Ralf's corner

Something knocked me out' the tree

by Ralf Stutzki, April 29, 2019

The MIT Technology Review recently reported that "Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys". After reading the article I fell asleep and had the weirdest dream. I dreamt that I was a scientist in a lab, wearing a fancy white coat. In the afternoon I waved good bye to my research group and drove home where my lovely wife who had her day off (she works full-time, we are very liberal) opened the door.
   "How was your day today, honey?" she asked and I answered:
   "Thank you dear, actually not too good. The darn monkey rejected Aunt Jessica’s Microcephalin gene which I added two weeks ago.“
   "You did WHAT? Auntie Jessica’s very own MCPH1 brain gene??! How did you do this? Does she even know?"
   "Oh yes, she gave her written informed consent. She had kept the gene in her freezer for some 50 years and said it was time to get rid of some of the old stuff."
   "Oh sweetheart, you are sooooo responsible…"
Next thing I knew was that Aunt Jessica kicked down our front door.
And I luckily woke up. > Continue reading

Why I am not a woman

by Ralf Stutzki, June 14, 2018

Sorry about that, but sometimes you just have to use a catchy headline to get the reader’s attention. It’s an old journalism trick, I know. But apparently it still works: you are reading this.

According to a European Commission study published in 2016 about gender (un-) equality in the EU-28 countries women academics hold 40.6% of academic positions across the EU-28 countries: 20.9% Grade A positions, 37.1% Grade B positions and 45.1% Grade C positions. In a large number of EU countries female researchers are in a minority among senior academics (Switzerland 19,3%, France 19.3%, Germany 17.3% and Sweden 23.8%). In 2014 women in EU-28 countries were only 20.1% (CH: 17.5%) of heads of higher education institutions. > Continue reading

Too many Pandora boxes

by Ralf Stutzki, October 06, 2017

You know what? Scientific paradigmatic breakthroughs of overwhelming magnitude capable of becoming major milestones which herald the golden age of natural sciences and push mankind on the cusp of a new era in human history simply do not impress me anymore. Actually, they can be lucky if I even notice them. There are just too many out there these days and too little time to fall down in adoration before them (let alone to understand them); which primarily is owed to their ever-getting shorter date of expiry. Take this one for example: As I am writing this “corner” the Nature article „Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos“1 is already 8 weeks old. In the age of CRISPR this is an eternity. In other words: writing about a scientific breakthrough 2 months after its official announcement nowadays can at best be considered a history of science-elaboration. Granted – one day after its publication the media covered the fact that “we” now have genetic scissors and are capable of repairing embryos that “we” feel need to be repaired. But coverage usually was about as extensive as a #POTUS tweet makes sense these days. Just a few mentions here and there – using terms such as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘scissors’ – then it was back to sports and weather. > Continue reading

Merry CRISPR-MAS, everyone!

by Ralf Stutzki, May 18, 2017

Don’t tell my wife – but I have just found the perfect gift for the most special time of the year. I am talking about a CRISPR kit, the hype-, hyper-, hypest alternative for boring evenings when you can’t access your Netflix account due to internet failure of your cable provider. Already a number of North American companies offer all kinds of variations of these biology minilabs for ages 12+. The US start up “The ODIN” e.g. sells its genetic engineering kit for only $150.1 Canadian based „Amino Labs“ offers a DNA Playground starting at $349. This beautiful white & blue plastic box with red, orange and pink buttons on top of it really is an eye catcher and can, if you ask me, also be used as a very stylish food storage container for your lunch break. But Amino Labs promises much more, announcing that the kit „helps you to engineer bacteria like a professional. The starter set has everything needed to do hands-on genetic engineering: make bacteria create pigments!“2 Now - I am not quite sure whether or not my wife always dreamt about ruling over a colony of bacteria and ordering them to create pigments - but I do think it's worth a try. > Continue reading

Gene drive: bad news for invasive rodents…

by Ralf Stutzki, March 1, 2017

The MIT Technology Review recently published an article about what US conservation groups claim to have established for the first time: an evolution-warping technology in mammals called „gene drive“. In biasing the inheritance of DNA this transformative technology promises to become an effective tool for synthetic species conservation: invasive rodents (particularly rats and mice), which immigrated oceanic islands by ship and shipwrecks, have become significant troublemakers imperilling e.g. native sea birds.

While the Santa Cruz based conservation group Island Conservation in the past has underscored its motto „preventing extension“ particularly by bombing (!) small islands with rat poison, „gene drive“ may become an even more effective tool in the future - particularly for more populated and larger areas. Hence the non-profit is working on engineering „daughterless“ mice which - having received gender-biasing effects with the help of a gene drive - will ideally lead to a male-only offspring. This, it is expected, will minimize the mouse population on an island immensely; possibly bring it even down to zero. Currently two research teams at University of Adelaide and Texas A&M University are working on the male-only mouse line, using CRISPR (Adelaide) and harnessing naturally occurring genetic elements (A&M). The first-generation has been engineered and is currently being bred in order to study the effects on, and performance of, future generations. If everything works out well a huge market is waiting to be harvested: just last year New Zealand’s government announced its ambitious „Predator Free 2050“ plan, which aims at killing every possum, rat and weasel in its territory; and Island Conversation already thinks about implementing this new engineering technology on mainland areas such as slums. > Continue reading

Ralf Stutzki, Head Ethics