The Key to Surviving Space Radiation?

What do The Andromeda Strain, Project Hail Mary, and extremophiles have in common? If you answered survival, you’d be partly correct. The results of an experiment on the International Space Station may be the key to surviving space radiation. Or is it proof that life can (has) spread through the universe?

Image of the international space station in the blackness of space radiation with the blue arc of Earth beneath it

Radiation in Space

We’ve all heard about it. Scientists have studied its effects on meteors and rockets and astronauts for years.

Space radiation is made up of three kinds of radiation: particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field; particles shot into space during solar flares (solar particle events); and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our solar system.

NASA

This is of particular concern when astronauts travel beyond low Earth orbit. Space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases. On a trip to and from Mars, astronauts will endure at least fourteen months of radiation exposure. Depending on their mission, it may be many months more. Space radiation is of increasing concern here on Earth as the protective layers of atmosphere above us grow thinner.

Starting the Experiment

In 2015, the robotic arm on the International Space Station mounted three boxes of balls of extremophiles on a handrail. They stayed there, 250 miles above Earth, soaking up all forms of space radiation. They also endured the vacuum of space and extreme temperature swings as the station rotated in and out of the sunlight.

What are extremophiles?

Extremophiles are organisms that live in extreme conditions, such as in a hot spring or an ice cap or an under sea volcanic vent.

In the late 1960s, a microbiologist named Tom Brock discovered and identified the first extremophile in the Great Fountain region of Yellowstone. Since Brock and his colleague identified the microorganism, more and more extremophiles have been discovered. Microbiologists and astrobiologists have studied the organisms ever since. They estimate extremophiles have lived on Earth for more than forty million years. 

The Experiment

Three panels of the bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans, arrived on the space station via a SpaceX rocket. 

According to smithsonianmag.com each panel contained two small aluminum plates dotted with twenty shallow wells for different-sized masses of bacteria. The largest of the masses, or balls, of bacteria was thinner than a millimeter.

They positioned one panel pointed down toward the International Space Station; the other pointed out toward the cosmos. Astronauts collected one panel after it was in place for a year and sent it back to Earth for study. They colleced the second panel and sent back after two years’ exposure. They collected the third panel at the end of the third year and sent it to Earth.

The results showed the outer layers of the balls, or masses, of bacteria died and while those inside survived. 

How’d The Cells Survive?

Image of the Milky Way looks like a "cloud" of stars, a highway across the night sky and it's hard to imagine how much space radiation is up there.

The articles I read implied the cells balled up into layers as a protective mechanism, an instinct, so to speak. In addition, this particular bacteria carries up to ten copies of their DNA (humans carry two). Having more DNA means they can churn out more of the proteins that repair cells damaged by radiation. 

What is the Meaning of This?

This finding suggests that life could transport between planets on a meteor or other space debris. Some speculate that it hints at the origin of life on Earth. Others speculate it could mean life transferred from Mars to Earth or other planets. 

Astrobiologists and microbiologist identified the parts of the bacteria’s genes that create the radiation-repairing proteins. Other scientists have identified various parts of human DNA that change due to living in space (in part due to astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space). 

The scientists don’t have all the answers yet. But they may have found the key to surviving space radiation making long-term space flights safer. Will it mean they trigger human genes to produce those radiation-damage repairing proteins? Or will they manipulate human genes to be more like the extremophiles and create a being suited for space travel similar to what happens in Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Imagine you’re an astronaut and going to Mars is all you ever wanted to do. Would you allow scientists to turn you into an extremophile?

Image Credits

Top image NASA/Roscosmos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Image: by James Wheeler from Pixabay

Real Life or Science Fiction

How does science translate from the real world to the fictional world? In hard science fiction, the scientific elements of the story stay as close to reality as possible. The more speculative the science, the less “hard” the science fiction. Imagine that science we know is on one end of a sliding scale, we’ll call it reality. And we’ll place the far-fetched speculative science of a speculative fiction / science fantasy story on the other end. Sometimes what started as science fantasy slides toward science reality. That’s what happened to the rocket ships of Golden Age Science fiction. In my series, the Fellowship Dystopia, parthenogenesis is used to create female children. But is it Real Life or Science Fiction?

Illustration of Real Life or Science Fiction depicts two test tubes holding fetuses curled up inside, behind them appears to be images of two drops of magnified cells

Real Life Parthenogenesis

Parthenogenesis was discovered in real life by Charles Bonnet a Swiss naturalist, lawyer, and philosophical writer in the 18th century when he observed asexual reproduction in aphids. Parthenogenesis is a method in which a new individual develops from an egg (ovum) without fertilization from a sperm. This is a natural phenomenon in some animals like bees, wasps, ants, fish, lizards, and in some plants. 

In 1913, Jacques Loeb wrote Artificial Parthenogenesis. In it he discusses the history of spontaneous parthenogenesis (no human intervention) that helped lead to studies in artificial parthenogenesis including his own. A German born American pysiologist and biologist, Loeb experimented on unfertilized sea urchins (Arbacia) eggs.

Real Life Cloning

In 1952, Robert Briggs and Thomas King used nuclear transfer technology to clone tadpoles from adult frog donor cells. This same technique was used to clone Dolly the Sheep, born in 1996. 

Real Life External Uterus

Image shows a schematic of the way amniotic fluid enters a pump then filters before entering the biobag with the lamb in it. It also shows schematically how they attached the umbilical cord to and ran the lambs blood through an oxygenator and gave meds and fluids.Below the schematics are photographs of the lamb inside a clear plastic biobag one with pink skinned lamb the other with the lamb fully covered in lamb's wool ready for birth.This real life or fiction looks like fiction but is real life.

Researchers at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital announced they had created a biobag, an external uterine system used to support an extremely premature lamb in 2017. Their hope is to one day support extremely premature human babies until their lungs and organs are more developed.

Fictional Parthenogenesis

Cover of My Soul to Keep is a dark blue background with a lighter blue Fellowship Shield. Ontop of the shield is a two-D yellow and orange image of the Washington monument. At the point of the shield and the base of the monument the silhouette of a woman in a skirt walks toward the camera

In My Soul to Keep, book one of the Fellowship Dystopia, the reader learns about a pair of scientists who used parthenogenesis to create a human embryo from two eggs. They implant the embryo into a woman’s uterus in 1944. Under the care of the brilliant Dr. Locke and his assistant, Dr. Gallaway, embryo grew into a fetus, and after a normal pregnancy, a girl child was born. One success quickly became many successes.

The doctors claimed their research was to filter out genetic defects. They believed that unlike the better baby contests looking for perfect children, they would create a world where every child born would be genetically perfect. 

When the subjects of their research turned out to have a high propensity for out-of-control behaviors during their brief lives, the scientists discovered ways to influence those behaviors. Under their influence, they created a class of female assassins they called Azrael, the Angels of Death.

By the end of My Soul to Keep, the scientists have built an enormous experiment in ectogenesis…growing a fetus in an external, mechanical womb. Lots of mechanical wombs.

If I Should Die

cover of  the science fiction book If I Should die has a dark green background with a purplish Fellowship shield on it. On top of the shield is a two-D image of the Statute of Liberty in two tones of light green, at the point of the shield and the statue's base is the silhouette of a woman holding a gun and running toward the camera--

In If I Should Die, the second book of the Fellowship Dystopia, the reader gets to take a tour of the laboratory with the characters and learn a little more about fictional parthenogenesis. Of course, there’s more going on than the characters see…at least at first.

Of course, all the science in the Fellowship Dystopia is speculative or so-called science fantasy. Or is it? The slider is edging back toward the reality side. 

Real Life Parthenogenesis Impossible

In the mid-1980s, researchers attempted parthenogenesis in mice. They combined genetic material from two different female eggs, and created embryos they then implanted into a surrogate mouse. The implantation was successful, and the pregnancy seemed successful, but none of the embryos survived. Later experiments discover a phenomenon called genomic imprinting. They describe this imprinting as a kind of genetic tag in egg and sperm that are dormant, or shut off, until sperm and egg meet. This tag allows for normal development of the fetus.

When this imprinting process goes awry, kids can end up with inactive gene regions that cause miscarriages, developmental defects and cancer.”

Discover Magazine

Later experiments found that there are between 100 and 200 genetic tags. Researchers concluded that genetic imprinting prohibited parthenogenesis in mammals. 

Real Life Parthenogenesis Take 2

Then in 2004, Tomohiro Kono and colleagues at the Tokyo University of Agriculture in Tokyo, Japan, manipulated the nucleus of eggs from female mice, and created 457 reconstructed eggs. Two live mice were born. 

Kono and his colleagues hope that this achievement will help make animal cloning more efficient. 

In 2018, Wei Li and his team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing used CRISPER the gene editing technique and produced healthy mice from two moms.

The researchers created embryos with two genetic mothers (bi-maternal) and implanted them into surrogate mice. The offspring were born, lived to adulthood, and produced their own pups. Although Li’s first bi-maternal mice had growth defects, he and his team deleted another tag in the mothers’ genes, which allowed the bi-maternal offspring to experience normal growth. 

Li and his team also experimented with creating embryos from two male mice. Only two and a half percent of the embryos made it to term and less than half of one percent were born live. They didn’t make it to adulthood. 

Real Life or Science Fiction

While the science in the Fellowship Dystopia doesn’t exist today, it was fun to extrapolate the possibilities of what that might have looked like in an alternate history. If you haven’t read My Soul to Keep, book one of the Fellowship Dystopia, get caught up! If I Should Die, the second book in the Fellowship Dystopia series, goes on preorder starting May first.

Some speculate that some day real life science will use parthenogenesis to enable same-sex couples to have children genetically related to both parents. No worries. The ability to produce multiple live births from manipulated human ova or sperm is miles from any near future possibility. But what about a hundred years from now? Could we be producing genetically Better Babies? Should we?

Suppose you live in the future when parthenogenesis creates viable human offspring, would you opt for a son or daughter who’s your genetic duplicate?

Image Credit

Image of biobag by Partridge, Emily A., et. al, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Genetic Chimera

In Greek mythology there was a fire-breathing, three-headed she-monster with the body and head of a lion, a goat’s head coming from the lion’s back, and a serpent for a tail. Called KHIMAIRA (Chimera), the Greek hero, Bellerophon killed her. Today the chimera is no longer a myth but a reality. Here is the good, bad, and ugly of genetic chimera created in a laboratory. 

Image of a bronze statute of the Greek mythological monster called Chimera--not a genetic chimera
Public Domain image from the National Archive Museum in Florence via Wikimedia

Genetic Chimera

The term genetic chimera refers to a single organism composed of two or more genetically different cells. There are innate (natural) plant and animal genetic chimeras. Human chimeras were rare, or so we thought. That condition may be much more common than we assume. Most human chimeras never know they have the condition. They may have a liver with a DNA that matches the rest of their body, but their kidneys have a different DNA.

Synthetic chimera gain their unique genetic makeup through transfusion or transplantation. Human organ transplants create a synthetic chimera.

You’ve probably seen a sensational crime story where the criminal escapes because of his or her chimera blood type. And you’ve probably seen the recent sensational science news about a lab created monkey-human chimera.

Research

Image of a mouse chimera with her pups. Momma mouse has is a lab created genetic chimera with a multi colored coat and one red eye. Babies are brown but carry the gene for mom's coat and eye color.
Public Doman image from Wikimedia

Scientists created chimeric mice in 1961. They created these chimeras in the laboratory to study gene function. And they learned a lot.

Then, scientists realized that since sheep and goats could have live offspring that were sheep-goat hybrids, they might be good experimental subjects for chimera. Scientists created the sheep-goat chimera in 1984.

Researchers hope to learn more about regenerative properties and perhaps create a part human chimera to produce organs for much needed transplants.

Then in January 2012, scientists introduced three rhesus macaques, Hex, Roku and Chimero, to the world. Scientists had mixed parts of six different embryos and created new embryos. They implanted those embryos into mama monkeys who then gave birth twins Hex and Roku and a singleton, Chimero.

Shortly after that the United Kingdom developed the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority and in the United States developed the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee. They developed both to review human embryonic stem cell research, including part-human chimera research.

Research in China doesn’t face such regulatory oversight.

The First Human-Monkey Chimera

The Chinese Academy of Science’s Kunming Institute of Zoology created the first human-monkey chimera in July 2019, a Spanish scientist, Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, from the American Salk Institute in San Diego led the project in collaboration with the Murcia Catholic University in Murcia, Spain.

The team took macaque monkey embryos and injected them with human stem cells, to see how these distantly related animal cells might coexist as one. The researchers determined that the human cells had successfully integrated in 132 of the macaque embryos, and after 10 days, 103 of the chimeric embryos were still alive and developing. They destroyed the remaining three living embryos on day 19.

The Ethical Questions

How to Write a Good Story

Human-nonhuman chimera research has been going on for a while. But we heard of the human-monkey chimera, many of us became alarmed. Why? Perhaps because monkeys are a species that are closely related to humans. Perhaps because we imagine a monstrous-to-us part-human, part-monkey creature walking amongst us.

Researchers seek answers to better understand genetics. They think their research may lead to cures or organs to transplant into patients who need transplant to survive. These are wonderful goals, aren’t they? But does the end justify the means?

Things to Think About

If we want to stop testing women’s cosmetics on lab animals, should we continue genetic research on embryos? Is it okay to have a rat or a pig-human chimera but not a monkey-human chimera? Who should regulate these experiments? And finally, if science can create a human-nonhuman chimera that is an organ match to humans in need, what rights does that human-nonhuman deserve?

Ethical questions about genetic research are occasional topics on this blog. If you find this interesting, check out this previous post about conservation genetics.

This is just the tip of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of genetic chimeras created in the laboratory. Do you have concerns about chimeras created in the lab?

The Legacy of Dolly the Sheep May Be Your Future Health

The first mammal cloned from an adult cell, Dolly the sheep. In 1997, The Roslin Institute introduced Dolly to the world. It caused a frenzy of attention. In the twenty-five years since Dolly’s birth, we have cloned many more species of animals with little fanfare. In February 2021, scientists announced they’d successfully cloned the first U.S. endangered species, the black-footed ferret. The ferret is just one part of Dolly’s legacy. The other part of the legacy of Dolly the sheep may be your future health.

Photo of preserved Dolly the Sheep part of a DNA exhibit at  in Edinburgh's Royal Museum. This is also part of Dolly's Legacy.

The Life of Dolly the Cloned Sheep

Born on July 5th 1996, Dolly’s white face confirmed she was a clone. The black-faced surrogate ewe who birthed her could not be her genetic mother.

Scientists tested Dolly’s DNA when she was one. They discovered that her DNA telomeres (end caps) were shorter than expected. Scientists thought that since the cells used to create Dolly came from an adult sheep may have caused the abnormality. They thought the adult cells somehow prevented her telomeres from developing normally.

At two, Dolly mated with a Welsh Mountain ram called David. Dolly gave birth to a female lamb in 1998,. She had twin lambs the next year and triplets in 2000.

In September 2000, Dolly was one of several sheep at The Institute that came down with a sheep retro virus (JSRV). The virus causes lung cancer in sheep.

They diagnosed Dolly with arthritis in 2001 and treated her with anti-inflammatory medications, but never found a cause for her arthritis.

She developed lung cancer and euthanized on February 14, 2003. She was a young six years old. The average life expectancy of her variety of sheep is 11-12. Many feared clones aged faster or didn’t start from age zero.

Dolly’s Legacy—Cloning Endangered Species

Photograph of a wild black-footed ferret. Cloning this endangered species is also part of the legacy of Dolly the sheep

Black-footed ferrets are the only ferret species native to North America. They are also one of North America’s most endangered species. Worldwildlife.org estimates there are approximate 370 black-footed ferrets in the wild today.
Those 370 ferrets are the descendants of seven closely related animals. That lack of genetic diversity will lead to the extinction of these ferrets.

That’s why the February 18, 2021 announcement by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, caused such excitement.

Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret was born on December 10. She was cloned from the frozen remains of a ferret named Willa who died in 1988. If conservationists can reintroduce genetic diversity to the black-footed ferret population, they may prevent the species extinction. They may prevent future extinction if scientists can manipulate the genes to help the animals survive the diseases that endanger them today.

Conservationists and animal lovers celebrate this possibility. But in my post, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I discuss the potential pitfalls of conservation genetics. But conservation genetics is only part of Dolly’s legacy.

Dolly’s Legacy-Rejuvination

image of three strands of DNA colored light blue against a dark blue field. The DNA research done is part of the legacy of Dolly the sheep

An article written in 2016, reported that Dolly had four “sisters” born in 2004. They cloned these sheep from the same genetic material used to clone Dolly. Dolly’s “sisters” are unlike the Azrael in The Fellowship Dystopia series of novels. They were a healthy old age of nine in 2016. The only difference between them and Dolly is that they are kept outside instead of in a barn 24/7.

Scientists confirmed that all signs of biological and chronological age matched between cloned and non-cloned sheep.

There seems to be a natural built-in mechanism in the eggs that can rejuvenate a cell.

Theconversation.com

If scientists can discover this mechanism, it may lead to cures for many diseases.

Will You Benefit from Dolly’s Legacy?

If scientists could manipulate your genes with a simple treatment or vaccination that cured or prevented diseases like cancer, dementia, arthritis, or chronic pain—would you take the treatment? A huge part of the legacy of Dolly the Sheep may be your future health.

Mixing Holiday Traditions With Science

Putting up the Christmas tree is one of my beloved holiday traditions. For many years, I went to a tree farm a couple of weeks before Christmas. We’d cut down a tree, bring it home, and decorate it. I wasn’t mixing holiday traditions with science back then. But the science of Christmas trees is fascinating. 

image of a red Christmas bulb ornament on a green Christmas tree--is mixing holiday traditions with science a good thing?

The Traditions

The Romans decorated their temples with fir trees for the festival of Saturnalia. Christians used fir trees as a sign of everlasting life with God. Many people credit the Germans with bringing the Christmas tree into their homes. 

Records show that Martin Luther, a 16th century preacher, was one of the first to bring a Christmas tree into his house and put lights on it.

Read more about the first Christmas trees.

Oh Christmas Tree

image of a pine tree branch with a pine cone frosted with snow

When shopping for a Christmas tree, we want the right shape, the right height, and color. We want the tree to hold on to its needles as long as possible. And we want the tree to look fresh for weeks. These are the traits Christmas tree growers want to foster in their trees.

Fraser and noble firs are the most popular species for Christmas trees. Christmas trees are grown on tree farms in all 50 states and in Canada. Oregon is the number one state in the US for harvested trees. North Carolina is second and Michigan is third.

It can take 5-15 years for a fir to grow to 6-7 feet tall. Not only does it take years to grow, the grower must remove all pine cones by hand. And each tree can grow hundreds of pine cones. The grower also must be wary of root rot. 

Applying Science to Christmas Trees

Image of branches of a green fir tree--are we improving the planet when we are mixing holiday traditions with science?

Scientists are helping Christmas tree growers create a better Christmas tree. They want to improve the growth rate and durability of the trees. And they want trees that are resistant to root rot. 

Root rot is caused by the water-mold genus Phytophthora, a tree stricken with it can die in a matter of days./ And once the fungus is in the soil, it’s impossible to get rid of.

The Scientists

Bert Cregg

Cregg is a forest researcher at Michigan State University and a renowned expert on Christmas tree production. Wired reported on his work to reduce coning in Christmas Trees using growth regulators. His method works but is not yet a financially feasible technique.

John Frampton

Frampton is a professor in the department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. He is an expert on Fraser firs. Frampton is helping growers fight root rot. 

He tested 32 of the world’s 50-odd true fir species and found a Japanese tree called the Momi fir strongly resists phytophthora invasion. The Momi fir is not a Christmas tree, so Frampton helps growers make chimeric trees. He shows them how to graft seedling Fraser firs to Momi seedling roots. It works, but it’s a time-consuming process.

“We are doing DNA sequencing to understand the DNA of Christmas trees, and in the long term, this may lead in the future to genetic engineering,” Frampton said. “But there is still more knowledge and techniques we need to develop before we’re to the point that agriculture is now.” 

John Frampton as quoted on PopSci.com

Dr. Rajasekaran Lada

Dr. Lada, a professor and founding director of the Christmas Tree Research Center at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, is working with the hormone (ethylene). It is the hormone that triggers the tree to release its needles. 

He discussed two methods to slow or prevent needle release on a December 2010 episode of Science Friday In that episode; he revealed that his team discovered that trees that drink the most water after you bring them home, lose their needles the fastest. His team also discovered that the types of lights we string on the trees also affect how long the tree keeps its needles. (Hint: using white spectrum lights are best.)

Mixing Holiday Traditions with Science

image of vintage red car with Christmas tree tied to the roof--maybe we shouldn't be mixing holiday traditions with science.

Science fascinates me. But sometimes scientists take things too far. Genetic manipulation of food animals, of animals facing extinction, and of plant foods are all being attempted. 

Reactions to science also fascinates me. My reaction is mixed. I think creating better Christmas trees is good for survival of the trees. And I fear that commercial desires drive the science and worry about future consequences. Are we improving the planet when we are mixing holiday traditions with science? I don’t know? What do you think?

Does the DNA sequencing, experiments, and possible future genetic manipulation of and on Christmas trees bother you? Is it the idea of mixing holiday traditions with science that is most disturbing? Messing with nature? Or are you okay with genetic manipulation of plants we don’t eat? Should we be mixing holiday traditions with science?