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How far should genetic engineering go to allow this couple to have a healthy baby? – Sydney Morning Herald

Posted: March 24, 2020 at 5:46 am

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One morning in 2005, Shelley Beverley woke up to find that she had gone deaf. She was 21, and living in Johannesburg with her older brother Neil. I was very scared, she says. It was just so sudden. She struggled through the rest of the day, hoping that her hearing would come back, but it didnt. In one sense, her hearing loss wasnt entirely a surprise: Beverleys grandmother had been deaf, Neil had lost his hearing when he was 13, and her mum, Mary, had lost hers when she was 32. We knew it ran in the family, she says, but I thought Id been lucky and not inherited it.

Beverley, 35, lives in Margate, a semi-rural district south of Hobart, with her husband James. The couple migrated to Australia from South Africa in 2010, looking for space, buying 2 hectares of lush green grass at the foot of a forested ridge near the mouth of the Derwent River. We love the wildlife here, says James, looking out the living room window. Weve seen pademelons, echidnas, quolls, blue-tongue lizards, even a Tassie devil. At dusk, hundreds of kangaroos emerge from the forest to gorge on the grass. Its very peaceful, says James. Its really helped us after everything thats happened.

Apart from their deafness, Beverleys family had largely enjoyed good health. Then, in September 2015, her mother, Mary, then 62, started experiencing fatigue and stomach pain. Doctors in Durban ordered a colonoscopy, but the procedure made her worse. Her feet became swollen and purple. Because of their hearing problems, Shelley and Mary had communicated mainly in text messages. But soon I began noticing that her wording got a bit funny, says Beverley. It didnt always make sense.

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Beverley flew to Durban in February 2016, but by that time her mother could no longer talk or walk. She was so weak that she couldnt move her hands or lift her neck. Two days after Beverley arrived in Durban, her mother caught a virus that caused fluid to build up on her lungs. The doctors tried unsuccessfully to drain it. Shortly afterwards, she died. She weighed just 36 kilograms. It was so fast, Beverley says. And we were still in the dark about what she had.

Shortly before Marys death, Neil had also fallen ill. He developed a number of mysterious symptoms, including facial twitches and seizures. He kept falling over and tripping, and experienced vomiting and headaches so severe he lost his vision for weeks at a time. His behaviour became strange showering with his clothes on, and hallucinating.

One day, Dad was driving him around and Neil started talking to all these little people he thought were around his feet, says Beverley. Doctors in Durban had trouble diagnosing him, so they sent a biopsy to London, where he was found to have a type of mitochondrial cytopathy one of a large family of chronic and progressive diseases that affect the muscles, brain and nervous system. As the family soon learnt, the condition has no cure and no effective therapies. One of the common early symptoms is hearing loss.

Neil died in June 2017, aged 34, by which time Beverley had discovered she also had the condition. It was fear, so much fear, she says. She began experiencing symptoms, including migraines and vision loss. She has since developed diabetes, hypertension, gastro-paresis (when your stomach muscles dont work), and pharyngeal dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). Every time I get sick now, the flu or something, I think, When am I going to need a wheelchair or a feeding tube? When will my legs stop working?

Mito has taken everything from me, she says. If I die, at least James will still have a part of me.

Beverley has bright blue eyes and long, straight, ash-brown hair. Shes got a lazy left eye and uncommonly pale skin, which she attributes to her condition. Oh, and I had bunions out in 2010, she says, laughing wryly.

She doesnt know how long shes got left, but she is determined to make it count. She has joined mito awareness groups, and is an active member of the Mito Foundation, which supports sufferers, and funds research. She has exhaustively researched the condition and takes every opportunity to educate doctors. Youd be surprised by how little they know about it, she says.

But her overriding focus has been on a cutting-edge, and currently illegal, procedure called mitochondrial donation, a form of IVF which would allow those with the condition to have children, safe in the knowledge they would not be passing it on. Mito has taken everything from me, she says. If I die, at least James will still have a part of me. I would like him to look at our child, and say, You have your mums smile or your mums eyes.

An IVF treatment known as mitochondrial donation could potentially save up to 60 Australian children a year from being born with the condition. Credit:

Mitochondrial donation has been labelled immoral and unethical, a slippery slope to designer babies, not to mention potentially unsafe. The only country in the world to have legalised it is the UK. A report by medical experts into the technologys potential application in Australia is due to be delivered to Health Minister Greg Hunt this month.

This fight is really personal to me, Beverley says. Short of a cure, people with mito should at least have the option of having healthy children.

Mitochondria are microscopic structures in human cells that provide the body with energy. For this reason, they are often described as the cells powerhouse. They are crucially important: if your mitochondria fail or mutate, your body will be starved of energy, causing multiple organ failure and premature death.

A stylised representation of a mitochondrion, which provides the body with energy. Malfunction can lead to organ failure and death.Credit:Josh Robenstone

Mito, which is maternally inherited, usually affects the muscles and major organs such as the brain, heart, liver, inner ears, and eyes. But it can cause any symptom in any organ, at any age. Indeed, the term mito includes more than 200 disorders, the symptoms of which are maddeningly varied and seemingly unrelated, leading to delayed diagnoses or incorrect diagnoses or, indeed, no diagnosis.

Many of these people have been fobbed off by doctors or laughed off by people who think they are hypochondriacs, says Dr David Thorburn, a mitochondrial researcher at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, in Melbourne, who has diagnosed some 700 cases over the past 28 years. Most people are relieved to finally know what it is, because that is the end of that part of their journey.

Its sometimes said babies produced as a result of mitochondrial donation would have three parents the mother, the father, and the donor.

Up to two million people worldwide have some form of mito. - Others, like Beverley, who have a less severe type of the disease, will get adult onset, and can expect to become ill in their 30s, 40s or 50s.

According to Thorburn, One of the things that most dismays families with mito is the lack of control they have over passing the condition down to future generations of their family.

Remaining childless is one way to stop the condition from being passed down, as is adopting, but as Thorburn acknowledges, There is an innate desire in many individuals to have their own children. For these people, mito donation offers the very real prospect that the condition is eliminated from future generations.

Mitochondrial replacement is a highly specialised procedure, requiring a level of manual dexterity sufficient to manipulate a womans egg, which is roughly the width of a human hair. Within that egg is a nucleus, where a persons genes are located, and the cytoplasm, the jelly-like substance that surrounds it. Mitochondria are found in the cytoplasm.

Mitochondrial replacement involves taking a donor females healthy egg, removing its nucleus and replacing it with the nucleus of the woman affected by mitochondrial disease, but whose nucleus is healthy. The egg is then fertilised using her partners sperm. (Another option is to fertilise the egg first, and then swap the nucleus.) The resulting embryo is then implanted into the mother.

Researcher David Thorburn: "Mito donation offers the very real prospect that the condition is eliminated from future generations."Credit:Josh Robenstone

Since more than 99.9 per cent of our genes are found in the eggs nucleus, which remains unaffected, the procedure will have no impact on the childs height, hair colour or mannerisms. Despite that, its sometimes said that babies produced as a result of mitochondrial donation would have three parents the mother, the father, and the donor.

The technology has been tested in mice for more than 30 years, but only since 2009 has research been done on human embryos, mainly in the UK. Almost from the start, the research was subject to sensational headlines about scientists playing God, and the possibility of genetic engineering, with much of the hysteria being fuelled by anti-abortion groups. The Catholic Church described it as a further step in commodification of the human embryo and a failure to respect new individual human lives.

In 2012, the Human Genetics Alert, an independent watchdog group in London, wrote a paper comparing any baby produced with mitochondrial replacement to Frankensteins creation, since they would be produced by sticking together bits from many different bodies. According to the Conservative British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, the procedure was not a cure for disease, it is the creating of a different person.

Regulators subjected the technology to four separate scientific reviews, together with rounds of ethical debate and community consultation. In 2015, the UK Parliament voted to legalise the technology for use in humans, on the proviso that it only be available to those women at high risk of passing on the disease. Since then, 13 couples in the UK have received the go-ahead to undergo the procedure.

Its unclear how many children, if any, have been born: the parents have asked that details not be published. Meanwhile, scientists like Thorburn wait eagerly for news of any developments. I know the UK researchers well and have asked several of them, and they are keeping completely quiet about it in respecting the families wishes, he says.

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If there have been babies born in the UK using the procedure, they arent the first. In April 2016, a child was born using the technique in Mexico, to a Jordanian mother who carried a fatal mitochondrial condition known as Leigh syndrome. The doctor in charge, an American fertility specialist called Dr John Zhang, later admitted that he had gone to Mexico because the procedure is illegal in America. In Mexico, he admitted, There are no rules.

Even those who want mitochondrial donation legalised in Australia concede that much remains unknown about the procedure. Its long-term risks can only be understood through lifelong health check-ups, but this is impossible until any children conceived via this procedure become adults. Implications for subsequent generations also remain unclear.

No medical procedure is 100 per cent safe, says Sean Murray, CEO of the Mito Foundation. But we think we are at the stage now where the benefits of the technology are greater than the risks.

One of the issues around safety concerns the compatibility of the donors mitochondria with the recipients nuclear genes. A 2016 study in mice suggested that mismatched mitochondria affected their metabolism and shortened their lives. Another concern is known as carryover, whereby a tiny amount of mutant mitochondria is inevitably transferred from the affected mothers egg into the donor egg during the procedure.

Instead of it being wiped out, the mutation might then reappear in the descendants of any girls born as a result. For this reason, some people have proposed that the procedure be restricted to male embryos only, but this raises all kinds of ethical issues around selective breeding and sex selection.

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Indeed, it often seems as if the term ethical minefield was coined especially with mitochondrial donation in mind.

My primary ethical concern has to do with the sanctity of human life, says Father Kevin McGovern, a Catholic priest and member of the National Health and Medical Research Councils Mitochondrial Donation Expert Working Committee.

If mitochondrial donation is permitted here, the technique most likely to be used is pronuclear transfer, which requires that both the donors egg and the affected mothers egg be fertilised. [This is to ensure that both eggs are at the same developmental stage.] But once the nucleus is removed from the donors fertilised egg, it is discarded. For people who believe that life begins at conception, this is akin to murder. You are creating two lives and destroying one for spare parts.

The Catholic Church has consistently opposed mitochondrial donation. In a Senate inquiry into the technology in 2018, Dr Bernadette Tobin, director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at the Australian Catholic University, suggested the process was intrinsically evil.

The inquiry also heard from Father Anthony Fisher, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, who raised concerns about the moral right of the child to know how he or she was conceived the problem of what he called genealogical bewilderment and the donors right to remain anonymous. He also worried that women might effectively become egg vending machines: The availability of human ova is often assumed when people talk about reproductive technology as if they were somehow there in a cupboard to be used. In fact, it means women have to be used to obtain these eggs. They are extracted by invasive procedures that do carry some risk.

A report by medical experts into mitochondrial donation and its potential application in Australia is due to be delivered to Health Minister Greg Hunt this month. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Equally troubling for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the peak national body for the churchs bishops, was the fact that mitochondrial donation involved conceiving babies not by marital intercourse [but by] a technical procedure.

Most of these concerns are redundant, argues the Mito Foundations Sean Murray. We already have a well defined regulatory framework for dealing with all this, he says. As far as the donors right to remain anonymous, we would defer to the appropriate federal or state and territory regulations that apply for sperm or egg donations. In regard to a kids right to know they had a mitochondrial donor, societally there seems to be a preference to inform kids. Its important for them to understand their genetic lineage.

Then theres the matter of consent. The parents can wrestle with the ethical issues and weigh up all the risks, but the only person who cant consent to the procedure is the unborn child. Well, says Murray, they cant consent to being born with mito, either.

The Mito Foundations Sean Murray: "In regard to a kids right to know they had a mitochondrial donor, societally there seems to be a preference to inform kids."Credit:Joshua Morris

Murray, 47, is one of the founding directors of the Mito Foundation, which was established in Sydney in 2009. Mito runs in my family, he says. My older brother, Peter, died of it in 2009 at 45, and my mum passed away in 2011, at 70. What people often dont understand is that even in families that have mito, each member can have different mutational loads basically, different amounts of bad mitochondria. Peter got a high load, but I didnt. Thats why Im still here.

A computer scientist by training, Murray now works full-time on the foundation. Much of his job involves travelling around the country, explaining mito to politicians, journalists and philanthropists, raising funds for research and, most crucially, advocating for a change to the laws.

Mitochondrial donation falls foul of two pieces of legislation: the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002, and the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act 2002. The laws prohibit the implantation of a human embryo that contains more than two peoples genetic material. The laws were subject to a mandatory review in 2010, but the then Labor government recommended they remain the same.

In 2013, the Mito Foundation urged the government to revisit its decision. Two years later, it began lobbying in earnest. What we tried to get across was that the science around mito donation has come a long way since 2010, says Murray. Also, the process that the UK went through to legalise it really reassured us that the procedure is safe and effective.

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In the past five years, Murray and his colleagues have consulted with more than 100 MPs and senators. Only one of them, according to Murray, said I dont like this. They have also talked to dozens of industry experts, including academics and medical and research bodies, about the benefits of mitochondrial donation. Most of them get it straight away, he says. We are talking about a technique that will prevent the chance of having a morbidly ill child.

Now, a breakthrough appears imminent. In February 2019, Health Minister Greg Hunt asked the National Health and Medical Research Council to look into the matter, review the science and conduct public consultation. The NHMRC is due to hand its report to Hunt this month. The expectation among the mito community is that he will recommend the laws be changed. Any proposals would then need to be debated in Parliament, where issues around reproductive medicine have, in the past, been hotly contested.

Murray expects some opposition from more conservative MPs, but nothing like the rancour seen in the NSW Parliament during last years debate over legalising abortion. Shadow health minister Chris Bowen has, for his part, said that Labor will support changing the laws.

Mitochondrial sufferer Shelley Beverley at home in Tasmania. This fight is really personal to me. Credit:Peter Mathew

Whether this will help people like Shelley Beverley is unclear. If Hunt gives it the green light, it will take two years at least for mitochondrial donation to become available to prospective parents, given the time involved in drafting and passing legislation, establishing a regulatory regime and getting doctors up to speed with the technology.

This will probably be too late for Beverley. I really only have about a year left to give it a go, she tells me. After that, my symptoms may progress and biologically things get worse after 35. She says she would consider going to the UK for the treatment, but that at present they are not accepting international patients.

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In the meantime, she watches TV, and reads a little, but not too much. (It puts me to sleep.) She gardens: she has a bed of huge white and pink roses out the back of her house, as a memorial to her mother and brother. And she eats. James cooks for me. He lets me choose the best meat and potatoes! Ive put on weight since I met him. She describes James as something close to an angel. He will listen to every problem I have or feeling I experience. He will always put me first.

Beverley started going out with James when she was 21, right around the time she first went deaf. I was so scared that he wouldnt like me as much. I remember calling him and saying I was scared he would leave me. But James is still here. Im very lucky to have him, she says. If I go, I want him to have a part of me.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

Tim Elliott is a senior writer with Good Weekend.

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Books about pandemics to read in the time of coronavirus – Cape Cod Times

Posted: at 5:46 am

What to read while youre self-isolating to avoid the coronavirus? How about books about all the various plagues humankind has survived before?

There are classics like Giovanni Boccaccios 1353 classic The Decameron, about Italian aristocrats who flee the bubonic plague in Florence, or Daniel Defoes 1722 novel A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the Black Death in London half a century before.

There are many more recent works about pandemics, some nonfiction, some historical fiction, some speculative fiction. On March 8, Stephen King resisted comparisons of the current crisis to his 1978 novel The Stand, set in a world where a pandemic has killed 99% of the population. King tweeted, No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND. Its not anywhere near as serious. Its eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions.

Despite Kings protestations, readers often look to books to help explain real-world phenomena, especially in bewildering times like these. Here are a few more plague books to consider.

Fiction

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) by Katherine Ann Porter is a short novel set during the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed five times as many Americans as did World War I. Its main character, Miranda, is a young reporter who falls in love with a soldier; the books fever-dream style captures the experience of the disease.

The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton is a bestselling techno-thriller that begins when a military satellite crashes to earth and releases an extraterrestrial organism that kills almost everyone in a nearby small town. Then things get bad.

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel Garca Mrquez is the great Colombian authors beguiling tale of a 50-year courtship, in which lovesickness is as debilitating and stubborn as disease.

The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood, which includes Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), is a masterwork of speculative fiction by the author of The Handmaids Tale. Set in a near future in which genetic engineering causes a plague that almost destroys humanity, its savagely satirical, thrilling and moving.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy is a bleak, beautifully written, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set after an unspecified extinction event has wiped out most of humanity. An unnamed man and boy travel on foot toward a southern sea, fending off cannibals and despair.

Nemesis (2010) by Philip Roth is the authors 31st and last novel, a sorrowful story set in Newark, N.J., in 1944, as the United States is in the grip of the polio epidemic that killed and disabled thousands of children.

Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel is a bestselling novel about a group of actors and musicians traveling through the Great Lakes region in future years after a mysterious pandemic called the Georgian flu has killed almost everyone.

The Old Drift (2019) by Namwalli Serpell is a dazzling debut novel set in Zambia, spanning a century but focusing in part on the disaster wrought in that country by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Nonfiction

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (1995) by Laurie Garrett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters clear-eyed look at how rapidly the modern world has changed the nature of disease, how important preparedness is and how endangered we are without it.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2013) by David Quammen is the great science writers fascinating look at zoonotic diseases, such as AIDS and Ebola (and now coronavirus), that jump from animal species to ours.

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Scientists make genetically engineered neurons, speculate sci-fi kind of reality in future – International Business Times, Singapore Edition

Posted: at 5:46 am

Robots used for treating coronavirus in US

There is electricity in our body, our nerves carry electric signals to and fro for all actions made by us. All our actions have these signals that are guided by the brain. This could mean we can exploit our body's reception to electrical pulses for other means, from neural implants to biosensors.

A team of researchers from Stanford University has developed genetically engineered neurons to build materials into the cell membranes. This method could be used to target highly specific groups of cells that could help control body's response to electrical stimulation. The study has been published in the journal Science.

The paper explains that introducing new genes into an organism could endow new biochemical functions or change the patterns of existing functions. The team combined genetic engineering and polymer chemistry that could manipulate the behavior in living animals.

The team used re-engineered viruses which can get into a cell and deliver a DNA creating an enzyme that changes the electrical properties of the cells, this demonstrated that the same process can be used to control their behaviour

The method was used to modulate neuronal pulses by culturing hippocampal neurons of rat, mouse brain slices, and even human cortical spheroids. This showed the process produced the polymers in large enough quantities to alter their behaviour without obstructing natural functions of the cell.

Applying this to humans is a challenge. However, the approach could be used in therapies that use electrical stimulation of neural circuits as an alternative to drugs for diseases as varied as arthritis, Alzheimer's , diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and many clinical trials are on, reported Singularity Hub

Other than disease-focused bioelectronics, Otto and Christine Schmidt from the University of Floridasay said that the approach could be greatly useful for advanced prosthetics, that is for a patients' nervous system, making possible to excite sensory neurons without accidentally triggering motor neurons, or vice versa, according to the report.

The approach, says the report, could be used to bridge our mind and machines in the future. Our neurons need highly targeted approaches that shouldn't obstruct the natural process too! This could help.

As science fictions excites us with its cyborgs. It can as well be our future if the research could lead us to build 'electronic-tissue composites' in humans.

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Coronavirus: Scientists tackle the theories on how it started – Sky News

Posted: at 5:46 am

Scientists have analysed the entirety of the novel coronavirus' genomic sequence to assess claims that it may have been made in a laboratory or been otherwise engineered.

The coronavirus outbreak first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December and has caused an international pandemic, infecting more than 198,000 people and leading to over 7,900 deaths.

International blame around the COVID-19 pandemic has incited conspiracy theories about its origin.

Without evidence Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, suggested on Twitter that the virus could have been brought to Wuhan by the US army.

While he may have been insincerely provocative in response to American officials describing the outbreak as the Wuhan virus, stressing its beginnings in China, he received thousands of retweets.

Rumours linking the virus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology - based on geographic proximity, and without any endorsement from qualified epidemiologists - have also circulated.

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Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus and made the data publicly available for researchers worldwide.

Even the integrity of these scientists and medical professionals has been called into question by conspiracy theorists, prompting an international coalition of scientists to sign a joint letter of support for them and their work, published in medical journal The Lancet.

The value of the genomic sequence could prove vital for those developing a vaccine, but it also contains key details revealing how the virus evolved.

New analysis by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in the US, UK and Australia discovered that the virus has proved so infectious because it developed a near-perfect mechanism to bind to human cells.

This mechanism is so sophisticated in its adaptions that the researchers say that it must have evolved and not been genetically engineered in their paper, titled "COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin", published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Dr Josie Golding, the epidemics lead at the Wellcome Trust in the UK, described the paper as "crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumours that have been circulating about the origins of the virus causing COVID-19".

"They conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution, ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering," Dr Golding added.

So how do they know? One of the most effective parts of the virus are its spike proteins, molecules on the outside of the virus which it uses to grab hold of and then penetrate the outer walls of human and animal cells.

There are two key features in the novel coronavirus' spike proteins which make its evolution a certainty.

The first is what's called the receptor-binding domain (RBD) which they describe as "a kind of grappling hook that grips on to host cells", while the second is known as the cleavage site, "a molecular can opener that allows the virus to crack open and enter host cells".

If researchers were actually going to design a virus to harm humans then it would be constructed from the backbone of a virus already known to cause illness, the researchers said.

However the coronavirus backbone is radically different to those which are already known to affect humans, and in fact are most similar to viruses which are found in bats and pangolins.

"These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for [the coronavirus]," said Dr Kristian Andersen, corresponding author on the paper.

Another study of the genome by researchers at the Wuhan Institute for Virology reported that the virus was 96% identical to a coronavirus found in bats, one of the many animals sold at a Wuhan seafood market where it is suspected the virus jumped to humans.

However the new research was unable to determine whether the virus evolved into its current pathogenic state in a non-human host before jumping to a human, or if it evolved into that state after making the jump.

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New Research: There May Be a Way to Turn Cells into Mini-Factories for Materials – The National Interest

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Buildings are not unlike a human body. They have bones and skin; they breathe. Electrified, they consume energy, regulate temperature and generate waste. Buildings are organisms albeit inanimate ones.

But what if buildings walls, roofs, floors, windows were actually alive grown, maintained and healed by living materials? Imagine architects using genetic tools that encode the architecture of a building right into the DNA of organisms, which then grow buildings that self-repair, interact with their inhabitants and adapt to the environment.

Living architecture is moving from the realm of science fiction into the laboratory as interdisciplinary teams of researchers turn living cells into microscopic factories. At the University of Colorado Boulder, I lead theLiving Materials Laboratory. Together with collaborators in biochemistry, microbiology, materials science and structural engineering, we usesynthetic biologytoolkits to engineer bacteria to create useful minerals and polymers and form them into living building blocks that could, one day, bring buildings to life.

In one study published in Scientific Reports, my colleagues and Igenetically programmed E. coli to create limestone particleswith different shapes, sizes, stiffnesses and toughness. In another study, we showed thatE. coli can be genetically programmed to produce styrene the chemical used to make polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam.

Juliana Artier, a University of Colorado Boulder postdoctoral researcher, works with a flask of cyanobacteria thats been genetically altered to produce building materials.The University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science,CC BY-ND

In our most recent work, published in Matter, we used photosynthetic cyanobacteriato help us grow a structural building material and we kept it alive. Similar to algae, cyanobacteria are green microorganisms found throughout the environment but best known for growing on the walls in your fish tank. Instead of emitting CO2, cyanobacteria use CO2 and sunlight to grow and, in the right conditions, create a biocement, which we used to help us bind sand particles together to make a living brick.

By keeping the cyanobacteria alive, we were able to manufacture building materials exponentially. We took one living brick, split it in half and grew two full bricks from the halves. The two full bricks grew into four, and four grew into eight. Instead of creating one brick at a time, we harnessed the exponential growth of bacteria to grow many bricks at once demonstrating a brand new method of manufacturing materials.

Researchers have only scratched the surface of the potential of engineered living materials. Other organisms could impart other living functions to material building blocks. For example, different bacteria could produce materials that heal themselves, sense and respond to external stimuli like pressure and temperature, or even light up. If nature can do it, living materials can be engineered to do it, too.

It also take less energy to produce living buildings than standard ones. Making and transporting todays building materials uses a lot of energy and emits a lot of CO2. For example, limestone is burned to make cement for concrete. Metals and sand are mined and melted to make steel and glass. The manufacture, transport and assembly ofbuilding materials account for 11% of global CO2 emissions.Cement production alone accounts for 8%. In contrast, some living materials, like our cyanobacteria bricks, could actually sequester CO2.

Teams of researchers from around the world are demonstrating the power and potential of engineered living materials at many scales, includingelectrically conductive biofilms,single-cell living catalystsfor polymerization reactions andliving photovoltaics. Researchers have madeliving masks that sense and communicate exposure to toxic chemicals. Researchers are also trying togrow and assemble bulk materialsfrom a genetically programmed single cell.

While single cells are often smaller than a micron in size one thousandth of a millimeter advances in biotechnology and 3D printing enable commercial production of living materials at the human scale.Ecovative, for example, grows foam-like materials using fungal mycelium.Biomasonproduces biocemented blocks and ceramic tiles using microorganisms. Although these products are rendered lifeless at the end of the manufacturing process, researchers from Delft University of Technology have devised a way toencapsulate and 3D-print living bacteria into multilayer structuresthat could emit light when they encounter certain chemicals.

Living building materials can be formed into many shapes, like this truss.The University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science,CC BY-ND

The field of engineered living materials is in its infancy, and further research and development is needed to bridge the gap between laboratory research and commercial availability. Challenges include cost, testing, certification and scaling up production. Consumer acceptance is another issue. For example, the construction industry has a negative perception of living organisms. Think mold, mildew, spiders, ants and termites. Were hoping to shift that perception. Researchers working on living materials also need to address concerns about safety and biocontamination.

The National Science Foundation recently named engineered living materialsone of the countrys key research priorities. Synthetic biology and engineered living materials will play a critical role in tackling the challenges humans will face in the 2020s and beyond: climate change, disaster resilience, aging and overburdened infrastructure, and space exploration.

If humanity had a blank landscape, how would people build things? Knowing what scientists know now, Im certain that we would not burn limestone to make cement, mine ore to make steel or melt sand to make glass. Instead, I believe we would turn to biology to help us build and blur the boundaries between our built environment and the living, natural world.

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Wil Srubaris an Assistant Professor of Architectural Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Colorado Boulder.

This article is republished fromThe Conversationunder a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image: Reuters

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Vaccine Trials To Fight Coronavirus Offer Hope, Could Be Harbinger Of New Technology – Outlook India

Posted: at 5:45 am

Over last several decades, vaccination has saved millions of lives. Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent diseases and illnesses.

A worldwide vaccination programme helped eradicate smallpox in 1977. In 1796, an English physician, Edward Jenner, observed that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox from cows were not getting infected with smallpox. He inoculated an 8-year old boy with the pus from cowpox blisters and the concept of vaccination was born. Jenner coined the term vaccination aftervacca, the Latin word for cow. Vaccines come in many forms. Jenner used a live virus in his vaccine. Another type of vaccine uses viruses rendered inactive chemically or by heat or by radiation. The most famous example of this is the polio vaccine.

The vaccination is now a beacon of hope against novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that is rampaging across the globe spreading fear and death.

How Does Vaccination Help Fight Diseases?

Pathogens, the collective name in medical jargon for viruses, bacteria, microbes and all such nasty organisms responsible for our suffering, have proteins known as antigens on their outer surfaces. When pathogens invade our body, the immune system recognises these antigens and start preparing for a battle to get rid of the invaders. Vaccines are biological preparations of targeted antigens, which when introduced into our body, confer immunity, often lifelong, against a specific disease. Vaccination helps the immune system remember what to do should the real virus appear. A high vaccination rate in a community also confers protection through the phenomenon of Herd Immunity. 25 vaccines are currently available against deadly diseases like chickenpox, rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, rubella, hepatitis.

Vaccines made from the whole pathogens, live or dead, were very effective in provoking the desired immune response in our bodies. But they were not completely safe. A new class of vaccines, called subunit vaccines, solved this problem by using only a part of the pathogen, specifically a protein derived from it. Conjugate vaccines linked this isolated protein chemically with a carrier protein and because of their high safety levels became the mainstay of infant immunisation programmes. The improvement in safety, however, came at a loss of efficacy. To boost the effectiveness, ingredients called adjuvants are added to vaccine formulations. Another important requirement of vaccines is their thermal stability during transportation and storage. This requires a reliable refrigeration system.

Also Read |Goliath The Germ: Where Does India Stand In Humankind's War Against Corona

The progression of a vaccine from development to commercial production is arduous and strewn with failures. Vaccines have to go through a daunting process of pre-clinical and clinical trials. Pre-clinical trials are carried out on animals. Clinical trials are in 3 phases. The first phase establishes its safety. During phase 2 trials, scientists determine if the vaccines really protect and if there are any side reactions. And in phase 3, the viability of large scale manufacturing is established. All these trials have to be carried out under the watchful eyes of the regulatory authorities.

Large-scale manufacturing of vaccines is a complex process consisting of many steps. It starts with growing the selected animal or bird cells through a process of fermentation in a series of bioreactors under a precisely controlled environment. When the cells have grown to a desired number, they are infected with the target pathogen. When the pathogens have multiplied adequately, they are harvested from the growth medium. Next comes a series of stringent purification steps. Vaccines are administered to millions of perfectly healthy people and hence the quality requirements are exceedingly stringent. Impurities from the glass of vials in which they are finally filled and their rubber stoppers are also a matter of concern.

First-generation vaccines were very effective, but we did not fully understand their mechanism. With improved knowledge of molecular biology, the science of vaccines has evolved. In 1980s, genetic engineering was used to make a recombinant vaccine. This involved introducing the DNA from the target virus into another virus to produce the active ingredient for the vaccine. This technique was successful for the vaccine against Hepatitis B. The logical advancement of this approach was to consider introducing the DNA or RNA containing the requisite genetic information to build the antigen in our body itself. Our bodies could be converted into in-situ vaccine factories. The advantages of such an approach are enormous. These include improved immunity response, better thermal stability, absence of infectious contaminants and relative ease of large-scale production.

Also Read |From Critical Drugs To Auto Parts, Zips To Solar Panels, How Coronavirus Has Hit Supply Chain

Vaccine Trials for Coronavirus

Trials are underway in more than a dozen laboratories across the world to develop a vaccine for coronavirus.

Though none of the DNA or RNA based vaccines have been granted a commercial license so far, they are our best bet against the ravaging SARS-CoV-2 virus. Many of the current trials underway have adopted this approach. Moderna Therapeutics of USA created an industry record by identifying the vaccine candidate just 42 days after the genomic sequence of the virus was announced. The companys product is a synthetic RNA that will persuade our immune system to create antibodies that will fight SARS-CoV-2. Other biotech companies are trying out techniques that are very similar to that of Moderna. A Japanese company is attempting to make a vaccine out of antibodies harvested from the blood of those who have recovered from COVID-19. These novel approaches to fight the novel coronavirus could be the harbinger of a new vaccine technology that will save the human race from similar scourges in the future.

(The author is a chemical engineer and a science writer.)

FROM THE MAGAZINE | Meet the Corona Warriors

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Vaccine Trials To Fight Coronavirus Offer Hope, Could Be Harbinger Of New Technology - Outlook India

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Dr Shreeram Lagoo: The sensitive rationalist always on the social beat – Hindustan Times

Posted: December 18, 2019 at 9:27 pm

It was 1980, when there was no kind of help for social work, nor were there any non-governmental organisations in place. Dr Lagoo and Ram Apte set up the Samajik Krutadynata nidhi (a corpus fund to give a monthly honorarium to cover the basic needs of social workers). This was set up to support fulltime social activists.

He came up with an appeal to bring actors from film and theatre together to devote time for this good cause. He brought famous actors like Nilu Phule, Reema Lagoo and Sudhir Joshi together and staged Lagnachi Bedi, written by playwright Acharya Keshav Atre and took it across Maharashtra.

After the play, Dr Lagoo would walk with a jhola (bag) and appeal to the audience to donate for this fund. He used his strength as an actor for social causes and even volunteered, and it showed his passion for social causes. All these plays in far-out, small villages, where there were no good hotels, were co-ordinated by my father. None of the actors raised any compliant but went along with Dr Lagoos idea of raising funds.

This is still continuing today because Dr Lagoo set the tone. Actors make time to volunteer and continue this fund. This funding was also the beginning of a friendship between my father and Dr Lagoo. They had a common stream, a rational outlook towards life. While Dr Lagoo was an aethis and, my father was an activist running the AndhaShraddha Nirmulan Samiti, they still had common ground. They then decided to hold a debate Vivek Jagarache Vadh Samvadh, which would travel across villages in Maharashtra. Dr Lagoo would drive in his own car to the villages through out 1992-1993. During these debates, Dr Lagoo used to put forth his radical atheist argument, with a case for the retirement of God, and my father used to argue the case for opposing what was exploited in the name of God and religion.

They even faced angry mobs together, people who broke down the stage, interrupted their debate and even blackened Dr Lagoos face, but he never gave up. What he did in life was always with a rational outlook towards life and always lay emphasis on his beliefs through the faculty of reason.

After my fathers killing, Dr Lagoo was shaken and he was present for the protests that followed.

Dr Lagoos passing has created a vacuum. His legacy stands for truth, which is a rare thing. He performed in both theatre, and the social movement, leaving his footprint behind.

- Hamid Dabholkar, son of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar who was murdered by right-wing fundamentalists, remembers Dr Shreeram Lagoo as not just an actor, but a very sensitive human being with a scientific mind. Dabholkar is today a member of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Mans), the organisation formed by his father.

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Shriram Lagoo (1927-2019): Acting legend and rationalist leaves behind a rich and complex legacy – Scroll.in

Posted: at 9:27 pm

Shriram Lagoo, who died on Tuesday in Pune at the age of 92, was an astute tightrope walker, constantly balancing his passion for theatre with his love for cinema. His artistry ensured that he left a rich legacy on both the stage and the screen.

Lagoo was born on November 16, 1927, in Satara. He described his childhood self as a bathroom actor, caught between a desperate love for theatre and a deep fear of audiences. An experience of crippling stage fright as a child had left Lagoo so wary that he had renounced the thought of acting in plays. But he was deeply inspired by Hollywood stars such as Paul Muni, Spencer Tracey and Ingrid Bergman, and would declaim classical Marathi monologues performed by the likes of Nanasaheb Phatak, Keshavrao Daate and Mama Pendse in the style of British and American actors while locked in his room. These early influences shaped Lagoos approach towards acting: he could convey deep emotions with little more than a glance or gesture.

The eldest son of a successful doctor, Lagoo studied medicine at BJ Medical College in Pune, while also acting in five full-length plays and 15 one-act plays in a five-year span. Despite his passion for the stage, Lagoo decided to continue his medical education, and acquired a specialisation in ear-nose-throat surgery before moving to Africa.

In an interview to Doordarshan, Lagoo confessed that he might have quit medical college if an institution like the National School of Drama had been available to him at the time. But there was absolutely no prestige associated with actors then, he recalled.

An undeterred Lagoo quit medicine in 1969 at the age of 42 and returned to India, determined to pursue a career in theatre. After a few months of struggle, he bagged the role of Sambhaji, the son of the Maratha king Shivaji, in Vasant Kanetkars Ithe Oshalala Mrityu. Although his initial plays were not commercially successful, Lagoos obvious talent attracted attention.

His career in theatre reached a high in 1970 with VV Shirwadkars Natsamrat, in which he played Ganpatrao Belwalkar, a thespian who retires from the stage after portraying Shakespearean characters but is unable to escape the drama of familial clashes. The demands of the character were so intense, and Lagoos immersion in the part so complete, that the play was regarded as the cause of his deteriorating health at the time.

Felicitated with the Sahitya Akademi Award, Natsamrat ran successfully for more than four decades, and was remade in 2016 as a film starring Nana Patekar.

Other acclaimed plays, including Kachecha Chandra and Himalayachi Saawli, earned Lagoo the lead role in V Shantarams Pinjra (1972). With a nuanced performance as a principled village teacher in his very first film, Lagoo showcased his ability to mould his talent to suit the cinematic medium.

Lagoo was associated with the turning points of the careers of several stalwarts in Marathi theatre and cinema. He acted and directed the long-running Gidhade. Vijay Tendulkars play is an early example of the acclaimed playwrights trademark style of delivering incisive social commentary in unadorned but impactful language. Lagoo was also a protagonist in Saamna (1974), the debut film of celebrated director Jabbar Patel.

Brazenly political and deeply insightful, Saamna depicted the clash between self-satisfied and corrupt sugar baron Hindurao (Nilu Phule) and a righteous, Gandhian drunkard known as Master (Shriram Lagoo). Lagoo modified his voice and body language to suit Masters languorous personality, acting as the perfect foil to Phules pompous Hindurao. Lagoo also acted in Patels political drama Sinhasan (1979), in which he was memorable as a wily and sophisticated minister.

Lagoo was meant to make his debut in Hindi cinema with the Jaya Bachchan starrer Aahat, but the film was never released. Instead, he appeared in Suresh Kumar Sharmas Mere Saath Chal. Although he acted in several Hindi films, including Hera Pheri, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Laawaris, his characters in these movies were not written with the depth and nuance that his talent deserved.

Bhimsains Gharonda (1977) was an exception. Lagoos performance as a canny and self-serving businessman earned him a Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor. He also shone in a brief role as Gopal Krishna Gokhale in Richard Attenboroughs Gandhi (1982).

Despite several successful films, Lagoos dedication to theatre never wavered. When asked by television anchor Tabassum if his increased involvement in cinema would hamper the Marathi theatre circuit, Lagoo shook his head with great regret. I dont know if they will miss me, but I miss theatre, he told Tabassum. When I was absorbed in cinema and couldnt act on stage for two and a half years, I felt like something very wrong was happening in my life.

Lagoo remained resolute in his disdain for the division between theatre and cinema and commercial and experimental art. This disavowal of binaries reflected in his performances. Although he remained sensitive to the differences in the mediums, and adopted subtler mannerisms in cinema, Lagoos basic style never wavered. His acting prowess hinged on his clear and captivating voice, which he painstakingly modulated. Lagoos piercing gaze was also a vital element of his performances.

Raised in a politically inclined household, Lagoo had great belief in the subversive potential of art, and maintained that actors must become instruments of social change. A vocal rationalist, he worked to debunk myths about religion and spirituality, often openly rejecting the idea of an all-powerful god and ruffling many feathers in the process. He was closely associated with the anti-superstition movement in Maharashtra championed by social activist Narendra Dabholkar.

Inspired by Bengali thespian Shambhu Mitras advice, Lagoo believed that an ideal actor should be an athlete as well as a philosopher. Consequently, despite an early heart attack, he remained physically fit enough to continue acting well into the eighth decade of his life. He returned from a sabbatical with a wrenching performance as the aged politician Nana Chitnis in the Marathi political drama Nagrik (2014).

Lagoo was awarded a Padma Shri relatively early in his career, in 1974. He went on to win a number of awards, including the Kalidas Samman presented by the government of Madhya Pradesh, the Dinanath Mangeshkar Smruti Pratisthan for his contribution to Marathi theatre, and the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship. In his autobiography Lamaan (Carrier of Goods), Lagoo describes his tendency to win awards as a bad habit, but he never could break it. He was awarded the lifetime achievement award by the youth theatre group Thespo as late as 2016.

Shriram Lagoos equanimity is evident in his autobiography. As he narrates his triumphs and failures without modesty, ego or self-absorption, Lagoo is often sweetly emotional and sharply critical much like his performances.

He writes, When one is lucky enough to chase their most deeply desired dreams, even the scant few pleasures afforded by life have the capacity to humble lifes mountainous burdens of pain. Audiences who have watched him perform will be glad he chased his dreams, and helped them weave their own fantasies in the process.

Also read:

Classics revisited: Sinhasan is Marathi cinemas own game of thrones

Gharonda remains one of the most resonant films about Mumbais housing woes

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In Conversation with Howard Ross Social Justice Advocate – Thrive Global

Posted: at 9:27 pm

The editor at the New Rationalist, a wonderful progressive news site, recently interviewed me and I would like to share it with my readers at Thrive Global:

Howard Ross is a lifelong social justice advocate and the founding partner of Cook Ross, a leading Diversity and Inclusion consultancy. Hes considered one of the worlds seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing Unconscious Bias. His new book,Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection Is Tearing Our Culture Apart, describes how to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarized society. Today we ask him a few questions on his work and the political climate in general.

In your own words, what is social justice?

In my mind, social justice is a societal structure in which justice is consistently applied to all, regardless of racial, cultural or gender differences, socio-economic status or other identities.

What does a social justice advocate do?

In my role as a social justice advocate, I endeavor to act and speak in a way that addresses removing any barriers to justice for all, or that establishes policies and practices that achieve justice for all. This also includes being an active ally toward people outside of their own group who are being treated unjustly.

Why did you choose this line of work?

I became an activist as a teenager, inspired by being in a family that had a significant loss during the Holocaust, and also had activist roots. After studying organizational development work, the two merged in the 1980s when the diversity movement began.

What has been the most challenging professional role you held? Why?

Probably my most challenging role has been owning and leading a company in which Ive had to balance the needs of staff, clients and the bottom line.

Disagreements are omnipresent in politics and daily life. Lately, it seems to have taken on a more malicious face. Or has it always been this way? What are the reasons for so much vitriol in political discourses these days?

I think its reasonable to suggest that the polarization were experiencing is more intense than the past, though its always challenging to compare different eras. As with any complex system, there are a number of contributing reasons. The pattern of political consolidation in both parties has moved us from a historical dynamic in which people were issue-oriented as in, I might agree with you about gun rights and foreign policy, but I disagree with you about civil rights and domestic policy to one in which were now identity oriented Youre one ofthem!

The polarization is exacerbated by international conflicts between nationalist and globalist perspectives, and the bifurcation of media sources that create distinct streams of information and blur the line of whats considered true.Of course, politicians who take advantage of these differences and feed the fear by demonizing people on the other side throw fuel on the fire. Finally, underlying racial tension has contributed to the dynamic, especially since the parties have become increasingly racially defined.

Tell us about your book.

The book is an attempt to help readers understand how human beings are drawn to be part of groups, and why were so impacted by the groups that were a part of. We look at how these dynamics impact race, religion and politics, and how it shows up in organizations. Finally, we investigate ways that these dynamics can be addressed.

In the preface of your book, you posed a paradox: our compulsion to connect with other human beings often creates greater polarity, leaving us deeply connected with some, yet deeply divided as a society. Can you illustrate this with an example?

If we look at the current political situation, we see many examples. Given that both the left and the right have moved towards more doctrinaire positions, its almost become necessary to reject one group in order to fit into the other group.

Do you think that the media, online and offline, is only adding fuel to this fire?

No question that this is the case. We used to get virtually the same information from three basic media sources: ABC, NBC, and CBS. Now, between cable news, social media and online news sources we get completely different streams of information. In addition, the news is now dominated by punditry. Sources dont share information as much as they share opinions about the information. We might say were not watching the news anymore as much as were watching people who are watching the news and analyzing it for us.

From religious to workplace communities, politics has seeped into every sense of community that humans have built. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

There arent many advantages. The major disadvantage is that its made it more difficult for a broad range of people with different ideas to work or pray together.

Multinational companies and several universities have come under attack by trolls as a result of their efforts to ramp up diversity and inclusion. What causes people to attack such initiatives?

Often a lack of understanding, but its fair to say that failed diversity approaches have contributed, as well. The propagation of a Us vs. Them mindset seems aimed at certain people and an attempt to fix them. This has caused a backlash effect. In addition, many people in dominant groups have a false sense of how fast these changes are happening and feel threatened.

In your opinion, what is the most important factor that influences the way we see the world the way we do?

We see the world through the lens of our experience. The mind then interprets whats happening through that lens. We might say that we see the world not as it is, but as we are.

Echo chambers have existed since long before Facebook became what it is today. How has social media made the situation worse?

Its omnipresence in our lives only exacerbates the echo chamber in which we often choose to live. It follows us throughout the day and we can pick and choose who we interact with so that most people only end up interacting with people who agree with them.

What are the signs that you are living in an echo chamber?

When everything and everyone around you seems to have the same point of view that you do. Although our natural pattern is to live inside relatively homogeneous communities, we will have to be willing to consciously reach out to others outside our inner circle and invite them in. That means people of different races, cultures, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, ages, abilities, and disabilities and, yes, even different political orientations.

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The Varieties of Mystical Experience – Psychology Today

Posted: at 9:27 pm

Source: Pavlenko Volodymyr | Shutterstock

A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner1

As a psychiatrist, I routinely hear about all sorts of unusual perceptual experiences, and not just from people who are psychotic. A wide variety of psychiatric, neurological, and other medical conditions can cause distorted perceptions. Some of these conditions involve disordered or diseased states affecting the brain; some are transient; and some occur in otherwise healthy, normal peoplefor example, trancelike dissociative states, and perceptual distortions associated with hypoglycemia and sleep deprivation, among other factors.2

Some distorted perceptions are entirely normal phenomena but are outside the range of most people's usual life experiences. There is also the simple but potent power of suggestion, as well as numerous sources of perceptual illusions, and very many powerful cognitive biases that affect how people interpret and recall their experiences.

Seeing is believing3

It is said that seeing is believing. But actually, believing is seeingwe often see what we believe to be there, misinterpreting our senses in illusory ways. Moreover, our senses sometimes creating perceptions out of nothing at all. When people experience perceptions of non-real things in ways that are indistinguishable to them from other aspects of their actual reality, the last thing they are willing or able to believe is that those perceptions could have been due to their own brain malfunctioningtheir mind playing tricks on them.

People tend to trust their physical senses and to believe what their own brain tells them, no matter how bizarre. They will layer explanations on top of their perception of reality to explain away contradictions. Since we experience the external world entirely through our senses, we find it hard to accept that these perceptions are sometimes entirely subjective and not necessarily reliable experiences of objective reality. After all, what else can we trust and depend on more thanour own senses?

Subjective perception can seduceeven hardened skeptics

American author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who describes herself as "a myth buster by trade," wrote earnestly about an unusual subjective perceptual experience she had that serves as an excellent example of the way we give our subjective experience too much credence. I consider it a good illustration precisely because I admire Ehrenreich as a very intelligent and critically-minded person.

She has persuasively argued elsewhere for evidence-based, reality-based thinking. It is therefore ironic that she would be so captivated by her own subjective perceptions, as described below,and take these so seriously. If such an astute skeptic can be overwhelmed by the power of her own subjective perceptions and emotions, then the rest of us ought to have less confidence in our own rationality, and to be very wary of the power of emotion and subjectivity to skew our critical thinking.

A furious encounter with a living substance

Ehrenreich wrote about this particular experience decades after it happened to her one morning in 1959 at age 17, on a ski trip:4The experience "shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience."

She recognizes that because of poor planning and insufficient money she was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemicthat morning in 1959, when:

"I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., andsaw the worldthe mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildingssuddenly flame into life. ..just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. . .It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.5

She felt a kind of unity with all of nature, living and nonliving, all recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. She felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter

Ehrenreich hadpreviously had other unusual but less intense experiences and had been medically assessed as having a dissociative disorder (commonly associated with perceptual illusions and feeling detached from reality or having dreamlike states). She was also the type of child who habitually spent a lot of time absorbed in her own thoughts and internal world during her difficult, unhappy childhood.

An avowed atheist since childhood, Ehrenreich rejected a theistic explanation for her experience but is open, all these years later, to considering that the universe might be suffused with some sort of vaguely mystical Otherness or animistic energysome as-yet-unidentified pervasive life-form permeating all of nature, possibly conscious and possibly very powerful.

She postulated that mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, giving us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind. She wondered if the universe is pulsing with a kind of life, which might be capable of bursting into something that we might momentarily experience like the flame she thought she saw that day.

She suggested that science should not dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena and should take seriously the possibility that these experiences really do represent some sort of encounter with some unknown, vital, conscious force in the universe. She proposed that we need more subjective accounts.6

Considering that in her other writings Ehrenreich has stressed the need for realistic and unbiased thinking, it is all the more striking that she should regard her own subjective perceptions as a reliable source of evidence for the nature of objective reality. This illustrates just how compelling subjective perception can bethe only thing that makes Ehrenreich's experiences remarkable and impressive to her is that they are hers.

Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow

Subjective experiences of seemingly unexplained mystical-type encounters, as well as experiences of eerie coincidences, are among the most powerful reasons why people are prone to religious or spiritual beliefs. William James, the father of American psychology and an influential philosopher, published a wide variety of firsthand accounts of subjectively powerful mystical experiences and revelations collected from people from all walks of life.7 The experiences typically led to strong, long-lasting, even lifelong religious convictions, because they usually reinforced belief in a divine cosmic order.

James wrote, Whoever possesses strongly this sense comes naturally to think that the smallest details of the world derive infinite significance from their relation to an unseen divine order8in other words, everything happens for a reason.He referred to the difficulty in overriding these irresistibly convincing subjective perceptions with logical thought:

I spoke of the convincingness of these feelings of reality, and I must dwell a moment longer on that point. They are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible [sensory] experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. . .If you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief.9

According to James, people's reasoned intellectual philosophies are often formed as ways to rationalize their irrational subjective-intuitive experiences. Once formed in this way, these beliefs cannot easily be shaken by rational counterarguments:

The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together. . .The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by my quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change his faith.10

More willing to doubt the laws of physics than to doubt our own minds

Clearly, we find our own subjective perceptions arrestingly compelling and are more willing to doubt the laws of physics than to doubt our own minds. People underestimate the capacity of our brains to create their own convincing realities. They underestimate how powerfully realistic some dissociative experiences, hallucinations, and other well-recognized mental/neural misperceptions can seem.

Come and sit in my office for a week and listen to people argue passionately (and even seemingly rationally) that their demonstrably implausible perceptions or beliefs are real. Then judge for yourself which explanation is more plausiblethat the bizarre experiences that you will hear described are actually real, or that the human brain can easily fool us into believing weird things.

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