There are lots of great reasons we humans have sex. We mostly do it to pair bond, realize our primal urges, and feel good. Once in a while, we also do it to make babies. As the coming genetic revolution plays out, we'll still have sex for most of the same reasons we do today. But we'll increasingly not do it to procreate.
Protecting children from harm is one of the core responsibilities of parenting.
Most parents go to great lengths to protect their children from real and imagined harms. This begins with taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy and extends to having children immunized and protected from exposures to various diseases and dangers. Most of us look askance for good reason at mothers who abuse controlled substances during their pregnancies or parents who choose to not immunize their children. Protecting children from harm is one of the core responsibilities of parenting.
In the United States today, up to two percent of babies are estimated to be born with rare genetic diseases caused by single gene mutations. Sickle cell disease, Tay-Sachs, and Huntington's disease are among the more well-known examples of these, but the list runs to the thousands. Many babies born with these disorders suffer terribly, some die young, and nearly all spend big chunks of their lives struggling through the medical system.
Increasingly, however, many of these single-gene mutation diseases and other chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome are being identified in non-invasive prenatal tests performed on expectant mothers at the end of their first trimester of pregnancy. Knowing the hardship that children born with these types of disorders will likely face, majorities of these women in countries around the world are choosing to terminate pregnancies once these diagnoses have been made. Whatever the justification and whatever anyone's views on the morality of abortion, these decisions are inherently excruciating.
A much smaller number of prospective mothers, however, are today getting this same information about their potential future children before their pregnancies even begin. By undergoing both in vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), these women are able to know which of the eggs that have been surgically extracted from them and fertilized with their partner or donor's sperm will carry the dangerous mutations. The in vitro embryos with these disorders are simply not implanted in the expectant mother's womb.
It would be monstrous to assert that an existing person with a deadly disease has any less right to thrive than anyone else. But it would also be hard to make a case that parents should affirmatively choose to implant embryos carrying such a disease if given the option. If prospective parents are already today choosing not to implant certain embryos based on our preliminary understanding of disease risk, what will happen when this embryo selection is based on far more information than just a few thousand single gene mutation diseases?
Our ability and willingness to make genetic alterations to our future children will grow over time along with our knowledge and technological ability.
When the first human genome was sequenced in 2003, the race to uncover the mysteries of human genetics had only just begun. Although we still know very little about our genetics relative to the complexity of the genome and even less compared to the broader ecosystem of our biology, the progress toward greater understanding is astounding. Today, the number of single gene mutation diseases and relatively simple genetic traits that can be predicted meaningfully from genetic data alone is already significant.
In the not-distant future, this list will grow to include complex diseases and disease propensities, percentage probabilities of living a long and healthy life, and increasingly the genetic component of complex human attributes like height, IQ, and personality style. This predictive power of genetic analysis will funnel straight into our fertility clinics where prospective parents choosing embryos will be making ever more consequential decisions about the genetic components of the future lives, health, and capabilities of their children.
Our understanding of what the genes extracted from early stage pre-implanted embryos are telling us will be only one of the rocket boosters driving assisted reproduction forward. Another will be the ability to induce adult cells like skin and nucleated blood cells into stem cells and then turn those stem cells into egg progenitor cells and then ultimately eggs. This will not only eliminate the need for hormone treatments and surgery to extract human eggs but also make it easy and cheap to generate an unlimited number of eggs from a given woman.
The average woman has around fifteen eggs extracted during IVF but imagine what generating a thousand eggs will do to the range of possibilities that could be realized through pre-implantation embryo selection. Each of these thousand eggs would be the natural offspring of the two parents, but the variation between them would make it possible to choose the ones with the strongest expression of the genetic component of a particular desired trait – like those with the highest possible genetic IQ potential.
Another rocket booster will be the application of gene editing technologies like CRISPR to edit the genomes of pre-implanted embryos or of the sperm and eggs used to create them. Just this week, Chinese researchers announced they had used CRISPR to edit the CCR5 gene in the pre-implanted embryos of a pair of Chinese twins to make them immune to HIV, the first ever case of gene editing humans and a harbinger of our genetically engineered future. The astounding complexity of the human genome will put limits on our ability to safely make too many simultaneous genetic changes to human embryos, but our ability and willingness to make these types of alterations to our future children will grow over time along with our knowledge and technological ability.
With so much at stake, prospective parents will increasingly have a stark choice when determining how to conceive their children. If they go the traditional route of sex, they will experience both the benign wisdom and unfathomable cruelty of nature. If they use IVF and increasingly informed embryo selection, they will eliminate most single gene mutation diseases and likely increase their children's chances of living a longer and healthier life with more opportunity than their unenhanced peers. But the optimizing parents could also set up their children for misery if these children don't particularly enjoy what they have been optimized to become or see themselves as some type of freakish consumer product with emotions.
Conceiving though sex will come to be seen more and more like not immunizing your children is today, a perfectly natural choice that comes with a significant potential risk and expense.
But although there will be pros and cons on each side, the fight between conception through good old-fashioned sex and conception in the lab will ultimately not be fair. Differences and competition within and between societies will pressure parents and societies to adopt ever more aggressive forms of reproductive technology if they believe doing so will open possibilities and create opportunities for the next generations rather than close them.
Conception through sex will remain as useful as it has always been but lab conception will only get more advantageous. Over time, only zealots will choose to roll the dice of their future children's health and well-being rather than invest, like parents always have, in protecting their children from harm and helping optimize their life potential. Conceiving though sex will come to be seen more and more like not immunizing your children is today, a perfectly natural choice that comes with a significant potential risk and expense to yourself, your children, and your community.
As this future plays out, the genetics and assisted reproduction revolutions will raise enormous, thorny, and massively consequential questions about how we value and invest in diversity, equality, and our own essential humanity – questions we aren't remotely prepared to answer. But these revolutions are coming sooner than most of us understand or are prepared for so we had better get ready.
Because where this trail is ultimately heading goes well beyond sex and toward a fundamental transformation of our evolutionary process as a species – and that should be everybody's business.
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.