Long time brain genetics researcher Robert Plomin and his colleagues are getting much closer to identifying genetic variants that cause IQ differences. The title of their latest paper signals an impressive accomplishment: Common DNA Markers Can Account for More Than Half of the Genetic Influence on Cognitive Abilities.
Note that they haven't actually identified the genes or genetic variants causing differences in IQ. Rather, they've discovered genetic variants "in the neighborhood", figuratively speaking. Lots of genetic variants vary together. They used 1.7 million known variants and discovered variants that correlate with differences in IQ.
What is very important here: To boost offspring IQ we do not need to know the specific genetic variants that cause IQ differences. The "in the neighborhood" variants that are tied to the real IQ boosters are close enough. They can be used for pre-implantation embryo genetic testing to choose suitable IVF embryos for implantation.
My advice for young prospective parents: You might want to wait a few years for research into genes and offspring traits to mature. You might also want to start saving for the IVF and genetic testing that'll let you make a better babies. You might need to travel to a different legal jurisdiction to get unrestricted genetic testing of embryos. For example, the United States might clamp down on this use of genetic testing in spite of the enormous value of a smarter populace.
Update: I think some commenters are underestimating the potential IQ lift of genetic selection for higher IQ. A couple can easily have kids who are 10 IQ points higher or lower than them. The goal of the embryo selection isn't just to have kids with even higher IQs. There is the very substantial benefit of not having kids 5-10-15 IQ points lower than either member of the couple.
The value embryo genetic testing is probably greatest (on average) for smarter couples who are at high risk of regression to the mean. However, in a few years time genetic testing of couples will enable couples to know the range of IQs their hypothetical kids would have and what the distribution (i.e. the odds) would look life if they had children the old fashioned way. Armed with this information, couples could know about how many embyros on average they'd need to sort thru to get a big IQ boost in their offspring and what their downside risks are from old style reproduction.
A reconstruction of 2,000 years of global temperatures shows that a long-term decline in Earth's temperatures ended abruptly about 1900, replaced by a warming trend that has continued despite the persistence into the 20th century of the factors driving the cooling, according to a new study.
The more interesting thing about this report isn't that humans humans are probably causing rising temperatures by causing so much CO2 emissions. That already seems pretty likely. What is more interesting: the long term cooling trend could mean we were headed for another ice age. Maybe only the industrial revolution prevented it. So suppose humans developed more slowly in the industrial revolution was delayed by hundreds of years. Would it have happened at all? Or would the human population have dived before it had a chance to get going?
So the question arises: What's the ideal climate for the planet? Different people will have different answers depending on where they live. This isn't just about how cold is winter or how hot is summer. Though at globally 5C warmer some US states would become very undesirable and even dangerous places to live. What else matters: rain distribution. Raise temperatures a few degrees C and watch some now habitable places become deserts while other places get more rain.
A highly industrialized nation with cheap energy has lots of options for ameliorating the effects of climate change. Suppose a massive decades long drought hits the Canadian and American plains. Then imagine either a big fusion energy breakthrough or a large continuing decline in solar energy costs.Pump in massive amounts of desalinated water from the coasts. Dump some of it in Montana and Alberta into dams. Some will evaporate for local and regional rains. The Missouri and other rivers could carry the water into parched plains states. Poor nations would not have that option.
NEW YORKA massive study analyzing gene expression data from 22 tumor types has identified multiple metabolic expression changes associated with cancer. The analysis, conducted by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center, also identified hundreds of potential drug targets that could cut off a tumor's fuel supply or interfere with its ability to synthesize essential building blocks. The study was published today in the online edition of Nature Biotechnology.
The results should ramp up research into drugs that interfere with cancer metabolism, a field that dominated cancer research in the early 20th century and has recently undergone a renaissance. [Fuel Lines of Tumors Are New Target: http://nyti.ms/10QMkY1]
"The importance of this new study is its scope," said Dennis Vitkup, PhD, associate professor of biomedical informatics (in the Initiative in Systems Biology) at CUMC, the study's lead investigator. "So far, people have focused mainly on a few genes involved in major metabolic processes. Our study provides a comprehensive, global view of diverse metabolic alterations at the level of gene expression."
This research demonstrates what is looking like one of the biggest benefits of cheap DNA testing and sequencing: The ability to identify all the genetic mutations that contribute to cells becoming cancerous. Collecting that information just one mutation at a time is completely inadequate due the very large numbers of individual mutations involved in cancer. Also, many different combinations of mutations are capable of enabling the growth and spread of cancer.
Cures for cancer are waiting on the development of tools that can collect information about genes and cellular metabolism on a scale many orders of magnitude greater than what was possible 10 or 20 years ago. We need truly massive amounts of data on the state of cancer cells in order to figure out how the various genetic alterations interact to cause cancer.
Geneva, Switzerland: Mathematical prediction models are better than doctors at predicting the outcomes and responses of lung cancer patients to treatment, according to new research presented today (Saturday) at the 2nd Forum of the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology (ESTRO).
These differences apply even after the doctor has seen the patient, which can provide extra information, and knows what the treatment plan and radiation dose will be.
Machine learning models already ought to be extensively employed for diagnosis and generation of treatment plans. The human mind can't handle the amount of information available. Plus, the mind is easily biased and the subconscious throws up lots of wrong ideas.
Diagnostic signals and treatment options are proliferating.
"The number of treatment options available for lung cancer patients are increasing, as well as the amount of information available to the individual patient. It is evident that this will complicate the task of the doctor in the future," said the presenter, Dr Cary Oberije, a postdoctoral researcher at the MAASTRO Clinic, Maastricht University Medical Center, Maastricht, The Netherlands. "If models based on patient, tumour and treatment characteristics already out-perform the doctors, then it is unethical to make treatment decisions based solely on the doctors' opinions. We believe models should be implemented in clinical practice to guide decisions."
Too much information for oncologists to handle.
President of ESTRO, Professor Vincenzo Valentini, a radiation oncologist at the Policlinico Universitario A. Gemelli, Rome, Italy, commented: "The booming growth of biological, imaging and clinical information will challenge the decision capacity of every oncologist. The understanding of the knowledge management sciences is becoming a priority for radiation oncologists in order for them to tailor their choices to cure and care for individual patients."
DNA sequencing and genetic testing done on cancer cells will become a major factor for choosing between cancer treatment options. Groups of drugs will be delivered to target groups of genetic mutations.
MAYWOOD, Il. The economic crash in Cuba following the fall of the Soviet Union has provided researchers with a unique natural experiment on obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
In the early 1990s, shortages of food and gasoline forced Cubans to eat less and do more walking and cycling. Adults lost, on average, 9 to 11 pounds, and type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease dropped sharply.
But after the economy began a slow but steady recovery, adults gradually gained back the weight they had lost, and then some. This weight gain was accompanied by a 116 percent increase in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. And while heart disease deaths continued to decline, the rate of decrease slowed markedly, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
The Euro debt crisis could deliver large public health benefits. Will life expectancies rise in Greece and Cyprus?
Have you ever eaten less food because you were poor?
A Scientific American piece relays the fact that 4 VEI-7 (Volcanic Explosivity Index where an 8 means that civilization will collapse) volcanoes have erupted in the last 2000 years. Says the writer: "it would be prudent to identify high-risk volcanoes and prepare for such events." Agreed. Not expecting that preparation by governments though. If you want protection from VEI-7 eruptions it is up to you to stockpile some food.
The last such eruption was Tambora in 1815. Then 1816 became known as "the year without summer".
Want to prepare for the collapse of global agriculture? It is fun to do the numbers. Suppose you want to stockpile your VEI-7 volcanic eruption survival calories as olive oil (you could always trade for other foods). 1 gallon of olive oil is 30308 calories. So the question becomes: how many gallons of olive oil per year?
I'm thinking 2500 calories per day because you might need to engage in moderate activity. So 365x2500 = 912500 calories per year divided by 30308 calories/gallon. That's only 30.1 gallons per year. Got a family of 4 and want to survive for 2 years? That's 240 gallons. To put it another way: olive oil gives you about 12 days per gallon.
Alternatively you could get enough calories from 60 pieces of Dove dark chocolate per day. Desperate times call for tasty measures. The 60 pieces would be about 476 grams or 1.05 pounds. We are looking at 382 pounds or 173 kilograms of dark chocolate per year. Well, do you want to survive the disaster or not?
If you need to isolate yourself from civilization for a year or two due to some killer influenza plague the same numbers will still apply. Though your average outside temperatures will be higher and you won't need to worry as much about the pipes freezing.
Some day we'll have biotechnology that will enable parents to prevent their children from getting harmful recessive genetic variants. The genetic harm from making babies with close relatives will vanish once the harmful recessives aren't passed along. At that point would you still favor laws against incestuous relationships? One reason to remain opposed: the resulting high level of genetic similarity across generations will likely increase loyalty to family at the expense of loyalty to the rest of society.
On a somewhat related note: We all have lots of mildly harmful genetic mutations, only some of which are recessives. The non-recessives (i.e. the ones that harm us when we have just one copy of them) are reducing your level of functioning and my level of functioning every day. The term to refer to them is "genetic load". One way to identify all these harmful mutations is to compare the DNA of people (or Neanderthals as that post discusses) and eliminate the less frequent genetic variants. Most of the less frequent genetic variants are either harmful or neutral in effect. Eliminating them would make superior humans.
What is interesting about this idea of doing the comparison to basically vote on what to set as the genetic letter for each location in the genome: how do you choose the group to sample the DNA to do the voting?
Bringing the subject back to incest and harmful recessives: Would the voting approach do as good a job of identifying rare harmful recessives as it would in identifying harmful non-recessives? Keep in mind that populations that are highly inbred have genetic diseases first discovered in these populations. So the Mennonites and Amish accidentally have made it very easy to discover many harmful recessives. But how many of those recessives show up outside of those communities? How many other harmful recessives are so rare that they haven't been identified clinically?
Genetic sequence data indicate that the H7N9 virus may bind more easily to human receptors than avian receptors and that the virus may also be transmitted by air.
Scarier still: H7N9 causes brain damage and damages other organs. See this NEJM about the potential for a global pandemic written by Timothy M. Uyeki, M.D., M.P.H., M.P.P., and Nancy J. Cox, Ph.D.
We might still dodge this one. Hasn't shown up yet outside China. H7N9 might not mutate into a form easily transmitted between humans. But if it mutates into a form easily transmitted by humans then we'd better all prepare for how to live our lives for many months in relative isolation. See my 2005 proposal for workplace cocooning for ideas on how to do that while still enabling the economy to function.
If an especially lethal pandemic ever arises do not panic. Just find a way to restructure your life to reduce your exposure to other people. Figure out whether you can put together a trustworthy group you can isolate with, preferably a work group. Reduce your frequency of contact outside of that group to a very bare minimum. Then wait for a vaccine or for the disease to burn itself out.
Transhumans (genetically engineered, enhanced with embedded computers) will earn more money because they'll be more productive. So they will be higher tax brackets. Therefore they'll pay much more in taxes than unenhanced humans. Okay, but beyond their earning power will they be singled out for special taxes due to their beyond-human status?
This is one of the thoughts that came across my mind while reading Ramez Naam's excellent novel Nexus. A couple of decades hence Naam imagines embedded nanotech as illegal rather than just subjected to higher tax rates. But suppose it is actually allowed. Or suppose offspring genetic engineering is allowed. Will superhumans be singled out for more confiscatory tax treatment?
PROVIDENCE, R.I. The widespread use of media among college students from texting to chatting on cell phones to posting status updates on Facebook may be taking an academic toll, say researchers with The Miriam Hospital's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine.
According to a new study, freshmen women spend nearly half their day 12 hours engaged in some form of media use, particularly texting, music, the Internet and social networking. Researchers found media use, in general, was associated with lower grade point averages (GPAs) and other negative academic outcomes. However, there were two exceptions: newspaper reading and listening to music were actually linked to a positive academic performance.
With this sort of study there's always the question of direction of causation. But time spent messaging is time not spent working or studying.
We did not evolve to be adapted to our current environment. For you what's the worst product of modern civilization due to its distracting or addicting or otherwise maladaptive effects on your behavior and performance?
By stimulating one part of the brain with laser light, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco (UCSF) have shown that they can wipe away addictive behavior in rats or conversely turn non-addicted rats into compulsive cocaine seekers.
"When we turn on a laser light in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex, the compulsive cocaine seeking is gone," said Antonello Bonci, MD, scientific director of the intramural research program at the NIH's National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), where the work was done. Bonci is also an adjunct professor of neurology at UCSF and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.
It seems inevitable that techniques will be found to turn addictions and compulsions on and off. Reading Ramez Naam's excellent Nexus science fiction novel about brain nanotech implants has me both worried and excited about the prospects for using nanotech to manage one's mental state and desires. I want the upsides. I do not think we'll avoid the sizable downsides. It is not clear whether such technology will destabilize civilization.
If one could very carefully and precisely alter one's desires then weight control, breaking of addictions, higher productivity at study, higher productivity at work, and many other goals would become attainable. At the same time, imagine what a government could do with the ability to implant strong desires and fears.
Laurie Garrett, she the author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, has a piece in Foreign Policy about worries that the H7N9 influenza virus in China could break out into a major pandemic.
Here's how it would happen. Children playing along an urban river bank would spot hundreds of grotesque, bloated pig carcasses bobbing downstream. Hundreds of miles away, angry citizens would protest the rising stench from piles of dead ducks and swans, their rotting bodies collecting by the thousands along river banks. And three unrelated individuals would stagger into three different hospitals, gasping for air. Two would quickly die of severe pneumonia and the third would lay in critical condition in an intensive care unit for many days. Government officials would announce that a previously unknown virus had sickened three people, at least, and killed two of them. And while the world was left to wonder how the pigs, ducks, swans, and people might be connected, the World Health Organization would release deliberately terse statements, offering little insight.
So are we about to have a massive global killer pandemic from H7N9? The odds are against it. We've witnessed several viruses (e.g. SARS) jump from animals to a handful of humans, kill a large fraction of the infected, and not go on to cause a global pandemic. However, it is well within the realm of possibility that we will some day get hit by a global pandemic on par with the 1918 flue which killed tens of millions globally.
My take on killer pandemics: As compared to other natural threats an especially lethal influenza virus seems like small potatoes. If you have the cash, self discipline, and sufficient smarts you can greatly reduce your risks of dying from such a virus by taking steps to isolate yourself (preferably in a small work group) while a vaccine gets developed and manufactured. Though note that old people have immune systems which do not respond well to influenza vaccines.
We'll have even more species to bring back in the future since our list of extinct species is going to grow in the 21st century. In the last 10 years poachers have killed 62% of the African forest elephants. The outlook for some other big animals is similarly grim. In the last 50 years African lion numbers have plunged by over two thirds by one estimate. Also in the last 50 years Three quarters of African savannahs have been converted to farms. The rest will go to farms (or desert) since Africa's population is rapidly rising. Check out this interactive map of population growth projections.
I find the idea of bringing back species certainly very interesting. But we do not have large unspoiled wilderness areas any more. Humans are using an increasing fraction of all biomass for their own purposes. That's true in jungles, savannahs, forests, lakes, rivers, and oceans. The remaining wild areas are much smaller than the wild numbers we've already lost. So most of what's left will go pretty quickly.
What I think would be a useful exercise: collect the DNA for large numbers of members of species that are shrinking. That way if in some future century the human population ever goes way down to just, say, 1 billion people we'll have enough DNA variation to reintroduce lions, tigers, elephants, birds, and other species we will lose in the future.