Jul 15, 2021

Axios Science

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week's newsletter — about governing gene editing, science prep for future threats, and more — is 1,626 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Keeping tabs on science

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Pressure is mounting for enhanced governance of two powerful biotechnologies — genome editing and pathogen-enhancing research.

The big picture: Gene editing for the treatment of diseases is rapidly advancing, while the controversy over the origin of the COVID-19 virus is increasing scrutiny on how to manage the risks and benefits of dual-use research that can be used for scientific discoveries and misused by bad actors.

Driving the news: A World Health Organization advisory panel this week released two reports calling for international standards and oversight around the use of genome editing.

  • CRISPR and other technologies are showing promise in treating diseases, but they also introduce ethical questions about who has access to treatments, concerns about unproven or unsafe claims by clinics offering them, and the possibility of making genetic modifications in the human germline that can be inherited by later generations, which the WHO currently opposes.
  • The WHO report on governance for human genome editing calls for establishing an international registry for tracking and examining basic and preclinical research using human genome editing on embryos or germline cells that could be used to create embryos not used for pregnancy. (The organization recently launched a registry for clinical trials involving human gene editing.)
  • It also calls for a whistleblower mechanism to report unsafe and unethical research.

Background: The committee was formed after He Jiankui, a scientist working in China, announced he had used CRISPR gene editing to modify embryos from which twin babies were later born.

  • He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined for conducting the research, which drew international condemnation.

The WHO is simultaneously developing a global framework for dual-use biological research "to protect against the potential risks caused by accidents and misuse."

  • A major topic in dual-use research is pathogen-enhancing experiments in which scientists enhance viruses to make them more transmissible or more lethal.
  • Some researchers argue such research can provide insights into the pandemic potential of a pathogen, but others say it should be banned.
  • Unlike gene editing, there isn't commercial demand for pathogen-enhancing research, but if something goes wrong, the implications are global and therefore the work requires international-level oversight, says Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.

Where it stands: There is currently no registry of pathogen-enhancing research, and labs in different countries assess those experiments and conduct them under varying safety and security standards.

  • But an international standard for biosafety and biosecurity was established in late 2019 and "provides a ready-made tool that labs can use to make sure the research they are doing is conducted safely and securely," says Koblentz.
  • He and his colleagues propose the International Experts Group of Biosafety and Biosecurity Regulators (IEGBBR) or the WHO could help to implement those standards.

Yes, but: They don't have the ability to enforce standards for emerging technologies in the life sciences.

  • But by creating internationally recognized standards of behavior, they can become the "goal of scientists to do the enforcement of those standards," says Koblentz.
  • Guidelines can form a baseline for national policies and create norms and rules for scientists, but they're just as much about providing ways to responsibly bring health technologies to underserved and under-represented populations, says Ubaka Ogbogu, a professor of law at the University of Alberta who focuses on the regulation of emerging biotechnology.

The bottom line: Better governance of genome editing and pathogen-enhancing research could help to maximize their benefits and minimize their risks.

2. Exclusive: A LinkedIn for science

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

IBM and the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) are piloting the development of an international organization to assess and prepare for future potential threats — including pandemics, climate change catastrophes, cyber hacking and other risks.

Why it matters: As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, the biggest threats humanity faces don't respect national borders — and they demand scientific expertise. Creating a standby global network of talent and technical capacity could give a jump-start when the next disaster strikes.

How it works: The International Science Reserves (ISR) would be a "LinkedIn for science," according to director of IBM Research Dario Gil and NYAS president Nicholas Dirks. It would pool scientific expertise and capacity throughout academia and industry in computing, gene sequencing and more.

  • Part of the focus is preparation: The experts involved would conduct "readiness exercises" and scenario planning to know who can be tapped in crises and what would need to be done.
  • And part is deployment: When a crisis happens, ISR would aim to coordinate the experts, hardware, data and software resources needed to respond.

Background: Gil has been floating the idea of the ISR over the past year and told me it is borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic experience in which IBM, Google, Microsoft and others donated high-performance computing resources for COVID-19 research.

Where it stands: IBM and the NYAS have a one-year joint study agreement to determine how to create the ISR, with IBM providing funding and in-kind resources.

  • The ultimate goal is for the organization to be funded by partners and sponsors, including corporations, organizations, foundations and governments.
  • They plan to survey scientists about their resource needs and their willingness to join an open scientific network this fall and to conduct a preparedness exercise by June of next year.

Top-down approaches to pooling scientific resources are subject to politicization and governments aren't able to reach beyond their own borders, Dirks told me. The ISR would be self-organizing and not coordinated by governments.

What to watch... when and how the group engages with policymakers on certain issues, and how international participants engage with the ISR.

  • As COVID-19 showed, scientific advice can be rife with political ramifications, so working with policymakers effectively will likely be key.
  • The ISR will be open to scientists anywhere in the world, but proposed projects will be vetted by a review committee of experts in the field who are associated with the ISR. 
3. Catch up on COVID-19

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The debate over COVID-19 vaccine booster shots is beginning, Axios' Caitlin Owens reports.

The FDA added a warning to the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, saying the shot can lead to an increased risk, but still "very low" risk, of developing a rare neurological condition, per Axios' Shawna Chen and Marisa Fernandez.

Scientists reported finding an antibody that can fight multiple coronaviruses, Diana Kwon reports for Nature.

HIV infection "increases the odds of dying from COVID-19 by at least 30%," per the NYT's Apoorva Mandavilli.

4. Parts of the Amazon now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb

Part of the Amazon rainforest south of Novo Progresso burning in August 2020. Photo: Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Segments of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon dioxide than they can absorb because of human-caused disturbances, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, Axios' Jacob Knutson writes.

Why it matters: The Amazon region hosts the world's largest tropical rainforests and stores vast quantities of CO2, the primary long-lived greenhouse gas. Accelerating rates of deforestation and climate shifts due to human-caused global warming have damaged the region's effectiveness as a climate change buffer.

The big picture: The researchers performed approximately 600 flyovers above the Amazon region between 2010 and 2018 to measure concentrations of CO2 and carbon monoxide at four sites.

  • The aerial measurements revealed that total carbon emissions in eastern portions of Amazonia, which have been subjected to more deforestation and warming, were greater than those in the west.
  • Specific regions in southeastern Amazonia experienced the strongest trends and switched from being carbon sinks to emitting more carbon than they could absorb during the study period.
  • This marks a tipping point that scientists have foreshadowed in recent years.

How it works: Forests act as carbon sinks by capturing the gas through photosynthesis and storing it in biomass (plants and animals), dead organic matter, and soils.

  • When the storage sources are destroyed in fires, most of which are intentionally set to clear land for agricultural purposes, as well as via dry conditions, the forest's overall ability to sequester greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere is damaged.
  • The region's water cycle also changes, potentially leading the rainforest to transition to a savannah.

What they're saying: Scott Denning, a professor at Colorado State University, wrote in an accompanying but unaffiliated article in Nature that "the results cast doubt on the ability of tropical forests to sequester large amounts of fossil-fuel-derived CO2 in the future."

Go deeper.

5. Worthy of your time

A crater on Europa. Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Europa's chances of harboring life (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Expanding American Sign Language’s scientific vocabulary (Leigh Krietsch Boerner — Chemical and Engineering News)

Study reveals extraordinary scope of urban heat disparities (Ben Geman, Andrew Freedman — Axios)

New brain implant transmits full words from neural signals (Emily Willingham — Scientific American)

6. Something wondrous

"Dementor." Photo: Kathryn Cooper

At dusk on winter nights in north-central England, tens of thousands of starlings can be seen flocking together before they roost. Scientist and photographer Kathryn Cooper captures these stunning moments of collective behavior in a photo essay in bioGraphic that caught my eye this week.

The big picture: From schooling fish to flashing fireflies, "nature has evolved to create these systems that are really efficient and robust," Cooper says. How predation and other factors drive those behaviors is still being studied.

How it works: Cooper films the flock swarms, called murmurations, at 25 frames per second. She looks through the video for interesting shapes and behaviors, uses an algorithm she wrote to pick out the starlings from the sky, and then stacks the images on top of one another.

Details: The image above, "Dementor," was taken on an "awful," cold, windy night, Cooper recalls.

  • A sparrow hawk swooped underneath the flock, causing the birds to twist and spin like the dementors in Harry Potter.
  • Murmurations are believed to keep predators from being able to target an individual bird, "increasing the odds of survival for each starling in the flock," Katie Jewett writes.

"If you didn’t know what was going on, you would think these murmurations were some sort of message from the gods," Cooper told me.

Read the essay: Starling-studded skies (Kathryn Cooper and Katie Jewett — bioGraphic)