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Few things in science freak people out more than human-animal hybrids. Named chimeras, after the mythical Greek creature that’s an amalgam of different beasts, these part-human, part-animal embryos have come onto the scene to transform our understanding of what makes us “human.”
If theoretically grown to term, chimeras would be an endless resource for replacement human organs. They’re a window into the very early stages of human development, allowing scientists to probe the mystery of the first dozen days after sperm-meets-egg. They could help map out how our brains build their early architecture, potentially solving the age-old question of why our neural networks are so powerful—and how their wiring could go wrong.
The trouble with all of this? The embryos are part human. The idea of human hearts or livers growing inside an animal may be icky, but tolerable, to some. Human neurons crafting a brain inside a hybrid embryo—potentially leading to consciousness—is a horror scenario. For years, scientists have flirted with ethical boundaries by mixing human cells with those of rats and pigs, which are relatively far from us in evolutionary terms, to reduce the chance of a mentally “humanized” chimera.
This week, scientists crossed a line.
In a study led by Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a prominent stem cell biologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the team reported the first vetted case of a human-monkey hybrid embryo.
Reflexive shudder aside, the study is a technological tour-de-force. The scientists were able to watch the hybrid embryo develop for 20 days outside the womb, far longer than any previous attempts. Putting the timeline into context, it’s about 20 percent of a monkey’s gestation period.
Although only 3 out of over 100 attempts survived past that point, the viable embryos contained a shockingly high amount of human cells—about one-third of the entire cell population. If able to further develop, those human contributions could, in theory, substantially form the biological architecture of the body, and perhaps the mind, of a human-monkey fetus.
I can’t stress this enough: the technology isn’t there yet to bring Planet of the Apes to life. Strict regulations also prohibit growing chimera embryos past the first few weeks. It’s telling that Izpisua Belmonte collaborated with Chinese labs, which have far fewer ethical regulations than the US.
But the line’s been crossed, and there’s no going back. Here’s what they did, why they did it, and reasons to justify—or limit—similar tests going forward.
What They Did
The way the team made the human-monkey embryo is similar to previous attempts at half-human chimeras.
Here’s how it goes. They used de-programmed, or “reverted,” human stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These cells often start from skin cells, and are chemically treated to revert to the stem cell stage, gaining back the superpower to grow into almost any type of cell: heart, lung, brain…you get the idea. The next step is preparing the monkey component, a fertilized and healthy monkey egg that develops for six days in a Petri dish. By this point, the embryo is ready for implantation into the uterus, which kicks off the whole development process.
This is where the chimera jab comes in. Using a tiny needle, the team injected each embryo with 25 human cells, and babied them for another day. “Until recently the experiment would have ended there,” wrote Drs. Hank Greely and Nita Farahany, two prominent bioethicists who wrote an accompanying expert take, but were not involved in the study.
But the team took it way further. Using a biological trick, the embryos attached to the Petri dish as they would to a womb. The human cells survived after the artificial “implantation,” and—surprisingly—tended to physically group together, away from monkey cells.
The weird segregation led the team to further explore why human cells don’t play nice with those of another species. Using a big data approach, the team scouted how genes in human cells talked to their monkey hosts. What’s surprising, the team said, is that adding human cells into the monkey embryos fundamentally changed both. Rather than each behaving as they would have in their normal environment, the two species of cells influenced each other, even when physically separated. The human cells, for example, tweaked the biochemical messengers that monkey cells—and the “goop” surrounding those cells—use to talk to one another.
In other words, in contrast to oil and water, human and monkey cells seemed to communicate and change the other’s biology without needing too much outside whisking. Human iPSCs began to behave more like monkey cells, whereas monkey embryos became slightly more human.
Ok, But Why?
The main reasons the team went for a monkey hybrid, rather than the “safer” pig or rat alternative, was because of our similarities to monkeys. As the authors argue, being genetically “closer” in evolutionary terms makes it easier to form chimeras. In turn, the resulting embryos also make it possible to study early human development and build human tissues and organs for replacement.
“Historically, the generation of human-animal chimeras has suffered from low efficiency,” said Izpisua Belmonte. “Generation of a chimera between human and non-human primate, a species more closely related to humans along the evolutionary timeline than all previously used species, will allow us to gain better insight into whether there are evolutionarily imposed barriers to chimera generation and if there are any means by which we can overcome them.”
A Controversial Future
That argument isn’t convincing to some.
In terms of organ replacement, monkeys are very expensive (and cognitively advanced) donors compared to pigs, the latter of which have been the primary research host for growing human organs. While difficult to genetically engineer to fit human needs, pigs are more socially acceptable as organ “donors”—many of us don’t bat an eye at eating ham or bacon—whereas the concept of extracting humanoid tissue from monkeys is extremely uncomfortable.
A human-monkey hybrid could be especially helpful for studying neurodevelopment, but that directly butts heads with the “human cells in animal brains” problem. Even when such an embryo is not brought to term, it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s ready to study the brain of a potentially viable animal fetus with human cells wired into its neural networks.
There’s also the “sledgehammer” aspect of the study that makes scientists cringe. “Direct transplantation of cells into particular regions, or organs [of an animal], allows researchers to predict where and how the cells might integrate,” said Greely and Farahany. This means they might be able to predict if the injected human cells end up in a “boring” area, like the gallbladder, or a more “sensitive” area, like the brain. But with the current technique, we’re unsure where the human cells could eventually migrate to and grow.
Yet despite the ick factor, human-monkey embryos circumvent the ethical quandaries around using aborted tissue for research. These hybrid embryos may present the closest models to early human development that we can get without dipping into the abortion debate.
In their commentary, Greely and Farahany laid out four main aspects to consider before moving ahead with the controversial field. First and foremost is animal welfare, which is “especially true for non-human primates,” as they’re mentally close to us. There’s also the need for consent from human donors, which form the basis of the injected iPSCs, as some may be uncomfortable with the endeavor itself. Like organ donors, people need to be fully informed.
Third and fourth, public discourse is absolutely needed, as people may strongly disapprove of the idea of mixing human tissue or organs with animals. For now, the human-monkey embryos have a short life. But as technology gets better, and based on previous similar experiments with other chimeras, the next step in this venture is to transplant the embryo into a living animal host’s uterus, which could nurture it to grow further.
For now, that’s a red line for human-monkey embryos, and the technology isn’t there yet. But if the surprise of CRISPR babies has taught us anything, it’s that as a society we need to discourage, yet prepare for, a lone wolf who’s willing to step over the line—that is, bringing a part-human, part-animal embryo to term.
“We must begin to think about that possibility,” said Greely and Farahany. With the study, we know that “those future experiments are now at least plausible.”
Image Credit: A human-monkey chimera embryo, photo by Weizhi Ji, Kunming University of Science and Technology Continue reading
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Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):
ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – [Online Event]
RoboCup 2021 – June 22-28, 2021 – [Online Event]
DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA
WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – Coral Gables, FL, USA
ROSCon 20201 – October 21-23, 2021 – New Orleans, LA, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.
Researchers from the Biorobotics Lab in the School of Computer Science’s Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University tested the hardened underwater modular robot snake (HUMRS) last month in the pool, diving the robot through underwater hoops, showing off its precise and smooth swimming, and demonstrating its ease of control.
The robot's modular design allows it to adapt to different tasks, whether squeezing through tight spaces under rubble, climbing up a tree or slithering around a corner underwater. For the underwater robot snake, the team used existing watertight modules that allow the robot to operate in bad conditions. They then added new modules containing the turbines and thrusters needed to maneuver the robot underwater.
[ CMU ]
Robots are learning how not to fall over after stepping on your foot and kicking you in the shin.
[ B-Human ]
Like boot prints on the Moon, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft left its mark on asteroid Bennu. Now, new images—taken during the spacecraft's final fly-over on April 7, 2021—reveal the aftermath of the historic Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample acquisition event from Oct. 20, 2020.
[ NASA ]
In recognition of National Robotics Week, Conan O'Brien thanks one of the robots that works for him.
[ YouTube ]
The latest from Wandercraft's self-balancing Atalante exo.
[ Wandercraft ]
Stocking supermarket shelves is one of those things that's much more difficult than it looks for robots, involving in-hand manipulation, motion planning, vision, and tactile sensing. Easy for humans, but robots are getting better.
[ Article ]
Draganfly drone spraying Varigard disinfectant at the Smoothie King stadium. Our drone sanitization spraying technology is up to 100% more efficient and effective than conventional manual spray sterilization processes.
[ Draganfly ]
Baubot is a mobile construction robot that can do pretty much everything, apparently.
I’m pretty skeptical of robots like these; especially ones that bill themselves as platforms that can be monetized by third-party developers. From what we've seen, the most successful robots instead focus on doing one thing very well.
[ Baubot ]
In this demo, a remote operator sends an unmanned ground vehicle on an autonomous inspection mission via Clearpath’s web-based Outdoor Navigation Software.
[ Clearpath ]
Aurora’s Odysseus aircraft is a high-altitude pseudo-satellite that can change how we use the sky. At a fraction of the cost of a satellite and powered by the sun, Odysseus offers vast new possibilities for those who need to stay connected and informed.
[ Aurora ]
This video from 1999 discusses the soccer robot research activities at Carnegie Mellon University. CMUnited, the team of robots developed by Manuela Veloso and her students, won the small-size competition in both 1997 and 1998.
[ CMU ]
This video propose an overview of our participation to the DARPA subterranean challenge, with a focus on the urban edition taking place Feb. 18-27, 2020, at Satsop Business Park west of Olympia, Washington.
[ Norlab ]
In today’s most advanced warehouses, Magazino’s autonomous robot TORU works side by side with human colleagues. The robot is specialized in picking, transporting, and stowing objects like shoe boxes in e-commerce warehouses.
[ Magazino ]
A look at the Control Systems Lab at the National Technical University of Athens.
[ CSL ]
Doug Weber of MechE and the Neuroscience Institute discusses his group’s research on harnessing the nervous system's ability to control not only our bodies, but the machines and prostheses that can enhance our bodies, especially for those with disabilities.
[ CMU ]
Mark Yim, Director of the GRASP Lab at UPenn, gives a talk on “Is Cost Effective Robotics Interesting?” Yes, yes it is.
Robotic technologies have shown the capability to do amazing things. But many of those things are too expensive to be useful in any real sense. Cost reduction has often been shunned by research engineers and scientists in academia as “just engineering.” For robotics to make a larger impact on society the cost problem must be addressed.
[ CMU ]
There are all kinds of “killer robots” debates going on, but if you want an informed, grounded, nuanced take on AI and the future of war-fighting, you want to be watching debates like these instead. Professor Rebecca Crootof speaks with Brigadier General Patrick Huston, Assistant Judge Advocate General for Military Law and Operations, at Duke Law School's 26th Annual National Security Law conference.
[ Lawfire ]
This week’s Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar is by Julie Adams from Oregon State, on “Human-Collective Teams: Algorithms, Transparency .”
Biological inspiration for artificial systems abounds. The science to support robotic collectives continues to emerge based on their biological inspirations, spatial swarms (e.g., fish and starlings) and colonies (e.g., honeybees and ants). Developing effective human-collective teams requires focusing on all aspects of the integrated system development. Many of these fundamental aspects have been developed independently, but our focus is an integrated development process to these complex research questions. This presentation will focus on three aspects: algorithms, transparency, and resilience for collectives.
[ UMD ] Continue reading
15 Graphs You Need to See to Understand AI in 2021
Charles Q. Choi | IEEE Spectrum
“If you haven’t had time to read the AI Index Report for 2021, which clocks in at 222 pages, don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. The massive document, produced by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, is packed full of data and graphs, and we’ve plucked out 15 that provide a snapshot of the current state of AI.”
Geoffrey Hinton Has a Hunch About What’s Next for Artificial Intelligence
Siobhan Roberts | MIT Technology Review
“Back in November, the computer scientist and cognitive psychologist Geoffrey Hinton had a hunch. After a half-century’s worth of attempts—some wildly successful—he’d arrived at another promising insight into how the brain works and how to replicate its circuitry in a computer.”
Robotic Exoskeletons Could One Day Walk by Themselves
Charles Q. Choi | IEEE Spectrum
“Ultimately, the ExoNet researchers want to explore how AI software can transmit commands to exoskeletons so they can perform tasks such as climbing stairs or avoiding obstacles based on a system’s analysis of a user’s current movements and the upcoming terrain. With autonomous cars as inspiration, they are seeking to develop autonomous exoskeletons that can handle the walking task without human input, Laschowski says.”
Microsoft Buys AI Speech Tech Company Nuance for $19.7 Billion
James Vincent | The Verge
“The $19.7 billion acquisition of Nuance is Microsoft’s second-largest behind its purchase of LinkedIn in 2016 for $26 billion. It comes at a time when speech tech is improving rapidly, thanks to the deep learning boom in AI, and there are simultaneously more opportunities for its use.”
Google’s New 3D Time-Lapse Feature Shows How Humans Are Affecting the Planet
Sam Rutherford | Gizmodo
“Described by Google Earth director Rebecca Moore as the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017, Timelapse in Google Earth combines more than 24 million satellite photos, two petabytes of data, and 2 million hours of CPU processing time to create a 4.4-terapixel interactive view showing how the Earth has changed from 1984 to 2020.”
The Genetic Mistakes That Could Shape Our Species
Zaria Gorvett | BBC
“New technologies may have already introduced genetic errors to the human gene pool. How long will they last? And how could they affect us? …According to [Stanford’s Hank] Greely, who has written a book about the implications of He [Jiankui]’s project, the answer depends on what the edits do and how they’re inherited.”
The Era of Reusability in Space Has Begun
Eric Berger | Ars Technica
“As [Earth orbit] becomes more cluttered [due to falling launch costs], the responsible thing is to more actively refuel, recycle, and dispose of satellites. Northrop Grumman has made meaningful progress toward such a future of satellite servicing. As a result, reusability is now moving into space.”
100 Million More IoT Devices Are Exposed—and They Won’t Be the Last
Lily Hay Newman | Wired
“Over the last few years, researchers have found a shocking number of vulnerabilities in seemingly basic code that underpins how devices communicate with the internet. Now a new set of nine such vulnerabilities are exposing an estimated 100 million devices worldwide, including an array of internet-of-things products and IT management servers.”
Image Credit: Naitian (Tony) Wang / Unsplash Continue reading