Here’s the Epigenome Project
The headline on Rachel Feltman’s post at Speaking of Science said the epigenome project was awesome, which is as good an introduction as any. That slew of two dozen papers in Nature and its associated journals described where we are with human epigenomics/epigenetics. (These papers seem to be open access, hosanna.) They were only published Wednesday, so while there are many many many news stories, heavy blogging hasn’t quite kicked in yet.
Explaining the relationship of the genome and the epigenome at a press conference, study coauthor Manolis Kellis of MIT said “All our cells have a copy of the same book [the genome], but they’re all reading different chapters, bookmarking different pages, and highlighting different paragraphs and words.”
The study of epigenetics is about how nurture shapes nature. It seeks to explain how the environment turns genes off and on in particular cells at particular times. The bookmarks Kellis spoke of are biochemical mechanisms that change the behavior of genetic material without changing any DNA sequences.
The two best known and most studied of these mechanisms are DNA methylation and histone modification. In methylation, methyl groups (CH3) stick to DNA and make genes easier or harder to turn on. Histones are the proteins DNA is wrapped tightly around. Their modifications usually involve attachment of an acetyl group (CH3CO.)
For the National Institutes of Health’s Roadmap Epigenomics Program, hundreds of scientists around the world studied epigenetic events in more than 100 types of body tissues, assembling reference epigenomes. These are the epigenetic patterns characteristic of each tissue, information that can be compared to other samples in future.
As Merlin Crossley observed at The Conversation, scientists are finding that mutations don’t usually disrupt genes, they influence how strongly (and when) those genes are expressed. Epigenetics operates as a sort of volume control on genes, but how those controls work is still largely unknown. That’s what the epigenome project is about. The working hypothesis is that variation in disease susceptibility–or any other trait–depends mostly on subtle differences in the expression of genes, which is under epigenetic control.
Here’s robot ethics
“There’s nothing frivolous about it — robot ethics is the most important philosophical issue of our time.” That opinion, from Graham Templeton at ExtremeTech, had me amused but anguished too. The most important issue? Didn’t Graham see a headline now and then? Or even The Daily Show? But I looked into the topic of robot ethics and found that I was seriously behind the times. People have been thinking about the need for robot ethics in its contemporary manifestations for the past few years.
Robot morality discussions have circled mainly around two topics: self-driving cars and automated warfare. Self-driving cars are, of course, supposed to greatly increase road safety. But even if they reduce death and dismemberment dramatically, there will be screwups and–most important from the standpoint of ethics–dilemmas. If an accident is inevitable, should a robocar kill its passengers or a schoolbus full of kids? For a thorough discussion of auto-auto morality, see this post at Wired by Patrick Lin.
Automated warfare, in the form of drones carrying out those “surgical strikes” in the Middle East, has been under the gun for some years now, with no resolution that I’m aware of. On the horizon are many more mechanical horrors of war. See this post (also by Patrick Lin) at the Atlantic.
Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (plus another that he added for protecting all of humanity) come inevitably to mind. Are they a good place to start on robot morality? An ArXiv paper from last year discussed at Tech Review argues that our fears of robots are overblown and we don’t even need the Laws. As for automated warfare, that’s not the robots’ doing, it’s the people in charge, and they are already subject to international law.
At io9, George Dvorsky interviews robot and AI experts and concludes that Asimov’s inventiveness can’t protect us from our inventions. For one thing, the Laws are operational forms of rule-based ethics, aka deontology, and rule-based ethical systems just don’t work, according to Louie Helm of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.
Ben Goertzel, AI theorist, points out to Dvorsky that Asimov devised the Laws and then wrote stories about how they failed. Goertzel concludes, “So the Three Laws were instructive in terms of teaching us how any attempt to legislate ethics in terms of specific rules is bound to fall apart and have various loopholes.”
Here’s Mars One
Mars One, the privately financed project whose announced purpose is to send 4 people on a one-way journey to Mars in the next decade, has winnowed its 200,000-plus applicants down to an even 100, with a couple of dozen the eventual goal. After arriving safely on Mars, the lucky four first colonists are supposed to build a Martian habitat in preparation for more colonists.
That’s considerably more ambitious than NASA’s plan, which calls for a human landing on Mars sometime in the 2030s. Well, maybe not really more ambitious, since NASA envisions bringing its voyagers back to Earth.
Why go to Mars? Well, once we’re really ready for the new age of exploration, Mars is a reasonable choice. “Because it’s there,” is good enough for me. Although Dan Van Winkle at the Mary Sue cites a NASA study showing that building cloud cities far above super-hot Venus might in some ways be a more practical goal. Venus is closer than Mars, and temperatures in the upper atmosphere could be manageable.
The cities would consist of solar-powered airships. Oh, the humanity.
Other commentators produce their own justifications for the Mars trip. Aerospace engineer Ashley Dove-Jay’s reason is straight out of Disney’s futurism in WALL-E: we’ve messed up the Earth irretrievably and need to stage a getaway. “If this is where humankind is destined to remain, then we shall find ourselves fighting over whatever is left of it,” he says at The Conversation. Also, space projects are good for global politics, they bring nations together.
Writing at 13.7 Cosmos & Culture, anthropologist Barbara King thinks Mars One may be a chance for humanity’s do-over. She wonders how the colonists will avoid replicating our inequities here on Earth, and draws on the fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson for illumination.
You will not be surprised to learn that there are naysayers like the MIT engineers who say the Mars One project is technically wacko (my interpretation of their courteous conclusions.) The Martians’ locally sourced crops would produce suffocating levels of oxygen, they say, and technologies for wringing water out of that very dry planet don’t yet exist. Also, there’s the problem of getting spare parts.
Furthermore, last year one of the many authorities on Islam, this one based in the United Arab Emirates, issued a fatwa against going to live on Mars. The grounds: Islam forbids suicide.
In his long explainer about what’s required for going to Mars at Starts with a Bang, Ethan Siegel ends up condemning the Mars One project. “I just don’t think hoodwinking and exploiting a bunch of naive explorers, killing them horrifically in short order because you sold them a false promise of what they could’ve achieved, is the way to do it.”
But if Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech is right, horrific killing may not be outcome at all. In fact, maybe getting to Mars isn’t really the point. The project is endorsed by one of the founders of the reality series Big Brother. The Mars One project, and the leadups to it, are to be financed by a worldwide multiyear TV reality show. To that end, Machkovech points out, the newly winnowed candidate group of 100 “contains some curious choices who seem better suited for reality TV than grueling outer-space missions.”