Embryo editing; race debate; microbial makeover

A scientist gets permission to edit the genomes of human embryos, and researchers argue that it’s time to leave race out of genetic studies.

By Rachel Nuwer
5 February 2016 | 4 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.
  • A British government agency has granted a scientist permission to edit the genomes of human embryos — the first such approval ever given, The New York Times reported on Monday. A technique called CRISPR, which allows scientists to easily cut and paste segments of DNA, has made such genetic tinkering possible, but doing so brings up tough ethical questions.

    The developmental biologist who plans to do the editing, Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute in London, has no intention of implanting the embryos, which she will not allow to develop beyond 7 days of age, according to Nature. Niakan aims to use the embryos to better understand the early genetic changes in fertilized eggs, knowledge that may assist with treating some cases of infertility, the Times reported.

    George Daley, a stem cell biologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Nature that Niakan’s work represents “an important first” that “establishes a strong precedent for allowing this type of research to go forward.”

  • Race is a social construct. Research comparing the genomes of diverse groups of individuals has revealed no clear-cut genetic difference between races. For example, there is no genetic variant that appears solely in one race and not in another. Still, many genetic studies include race as a biological variable.

    It’s time to phase out racial categories in genetic studies, a group of researchers argues in an article appearing today in Science. “Language matters, and the scientific language of race has a significant influence on how the public (which includes scientists) understands human diversity,” the researchers write. “Historical racial categories that are treated as natural and infused with notions of superiority and inferiority have no place in biology.”

    The authors urge the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to bring together a panel of experts to figure out ways to investigate human diversity without the use of race.

  • The billions of microbes that live within our bodies contribute in important ways to human health. We acquire many of our microscopic helpers at birth. As babies pass through their mother’s birth canal, they get a healthy dose of mom’s microbes. Babies delivered by cesarean section (C-section), however, miss out on those benefits.

    A study published Monday in Nature Medicine offers a possible solution: soaking a gauze pad in a mother’s birth canal just before delivery, and then rubbing the baby with it right after birth, starting with the mouth and face and continuing with the rest of the body. In a study of four newborns delivered by C-section, researchers showed that the simple method can at least partially reconstitute a baby’s microbiome, NPR reports.

    No one knows how long the treatment’s effects might last. “Obviously the final study — the most important one — is to follow babies for three or five or seven years and determine if this restoration decreases the risk for some of the diseases that we know are associated with having been born by C-section,” Maria Dominguez-Bello, associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, told NPR.

  • Life, Animated,” an award-winning documentary about a boy with autism, will soon be available to viewers across the U.S. According to Variety, director/producer Roger Ross Williams just sold its North American rights to The Orchard, a division of Sony Music Entertainment that plans to release “Life, Animated” in theaters soon.

    The documentary is based on the best-selling book by Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose son Owen has autism. Owen was nonverbal for years, but when he was 6 and a half, Suskind and his wife began communicating with him in a new way: using dialogue and song lyrics from the animated Disney films their son loves.

    As his father explains it, Owen used the films to make sense of the often-bewildering world. He responded to scripted phrasings and character impressions, which his parents had memorized, better than spontaneous language. At the Sundance Film Festival, the film won the directing award for a U.S. documentary, Variety reports, and the Oscar buzz has already begun.