid solar cells which are highly fragile, a Spheral Solar™ cell is bendable and virtually unbreakable. Traditional solar cells usually consist of thin silicon wafers, bonded to a glass substrate. Not only are they fragile, but their weight and rigidity seriously limit where they can be applied. SSP’s patented design places minute silicon spheres into a special aluminum sheet. The resulting sheet is very strong and can be formed and applied to virtually any curved or flat surface, creating tremendous opportunities for new attractive products for the generation of solar power.
French company Moteur Developpement International (MDI) has developed a car powered by compressed air. The air expands to push pistons and then the pistons drive a crankshaft in a way similar to the way an internal combustion engine works. The vehicle has a compressor driven from plugging into an electric socket that recharges the compressed air in 3 to 4 hours. From an MIT Technology Review article:
Negre, who was interviewed through an interpreter, explains that, in the tanks, the air is both cooled to minus 100 degrees Centigrade and compressed to 4,500 pounds per square inch. Then it’s injected into a small chamber between the tanks and pistons, where it’s heated up by ambient outside air that forces it to expand into a larger chamber situated between the small chamber and the pistons. That heat exchange between the two chambers, he continues, creates the propulsion that drives the up-and-down strokes of the engine’s four pistons. Finally, the air is passed through carbon filters like those in scuba diving tanks and expelled as pollutant-free exhaust. The dynamic is not unlike that of a spring that takes in energy when it’s compressed and gives it back when it expands.
The MDI "How It Works" web page has a picture of the 4 cylinder engine and an animated image of the engine's operation.
The newspaper said that for 400,000 (US$621,500), a person would get details of their entire genetic code within 1 week. "Armed with such information, the individual would be able to check for mutations linked with illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer's," the Sunday Times reported.
A British company says it is close to perfecting a gene sequencing method that could "read" someone's genome in a day.
Solexa was established in 1998 to develop and commercialize a revolutionary new nanotechnology, called the Single Molecule Array™, that allows simultaneous analysis of hundreds of millions of individual molecules.
We are applying this technology to develop a method for complete personal genome sequencing, called TotalGenotyping™. This will overcome the cost and throughput bottlenecks in the production and application of individual genetic variation data that are holding back the benefits to medicine that can flow from the genome revolution. Solexa’s technology will offer a potential five order of magnitude efficiency improvement, well beyond the range possible from existing technologies.
Our technical approach combines proprietary advances in synthetic chemistry, surface chemistry, molecular biology, enzymology, array technology and optics. Based on Single Molecule Arrays with the equivalent of hundreds of millions of sequencing lanes, we will deliver base-by-base sequencing on a chip without any need for amplification of the DNA sample.
To date we have raised over £15 million (€22 million; $23 million) in venture capital investment that has enabled us to make rapid progress with the development of our technologies. We have attracted a talented and multidisciplinary team of scientists to accelerate prototype development.
Solexa occupies its own customized 14,000 sq ft facilities in Cambridge, UK.
You can also find more on their technology here.
How important will personal genetic sequencing be in changing mating decisions? It partly depends on how many genetic variations are found to influence personality and behavior (obviously health and appearance genes will be important in mating choices as well) . Therefore I'm going to post every good study I come across that shows links between genetic variations, personality, and behavior.
This is a report about a gene that codes for monoamine oxidase-A which breaks down neurotransmitters (there are even MAO inhibitor drugs used for treating mental illness). The genetic variation studied here sounds like its in the gene expression regulatory region. Note how children with the high risk variation become a threat in adult life only if abused as children:
The results were clear. Only 12% of the group had both abused childhoods and low-activity promoter regions, yet this group accounted for 44% of those who had criminal convictions for violence. Fully 85% of the 12% showed some form of routine anti-social behaviour. The next most anti-social combination (high-activity promoters and an abused childhood) resulted in only about 45% of men showing routine anti-social behaviour, while only a quarter of those who had had tranquil childhoods were anti-social in adulthood, regardless of their promoter type.
This result also begins to explain the phenomenon of kids who have terrible childhoods who turn out to be wonderful adults. They just don't have the requisite genetic makeup to be antisocial.
Sounds like Craig Venter is expanding The Institute for Genomic Research to develop faster DNA sequencing machines:
And you expect to be able to get that cost down to $1,000?
That’s the goal.
How far off is that?
Somebody could make a discovery tomorrow, and it could be a year from now -- or it could take 20 years.
If you take the extrapolation of the 15 to 20 years of the public genome project and $5 billion, to Celera doing it for less than $100 million in nine months, to within this year, we’d be able to sequence the essential components of your genome in less than a week for about a half-million dollars.
If you extrapolate from that curve, it’s totally reasonable to expect with new technology development within five years, we should be there. I’ve given it a margin of five to 10 years.
However, he's still denying the obvious link between genes and personality types. Oh well, doesn't matter. Lots of neurobiologists are chasing down those links.
Governments can pass laws to protect genetic privacy. Certainly in the short term those laws will have considerable effect. But in the long run will the enforcement of genetic privacy laws turn out to be an exercise in futility? The answer to that question hinges more on the cost, availability, and the nature of future DNA sequencing devices than it does on laws that governments may enact. So lets examine some likely stages in the advance of DNA sequencing technology and how each stage will most likely impact the ability to protect genetic privacy.
If DNA sequencing machines are expensive and yet can process high volumes of samples then the cost per sample can still be low. Under that scenario the machines will be owned by a smaller number labs that can justify the expense of owning one because they will handle high volumes. This is a scenario under which government could try to come up with regulations to make it unlikely that someone other than the person getting tested would be the person who submits a sample. Under these circumstances regulations would probably manage to make the vast majority of all DNA samples legitimately submitted.
Of course there'd be ways of cheating. If someone has a buddy who works in a lab and who is willing to make some under-the-table money that person might be able to get a sample run thru. Though it might be possible to detect that sort of abuse to the sequencing machine since the machine would be tied into a secure computer that would track every DNA sequence result that gets generated and there'd be an audit trail where someone might detect that more sample runs were done than were requested by specific known customers.
Another way to cheat would be to send a sample to a country that has lax genetic privacy laws (the laws might even exist but just not be enforced well) and have the sample run on a sequencing machine in that country. This requires some travel or shipment of the sample. But the sample would be easy to hide owing to its small size. There could also be secret labs hidden in the countries that have strict genetic privacy laws.
Marsha Goodbar is seriously looking for Mr. Right. She's had some bad experiences with previous relationships. There's a personality type in guys she's been attracted to in the past where they turn out to be far more narcissistic than they initially seem. In the year 2010 that personality type was identified as far more common in men who have a particular combination of Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) and Simple Tandem Repeat (STRs) sequence patterns. Marsha's girlfriend Julie Bond has a brother James who works as a diplomatic attache in a country that has rather lax genetic privacy laws. Julie goes to visit him periodically. On a previous trip down to see James Julie brought along some personal effects left in her bathroom by Derrick, the last guy Julie was disastrously involved with. James was able to get some good skin samples off Derrick's hairbrush, had them sequenced in a local lab. He was able to show Julie that Derrick had the genetic variations typical of self-absorbed manipulative narcissists. Julie told Marsha about this and offered to take samples from Marsha's romantic prospects to get sequenced if Marsha could get DNA samples from the guys she was currently dating. Marsha had just read a July 2011 Cosmo article about genetically based male personality types to avoid and so she decided to accept Julie's offer. Each time she went for dinner or drinks with a guy Marsha managed to slip the guy's empty drinking glass into a plastic pouch in her purse when he wasn't looking. She also gave each guy a real sucking french kiss at the end of their dates and immediately turned around, went inside alone, and soon as the door shut she rushed into the bathroom to spit into sealable plastic bags and then placed each bag in the freezer. This gave Marsha a couple of decent sources of cells from each guy for Julie to take on her next visit to see James. Marsha's own DNA would also show up in the spit but Julie said that with separate samples from Marsha the machine can figure out which DNA is hers and just tell her the additional sequences.
Johnny Law has a hunch that Ralph Ruffian may be the serial killer he is searching for. Its just a hunch. He sees a way to test that hunch. The same DNA pattern has been found at a few murder scenes. Johnny hasn't been able to get enough evidence to get a court order to compel Ruffian to submit to DNA testing. Johnny thinks he should try to confirm his hunch using a surreptitiously acquired DNA sample - even if the result can't be used as evidence in court he or even allow him to tell fellow law officers. It still seems worth it though. He needs to confirm that he really should focus all his efforts on Ruffian. After all, the murderer will probably murder again and Johnny's own rule-breaking seems justifiable to him if it helps him prevent additional murders. Well, down in the Metropolis DNA Testing Lab Cathy Compliant has a big crush on Johnny and Johnny knows it. So Johnny decides that to save the lives of potential future victims of the serial killer he's going to secretly get a sample of Ruffian's DNA by scraping the dirt and skin off of Ruffian's motorcycle handgrips while Ruffian is in his favorite biker bar. Plus, he's going to take scrapings and hair samples from inside Ruffian's helmet. He's also going to scrape the surface of Ruffian's front door knob when Ruffian is not at home. He's hoping that between all these samples some will be good enough for DNA sequencing. Then when Cathy's alone on the night shift he'll ask her to run the sample with no questions asked and without logging the results. Cathy's an ace with the computer and knows how to jigger the DNA analyser database to delete the log entry for a test run.
Lets play a mental exercise: Imagine there is a gadget available for purchase for, say, $3000 that can sequence entire human genomes and fairly quickly. Suppose you could use it to get insight into people you deal with in business or in your personal life. Would you be curious enough to spend the $3000 to get a gadget that would let you find out the genetic personality profile or genetic influences on the health risks of others? Would it be more worth your while if you were dating? Or involved in negotiations in high stakes business deals?
If enough people some day start answering yes to those questions then wide availability of cheap small sequencing machines will basically make it impossible to protect genetic privacy for most people. People who are strongly inclined to respect all laws wouldn't cheat. But if the sequencing machines become small and cheap it will be easy for an individual to get a skin sample or other tissue sample of someone else and then sequence it without anyone else having any reason to suspect that it was done.
Its not just the cost of an individual DNA sequence analysis that matters. If a large mass production DNA sequencing machine could do a complete human DNA sequencing for less than $1 but some small portable DNA sequencer could do a sequencing for an average cost of $20 per sample it would be the latter machine that would constitute the bigger threat to human genetic privacy. Why? Its easier for a single person to act without needing to find one of the fairly small number of people who will have operational access to an expensive machine and convince one of those people cooperate (especially since failed attempts to secure cooperation would be legally risky).
A fairly low cost, easily concealable, and easy-to-use DNA sequencing device would be nearly impossible to regulate. It could be smuggled across borders and hid easily in homes. The ability to sequence someone else's DNA would not require that you cooperate with someone who works in a DNA sequencing lab. Only the person who decides to sequence the DNA of another person would have to know that the sequencing was done. The biggest challenge would be to find a way to surreptitiously acquire the DNA sample. So the advent of miniature DNA sequencing devices will do the most to erode the ability to protect genetic privacy.
Let us suppose then that miniaturized gene sequencers will be available at some point in the future. The only action that a government could take to protect genetic privacy would be to ban their sale and make possession and use a crime. The result of course would be that sequencers would still be available on the black market - albeit at a higher price and with legal risks for anyone who has one and gets found out. Can governments prevent people from getting things that they really want? At best governments can considerably raise the cost of purchase and to make people hesitate for fear of being prosecuted for possession of contraband.
Will democratically elected governments even choose to ban DNA sequencers in the first place? The answer to that question depends in part on whether more people want to be able to sequence others or to protect their own genetic privacy. In the war between the sexes each side will want to be able to sequence the other side while protecting their own sequence information (though even there it is easy to imagine a brother wanting to sequence his sister's boyfriend - each side in the war between the sexes has allies on the other side after all). It is difficult to say at this point how the politics of this will work out in practice. Still, lets explore some scenarios of people who will choose to sequence others regardless of the legality of doing so.
Joe Normal has a stepsister who grew up suffering from anxiety problems. Joe's seen how hard this has made her life and he's determined that the mother of his children should have no genetic tendencies toward anxiety. Joe read in a 2016 survey article of genetic influences on personality that way back in 2002 some scientists at the National Institute for Mental Health confirmed that a short variant of gene SLC6A4 (which codes for a serotonin neurotransmitter transporter protein) is far more prevalent in people who are prone to anxiety. Joe's worried that his girlfriend Annie becomes anxious in situations that don't bother Joe at all. Now, maybe that's just because it's natural for a normal sane person to not like going 80 mph on a motorcycle while it's raining. But Joe wants to make sure. Joe decides that he should use the dandruff off of one of Annie's jackets to test her DNA to see which variant of SLC6A4 she has. Joe doesn't want his future kids to get the anxiety causing version of that gene. In Joe's country personal DNA sequencers are not legally available. But Annie has been pleading with Joe to take her on a winter vacation to a tropical country. Joe looks up information about the country that Annie wants to visit and finds it has loose DNA privacy laws and that personal DNA sequencers are legally sold in consumer electronics shops. Joe tells Annie that she talked him into the trip and he buys the airplane tickets. She's so excited.
Susie Single really wants to have children. But she's anxious about being abandoned after the first kid is born. She wants a guy who is unlikely to divorce her. Susie has read about androgen receptor genetic variations that contribute to the likelihood that men will not stick around to raise their kids. In Susie's country personal DNA sequencers are easy to buy on the black market if you know the right people. She's willing to pay triple what they go for in countries where the devices are legal. She's dating a few guys who are all sending signals that they are interested in her. Susie is good at cutting hair and starts offering her boyfriends free haircuts. Every time she uses fresh combs and clean scissors and puts plastic down to catch all the hair. After the hair cut is done she collects up all the hair and takes the scalp flakes and later puts it all into the sequencer. For the most attractive ones who turn down free haircuts she lets them sleep with her and gets samples that way. For guys at the office she scrapes the handles of their coffee cups (some guys being pigs they rarely wash the handles) and the surfaces of their desks.
It is likely we will first reach a stage where sequencing services are cheap but the sequencing devices are expensive. This will create some opportunities for illicit sequencing for a variety of purposes. But at a later stage DNA sequencing devices will likely become cheaper and eventually easy to operate by anyone. In this later stage the prospects of maintaining genetic privacy become highly doubtful.
Science fiction writer David Brin foresees technological advances causing the death of privacy. Genetic privacy appears to be as vulnerable as other forms of privacy to advances in technology. Therefore I conclude that genetic privacy will not be protectable in the long run.
Humans have been engaged in a crude form of genetic engineering for as long as they have been a species. Every time a man chooses a woman and a woman chooses a man for the purpose of reproduction they are (consciously in some cases; not consciously in others) choosing characteristics in the other that are attractive for them to have in their offspring. Humans are attracted to qualities (eg symmetry of shape, strength, healthy looking skin, etc) in potential mates that bode well for having healthy successful offspring.
What are the major types of drawbacks in our current ways of passing along our genes to our progeny?
• We don't know what problems exist in our own personal genomes.
• We don't know what particularly beneficial variations we each might have.
• We don't know what of our own genetic endowment we are going to pass along.
• We don't know what our mates or potential mates have in their genomes or what they will pass along.
The result is uncertainty and sometimes tragic surprises. Two seemingly healthy people can give birth to a child that gets a recessive bad gene from both parents and therefore has a genetically caused disorder.
Abilities and knowledge that we need:
• To know the exact sequences we each individually have in our own genomes.
• To know what each variation means and therefore to be able interpret our own genomes.
• To be able control which of our chromosomes we pass along.
• To be able to change the genetic sequences what we pass along to give our progeny variations we don't have.
Humans have been using (consciously or not) methods of identifying potential mates with good genetic endowments for as long as the human race has existed. Many attributes of physical appearance, ability to tell jokes, prowess in sports and fighting, demonstrated personality characteristics such as patience or assertiveness, and still other characteristics have been used by males and females to judge each other since our species came into existence. Ancient religious texts even provide guidelines for choosing mates.
These methods are far from perfect. There are lots of reasons for this. Some qualities of a person may not manifest for many years (eg a genetic defect may give them a neurological disorder in their 30s or a heart attack in their 40s). It gets even more complicated. Some qualities will not ever manifest in the parents but will show up in some or all offspring. Two perfectly healthy looking people can both harbor a recessive harmful genetic mutation and can have offspring which suffer from any of a number of illnesses caused by such mutations (eg Tay Sachs). Or two who chose to become mates could have immune system weaknesses that never killed them since they never encountered a pathogen for which they are genetically poorly equipped to fight and then their offspring could encounter the pathogen and some or all of the offspring may die from it. The same can hold for other challenges that the environment throws up which do not happen for every generation.
But the problems with mating are even greater than that. Look at how much different children of the same parents can differ. Take some of the qualities that many women are attracted to in men: success in fields that require mental and or physical skills such as pro athletics, popular music writing and performance, science, or high status roles in government and industry. Just because a woman mates with a man who is enormously successful in some occupation does not mean that the resulting offspring will be equally capable of being successful in that or other high status and high income occupations.
Future advances in biotechnology will increase our ability to predict the outcomes of potential matings and even eventually to control exactly which part of our genomes we pass along to our offspring. Much of the uncertainty about what sort of offspring we will have will be removed. Not only will the uncertainty be removed but we will gain considerable control over what characteristics we pass along. Eventually biotech will allow us to go even farther and to give our offspring genetic variations that we do not ourselves possess.
I'd like to go thru the logical steps of how genetic engineering techniques of offspring is likely to progress. Keep in mind that the logical steps are in order of increasing power of the techniques. These are techniques for changing the genetic endowments of future generations. While I'll cite some examples of how this will change the resulting offspring it is beyond the scope of this essay to enumerate all the ways that people will become different than they otherwise would have been.
While I'm going to describe successively more powerful techniques it is possible that some of the more powerful techniques may become available before some of the less powerful techniques. The ordering of the techniques is in order of much much the techniques can change us and not the order in which the techniques will become available. So while I view control of chromosome donation to be a less powerful technique that gene therapy on fertilized eggs it may well turn out to be the case that gene therapy on fertilized eggs will become possible before chromosome donation can be controlled.
Also, just because a technique becomes available does not mean that people will use it. There will inevitably be people who will find moral or other reasons to reject the use of some or all of these techniques. So the order here is not necessarily the order in which the techniques will become either possible or acceptable.
Also, each technique will first become available in less powerful partial implementations and later in more powerful implementations that allow the full theoretical benefits of the general technique. For example, the first logical step of genetic profiling will start out with a small number of testable genetic locations for particular genetic diseases (this is already the case with Tay Sachs and other genetic disorders). Only gradually with time will it become sufficiently fast and cheap to allow each person to get all of the genetic variations of their genome mapped in complete detail. So the initial use of genetic profiling will give one an only partial picture of oneself and one's potential mate(s). Also, the initial high cost for each step will initially restrict the number of people who use each technique and as costs fall each technique will spread into more widespread usage.
First a listing of the steps in advances in genetic engineering techniques:
• Step 1: Screen potential mates or potential DNA donors (eg egg donors or sperm donors) by genetic profile.
• Step 2: Select which of each pair of our chromosomes we pass on to our progeny.
• Step 3: Assemble chromosome sets from more than 2 people.
• Step 4: Gene therapy on eggs, sperm or fertilized eggs.
• Step 5: Build chromosomes by combining genetic variations from chromosomes of many people.
• Step 6: Introduce genetic variations new to the human race.
• Step 7: Introduce genes from other species
• Step 8: Create entirely new genes
As you can see the first logical step will simply refine our methods of mate selection. We will simply know more about potential mates from a genetic perspective. But then we will gain successively more control over what our progeny will receive as the genetic structure in all of their bodies. As an aside we will discuss gene therapy that takes place on the egg or sperm or fertilized egg with the goal of permanently affecting the entire resulting person. While we will also gain the ability to use gene therapy to change the genetic structure of subsets of our cells that topic is outside the scope of this essay.
So this brings us to our first step forward into a Brave New World:
Once genetic sequencing becomes very cheap and widely available everyone will be able to know their exact genetic sequence. Any and all genetic variations that contribute to appearance, health risks, and ability for various types of sports, music composition, mathematics, and assorted other pursuits will be identified. How will this change the mating game? Initially I foresee dating/mating services where people register and provide their genetic profile (this could be done with some anonymity so that the service doesn't know which real life individual has which profile btw). Along with a genetic profile someone could submit a "what I want in a mate" genetic profile that would consist to absolute requirements for variations in some genes and preferences for variations in other genes.
The ability to search rapidly thru large numbers of other people to look for preferred characteristics will lead people to take a much more critical look at potential mates. Imagine a woman named Sue has a choice between two males named Bob and Joe that outwardly are very similar. They have similar levels of intelligence, looks, risks for diseases, and other qualitiies. But while Bob and Joe both have straight shiny teeth at the genetic level they are not the same. Suppose the gene for this characteristic (I'm making this up as example though surely there are genes that code for teeth shape) acts as a classical Mendelian dominant. Whether you have one or two copies as long as you have at least one copy of it you get the outward characteristic. Lets assume Bob has 2 copies of the straight shiny tooth gene while Joe has just one copy of the straight shiny gene along with a recessive not-nice-looking tooth gene variation). Joe has teeth that look as good as Bob's. But there is an important difference when it comes to offspring. Sue has just one copy of the good tooth gene. So if Sue mates with Joe each kid will have a 1 in 4 chance of having bad teeth (a child would have get a bad tooth gene from both parents and that will happen on average once every 4 kids they have). But if Sue mates with Bob no matter what tooth gene Sue donates to her children Sue can be secure in the knowledge that Bob will donate a good tooth gene (since Bob has only good tooth genes to donate). Both of Bob's copies are what Sue wants and so Sue has a better chance of having kids with great teeth if Sue goes for Bob.
This stage of advance in mating will be most advantageous for women who aren't looking for a husband. Women who are just looking for sperm donors won't need to be attractive to the men who might donate. The men don't need to sign up to raise kids with the women who are looking for sperm donors. So a single woman who wants to raise a kid on her own will be able to search all the sperm donor banks and choose a donor with a much clearer idea of what she will be getting.
Okay, suppose you are a woman who has just chosen the best mate your genetic profile could attract from the genetic profile dating service. Or maybe you fell in love the old fashioned way. But still, you know your own genetic profile and that of your mate. Your mate has a variation of some gene you desire to pass on to your offspring (lets say red hair). But the lug only has that gene on one chromsome of his pair of chromosomes that carry the hair color gene (and, again, this is a simplication for the sake of illustration; there might be multiple genes controlling hair color). You have only a 50:50 chance that he'll pass the desired gene on to your offspring (and you so want the kid to have red hair just like you and your mother before you). For most of human history you just had to roll the dice, get pregnant, and hope for the best. But eventually biotech advances will let you fix the dice and control which of each pair of chromosomes each of you donate to your offspring.
The ability to exercise this control will actually relax mate choices. Someone with undesireable genetic variants on one chromosome and desireable genetic variants on another chromosome of the same chromosome pair will no longer be shunned by the choosiest mate hunters. Only the most desireable chromosome of each chromosome pair of each potential mate will matter. The worse member of each chromosome pair will be avoidable in offspring.
Aside for those who know that DNA crossover during meiosis complicates this picture: I'm assuming that a drug will be developed that can suppress that from happening.
Okay, you can't find your perfect mate. Plus, you have some genes on both members of a chromosome pair that you don't want to pass on to your offspring. But you think one of your chromosomes is so great you want your kid to get both copies of it. What you need is total control over which chromosomes of yours and of one or more other people you want to use to construct your offspring.
Basically, some manipulation technique will lift the requirement that each parent donate exactly one of each chromosome pair to offspring. For one particular pair you might not donate anything. For another pair you might donate both. Once that basic capability of pulling out particular chromosomes and assembling your choices together is possible then it will be no harder to do with with chromosomes selected from 5 people than with chromosomes selected from 2 people.
This will be a big step forward in the ability to optimize the genetic endowment of offspring. Combinations of chromomes that can not be assembled from any two pair of existing people will be able to be put together. Outcomes that previously would haven taken multiple generations will now be achieveable in a single generaiton.
Staying within the range of variations that humans naturally have go into a fertilized egg (or the egg or sperm before fertilization) and modify the DNA to change a gene. In some cases this will be done to prevent children from receiving a defect that their parents have. However, it could also be done to give one's children features that the parents don't possess that other people possesss. This could be done for reasons that range anywhere from cosmetic (red hair or green eyes or greater height) to rather substantial things such as a personality type or greater coordination or muscles that could be developed to make someone a natural sprinter.
For people carrying genetic defects the prospect of gene therapy will be seen by many as extremely beneficial. Suppose, for instance, a couple both carry genes for hemophilia (where the blood doesn't clot properly). They may want to have children that do not carry the genetic defect that they carry. So gene therapy done at a very early stage of fetal development could change the DNA of the fetus so that the child will grow up free of the defect of the parents and will even be able to have children that do not have the defect.
The limitation of gene therapy (step 4) on the early stage of development is that its hard to use it to introduce a large number of genetic changes. At the same time, the ability to assemble sets of chromosomes by taking chromosomes from more than 2 people (Step 3) is still limited by what combinations of genetic variations can be found on individual existing chromsomes of all the people in the human race.
You may choose a set of features that you want your child to have that all are controlled by genes on a particular chromosome. But there may be no existing copy of that chromosome that has the particular combination of those features that you desire.
There's another reason why it will desireable to do larger scale changes to chromosomes. Some genetic theorists believe that we each carry dozens or even hundreds of deleterious mutations (we don't all carry the same deleteriousl mutations and some of the harm from these mutations manifests in rather mild ways). Every person on every chromosome may have mutations that are harmful to them. Well, we really need to be able to get into each chromosome and basically scrub it clean of deleterious mutations.
The average human being's health and general abilities can rise very dramatically just by sorting thru the genetic variations that already exist among humans. There are literally millions of locations in the DNA that vary from one person to the next. Many of those variations have no effect on us. Some variations are in silent areas of the genome. Still other variations are in used areas but don't cause any functional changes. Still, estimates for the number of significant differences in human DNA start at around 100,000 and range upward from there.
Scientists are already trying to sort thru the genetic differences between people to find out what effects they have. As the meanings of these differences become elucidated we will be able to make more intelligent choices about which existing variations we want to pass long to our offspring. This alone will cause a large change in the average of the human race as poeple make different choices about the height, appearance, personality types, intellectual abilities, and risk of diseases that their children will have.
But at some point scientists will begin to discover ways to improve upon the sum total of all the existing human variations. These ways to improve upon existing human designs may well occur years before all the existing variations are fully understood. But I'm placing them here as later steps just to make clear that they represent a further logical step in the progression of types of genetic engineering that will be done to humanity.
Steps 4 and 5 can be done with genetic variants that exist in the human population. However, more advanced genetic engineering will involve the introduction of new genetic variations that do not now exist in humans. Some of those variations and genes will come from other species. Still others will be designed by trying out or simulating variations of existing structures to see if the variations yield desired improvements in functionality.
Some of what will be done here is to take human existing genes and the proteins that get made from them and to run computer simulations that show how the genes and proteins would function if each position in the gene was changed to other letters in the genetic code. By trying variations that have not yet occurred naturally it will be possible to find for improvements over the variations that already exist.
This step does not involve introducing new genes. It just involves changing the genetic letters in positions of the genetic code of existing genes. However, as we can clearly see by looking at the enormous range of variations in existing humans even this approach can produce dramatic differences between humans.
Since other species contain many of the same genes as humans do and with very similar sequences one place to go looking for promising variations is in other species. However, other species also contain genes that humans do not have. This brings us to our next step.
A more radical way to get improvements is to look for genes to use in humans that come from other species of plants, animals and even from single cell organisms such as bacteria. The advantage of looking at other organisms for improvements is that so many organisms have had to survive in so many kinds of environments and they have adaptations that probably just never had a chance to arise in humans. So there are lots of well tested genes in other species that are worth examining to look for useful parts.
There are scientists looking at bacterial DNA repair enzymes with an eye toward putting them in humans to slow DNA damage accumulation that accompanies aging. There are also scientists looking at bacterial enzymes that break up waste products that accumulate in cells. One goal would be to insert the genes for these enzymes into human cells so that the lipofuscin and other compounds that accumulate with age could be broken down.
Still another way to try to improve the human species is to try to come up with entirely new and novel genes which code for proteins that do things not found in humans or other organisms. This is harder than trying to improve on existing designs and is also harder than looking for better designs in other species. But eventually bioengineering will advance to the point where this becomes possible as well.
The 21st century will see an acceleration of the rate of change in the human genome to a speed many orders of magnitude faster than what has been its historical rate of change. Some of the early stages of the change will not seem superficially so dramatic because people will initially just select among existing variations. Future generations will be chosen to be more attractive, healthier, and with the most desired intellectual and personality characteristics. However, as bioengineering advances new types of genetic variations and genes from other species will lead to still greater changes in humanity.
People will have many motives for genetically engineering their children and many types of changes that they will desire to introduce into their children's genomes. In future posts I will explore in greater detail all the different categories of modifications that people will decide that they want to make in their progeny. Another incredibly important topic to be explored in future posts is the question of whether genetic engineering could lead to offspring who have characteristics that literally threaten the fabric of civilization.
In order to forecast when photovoltaics will become competitive with fossil fuels as an energy source its important to look at historical prices for photovoltaics. I'm going to make posts about renewable energy cost trends as I find the data.
The US Department of Energy is the major funder of US photovoltaics research. In this paper from January 2001 Status and Recent Progress in Photovoltaic Manufacturing in the USA there is data on recent cost trends in photovoltaics from 1992 to 1999:
Module Manufacturing Costs and Capacities PV module costs are usually given in "dollars per watt," with the watt value defined in terms of the module power rating under specific conditions. Figure 1 shows total manufacturing capacity versus average direct costs for modules manufactured by participants in the PVMaT Project. The plot is based on 1999 data from 12 industrial participants, each of which has active production lines. The "average module manufacturing cost" is a weighted average based on the manufacturing capacity of each of these participants. As seen for the 12 manufacturers, PV manufacturing capacity has increased by more than a factor of seven since 1992, from 13.6 to 99.3 megawatts. Additionally, the weighted-average cost for manufacturing PV modules has been reduced by 36%, from $4.23 to $2.73 per peak watt. Projections through 2005 indicate a steady decline, to an average module manufacturing cost of $1.16 per peak watt at just over 865 megawatts of capacity.
Note that the reference to capacity is for manufacturing capacity for making photovoltaic cells. It is not installed capacity of photovoltaic cells. The decline in price from 1992 to the projected price for 2005 is less than a factor of 3. The decline in the price of photovoltaics was much more rapid in its earlier years. Says Greenpeace:
From 1972 to 1992, photovoltaic module costs have dropped one hundred fold.
Also, see the Figure 7.3 here for historical cost trends thru 1994. Cost decline appears to have slowed in percentage terms per year. Note that in figure 7.4 they show the potential for a more rapid decline in photovoltaics costs if thin film photovoltaics turn out to be workable. They comment:
Even sharper module cost reductions can be expected in the case of thin film PV cells, irrespective of the basic semiconductor employed (amorphous silicon, CdTe, CIS, or others). First, this is due to the use of a much smaller amount of semiconductor material and to much lower energy consumption rates. Secondly, thin-film manufacturing techniques (direct deposition) allow the direct manufacturing of 1,000 cm2 integrated solar modules (i.e. a-St) and are particularly well suited for mass production.
You can go here for a report on current capacity of each type of renewable energy source. Click on the Standard Report button for "Operating Capacity (kW) by Technology and Fuel". Note that while hydro (ie hydroelectric dams) provide the largest source of renewable the ranking after that are biomass, geothermal, wind, thermal, and then photovoltaic. Photovoltaic is almost 4 orders of magnitude less than biomass as an energy source and hydro is over 4 times greater an energy source than biomass. Photovoltaics have a long way to go.
To put that into larger perspective, total US generating capacity in 2000 was 825 GW of peak capacity. US photovoltaics capacity was only 75 MW which is less than one hundredth of one percent of the total. The US DOE National Center for Photovoltaics projects:
Our expectation for industry growth is 25% per year — a level that should be achievable according to recent market data.² At this level of growth, domestic PV capacity will approach 10% of U.S. peak generation by 2030.
Unless the rate of advance in thin film photovoltaics is accelerated we face rather distant prospects for use of photovoltaics as a way to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has written an article about nuclear powered spaceships and the history of the Orion project to design one. The amazing thing about it is that it is possible to prevent the pusher plate (and therefore the spaceship) from being vaporized by the atomic blasts:
But experiments demonstrated that properly treated substances could survive intact within a few meters of an atomic explosion, protected from vaporization by a thin layer of stagnating plasma.
Such a spaceship could be built today. Go read his essay if you are interested. Science fiction buffs may recall that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle used such a nuclear pulse engine in their 1985 novel Footfall (graphic depiction of the Footfall spaceship available here) where some humans built one to defeat alien invaders. Here's an earlier article about the concept from the space.com site.
As I've discussed in other posts, the costs of DNA sequencing and assaying are going to fall by orders of magnitude. It is still not clear when prices will drop far enough to make complete personal genetic assays commonplace. Promising technologies are under very active development in many labs. So my best guess is that mass market affordable detailed DNA analysis instruments will be available and widely used within 10 years.
How is the resulting information going to be used? Obviously medical and social science researchers will use it to discover the impact of each genetic variation on health-related questions, longevity, and physical and mental qualities and abilities. Therapies will be customized to individual genetic profiles and medical decisions will be informed by the specifics of how each drug or treatment will be metabolized by each individual patient. Also, detailed knowledge of individual risks to various diseases will allow each person to make far better decisions about diet and early detection testing for each potential illness. It is clear that the value for health and medicine will be enormous.
But leaving aside personal health and medical matters how else will this information be used by individuals in their everyday lives? There is one big use that stands out: Mate Choice.
Much of the guessing about whether any particular two people will have healthy children and what the children will be like will be replaced with much more accurate scientific predictions. Since each person can contribute various subsets of their genes the predictions will have to be stated as probabilities. Plus. there are lots of factors governing growth of a fetus and baby that are not entirely under the control of genes (eg fetal infection or maternal exposure to toxins). But genetic profiles of prospective mates will still be incredibly useful.
Genetic profiles therefore will have a profound impact upon the mating dance. Obviously, for a woman who doesn't want to have kids her choice of lover or husband needn't be influenced by whether he carries a hereditary predisposition to allergy, a lethal mutation, or a mutation that increases the likelihood of some terrible birth defect. But for women who aspire to motherhood the availability of low cost genetic profiles and information on how to interpret profiles will provide information that many women will decide to use.
Personal genetic profiles will increase the value of computerized dating services. The use of large databases of genetic profiles will make it much quicker and easier to find more advantages and disadvantages of each potential mate. Many people will find that the ability to gain this knowledge will be so appealing that they will rush to sign up with computerised dating services that can match people by genetic profile.
Personal genetic profiles will bring a whole new dimension to the mating dance. People who are looking for a mate for the purpose of reproduction will want to find potential mates that most closely match their ideal genetic profile for the kinds of qualities they want to have in their offspring. Well, in this era of computers and internet search engines what better way to do this than with an on-line dating service that matches up people by genetic profile?
While this may sound cold and heartless its really just a very advanced extension of dating service techniques already in use. Many existing dating services require their customers to fill out detailed personal information. Some require pictures while others even require a video to allow prospectives to closely check out each other without having to meet face-to-face. Genetic profiles will become just another part of the application.
So how will the matching be done? Each person will have to supply their own genetic profile to the dating service. Since the dating service won't be able to trust people to supply an accurate profile its likely that either the dating service will have to take a tissue sample or it will rely on a trusted third party lab that can vouch for the identity of the person and supply the genetic profile.
There will be another half of the dating service sign-up process: Filling in a profile of what you are looking for genetically in your ideal mate. Everyone has different ideals and different ways of prioritizing even among the genetic features they want. So not every male will want the exact same ideal female and vice versa. Some people will find this the most difficult part of the process. Tough choices will be faced. How do personality characteristics compare in importance to athletic skills, susceptibility to various diseases, hair color, height, build, and countless other differences large and small?
There will be genetic features that are must-haves, must-not-haves, and various levels of preferences for everything in between. For most people the odds of finding one's genetic ideal will be very low. The odds will be made even worse because lots of people who have single copies of lethal or very harmful recessive genes and will want to avoid people who have the same kinds of recessives.
Filling out one's preferences will require a lot of thought and some really serious examination of one's values. Preferences will not be just a simple ranking of features one wants in order of preference. There may be features that you think are equally valuable and you would be happy to find a mate with one or another. There might be cases where you think "I'll take someone with A, B, and C or someone with D and E".
Women who want anonymous (or not so anonymous) sperm donations and who are not demanding a romantic or financial commitment from the donor stand to benefit much more from genetic profiling information than women who are looking for a romantic relationship and child-raising commitment. The reason is pretty simple: a man with a highly popular genetic profile who is willing to marry and raise children is going to have more female suitors than a man with a less ideal genetic profile. Most women won't be able to get their ideal man just as most men won't be able to get their ideal woman.
Finding an ideal sperm donor is much easier. The most desired men can marry only one woman at a time (at least in Western countries). But there is no limit (unless legislation is passed to prohibit this) on how many children a man can father. The only real limit is the number of women who want to have the same man as the sperm donor father.
If sperm banks are allowed to operate as regular businesses it is likely the sperm banks will respond to the availability of genetic profiles by offering a genetic profile preference matching service very similar to what the dating services will offer. Sperm banks will require genetic profiles from all sperm bank donors. Then women will be able to fill out their preferences for a donor genetic profile and the sperm bank will try to match the profile up against its donor genetic profiles.
In a marketplace sperm banks will have an incentive to try to recruit sperm donors whose genetic profiles match the kinds of profiles that the women customers request most often. One can imagine sperm banks offering signing bonuses to men who have popular combinations of genetic features. One can also imagine the sperm banks charging more to women who want to use sperm that fit the most popular profiles.
So will the sperm banks be able to find and recruit the men who have the most popular genetic profiles? The prospects seem favorable. The sperm banks won't have to pay to test each donor to find out if the donor matches a profile they are looking for. The banks can just publish the profiles they are looking for and include prices they will pay for each profile. Since most men will know their own genetic profile some will decide to shop around on the net to see if their profile can earn them some money for selling a donation to a sperm bank. Imagine a poor college student who want to make some extra money deciding to surf the net to compare his genetic profile to the offering prices of various sperm banks. Other men will want to make a sperm donation for free just to be able to pass their genes along.
Left to operate as a market then the sperm banks will likely be very successful at finding sperm donors whose profiles more closely match the ideals of the female sperm bank customers than what those same women will be able to find thru dating services. Most women who elect to impregnate themselves using a sperm bank will get children genetically more to their liking than if they elected to go the traditional route of getting married and having kids with a husband as genetic donor.
Once this fact sinks in the consequences will be profound. Most women will be faced with a conflict between competing desires. On one hand they will want a romantic and sexual partner and husband who will be willing to serve as father of their children and who will provide emotional support, financial support, help in child-raising, and in other ways. On the other hand women will have their desire to have the best children possible (best according to the values of each individual woman).
As sperm banks sign up more female customers (who of course will fill out their preferences for male genetic profiles) they will get a better measure of what profiles women most desire. The sperm banks will respond by advertising for men who can serve as sources for the most popular genetic profiles. In the sperm bank market men are able to donate sperm to more than one woman and so when one woman wins by finding an ideal donor other women don't lose. Therefore as sperm banks sign up larger numbers of men with popular genetic profiles women increasingly will be offered choices for donors who basically can give them nearly every single genetic feature that they desire.
The marketplace for women looking for potential husbands will not improve nearly as much. Genetic profiling will allow women to find men with desireable profiles who may be languishing in remote locations or in settings where they rarely meet eligible women. Therefore the dating services will provide women with some improved abilities to find better husbands. But women will still have to compete with other women to find these men. Genetic profiling does not increase the size of the total pool of men and it doesn't get the men better educations or jobs.
The information provided by genetic profiles will more clearly highlight the consequences of competing reproductive choices than has ever been possible before. Women will be able to know with much greater certainty what their children will be like if they have children with a particular man. At the same time, new reproductive choices with very different outcomes will become available to many women.
It is inevitable that this new information and these new choices will change how women make reproductive decisions. We can not yet know what exact form those changes will take or when the changes will begin to occur. We do not yet even know all the features of humans that vary due to genetic variations. Therefore we do not even know what all will be in a genetic preference profile let alone how most women will weigh the costs and benefits of the assorted genetic variations. But we can be sure that the mating dance is heading for profound changes.
Current DNA sequencing techniques involve taking the DNA from a person or other organism and then making billions of copies of it to run thru sequencing machines. This is slow, expensive, and error prone. Back in 1989 UCSC professor David Deamer first conceived of the idea of making nanopores thru which a single strand of DNA would pass at a time and as the strand passed thru the nanopore its changing electrical pattern would be used to read each successive DNA base (each letter location in the genetic code) via sensors built into the nanopore structure. This approach holds the potential of allowing for miniaturization, elimination of lots of expensive reagents, and to speed sequencing by many orders of magnitude.
One of the teams attempting to develop nanopore DNA sequencing technology is at Harvard. From Harvard Biology Professor Daniel Branton's home page:
A novel technology for probing, and eventually sequencing, individual DNA molecules using single-channel recording techniques has been conceived. Single molecules of DNA are drawn through a small channel or nanopore that functions as a sensitive detector. The detection schemes being developed will transduce the different chemical and physical properties of each base into a characteristic electronic signal. Nanopore sequencing has the potential of reading very long stretches of DNA at rates exceeding 1 base per millisecond.
Biophysics Ph.D. candidate Lucas Nivon, who works in the lab of Professor Dan Branton has this to say about the potential for nanopore technology:
Professors Dan Branton and David Deamer developed a new way to sequence single-stranded DNA by running it through a protein nanopore. Using this method, we could potentially sequence a human genome in 2 hours.
Well, 1 base per millisecond translates into 86 million bases per day. With a 2.9 billion size human genome it would take slightly over a month to sequence an entire genome. But Nivon's 2 hour estimate is plausible because many nanopores could be placed into a single device. With 500 nanopores in a single device the human genome could be decoded in less than 2 hours. The first article in the list below uses the 500 nanopore example though they quote a 24 to 48 hour sequencing time. Possibly different generations of this technology are being referenced to come out with different predicted sequencing times.
For a more detailed discussion of this topic see these articles: