Inside the 50-year quest to build a mechanical organ ... each year, only about 1 in 10 patients that need a transplant worldwide receives the life-saving surgery. ... Fewer than 2,000 patients have received an entirely artificial heart in the device's three decades of existence, and most patients haven’t used the machines for long. As with Williams, mechanical hearts are typically just a bridge to an eventual transplant. ... It’s unclear whether plastic and metal hearts can ever truly replicate their biological counterparts, which pump 2,000 gallons of blood every day, service 60,000 miles of blood vessels (more than double the circumference of the world), and work without a hitch year after year.
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.
‘Cyborg’ is a loaded and attention-grabbing term, bearing associations from sci-fi novels and Hollywood, and whether it’s an entirely accurate label for these activities is up for debate. Some commentators broaden the definition to include anyone who uses artificial devices, such as computer screens or iPhones. Others prefer to narrow it. As early as 2003, in an article entitled ‘Cyborg morals, cyborg values, cyborg ethics’, Kevin Warwick, the professor who pioneered the cyborg movement in the academic sphere, described ‘cyborgs’ as being only those entities formed by a “human, machine brain/nervous system coupling” – essentially “a human whose nervous system is linked to a computer”. ... Implanting an RFID chip is relatively simple: a tiny glass object about the size of a grain of rice is injected into the soft part of the hand between the thumb and forefinger – it’s as easy as drawing blood.
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).
Let us say it plainly: Monsanto is almost surely the most vilified company on the planet. To its diehard critics it embodies all that is wrong with big, industrial agriculture—the corporatization of farming, the decline of smallholders, the excessive use of chemicals, a lack of transparency, and, of course, the big one: the entry of genetically modified organisms into our food supply. The tri-letter acronym GMO has become a four-letter word to millions of people, from earnest middle-schoolers to purist Whole Foods shoppers. ... The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we must double the current level of food production to adequately feed a population predicted to hit 9.7 billion by 2050—and we’ll have to do it on less land (much of it scarce of water), using fewer resources. ... Historically, Monsanto has tried to increase farm yields through advancements in seed technology alone. Grant calls this “hubris”: “Twenty years ago,” he says, “we thought biotech was going to be the panacea.” In the past half-decade the company has begun to look beyond seed for answers. ... Breeding better seed has contributed to a more than 1% annual increase in corn yields, experts say. Biologists, for instance, have created corn plants that can be clustered closer together, meaning there can be more stalks per acre. Still, that yearly growth rate would leave the U.S. average below 200 bushels by the end of the decade—far from Hula’s corn bonanza and nowhere near enough to feed the planet. ... Combined, those seeds now fill some 400 million acres around the globe. That’s a fraction of the nearly 4 billion acres of land the UN estimates is being cultivated. Climate Corp.’s chief technology officer Mark Young doubts that that Monsanto could ever get to a billion-acre footprint just by being a seed company, “but as a decision-based company, it seems to have a really good shot.” Monsanto, for example, doesn’t sell grape seeds, but it could some day advise grape growers on how to increase their yields.
The production of plastic requires large amounts of fossil fuels, and its disposal has led to landfills and oceans overflowing with waste. ... If we’re to get out from under the all the plastic we’ve created and thrown away, we’re going to have to do two things: find renewable sources from which we can make environmentally friendly plastics, and devise ways to clean up the plastic we’ve already discarded. ... Fortunately, researchers are working on solutions to address both these needs.
Farms, then, are becoming more like factories: tightly controlled operations for turning out reliable products, immune as far as possible from the vagaries of nature. Thanks to better understanding of DNA, the plants and animals raised on a farm are also tightly controlled. Precise genetic manipulation, known as “genome editing”, makes it possible to change a crop or stock animal’s genome down to the level of a single genetic “letter”. This technology, it is hoped, will be more acceptable to consumers than the shifting of whole genes between species that underpinned early genetic engineering, because it simply imitates the process of mutation on which crop breeding has always depended, but in a far more controllable way. ... Understanding a crop’s DNA sequence also means that breeding itself can be made more precise. You do not need to grow a plant to maturity to find out whether it will have the characteristics you want. A quick look at its genome beforehand will tell you. ... Such technological changes, in hardware, software and “liveware”, are reaching beyond field, orchard and byre. Fish farming will also get a boost from them. And indoor horticulture, already the most controlled and precise type of agriculture, is about to become yet more so. ... In the short run, these improvements will boost farmers’ profits, by cutting costs and increasing yields, and should also benefit consumers (meaning everyone who eats food) in the form of lower prices. In the longer run, though, they may help provide the answer to an increasingly urgent question: how can the world be fed in future without putting irreparable strain on the Earth’s soils and oceans?
Around the world, nearly 80 research groups in 25 countries are honing their technologies for the €5-million (US$5.5-million) event. They range from small, ad hoc teams to the world's largest manufacturers of advanced prostheses, and comprise about 300 scientists, engineers, support staff and competitors: disabled people who will each compete in one of six events that will challenge their ability to tackle the chores of daily life. A race for prosthetic-arm users will be won by the first cyborg to complete tasks including preparing a meal and hanging clothes on a line. A powered-wheelchair race will test how well participants can navigate everyday obstacles such as bumps and stairs. ... The venue — Zurich's 7,600-spectator ice-hockey stadium — should combine with the presence of television cameras and team jerseys to give the Cybathlon a sporting vibe similar to that of the Paralympics, in which disabled athletes compete using wheelchairs, running blades and other assistive technologies. The difference is that the Paralympics celebrates exclusively human performance: athletes must use commercially available devices that run on muscle power alone. But the Cybathlon honours technology and innovation. Its champions will use powered prostheses, often straight out of the lab, and are called pilots rather than athletes. The hope is that devices trialled in the games will accelerate technology development and eventually be used by people around the world.
Reversing Paralysis: Scientists are making remarkable progress at using brain implants to restore the freedom of movement that spinal cord injuries take away.
Self-Driving Trucks: Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon barrel onto highways near you. What will this mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck drivers?
Paying with Your Face: Face-detecting systems in China now authorize payments, provide access to facilities, and track down criminals. Will other countries follow?
Practical Quantum Computers: Advances at Google, Intel, and several research groups indicate that computers with previously unimaginable power are finally within reach.
The 360-Degree Selfie: Inexpensive cameras that make spherical images are opening a new era in photography and changing the way people share stories.
Hot Solar Cells: By converting heat to focused beams of light, a new solar device could create cheap and continuous power.
Gene Therapy 2.0: Scientists have solved fundamental problems that were holding back cures for rare hereditary disorders. Next we’ll see if the same approach can take on cancer, heart disease, and other common illnesses.
The Cell Atlas: Biology’s next mega-project will find out what we’re really made of.
Botnets of Things: The relentless push to add connectivity to home gadgets is creating dangerous side effects that figure to get even worse.
Reinforcement Learning: By experimenting, computers are figuring out how to do things that no programmer could teach them.