Sixty-Three Years Leading Us to a Star Trek Life

On 1 October 2021, NASA celebrated the agency’s 63rd anniversary of operation. On October 5th two Russians, a film director and an actress, docked with the International Space Station to do a twelve day movie shoot. Are the past sixty-three years leading us to a Star Trek Life?

Photograph of NASA's control room in 19 with eight men crowded around control panels with dials and on off switches. Definitely not close to Star Trek Life.

The Beginning

In the summer of 1950, a two-stage rocket called Bumper 2 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It reached an altitude 250 miles higher than the International Space Station’s altitude. Under the direction of General Electric, Bumper 2 rockets were used to test rocket systems and for upper atmosphere research. It was far from even the dream of a Star Trek Life.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik I. A basketball-sized satellite, Sputnik I, orbited the earth in 98 minutes.

Caught off-guard by the launch, the United States scrambled to develop similar or superior capabilities. In December, they launched their first satellite, the Vanguard. It exploded shortly after takeoff.

The first successful satellite launch in the U.S. came at the end of January 1958. In July of that year, Congress passed legislation that created NASA.

NASA’s Years

On October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), began operating with 8,000 employees spread over four facilities. A small office in Washington DC directed operations. The agency also had three major research facilities and two test research sites. They had a 100 million dollar budget.

On October 11, NASA launched Pioneer 1.

Within six months, they unveiled the Mercury astronaut corps. It was 1961 before President John F. Kennedy issued his challenge to have a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Then, on July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo Mission and Neil Armstrong made history. Soaring to the moon with less technology than is in our kitchens today.

There have been near misses and tragic sacrifices along the way. NASA’s mission has shrunk and expanded. But their continuing research has given us many spinoffs.

Sixty+ Years Later

Photograph of the sleek and smaller workstations of NASA's control center in 2013. It looks like a slice of Star Trek life.
Date: 07-16-13 Location: Bldg 30 South, FCR-1 Subject: Expedition 36 ISS flight controllers on console during EVA #23 with Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano. Photographer: James Blair

In 2020, NASA had 17,373 employees and a budget of more than 22 billion dollars. There are ten major facilities and at least 8 smaller ones.

Besides NASA’s plans to launch projects into space, there are the NASA website. On the website you’ll find the NASA blog, NASA TV, NASA Live, NASA social media, educational sites, and tons and tons of photos and videos. There are apps and podcasts and ebooks and ringtones and so much more.

It’s not just the U.S. And the Russians. And it hasn’t been for years. More and more nations are launching rockets with human and nonhuman payloads. Celebrities and civilians are joining the ranks of the spacefaring.

The International Space Station (ISS) had been operational and continuously occupied for twenty years and 337 days. There are Mars One projects, and Mars rovers, and space telescopes to mention less than a handful of hundreds of projects from countries all over the Earth. Each project may hold discoveries that truly will launch us on our Star Trek Life.

And this has only been a portion of one lifetime of space adventures.

Conclusion

According to Wikipedia’s count, there were more than 200 successful spaceflights during 2020. We don’t have flying cars that can fold into a briefcase yet, so we aren’t ready for the Jetson life, but ISS has fresh chile peppers they’ve grown in orbit. And like a scene out of Star Trek, there’s a movie actress onboard ISS! Space hotels and voyages to Mars are in our near future. We’ve had sixty-three years leading us to a Star Trek life. Are you ready to “Boldy Go” sixty three more years?

Image Credits

Upper photo: Technicians and engineers monitor the countdown for the liftoff of Explorer 1 in the control room of the blockhouse at Space Launch Complex 26 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex (now Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.) Photo credit: NASA

Lower photo: (16 July 2013) — Flight directors and spacecraft communicators appear in the foreground of this scene in the space station flight control room of the Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center during the July 16 Expedition 36 spacewalk outside the International Space Station of astronauts Chris Cassidy of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency. From the left are Jerry Jason and David Korth at the FD console and astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough at the CAPCOM console. Issues with Parmitano’s spacesuit brought the spacewalk to an early end. Photo credit: NASA

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?

Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Is the truth in asteroid dust? Perhaps we’ll soon learn the answer. This month, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully brought asteroid dust back to Earth for the second time in history.

Image of the sun and planets in a row with an illustration of the asteroid belt-is there truth in asteroid dust

A small asteroid doesn’t have a heated interior. Scientists believe that means that since the materials on an asteroid have never experienced that intense heat and altered, they have the “initial characteristics of the solar system.” Studying this material could lead to a new understanding of the history and development of our solar system.

What Is an Asteroid

It’s an irregularly shaped celestial body usually found between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. (See the illustration above.) They can be as small as pebbles or hundreds of miles in diameter. Most asteroids are rocks, but some have clays or metals in them. There are currently 1,038,96 known asteroids.

Scientists believe that during the formation of our solar system some rocks and materials were “left overs.” These left overs are what we call asteroids. 

How Do Scientists Study Asteroids?

Astronomers have spent years observing celestial bodies like asteroids with powerful telescopes. Some scientists have been fortunate enough to work with meteorites, tiny bits of asteroids that survived the fiery plunge through earth’s atmosphere and landed on the surface. 

First Asteroid Dust Collected

In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa (Japanese for falcon), touched down on the asteroid Itokawa. On June 13, 2010, Hayabusa returned to Earth. Before the main body of the probe disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere, it released a heat-resistant capsule that landed in the Australian outback.

The capsule contained about 1,500 particles from the surface of Itokawa. The pieces included low-iron, low-metal chondrite, a material found in Earth’s super-heated interior but not on its surface.

Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research Team at Socorro, New Mexico discovered 25143 Itokawa on Sept. 26, 1998. It is about 1,755 feet long and orbits 186 million miles from Earth. 

A Second Successful Collection

a view of the asteroid Ryugu --the asteroid appears to be a rounded cube with lots of rocks and pebbles on it--is the truth in asteroid dust?
A colored view of the C-type asteroid 162173 Ryugu, taken from
Hayabusa2
By ISAS/JAXA, CC BY 4.0

On December 14, 2020 JAXA confirmed that a capsule from Hayabusa2 landed in an Australian desert during the previous week. It contained black grains from asteroid Ryugu. They believe they got at least 0.1 grams of material. They reported a plan to open the capsule this week, but news sources have reported no further information.

The Future of Asteroid Dust

By the end of 2021, JAXA promised some dust to NASA, some to international researchers, and plans to save about 40 percent of the sample for future researchers.

NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 and traveled  334 million kilometers from Earth to asteroid Bennu. It scooped up samples from Bennu on October 2o, 2020. The sample will return to Earth in 2023. NASA promised some of the samples to JAXA in exchange for the sample from Ryugu. They also promised samples to other researchers.

Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Asteroid dust is kind of like housekeeping dust, right? There are some truths in the asteroid dust samples. Is it the truth about the origins of the solar system? Maybe. The problem with discovering the truth is that we can only see and understand with the knowledge and history we have now. That clouds our judgment and understanding to where we may be blind to the truth, even if it’s really out there. Does that mean these very expensive trips aren’t worth it? Is our search for the truth worth any cost? What future discoveries do you hope will result from studying asteroid dust? I wonder if the asteroids have dust bunnies?