Renowned genetics pioneer Dr. J Craig Venter is no stranger to controversy.
Back in 2000, he famously raced the public Human Genome Project to decode all three billion letters of the human genome for the first time. A decade later, he ignited a new debate when his team created a bacterial cell with a synthesized genome.
Most recently, he's jumped back into the fray with a study in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the predictive potential of genomic data to identify individual traits such as voice, facial structure and skin color.
The new study raises significant questions about the privacy of genetic data.
His study applied whole-genome sequencing and statistical modeling to predict traits in 1,061 people of diverse ancestry. His approach aimed to reconstruct a person's physical characteristics based on DNA, and 74 percent of the time, his algorithm could correctly identify the individual in a random lineup of 10 people from his company's database.
While critics have been quick to cast doubt on the plausibility of his claims, the ability to discern people's observable traits, or phenotypes, from their genomes may grow more precise as technology improves, raising significant questions about the privacy and usage of genetic information in the long term.
J. Craig Venter showing slides from his recent study on facial prediction at the Summit Conference in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 2017.
(Courtesy of Kira Peikoff)
Critics: Study Was Incomplete, Problematic
Before even redressing these potential legal and ethical considerations, some scientists simply said the study's main result was invalid. They pointed out that the methodology worked much better in distinguishing between people of different ethnicities than those of the same ethnicity. One of the most outspoken critics, Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist at Columbia University, said, "The method doesn't work. The results were like, 'If you have a lineup of ten people, you can predict eight."
Erlich, who reviewed Venter's paper for Science, where it was rejected, said that he came up with the same results—correctly predicting eight of ten people—by just looking at demographic factors such as age, gender and ethnicity. He added that Venter's recent rebuttal to his criticism was that 'Once we have thousands of phenotypes, it might work better.' But that, Erlich argued, would be "a major breach of privacy. Nobody has thousands of phenotypes for people."
Other critics suggested that the study's results discourage the sharing of genetic data, which is becoming increasingly important for medical research. They go one step further and imply that people's possible hesitation to share their genetic information in public databases may actually play into Venter's hands.
Venter's own company, Human Longevity Inc., aims to build the world's most comprehensive private database on human genotypes and phenotypes. The vastness of this information stands to improve the accuracy of whole genome and microbiome sequencing for individuals—analyses that come at a hefty price tag. Today, Human Longevity Inc. will sequence your genome and perform a battery of other health-related tests at an entry cost of $4900, going up to $25,000. Venter initially agreed to comment for this article, but then could not be reached.
"The bigger issue is how do we understand and use genetic information and avoid harming people."
Opens Up Pandora's Box of Ethical Issues
Whether Venter's study is valid may not be as important as the Pandora's box of potential ethical and legal issues that it raises for future consideration. "I think this story is one along a continuum of stories we've had on the issue of identifiability based on genomic information in the past decade," said Amy McGuire, a biomedical ethics professor at Baylor College of Medicine. "It does raise really interesting and important questions about privacy, and socially, how we respond to these types of scientific advancements. A lot of our focus from a policy and ethics perspective is to protect privacy."
McGuire, who is also the Director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor, added that while protecting privacy is very important, "the bigger issue is how do we understand and use genetic information and avoid harming people." While we've taken "baby steps," she said, towards enacting laws in the U.S. that fight genetic determinism—such as the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on genetic information in health insurance and employment—some areas remain unprotected, such as for life insurance and disability.
J. Craig Venter showing slides from his recent study on facial prediction at the Summit Conference in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 2017.
(Courtesy of Kira Peikoff)
Physical reconstructions like those in Venter's study could also be inappropriately used by law enforcement, said Leslie Francis, a law and philosophy professor at the University of Utah, who has written about the ethical and legal issues related to sharing genomic data.
"If [Venter's] findings, or findings like them, hold up, the implications would be significant," Francis said. Law enforcement is increasingly using DNA identification from genetic material left at crime scenes to weed out innocent and guilty suspects, she explained. This adds another potentially complicating layer.
"There is a shift here, from using DNA sequencing techniques to match other DNA samples—as when semen obtained from a rape victim is then matched (or not) with a cheek swab from a suspect—to using DNA sequencing results to predict observable characteristics," Francis said. She added that while the former necessitates having an actual DNA sample for a match, the latter can use DNA to pre-emptively (and perhaps inaccurately) narrow down suspects.
"My worry is that if this [the study's methodology] turns out to be sort-of accurate, people will think it is better than what it is," said Francis. "If law enforcement comes to rely on it, there will be a host of false positives and false negatives. And we'll face new questions, [such as] 'Which is worse? Picking an innocent as guilty, or failing to identify someone who is guilty?'"
Risking Privacy Involves a Tradeoff
When people voluntarily risk their own privacy, that involves a tradeoff, McGuire said. A 2014 study that she conducted among people who were very sick, or whose children were very sick, found that more than half were willing to share their health information, despite concerns about privacy, because they saw a big benefit in advancing research on their conditions.
"We've focused a lot of our policy attention on restricting access, but we don't have a system of accountability when there's a breach."
"To make leaps and bounds in medicine and genomics, we need to create a database of millions of people signing on to share their genetic and health information in order to improve research and clinical care," McGuire said. "They are going to risk their privacy, and we have a social obligation to protect them."
That also means "punishing bad actors," she continued. "We've focused a lot of our policy attention on restricting access, but we don't have a system of accountability when there's a breach."
Even though most people using genetic information have good intentions, the consequences if not are troubling. "All you need is one bad actor who decimates the trust in the system, and it has catastrophic consequences," she warned. That hasn't happened on a massive scale yet, and even if it did, some experts argue that obtaining the data is not the real risk; what is more concerning is hacking individuals' genetic information to be used against them, such as to prove someone is unfit for a particular job because of a genetic condition like Alzheimer's, or that a parent is unfit for custody because of a genetic disposition to mental illness.
Venter, in fact, told an audience at the recent Summit conference in Los Angeles that his new study's approach could not only predict someone's physical appearance from their DNA, but also some of their psychological traits, such as the propensity for an addictive personality. In the future, he said, it will be possible to predict even more about mental health from the genome.
What is most at risk on a massive scale, however, is not so much genetic information as demographic identifiers included in medical records, such as birth dates and social security numbers, said Francis, the law and philosophy professor. "The much more interesting and lucrative security breaches typically involve not people interested in genetic information per se, but people interested in the information in health records that you can't change."
Hospitals have been hacked for this kind of information, including an incident at the Veterans Administration in 2006, in which the laptop and external hard drive of an agency employee that contained unencrypted information on 26.5 million patients were stolen from the employee's house.
So, what can people do to protect themselves? "Don't share anything you wouldn't want the world to see," Francis said. "And don't click 'I agree' without actually reading privacy policies or terms and conditions. They may surprise you."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas Stan Smith Mylo shoe, made with an alternative leather grown from mycelium, to be released in 2022.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."
Amy Bitterman, who teaches at Rutgers Law School in Newark, gets enormous pleasure from her three mixed-breed rescue cats, Spike, Dee, and Lucy. To manage her chronically stuffy nose, three times a week she takes Allegra D, which combines the antihistamine fexofenadine with the decongestant pseudoephedrine. Amy's dog allergy is rougher--so severe that when her sister launched a business, Pet Care By Susan, from their home in Edison, New Jersey, they knew Susan would have to move elsewhere before she could board dogs. Amy has tried to visit their brother, who owns a Labrador Retriever, taking Allegra D beforehand. But she began sneezing, and then developed watery eyes and phlegm in her chest.
"It gets harder and harder to breathe," she says.
Animal lovers have long dreamed of "hypo-allergenic" cats and dogs. Although to date, there is no such thing, biotechnology is beginning to provide solutions for cat-lovers. Cats are a simpler challenge than dogs. Dog allergies involve as many as seven proteins. But up to 95 percent of people who have cat allergies--estimated at 10 to 30 percent of the population in North America and Europe--react to one protein, Fel d1. Interestingly, cats don't seem to need Fel d1. There are cats who don't produce much Fel d1 and have no known health problems.
The current technologies fight Fel d1 in ingenious ways. Nestle Purina reached the market first with a cat food, Pro Plan LiveClear, launched in the U.S. a year and a half ago. It contains Fel d1 antibodies from eggs that in effect neutralize the protein. HypoCat, a vaccine for cats, induces them to create neutralizing antibodies to their own Fel d1. It may be available in the United States by 2024, says Gary Jennings, chief executive officer of Saiba Animal Health, a University of Zurich spin-off. Another approach, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to create a medication that would splice out Fel d1 genes in particular tissues, is the furthest from fruition.
"Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat."
Customer demand is high. "We already have a steady stream of allergic cat owners contacting us desperate to have access to the vaccine or participate in the testing program," Jennings said. "There is a major unmet medical need."
More than a third of Americans own a cat (while half own a dog), and pet ownership is rising. With more Americans living alone, pets may be just the right amount of company. But the number of Americans with asthma increases every year. Of that group, some 20 to 30 percent have pet allergies that could trigger a possibly deadly attack. It is not clear how many pets end up in shelters because their owners could no longer manage allergies. Instead, allergists commonly report that their patients won't give up a beloved companion.
No one can completely avoid Fel d1, which clings to clothing and lands everywhere cat-owners go, even in schools and new homes never occupied by cats. Myths among cat-lovers may lead them to underestimate their own level of risk. Short hair doesn't help: the length of cat hair doesn't affect the production of Fel d1. Bathing your cat will likely upset it and accomplish little. Washing cuts the amount on its skin and fur only for two days. In one study, researchers measured the Fel d1 in the ambient air in a small chamber occupied by a cat—and then washed the cat. Three hours later, with the cat in the chamber again, the measurable Fel d1 in the air was lower. But this benefit was gone after 24 hours.
For years, the best option has been shots for people that prompt protective antibodies. Bitterman received dog and cat allergy injections twice a week as a child. However, these treatments require up to 100 injections over three to five years, and, as in her case, the effect may be partial or wear off. Even if you do opt for shots, treating the cat also makes sense, since you could protect more than one allergic member of your household and any allergic visitors as well.
An Allergy-Neutralizing Diet
Cats produce much of their Fel d1 in their saliva, which then spreads it to their fur when they groom, observed Nestle Purina immunologist Ebenezer Satyaraj. He realized that this made saliva—and therefore a cat's mouth--an unusually effective site for change. Hens exposed to Fel d1 produce their own antibodies, which survive in their eggs. The team coated LiveClear food with a powder form of these eggs; once in a cat's mouth, the chicken antibody binds to the Fel d1 in the cat's saliva, neutralizing it.
The results are partial: In a study with 105 cats, the level of active Fel d1 in their fur had dropped on average by 47 percent after ten weeks eating LiveClear. Cats that produced more Fel d1 at baseline had a more robust response, with a drop of up to 71 percent. A safety study found no effects on cats after six months on the diet. "Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat," Satyaraj said. Might a dogfood that minimizes dog allergens be on the way? "There is some early work," he said.
This is a year when vaccines changed the lives of billions. Saiba's vaccine, HypoCat, delivers recombinant Fel d1 and the coat from a plant virus (the Cucumber mosaic virus) without any vital genetic information. The viral coat serves as a carrier. A cat would need shots once or twice a year to produce antibodies that neutralize Fel d1.
HypoCat works much like any vaccine, with the twist that the enemy is the cat's own protein. Is that safe? Saiba's team has followed 70 cats treated with the vaccine over two years and they remain healthy. Again the active Fel d1 doesn't disappear but diminishes. The team asked 10 people with cat allergies to report on their symptoms when they pet their vaccinated cats. Eight of them could pet their cat for nearly a half hour before their symptoms began, compared with an average of 17 minutes before the vaccine.
Jennings hopes to develop a HypoDog shot with a similar approach. However, the goal would be to target four or five proteins in one vaccine, and that increases the risk of hurting the dog. In the meantime, allergic dog-lovers considering an expensive breeder dog might think again: Independent research does not support the idea that any breed of dog produces less dander in the home. In fact, one well-designed study found that Spanish water dogs, Airedales, poodles and Labradoodles--breeds touted as hypo-allergenic--had significantly more of the most common allergen on their coat than an ordinary Lab and the control group.
One day you might be able to bring your cat to the vet once a year for an injection that would modify specific tissues so they wouldn't produce Fel d1.
Nicole Brackett, a postdoctoral scientist at Viriginia-based Indoor Biotechnologies, which specializes in manufacturing biologics for allergy and asthma, most recently has used CRISPR to identify Fel d1 genetic sequences in cells from 50 domestic cats and 24 exotic ones. She learned that the sequences vary substantially from one cat to the next. This discovery, she says, backs up the observations that Fel d1 doesn't have a vital purpose.
The next step will be a CRISPR knockout of the relevant genes in cells from feline salivary glands, a prime source of Fel d1. Although the company is considering using CRISPR to edit the genes in a cat embryo and possibly produce a Fel d1-free cat, designer cats won't be its ultimate product. Instead, the company aims to produce injections that could treat any cat.
Reducing pet allergens at home could have a compound benefit, Indoor Biotechnologies founder Martin Chapman, an immunologist, notes: "When you dampen down the response to one allergen, you could also dampen it down to multiple allergens." As allergies become more common around the world, that's especially good news.