The Best "Human Nature" Stories of 2007
The year's top 10 science and tech stories.
In last year's annual Human Nature roundup, we stooped to the naughty and outrageous. This year, we're buttoning up. In the long run, what will history judge as this year's most important feats, discoveries, and trends? Here are our top 10 guesses.
1. Cellular rejuvenation. Say goodbye to the stem-cell war. In November, two research teams announced that they had turned regular body cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells just by injecting four genes. Everyone agrees this is better than conventional embryonic stem-cell derivation or cloning: It's easier, avoids the human egg shortage, kills no embryos, is eligible for federal funding, and can produce tissue customized to each patient. Now the fight is over whether conservatives deserve credit for pushing the idea of nondestructive stem-cell derivation—or blame for impeding the original stem-cell research that made this breakthrough possible. (Related: Human Nature's previous takes on the new method.)
2. Artificial life. First scientists announced that they had transplanted one micro-organism's genome into another, completely changing the host's identity and behavior. Now they're trying the same thing with an artificial chromosome. They claim to have built an artificial chromosome, and are on schedule to grow "the first living cells with fully artificial genomes" within a year. The concept is to make bacteria that produce fuel, drugs, fabrics, or beneficial environmental effects. The risk is that bioterrorists will exploit the technology or that self-replicating organisms will spread diseases or run amok. Bioengineers say that as a precaution, they're trying to rig organisms to self-destruct if they escape the lab. Good luck.
3. Regeneration. In November, doctors announced that they had restored amputees' sensations of lost limbs by relocating the severed nerves to other parts of the body. They concluded that through mechanical transmission of stimuli to re-innervated skin, "An amputee may one day be able to feel with an artificial limb as although it was his own." Meanwhile, the U.S. military is trying to go beyond artificial limbs altogether. It's testing a way to regrow lost body parts using "extracellular matrix," the material that tells cells where to go and what to become. One man photographed his finger's regrowth (after losing the last three-eighths of an inch) over four months. (Related: regeneration through embryo farming.)
4. Humanized animals. In September, British regulators approved the creation of human embryos with animal DNA. The usual method is to substitute a human cell nucleus for an animal cell nucleus in an animal egg, thereby cloning embryos for stem-cell research without having to get human eggs. Britain's Academy of Medical Sciences reported that scientists have created "thousands of examples of transgenic animals" carrying human DNA, largely to study the effects of diseases and drugs on human systems without involving actual human beings. In a separate experiment, researchers improved eyesight in mice by inserting a human gene.Everyone agrees that these mixtures are scientifically useful. But the moral complications are drawing concern, including from Catholic bishops, who are now demanding human rights for "interspecies embryos."(Related: Humanized animals are the future of medicine.)
5. Cyborgs. First U.S. military researchers put computer chips into moths, allowing them to be remotely controlled. Then Chinese scientists remotely controlled a flying pigeon. By implanting electrodes in its brain and activating them from a computer, they operated the bird as though in a video game. Another research teamimmobilized a moth and attached an electrode to its brain so that the moth's eye movements steered the robot. Now the U.S. military is merging artificial intelligence with humans,including a helmet that, according to its manufacturer, delivers "a visual readout for combat commanders showing the cognitive patterns of individual soldiers." In humans, unlike animals, the cybernetic component hasn't become internal or dominant. Yet. (Related: Voluntary cyborgs.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.