So We Can Encode Music Into DNA

Opening next month at the Dilston Grove Gallery at GDP London is Music of the Spheres, an exhibition that uses bioinformatics to record music.  Dr. Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute has been working on new technologies for encoding large amounts of information into DNA.  Collaborating with Charlotte Jarvis, the two have worked on installations of bubbles that would contain DNA encoded with music (the DNA is suspended in soap solution).

The music is provided by the Kreutzer Quartet, and the second movement of their new composition has been encoded into DNA for the installation.  Visitors to the installation can be ‘bathed’ in music by moving through the bubbles that contain the music-encoded DNA.  The installation will be accompanied by film as well as music, and was funded in part from a Kickstarter campaign (H/T Fact magazine).

The methods for encoding information will be helpful moving forward as it allows for the possibility of a more persistent data storage medium.  While the bursting bubbles of the exhibition would release a cloud of vapor containing music on DNA, it’s possible that a future data cloud would rely on DNA instead of the kind of server farms we know today.

U.S. Government Not Keen On Germ-Line Editing, At Least Right Now

Yesterday John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), posted to the OSTP blog about recent activities in genome editing.  While the Chinese effort to conduct genome editing in human embryos attracted headlines and an announcement from the National Institutes of Health stating it would not fund similar research, it was not the specific focus of the statement.

That was reserved for the recent announcement that the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine (the new name of the Institute of Medicine) launched an initiative to address these technologies.  The initiative will include an international meeting this fall, along with a committee to study gene-editing technologies and an advisory board to guide the effort.  The project will include, technical, social, legal and ethical issues related to these technologies.

Dr. Holdren’s blog post and the Academies’ announcement noted the historical precedents for this kind of a priori assessment, including the restrictions imposed on recombinant DNA research, gain-of-function research, stem cell research and human cloning while researchers and policymakers discussed the implications of that work.

While not going so far as to echo calls for a moratorium on germline genetic editing, Dr. Holdren’s blog post can be read to imply Administration support for such a move.

“The White House applauds NAS and NAM for convening this dialogue and fully supports a robust review of the ethical issues associated with using gene-editing technology to alter the human germline. The Administration believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”

Given the nature of how the National Academies typically prepare their study committees, the international meeting this fall will more likely be the start of its process rather than a culmination.  I would also not be surprised to see the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues engage with these technologies, either through its own initiative or a request from the President.

House Committee Expanding Investigation Into Lab Safety

Last week the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced it would expand its investigation into lab safety at federal facilities, specifically select agents such as anthrax.  Last year there were a number of instances that suggested safety measures were being inconsistently implemented by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), all of whom have been involved with the facilities at issue.  The CDC issued a report, at least one hearing was held, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to investigate.

Since last summer there have been additional incidents.  The House investigation, according to The Washington Post, has found some apparent irregularities regarding how inspection reports treat the use of cardboard in cold storage rooms.  Those irregularities are important to the 2014 discovery of smallpox virus in cardboard boxes.

The House committee has requested the GAO expand its investigation to address questions related to these apparent irregularities.  The letter also goes into detail about the various requests to federal agencies and their responses.  My review of the letter suggests that the failures to adequately control the inventory of select agents can be attributed – at least in part – to miscommunications due to several agencies using the facilities over time, and a general failure to manage records over decades.

However, my word should be far from the final one on this matter.  The ongoing committee and GAO investigations do not have a set end date, but I would think it behooves everyone involved to complete matters by the end of the calendar year, if not by the anniversary this summer of the initial lab incidents.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of May 25

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, and most shows are in repeats tonight, if not all week.  StarTalk is a noted exception, with former President Jimmy Carter tonight’s interview guest.  He will talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson about the Carter Centers work in combating disease.  Parasitologist Mark Siddall and comedian Chuck Nice join Tyson in the Museum of Natural History (where they film the non-interview portions before an audience).  I’ll note that only the first three episodes of this run (President Carter’s episode is the sixth) are available in podcast form.  That may change once the full first season has aired.

In the repeats this week there are a few science and technology guests of note.  Earlier today (Monday) you could have seen the most recent appearance from The Talk’s technology correspondent Chi-Lan Lieu.  On tonight’s (Monday’s) edition of The Tonight Show, you can see Thomas Middleditch’s last appearance, where he was promoting the show Silicon Valley.  His co-star Kunail Nanjiani’s April appearance with James Corden will repeat on Thursday.  “Science Bob” Pflugfelder’s last appearance with Jimmy Kimmel will be re-aired on Wednesday night.

I neglected to note two segments in Comedy Central programs that touched on science and technology content (listings for this week are not yet available).  On the May 12th edition of The Nightly Show, Morgan Freeman discussed his program Through the Wormhole with the 1970s version of host Larry Wilmore (yes, it was weird).  On the same night’s edition of @midnight, a photo from Bill Nye’s recent Reddit Ask Me Anything was the source for one of the programs games.

Finally, I note with some pleasure that in David Letterman’s final Late Show he ran a segment of highlights with kids.  Many of the clips in that segment featured kid scientists, a signature bit of Letterman’s programs on both NBC and CBS.  The final episode is still online through the CBS website, but likely won’t be for very long.

NASA Doesn’t Just Want To Deflect Asteroids

Besides the planetary defense mission motivating the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, NASA is interested in redirecting an asteroid as part of its Asteroid Initiative.  While demonstrating deflection capabilities is part of this mission, the more direct goal is to place part of an asteroid into a stable orbit that would allow for more effective exploration and study.

The redirecting mission certainly has technical merit, but as Walter Valdivia has explained on the Brookings website, NASA also sought public opinion on the mission.  The agency contracted with the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) to host a citizen forum to gather public input.  100 citizens selected to reflect the nation’s population were selected in Boston and Phoenix, briefed about the mission, and then were solicited for their opinions on various approaches to the mission.

Through this process, NASA was able to gather information that demonstrates a willingness to be responsive to public opinion and to be more accountable to that public.  It could also help in the ongoing tug of war with Congress over the asteroid mission.  Other agencies could take advantage of this kind of public consultation, though it remains unclear if that will provide the kind of political cover necessary to dissuade motivated members of Congress from imposing their will.

Thankfully Someone Is Thinking About The Tech Transition

We are still 20 months away from the next Presidential administration, but I don’t think it’s too early to consider how government technology will be handled over the transition.  Thankfully the Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, has been thinking about this as well.

At a recent technology conference in Washington D.C., Smith indicated that at least for the technology teams currently supporting federal agencies, she intends to have them continue for whomever the next President will be.  These teams, including the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, are focused on delivery of services for government agencies and to the public.  I think it would be valuable to ensure that the smooth delivery of government services can avoid any hiccups due to a change in administration.  Hopefully Smith and her staff can avoid any legal pitfalls in communicating with presidential campaigns (and eventually the transition team for whomever becomes the 45th President) about the needs for continuity of government at the level of services.

Science-Flavored Culture: Grounded, Tomorrowland, And More

This weekend marks the wide release in the U.S. of Tomorrowland, the second live-action feature directed by Brad Bird (perhaps best known for the animated film The Iron Giant).  Clips of the film as well as early reviews suggest the film will tangle with the retreat from the 1960s-style optimism about the future that is reflected in the namesake portion of the Disney theme parks.  I’ll likely have a #scifiscipol post about the film once I see it.

I’ve already posted about the film Good Kill, which stars Ethan Hawke as a fighter pilot trying to adjust to a life flying drones from half a world away.  There’s a play, Grounded, covering the same kind of journey taken by a female pilot.  Anne Hathaway currently stars in a production of the play ending this Sunday.

The fourth episode of Science Goes to the Movies is now online.  It’s picks up where episode three leaves off, with hosts Heather Berlin and Faith Salie continuing their film conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Films featured in this episode include Kingsman: The Secret Service and the documentary Particle Fever. 

Neal Stephenson just released his latest book, Seveneves, an epic that starts with the destruction of the moon.  You can read the first several pages online, but the story unfolds over five thousand years as the absence of the moon prompts civilization-changing acts.