28 March 2007

Reno, NV: Where Men are Men and Sheep are Part Human

I'll give a shoutout to Slashdot for alerting me to this surprising item. Researchers at the University of Nevada at Reno have created a herd of sheep whose organs are, at a cellular level, 15% human. This article describes the research, but raises more questions than it answers. I found a more thorough article from 2003 in New Scientist.

The original goal of the UNR work was to study possible methods for in-utero correction of genetic defects. The idea is that stem cells can be taken from the developing human embryo, given some gene therapy to correct the disorder, and then transplanted back to outcompete the defective cells as the fetus matures. Naturally, such experiments cannot be done with human embryos. So the team used sheep fetuses. They injected them with human stem cells and some human growth factors. They then let the fetal sheep develop and observed what happened to the human cells. The lead researcher's paper can be found here.

The transplanted human cells could have all died off, but as the sheep fetus was pre-immune, they did not. Instead some became persistent human stem cells (as for bone marrow). Others, however, committed and became human organ cells. The human cells apparently coexist with the sheep cells in the organs. This has raised the possibility that such "humanized" sheep could be used as a source of tissue, or even whole organs, for transplant. Imagine a patient who sustains severe liver damage. Both the lack of available organs for transplant, and the difficulty of tissue rejection make for a dire prognosis. But this research offers a different approach as it suggests a method whereby the patient's own stem cells could be used to develop replacement organ tissue that would be harvested from the sheep after birth.

Getting stem cells to specialize and grow into organs in the lab isn't something we can expect in the near future. However by using the sheep fetus as a natural factory for tissue development the team has already succeeded. I'm surprised that the major US media have not jumped on this story. Both the medical promise and the ethical issues raised are big news. In the UK several groups are now wading through government bioethics panels so that they can begin similar research.


The market is Open

08 March 2007

Evolutionary Advantage

I have to imagine at some point in our evolutionary past, the ability to sort through and shut off sensory input was an attribute that some of us organisms had and some didn't. Presumably the ones that didn't have this mojo were unable to distinguish which of, say, that beautiful sunset or the rapidly approaching carnivorous thing required more immediate attention, and didn't live to reproduce.

I can't quite grok the current analog to this situation, even as the sheer level of input from universe to the individual continues to rise seemingly exponentially. A professor giving a talk at my undergraduate institution (and this was fifteen years ago before the rise of internet-as-information-conduit) once compared the rising network of global information exchange to a nervous system. When one part sustains damage, the information about it immediately radiates to all (connected) parts of the globe. Some parts respond, some parts don't, depending upon the input. But there doesn't seem to be an evolutionary disadvantage in the inability to handle the flood of information that comes at an individual-as-brain-cell in the information age. If the makeup of your brain is that the nonstop flood of instant everything causes it to short-circuit and you to curl up in a non-responsive little ball, well, you might not be able to function in society, but it's not the kind of thing that stops you from reproducing, is it?

So the analog is perhaps not evolutionary in the survival-of-the-fittest/luckiest sense, but evolutionary in another way?

03 March 2007

Sometimes i'm dreaming

I stand in a mall. About me rise three wide floors of shops and stalls. Ads, logos, and merchandise vie for my attention. But it's the music that arrests my mind. Am I hearing this? Is this real?

Floating through the air of this consumer palace is Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure. And yes, all the faces, all the voices blur. Overcome by a Proustian swoon I drift back a quarter of a century. This was the music of my youth. Old Cure, back when Robert Smith was just that guitarist who used to play with Siousxie. Out of the cocoon of these sounds would Goth emerge.

This was the emblematic music alternative from the pop-cultured drivel, this the edgy "New Wave". Now, in our still-new century, it plays in a mall. And if I could travel back in time, how could I explain this moment to my earlier self? But the water that passes under the bridge is far deeper than even this. More than music have I to explain. How could I describe, to the person I was, the people I have become?

Not even the science fiction of that age dreamt this moment. I look around. People shop. Most walk from store to store, arms and legs pumping with that stiff gait of those new in this world. They must go up to each display to see it because they haven't learned to use the camera. But I am content to stand, my pose changing every now and then. I stretch, or shift my weight. And with my magic sight I roam the floors of the mall.

Boots. I need boots. Shiny black with buckles and platform heels. Knee-high, I'm thinking, to go with that jacket I bought last week. Something to wear to the club tonight, live music arranged by a friend in a brand new venue.

But something else has caught my eye. I don't quite grasp what I'm looking at, but know I need to look closer. I zoom in. Suddenly it all gestalts. It's called "The Vixen Muzzle". You see, this world has a lot of non-humans, especially one type called Furries whose avatars are animal shapes. This world also has a lot of people into BDSM play. And this object is, well, it's a bondage toy for Furries. I guess your typical ball gag doesn't look quite right on a furry snout, hence the muzzle.

Somewhere a mind reels. Acting with cerebellar familiarity a hand drives a mouse. A cursor slides, dual clicks on a HUD control. In-world a grin spreads across my face. My head tilts back. And in the chat channel these words appear:
Savannah Nihilist laughs out loud.