The Planarian Flatworm: A Gateway to Human Immortality?

A planarian is a species one of many non-parasitic flatworms. Planaria are common to many parts of the world, living in both salt-water and in freshwater ponds and rivers.  They are remarkable creatures. Some planarians exhibit an extraordinary ability to regenerate lost body parts. For example, a planarian split either lengthwise or crosswise will regenerate into two separate individuals.

Recently, one particular species of planarian,  S. mediterranea has emerged as the species of choice for modern molecular biological and genomic research due to its diploid chromosomes and the existence of both asexual and sexual strains. Recent genetic screens utilizing double-stranded RNA technology have uncovered 240 genes that affect regeneration in S. mediterranea. Many of these genes have “Orthologs” in the human genome. Orthologs are genes in different species that evolved from a common ancestral gene by speciation. Normally, orthologs retain the same function in the course of evolution. Identification of orthologs is critical for reliable prediction of gene function in newly sequenced genomes.

The life cycle and  traits of planarians make them a model system for investigating a number of biological processes, many of which may well have implications for human health and disease. Even immortality. However, the flatworm’s regeneration ability has attracted a lot of attention. It may pave the way for humans to gain the ability to regenerate lost limbs and perhaps even organs. More recently Planarians are being examined in reserach into ageing.  That is because these animals have an apparently limitless regenerative capacity, and the asexual animals seem to maintain their “telomerase” levels throughout their lifetime, making them effectively immortal.

Telomerase is an enzyme, active chiefly in tumours and reproductive cells, that  facilitates cell division and may account for the immortality of some cancer cells.

As we humans share a number of genes with Planaria, in theory it may be possible to use the planaria genes in bio-engineering the human body, so that we too can regenerate and have infinite longevity.

 

Soylent…And it’s not Green!

At first it may seen disingenuous to create an edible product and call it Soylent. For those of a certain age (ahem!) we might associate Soylent with “Soylent Green” the movie set in the future and featuring Charlton Heston as a Law Enforcer in a  world where there are too many people and not enough food. He discovers the secret of the new wonder product that is feeding masses, Soylent Green- it’s reconstituted dead human flesh!

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However to call a truly revolutionary product “Soylent” makes sense. That film was set in a world where the population was growing and while more and more land had to be turned over into mega-farms to feed people, more and more people were starving.  The film was made in 1973, yet does the main theme sound familiar today?

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Robert Rhinehart (pictured above) set out to create a food product that was relatively cheap, very nutritional, and that didn’t require acres of arable land to be carved from the rain forests or other precious land spaces of our world. Rhinehart wanted to develop a simpler food source that didn’t take producers and consumers time, energy, money and space to create nutritionally complete meals.

 Soylent is a food product (classified as a food, not a supplement, by the US FDA) designed for use as a staple meal by any and all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort. As the primary source of energy for the body, carbohydrates are the largest component of Soylent by mass.  Soylent comes in a dry powder form along with an oil blend. You mix both of these with water for each serving. It requires no heating or other cooking and has an extended shelf life. Quick, easy and (without the fish oil blend) totally Vegan, if that’s your bag- you’ll just have to add your own plant-based oil blend in order to get the right nutritional profile.

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The powdered component of Soylent is vegan. Our separate oil blend contains non-vegan ingredients (fish oil). If you are vegetarian/vegan, you can opt out of receiving our oil blend. Once you get your powder, make sure to add your own plant-based oil blend in order to ensure the correct nutritional profile.

Costwise, you will spend less than $10 per day on food, and less than $4 per meal – get more than a day’s worth of meals for less than the cost of takeaway. In terms of sterling, a month’s worth of food will cost a mere £40 if you take only Soylent.

The 25-year-old entrepreneur puts his money (and his product) where his mouth is: He has been living off his Soylent invention for almost a year now. There are reports that it’s to be tested by the US military, too, where logistics for supplying and feeding troops in the field can be a major headache when operating in remote and inhospitable regions.

With so many cooking programmes and celebrity chefs around, one might think that a food drink that has a neutral taste, may not find favour. But not everyone wants to wax lyrical or spend time and money over a small plate of expensive exquisitely prepared food.  Over 10,00 people are day are reported to now be placing orders on-line for Soylent to be delivered to them.

Shipments to Britain are reportedly coming soon.

In a long profile of the entrepreneur in the New Yorker recently, he recounted how he first developed Soylent after the cost of food became a “burden” while working for a cash-strapped tech start-up in California. In his blog he says that drinking it for the first time left him feeling like the “six million dollar man” with “clearer” skin, “whiter” hair and a “notably improved” physique.

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There are sceptics, of course. Some scientists claim that Soylent misses some essential ingredients for the adult male, namely sulphur, lycopene (found in tomatoes) and trace elements. They also say that the absence of mastication (chewing food, rather than drinking only) will have long-term effects on the mouth gums and teeth. Maybe Soylent chewing gum next?

Foodies laugh at a food product that has no taste, yet there are a growing number of people, fuelled by the many scandals about food preparation (Halal?), contents (horse-meat?), and poisoning incidences (salmonella?) that are turning their back on what they call the “tyranny” of the food industry, who are turning to Soylent.

Me? I just couldn’t bear living in a world without a traditional English breakfast, fish and chips and a Sunday roast. But each to his or her own. I wonder what Charlton Heston would think?

 

Immortality: It’s Here Already!

Immortality is already here… but only if you are a certain species of jellyfish!
Now we’re not talking Portuguese Man-o-War giant jellyfish, but Turritopsis nutricula which weighs in at a mere 5mm in length. It has the ability to revert its cells back to their earliest form and start growing anew. Over and over again. This usually happens in response to a crisis, but scientists have seen this occur repetitively. Just imagine if we could revert back to being a new-born babe in response to a crisis such as learning that you’re going to get the sack from work, you’ve got rising damp in the downstairs kitchen, or, best of all, you’ve been told you’ve got a rare disease and only weeks to live!
The tiny creature was discovered in the Mediterranean Sea in 1883, but its unique ticket to immortality through regression and then  regeneration was not known until the mid-1990s.
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If a mature Turritopsis is threatened and this can include  receiving actual injury or lack of food and starvation,  it attaches itself to a surface in warm ocean waters and converts itself  into a micro-blob. From that state, its cells undergo “transdifferentiation”,  transforming into different types of cells. Muscle cells can become sperm or eggs, or nerve cells can change into muscle cells. This is something never before seen in the animal kingdom, and may be the only creature capable of doing this.
Is every Turritopsis immortal and death-defying? No. Before they are mature adults, they can die of injury, disease, being eaten by predators,  or starvation  without having the ability to revert back to a blob, regenerate and save themselves. Even after maturation, they can still die through an instant trauma, such as being eaten, washed up out of the sea, or sucked into a cargo-ships tanks and poisoned. But if there’s enough warning and the environment itself isn’t hostile, then hey-presto- transdifferentiation and a new phase of life begins, which can be repeated ad nauseum.
The trick of course is to see if the mini-jellyfish DNA is compatible with other animals, and eventually humans. For now, we’ve just got to look after ourselves, and take it on the chin and carry on whenever we encounter crises!
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Action! Directing your Dreams may soon be Possible

It’s always been one of our dreams… to be able to direct our dreams. it’s known as lucid dreaming. A dream state where you are totally or partially aware of being in a dream and being able to act and direct yourself and others within it. Imagine being the star, director, and scriptwriter for your own ultra-realistic dream-film!

Scientists have discovered that it is possible to induce lucid dreaming in sleepers by applying mild electrical currents to their scalps, a recent  study reported in the publication Nature Neuroscience says.

Professor J Allan Hobson, from Harvard Medical School co-authored the paper. He said:

“The key finding is that you can, surprisingly, by scalp stimulation, influence the brain. And you can influence the brain in such a way that a sleeper, a dreamer, becomes aware that he is dreaming.” 

It is a continuation of previous research in this field  led by Dr Ursula Voss of Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Germany who said:

“Lucid dreaming is a very good tool to observe what happens in the brain and what is causally necessary for secondary consciousness.”

Prof. Hobson also thought it could have medical benefits:

As a model for mental illness, understanding lucid dreaming is absolutely crucial. “I would be cautious about interpreting the results as of direct relevance to the treatment of medical illnesses, but [it’s] certainly a step in the direction of understanding how the brain manages to hallucinate and be deluded.”

By examining the sleepers’ REM (Rapid Eye Movements- the indicator of deep sleep dreaming) and brainwaves over a range of frequencies, scientists have found that lucid dreamers demonstrate a shift towards a more “awake-like” state in the frontal and temporal parts of the brain, with the peak in increased activity occurring around 40Hz.

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The study involved 27 volunteers, none of whom had experienced lucid dreaming before. The researchers waited until the volunteers were experiencing uninterrupted REM sleep before applying electrical stimulation to the frontal and temporal positions of the volunteers’ scalps. The applied stimulation had a variety of frequencies between two and 100Hz, but neither the experimenter nor the volunteer was informed which frequency was used, or even whether a current was applied. Five to 10 seconds later the volunteers were roused from their sleep and asked to report on their dreams. Brain activity was monitored continuously throughout the experiment.

The results showed that stimulation at 40Hz (and to a lesser extent at 25Hz) resulted in an increase in brain activity of around the same frequency in the frontal and temporal areas. They  found that such stimulation, more often than not, induced an increased level of lucidity in the dreams of  the sleepers.

The authors suggest triggering lucid dreaming in sleepers might enable them to control nightmares, for example returning soldiers  suffering with PTSD; post-traumatic stress disorder.

But for others, the chance to be “awake within a dream” may be possible… perhaps a dream come true?

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The AI that Knows What You’re Thinking….

If you are a scientist specialising in the development of AI, artificial intelligence,  then you are in demand, big time! Silicon Valley Facebook, Google and other leading tech companies are jockeying to hire top scientists in the field of artificial intelligence, while spending heavily on a quest to make computers think more like people. Forget humanoid robots doing chores… at least for the moment. The race is currently on for computers that understand exactly what you want, perhaps even before you’ve asked them. It’s to make the human-computer interface more even, more compatible and more intuitive.  But it could also mean that the AI will know what you’re thinking… and that’s a bit freaky!

Of course, we already have AI programs can already recognise images and translate human speech. But tech researchers and scientists want to build systems that can match the human brain’s ability to handle more complex challenges. These can include to intuitively predict traffic conditions while steering automated cars or drones, for example, or to grasp the intent behind written texts and spoken messages rather than interpret them literally and slavishly.

Google paid a reported $US400 million in January to buy DeepMind, a British start-up said to be working on artificial intelligence for image recognition, e-commerce recommendations and video games. DeepMind had also drawn interest from Facebook.

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The ultimate goal is something closer to “Samantha,” the personable operating system voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson in the film “Her”.

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Already, Google has used artificial intelligence to improve its voice-enabled search and Google Now, as well as its mapping and self-driving car projects. Google CEO Larry Page said this at a TED technology conference last month.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of exciting work going on, that crosses computer science and neuroscience, in terms of really understanding what it takes to make something smart.”

He then showed videos from Google and DeepMind projects in which computer systems learned to recognise cats from other animals and play games – without detailed programming instructions.

Google and Facebook both hope to do more with “deep learning,” in which computer networks teach themselves to recognise patterns by analysing vast amounts of data, rather than rely on programmers to tell them what each pattern represents. The networks tackle problems by breaking them into a series of steps, the way layers of neurons work in a human brain.

For some, a powerful artificial brain that knows your preferences and habits and anticipates your wants and needs is a bit frightening and companies will need to consider ethics and privacy as they develop new services. The idea is to help us humans, not to cause us anxiety. If it all gets to much, you can always reach for the power switch and turn of the juice… but will the AI have anticipated that already? Click!