Is Poop a Gift or a Curse?

In our world, a new creature has come into town. It is a devious enemy with a smell vicious enough to make us run away. Its brownish skin taunts you to come closer until you come close enough, and it haunts you forever. It is filling up our space and taking over, preparing to kill us one by one. The worst part is, we are producing it. POOP! Yes, poop, aka as feces, is this diabolical specimen that will be (and currently is) a big problem for the human race. Now, I’m not saying that human waste will smell worse over time and cause us to pass out every time we go to the bathroom. Do you ever wonder where all our human waste goes? Now you’re getting at what I’m saying.

Human waste isn’t the first thing you think of when someone says “crisis,” but this should be near the top of that list. Many humans don’t have access to necessary sanitation–precisely 1,800,000,000 people. Yes, you read that number correctly; nearly a quarter of humans do not have access to basic sanitation, for example, toilets. The result of this is that approximately 200 million tons of waste goes untreated. When sewage is untreated, it can lead to countless health issues. If the feces finds an entrance to the water supply, it will release E. Coli, leading to many diseases. Not only does human waste impact humans, but ecosystems may be destroyed. There was a disease spreading through the coral which decreased the population of coral greatly in the Florida/Caribbean area. This disease was White Pox. This disease spread to the corals as a result of human waste being discarded into the oceans. There are bacteria in the human feces, which we can live with but coral cannot. Many sea creatures lost their homes due to human feces. So, how do we control the amount of feces and how should we discard it?

Controlling feces is something out of the ordinary, meaning it needs an out of the ordinary solution. To control feces, there’s a two-step process. The first step is humans changing their diets to vegetarian or vegan. According to the Mayo Clinic, a leading medical center in the U.S., “Dietary fiber increases the weight and size of your stool and softens it. A bulky stool is easier to pass…” This explicitly states if you eat more fiber, your stool will be easier to pass. This means your body will be producing more waste as it’s heavier and larger. Right about now you are probably thinking to yourself, “I just spent the last 5 minutes reading why we’re producing too much waste, now he’s saying we should make more?” Yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying. The more waste we produce, the more efficient the second step will be.

Fecal energy; this is the second part of controlling human waste. Fecal energy is the process of converting biomasses such as human waste into sources of energy. How this works is the toilet has a grinding system that makes the waste odorless and dries it. Once it dries, microbes will biodegrade the waste. This process generates biofuel gasses such as Ethanol. You may think this sounds crazy, turning poop into power, but I can assure you it’s not. There have been multiple instances where biofuel has been beneficial. A small city in Colorado is fueling over 40 vehicles by using biofuel gasses provided by the local waste management company. On the second occasion in Europe, a Netherland’s Dairy company has started a new project. Since their building already has over 175 cows, they decided it would be more efficient to collect their waste and convert it into biogas for the company. Since the cows are constantly eating, and eating fiber, their stool is very efficient. This is where converting to vegetarian and vegan diets come in. If we are able to produce efficient stool by eating more fibers, the result could be very similar to the success in Colorado. If small towns and big businesses can jump into the future, why can’t the big cities (which have more people and more waste) do the same thing? 

As you can see, the idea of transforming poop into power is not a fantasy; it’s happening. There have already been multiple instances of people adapting to the process. Biofuel can help countries around the globe, as we don’t need to spend millions on drilling and importing, but we can use that money to develop a cheaper biofuel facility. Innovation is using what you have to make something great. In this case, you are using your waste to produce energy. The poop crisis on Earth may be harsh, but I see it as an opportunity. What do you see?

CRISPR Genetic Engineering Used to Create Custom Monkeys

custom monkey genetic engineering

Genetic engineering using CRISPRs has created these custom monkeys. http://rt.com/

The practice of genetic engineering in humans has been explored in numerous science fiction stories, such as Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In some stories manipulation of genes opens a door to a wild, dystopic future, such as the universe encountered in Samuel R. Delany’s Einstein Intersection. On the other hand, some speculative futures, such as Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, paint a picture where genetic engineering is a bridge to disease control, self-evolution, and more.

I’m not referencing awesome science fiction novels just because I’m a huge sci-fi geek. The term “genetic engineering” happens to be rooted in science fiction.  “Genetic engineering” was first coined in Jack Williamson’s science fiction book Dragon’s Island, which was published in 1952, one year before DNA’s role in hereditary was proven.

genetic engineering mice

Some genetically engineered mice can act as your own personal emergency flashlight.

Incredibly, it only took science two decades to perform what Williamson had only written in words. In 1973 Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen inserted antibiotic resistance genes into an E.coli bacterium, marking the creation of the first genetically modified organism. In 1974, scientists created the first genetically modified animal by injecting viral DNA into mice.

Related Article: It’s a Mini-Me: Mice Clones Provide Personalized Cancer Treatment

Genetic engineering has come a long way since the groovy 70’s. In 2010, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute created Synthia, the first synthetic life form. They accomplished this incredible feat by inserting a synthetic bacterial genome into a cell containing no DNA.

The creation of synthetic life is remarkable, but let’s get back to the natural, more complex, and messier kingdom of animals.  Last week researchers from China reported the successful creation of genetically modified monkeys using a relatively new and direct method of genome editing involving the use of CRISPRs, a type of nuclease found in many bacteria. The monkeys in the experiment were originally macaques, marking the first time targeted genome editing (direct genetic engineering) has been used in primates. This could potentially pave the way for quick and easy genetic engineering in humans.

Scientists have genetically engineered monkeys in the past, but never before have they been able to directly add, remove, or alter a target gene site. A past example of genetic engineering in a primate that you may remember is when scientists injected jellyfish DNA into a rhesus monkey in 2001. The difference between 2001 and 2014 is that thirteen years ago scientists were practically shooting blind. Using different synthetic nuclease like CRISPR, scientists have unparalleled control over the genes they choose to alter, and in what ways they are able to alter them. As the Chinese researchers explain,

the application of monkeys in biomedical researches has been significantly hindered by the difficulties in producing animals genetically modified at the desired target sites. Here, we first applied the CRISPR/Cas9 system, a versatile tool for editing the genes of different organisms, to target monkey genomes.

genetic engineering geneticist

Geneticists like this DNA wizard will one day give us the freedom of genetic engineering in humans. themindunleashed.org

Three specific genes in the monkeys were modified by the researchers: one that regulates immune cell development, another that regulates metabolism, and a third that regulates sex determination as well as stem cells. Interestingly, the monkeys were altered in various ways depending on how far along the monkey embryo had developed. According to Wezhi Ji, a researcher at the Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research,

data from this species should be very useful for curing human disease and improving human health.

Human health and longevity are major focuses for genetic engineers. The discovery and use of various synthetic nuclease launched genetic engineering in humans from a dream to an exponentially growing reality.

Related Article: Immortal Animals and the Human Link

A nuclease is a naturally occurring type of genetic code found in the genome of many bacteria and archaea. Nuclease are of particular interest to scientists in the field of genetic engineering because nuclease have the unique capacity to be used as “molecular scissors.”  They can literally cut DNA at target areas without harming the two newly created DNA strands in any way. They’re like a real-life cut-copy-paste tool for working with genetic code.

Genetic engineers create synthetic nuclease in the lab to aid them in genetic engineering. To date, four different synthetic nuclease have been created for use in genomic editing. These are:

  • Meganucleases
  • Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs)
  • Transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs)
  • CRISPRs
crispr genetic engineering

CRISPRs are what allow all the custom magic to happen. http://www.nature.com/

CRISPRs are the newest and arguably most effective synthetic nuclease used in genetic engineering today. CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat,” and are used by bacteria to fight off viruses by destroying targeted DNA. By harnessing the CRISPR mechanism, geneticists revolutionized the field. According to an article entitled “The CRISPR Craze published in August 2013 on sciencemag.org,

In January, four research teams reported harnessing the system, called CRISPR, to target the destruction of specific genes in human cells. And in the following 8 months, various groups have used it to delete, add, activate or suppress targeted genes in human cells, mice, rats, zebrafish, bacteria, fruit flies, yeast, nematodes and crops, demonstrating broad utility for the technique. With CRISPR, scientists can create mouse models of human diseases much more quickly than before, study individual genes much faster, and easily change multiple genes in cells at once to study their interactions.

Even DuPont has used CRISPRs to create improved bacterial strains for food production. CRISPRs are now used almost ubiquitously throughout laboratories that perform genetic engineering.  CRISPRs provide researchers with incredible flexibility and the ability to create a genetically modified animal in a single generation. The recent custom monkey study is a boon that will inevitably launch the industry to even greater heights.

Related Article: Court Battle Begins Between David and Goliath, Bowman and Monsanto

Researchers such as Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Brain Institute for Brain Research, have openly expressed their interest in genetically engineering their own custom monkeys. According to Desimone,

Although mice are giving us tremendous insight into basic brain biology and the biology of the disease, there’s still a big gap in between the mouse brain and the monkey brain.

genetic engineering humans

Big hand, tiny feet, whatever. I just want to fly! http://www.marymeetsdolly.com/

There is yet an additional gap between a monkey brain and human brain. However, the fact that direct genome editing works to create modified monkeys suggests it might also work to create genetically modified humans. CRISPR has already been used to modify human cells grown in laboratories, but it has yet to be tested on developing or developed humans. The authors conclude their statements on genetic engineering with CRISPRs with a note of prolonged optimism, announcing that,

We believe the success of this strategy in nonhuman primates gives lots of potential for its application in humans, but we think due to the safety issue, it will take a long way for expanding this strategy to human embryos.

One day genetic engineering will revolutionize the medical industry, the fashion industry, countless more industries, and then it will one day be taken for granted. The faster we can genetic engineering technology for granted, the faster I can take having night-vision and a few extra arms for granted. Let’s do this world!

 

Sources:

Gattaca

Brave New World

Einstein Intersection

Last and First Men

Dragon’s Island

http://jgp.rupress.org/content/36/1/39.full.pdf

http://www.pnas.org/content/70/5/1293.short

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/329/5987/52

http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674%2814%2900079-8

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/523986/monkeys-modified-with-genome-editing/

http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=94412

http://www.nature.com/nrg/journal/v11/n3/full/nrg2749.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_engineering#Genome_editing

http://msb.embopress.org/content/9/1/641

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/833

The Secret World of Bacteria

 

Warning: this article should not be read within proximity to sandpaper or pumice rocks as there is a high likelihood of sanding down one’s skin in terror. This one gets gross, kiddies.

One of the many benefits already seen since the inception of the Human Microbiome Project in 2007 is the outrageous discovery that only 10% of our body is human.

What kind of madman rant are you going on this time, Qwizx?

As it turns out, crazy as it may sound, the overwhelming majority of cells within/out our person are bacteria. In fact, we are a staggering 90% non-human. Swimming amidst the estimated 10 trillion cells constituting your selfness are something like 100 trillion individual little critters that call your life-fluids home. In a microscopic landscape of terrain, legions of monsters are swathing, swarming, warring, breeding, breathing and all-out taking over the slabs of meat we self-reference as “I.”

100 trillion is a big number, maybe too large for a human mind to fathom, so instead, let’s imagine it this way: There are currently 7,000,000,000 people in the world (that’s billion, with a B)… There are 14 THOUSAND times that many (our current planetary population) bacteria wiggling inside you this moment, Jacuzzi-ing in your tear-ducts as you read this. When I say bacteria, by the way, I mean these things (thank you, electron microscopes)…

Cluster of E. Coli sipping margaritas by the lake of sulfur in hell, or…

Setting up camp in a clump of uranium like it ain’t no thang

Essentially, research teams have gathered data that redefines humanity, suggesting the body is a superorganism “whose metabolism represents an amalgamation of microbial and human attributes.

Life always finds a way, just not necessarily humanoid life. A genomic sequencing study has recently discovered high numbers of hydrothermal vent eubacteria on prosthetic hip joints. This wouldn’t be a big deal, considering the plethora of ghouls infesting people, accept hydrothermal vent eubacteria are a species once thought only to live in the blackness of the ocean’s depths (you know, cause surviving on uranium isn’t scary enough).

(below) At Steve’s liver for the weekly orgy and ritual-sacrifice (BYOB) 

By no means is this exclusively shiver-inducing news. Like when Copernicus realized the earth revolved around the sun, this is a “discovery,” meaning it was always true, just now it’s news to us. No need for mass panic, cause this is how it’s supposed to work, and always has. However, there are some interesting implications:

Hurray, no more lonely Saturday nights!

Imagine our bodies, now, as a planet onto themselves, where bacteria pay their property taxes, vote, and even take their kids to little league in the small intestine. We humans are not individuals, but a collective, a civilization or a conglomerate, united in a symbiosis where each individual creepy-crawly plays his part on the whole. Sure, just like in human civilizations, there are the equivalent of warring gang factions, and like we always do, these sparse rebels gets all the focus (I’m looking at you, gonorrhea.), but our microscopic brothers and sisters are absolutely essential to our  continued existence.

If we’re like a corporation, hell yeah, I get to be the CEO.

Not quite. Sorry. We’re more like the semi-dipshit boss wrapped around his employees’ fingers. The sneaky scallywags just let us think the best ideas are ours so we can save face; the germs are in charge. Through the clever excretion of chemicals, our fuzzy little friends manipulate our lives in almost every conceivable way, from our health to straight up mind-control. However, don’t panic; it’s less like “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers,” and more like the Futurama episode where Fry eats the vending machine egg salad and becomes an Ubber-Fry.

Cuddly fella literally tugging at heart strings.

The NIH’s Human Microbiome Project plans on cataloging the entire human microbiome, or metagenome, and thus far only approximately 1% of this microbiota has been characterized and identified.  They’ve just begun to peak into the Pandora’s box of possibilities from our neighbors to the nano, so, I don’t know about you, but I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for sensory enhancing super parasites.

By all means, keep washing your hands, but these guys are unavoidable. See that cute fella hiding in the upper-left corner of this close-up of dust (below), the Kraken-lookin spawn of Lucifer posing for a cameo in your nightmares? He’s everywhere.

(technicolor added for enhanced terror)

 

As a final gut-wrenching thought, even if you just brushed your teeth, here’s a close-up of just some of the things currently crawling on your tongue.

 

 Sources:

hmpdacc.org

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov (2, 3, 4 times)

mpkb.org

scientificamerican.com

news.sciencemag.org

watchcartoononline.com

 

Watching Evolution Occur

Researchers at Michigan State University have just revealed that evolution is as easy as 1-2-3. Their goal was to observe how fast growing E.coli could evolve to digest citrate along with their normal diet of glucose. E.coli bacteria is unable to digest the protein citrate, but through natural selection, they evolved right before the researchers’ eyes to be able to go to town on their new delicacy.

Richard Lenski, one of the lead researchers, explained that,

“We first saw the citrate-using bacteria around 33,000 generations, but Zack was able to show that some of the important mutations had already occurred before then by replaying evolution from different intermediate stages. He showed you could re-evolve the citrate-eaters, but only after some of the other pieces of the puzzle were in place.”

Three steps are required for the mutation to take place.  In the first step, potentiation, the E. coli developed two minor mutations that prepared them to evolve further. During actualization, the second step, the bacteria began taking tiny bites of the citrate, seemingly out of curiosity. In the final step, refinement, major mutations occurred that allowed the E.coli to gluttonously eat the citrate. This ability quickly became dominant in the colonies of bacteria.

Researchers were understandably excited as they were able to witness the mutation with unprecedented clarity Lenski states that, in regards to the actualization stage,

“It wasn’t a typical mutation at all, where just one base-pair, one letter, in the genome is changed,” he said. “Instead, part of the genome was copied so that two chunks of DNA were stitched together in a new way. One chunk encoded a protein to get citrate into the cell, and the other chunk caused that protein to be expressed.”

Fun fact: many people believe, as a way to disprove evolution, that dinosaur fossils are simply an attempt by God to test our faith.

Fun fact: the article you just read.

Go science!