h+ Media http://hplusmagazine.com Elevating the Human Condition Sun, 19 Apr 2015 12:49:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Memory Retention in C. Elegans Demonstrated Following Cryropreservation http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/17/memory-retention-in-c-elegans-demonstrated-following-cryropreservation/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/17/memory-retention-in-c-elegans-demonstrated-following-cryropreservation/#comments Fri, 17 Apr 2015 18:24:04 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27558 A recent publication in journal Rejuvenation Research from Humanity+ chair Dr. Natasha Vita-More and Mr. Daniel Barranco of the University of Seville has demonstrated that some long term memories can be preserved in an animal model, the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans).

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One of the greatest dreams of transhumanism is the idea of cryonics where a person presumed to be dead under current technologies, legally dead, is cryopreserved by a process of vitrification with the eventual goal of later revival and return to a normal life with their memories and personality intact. However, scientific evidence that the cryopreservation process could preserve memory or personal traits was essentially non-existent. Until now.

A recent publication in journal Rejuvenation Research from Humanity+ chair Dr. Natasha Vita-More of the University of Advancing Technology, Technology and Mr. Daniel Barranco of the University of Seville, CryoBioTech Engineering School, Seville, Spain has demonstrated that some long term memories can indeed be preserved in an animal model, the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). This is certainly going to be one of the foundational papers demonstrating that the science of cryopreservation is real. I heard about this work a few months ago but wasn’t permitted to say anything before publication.

I have been sitting on my hands wanting to start writing about this important result.

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 11.13.46 AM


Can memory be retained after cryopreservation? Our research has attempted to answer this long-standing question by using the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a well-known model organism for biological research that has generated revolutionary findings but has not been tested for memory retention after cryopreservation. Our study’s goal was to test C. elegans’ memory recall after vitrification and reviving. Using a method of sensory imprinting in the young C. elegans we established that learning acquired through olfactory cues shapes the animal’s behavior and the learning is retained at the adult stage after vitrification. Our research method included olfactory imprinting with the chemical benzaldehyde (C6H5CHO) for phase-sense olfactory imprinting at the L1 stage, the fast cooling SafeSpeed method for vitrification at the L2 stage, reviving, and a chemotaxis assay for testing memory retention of learning at the adult stage. Our results in testing memory retention after cryopreservation show that the mechanisms that regulate the odorant imprinting (a form of long-term memory) in C. elegans have not been modified by the process of vitrification or by slow freezing.

Dr. Natasha Vita-More and Mr. Daniel Barranco. Rejuvenation Research. -Not available-, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/rej.2014.1636.


Read the full paper available here as an e-publication: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/rej.2014.1636




Animated Worm image: Bob Goldstein http://labs.bio.unc.edu/Goldstein/movies.html

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Video Friday: 50th Meeting of the Society for Cryobiology http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/17/video-friday-50th-meeting-of-the-society-for-cryobiology/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/17/video-friday-50th-meeting-of-the-society-for-cryobiology/#comments Fri, 17 Apr 2015 17:30:57 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27550 Over six hours of deep science and technical videos on cryopreservation and cryobiology.

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Over six hours of deep science and technical video presentations on cryonics, cryopreservation and cryobiology.

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 10.25.42 AM

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Mind Uploading and The Teleportation Problem http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/16/mind-uploading-and-the-teleportation-problem/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/16/mind-uploading-and-the-teleportation-problem/#comments Thu, 16 Apr 2015 18:55:35 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27541 Should you upload your mind if you can?

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star-trek-the-next-generationThe Teleportation Problem thought experiment is so famous that it barely needs introduction. Simply stated, it is as follows “If I step into a teleporter, which obliterates me, while instantaneously generating an identical duplicate of me elsewhere, is the duplicate me?” While it raises interesting Metaphysical questions, the scenario is so fantastical that it seems to raise few practical concerns. Encountering such a situation perhaps seems unlikely in the very near future.

However Mind Uploading is a process which may be potentially achieved in the next century, and it raises similar problems. Suppose I want to live indefinitely, not through my legacy, but through my own subjective consciousness continuing to exist indefinitely. Further, I am considering uploading my mind as a possible method of achieving this. The question now has practical consequences. If the digital “me” is a continuation of the flesh and blood me’s own subjective consciousness then I should upload straight away. If it isn’t, but is instead a mere replica, then I might as well not bother. It’s not that I will begrudge the replica’s existence, but it will do absolutely nothing to allow me to continue to exist longer.

This is not intended to be a final-word academic essay on this matter, that would need to be far longer, but what it is is a brief discussion of the issues discussed by Metaphysicians, and their possible applications to Mind Uploading. Philosophers like David Chalmers and Keith Wiley have written about Mind Uploading, but questions concerning personal identity go back through centuries to examples including Buddhism’s ‘Anatman’ concept and ‘The Ship of Theseus’ thought experiment of a ship which has every part replaced, raising the question of whether it is the same ship (In later variations a new ship is then built from the original pieces, further muddying the waters).

What are the necessary conditions for there to be identity between the digital me and the flesh and blood Me?

In Logic, Leibniz’ law states that X and Y are identical if and only if, all of their properties are the same. However Leibniz’ law is problematic with identity through time. It is hard to imagine an object which has exactly the same properties after even a ten-minute pause, although perhaps the changes are miniscule.

The identity of Consciousnesses and objects is not strict formal logical identity, but a slightly looser concept of identity. It is clearly not just physical continuity, as almost any object experiences change of parts over time. So here are five common suggestions:

Anticriterialism-No properties are exact criteria for personal identity, however some can provide evidence for it. Mental and physical continuity of a person are evidence of personal identity, but are not strict logical proof of it. Such a person might not have any personal identity, or a person lacking one or both might possibly have personal identity.

Animalism-There is one property relevant ot personal identity, that of continuing to be an animal.

Psychological continuity-If the later person has psychological continuity with the earlier one. Memories are an example of psychological continuity.

The ‘Survival’ condition-Derek Parfit has denied that personal identity through time exists, but has instead argued that ‘Survival’ of properties matters. Even if a post-teleporter replica has no ‘identity’ with the pre-teleporter person, many properties of the former, such as psychological and physical characteristics, survive in the new person, and so there is survival, which is what matters.

Perdurantist personal identity-Concerning the continuity of identity through time of physical objects, such as a ship which has had every part replaced, David Lewis has argued that it is incorrect to conceive physical objects as being entities which merely exist in three spatial dimensions. It is correct to imagine them a four-dimensional entities with temporal parts. Just as the wing and head of a butterfly have different properties but are different spatial parts of a single object, so do a butterfly and caterpillar have different properties but are different temporal parts of a single object. Lewis has argued that this problem also solves issues of personal identity. We can conceive a person as a 4-dimensional entity, where different spatial and temporal parts have different properties.

Can these accounts help us resolve whether Mind Uploading is worthwhile?

Anticriterialism is ultimately an admission that ‘we don’t know’ and cannot entirely help us here. An uploaded mind has some properties of the original person but not others, so the evidence is inconclusive. That is the very reason we are now discussing this matter. Are the other four suggestions more useful than Anticriterialism? To discuss this let’s discuss some other thought experiments on personal identity.

Animalism is similarly problematic. It suggests that if my brain were transplanted into a robotic body while my own brainless body were kept alive my personal identity would be with my body, not with my brain, whereas it seems far more likely that my identity would be with my brain.

The other three approaches present more interesting solutions.

Parfit and others have given a few examples to help illustrate the nebulousness of our concept of personal identity, many involving multiple versions of the same person:

Imagine ‘brain fission’ occurs. A brain splits into two, each of which is transplanted into a new body with all the memories of the original brain. Is one, both, or neither of the brains the original person?

Alternatively, imagine a person has a replica made and the original and replica both live. Is one, both, or neither, the original person?

This is the most worrying one. In the teleporter example and in some mind uploading thought experiments we conceive that there is only ever one person at any time. After teleportation or Mind Uploading the original is considered dead or otherwise lost. But what if by fluke things malfunction and the original person continues to survive alongside their doppelgänger? We would be inclined to say the new person is a duplicate rather than the original. But if the original is destroyed in the process, why does that suddenly give the new person continuity of identity with the original?


The big difference between fission and replication is that in the former case there is a kind of continuity which does not exist in the latter. When I am told my consciousness will be ‘split’ I may feel startled, but I can feel content that my own subjective life with continue, merely doubled. They will not be a replacement of me, but a continuation of me.

On the other hand if I am told that a replica will be made of my mind I will no longer feel happy with my own possible future longevity. A replica of me might continue in my place, believing it is me, but none of this is going to do me any good. I’m still stuck in my weak fleshy body while “DigiMe” or ReplicaMe shoots off to new adventures. And if I’m told that this is no problem because “FleshMe” will be obliterated in the process, so there will only be one being left which is convinced that it is me, then I will have reason to be even more worried, since this will now mean that my own subjective consciousness is going to be destroyed. And while the knowledge of the Parfit-esque ‘survival’ of my personality traits may allow me to know that my ideas and activities will continue, it will give me no more comfort than knowing that a friend will continue my work after I die. I don’t want my personality traits to continue, I want my own subjective life to continue, regardless of whether there are replicas. The minor assurance of knowing my ‘backup’ replica will live on after my obliteration and so my properties and ideas will survive calls to mind Woody Allen’s famous comment ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’.

What is missing in these cases of mind uploading and? An issue is that there is broken continuity. Continuity occurs because after the original stops a new replica starts which can continue from where the original stopped. If I want to experience the immortality of my own subjective self then I want more seamless continuity with my future self, continuity in the sense that we continue without cessation as a single entity rather than with me replaced (at the same time as I am possibly destroyed) by my replica.

We can understand this in terms of both psychological continuity and Lewis-style 4-D identity. In terms of psychological continuity, to be one person rather than one person and a replica it is required that there is a mind with psychological continuity through time, rather than that it ceases to exist at a point in time and is then replaced by a new one, or is replicated and then carries on with life as its replica lives its own life. In terms of 4-D identity it is analogous to the 3-D difference between one object and two. If two parts are connected in 3-D space by intermediate stuff then they are part of the same object. If there is a gap in between they are not. Similarly, if two parts of an object or a consciousness are connected in 4-D space by intermediate stuff then they are part of the same object or consciousness, but if there is a gap between them then there is not.

To clarify this difference we can appeal to the ‘Ship of Theseus’ example. Suppose my ship ‘Theseus’ is made of non-waterproof planks and I want it to be made of waterproof planks. If I destroy ‘Theseus’ and at the same moment get a new ship, ‘Hippolytus’, which is identical except for the fact that it is made of waterproof planks, is ‘Hippolytus’ ‘Theseus’? No. But suppose that I replace the planks of ‘Theseus’ with waterproof planks one by one and name the new ship ‘Pirithous’. Is ‘Pirithous’ ‘Theseus’? This is more plausible. There is not merely ‘survival’ of properties. If we observe the ship in 4-D terms we can think of it as an object with both waterproof and non-waterproof temporal parts, but there is a continuous whole through time, whereas in the case of the ‘Hippolytus’ there is a gap between two objects in time. Can we apply psychological continuity to a ship? Let’s pretend ‘Theseus’ is a very technologically advanced ship with true AI. We can see the psychological continuity between ‘Theseus’ and ‘Pirithous’ but not between ‘Theseus’ and ‘Hippolytus’. ‘Hippolytus’ is just a replica of ‘Theseus’.

So if I want to become immortal through mind uploading I need to make sure that it is genuinely me that will last, and not merely a replica. Except in most cases of uploading this is not the case. When I upload photographs from my camera onto my computer I am creating copies of them on my computer. When I upload my files onto a backup drive I am copying them, creating replicas.

Likeable friends though they may be, I cannot confuse myself with them any more than I can confuse myself with a twin brother. In both cases my own subjective consciousness is the one I experience, not theirs.

So to achieve ‘Theseus-like’ continuity of personal identity I need to be continuing my own self rather than merely replicating it. One obvious way to do this is to apply the ship of Theseus example a little more literally. If I replace parts of my mind with cybernetic replacements bit-by-bit then over time I can become ‘digitalised’, at which point it is a little easier for me to be an uploaded mind of pure data which can travel from body to body, without being a replica of my former self. Of course, replacing brain piece by piece until they form a new computer is altogether more difficult than simply Uploading a mind onto a computer, but since it is my own subjective self that continues, rather than my own self eventually dying while my digital replica lives on, it seems clear that there is good reason to put the extra effort in.

Mind Uploading, from http://www.designbyschultz.com/mind-uploading-digital-immortality-may-be-reality-by-2045-futurists-say/


David Chalmers ‘The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis’

Jonathan Danaher ‘Chalmers vs. Pigliucci on the Philosophy of Mind-Uploading (1): Chalmers’s Optimism’, ‘Philosophical Disquisitions’ (blog) (2014), http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.it/2014/09/chalmers-vs-pigliucci-on-philosophy-of.html

Jonathan Danaher ‘Chalmers vs. Pigliucci on the Philosophy of Mind-Uploading (2): Pigliucci’s Pessimism’, ‘Philosophical Disquisitions’ (blog) (2014), http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.it/2014/09/chalmers-vs-pigliucci-on-philosophy-of_19.html

David Lewis ‘Survival and Identity’, Amélie O. Rorty (ed.) ‘The Identities of Persons’ (1976), Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 17-40

Derek Parfit ‘Personal Identity’, ‘Philosophical Review’ vol. 80 (1971), pp.3-27

Keith Wiley, A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading(2014), Humanity + Press and Alautun Press (see http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/12/14/keith-wileys-taxonomy-metaphysics-mind-uploading/)


Ramsay Duff is a Philosophy Graduate from Lancaster University with a fascination with Transhumanism. He currently lives in Italy, but is moving to Switzerland next year. His degree focused on subjects including Philosophy of the Mind and Consciousness, Logic and Philosophy of Medicine among others, and his two dissertations included as part of the degree were on the Philosophy of Mind (specifically the relationship between Intentionality and Phenomenal Consciousness) and Philosophy of Medicine. He is working with one of Lancaster’s professors to develop an article for ‘Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics’ or ‘History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences’ concerning the relationship between Aging and Dementia.

His essay on the moral philosophy of David Hume is published online on the Lancaster University Cogitarium website here: http://cogitariumlancaster.wordpress.com/student-essays/

His 100 reference fictional steampunk gamebook ‘The Scarlet Thief’ won one of the two Merit Awards in the 2013 Windhammer Prize for short gamebook fiction. The works of the prize and both merit awards are published by ‘Tin Man Games’ as a Windhammer Gamebook App. ‘The Scarlet Thief’ can be found on the ‘Chronicles of Arborell’ website here: http://www.arborell.com/windhammer_prize.html


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War in Cyberspace — Hellsing vs. Naikon http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/15/war-in-cyberspace-hellsing-vs-naikon/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/15/war-in-cyberspace-hellsing-vs-naikon/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 19:54:59 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27537 The first documented case of a conflict between two advanced persistent threats which are well known elite hacking groups.

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The elite cyber crime group Hellsing strikes back after attack by the rival APT crew known as Naikon. This is the first documented case of APT-on-APT attack.

What happens when an APT group running a cyber espionage campaign target a second distinct APT group?

The events occurred last year, when a group involved in a cyber espionage campaign dubbed Hellsing sent a spear phishing email to a rival hacking team, the Naikon APT, which is one of the Asian largest APT gangs.

hellsing spear phish mail

“The email in this case originates from a government email … and is directed to the Naikon attackers. They decided to strike back at the attacker, a spy-on-spy sort of move,” explained Costin Raiu, head of Kaspersky’s global research and analysis team. “They [Hellsing] are interested in infecting other APTs and learning about their operations,” 

Naikon APT has been active for several years, its operations targeted entities in various industries including governments and the military. The hacking crew targeted diplomats, law enforcement, and aviation authorities in many Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Indonesia.

The singular discovered was made by experts at Kaspersky Team that provided a detailed analysis of the attack. The Hellsing APT attached a payload used to serve a powerful malware that infects the victim’s PC.

Researchers at Kaspersky Lab explained that Hellsing surgically selected about 20 organizations, limiting its operation to the US, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. The name Hellsing comes from the project title left by a developer in a malicious source code used by the hacking team.

hellsing victims

Experts at Kaspersky consider very singular the circumstance and believe that it could be the beginning of a new dangerous trend in the criminal ecosystem, they defined the activities as the APT-on-APT attacks.

“The targeting of the Naikon group by the Hellsing APT is perhaps the most interesting part. In the past, we’ve seen APT groups accidentally hitting each other while stealing address books from victims and then mass-mailing everyone on each of these lists. But, considering the timing and origin of the attack, the current case seems more likely to be an APT-on-APT attack.” reports the analysis published by Kaspersky.

The battle between the two APT groups began last February when Naikon run a spear phishing campaign on a number of adversaries, including the Hellsing. On the other end, the Hellsing group once discovered the malicious campaign and its source started its counteroffensive.


In March 2014, a few weeks after Naikon targeting other APT groups, including the Hellsing APT, the team launched a spear phishing campaign on most of the countries involved in the search for the disappeared Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. The campaign targeted a wide range of entities, including institutions with access to information related to the disappearance of MH370.

The analysis of the command and control infrastructure revealed that Hellsing has ties to fellow other groups, including PlayfulDragon, Mirage, Vixen Panda, Cycldek and Goblin Panda.

I suggest you carefully read this report that details an operation that is considered the first APT-on-APT attack that has been witnessed by the experts.


Pierluigi Paganini is Chief Information Security Officer at Bit4Id, firm leader in identity management, member of the ENISA (European Union Agency for Network and Information Security)Treat Landscape Stakeholder Group, he is also a Security Evangelist, Security Analyst and Freelance Writer. Editor-in-Chief at “Cyber Defense Magazine”, Pierluigi is a cyber security expert with over 20 years experience in the field, he is Certified Ethical Hacker at EC Council in London. The passion for writing and a strong belief that security is founded on sharing and awareness led Pierluigi to find the security blog “Security Affairs” recently named a Top National Security Resource for US. Pierluigi is a member of the “The Hacker News” team and he is a writer for some major publications in the field such as Cyber War Zone, ICTTF, Infosec Island, Infosec Institute, The Hacker News Magazine and for many other Security magazines. Author of the Books “The Deep Dark Web” and “Digital Virtual Currency and Bitcoin”.

This article originally appeared here. Republished with permission of the author.

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Go Dark — Improve Your Sleep, Enhance Your Health http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/15/go-dark-improve-your-sleep-enhance-your-health/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/15/go-dark-improve-your-sleep-enhance-your-health/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 19:31:38 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27533 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called insufficient sleep an epidemic.

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Today most people do not get enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called insufficient sleep an epidemic. While we are finally paying attention to the importance of sleep, the need for dark is still mostly ignored.

That’s right. Dark. Your body needs it too.

Being exposed to regular patterns of light and dark regulates our circadian rhythm. Disruption of this rhythm may increase the risk of developing some health conditions including obesity, diabetes and breast cancer

Light regulates our sleep and wake patterns

The physiological processes that control the daily cycle of sleep and wake, hunger, activity levels, body temperature, melatonin level in the blood, and many other physiological traits are called the endogenous circadian rhythm.

Sunrise. Mathilde AUDIAU, CC BY-NC-ND

On its own, the endogenous circadian rhythm is nearly, but not exactly, 24 hours. Our bodies rely on the Sun to reset this cycle and keep it at precisely 24 hours, the length of our days. The light – and the dark – are important signals for the cycle. This circadian rhythm has developed over three billion years as life evolved on Earth in the context of the Sun’s day/night cycle. It is built deeply into our genetic makeup.

During the night, in the dark, body temperature drops, metabolism slows, and the hormone melatonin rises dramatically. When the Sun comes up in the morning, melatonin has already started falling, and you wake up. This natural physiological transition into and out of night is of ancient origin, and melatonin is crucial for the process to proceed as it should.

If you were to put someone in a dark cave with no time cues at all, the cycle will last about 24 hours, but not exactly. Without time cues like those from the Sun, eventually that person would become out of sync with people outside. In fact many profoundly blind people, who cannot perceive light, must cope with this de-synchronization in their daily lives.

What does your body do in the dark?

Many things happen to our bodies during the dark. Levels of the hormone leptin, which helps control hunger, go up. High levels of leptin mean we do not feel hungry while low levels make us hungry.

Why does leptin go up in the dark? Since we evolved without artificial light at night, one theory holds that leptin goes up at night because it would be good to not be hungry during the night, rather than needing to forage in the dark and possibly get into trouble.

This fasting that should happen every night, and why we call the first meal in the morning “breakfast.” Experiments in human beings have shown that sleep disruption and turning on lights lowers leptin levels which makes people hungry in the middle of the night.

In the last decade or two it has become clear that the genes which control the endogenous circadian rhythm (the “clock genes”) also control a large part of our entire genome including genes for metabolism (how we process the food we eat), DNA damage response (how we are protected from toxic chemicals and radiation), and cell cycle regulation and hormone production (how our cells and tissues grow).

Light at night disrupts these processes. The changes that result from exposure to electric light at night have biological connections to disease and conditions that are common in the modern world today including obesity, diabetes, cancer and depression.

Blue light, red light, no light

Not all light is the same – some kinds of light make you more alert and more awake, and others have less of an effect.

Light from the Sun is strong in blue, short wavelength light, although it includes all other colors as well. That’s important in the morning when we need to be alert and awake. But when it comes in the evening or during the night, it fools the body into thinking it’s daytime. We now know that this bright blue light has the strongest effect on lowering melatonin during the night.

Your tablet, phone, computer or compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) all emit this kind of blue light. So using these devices in the evening can prevent that primordial physiological transition to night from occurring. This makes it harder to sleep and might also increase the longer term risk of ill-health.

Other kinds of light, like dimmer long wavelength yellow and red light, have very little effect on this transition. This is the kind of light from a campfire or a candle; even the old fashioned incandescent light bulb is dimmer and redder than the new CFL.

Only in the last 20 years have we acquired a basic biological understanding of how the eye’s retina tells the circadian system it is daytime. Now we know that blue, short wave-length light is captured by the newly discovered photopigment melanopsin in the retina, and that when blue light stops, we start our physiological transition to nighttime mode.

It’s hard to find dark, even at night. NASA Earth Observatory, CC BY

Electricity changed the way we sleep

Before electricity, people experienced bright, full-spectrum days of sunlight and dark nights. We slept in a different way than we do now. The dark lasted about twelve hours and during this time people slept for eight or nine hours in two separate bouts, and were awake, but in the dark, for another three or four hours.

Everything changed when electric lighting was invented in the latter part of the 19th century. Since then there has been an ever increasing assault on dark. Outdoor environments are relentlessly lit, and more and more people use computer tablets and smart phones at all hours, bathing their faces in bright blue light at times of day when they should be transitioning to nighttime physiology.

When people get away from the city and its artificial light to go camping, they often notice a marked improvement in their sleep. A recent study has verified this effect.

Today, most of us get too little light during the day and too much at night for our circadian rhythm to function at its best. It is the rare person who sleeps in a completely dark bedroom, and many people get very little sunlight because they work inside all day long.

What can you do for your circadian health? Get bright, blue light in the morning (preferably from the Sun), and use dim, longer wavelength light (more yellow and red like incandescent) in the evening. And sleep in the dark.

This will certainly improve sleep, and may reduce risk of later disease.


Dr. Stevens has been working for a long time trying to help figure out why people get cancer. One of his major interests has been in the possible role of iron overload. Largely on the basis of his work, published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute and the New England Journal of Medicine, the Swedish food industry decided to cease iron fortification of flour in the early 1990s. A perplexing challenge, which Stevens began to engage in the late 1970s, is the confounding mystery of why breast cancer risk rises so dramatically as societies industrialize. He proposed in 1987 a radical new theory that use of electric lighting, resulting in lighted nights, might produce “circadian disruption” causing changes in the hormones relevant to breast cancer risk. Accumulating evidence has generally supported the idea, and it has received wide scientific and public attention. For example, his work has been featured on the covers of the popular weekly Science News (October 17, 1998) and the scientific journal Cancer Research (July 15, 1996). As well as more recent stuff, like now.

This article originally appeared here, republished under creative commons license.

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Sleep and Cognitive Function http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/15/sleep-and-cognitive-function/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/15/sleep-and-cognitive-function/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 19:22:59 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27529 Sleep enables the body, including the brain, to recover metabolically, but sleep also has an impact on our brain and behaviour.

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Sleep has profound importance in our lives, such that we spend a considerable proportion of our time engaging in it. Sleep enables the body, including the brain, to recover metabolically, but contemporary research has been moving to focus on the active rather than recuperative role that sleep has on our brain and behaviour.

Sleep is composed of several distinct stages. Two of these, slow-wave (or deep) and REM sleep, reflect very different patterns of brain activity, and have been related to different cognitive processes.

Slow-wave sleep is characterised by synchronised activity of neurons in the neo-cortex firing at a slow rate, between 0.5 and three times per second. The neo-cortex comprises the majority of the cerebral cortex in the brain which plays a role in memory, thought, language and consciousness. In contrast during REM sleep, when most of our dreaming happens, neuronal firing is rapid and synchronised at much higher frequencies, between 30 to 80 times per second.

Such patterns of brain activity during REM sleep are reminiscent of those observed during wakefulness, and for this reason REM sleep is often referred to as “paradoxical” sleep.

Cognitive functions

There is growing evidence that slow-wave sleep is related to the consolidation of memory and is involved in transferring information from the hippocampus, which encodes recent experiences, and forging long-term connections within the neo-cortex. REM sleep has been linked to processes involving abstraction and generalisation of experiences, resulting in creative discovery and improved problem solving.

Though there are substantial similarities between wakefulness and REM sleep, numerous studies have explored differences in the activity of brain regions between these states, with the cingulate cortex, hippocampus and amygdala more active during REM sleep than wakefulness. These regions are particularly interesting to cognitive neuroscientists because they are key areas involved in emotional regulation and emotional memory.

However, which sub-regions are active within these broader cortical and limbic areas – the pathways in the brain that produce these patterns of activation – and the precise function of the activity in these regions during REM sleep is currently under-described.

Cortical activity in rats

A new study published in Science Advances studied the physiology and functionality of REM sleep in a group of rats and provides insight into the cortical activity and the sub-cortical pathways that result in this activity. The level of detail of this study provides a major step forward for our understanding of the effect that REM sleep has on our brain and cognitive behaviour.

Rat sleep. Tomi Tapio K, CC BY

The authors studied groups of rats who were allowed to sleep, but prevented from entering REM sleep for three days. Six hours before assessment, half of the rats were allowed to sleep normally, and half continued to be deprived of REM sleep. The rats that were permitted to sleep normally then demonstrated raised levels of REM sleep within those six hours. This enabled a comparison of the effect of recent REM sleep between groups. An additional control group of rats were allowed to sleep normally throughout the study.

Gene expression analysis involves tracking the presence of particular mRNA or proteins that can be identified as the consequences of certain genes operating. The rats who underwent substantial REM sleep before testing were found to demonstrate greater expression of several genes that are associated with syntaptic plasticity (how quickly their synapses can adapt to changes in a local environment) and which affects the efficiency of neural transmission in the hippocampus.

In the neo-cortex, the gene expressions related to how well our synapses adapt also increased following REM sleep, but those related to neural transmission were reduced compared with the group that was prevented from REM sleep. So, the function of REM sleep appears to be due to changes in the way that neurons communicate. This is consistent with the view that REM sleep allows the brain’s memory processing systems to re-balance, which enables effective responses to experiences the next day.

Where in the brain?

Stained neurons from somatosensory cortex in the macaque monkey. Brainmaps.org, CC BY

In a further study, the same group determined the precise location of where these changes actually occur in the brain. In the neo-cortex, there was a general increase in plasticity throughout several areas, including sensorimotor regions that bring together sensory and motor functions. In the hippocampus, it was generally confined to the dentate gyrus, which is thought to contribute to forming new episodic memories among other things. REM sleep was also associated with reduced neuro-transmission throughout many regions of the neo-cortex, indicating that REM sleep likely results in a general weakening of the connections between synapses, which may enable brain networks to better learn from multiple experiences rather than be affected only by single instances.

The claustrum: consolidating emotion and memory. Was a bee

The final studies the group conducted determined the source of the cortical changes in plasticity and neuro-transmission during REM sleep. By tracking signal transmission between different brain areas together with chemical lesioning (in which brain areas are temporarily inactivated), they identified two further areas called the claustrum and the supramammillary nucleus as having key roles during REM sleep.

These two areas have been identified as involved in integrating emotion and memory. The claustrum is a very thin layer of neurons that are found underneath the inner neo-cortex. It is known to link to and from very many regions of this part of the brain. As such, the claustrum has been implicated in integrating stimuli from several senses and is involved in linking areas involved in emotional processing and attention.

The supramammillary nucleus, within the hippocampus, is also known to interconnect to multiple areas of the brain, several of which are associated with emotional processing.

The implications of this work provide converging evidence that REM sleep modulates activation and synaptic processing in areas of the brain that contribute to the processing of emotion. This is also consistent with previously untested accounts that suggest REM sleep is important for encoding memories (but without their emotional content). While the role of dreaming during REM sleep is still yet to be linked to observed effects from neuro-chemicals in the brain, understanding what is happening in our brains when we dream could yet prove to be key to processing of emotion and memory.


Padraic Monaghan is a Professor of Cognition in the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University and Director of the Centre for Research in Human Development and Learning. His Lab Group conducts research on language and attentional processing, combining computational, brain imaging, and behavioural research.Language,

Dr. Monaghan is interested in how multiple cues in language assist the child in acquiring her language – so how phonology, statistics of distributions of words, and environmental cues are combined to help in generating knowledge of words and grammar. Relatedly, he is interested in the properties of languages that assist in learning. He develops visualizations of the extent to which these learnability properties are embedded within the world’s languages.

As a part of the EU Research Training Network in Language and Brain, Dr. Monaghan’s team has examined the interaction between the brain’s anatomy and language processing, in particular the influence of the left and right visual field on reading. Work in this area has also examined how children learn lexical stress assignment (e.g., how we know to say “giRAFFE” and “ZEbra” when we read these words). They also conducted work on impaired language behaviour, including dyslexia and dysphasia, as well as the role of early language exposure on adult lexical processing, investigating how age of acquisition affects the vocabulary.

This article originally appeared here, republished under creative commons license.

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Magnesium and Health Extension http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/14/magnesium-and-health-extension/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/14/magnesium-and-health-extension/#comments Tue, 14 Apr 2015 17:20:13 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27521 Supplementing with magnesium should be the easiest decision to make, because there are substantial potential benefits and no downside.

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mgSupplementing with magnesium should be the easiest decision to make, because there are substantial potential benefits and no downside.

Magnesium is a chemical element, a mineral, common enough that the cost is negligible.  The kidneys easily excrete any excess above what you need, so toxicity is not an issue*.  Magnesium is essential for life, with a part to play in the body’s electrochemistry, nerves and muscles.  Hundreds of different hormones contain magnesium.  Mg is found in many foods, especially nuts and greens.  But modern diets tend to be low in Mg, and ⅔ of Americans are getting by with magnesium levels that are sub-optimum.

Wikipedia says: “Inadequate magnesium intake frequently causes muscle spasms, and has been associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, migraines, osteoporosis, and cerebral infarction [Ref, Ref].”

The amount of magnesium you need each day is not microscopic.  The USDA recommends 400mg (almost half a gram).  Your body’s total inventory is about 20 or 30 grams (about an ounce).

Magnesium is a chemical sibling to calcium, in the same column of the Periodic Table.  The body’s electrochemistry plays off magnesium vs calcium in the same way that it pairs sodium and potassium.  A nerve fires when sodium replaces potassium.  A muscle contracts when calcium replaces magnesium.

The ratio of magnesium to calcium is tightly regulated, and calcium supplements have been added to so many foods that, whether or not we eat dairy, most of us get more than adequate calcium.  Some but not all calcium supplements include magnesium.  In maintaining your body’s ratio calcium/magnesium, it is better to err on the side of too much magnesium, as too much calcium can lead to calcium deposits in the arteries [ref].  “Magnesium deficiency” is associated with elevated risk of arterial diseases, and that includes most people in the developed world. There is some evidence associating low Mg with the wrong kind of cholesterol in the blood (too much LDL, not enough HDL).

The biggest role for magnesium is in the energy metabolism.  Every cell takes in chemical energy as sugar from the blood, and burns the sugar in its mitochondria to create usable electrochemical energy in the form of ATP.  ATP in its active form is bound to magnesium.

The muscle protein myosin that is the source of all strength and movement, including heart contractions, has a magnesium atom at its core.

The body can get by with less magnesium, but it doesn’t function as well.  Muscles can cramp and anxiety can be higher when magnesium is scarce.  Calcium metabolism is closely linked to magnesium.  There is some evidence that magnesium deficiency plays a role in osteoporosis.  (Here is a page from Dr Lam on the subject.)

Insulin sensitivity and the sugar metabolism are the most accessible variable in controlling our rate of aging.  More than ¼ of Americans over 65 are formally diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and the numbers would be far larger but for the fact that loss of insulin sensitivity is considered part of “normal aging”.  Many studies have documented that higher intake of Mg helps to retain insulin sensitivity with age [for example, ref1, ref2, ref3, review].

Some people who suffer from migraines find that magnesium helps dramatically [example ref].

One study suggested enhanced athletic performance with magnesium supplementation.


Life expectancy?

The definitive studies have not been done, but there is suggestive evidence that more magnesium might be associated with longer life.   Here are two studies from Sweden [Ref1, Ref2] that found a connection between magnesium in drinking water and protection from cardiovascular disease.  This is a French study that found lower overall and cardiac mortality rates in people who had higher levels of Mg in the blood.  In this more recentstudy from Germany, peope with low blood levels of Mg had mortality rates 7 times higher than people with “normal” levels.  (Remember that “normal” is in the minority.)  Here is aFinnish study, however, that failed to find a cardio-protective effect from Mg in the blood.  In this Taiwanese study, the highest levels of Mg in drinking water were found to protect against cancer.

This is important work, and I don’t know why it hasn’t been pursued with more detail.  It these results are correct, there is no cheaper or easier way to better health.


Epsom Salt

epsom-saltsEpsom salt=magnesium sulfate is cheap enough that you can pour it into your bath.  Absorption through the skin can be all you need, if that is your preferred delivery.  If you eat epsom salt, a bag costing a few dollars will last a year.  The only reason not to eat epsom salt is the taste.

Epsom salt is sometimes used as a laxative at dose of 1-2 tsp.  A daily dose of magnesium is about ¼ tsp.


Magnesium and brain aging

There is a separate line of research associating brain aging with lower magnesium in the brain.  This is newer, less well established, and has been promoted by Life Extension Foundation the last few years.  There is an expensive form of magnesium, called magnesium threonate (or MgT), that is more available to the brain.

Supplementing with MgT has been associated with enhanced memory and more effective learning in rats.  In a mouse model of Alzheimer’s Disease, MgT delayed cognitive decline.  There is theoretical support for the effect that invokes the NMDA receptor.   The only human study that I’ve been able to find reported abatement of fear and anxiety with MgT.  Can the memory results be replicated in humans?  I have written to Guosong Liu, now at the medical school of Tsinghua University in Beijing, who originally developed MgT while at MIT. The English version of his academic web site says, “Human clinical trials based on our discoveries are undergoing to translate the knowledge from our research to new therapies for the treatment of neurological disease with decline of memory function and psychiatric disorder such as anxiety and depression.”



The bottom line

If you want to read even more effusive support for magnesium supplements, visit the Center for Magnesium Education and Research.  You can try to have your blood levels tested, but the correlation between blood levels and Mg available in tissues is not so reliable.  The easiest thing to do is add Mg to your supplements.  It’s not going to hurt you, and it may do a great deal of good.

I have recently discovered Examine.com as a source for information about common and uncommon nutritional supplements.  It is encyclopedic in scope, well-indexed, and seems to contain straight, unbiased summaries.  Everything is linked to primary references. Put “magnesium” into their search box and this is what you’ll find. They have digests and cross-indexed sumaries for sale as PDFs, but I appreciate the fact that all their basic research is available on-line at no cost.  Examine.com has already made my work easier.


* There is such a thing as magnesium toxicity, hypermagnesemia, but it is limited almost exclusively to people who have kidney disorders and are being medicated with pharmacological doses of magnesium.


This article originally appeared in Josh’s blog Aging Matters here. Republished with permission.

[Editor’s note: you can grow your own spinach and swiss chard and these plants are easy to grow and very high in magnesium. Use high quality soils to start since soils high in minerals produce the most nutrition dense food. ]



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The Internet of Badly Designed Things http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/13/the-internet-of-badly-designed-things/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/13/the-internet-of-badly-designed-things/#comments Mon, 13 Apr 2015 21:46:57 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27516 It’s possible that internet-connected domestic devices could turn out to be ill-judged, poorly-designed, short-lived technological fads.

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Internet of things: a helping hand, or holding us back? gleonhard, CC BY

Technology’s promise of wonderful things in the future stretches from science fiction to science fact: self-driving cars, virtual reality, smart devices such as Google Glass, and the internet of things are designed to make our lives easier and more productive. Certainly inventions of the past century such as the washing machine and combustion engine have brought leisure time to the masses. But will this trend necessarily continue?

On the surface, tech that simplifies hectic modern lives seems a good idea. But we risk spending more of the time freed by these devices designed to free up our time through the growing need to micromanage them. Recall that an early digital technology designed to help us was the continually interrupting Microsoft Office paperclip.

It’s possible that internet-connected domestic devices could turn out to be ill-judged, poorly-designed, short-lived technological fads. But the present trend of devices that require relentless updates and patches driven by security threats and privacy breaches doesn’t make for a utopian-sounding future. Technology growth in the workplace can lead to loss of productivity; taken to the home it could take a bite out of leisure time too.

Terry Gilliam’s futuristic film Brazil was set in a technologically advanced society, yet the future it predicted was dystopic, convoluted and frustrating. Perhaps we’re heading down a similar path in the workplace and home: studies show that after a certain point, the gadgets and appliances we employ absorb more time and effort, showing diminishing marginal returns.

We’re told to change passwords regularly, back up content to the cloud and install the latest software updates. Typically we have many internet-enabled devices already, from computers, phones and tablets to televisions, watches and activity trackers. Cisco predicts that 50 billion things will be connected to the internet in five year’s time. Turning such a colossal number of “dumb” items into “smart”, web-connected devices could become the biggest micro-management headache for billions of users.

Security updates for your internet fridge or web toaster? What happens when one causes it to crash. Once you bought a television, turned it on and it entertained you. These days it could be listening to your private conversations and sharing them with the web. That’s not to say a television that listens is bad – it’s just another concern introduced thanks to this multi-layered technology onion that’s been presented to us.

Internet-connected teapot, anyone? A.cilia, CC BY-SA

Good for some, not necessarily for all

Some smart technologies are designed for and better suited to certain groups, such as the elderly or disabled and their carers. There are genuine, real-world, day-to-day problems for some people that something like Google Glass and an internet-enabled bed could solve. But the problems that affect anything that’s computerised and internet-connected re-appear: patches, updates, backups and security. Once we wore glasses until our prescription ran out and the only update a person applied to their bed was to change the linen for a cleaner version.

Internet of things devices and online accounts are unlikely to take care of themselves. With so many dissimilar devices and no uniformity, managing our personal technological and digital identities could be an onerous task. Much of this will is likely to be managed via smartphones, but our dependence on these tiny computers has already demonstrated negative impacts on certain people. Could we witness a technological version of Dunbar’s Number, which suggests there’s a limit to the number of people we can maintain stable social relationships with? Perhaps we can realistically only manage so many devices and accounts before it gets too much.

Too much choice

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously explained that he wears the same T-shirt every day to reduce the number of decisions he has to make. Yet technology keeps pushing us towards having to make more decisions: how we respond to emails, which software to use, how to update it, interacting on social media – and that’s before we start getting messages from our internet-enabled bathroom scales telling us to shape up. You only need to watch the weekly episodes of BBC Click or Channel 5’s Gadget Show to see the rapid pace with which technology is moving.

Technological complexity increases – and what reaches the marketplace are essentially unfinished versions of software that is in a perpetual state of beta testing and updating. In a highly-competitive industry, technology companies have realised that even though they cannot legally sell a product with a shelf life, there is little to gain by building them to last as long as the mechanical devices of the last century, where low-tech washing machines, cars and lawn mowers wouldn’t face failures from inexplicable software faults.

Of course some will find their lives improved by robot cleaners, gardeners and washing machines they can speak to via their phone. Others will look to strip away the amount of technology and communication in their lives – as writer William Powers did in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry. The majority of us will probably just be biting off more than we can chew.


Andy Tattersall joined ScHARR in 2001 after working as a journalist to provide support and guidance to staff and students in their use of technology and information resources. His role is to scan the horizon for opportunities relating to research, teaching and collaboration and maintain networks that support this.He has a keen interest in new ways of working by employing Web 2.0 and Social Media including video but also pay close attention to the implications and pitfalls for using such advances. His main areas of work are in Web 2.0, Social Media, Google Apps, Altmetrics, MOOCs, Infographics, and the Web.

Andy started the ScHARR Bite Size series – where we teach you something new in 20 minutes which has been replicated at various universities. He also runs the popular ScHARR Library Blog.

Andy’s research interests are focused in the area of modern Web tools, Altmetrics, Web 2.0, social networks and software and their application for research, teaching, learning, knowledge management and transfer and collaboration. He is very

He is interested in how we manage information and how information overload affects our professional and personal lives.

This article originally appeared here, republished under creative commons license.

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iPad RIP — Beyond the 2D Tablet Touch Interface http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/13/ipad-rip-beyond-the-2d-tablet-touch-interface/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/13/ipad-rip-beyond-the-2d-tablet-touch-interface/#comments Mon, 13 Apr 2015 21:35:25 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27512 Tablets with interfaces that morph in three, real dimensions will fundamentally change the way we approach computer interaction.

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This sort of 3D display you can’t buy in the shops. Jason Alexander/Lancaster University , Author provided

Apple’s iPad arrived five years ago. It is a device that changed the way we think about computing, marking a seismic shift from keyboard and mouse to direct manipulation with our fingers. The iPad wasn’t the first tablet computer – it wasn’t even Apple’s first tablet computer – but it was the first to capture the world’s imagination and sell tens of millions of devices.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hands of children, who these days will walk up to any screen and expect to be able to interact with and shift content with the prod of a finger. This style of interaction has even followed us to our workstations where, despite their questionable use, touchscreens now frequently come as standard or are common options when buying a personal computer.

Touchscreens bring the user’s fingers into direct contact with the virtual objects onscreen, but still fundamentally present data representing a 3D visual environment through the medium of a flat 2D screen. Fully comprehending the interface relies almost entirely on our own visual sense, rather than exploiting our other, well-trained sense of touch.

From the pixel to the physical

Touchscreen tablets free us from the constraints of working at a desk and are more liberating due to their smaller size and weight. But, to make better use of all our highly-tuned senses, the next generation of displays will not be 2D and flat, but will have self-actuated, physically re-configurable surfaces. Flat screens will be able to deform themselves into other shapes. These interfaces will change the shape of their display surface to better represent on-screen content and provide additional means to pass on information by touch rather than vision alone.

Screen interaction gets physical. Jason Alexander/Lancaster University, Author provided

Dynamic physical geometry – tablets with interfaces that morph in three, real dimensions, rather than simply displaying 2D representations of them – will fundamentally change the way we approach computer interaction. Displays with pixels that can physically protrude from the surface will allow developers to enhance familiar applications such as architecture, design, terrain modelling and photography by rendering computer-generated 3D scenes in three dimensions in the real world. This will opens all sorts of opportunities for novel applications in team collaboration, tangible entertainment and ways to make computing more accessible to those with disabilities.

Devices will be able to change their form and function: a mobile phone that mutates into a TV remote control, and then into a videogame controller, re-configuring itself to provide appropriate interfaces. Apps will not only be able to modify a visual display, but also dynamically change the physical properties of the device.

This display revolution is closer than we think: commercial ventures such as Tactus Technology’s Phorm already provide a way to generate fixed-position buttons that protrude from the screen by filling small pockets with liquid on command.

Building a physical screen

In our lab, we’ve begun to explore the implications of users interacting with shape-changing displays. We’ve created a 10×10 interactive bar chart with which to represent common data visualisation tasks such as displaying data, filtering data, organising it into different rows and columns, navigating between large datasets, and making annotations. We’ve found that the physical nature of dynamic bars encouraged users to directly manipulate data points for annotation and comparison-style tasks and that traditional touch-based controls work well for navigation and organisation tasks.

Certainly, constructing these shape-changing displays requires expert electronic and mechanical knowledge. There’s a need to involve people with a wide range of interaction design skills to drive forward early prototype design, so we developed a tool that allows non-technical researchers to experiment with shape-changing displays.

ShapeClip is a tool to transform any computer screen from a flat viewing surface to a 3D one, transforming light from the screen into movement through coordinates in physical space above it. By adding a z-axis to the screen’s x- and y-axes, designers can produce dynamic physical content by adding ShapeClip tools to screens. ShapeClip displays are portable, scaleable and can be re-arranged to suit need. They are also fault-tolerant. Users need no knowledge of electronics or programming and can develop motion designs with presentation software, image editors, or web sites.

The iPad shifted our approach from pressing buttons to pressing with our fingers. Future displays will not be flat glass screens we prod, but physically dynamic surfaces capable of reconfiguring themselves in order to better present information to the user through a rich tactile experience that offers more to our senses.


Jason Alexander is a Lecturer in Human-Computer Interaction at Lancaster University.

Jason is a lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University. His primary research interests are in Human-Computer Interaction, with a particular interest in developing the next generation of interaction techniques. His recent research is hardware-driven, with work such the Tilt Displays combining tangible interaction and future display technologies. Other work has developed the next generation of haptic feedback (using ultrasound) and investigated a range of unique gestural interaction techniques. He is always keen to hear from enthusiastic prospective Ph.D. students or post-docs wishing to work in these areas.

He was previously a post-doctoral researcher in the Bristol Interaction and Graphics (BIG) group at the University of Bristol. Before that he was a Ph.D. student in the HCI and Multimedia Lab at the University of Canterbury.

This article originally appeared here, republished under creative commons license,

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Not all GMO Plants are Created Equal http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/13/not-all-gmo-plants-are-created-equal/ http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/04/13/not-all-gmo-plants-are-created-equal/#comments Mon, 13 Apr 2015 21:20:37 +0000 http://hplusmagazine.com/?p=27508 It may be more sensible to judge a plant by its specific traits rather than the way it was produced – GMO or not.

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Cornfield, GMO or not? Katie Harbath, CC BY-NC-SA

Many people have strong opinions about genetically modified plants, also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. But sometimes there’s confusion around what it means to be a GMO. It also may be much more sensible to judge a plant by its specific traits rather than the way it was produced – GMO or not.

This article is not about judging whether GMOs are good or bad, but rather an explanation of how plants with modified genomes are made. (There are non-plant GMOs, but in this article we will only refer to plant GMOs.) First of all, it’s necessary to define what we mean by a GMO. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining GMOs as plants whose genetic information (found in their genomes) has been modified by human activity.

Humans have changed the genomes of virtually all the plants in the grocery store

If we think of GMOs as plants that have genomes modified by humans, then quite a lot of the plants sold in any grocery store fit that description. But many of these modifications didn’t occur in the lab. Farmers select plants with superior, desirable traits to cultivate in a process known as agricultural evolution. Thousands of years of traditional agricultural breeding has changed plant genomes from those of their original wild ancestors.

Wild cabbage doesn’t look much like its domesticated version, broccoli. Nicholas Turland, CC BY-NC-ND

Broccoli, for example, is not a naturally occurring plant. It’s been bred from undomesticated Brassica oleracea or ‘wild cabbage’; domesticated varieties of B. oleracea include both broccoli and cauliflower. Broccoli, along with any seedless variety of fruit (including what you think of as bananas), and most of the crops grown on farms today would not exist without human intervention.

However, these aren’t the plants that people typically think of when they think of GMOs. It’s easy to understand how farmers can breed better plants on farms (by choosing to plant seeds from the biggest or best-yielding plants, for example, imposing artificial selection on the crop species) so even though this activity changes plant genomes in ways nature wouldn’t have, most people don’t consider these plants GMOs.

Scientists training in marker-assisted backcrossing selection technique. ICRISAT/CT. Hash, CC BY-NC

Creating “lab” GMOs

Once plant genes had been studied enough, researchers could turn to backcrossing. This technique involves breeding the offspring back with the parents to try to get a desired, stable combination of parental traits. Genes previously linked to desirable plant traits, such as higher yield or pest-resistance, could be identified and screened for using molecular biology techniques and linkage maps. These maps lay out the relative position of genes along a chromosome, based on how often they are passed along together to offspring. Closer genes tend to travel together.

Tiny experimental trees grown from lab-cultured cells in which researchers inserted new genes.Scott Bauer

Researchers used molecular markers – specific, known gene sequences, present in the linkage maps – to select individual plants that contained both the new marker gene and the greatest proportion of other favorable genes from the parents. The combinations of genes passed to offspring are always due to random recombination of the parents’ genes. Researchers weren’t able to drive particular combinations themselves, they had to work with what arose naturally; so in this marker-assisted selection approach, there’s a lot of effort and time spent trying to find plants with the best combinations of genes.

In this system, a laboratory needs to screen the genomes, using molecular biology methods to look for particular gene sequences for desirable traits in the bred offspring. Sometimes a lab even breeds the plants in cases using tissue culture – a way to propagate many plants simultaneously while minimizing the resources needed to grow them.

Inserting non-plant genes into GMOs

In the early 1980s, the plant biotechnology era began with Agrobacterium tumifaciens. This bacterium naturally infects plants and, in the wild, creates tumors by transferring DNA between itself and the plant it has infected. Scientists use this natural property to transfer genes to plant cells from an A. tumifaciens bacterium modified to contain a gene of interest.

Agrobacterium tumefaciens as they begin to infect a carrot cell. A G Matthysse, K V Holmes, R H G Gurlitz

For the first time, it was possible to insert specific genes into a plant genome, even genes that do not come from that species – or even from a plant. A. tumifaciens does not affect all plants, however, so researchers went on to develop DNA-transferring methods inspired by this system which would work without it. They include microinjection and “gene guns,” where the desired DNA was physically injectedinto the plant, or covered tiny particles that were literally shot into the nuclei of plant cells.

A recent review summarizes eight new methods for altering genes in plants. These are molecular biology techniques that use different enzymes or nucleic acid molecules (DNA and RNA) to make changes to a plant’s genes. One route is to alter the sequence of a plant’s DNA. Another is to leave the sequence alone but make other epigenetic modifications to the structure of a plant’s DNA. For instance, scientists could add arrangements of atoms called methyl groups to some of the nucleotide building blocks of DNA. These epigenetic modifications, while not altering the order of the DNA or of genes, change how genes can be expressed and thus the observable traits a plant has.

GMO doesn’t mean glyphosate-resistant

Calling a plant a genetically modified organism means only that – its genome has been modified by the activity of humans. But lots of people conflate the idea of a GMO plant with one that’s been created to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, also known by the brand name Roundup. It’s true that the most well-known GMO crops currently grown contain a gene that makes them resistant to glyphosate, which allows farmers to spray the chemical to kill weeds while allowing their crop to grow. But that’s just one example of a gene inserted into a plant.

It’s sensible to evaluate GMOs not on how they are made, but rather on what new traits the modified plants have. For instance, while it can be argued that glyphosate resistance in plants is not good for the environment because of increased use of the pesticide, other GMOs are unlikely to cause this problem.

Golden rice (on the right) compared to white rice. International Rice Research Institute, CC BY

For example, it’s difficult see how the controversial golden rice, which has been engineered to produce vitamin A in the rice grains to be more nutritious, is worse for the environment than ordinary rice. GMOs have been developed to express a pesticide permitted in organic farming: Bt toxin, an insecticide naturally produced by the bacteriumBacillus thuringiensis. While this may reduce pesticide use, it may also lead to the evolution of Bt-resistant insects. And there are GMOs which have improved storage characteristics or nutritional content, like “Flavr Savr” tomatoes, or pineapples that contain lycopene, and tomatoes that contain anthocyanins. These compounds are ordinarily found in other fruits and are thought to have health benefits.

GMOs that include different species’ genes make some people uncomfortable. elizaIO, CC BY-SA

The so-called “fish tomato” contains an antifreeze protein (gene name afa3), found naturally in winter flounder, that increases frost tolerance in the tomato plant. The tomato doesn’t actually contain fish tissue, or even necessarily DNA taken from fish tissue – just DNA of the same sequence present in the fish genome. The Afa3 protein is produced from the afa3 gene in the tomato cells using the same machinery as other tomato proteins.

Is there any fish in the tomato plant? Whether DNA taken from one organism and put into another can change the species of the recipient organism is an interesting philosophical debate. If a single gene from a fish can make a “fish tomato” a non-plant, are we human beings, who naturally contain over a hundred non-human genes, truly human?


Elizabeth bent is a Research Associate at University of Guelph  and has a Ph.D. in soil microbiology from the University of British Columbia as well as a B.Sc. in specialized honours environmental microbiology from the University of Guelph, and twelve years of postdoctoral molecular biology experience. She is currently researching the dynamics of nitrogen-cycling bacterial functional genes in agricultural soils that release the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide using next-generation sequencing (NGS) techniques.

This article originally appeared here, republished under creative commons license.

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