He watched his brother die from a cancer that no drug could cure. Now one of the world’s most renowned cancer researchers says it’s time for Plan B. ... The answers Bert Vogelstein needed and feared were in the blood sample. ... Vogelstein is among the most highly cited scientists in the world. He was described, in the 1980s, as having broken into “the cockpit of cancer” after he and coworkers at Johns Hopkins University showed for the first time exactly how a series of DNA mutations, adding up silently over decades, turn cells cancerous. Damaged DNA, he helped prove, is the cause of cancer. ... Now imagine you could see these mutations—see cancer itself—in a vial of blood. Nearly every type of cancer sheds DNA into the bloodstream, and Vogelstein’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins has developed a technique, called a “liquid biopsy,” that can find the telltale genetic material. ... The technology is made possible by instruments that speedily sequence DNA in a blood sample so researchers can spot tumor DNA even when it’s present in trace amounts. The Hopkins scientists, working alongside doctors who treat patients in Baltimore’s largest oncology center, have now studied blood from more than a thousand people. They say liquid biopsies can find cancer long before symptoms of the disease arise.
In some ways, everything had changed, for Schadt now had four hundred people working for him, along with nine gene sequencers at his disposal and a supercomputer named Minerva in the basement. In other ways, however, he remained a guy in shorts, a guy whose face was always agleam in the light of his laptop, a guy whose office walls were decorated with a palimpsest of indecipherable equations. Most important, he remained a guy who never said no—who never rejected anything as impossible—and when he learned that a woman from Mississippi whom Esquire had written about eight years earlier had been told she had terminal colon cancer, Schadt looked up and said: "That's exactly the kind of patient we take." … It was, in the end, the reason he had come to New York. He probably didn't really need nine gene sequencers. He probably didn't even really need Minerva, because he could do supercomputing with Google and Amazon. But as both a lapsed molecular biologist and a lapsed Christian looking to establish a new faith, he needed something he had never had before. He needed patients. He needed someone like Stephanie Lee.
The epic begins 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle and ends today in kitchens all over the world ... The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think—if they were capable of such profound thought—that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.
Mathur explains how he and his company, Yulex, hope to break the Asian rubber monopoly using gene sequencing and an unassuming desert plant. ... what he’s trying to do here in the desert, with a plant called guayule. ... Mathur tears a stem from one shrub and peels back the bark, pointing to a thin layer of, well, softness. This is called parenchyma. You can use it to make rubber, and that means you can make wetsuits, condoms, gloves, catheters, angioplasty balloons, and so many other medical devices. But most importantly, you can make tires. Car tires. Truck tires. Aircraft tires. In fact, this sort of natural rubber is essential to making tires. Yes, we now have synthetic rubber, but that isn’t as strong as the natural stuff. Our automobile tires contain about 50 percent natural rubber, and you simply can’t make a truck or aircraft tire without it. ... Today, almost all natural rubber comes from hevea rubber trees grown in Southeast Asia, and that hangs a nightmare scenario over US tire makers and the wider US economy. In the event of war or natural disaster, our supply could vanish, and rather quickly. But guayule can provide an alternative. Since the early 20th century, American researchers, entrepreneurs, and statesmen have eyed the plant as a way of freeing the U.S. economy from this deep dependence on Asia. Rubber trees don’t do well in the US, but guayule does. It’s indigenous to Mexico and the American southwest.
Perhaps the greatest polo player ever, Adolfo Cambiaso is planning to compete on a pony that died nearly a decade ago—a clone of his beloved stallion Aiken Cura. With more than 25 replicas of champion horses now in existence, Haley Cohen explores how the science came to polo. ... Aiken Cura is one of a number of horses that Cambiaso has duplicated. Through their company, Crestview Genetics, Cambiaso and two wealthy polo enthusiasts—the founder, Texan Alan Meeker, and Argentinean tycoon Ernesto Gutiérrez—have created more than 25 clones of Cambiaso’s champion polo horses and around 45 clones in total. Some are already breeding, and a few others began to play in top tournaments last year. Since the company’s establishment, in 2009, the partners have cloned not only for themselves but also for other international polo players who are willing to shell out around $120,000 per horse. Crestview is one of only two commercial groups in the world replicating polo horses, and it is the more prolific. ... Cloning began long before the world started paying attention to it, in 1996, when Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell, clomped into the world. One hundred years before, in 1885, Hans Driesch created two identical sea urchins by jiggling a two-celled urchin embryo until the cells separated and grew into their own creatures. Through much more sophisticated processes, scientists have since cloned pigs, cows, dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. (It is estimated that there are now around 300 cloned horses in the world, although no one has really kept track.) Now, with Crestview’s efforts, polo—the ancient “game of kings”—has found itself on the frontiers of cloning technology. ... “I did the math and realized it would take me $100 million and 50 years to get the quality of horses I wanted through conventional breeding,” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to spend either.” Instead, he turned to cloning.
Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9. The first term is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 is the name of a protein that makes it work. Technical details aside, Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people. ... Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs. ... It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them. ... As it happened, the people who found it weren't genome engineers at all. They were basic researchers, trying to unravel the origin of life by sequencing the genomes of ancient bacteria and microbes called Archaea (as in archaic), descendants of the first life on Earth. Deep amid the bases, the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs that made up those DNA sequences, microbiologists noticed recurring segments that were the same back to front and front to back—palindromes. The researchers didn't know what these segments did, but they knew they were weird. In a branding exercise only scientists could love, they named these clusters of repeating palindromes Crispr. ... Pick your creature, pick your gene, and you can bet someone somewhere is giving it a go.
Human genomics is just the beginning: the Earth has 50 billion tons of DNA. What happens when we have the entire biocode? ... By 2020, many hospitals will have genomic medicine departments, designing medical therapies based on your personal genetic constitution. Gene sequencers – machines that can take a blood sample and reel off your entire genetic blueprint – will shrink below the size of USB drives. Supermarkets will have shelves of home DNA tests, perhaps nestled between the cosmetics and medicines, for everything from whether your baby will be good at sports to the breed of cat you just adopted, to whether your kitchen counter harbours enough ‘good bacteria’. We will all know someone who has had their genome probed for medical reasons, perhaps even ourselves. Personal DNA stories – including the quality of the bugs in your gut– will be the stuff of cocktail party chitchat. ... Due to satellite imaging, we can see the entire surface of our planet. There can be no undiscovered land masses. The map of the world is complete. And we should expect the same thing for genetics. DNA testing will become so pervasive it will transform the medical, legal and social foundations of society. If blanket genome sequencing takes off, it will be impossible to obscure human relationships or ignore the content of our DNA. ... One of the greatest achievements of the coming century will be the characterisation of the Biocode, not just as a list of genomes of different species, but as patterns of interacting communities. ... By 2050 we should aim to finally have a handle not only on human genetic diversity but on the biodiversity of the planet.
Paleogenetics is helping to solve the great mystery of prehistory: how did humans spread out over the earth? ... Before the Second World War, prehistory was seen as a series of invasions, with proto-Celts and Indo-Aryans swooping down on unsuspecting swaths of Europe and Asia like so many Vikings, while megalith builders wandered between continents in indecisive meanders. After the Second World War, this view was replaced by the processual school, which attributed cultural changes to internal adaptations. Ideas and technologies might travel, but people by and large stayed put. Today, however, migration is making a comeback. ... Much of this shift has to do with the introduction of powerful new techniques for studying ancient DNA. ... Whole-genome sequencing yields orders of magnitude more data than organelle-based testing, and allows geneticists to make detailed comparisons between individuals and populations. Those comparisons are now illuminating new branches of the human family tree. ... In five years, we’ve gone from thinking we shared no DNA with Neanderthals, to realising that there was widespread interbreeding, to pinpointing it (for one individual) within 200 years – almost the span of a family album. But the use of ancient DNA isn’t limited to our near-human relatives. It is also telling us about the dispersal of humans out of Africa, and the origin and spread of agriculture, and the peopling of the Americas. It is also helping archaeologists crack one of the great mysteries of prehistory: the origins of the Indo-Europeans.
As the eugenic movement peaked and crashed, advances in reproductive technology made designer babies thrillingly, frighteningly possible. In the 1920s and early ’30s, visionaries imagined divorcing love and even marriage from procreation. Reproduction could be done scientifically, rationally, in a test tube. For optimists such as the biologist J B S Haldane, such ‘ectogenesis’ would permit humans to take the reins of their own evolution, eliminating disease and mutation, and perhaps enhancing qualities such as intelligence, kindness and strength of character. ... The development of molecular biology in the 1950s and ’60s transformed genes from abstractions into hard chemicals. Suddenly, scientists understood basically what a gene was. They thought they understood what a human was. ... By the mid-1980s, enthusiasts were discussing ‘genetic surgery’. The idea was to treat genetic disease by inserting a therapeutic gene into a modified virus and then ‘infect’ the patient; the virus would do the tricky part of inserting the gene into the chromosome. Through the 1990s, gene therapy was hyped almost as hard as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), the new technology for ‘editing’ genes, is today. ... in terms of bringing us closer to a science-fiction world of intelligently designing our children – utopia or dystopia, take your pick – gene editing is more precise than accurate. The qualities we want in a child or in society can’t be had by tweaking a few nucleotides. There are no short cuts. To think otherwise is to conflate power with knowledge, to overestimate our understanding of biology, and to overestimate the role of genes in determining who we are.
His latest venture, Human Longevity, Inc., or HLI, creates a realistic avatar of each of its customers – they call the first batch ‘voyagers’ – to provide an intimate, friendly interface for them to navigate the terabytes of medical information being gleaned about their genes, bodies and abilities. Venter wants HLI to create the world’s most important database for interpreting the genetic code, so he can make healthcare more proactive, preventative and predictive. Such data marks the start of a decisive shift in medicine, from treatment to prevention. Venter believes we have entered the digital age of biology. And he is the first to embark on this ultimate journey of self-discovery. ... His critics call him arrogant but, having talked to him on and off for more than two decades, I think Venter has earned the right to be bullish about his abilities to build a biotech venture from scratch. ... So far, HLI has amassed the sequences of around 20,000 whole genomes, says Venter (he won’t be drawn on whether it is the biggest cache – probably, but he adds that it depends on the details and that “all kinds of people make all kinds of claims”). But, of course, he wants even more. The company has room for more sequencing facilities on its third floor and is considering a second centre in Singapore, planning to rapidly scale to sequencing the genomes of 100,000 people per year – whether children, adults or centenarians, and including both those with disease and those who are healthy. By 2020, Venter aims to have sequenced a million genomes. ... in about a month, each Illumina sequencer can tear through 16 human genomes at the same coverage in just three days. Each week, these machines pump terabytes of data into the cloud run by Amazon Web Services. ... Venter says their findings have changed his static view of the genome. For instance, he has been able to compare his 2006 genome with today’s, using three different sequencing technologies. “One of the findings that would have shocked me and the rest of the world 15 years ago is that our genome is continually changing,” he says. “We can relatively accurately predict your age from your genome sequence, or at least the age when the sample was taken.” ... Targeted initially at self-insured executives and athletes, a full health scan will be priced at $25,000.
Samumed is finding it easy to raise huge amounts of cash because it believes it has invented medicines that can reverse aging. Its first drugs are targeted at specific organ systems. One aims to regrow hair in bald men. The same drug may also turn gray hair back to its original color, and a cosmetic version could erase wrinkles. A second drug seeks to regenerate cartilage in arthritic knees. Additional medicines in early human studies aim to repair degenerated discs in the spine, remove scarring in the lungs and treat cancer. After that Samumed will attempt to cure a leading cause of blindness and go after Alzheimer’s. The firm’s focus, disease by disease, symptom by symptom, is to make the cells of aging people regenerate as powerfully as those of a developing fetus. ... Hood, 49, had invented a cancer drug that got his previous company, Targegen, bought by Sanofi for $635 million. He has a distinct take on drug development: He thinks everybody takes too many shortcuts and insists on doing work himself that other companies outsource, including formulating drug chemistry, testing drugs in laboratory animals and running clinical trials. ... The target Hood and Kibar went after was obvious: a gene called Wnt, which stands for “wingless integration site,” because when you knock it out in fruit flies, they never grow wings. It’s a linchpin in a group of genes that control the growth of a developing fetus–whether you’re a fly or a person. Together these genes are known as the Wnt pathway. Trigger the right ones and you might revive old flesh. Some cancers do their dirty work by hijacking Wnt, and blocking it might stop tumors.
A. gambiae has been called the world’s most dangerous animal, although strictly speaking that applies only to the female of the species, which does the bloodsucking and harms only indirectly. Its bite is a minor nuisance, unless it happens to convey the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, for which it is a primary human vector. Although a huge international effort has cut malaria mortality by about half since 2000, the World Health Organization still estimates there were more than 400,000 fatal cases in 2015, primarily in Africa. Children are particularly susceptible. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation prioritized malaria in its more than $500 million commitment to fight infectious disease in developing countries. ... Humans have been at war with members of the family Culicidae for over a century, since the pioneering epidemiologist Sir Ronald Ross proved the role of Anopheles in malaria and U.S. Army Maj. Walter Reed made a similar discovery about Aedes aegypti and yellow fever. The war has been waged with shovels and insecticides, with mosquito repellent, mosquito traps and mosquito-larvae-eating fish, with bed nets and window screens and rolled-up newspapers. But all of these approaches are self-limiting. Puddles fill up again with rain; insects evolve resistance to pesticides; predators can eat only so much. ... If Crisanti’s approach works, you could, in theory, wipe out an entire species of mosquito. You could wipe out every species of mosquito, although you’d need to do them one at a time, and there are around 3,500 of them, of which only about 100 spread human disease. You might want to stop at fewer than a dozen species in three genera—Anopheles (translation: “useless,” the malaria mosquito), Aedes (translation: “unpleasant,” the principal vector for yellow fever, dengue and Zika) and Culex (translation: “gnat,” responsible for spreading West Nile, St. Louis encephalitis and other viruses).
It starts with a single gene, out of some 20 to 25,000, coding for the more than 30 trillion cells in a human body. Take the length of the DNA in those cells, unravel it, and you have a distance of more than 400 lengths from the sun to the Earth. The human genome has 6 billion data points of information. Six billion ways for something to go incredibly right — or incredibly wrong. ... Sorting through these possibilities is the job of Stanford University scientist Euan Ashley. The 45-year-old Scotsman is a cardiologist, a systems biologist, and one of the leaders of a new, integrated approach to the science of genetics. He led the first team to clinically interpret a full human genome; he’s involved in attempts to sequence cancer genomes for personalized treatment and to analyze the genomes of individuals who have rare and unknown diseases. But for the last several years, his work has focused on a specific mystery. He is looking for superhero genes ... “We’re interested in truly the fittest people on the planet,” he explained. Though there are many factors that may make someone elite, his team made the decision to select athletes on the basis of a single, objective physiological variable: the maximum amount of oxygen a body can use, or VO2max. VO2max is considered one of the most important markers not only for athletic success, but for overall health: It’s such a crucial indicator of cardiovascular function that it is used to determine whether someone requires a heart transplant. VO2max has also been measured in the same way for half a century, which means it can be a useful comparative point. ... To be a part of the study, men need to test at a VO2max that exceeds 75 milliliters of oxygen per minute; for women, the cutoff is 63. Fewer than .00172 percent of the population qualify.
The men and women who are trying to bring down cancer are starting to join forces rather than work alone. Together, they are winning a few of the battles against the world's fiercest disease. ... It's not like you don't have cancer and then one day you just do. Cancer—or, really, cancers, because cancer is not a single disease—happens when glitches in genes cause cells to grow out of control until they overtake the body, like a kudzu plant. Genes develop glitches all the time: There are roughly twenty thousand genes in the human body, any of which can get misspelled or chopped up. Bits can be inserted or deleted. Whole copies of genes can appear and disappear, or combine to form mutants. ... Cancer is not an ordinary disease. Cancer is the disease—a phenomenon that contains the whole of genetics and biology and human life in a single cell. It will take an army of researchers to defeat it.
As space exploration geared up in the 1960s, scientists were faced with a new dilemma. How could they recognize life on other planets, where it may have evolved very differently—and therefore have a different chemical signature—than it has on Earth? James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, gave this advice: Look for order. Every organism is a brief upwelling of structure from chaos, a self-assembled wonder that must jealously defend its order until the day it dies. Sophisticated information processing is necessary to preserve and pass down the rules for maintaining this order, yet life is built out of the messiest materials: tumbling chemicals, soft cells, and tangled polymers. Shouldn’t, therefore, information in biological systems be handled messily, and wasted? In fact, many biological computations are so perfect that they bump up against the mathematical limits of efficiency; genius is our inheritance.
The most intriguing part of the antenna, though, is that it gives him an ability the rest of us don’t have. He looked at the lamps on the roof deck and sensed that the infrared lights that activate them were off. He glanced at the planters and could “see” the ultraviolet markings that show where nectar is located at the centers of the flowers. He has not just matched ordinary human skills; he has exceeded them. ... He is, then, a first step toward the goal that visionary futurists have always had, an early example of what Ray Kurzweil in his well-known book The Singularity Is Near calls “the vast expansion of human potential.” ... But are we on the way to redefining how we evolve? Does evolution now mean not just the slow grind of natural selection spreading desirable genes, but also everything that we can do to amplify our powers and the powers of the things we make—a union of genes, culture, and technology? And if so, where is it taking us? ... Conventional evolution is alive and well in our species. Not long ago we knew the makeup of only a handful of the roughly 20,000 protein-encoding genes in our cells; today we know the function of about 12,000. But genes are only a tiny percentage of the DNA in our genome. More discoveries are certain to come—and quickly. From this trove of genetic information, researchers have already identified dozens of examples of relatively recent evolution. ... In our world now, the primary mover for reproductive success—and thus evolutionary change—is culture, and its weaponized cousin, technology. ... One human trait with a strong genetic component continues to increase in value, even more so as technology grows more dominant. The universal ambition of humanity remains greater intelligence.