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 Amazing Story of the First Lady of Physics

Five months after China ended 5,000 years of monarchy and became a republic, a girl named Chien-Shiung Wu was born. As a grown woman, she earned nicknames like the “Chinese Marie Curie,” “Madame Wu,” and the “Dragon Lady” by her students at Columbia University. This is the amazing story of the “First Lady of Physics.”

Photograph of Chien-Shiung Wu, the First Lady of Physics, at a bank of equipment

Early Life

Born on May 31, 1912, Chien-Shiung (pronounced Chen Shoong) Wu was the only daughter and middle child of three. Her parents were, Zhong-Yi and Fanhua Fan. They lived in Liuhe, a small town near Shanghai, China. Wu’s parents wanted their daughter to study science and mathematics, but no schools in China admitted females.

So her father (an engineer by training) started one of the first schools in China for girls, the Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School. He served as headmaster and her mother worked as a teacher.

At 11, Wu continued her education at the boarding school, Suzhou Women’s Normal School Number 2. Students who attended the “normal school” (teacher-training college) wanted to go to college. When she finished school, government regulations required that she teach for a year.

Wu served as a teacher at the Public School of China, in Shanghai in 1929.

Higher Education

She enrolled at one of China’s oldest and most prestigious universities, Nanjing University (National Central University). She started with a mathematics major. But inspired by Madame Curie, Wu quickly switched to physics. She earned a B.S. Degree with top honors in 1934.

She taught for a year and worked in a physics laboratory at the Academia Sinica. It was at Academia Sinica where she conducted her first research and experiments in X-ray crystallography. Her mentor, Jing-Wei Gu, a female professor, recommended she pursue graduate studies in the United States.

Move to the U.S.

In 1936, Wu received an acceptance from the Michigan State University. She took a steamship to the United States with her friend, Dong Ruofen, a female chemist. They landed in San Francisco.

Wu visited the University of California at Berkley. There she met Professor Ernest Lawrence (1939 Nobel Prize winner) and another Chinese physics student, Luke Chia Yuan (her future husband). The two talked her into staying at Berkley. She completed her Ph.D. in physics with honors in 1940.

Marriage & Career

She married fellow graduate student, Luke Chia Yuan on May 30, 1942. They moved to the East coast. Yuan worked at Princeton University and Wu at Smith College. It wasn’t long before Wu became the first female instructor ever hired at Princeton University. She taught at Smith and Princeton from 1942 to 1944.

Wu gave birth to their son, Vincent Wei-Cheng Yuan, in 1947. Vincent followed in his parents’ footsteps and became a physicist when he grew up.

In 1944, Wu joined the research staff at Columbia University and began work on the Manhattan Project. The top-secret Manhattan Project helped the United States develop the atomic bomb during World War II.

Her work helped create the process for separating uranium metal into the U-235 and U-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion.

Womenshistory.org

Unrecognized for Nobel Prize

She left the Manhattan Project in 1945. Wu spent the rest of her career in the Department of Physics at Columbia. She was the leading experimentalist in beta decay and weak interaction physics. Two colleagues, theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang asked Wu to help design experiments to test their theory that the Law of Conservation of Parity did not hold true during beta decay. Wu’s experiments and observations proved the “law” did not hold. She had discovered parity nonconservation. Her test became known as the Wu experiment. Lee and Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. Gender discrimination meant Wu was “overlooked” by the Nobel Prize Committee.

Firsts

In 1958, Wu became the first Chinese-American elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1967, she served as the first female president of the American Physical Society. She won several awards and honors throughout her lifetime, including the National Medal of Science and the Comstock Prize.

Legacy

Wu retired in 1981 but gave many lectures in the U.S. and China, inspiring the younger generations to pursue science, technology, engineering and math education.

Wu died on February 16, 1997 in New York City at 84 after suffering a stroke. They buried her ashes in the courtyard of the Mingde School in China that she had attended as a girl.

Wu’s book titled Beta Decay (published 1965) is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists.

scientificwomen.net

Featured on U.S. Stamps in February 2021, she joined a short list of physicists, including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

An Amazing Story

Chien-Shiung Wu didn’t shy from the many obstacles on her journey to become the First Lady of Physics. Gender discrimination would have kept her from school had she been born earlier or to different parents. It certainly kept her from the Nobel Prize. A strong woman, she persisted.

A Cool Blend of Science and Technology

Almost 9,000 years ago, ancient Chinese fermented rice, honey, and fruit. Ancient Egyptians dared to use yeast for leavened bread in 1000 BC. On the other side of the world, Aztecs made cakes with Spirulina algae. What do these foods and beverages have in common? It’s doubtful that any of these ancient peoples understood the science. Yet, they each performed an early bit of biotechnology. Biotechnology has grown from its humble origins into a cool blend of science and technology.

image of a strand of blue DNA against a dark blue background--one of the things we can now manipulate for biotechnology

What is Biotechnology?

Hungarian engineer, Karl Ereky, coined the term in 1919. He invented the term to describe the creation of products from raw materials with the aid of living organisms. While the term is relatively new, humans have always manipulated raw materials hoping to make our life better. 

Don’t quite understand what biotech is yet? According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary biotechnology is the manipulation (as through genetic engineering) of living organisms or their components to produce useful products. The dictionary includes that these are usually commercial products (such as pest resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or pharmaceuticals).

The History of Biotechnology

You may recognize many names in the history of Biotechnology. Names like Darwin, Mendel, Miescher, Boveri, Morgan, Levene, Chargraff, Avery, and many more. These are the folks whose discoveries built one on the other to allow many the cool blend of science and technology.

Here’s a six-minute video that traces the discoveries of DNA, genes, and chromosomes “as fast as possible.” Some information may be a review, but I’ll bet you’ll learn a new name or two.

Types of Biotechnology

Medical Biotechnology uses this science to understand the human body. They search for cures, treatments, or preventatives for diseases. Examples: vaccines, antibiotics, etc.

Agricultural Biotechnology focuses on developing high-yield crops and earth-friendly pest control. Examples: pest-resistant crops, plant and animal breeding, etc.

Industrial Biotechnology strives to develop materials with biological elements. Examples: Construction, manufacturing wine and beer, washing detergents, etc.

Within each of these broad categories are too many subcategories to mention here. But you’ll learn more in future blog posts.

Why Talk About Biotechnology?

As a former nurse and a science fiction author, I am always interested in how science and technology come together to enhance our lives. I’ve blogged about nanobots and pharmacogenomics. And you can bet I’ll write new posts about biotech in development—what they hope to gain and the implications and ethics involved. Will these biotech items appear in a story someday? Hmmm. If you really want the answer to that, join my newsletter and get updates about my writing projects. Next week, I’ll share a cool new biotech that has applications for VR games and real life!

A Peek at Amazing Discoveries of the Past Decade

I’ve posed many questions regarding the ethics of research being done. Today, I want to talk about the good science has done. Let’s take a tiny peak at the amazing discoveries of the past decade. 

The Human Genome

The year 2000 saw a rough draft of the human genome released. The final draft published in 2003 received updates in 2007. 

They believed this research would help alleviate diseases and advance medical break throughs. Sadly, that is slow in coming. The National Human Genome Research Institute estimates that it takes about seventeen years to advance from new research information to something useful for patients. But much is being done. Check out their website for detailed information about research on cystic fibrosis, infectious disease outbreaks, pharmacogenomics, and much more.

Archeology

The 2010s brought extraordinary discoveries in the field of Archeology. British researchers found the body of King Richard III

Airborne lasers led scientists to discover more than 60,000 ancient Maya buildings in Guatemala.

image of facial reconstruction of Homo Naledi one of the amazing discoveries of the past decade

The discovery of Homo Naledi, a new species with a mix of human and primate features, suggests they may have been a hybrid.

Radar detection and lasers and photographs from space have aided archeologists in their search. The number of discoveries made in archeology is impossible to cover in this short blog. 

Space

Oh, my. So many discoveries and adventures during the past decade. They finally, 100 years later, confirmed Einstein’s idea and heard or felt the first gravitational waves.

NASA’s Kepler Telescope (and others) found thousands of new exoplanets.

By Event Horizon Telescope , CC BY 4.0,

They captured the first image of a black hole. 

NASA’s probes, Voyager I and Voyager II, crossed the outer boundary of the heliosphere.

The first commercial spacecraft delivered supplies to the International Space Station. 

The Good News Goes On

This is a tiny peak at the amazing discoveries of the past decade. During the next decade we will explore and study this information (and more), and we will learn more about ourselves, our planet, and the universe. Are there discoveries you thought were amazing, and I didn’t mention them? Please tell us about them in the comments below.

Head Transplant: Science or Science Fiction?

Do you think a head transplant is science fiction or science fact? Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero thinks it will be science fact. Canavero has a reputation for being a sensationalist in the global medical community. But is he? 

The Animal Successes

Canavero and Chinese surgeon, Xiaoping Ren, published a study that showed monkeys and dogs could walk after their spinal cords were completely severed during surgery and then put back together again. According to USA Today, the study published in the magazine Surgical Neurology International included video evidence. 

They applied a polyethylene glycol substance (PEG) to the nerve endings. They want to use PEG to transplant human heads.

Image of a man's hand on the wheel of a wheelchair--if you had a disabling disease would you choose a head transplant?

Patients with incurable and fatal diseases would have a new body in which to live. Think of people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), people like physicist Stephen Hawking. 

Canavero states that neurosurgeons have been “stuck to the view that a severed spinal cord cannot be mended in any way.” He completely rejects that view. 

Is a Head Transplant Possible

There have been experiments involving animal head transplants since the early 1900s. None, not even the ones Cavanero and Xaioping did, have survived more than days. 

Whole head transplantation must overcome four major technical challenges. 

First Challenge

The brain, like any organ, depends on a continuous flow of blood to provide oxygen, nutrients, and to remove waste products. Damage sets in quickly at normal temperatures when the blood flow is cut off. Blood supply and preserving the brain after removal, before and during transplantation may benefit from techniques used for heart and lung and other organ transplants. The brain is perhaps the most sensitive of these organs to lack of oxygen. Will the same techniques work for the brain? Maybe. 

Second Challenge

The nervous system in the head and body is complex. The central nervous system, governed by the brain stem, controls life-sustaining functions like breathing and heart beating. There are nerves that control motor function, allow voluntary movement of your muscles, and peripheral nerves that allow you to feel pressure, temperature, and proprioception. All these nerves would have to reconnect and do so appropriately. Today, amputees often suffer neuropathy or phantom pain. These pains can be debilitating. 

Third Challenge

There are major structures in the head and neck. Surgeons have reattached the trachea and the esophagus on a smaller scale. The neck muscles that hold up and move the head are more structures to reattach. All of these at once has never been done. And all of these must be successful for the surgery to be considered a success.

Fourth Challenge

Transplant rejection is when the body rejects the “foreign” tissues of another body. Medical science has made great advances in managing transplant rejection using medications. However, transplant rejection still causes an overall mortality that is much higher than in the general population. There are many transplant rejection challenges that could occur with a whole head transplant. 

The Head Transplant Procedure

Canavero estimates the procedure “would cost up to $100 million and involve several dozen surgeons and specialists. He said the donor would be the healthy body of a brain-dead patient matched for build with a recipient’s disease-free head.”

The recipient’s head would be cooled to deep hypothermia. 

The procedure would last more than twenty-four hours. And after surgery the patient would be kept in a coma for a time. Then the long road to recovery would begin.

The First Volunteer

In April 2015, a thirty-year-old Russian man, Valery Spiridonov, announced that he will become the subject of the first human head transplant ever performed.

Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease (a spinal muscular atrophy disease). One can’t blame Spiridonov for wanting a new body. But can is he fully aware or informed of the risks?

The Risks

Obviously, the first risk is death. But there are many more.

Imagine that you undergo a head transplant to escape paralysis and end up with facial paralysis, paralysis of one body part, or the whole body? How would you cope?

Neuropathy in the whole body could become unbearable. 

Transplant rejection symptoms are often flu-like meaning fever, aches, pain and tenderness, and fatigue, plus symptoms of the transplanted organ failing such as decreased urine output in a kidney transplant. We can assume that in the whole head transplant there would be more than a headache.

Beside the risk of whole body neuropathy and transplant rejection, there are psychological risks. Will his personality, his memories survive the transplant? Would all the adjustments to new chemicals, connections, and even body image drive him insane?

Science or Science Fiction

Image of Frankenstien bust illustration Head transplant, Science or Science Fiction?

Many people’s first reaction to the idea of a whole head transplant is revulsion, shock, or rejection. They think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and recoil. 

There were similar reactions to the first hand, heart, and face transplants. In 1954, many people probably felt “creeped out” by the first human organ transplant, a kidney.

The Future

The authors of Chrysalis, a story of a character who had a head transplantation, hope that South Africa will lead the way in head transplantation.

Xaioping feels that human trials should begin soon. 

Science or science fiction isn’t the real question. As in previous posts about the ethics of science (see The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), science will march forward. The real question is, are we ready for it?