Human Nature

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.)

6. Vegetative consciousness. Last year, scans found near-normal brain activity in a woman who had been diagnosed as vegetative because she didn’t respond visibly to stimuli. The active core of her brain had lost its connections to her body. This year, after trying similar scans on 10 other patients, scientists said one showed “exactly the same responses.” In a third case, electrode stimulation restored consciousness to a seemingly incurable brain-damage victim.In a fourth case, a man regained consciousness after 19 years in an apparent coma. A traumatic accident had caused a brain tumor that made him unable to speak or move his limbs. He now says he was conscious the whole time but was unable to speak. The happy implication is that some people we thought were finished may be salvageable. The horrifying corollary is that until we find these people, they’re buried alive in their skulls. Questions: How many others are locked inside? What are our obligations to find and free them? Have we already terminated some of them? (Related: Buried alive in your own skull; interpreting the Schiavo videos.)

7. Parthenogenesis. That stuff you were told about birds and bees? Sorry. The truth is that males aren’t necessary. In May, scientists verified a “virgin birth” in sharks. This phenomenon had previously been found in some amphibians, birds, and reptiles, but a new genetic analysis confirmed it in a hammerhead shark. A month later, another shark fetus developed in a tank with no apparent father. No male of the shark’s species was in the tank. The fetus was found because its mother died; otherwise, it would have been eaten and never discovered. It seems that births to sharks with no apparent fathers may happen more often than we realized, because when there’s no male around, we don’t look for offspring. (Related: The myth of the birds and the bees.)

8. Physical hyperlinks. Cell phones and bar codes are beginning to turn the offline world into an Internet. First you put a high-density bar code on any object to encode information about it, including audio or video. Then you put software in a cell phone so it can scan bar codes and get the information. This is happening in Asia, and just beginning in the United States. You can point your phone at a food item and get nutritional information. You can point it at a billboard to download a movie trailer. You can scan a printed newspaper article and watch a bar-code-linked video on your phone, or point your phone at a house for-sale sign and get the real-estate agent’s details. On the upside, this means the speed and convenience of cyberspace will soon pervade the physical world. On the downside, the invasiveness and din of cyberspace will come with them. (Related: Physical sex vs. cybersex.)

9. Nonlethal beam weapons. In January, the U.S. military demonstrated a heat ray that inflicts disabling pain from one-third of a mile away. It consists of electromagnetic millimeter waves, which can penetrate skin enough to cause pain but not damage. One firsthand account said the sensation was “like a blast from a very hot oven, too painful to bear without scrambling for cover.” Another said it wasn’t painful, but was “intense enough to make the participants think their clothes were about to ignite.” The military boasted that the ray had been tested on 10,000 volunteers, with “no injuries requiring medical attention.” The weapon’s selling point is that it can disperse crowds, stop checkpoint runners, and disarm enemy fighters without having to shoot people. But perhaps for the same reason, we’ll find it easier to inflict pain. (Related: The future of heat-beaming weapons; the temptation of remote-controlled killing.)

10. Embryo manufacture. A fertility entrepreneur has launched a new industry: making and selling human embryos from handpicked donors. Clients were invited to select embryos based on the egg and sperm donors’ race, education, and looks, including childhood photos. The company advertised that all egg donors had some college education and that all sperm donors had graduate or professional degrees. Critics called it baby-selling and eugenics. But the businesswoman behind the venture argued that buying her products was cheaper and faster than IVF or adoption, and was morally no worse than the current practice of selecting eggs and sperm for purchase. And of course, “We’re just trying to help people have babies.” (Related: The rise of embryo eugenics; Costco, Burger King, and human flesh.)