It all depends on how you define “success”

Sergio Canavero has been blustering for years about how he’s going to do a complete human head transplant. His most recent shenanigans was the horrible two-headed rat, in which he decapitated a little rat, killed a big rat, and stitched the two circulatory systems together to allow the big rat’s heart to keep the little rat’s unconscious brain alive for a few hours. It was a stupid waste; the big problem is and always has been to reconnect a nervous system in a functional way, and he’s not even trying to do that.

But now he has announced that he has successfully transplanted the head from one human being onto the body of another. Successfully. What does he mean by that?

He has successfully transplanted the head from one human cadaver to the torso of another human cadaver. No word yet on whether the patient has recovered consciousness or how he is feeling.

Are you impressed yet?

What will impress me is when these gullible newsrags wake up and realize that Canavero is a fraud, and they stop giving him free press for every ghoulish act of necrophilia he commits.

Immediate and long-term benefits of basic research into rare diseases

I presume you’ve all read about this marvelous work on correcting a rare and terrible genetic disease, epidermolysis bullosa. It’s a mutation that causes the skin to blister up and tear, basically; it’s a horrible disease that makes life miserable and a constant source of pain and infection.

Patients with epidermolysis bullosa live in excruciating pain, their skin so fragile to the touch that those born with the disorder have been nicknamed “butterfly children.” The disorder produces chronic and untreatable wounds that get infected easily and can eventually become cancerous. About 500,000 people worldwide have epidermolysis bullosa.

Now it has been successfully treated by combining a technique for generating skin grafts from stem cells that was first developed for burn patients, with gene therapy, going in and repairing the defective gene, and then growing the new graft from the patient’s own gene-corrected cells. It seems to be a total success.

In August, De Luca and Pelligrini got the green light to try their technique. In September, they collected a square inch of skin from Hassan’s groin—one of the few parts of his body with intact skin. They isolated stem cells, genetically modified them, and created their gene-corrected skin grafts. In October and November, they transplanted these onto Hassan, replacing around 80 percent of his old skin.

It worked. In February 2016, Hassan was discharged from the hospital. In March, he was back in school. He needs no ointments. His skin is strong. It doesn’t even itch. “He hasn’t developed a single blister,” says de Luca, who shared the details of Hassan’s story with me. “He’s gaining weight. He’s playing sports. He’s got a normal social life.”

Solely from a humanitarian aspect, this is a triumph. But there’s another side to it as well, that addresses the kind of complaint we might get from bean-counters. This is a relatively rare disease. It would be far cheaper to just let its victims simply suffer and die out. The articles don’t talk about it, but I’m sure the cost of culturing and growing and applying gene therapy to new skin for this one victim was extravagant to an extreme. But that isn’t the point — in addition to being a clinical treatment for one person, this represents basic scientific research on a core problem, how to generate reliable quantities of genetically modified tissue.

It is the same rational we use for all basic research into rare diseases — not only is it the right and humane thing to do, but figuring out how to deal with it adds a new tool to our toolbox and gives us deeper understanding of fundamental cellular processes.

More aliens!

Sometimes, I think, science fiction authors have a better idea of potential alien complexity than do biologists. Here’s an essay by Tim Pratt on alien worldbuilding that does a good job of addressing a common problem.

I knew my series needed aliens, just like it needed mysterious ancient technological artifacts, space pirates, snarky computers, and cool spaceships. Turning to the task of creating aliens right after I’d put together my (mostly) human crew made me hyperaware of the issue of culture. One thing that bothers me in some science fiction (more often cinematic and televisual than written, but often there, too) is alien monocultures. Unless you’re talking about the Borg or Cybermen or other sorts of hive-minds, it never made sense to me to have an entire species of aliens with a single culture. How many thousands of cultures are there on Earth, after all, and how many subcultures within those cultures? From differences in music, religion, recreation, art, literature, food, philosophy, sexual preferences—cultures and subcultures get so wonderfully and weirdly granular. And yet, so often when our fictional humans encounter aliens, they discover the whole species consists of noble warriors or aloof philosophers or sadistic experimenters or ruthless capitalists. Where are the pacifist Klingons who run sustainable free-range krada ranches? Where are the Wookies who like to shave their entire bodies and refuse to celebrate Life Day because it’s gone too corporate? The Volus philanthropists? The punk rock Vulcans? Sure, sometimes there’s a plot point involving some rogue weirdo outlier, but in any alien species there should plausibly be whole communities, whole cities, whole religions or sects or affinity groups, who march to the beat of a different Kintarrian Death Drum.

Yeah! Diversity is important. I think I’m going to have to grab a copy of his series.

We can predict that aliens exist, if aliens exist

I am informed that Oxford biologists have outlined what alien life would look like — I’m a bit put off by the title. One of those things that reduces the credibility of a story for me is when the editor feels the need to pump up the authority by prefixing “biologist” with the name of a prestigious university. Wouldn’t just “biologists have outlined what alien life would look like” been adequate?

I went ahead and read the source paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology, “Darwin’s Aliens”, and you know, I’m not very impressed. It claims in the abstract that “we can make specific predictions about the biological makeup of complex aliens,” but it doesn’t — it makes vague, amorphous generalities about possible aliens. Basically, it says that there would be replicators of some sort that would use natural selection, and then it announces that there would have been “major transitions” in their evolutionary history to generate complexity.

Uh, OK.

Picture an alien. If what you are picturing is a simple replicating molecule, then this ‘alien’ might not undergo natural selection. For example, it could replicate itself perfectly every time, and thus there would be no variation, and it would never improve. Or it might have such a high error rate in replication that it quickly deteriorates. If we count things like that as life, then there could be aliens that do not undergo natural selection. But if you are picturing anything more complex or purposeful than a simple molecule, then the alien you are picturing has undergone natural selection. This is the kind of prediction that theory can make. Given heredity, variation and differential success, aliens will undergo natural selection. Or, more interestingly, without those three things, aliens could not be more complicated than a replicating molecule. Given an adapted alien, one with an appearance of design or purpose, it will have undergone natural selection.

The telling phrase in there is this one:

This is the kind of prediction that theory can make. Given heredity, variation and differential success, aliens will undergo natural selection.

I agree. That’s the kind of prediction you can make. It’s kind of…broad, don’t you think?

Then they toss in their edifying zinger.

In particular, the evolution of complex life on the Earth appears to have depended upon a small number of what have been termed major evolutionary transitions in individuality. In each transition, a group of individuals that could previously replicate independently cooperate to form a new, more complex life form or higher level organism. For example, genes cooperated to form genomes, different single-celled organisms formed the eukaryotic cell, cells cooperated to form multicellular organisms, and multicellular organisms formed eusocial societies.

Who would have guessed? Complex organisms must have experienced increases in complexity in their evolutionary history.

You want another tautology?

Once again, picture an alien. If you are picturing something like unlinked replicating molecules or undifferentiated blobs of slime, then your aliens might not have undergone major transitions. But if what you are picturing has different parts with specialized functions, then your alien is likely to have undergone major transitions. What matters is not that we call them ‘major transitions’, but rather that complexity requires multiple parts of an organism striving to the same purpose, and that theory predicts that this requires restrictive conditions. Consequently, if we find complex organisms, we can make predictions about what they will be like.

If we find complex organisms, then we can predict what they will be like. You keep using that word, “predict”. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Now we get an illustrative illustration of what an alien might look like.

Major transitions in space: ‘The Octomite’. A complex alien that comprises a hierarchy of entities, where each lower-level collection of entities has aligned evolutionary interests such that conflict is effectively eliminated. These entities engage in a division of labour, with various parts specializing on various tasks, such that the parts are mutually dependent.

Why? The authors seem to think that they can therefore predict that aliens will consist of a literal hierarchy of complexity, with literal morphological layers. I ask you, is there anything on Earth that looks like this? Then their model fails to predict any of the forms found on the one known planet with complex life, and is therefore rather pointless.

They have a summary of their method for making predictions.

When using evolutionary theory to make predictions about extraterrestrial life, it is important to avoid circularity. Our chain of argument is: (1) Extraterrestrial life will have undergone natural selection. (2) Knowing that aliens undergo natural selection, we can make further predictions about their biology, based on the theory of natural selection. In particular, we can say something about complex aliens – that they will likely have undergone major transitions. (3) Theory tells us that restrictive conditions, which eliminate conflict, are required for major transitions. (4) Consequently, complex aliens will be composed of a nested hierarchy of entities, with the conditions required to eliminate conflict at each of those levels.

I feel like I should remind you all that in their abstract, they say “we can make specific predictions about the biological makeup of complex aliens.” Those aren’t specific predictions. I don’t see how those generalities are at all useful in the task they’ve set themselves.

Also, nowhere in their model do they take into account the confounding variable of chance — it’s as if all they have to do is invoke natural selection and then the history of the species unfolds. Which it doesn’t.

Maybe that’s the point of highlighting the authors’ university — it’s supposed to make us overlook the bullshit.

I wonder how much he gets paid for these lies?

There is an EPA appointee, Robert Phalen, who is a researcher at UC Irvine. He has said some extraordinary things.

Speaking to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012, Mr. Phalen told the audience: Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health. Mr. Phalen has also argued that the risks associated with modern particulate matter are very small and confounded by many factors. In a 2004 study, he wrote that, neither toxicology studies nor human clinical investigations have identified the components and/or characteristics of [particulate matter] that might be causing the health-effect associations.

No, really, he believes that.

Back in 2012, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), Phalen claimed American children should be inhaling more pollution in order for their bodies to learn to handle it. According to a write-up on the AAAS official website, Phalen made the point bluntly.

Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.

The article states further that Phalen described his most important role in science as causing trouble and controversy, and upon feeling an ocean breeze come through his office window, he remarked once again: See, the air is too clean.

This is what it takes to get a government appointment in the era of Trump and Pruitt.

Whole genome duplication in the house spider

Let’s talk about the evolution, development, and genomics of the common house spider. Yeah, it’s another YouTube video from yours truly.

Schwager EE, Sharma PP, and others (2017) The house spider genome reveals an ancient whole-genome duplication during arachnid evolution. BMC Biol 15(1):62. doi: 10.1186/s12915-017-0399-x.

Hilbrant M, Damen WG, McGregor AP (2012) Evolutionary crossroads in developmental biology: the spider Parasteatoda tepidariorum. Development 139(15):2655-62. doi: 10.1242/dev.078204.