“it’s a Sleepless world, they’re just awaking to it”

Posted by on June 9th, 2013

Warning [SPOILERS]: if you care about the plots of Nikita, Iron Man 3, The Bourne Legacy… stop now, go watch ‘em all then come back. Hi!

Philosophy so physical makes for a very handsome tribe.


This scene from Canadian science-fiction drama show Orphan Black is the best rendering of a Grinder Bar yet seen on screens small or large. In fact, I’m not even sure what the others are.

And it’s a good reason to take a whip-around look at the world of pop culture as serious business, and re-examine the state of the #transhumanfuturepresent.

First we have the latest season of the spy soap, Nikita. Referring in-show to its “spy fi” plot elements, the absolute transhuman drama of cyborg hand upgrades and cutting edge transplant dramatic problems. Don’t bring a possibly evil hand to a knife fight or something.

The settings of Iron Man 3 and The Bourne Legacy are both unquestionably transhuman. Neither film is a journey of a character to science-fictional state (see recent highlights: Limitless, Chronicle), but rather their starting condition.

(We can wedge Hanna in here too, though it’s more properly a genetically engineered super-solider girl coming of age fairy tale, innit).

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark (1.0) not only has upgraded-girlfriend-dramas (well, Red She-Hulk solutions) but the plot driver is a conflict between two competing paths of self-directed human evolution: man/machine co-evolution and direct genetic hacking (hopefully not precluding the eventual arrival of Zeke Stane (Tony Stark 2.0) onto the big screen, that plot having been mined from The Five Nightmares arc of The Invincible Iron Man).

Speaking about playing Aldritch Killan, Guy Pearce mentions that Extremis also upgrades the subject to become one of the beautiful people:

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In The Bourne Legacy, our hero, who totally isn’t being chased by the mutant wolves of The Grey as it opens, is the latest iteration of the super-soldierspy program. His motivation is to hold onto his upgraded self, lest he reverts back to being the guy from The Lawnmower Man, or something.

Once you’ve gone transhuman…

Back in Canada, and actually set-in-Canada Canadian drama Continuum, which apart from featuring an absolutely bad-ass tech suit rather a lot like Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s (itself a bridge between its low-grade #peakcyberpunkfuture and today, a cyborg hand reaching back to the present), combines transhuman future cop trapped in the present drama, with standard procedural drama, and excellent sociopolitical critique. Honestly, the first show on TV that I wish I was writing for ([blink]%HIRE ME%[/blink]).

Plus in the actual RL, we have Google Glass, already getting surpassed by the Meta. Pioneers like Steve Mann and Neil HarbigesenSports stories speculating on specific upgrades already being outdated… and other things I’m sure I’ve missed. So tell me!

and while we’re talking, let’s discuss the anti-posthuman agenda of Star Trek, most recently seen in Into the Darkness:

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Litmus test: who is the real villain in X-Men: First Class?

And we leave you with the trailer for Elysium, grinder revenge pr0n if ever there was one:

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Rewriteable memory encoded into DNA

Posted by on May 23rd, 2012

Just another Wednesday. From Nature:

The arduous work involved in building the system is almost as notable as the achievement itself, says Drew Endy of Stanford University in California who led the work, which is published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.

Synthetic biologists have long sought to devise biological data-storage systems because they could be useful in a variety of applications, and because data storage will be a fundamental function of the digital circuits that the field hopes to create in cells.

Endy’s group attempted to create a rewritable memory system by splicing genetic elements from a bacteriophage — a bacterium-infecting virus — into the DNA of the bacterium Escherichia coli.

The system consists of a stretch of DNA flanked by sites that signal to enzymes made by the bacteriophage, instructing them to cut out the DNA and paste it back into the chromosome in the reverse orientation. Endy’s group shows that the device can be set and reset repeatedly — up to 16 times. One advantage this system has over those using transcription factors is that it is truly digital, with forward and reverse orientations of the DNA acting like a ’0′ or a ’1′ in binary. Also, the cell expends no energy in storing the memory, beyond DNA maintenance, says Endy. He points out that combinations of such elements could be used to track cellular events, such as the series of cell divisions by which a stem cell becomes a differentiated adult cell.

“What Drew’s group can do that others haven’t demonstrated is the ability to cycle the memory element over and over, kind of like you can write a bit to a hard drive, read it and change it back over and over again,” says synthetic biologist Eric Klavins of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Endy’s group chose a particular bacteriophage element for the work because it seemed to have the potential to reliably change the orientation of DNA. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. As a result, Jerome Bonnet, the postdoctoral student who spearheaded the project, spent three years tweaking the system to make it work, ultimately creating 750 different designs in his attempts to troubleshoot various aspects.

“It’s a pretty sad criticism of the state of technology in synthetic biology where we’re trying to program the expression of half a dozen genes and it takes 750 design attempts to get that working,” Endy says. “It’s like trying to write a six-line code on a computer that takes 750 debug attempts to work.”

“The cheaper and easier gene synthesis becomes, the more easily we’ll be able to do this kind of thing,” Klavins says.

Endy also hopes that initiatives such as the BIOFAB, which he co-directs with Adam Arkin at the University of California, Berkeley, will streamline the process by delivering standardized, reliable biological parts for researchers to use.

who wants to live forever?

Posted by on May 21st, 2012

This is a bit big. As Bruce Sterling reminds us, “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being.”

Researchers at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), led by its director María Blasco, have demonstrated that the mouse lifespan can be extended by the application in adult life of a single treatment acting directly on the animal’s genes. And they have done so using gene therapy, a strategy never before employed to combat aging. The therapy has been found to be safe and effective in mice.

The results were recently published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine. The CNIO team, in collaboration with Eduard Ayuso and Fátima Bosch of the Centre of Animal Biotechnology and Gene Therapy at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), treated adult (one-­‐year-­‐old) and aged (two-­‐year-­‐old) mice, with the gene therapy delivering a “rejuvenating” effect in both cases, according to the authors.

Mice treated at the age of one lived longer by 24% on average, and those treated at the age of two, by 13%. The therapy, furthermore, produced an appreciable improvement in the animals’ health, delaying the onset of age-­‐related diseases — like osteoporosis and insulin resistance — and achieving improved readings on aging indicators like neuromuscular coordination.

The gene therapy consisted of treating the animals with a DNA-­modified virus, the viral genes having been replaced by those of the telomerase enzyme, with a key role in aging. Telomerase repairs the extreme ends or tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres, and in doing so slows the cell’s and therefore the body’s biological clock. When the animal is infected, the virus acts as a vehicle depositing the telomerase gene in the cells.

This study “shows that it is possible to develop a telomerase-­based anti-­aging gene therapy without increasing the incidence of cancer,” the authors affirm. “Aged organisms accumulate damage in their DNA due to telomere shortening, [this study] finds that a gene therapy based on telomerase production can repair or delay this kind of damage,” they add.

In 2007, Blasco’s group demonstrated that it was feasible to prolong the lives of transgenic mice, whose genome had been permanently altered at the embryonic stage, by causing their cells to express telomerase and, also, extra copies of cancer-­‐resistant genes. These animals live 40% longer than is normal and do not develop cancer.

The mice subjected to the gene therapy now under test are likewise free of cancer. Researchers believe this is because the therapy begins when the animals are adult so do not have time to accumulate sufficient number of aberrant divisions for tumours to appear.

Also important is the kind of virus employed to carry the telomerase gene to the cells. The authors selected demonstrably safe viruses that have been successfully used in gene therapy treatment of hemophilia and eye disease. Specifically, they are non-­‐replicating viruses derived from others that are non-­‐pathogenic in humans.

This study is viewed primarily as “a proof-­‐of-­‐principle that telomerase gene therapy is a feasible and generally safe approach to improve healthspan and treat disorders associated with short telomeres,” state Virginia Boccardi (Second University of Naples) and Utz Herbig (New Jersey Medical School-­‐University Hospital Cancer Centre) in a commentary published in the same journal.

With regard to the therapy under testing, Bosch explains: “Because the vector we use expresses the target gene (telomerase) over a long period, we were able to apply a single treatment. This might be the only practical solution for an anti-­‐aging therapy, since other strategies would require the drug to be administered over the patient’s lifetime, multiplying the risk of adverse effects.”

This is a good start. Read it in full at Science Daily.

Synthetic Biology Explained

Posted by on August 17th, 2011
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via Justin Pickard

Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Tests Neither Accurate in Their Predictions nor Beneficial to Individuals, Study Suggests

Posted by on May 31st, 2011

From ScienceDaily, the study looked at the risk factors given by two large DTC companies, deCODEme (Iceland) and 23andMe (USA):

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests give inaccurate predictions of disease risks and many European geneticists believe that some of them should be banned, the annual conference of the European Society of Human Genetics heard May 31. In the first of two studies to be presented, Rachel Kalf, from the department of epidemiology at Erasmus University Medical Centre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, will say that her research is the first to look at the real predictive ability of such tests, the results of which are available directly to an individual without having to go through a healthcare professional.

See Also:

Song of the Machine

Posted by on April 23rd, 2011

Song of the Machine is my favourite kind of design fiction, combining multiple forms of extrapolation from the present into the future.

Unlike the implants and electrodes used to achieve bionic vision, this science modifies the human body genetically from within. First, a virus is used to infect the degenerate eye with a light-sensitive protein, altering the biological capabilities of the subject. Then, the new biological capabilities are augmented with wearable (opto)electronics, which, by mimicking the eye’s neural song, establish a direct optical link to the brain. It’s as if the virus gives the body ears to hear the song of the machine, allowing it to sing the world into being.

So we’ve got advances in genetic engineering combined with electronic ones to overcome a biological disability through continuing man’s progress, it’s ongoing co-evolution with the tools he creates. Except this marks a Rubicon Moment, the crossing of a threshold into a merger between man and his technology and the result is something far more, a step toward the posthuman.

Get used to this. Better living through upgrades.

For more details see this article in the Guardian by the consultant to this project, Dr Patrick Degenaar, optogenetics researcher at Newcastle University and leader of the OptoNeuro project.

“Edunia” the plantimal

Posted by on April 14th, 2011

This may look like an ordinary Petunia, but it’s just a little bit more than that. This photo is taken from WIRED UK’s image gallery of the works on display at Dublin’s Science Gallery’s Human+ exhibition, and the flower has been created by Biological artist Eduardo Kac combining his DNA with the flower’s, using genetic engineering.

It’s best explained on the artist’s website:

The central work in the “Natural History of the Enigma” series is a plantimal, a new life form Kac created and that he calls “Edunia”, a genetically-engineered flower that is a hybrid of Kac and Petunia. The Edunia expresses Kac’s DNA exclusively the red veins of the flower. The gene Kac selected is responsible for the identification of foreign bodies. In this work, it is precisely that which identifies and rejects the other that the artist integrates into the other, thus creating a new kind of self that is partially flower and partially human.

Art today, tomorrow yet another ‘perfect gift for the person that has everything’. In fact, I don’t think it’s too morbid to suggest this could also be a way to honour the passing of a loved one, letting a piece of them live on in a family garden.

BBC Horizon – Are We Still Evolving?

Posted by on March 9th, 2011

This BBC Horizon documentary, Are We Still Evolving? is an excellent overview of the current research into evolution in general, continuing human evolution and genetic engineering. It does stop short of the really interesting implications though; with radical technological change affecting the selection criteria, will we see an explosion in human evolution in the coming generations? We’ll soon find out.

Meanwhile, Danish researchers are attempting to create ‘cyborg DNA’, adding an extra strand to create a triple helix. Yep, things haven’t even started to get interesting yet.

Policing Genes

Posted by on January 21st, 2011

The honey bee, pollinator and drug insect:

The genetics of the plants in your garden could become a police matter. Pharmaceutical companies are experimenting with genetically engineering plants to produce useful and valuable drugs. However, the techniques employed to insert genes into plants are within reach of the amateur… and the criminal. Policing Genes speculates that, like other technologies, genetic engineering will also find a use outside the law, with innocent-looking garden plants being modified to produce narcotics and unlicensed pharmaceuticals

Via Next Nature.

DNA: Next Military Battleground?

Posted by on January 19th, 2011

Combine cheaper DNA sequencing prices with the fact that U.S. soilders are not protected by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and this happens:

The report, prepared by a defense science advisory panel known as JASON and reported by Secrecy News and HuffPost’s Dan Froomkin, among others, recommends that the military take advantage of the rapidly falling cost of gene sequencing by preparing to engage in the mass sequencing of the genomes of all military personnel. …

Specifically, the report recommends that the Pentagon begin collecting sequencing soldiers’ DNA for “diagnostic and predictive applications.” It recommends that the military begin seeking correlations between soldiers’ genotypes and phenotypes (outward characteristics) “of relevance to the military” in order to correlate the two. And the report says — without offering details — that both “offensive and defensive military operations” could be affected.

Article via the Huffington Post.

Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice”

Posted by on January 31st, 2010

Criminally under-appreciated Canadian director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) is making a welcome return to the big screen, with Splice.

This clip seems to be the online footage at the moment. 

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In fact, the film’s yet to be picked up for distribution – so keep an eye out at your local film festival, it might be your only chance to see it.

You can, however, watch this interview with Natali, where he talks not only Splice, but also his plans to adapt JG Ballard’s High Rise:


OUTLAW BIOLOGY: Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio

Posted by on January 31st, 2010

Outlaw Biology, present by the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics and Art/Sci, presented a symposium, workshop and exhibition this weekend.

A symposium exploring new forms of public participation in biological research, raising questions and cultivating ideas about how life could and should be studied. Panelists will address issues including do-it-yourself biology, open source science, at home medical genetics, bio-art, and novel ethical engagements with science at the cutting edge. Event schedule includes: Friday, a panelist discussion with artists, scientists and normal people; Saturday, workshops and an open-house exhibition throughout.

A tentative list of workshops and exhibitions included:

1. Bioweathermap, Jason Bobe. With field-trips to the UCLA Arboretum and Hammer Museum (in cooperation with Machine Project

2. Learn to Design a DNA-based nanostructure using cadnano software, Philip Lukeman

3. Paint colorful microbes – luminescent, fluorescent, and pigmented – on do-it-yourself solid media. With a little time and luck, we’ll preserve the painted results in epoxy, like microbiological paintings in amber, Mackenzie Cowell

4. SKDB: Learn to use software tools for open source manufacturing and bioengineering, Bryan Bishop and Ben Lipkowitz

5. Use of Acinetobacter calcoaceticus strain ADP1 as a DIY bioengineering platform, David Metzgar

6. Ars Synthetica: Have an informed, ethical, and open dialogue on the emerging field of synthetic biology, Gaymon Bennett

7. Extract DNA from Strawberries, CSG Staff

8. Lactobacillus Plasmid Recovery and Visualization for fun and profit, Meredith L. Patterson

9. DIY Webcam Microscopy. Join us for a worldwide webcam hacking event and make your own 100x USB microscope for less than $10. We’ll provide the webcams and a live internet feed from other workshop locations across the world, from Bangalore to Australia. Find out more at diybio.org/ucam

10. Velolab, See the first Bicyclized Mobile Biology lab, Sam Starr

Julian Savulescu says “Genetically enhance humanity or face extinction”

Posted by on November 15th, 2009

In this provocatively titled lecture, from the very aptly named Festival of Dangerous Ideas , Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford and Head of the Melbourne–Oxford Stem Cell Collaboration:

…examines the nature of human beings as products of evolution, in particular their limited altruism, limited co-operative instincts and limited ability to take account of the future consequences of actions. He argues that humans’ biology and psychology are unfit for the kind of society we live in and we must either alter our political institutions, severely restrain our technology or change our nature. Or face annihilation by our own design.

Which is a nice way of saying he makes a strong case for meddling in the genes of our children, and more importantly, can now identify just which ones to tweak.

This is nugenics kids, and it’s shit scary.

(OK, it would be slightly less creepy if he wasn’t wearing his suit jacket like a cape)

Watch on and be afraid;  sooner or later a Government somewhere is going to try this!

The QnA starts mid-way through the second video and is particularly good, in that most of the questions you will have are actually asked by the audience.

thanks to my buddy The Dingo Strategy for the tip-off!