The rush to edit the first human genome

Human genome editing – the process of changing a human’s genetic makeup to cure or remove genetic conditions – is an issue fraught with controversy. There are scientific concerns that genetic changes can give unpredictable results, while the ethics of selectively changing human genomes are also problematic.

Recent advances in the technologies used for genome editing have strengthened the scientific case for its use in medicine. A technique known as Crispr allows scientists to change DNA sequences far more precisely than was previously possible. Combined with improved knowledge of the genetic basis of inherited conditions, this could eventually lead to the eradication of many debilitating disorders. However, the ethical concerns surrounding genome editing’s use remain.

Premature and reckless

Until recently, this discussion of ethics involved only hypothetical problems. But two cases from the last few months have accelerated the debate.

Late last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui caused uproar in the scientific community when he announced the birth of gene-edited twin girls. He used Crispr to make the girls, whose father was HIV-positive, resistant to the virus. But his work was condemned worldwide as premature, reckless and unnecessary.

This week, New Scientist reported that a Russian biologist, Denis Rebrikov, intends to use Crispr on the embryos of five deaf couples who want to have hearing children. His proposed treatment would involve editing DNA in embryos to correct a common mutation that lead to inherited deafness. “It is clear and understandable to ordinary people,” Rebrikov told New Scientist. “Each new baby for this pair would be deaf without gene mutation editing.”

But this intervention, too, has been widely criticised. Lydia Teboul, the head of molecular and cellular biology at the Harwell Institute in Oxfordshire, said that similar work in laboratory animals had proven unpredictable and prone to errors. She said: “This means that current genome editing tools are not ready to be applied to human embryos.”

The case for Rebrikov’s proposed treatment is stronger than for He Jiankui’s. Gene editing is the only viable way for two parents with the same deafness-causing mutation to have hearing babies. He’s work is likely redundant because medical treatment can already prevent HIV-positive parents from passing on the virus to their children. There is also some merit in that Rebrikov, unlike He, is openly discussing his plans before carrying them out.

Technical and ethical problems

However, the scientific community remains cautious. Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell biologist at the Francis Crick Institute, has called for strict controls to regulate the use of genome editing in humans. “This is not something that any individual can decide – the situation is just too complex,” he said. “There are technical problems to be overcome.”

One such problem is that, for genome editing in human embryos to be successful, the affected gene must be corrected in every cell. Lovell-Badge says that Rebrikov has yet to convince his colleagues that he is able to address this.

Another issue is that the gene being corrected may have additional roles not yet identified. Biological processes are often the result of a suite of genes interacting with each other, and ruling out such interactions requires extensive research.

Then there is the issue of the effect ‘curing’ deafness, which is not a life-threatening condition, might have on other deaf people. Harlan Lane, a psychologist at Northeastern University, has called existing therapies for deafness a form of “cultural genocide”. Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent thinks Rebrikov’s work could make matters worse. “A public debate is essential and the deaf need to be heard,” he said.

International framework

Many scientists feel there needs to be international consensus on the use of genome editing therapies before they are attempted in humans. A new international commission on human genome editing, led by the UK’s Royal Society and the United States’ National Academies of Science and Medicine, was launched earlier this year. It will develop an international framework to be used when considering whether genome editing therapies should be allowed.

Meanwhile, new research published last month showed that people with the type of HIV resistance given to the twin girls in He Jiankui’s work have a shorter life expectancy. Lovell-Badge said “this shows once more that He Jiankui was foolish to choose CCR5 to mutate in his attempts at germline genome editing. We simply do not yet know enough about the gene.”

Lydia Teboul, Darren Griffin and Robin Lovell-Badge’s quotes were compiled by the Science Media Centre here and here.

The naked mole-rat that just keeps living

Ageing, whether we like it or not, is a fact of life. For most animals, including humans, all we can do to enhance our longevity is to hope for the best and live as healthily as we can.

But the naked mole-rat, the longest-lived rodent species on the planet, didn’t get the message. New research has shown that the mortality of these furless, mouse-sized animals does not increase with age, making them the only species of non-ageing mammal.

Naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) have long-fascinated scientists. As well as living to be 30 years old or more, they are one of only two  eusocial mammal species. This means that, like honeybees and other eusocial insects, they live in large colonies of up to 300 individuals that collectively raise their relatives born to one queen – a single breeding female. Queens aggressively intimidate their subordinates to keep them from reproducing, and if a queen dies, another female mole-rat will take over.

The naked mole-rat, the longest-lived rodent species on the planet, shows little or no signs of ageing. Photo by Smithsonian National Zoo on Flickr.

With such long lives, studying ageing in naked mole-rats takes time, and much previous work has only used a few individuals over a short timescale. But this new study uses a population of naked mole-rats for which the first individuals were collected in 1980. Scientists at the ageing research company Calico in the US used data from more than 3000 individuals recorded over 35 years to look at the whole lifespan of the rodents.

The law that determines the rate of death in humans is known as the Gompertz-Makeham law of mortality. According to this law, the rate of death increases exponentially with age – the older a person is, the more likely they are to die. This is also true of other animals studied, including horses and mice.

But naked mole-rats defy this law. The researchers found little or no signs of ageing in the rodents, regardless of their sex or whether or not they had reproduced. This sets them apart from all other mammals previously studied.

Rochelle Buffenstein, one of the study’s authors, said that the mole-rats’ lifespan is much longer than would be expected from their small size. “Our research demonstrates that naked mole rats do not age in the same manner as other mammals,” she said, “and their risk of death does not increase even at 25 times past their time to reproductive maturity.”

Calico, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, hopes to use knowledge gained from studies like this one to advance work on human ageing.

“These findings,” Buffenstein says, “reinforce our belief that naked mole rats are exceptional animals to study to further our understanding of the biological mechanisms of longevity.”

Honeybees: natural wildlife or farmed livestock?

Ask someone to conjure up an image of nature, and a few things will probably come to everyone’s mind – a stream, some trees, maybe a little plant, and a bee working hard to pollinate its flowers.

But scientists at the University of Cambridge are urging people to think again, and not to consider honeybees as wildlife; instead, they should be considered livestock. Writing in Science, Jonas Geldmann and Juan P González-Varo say that the popular misconception that farmed honeybees are part of nature risks confusing issues affecting agriculture with those affecting biodiversity.

Honeybee losses in recent years have been much higher than expected, which is largely attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD). A colony experiences CCD when the majority of its workers abandon the hive, and with it the queen and her brood. This affliction is caused by several different factors, including a parasitic mite (Varroa destructor), various diseases, and possibly the effect of pesticides used in agriculture.

The decline of honeybees could have a devastating impact on food security. A third of the food we eat requires pollination by insects, and up to 75% of our food benefits from insect pollination in some way. Honeybees play an important role in this, and the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the single most important species for pollination of food crops. Their role as producers of honey is also important economically.

But focusing on honeybees could be dangerous, say Geldmann and González-Varo, because we risk ignoring the thousands of species of wild pollinators that are also crucial for pollinating crops and other plants. They warn that farmed honeybees can also damage many of the 20,000 other bee species that exist in nature by transmitting diseases and competing for food, and they urge commercial beekeepers to change their management practices.

A honeybee (Apis mellifera, left) and a bumblebee (Bombus terrestris, right) pollinating flowers. Confusing the plight of one with that of the other risks mixing agricultural and environmental concerns, say scientists writing in Science. Photos by FrauBucher and payayita, both on Flickr.

In 2014, work led by Mark Brown at Royal Holloway University of London revealed that diseases that affect honeybees can also spill over into bumblebee (Bombus species) populations. The researchers showed that Apis and Bombus species at several sites in the UK shared the same strains of viruses such as the deformed wing virus, suggesting that the viruses are transmitted between the two. Bumblebees are in decline around the world, largely because of changes in land management – many Bombus species only travel short distances from their nests when foraging for food, and large fields without flowers leave bumblebees unable to feed. Diseases transmitted from honeybees could harm Bombus colonies further.

Honeybees used in food production are farmed on a massive scale, and hives are often moved from region to region to pollinate different crops, such as oilseed rape. But once the nectar in the crops’ flowers is depleted, the honeybees continue to feed on wildflower nectar.

“Keeping honeybees is an extractive activity,” says González-Varo. “It removes pollen and nectar from the environment, which are natural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pollinators.

“Honeybees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows. Except this livestock can roam beyond any enclosures to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.”

In their paper, Geldmann and González-Varo criticise campaigns such as those by the Nature Conservancy and Greenpeace, which advocate honey bee conservation – and even suggest that buying local honey might help!

The authors do concede, however, that such campaigns have helped raise awareness of the plight of pollinators in general. But the danger appears to lie in confusing the two problems as one environmental issue.

What can we do, then, to protect wild pollinator populations from the impact of farmed honeybees and the other factors that threaten them? Geldmann and González-Varo recommend that conservation strategies be built around preserving wild bee population numbers, rather than focusing on agricultural yields. They also call for a ban on placing commercial honeybee hives in protected areas and suggest limiting both hive size and the length of time a hive is kept in an area.

Buying locally-produced honey is, of course, a great way of supporting your local economy. But it should not be confused with conservation.

Scientists in live public discussion today about what ‘natural’ really means

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s on labels in supermarkets or in adverts on our TVs, the word ‘natural’ is often used to sell products.

Foods may be ‘naturally’ farmed or contain only ‘natural’ colours and flavours. Or you may have used a ‘natural’ remedy to help you recover from an illness.

But why do products sold in this way appeal to us as consumers? Why are we so keen for our food to be grown ‘naturally’ while we strive for technological advances in other aspects of our lives? And does ‘natural’ in this context really mean what we think it does – if anything at all?

As part of their plant science panel, the charity Sense About Science is hosting a live online discussion with scientists today. Their panel of five experts will be answering questions sent to them by the public.

And two of these scientists are from the John Innes Centre.

Mike Ambrose, head of JIC’s seedbank facility – the Germplasm Resources Unit – has a wealth of experience in crop conservation. He will be answering questions about the crops we eat and the long process of domestication by humans that has led to the successful and high-yielding varieties we use today.

Sarah O’Connor, a scientist in the department of biological chemistry at JIC and a long-term member of the plant science panel, will also be lending her expertise to the discussion. She will help answer people’s questions on the natural products we get from plants – from medicines to food additives – and how they compare to their artificial counterparts.

They will be joined on the panel by three other scientists, each with a different research background to cover different aspects of the debate.

Ottoline Leyser is the head of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and a respected voice in the social debates around genetically modified crops. Robbie Waugh is a barley geneticist at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, Scotland, which is currently setting up a Barley Innovation Centre. And Helen Roy is a research ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; she will be bringing her expertise in insect ecology to the panel.

The debate will kick off at 1pm. So send in your questions on Twitter (use the hashtag #plantsci), on Facebook or by emailing And follow the debate on Twitter or on the discussion’s webpage for the answers in full.

Featured image background photo: Alex Indigo/Flickr.

EU’s rules on genetically improved crops a ‘threat’ to developments in agriculture, say MPs

A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies

It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.

In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs.

The report has been published following a consultation with several organisations and individuals, including scientists and campaigners. In his evidence to the committee, the John Innes Centre’s Professor Mike Bevan said that plant science in the UK is a strong and well-organised field of research.

“Plant science in the UK punches above its weight,” he said. “However, the current regulatory system means that the fruits of this research are not able to be applied in a straightforward manner.”

The environmental activist and former anti-GM campaigner Mark Lynas, who reversed his position on GM crops in 2013, said the “non-functional” model used in Europe has led to even stricter regulations in African countries.

Lynas said in his written evidence that African governments are concerned about the impacts of GM crops because of EU opposition. “Surely, they ask, such an advanced and enlightened continent could not possibly have a regulatory regime based on politics rather than science?”

Another of the committee’s recommendations is that we stop using the term ‘genetically modified’, or ‘GM’. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said that the term makes people think of such techniques “as though it was a generic technology, which we should not do.”

The committee also said the term also encourages people to use the same arguments as when the first GM plant products, such as Flavr Savr tomatoes, were developed in the 1990s – despite huge developments in the techniques used since then.

But delivering food security needs a diverse range of approaches, the report says. There isn’t one “cure-all” for the global challenges facing agriculture, and the approach we take should use social, economic and political methods in tandem with technological means.

The Science and Technology Committee, like all House of Commons select committees, is independent of the government. Its role is to scrutinise the Government Office for Science and make sure its policies and decisions are based on scientific evidence.

You can read the full report on the committee’s web pages.

This post first appeared on, a blog by PhD students at the John Innes Centre.

Featured image: Bjärehalvön by Skånska Matupplevelser/Flickr.

Dodgy sausages and the dangers of owning a cat: the 2014 Ig Nobel prizes

The Ig Nobel prizes, which celebrate “research that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think”, were awarded in a ceremony at Harvard University last week. 2014 marks the 24th time the prizes have been given. Past rewards have included a bra that doubles as a protective face mask and work on finding the best surface over which to drag your sheep (sloping wood, dragging parallel to the grain). This year’s prizes featured the science of a banana skin’s slapstick value, a nosebleed treatment involving cured pork tampons and Norwegian scientists dressing up as polar bears. Like the Nobel prizes, the Ig Nobels are awarded in categories, from astronomy and engineering to psychology and neuroscience. So, in no particular order, here are this year’s winners.

Arctic science

Having observed Norwegian reindeer coming into contact with polar bears in Svalbard, Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl from the University of Oslo wanted to measure the reindeer’s responses. Without any polar bears on hand, they chose the next best thing: cosplay. They found that the reindeer ran more than twice the distance away from polar bear imitators than from humans in hiking clothes. No word on whether they attracted any real polar bears with their fetching costumes, though.


Sorry, botanists: zoological research snapped up the Biology prize, too. Vlastimil Hart, working at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, looked at the orientations that dogs take, relative to the Earth’s magnetic field, when they pee. From over 7000 observations in 37 dog breeds, they concluded that the dogs preferred to align their bodies along the north-south axis under normal geomagnetic conditions. But they also found that dogs could sense very small changes in this magnetic field, the first time such sensitivity has been shown in dogs.


Last year, when accounts of dubious food contents were rife in the media, Raquel Rubio was busy finishing her upcoming paper on sausages – containing bacterial cultures from baby faeces. Rubio’s research, which won this year’s Ig Nobel in Nutrition, comes from Girona in Catalonia, a region famous for its fermented sausages.


Stories of people finding the face of Jesus on their toast and in other foods crop up often. The prize in Neuroscience was awarded for work examining what happens to our brains during such ‘pareidolia‘ – the phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects. Kang Lee and his team presented their volunteers with pure-noise images, but told them that 50% of the images contained disguised faces. A third of the time, participants claimed to see faces that weren’t there.

Public health

The Public Health prize went to two separate research groups who sought to answer one troubling question: does owning a cat pose mental health risks? David Hanauer’s group found a higher incidence of depression in people with cat bites compared to people bitten by dogs (41% and 29%, respectively). Hanauer is careful not to imply a causation here. “It may simply be that people with depression gets cats because they feel depressed,” he said. “I am in no way telling people to get rid of their cats.” But he does recommend routine screening for cat bite patients as a new method of spotting depression early. Michigan-based Hanauer shared his award with another research group looking at the neurological effects of toxoplasmosis, a protozoan infection transmitted from cats to humans. Although mostly harmless, some work has suggested links to schizophrenia in rare cases. This Czech group saw personality changes in women and lowered IQs in men with latent toxoplasmosis – the lifelong presence of cysts in nervous tissue.


Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do get up early to face the day ahead or do you regularly stay up until the early hours of the morning? Work from Liverpool Hope University and the University of Western Sydney might be cause for concern for those of a more nocturnal nature. Peter Jonason and his colleagues found links between people’s chronotypes – whether they prefer morning or night – and personality traits. People with night-time chronotypes were more likely to show ‘dark triad’ personality traits – tending to be more narcissistic, more manipulative and more psychopathic.


As any cartoon character will tell you, banana skins can be terribly dangerous. In 2011, an American grocery chain was sued after a Californian woman slipped on a banana skin in one of their stores. And yet Harper’s Weekly warned us of their dangers as early as 1879, saying that “whosoever throws banana skins on the sidewalk does a great unkindness to the public, and is quite likely to be responsible for a broken limb.” Now, 135 years later, a considerate Japanese research group has taken a tribological (the science of friction and lubrication between interacting objects) approach to find out how much friction there really is between a banana skin and a linoleum floor. They found the friction coefficient to be 0.07; this is just slightly higher than a waxed ski sliding over snow (0.05). Recognising that banana consumers are not alone in their littering, they also set out to test other fruit skins. None were as slippery as a banana skin. None. What makes a banana’s skin so slippery, then? Kiyoshi Mabuchi and his team think it’s because the skins produce a “follicular gel” when they’re crushed – a unique effect. Mabuchi thinks this gel might have applications in artificial joint lubrication, his main area of work.


European countries describe their economies’ sizes, or gross domestic product (GDP), using criteria set out in the European System of National and Regional Accounts (ESA). The ESA was last updated in 2010 to include revenues associated with prostitution and the sale of illegal drugs. Italy, whose economy has struggled in recent years, implemented the changes this year. As a result, the Italian government was awarded the IgNobel prize in Economics. The inclusion of prostitution and drugs in the national accounts also boosted the UK’s GDP.


It was Italy that won the Art prize too, with scientists from the University of Bari showing that looking at beautiful paintings lowers pain thresholds. Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro and Paolo Livrea showed study participants 300 paintings, and asked them to select ones that were beautiful, ugly and neutral by rating them from one to 10. They were then told to view the paintings while Tommaso and her colleagues fired a laser beam at their left hands to induce pain. When viewing a beautiful painting, the participants felt the laser beam was less painful than when looking at a white panel or at one of the other painting categories. Looking at the beautiful art also lowered the intensity of the participants’ ‘P2 waves’ – a measure of pain response in the brain. The ‘ugly’ paintings, however, had no significant effect on pain thresholds. The therapeutic effect of visual and musical art is well-documented, with art therapies becoming an established partner to medical treatments. Is it important, then, that the paintings in hospitals are chosen carefully? Tommaso doesn’t think it’s crucial. “Beauty obviously offers a distraction that ugly things do not,” she said. “But at least there is no suggestion that ugly surroundings make the pain worse.” Just so you know, the beautiful paintings chosen by the participants included Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.


Finally, the medicine prize this year was awarded for a study that recommended treating uncontrollable nosebleeds with “cured salted pork crafted as a nasal tampon”. The research team, based at Michigan State University, used their innovative method to treat a four-year-old girl with a condition called Glanzmann’s thrombasthenia. She was treated successfully on two separate occasions, with the bleeding stopping within 24 hours both times. The extremely rare disorder is caused by a platelet abnormality, and can either be inherited or acquired. The Ig Nobels award real scientific innovations that highlight the lighter side of research. The 2014 Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Economic Sciences, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, will be announced in October.

This post first appeared on, a PhD student blog at the John Innes Centre.

The wrong plant?

Many of us at the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory use the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana for our research. Its small size, simple genome and rapid lifecycle make it an ideal model in many disciplines within plant science. From leaf development to interactions with pathogens, the wealth of resources available to Arabidopsis researchers makes it an invaluable system.

But James Lloyd, a PhD student at the University of Leeds, and his supervisor, Brendan Davies, have shown there to be a slight problem in using the plant.

The group is looking at nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD) – a mechanism used by animals, plants and fungi for regulating which genes are turned on and off. In animals, this mechanism relies on a protein called SMG1. But this was thought to be an animal-specific pathway: the gene that makes this protein had not been identified in fungi or in Arabidopsis.

It seems, however, that our favourite model is rather unusual in its lack of an SMG1 gene. The group managed to identify SMG1 in all the other plants that they looked at. Discussing the research, published in The Plant Journal, Davies said: “Everybody thought that this protein was only in animals. They thought that because, basically, most of the world studies one plant: Arabidopsis thaliana.”

A thaliana appears to be a complete anomaly in this respect. The protein was even found in its close relative Arabidopsis lyrata, suggesting that the gene was lost as recently as 5-10 million years ago.

Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, was first described by Johannes Thal in the 16th century. It was first proposed as a model organism for studying plant genetics by Friedrich Laibach in 1943, and has been an integral part of plant molecular genetics work since the late 1970s.

While he looks towards examining what alternatives Arabidopsis and fungi have found to SMG1, Davies is keen not to dishearten his fellow plant scientists: “It is still a fantastically useful model. We would not be anywhere close to where we are in understanding plant biology without it.” But he warns that the research highlights the importance of using a range of models when studying plant processes. “Evolution does strange and unpredictable things,” he said.

And, of course, a diversity of model species exists already within plant science research. From Medicago truncatula’s use as a model for root nodulation to the rise of Brachypodium as a model cereal, research at the John Innes Centre certainly isn’t restricted to the humble thale cress!

More information on Professor Davies’ lab homepage ( and the Arabidopsis Information Resource’s guide to the plant ().

This post first appeared on, a blog by PhD students at the John Innes Centre.