April 10, 2014

GenePeeksScreening Digital Embryos
A service that creates digital embryos by virtually mixing two people’s DNA will give a clearer glimpse of their possible child’s health, and perhaps much more—before it has been conceived. The Matchright technology will be available in two U.S. fertility clinics later this month, allowing people to screen out sperm donors who, when their genes are combined with those of the intended mother, could increase the risk of a child inheriting genetic diseases. The company that markets the technology, GenePeeks, hopes to expand worldwide. But the technology’s patent also includes a list of traits that aren’t necessarily related to health. (Catherine de Lange, New Scientist)

Enhancing Intelligence
Julian Savulescu: Researchers at Cardiff University discovered that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala), together with low levels of thyroid hormone, are four times more likely to have a low IQ. This combination occurs in about 4 percent of the U.K. population. Importantly, if you had just one of these factors, but not both, there did not appear to be an increased risk of low intelligence. These are early results, but suggest that it might be possible to treat children early with thyroid hormone supplementation to enhance their intelligence. This raises many ethical issues. (The Conversation)

Scientists Regenerate an Organ in Mice
The team manipulated a single protein in very old mice that caused their bodies to rebuild their thymuses—an organ that produces white blood cells. After receiving the treatment, the senior citizen mice not only had thymuses that were similar in structure to a young whippersnapper’s, but they were also twice as large. Scientists have in the past grown organs using stem cells, but this is the first time a living organism has repaired its own organs via a chemical trigger. (Carl Engelking, D-brief, Discover)

Marble-Hand Illusion
No matter how much of a critical thinker you consider yourself, your brain is pretty gullible. With a few minutes and a couple of props, your brain can be convinced that one of your limbs is made of rubber or invisible, or that your whole body is the size of a Barbie doll’s. All these illusions depend on your senses of vision and touch interacting. But a new illusion trades sight for sound. By hearing the sound of a hammer striking marble each time it tapped their hands, subjects came to feel that their limbs were made of stone. (Elizabeth Preston, Inkfish, Discover)

Are the Australopithecus Sediba Fossils Actually the Remains of Two Species?
The first fossils of A. sediba were found at Malapa, South Africa, in 2008. At 2 million years old, they show a mix of features, some similar to the ape-like australopithecines, others more like our genus, Homo. To its discoverers, this hotchpotch means A. sediba was becoming human, and that the Homo genus first evolved in South Africa, not east Africa as is generally thought. But a new analysis suggests A. sediba didn’t exist. “I think there are two different hominin genera represented at Malapa,” says Ella Been at Tel Aviv University in Israel. (Colin Barras, New Scientist)

BOOKS
A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects

Jenna Weissman Joselit: Taking the measure of stone, incense, drums, crosses, and bread, S. Brent Plate’s book is an extended exercise in the materiality of faith. You might even call it a manifesto. Blurring the lines between inquiry and advocacy, it doesn’t just ask us to consider the multiple ways in which religion is a tactile phenomenon. It also calls on us to affirm and perhaps even to celebrate the sensory elements of faith. “The religious point is to pay attention, to feel, now,” he writes. (New Republic)

Category: Field Notes

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