By Vivian Liu
It may be hard to believe, but the ride-share conglomerate Uber actually has a profit margin in the red. After subtracting driver costs and overhead costs from revenue, last year, Uber reported a net loss of $3 billion. The obvious question is: why? How can such a popular company be losing money?
In the modern world, artificial intelligence (AI) is undeniable: it’s in our phones, in our healthcare system, on our roads, and is helping us explore new frontiers in space. Big Silicon Valley technology companies such as Google, Uber, and Facebook are racing to funnel resources into AI research and development.
The term “artificial intelligence” refers to intelligence—vision, speech recognition, and translation, among others—displayed by a machine. Whereas humans organically develop and store knowledge in neurons, machines have to “learn how to learn” through carefully coded syntax. The specific field of AI is very new, as the term “artificial intelligence” was only coined in 1956. Since its inception, the field has experienced exponential growth—from the chatbots that automate the customer service experience to Google Translate’s natural language processing algorithm, to Alpha Go’s legendary world champion-beating function, AI has accomplished some amazing feats. The infinite potential of AI has also taken pop culture by storm. For example, the eerily realistic robo-women in Ex Machinaand the lovable Baymax from Big Hero Sixdisplay our dichotomous perceptions of AI in the media.
Specifically, a field of AI that has gained a lot of traction in recent years is computer vision (CV). Computer vision refers to the broad field of using machine learning to process and interpret images to provide useful information for humans. For example, the classic computer vision application is “training” a program to identify a cat from an image. When you see a picture of a cat, your brain doesn’t have to work very hard to make the association between pixels on a screen and the physical object. However, it is much harder for a computer system to establish this connection. There are two main issues to tackle—first, the system must identify the location of the cat in the image. Second, the system must be able to differentiate between a cat and other objects.
This is where big data comes in. Big data is an extremely large set of images—with a size ranging from the hundreds of thousands to millions—that are hand-marked by humans as positive (meaning they contain the object in question) or negative (which indicates that they do not contain the object). The human then divides the images into two types of data—training and test data—and writes code that outputs whether or not the computer thinks the object is in a given image.
After the programmer has set up the data and parameters, they adjust the inputs to maximize the accuracy of the program on the training data. By adjusting the parameters of the training data, the programmer can observe what values of inputs bring about the highest rate of identification success. The goal is to maximize the number of images correctly marked in the set. Once the programmer is satisfied with the accuracy, the program is then evaluated on the test data to see how the model will fit on a different set of data. After a final round of adjustments, the program is ready to classify images that have not been pre-marked by a human.
One of the most popular applications of computer vision is in the development of self- driving cars. Designing cars that can drive without human intervention depends on computer vision. For example, below is an image taken of a busy street that has been marked up by a computer program through computer vision:
The program has even been trained to tell the difference between a “car” identifier and a “truck” using computer vision. Once these markers have been laid on the image, programmers write code to analyze the machine’s course of action given these on-screen parameters. For example, once the program marks the “traffic light” as “red,” the car is programmed to apply the brakes a certain amount. Now imagine doing this for image analysis continuously, with a constantly moving setting as you drive down the street. This is what companies such as Uber and Zoox have to deal with in order to deliver a product that will be able to handle the many perils of the open road.
Back to Uber: its ultimate goal is to be able to deliver a self-driving product such that it can eliminate the necessity of a human driver, and instead “employ” much cheaper and autonomous drivers. This way, instead of having to continuously pay for human labor, they can pay a fixed cost on the self-driving cars and then a significantly lower cost of fueling them.
Currently, the advancement of computer vision in the application of self-driving cars is not quite complete: much is left to be done to improve the safety of the software, accuracy of the image analysis, and incorporation into modern roads. But lawmakers and city planners have started to plan for the incorporation of computer vision technologies in our daily lives. The Silicon Valley-based companyZoox already has a fully autonomous vehicle which has been cleared to be tested in a limited capacity.
AI is an extremely exciting field—its implications in our daily lives are far-reaching and will only grow in the next decade. So next time you are waiting in traffic, look around and see whether there is a driver in the car next to you.
By Zoë Heller
How did an 80% effective vaccine get voluntarily removed from the market in only three years? The answer is anti-vaxxers.
Lyme disease is an infection caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted through black-legged tick bites. While most know to check for the characteristic bulls-eye rash that comes with tick transmission, few know of the devastating, long-term effects that manifest if left untreated. At first, symptoms include fever, fatigue, and headache, but without antibiotics, the infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system. The spreading of the bacterium can cause arthritis, heart palpitations, dizziness, nerve pain, and even inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. With treatment, Lyme disease often goes away; however, a small percentage of people develop what is known as “chronic Lyme disease” or post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, which results in muscle aches and fatigue that can last for more than 6 months after antibiotic treatment.
Unfortunately, Lyme disease infects as many as 300,000 people across the United States each year. The disease is also becoming more common due to climate change, which results in a longer tick season. Currently, the methods for preventing the disease—insect repellant and vigilance—are unreliable. This was untrue in the period from 1998 to 2001, however, when an effective and safe vaccine for Lyme disease—known as LYMErix—was introduced.
LYMErix is now known as a cautionary tale among vaccine developers and manufacturers alike. The vaccine was not without its issues, as it required three doses over a year and was not approved for children under 15, but it was up to 90% effective at neutralizing the bacterium before it was even transmitted by the tick.
The fatal flaw of LYMErix was its release date—1998. That same year, The Lancet published a study (falsely) claiming that the MMR vaccine was related to autism, thus starting the current anti-vaccination movement. When members of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel that unanimously approved LYMErix theorized that the vaccine could cause an autoimmune response in the body—which was later proven to be untrue—the media capitalized on pre-existing vaccine panic, and fear erupted in the public.
ABC News and other major outlets reported on vaccine “victims” claiming to have contracted arthritis through LYMErix, though when the FDA investigated these claims, they found no link between the vaccine and joint pain. Major websites such as The Lyme Disease Network devoted coverage to the controversy, which continued to fan the flames of chaos. Eventually, the sensationalized fear of vaccines spawned lawsuits against LYMErix’s manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline. A class action lawsuit led by 121 “victims” of the vaccine argued that GlaxoSmithKline intentionally concealed evidence of the vaccine’s harmful or adverse effects. No studies confirmed any of these claims, but the damage was already done. The market for a Lyme disease vaccine was already niche, and sales plummeted due to the media’s portrayal of the vaccine. GlaxoSmithKline pulled LYMErix from the market on February 26, 2002.
By Elifsu Gencer
If one were asked to list some of post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous pieces of artwork, the still life Sunflowersseries is surely among the first to come to mind. While living in France during the 1880’s, Van Gogh painted his first set of sunflowers, depicted lying across a tabletop, and later, his second, more well-known bouquet of sunflowers propped up in a vase. These works are known for their stunning yellow hues, aptly referred to as “Van Gogh Yellow,” which Van Gogh began to use more frequently in his paintings during the latter half of his career. While the exact reason for this interesting artistic flair remains a mystery, there has been much speculation about Van Gogh’s affinity for the color yellow. Some of these claims include a medical condition known as xanthopsia, or yellow vision, caused by glaucoma; thujone poisoning from absinthe consumption that skewed his perception of colors; or effects of the prescription drug digitalis (more commonly known as foxglove) that he was taking to treat his temporal lobe epilepsy. Whatever the reason may be, however, a tragic reality has recently emerged that surely would have deeply saddened Van Gogh: though not visible to the naked eye just yet, the once-vibrant yellow pigment that Van Gogh cherished so much has begun to fade to a dull brown.
A team of researchers from the University of Naples Federico II has undertaken the mission of investigating this unexpected phenomenon in these paintings by studying Van Gogh Yellow, formally known as a family of lead chromate pigments that are often mixed with lead sulfate to create different yellow shades. While the “browning” observed in the Sunflowersseries was revealed to be due to pigment degradation, a closer spectroscopic analysis of these affected areas demonstrated high sulfur contents. This finding has in turn led Muñoz-Garcia’s team to determine the particular mechanism underlying pigment degradation, which remarkably stems from the pigment’s own composition. Specifically, the composition of chromates and sulfates has made Van Gogh Yellow unstable and has possibly resulted in the separation of the compounds. The separated clusters of sulfates are thought to absorb UV light, providing sufficient energy for the reduction of the chromate ions into chromic oxide, a compound green in color that contributes to the browning effect seen in the dulling yellow sunflowers. Unfortunately, because the pigment composition itself is unstable, the color degradation in the Sunflowersseries is currently not preventable.
A recent study by Frederik Vanmeert of the University of Antwerp in 2018 also examined the composition of Van Gogh Yellow using macroscopic x-ray powder diffraction imaging, a new non-invasive method that can reveal specific chemical distributions at the macroscale. Their analysis, in line with Muñoz-Garcia’s findings, supported the observation that areas rich in the mixture of chromate and sulfate were prone to the darkening of the yellow pigments. Although Vanmeert agreed that the pigment degradation cannot be prevented at this point in time, he suggested that the process could be slowed by establishing optimal lighting conditions with minimal to no UV light. However, while UV light is known to be damaging to many forms of art, ensuring its elimination from museums can prove to be especially difficult because it cannot be detected by the human eye. In addition, natural UV light emission during the daytime makes it challenging to determine just the right amount of light that would allow visitors to enjoy the artwork on display without simultaneously damaging it. With that said, curators at the Van Gogh Museum have already chosen to lower the lighting of the museum and further review the lighting conditions of artwork displays. Although determining the optimal conditions is a painstaking task with countless variables to consider, it is necessary to preserve not only the iconic Sunflowersseries, but also other paintings and forms of art, such as artifacts. Studies conducted by the Muñoz-Garcia and Vanmeert groups and the subsequent development of non-invasive imaging techniques provide strong scientific foundations for optimizing conservation strategies which are also applicable to the study of other artworks.
By Keyu Liu
Featuring P. Roy Vagelos, M.D.
“Are you aware that the topics you researched in the past are now integrated into Columbia’s biology course?”
Dr. Vagelos smiled.
Now in his late 80s, Dr. Vagelos still speaks with passion about his journey as a student in medicine and decades as a researcher and later CEO at Merck, one of the leading biopharmaceutical companies in the world. A short year ago, he donated $250 million to the Columbia Medical School to eliminate the need for student loans and to support our generation’s pursuits in science and medicine.
His own pursuit began at around our age. Before Dr. Vagelos’ time as a medical student at Columbia, he spent three years as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, starting in 1947. Advancements ranged from the molecular understanding of alpha helices and beta-pleated sheets in protein’s secondary structure, to concepts of orbital hybridization and electronegativity, to the first application of quantum mechanics in understanding the hydrogen atom. Amidst these advancements, Dr. Vagelos came to understand the power of scientific knowledge and with that, the possibility to advance technology and to change lives.
“What was medical school like? Columbia stress must have not been a problem on your plate.”
“I have a terrible memory [for scientific terms], and taking Anatomy was a pain. Thankfully I was able to use chemistry to get me through the first year.”
Organic chemistry must not have been a problem on his plate then. After completing his undergraduate education, Dr. Vagelos considered continuing his studies in graduate or medical school. He proceeded to attend Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, now Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in 1950. After four years in medical school, Dr. Vagelos went to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he looked forward to becoming a practicing doctor before he signed up for the Army in 1956. It was during that time when he visited the National Institutes of Health, and was introduced to research. He joined the lab of Dr. Earl Stadtman, who was investigating coenzyme A, the essential kick-starter of the citric acid cycle, which is responsible for the synthesis and metabolism of molecules like fatty acids (Marks 3). Now taught in Introductory Biology I at Columbia, CoA was barely understood during Dr. Vagelos’ time at medical school. Though it was uncommon for a doctor to dedicate his time to research, Dr. Vagelos was immediately drawn to the work on fatty acids, an experience that provided great insights into his future pharmaceutical endeavors.
“What would be an incredible moment of your career at Merck?”
“When we eradicated a disease.”
River blindness is caused by a parasite, Onchocerca volvulus, which is transmitted by the bite of a black fly. These flies breed along rivers, hence the name “River Blindness.” These parasites are prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America and Asia. Microfilaria, the larva of the parasite, can live in the skin, where they cause severe itching, and can also enter the eyes, where they cause inflammation, scarring and eventual blindness. In the mid-1980s, around 10 years after Dr. Vagelos joined Merck, eighteen million people were losing their sight and more than 100 million people were at high risk for this disease. During his years at the NIH, Dr. Vagelos recognized that his strength lies in biochemistry, and decided that his way to cure patients was through drug discovery. His transition to Merck in 1975 marked the beginning of a transformative career. The discovery of ivermectin, the drug that kills the river blindness parasite, was one example. Ivermectin is produced by reducing a double bond in a substance isolated from a fermentation broth, and is found to be the most potent drug with the ability to kill parasites. The chemical structure of the drug increases permeability of the parasite cell membrane, thereby leading to paralysis and apoptosis. When the potential of ivermectin was understood, a Merck research team was sent to West Africa to test its effects. The results were so astonishing that the World Health Organization couldn’t believe its reported effectiveness. The team subsequently undertook a development program with rigorous experimentation as well as a large clinical trial to confirm ivermectin’s power. The trials showed that people could be protected from river blindness by taking a single tablet of ivermectin once a year.
The next question was, what should Merck do with such power? Yes, the company might sell the drug and expect great financial prospects, but whom could they sell it to? Those who were most in need of the drug were also among the least capable of purchasing it, and the company was left with a pressing decision to make when the New York Timespublished an article about Merck’s drug discovery. Urgently, the company decided in just two days that Merck would provide ivermectin to anyone anywhere in the world, for as long as it was needed, for free. With the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s support, a new World Bank grant was established to support the Mectizan (brand name of ivermectin) Donation Program. The drug contribution began in 1987, and after twenty years, Merck was treating over 90 million patients a year for free. In many regions, the flies became free of parasites, and the disease was on the path of eradication. It is projected that by 2020 the parasite will be completely eliminated in many parts of Latin America and Africa.
“What would be your advice to the younger generation that pursues the field of science or medicine?”
“Pursue the knowledge, not the rewards.”
The decade that Dr. Vagelos spent in research was marked by numerous drug developments that transformed millions of lives in and outside of the country. He served as CEO of Merck from 1985 to 1994, during which time the company first introduced the statin family of medicines to treat cardiovascular disease caused by high levels of cholesterol. At the time, drug experimentation was based on studying animal models that mimicked human diseases. Dr. Vagelos instead recognized the potential of targeted drug discovery, with a focus on single molecules rather than an entire organism. He explained, “the key is to understand the exact biochemical mechanism of the disease and then to design a drug that interferes with that molecular mechanism.” His knowledge of biochemistry and his past research experience in fatty acids directed him and his team to an innovative path of drug discovery.
This revelation first sparked in Dr. Vagelos’ mind the moment he submitted his application to medical school. But it wasn’t a name on a peer-reviewed paper that he pursued; in fact, he has given many anonymous suggestions to various research scientists in the hope of supporting their experiments (Marks 10). And his learning is nonstop. Dr. Vagelos humorously recounted that when he was nominated to become the CEO of Merck, he had to learn finance and law, but fortunately he could learn from the company’s Chief Financial Officer and General Counsel, who were among the best in their fields.
At the end of our interview, Dr. Vagelos said that if there was any essential advice that he would like to impart to our generation, it would be a pure, self-driven passion for the field that we love, unhindered by any other factor and unaffected by superficial rewards. “I have never thought of the gains I would receive from what I do, but rather how I could do more of what I like and do it better.”
Marks, Andy. “A Conversation with P. Roy Vagelos", Annual Reviews Conversations. 2011.
Vagelos, P. Roy. Interview. 7 Dec 2018.
Altman, Lawrence K. “New Drug May Curb Tropic “River Blindness”, The New York Times. August 1, 1982. https://www.nytimes.com/1982/08/01/us/new-drug-may-curb-tropic-river-blindness.html
Sturchio, Jeffrey L. “Ivermectin: Lessons and Implications for Improving Access to Care and Treatment in Developing Countries,” Community Eye Health. 2001; 14(38): 22–23 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1705916/
Reprint of the New York Times Sunday August 1st, 1982 Issue https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1982/08/01/issue.html
By Kyle Warner, Illustration by Elaine Lee
One of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline, natural gas, and petroleum. To reduce these emissions, researchers are developing more environmentally friendly, carbon-free alternatives. The most promising of these fuel substitutes is hydrogen, which has the potential to be free of greenhouse gas emissions throughout its life cycle and could be used for heating, vehicular transport, seasonal energy storage, or long-distance energy transmission.
Hydrogen is the most abundant atom in the universe, but is rarely found in its elemental form because it prefers to combine with other elements to form plant matter, water, and natural gas. To obtain the pure form of hydrogen (H2) that can be run through a fuel cell to provide useful energy, hydrogen must first be separated from its attached elements using one of two processes: electrolysis or steam reforming.
Electrolysis refers to the separation of hydrogen from oxygen via running water through an electrolyzer, which consists of an anode, cathode, and electrolyte. The newest technologies have an efficiency of around 80%, meaning that 20% of the initial energy input is wasted through the water-splitting process. One issue with electrolysis is that the energy input is often derived from non-renewable grid sources such as coal, so the emissions saved by the hydrogen fuel are overshadowed by the emissions from its production. However, if the electricity is produced from renewable sources, then electrolysis becomes a hydrogen production method entirely free of greenhouse gas emissions.
Steam reforming, or methane reforming, is the primary method of large-scale hydrogen production, in which hydrogen is separated from methane or natural gas (CH4) through the use of a sequence of two reactions. The first reaction involves mixing natural gas with water and heat to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Because carbon monoxide is a toxic gas, a second reaction known as a water-gas shift reaction is required to convert the carbon monoxide and water into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and a small amount of excess waste heat. This waste heat is most often recovered and recycled back into the reactor to drive the initial reaction. Although the natural gas needed for this process is less expensive than the electricity required for electrolysis, steam reforming is still at a disadvantage environmentally because carbon dioxide is a primary byproduct. In theory, a carbon capture device paired with a steam reforming reactor would solve this issue, but this design demands further investment and research.
In addition to the high cost of its production, hydrogen’s extreme flammabilityis another significant barrier to large-scale implementation. Although driving a car with a highly combustible fuel under your feet presents valid cause for concern, hydrogen is fourteen times lighter than air and would quickly disperse into the atmosphere if a fuel cell was punctured. Unlike gasoline, hydrogen is also odorless, which makes it difficult to detect a leak. However, the addition of hydrogen sulfide would produce a rotten egg odor in the event of a leak and address some of the above-mentioned safety concerns.
Another drawback to hydrogen fuel is the high cost of storage, transport, and fuel cell catalysts. Because hydrogen is so light and has a large volume under standard temperature and pressure, it must be stored under extremely high pressure (approximately 10,000 psi) in gas form or cryogenically cooled into a liquid to optimize efficiency. Both of these processes are highly energy intensive and require expensive, thick storage tanks. Hydrogen can also experience energy losses in the range of 10-40% during transport by trucks or pipeline, largely due to the evaporation of liquefied hydrogen. Further improvements in the insulation of hydrogen infrastructure and an increase in smaller scale, on-site hydrogen production are needed to eliminate these transport losses. In addition, a fuel cell requires expensive catalysts such as platinum to facilitate the reaction of hydrogen with oxygen, making it a pricier alternative to traditional batteries.
Despite the remaining barriers that prevent widespread adoption of hydrogen, hydrogen represents an incredibly promising fuel alternative with the potential to completely eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. Ongoing research to reduce the price of electrolysis, steam reforming, hydrogen storage, and fuel cell catalysts is critical if we want hydrogen to become cost-competitive with conventional hydrocarbon fuels. Ideally, electrolysis driven by solar and wind energy would be the primary method of hydrogen production. This carbon-free future is not out of reach, but we must continue to develop current technology if we wish to fully capitalize on the potential of hydrogen fuel.
By Clare Nimura
One day in August of 2018, a ninth grade girl decided to skip classes for two weeks to protest the lack of legislation protecting the climate. Just seven months later, over a million students from more than 125 countries walked out to join her, creating a movement called the Global Climate Strike for Future. Six more months and the movement has grown to over seven million strong, comprised of activists across all generations, not just school-aged children. This girl is Greta Thunberg. Over the course of a year, she has become a household name for her incredible feat of global activism. Why, then, do some call her “a joke,” “a puppet,” or “creepy”?
This harsh public condescension and doubt of Greta and her campaign stems mainly from the characteristics that set her apart: her young age and her outspokenness about her Asperger Syndrome. In an old Twitter profile, she described herself as a “16 year old climate and environmental activist with Asperger’s.”
The fact that Greta is a child is astonishing, but not groundbreaking. She is not the first young activist to earn a place in the global news—think of Malala Yousafzai or the students who organized the March for Our Lives demonstrations. Greta’s Asperger Syndrome makes her stand out; she calls it her “superpower.” In addition to pushing for legislation to protect the global environment, she is breaking down the stigma around developmental disorders: there is nothing “wrong” with her.
Asperger Syndrome (AS), or Asperger’s, is a milder autism spectrum disorder. It is a developmental condition characterized by difficulties interpreting nonverbal cues and navigating social interactions, as well as restrictive and repetitive interests and behaviors. Children with Asperger’s have “normal” speech and cognitive skills and may just appear like a neurotypical child behaving differently. The lives of many adults with Asperger’s very closely resemble those of the average adult. Though the precise causes of autism spectrum disorder are yet unknown, they are thought to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors that influence brain development.
In her TEDTalkin February of 2019, Greta recounts the time she first learned about climate change, and how confounded she was by the lack of urgency about the issue. Her singular fixation on climate change led to her diagnosis: “To me, that did not add up. It was too unreal. So when I was 11, I became ill. I fell into depression, I stopped talking, and I stopped eating. In two months, I lost about 10 kilos of weight. Later on, I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. That basically means I only speak when I think it's necessary—now is one of those moments.”
Greta is a natural orator and is known for her piercing economy of language and her unshakable poise. “On climate change, we have to acknowledge that we have failed,” she says. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act as you would if the house was on fire. Because it is.” These are not the words anyone wants to hear; no one wants a child to blatantly state the truth that they have been avoiding. But maybe Greta’s direct, unmistakable message is what the world needs right now.
Contrary to the criticism aimed at her, her passion is genuine and her expertise is real. The argument that she is “handicapped,” first as a child, and second as a person with Asperger’s, is moot. Her young age gives her a more unadulterated perspective, and her Asperger’s makes her inclined to dedicate herself fully to her cause.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “The most distinguishing symptom of AS is a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other.” Greta has become an expert on climate change in a way that the average 16-year-old could not. She says herself, “For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white. We aren't very good at lying, and we usually don't enjoy participating in this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of.”
Asperger syndrome is like a lens that focuses Greta’s attention on a singular topic. Her perspective is a different voice in the debate, just like that of any other activist, politician, or leader. As Greta has risen to world fame, she has begun to shift the public perception of Asperger’s from something that is a disease and a negative to a different, though equally valuable, way to approach the world. Headlines focus not on the fact that Greta has Asperger syndrome, but on the merit of her climate policies and her role as a youth activist: “Greta Thunberg’s Unforgettable Message,” “Greta Thunberg’s Climate Panic Has Our Attention. Now What?” Greta has proven that she is just as capable as any other person. When she takes the microphone at a rally or at the UN Climate Change Summit, people stare because of her all-consuming passion for helping the environment, not because of her condition that makes her different.
When I went to see Greta in an interview in New York Citythis September, she was asked what she thinks of all the hateful messages she receives that criticize her campaign, discredit her words, and occasionally ridicule her lack of ease in certain social situations. She paused, then with a half-smirk, admitted, “I don’t know how many laugh attacks I’ve had just watching these tweets and some nights I have a competition with myself to find the most absurd.” To Greta, these comments simply do not matter—what matters is that we have thrown the environment into a downward spiral and it needs our help now. She set out with a mission to save the climate, and is inadvertently changing the dialogue on developmental disorders, too.
By Jacob Kang
The use of CRISPR-Cas9, a gene modification tool that uses enzymes to cut nucleotide chains, evokes an uncanny resemblance to childhood playtime. Like toddlers who tirelessly pull apart and connect blocks to perfect their LEGO creations, geneticists toss aside and join together the building blocks of all life on Earth to ensure that their model organisms exhibit traits desirable to the maker. These geneticists even take extra steps to ensure that every future creation is perfect in their eyes. After building their ideal creation, scientists use gene drive—copying manufactured genes onto inherited chromosomes or lowering the fertility of sex cells that lack the manufactured gene—as a guarantee that a majority of the population will possess the same traits as the starting organism. The capabilities of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene drive to orchestrate the destruction of any population raises the question of when it is appropriate to employ such drastic measures.
In fact, CRISPR-Cas9’s capabilities have led to its experimentation as a form of population control for pestilent species including the Aedesand Anophelesmosquito populations; this would theoretically help limit the transmittance of deadly diseases such as malaria, dengue, encephalitis, and yellow fever. One particular genetic modification is coined “doublesex” and causes the mouths of female offspring to transform into the pollen-specialized mouths possessed by males. In February 2019, an Italian laboratorysuccessfully eradicated a captive mosquito populationby utilizing CRISPR-Cas9 to implant doublesex into female genomes, and gene drive to rapidly propagate doublesex in offspring. Other control mechanisms created through gene editing have also experienced success in managing mosquito populations. For example, Oxitec, a biotechnology company specializing in insect control, reduced annual Brazilian Aedes aegypti populations by 95% after implanting a gene in mosquitoes that produces dying larvae. Although both studies are isolated to single test sites and subjected to extensive monitoring, the fact that we can choose to eliminate entire species right now is a revolutionary feat that confirms that CRISPR-Cas9 will be employed in the near future.
CRISPR-Cas9's imminent use calls for a closer examination of the impact of unravelling millions of years’ worth of natural selection and destroying the survivability of entire populations. Joe Conlon, an entomologist in the American Mosquito Control Association who supports mosquito eradication, acknowledges the unknown ways in which ecosystems might respond to the removal of specific players: “Something better or worse would take over.” We’ve already seen the collateral impacts of eliminating specific species: for example, sea otter overhunting along the California coast led to the overpopulation of sea urchins and the destruction of kelp forests, which are needed to house biodiversity and buffer storms. Some experts project that removing mosquitoes could lead to the decline of flora and faunaranging from mosquitofish, which are specialized to eat mosquitoes, to tropical plant species that rely on mosquitoes for pollination. Our decision to use CRISPR-Cas9 is humanity’s fork in the road. If we choose incorrectly, we can potentially inflict irreversible ecological damage that outweighs any medical benefit and permanently alters our ability to survive.
Interfering with the survivorship of wild mosquito populations raises the issue of ecological collapse via gene overselection, which is a risk inherent to genetic modification. We certainly have been able to customize gene pools to our advantage: the Green Revolution in the 1970’s introduced pest-resistant crops and saved millions of lives in impoverished countries. However, other human endeavors have resulted in genetic invariance and the subsequent destruction of a specie’s fitness. A prominent example involves the near-extinction of the Gros Michel banana variantbyFusarium oxysporum(Panama Disease-Tropical Race 1), a wilting disease that induces rotting in banana cultivars. Due to humans overbreeding the Gros Michel for more optimal traits, the species became unable to effectively ward off Panama disease, resulting in the destruction of Gros Michelas a marketable cultivar. Despite farmers’ transition to a hardier species of banana (Cavendish) as the primary banana crop, the same problems remain. Tropical Race 4, a variant of Panama Disease, has already destroyed banana farms in Taiwan and is projected to spread to major growing regions such as Latin America. Furthermore, it’s been estimated that nearly half of the current Cavendish yield has been derived from a single Cavendish’s genetic makeup. Ongoing issues with Panama Disease highlight limitations in our understanding of the relationship between selective genetics and a species’ ecological fitness, as well as of the ability to integrate desirable traits with evolutionarily optimized defensive genetic traits. If we’re unable to prevent a single disease from ravaging banana crops, we can’t expect to exert full control over the genetic makeup of entire ecological niches—even with the aid of powerful tools like CRISPR-Cas9.
The plight of the banana caused by human oversight underlines the biggest hurdle: even though scientists can and will probably alter species’ genetic pools, new issues can arise that will either have to be addressed through more gene editing or left unacknowledged. So, as we move forward in saving millions of lives using CRISPR-Cas9, let’s take a moment and ponder the potentially widespread ripple we’re creating by interfering with nature.
By Hannah Prensky
When I visited my sister in Prague this summer, we walked by a spa promoting beer baths and hops saunas. There, clients soak in barrels of beer or sit in saunas supplemented by hops oil. The fliers advertising these spas offered some information on their health benefits, but to me, they seemed vague and mostly made-up to attract tourists. The idea of soaking in a bath of alcohol and yeast for a full hour sounded dangerous and dirty, and it made me wonder about the true health benefits of this “beer spa” industry. Does soaking in beer really strip your skin of toxins like advertised, or does it just strip your wallet of money?
There are plenty of sobering facts proving that alcohol, as an ingredient in skincare, is problematic. Volatile alcohols like ethanol (drinking alcohol found in beer) and isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) are added to skin care products and cosmetics to immediately degrease skin and leave a quick-dry, weightless finish. However, the delayed consequences of product application also include dryness and itchiness. One reason alcohols are added to products like moisturizers is that after the product dries out, the consumer’s skin will become even drier. Then, they’ll continue using and purchasing the product to provide immediate relief and short-term moisture. However, skin-care companies don’t tell anyone about this property of their ingredients, so that consumers who keep reaching for these moisturizers don’t know that they’re actually drying their skin even more.
According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, volatile alcohols erode the skin’s surface, weakening the body’s soft outer tissue and allowing harmful agents to pass through the skin. Because of this, alcohols allow beneficial ingredients in skin-care, like retinol or vitamin C, to effectively penetrate the skin. However, they do so by breaking down the skin’s barrier.
Beer has a high hops oil content, which can open pores and contribute to the overall nourishment and vitality of skin. When incorporated into baths and saunas, the hops oils provide surface level hydration, leaving the consumer with an immediate feeling of moisturization. The property of alcohol that allows for the delivery of other molecules into the skin is beneficial for these beer spas. Beer contains vitamins B6 and B12, which are important for encouraging the growth of new, healthy skin cells and for repairing damaged skin. These B vitamins also treat skin imperfections like acne, psoriasis, and cellulite. They enter the skin via the mechanism detailed above: alcohol weakens the skin’s outer layer and allows for other molecules to pass through.
Like any other hot bath, these beer baths have the additional benefits of improving sleep quality and lowering blood pressure, which lowers the risk of stroke and heart disease. But, because these effects can be achieved with any soothing hot bath, it isn’t necessarily worth it for tourists to invest in a “spa treatment” like this one. Other spa treatments can deliver all these benefits without corroding the skin, and they do so at a lower price. If one is seeking these benefits, it is more economical to draw a hot bath at home, or to go elsewhere for more healthy skin treatments. A single beer bath and sauna treatment costs 3,400 Czech koruna, about 150 U.S. dollars, for one hour. At a spa just down the road from the beer spa I witnessed, one can get a 130 minute detox therapy package, including a body scrub, massage, body wrap, and facial, for 2,000 Czech koruna—less than 90 US dollars—and this package does not include the harmful effects of soaking skin in alcohol. Of course, a bath at home is free!