Humanity Time Bomb

With global warming and violent conflict around the world, it’s not surprising that the question of humanity’s future longevity on planet Earth is being asked. But, while we speculate in response to news headlines, Stanford Scientists are taking a more clinic approach and have come to the conclusion that civilization will end in the “next few decades.”

This comes following a recent appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes program where scientists discussed global mass extinction. Stanford Biologist Tony Barnosky, suggested that, through his work examining fossil records and ecosystem changes, current extinction rates are roughly 100 times higher than typically seen at any other point in Earth’s four billion year history.

Earth is currently experiencing the worst mass extinction event since the dinosaurs. Although the Earth may continue to turn after extinctions, life on the planet does not. But will that include humans?

Paul Ehrlich published a book in 1968 called ‘The Population Bomb’ where he addressed overpopulation and mass extinction. Today, over 50 years later, his predictions are becoming more and more real.

Even if the human race survives its society will crumble because of changes in habitat destruction, soil infertility and changes in our food chain. It’s all down to too many people and too much consumption. “Humanity is not sustainable,” explained Paul Ehrlich. “To maintain our lifestyle (yours and mine, basically) for the entire planet, you’d need five more Earths.”

“It is too much to say that we’re killing the planet, because the planet’s gonna be fine,” added Tony Barnosky. “What we’re doing is we’re killing our way of life. There are five times in Earth’s history where we had mass extinctions, at least 75% of the known species disappearing from the face of the Earth. Now we’re witnessing what a lot of people are calling the sixth mass extinction where the same thing could happen on our watch.”

And this warning is only repeated by other experts. In fact, it’s more unlikely that you find an expert who doesn’t think we’re in an extinction crisis, than does.

The World Wildlife Fund’s research found that life on Earth was sustainable in the year 1970 when there were 3.5 billion people on the planet. Today there are 8 billion people – a number which is growing at an alarming rate and forcing animals to different parts of the planet in an attempt to survive. The research also added that since 1970, 69% of global wildlife has collapsed. Humans have taken over 70% of the planet as well as 70% of the freshwater, pushing other animals, and plants, into extinction.

Could things change? Mexican ecologist Gerardo Ceballos believes the only solution would be to save the one third of Earth that is currently wild and is involved in a scheme to pay farmers to stop cutting the forests in Guatemala. But these small scale schemes need to be scaled up 10,000 times to have any chance of making a difference.

Paul Ehrlich’s thoughts for the future: “there’s no political will to do any of the things that I’m concerned with, which is exactly why I and the vast majority of my colleagues think we’ve had it; that the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.”

Frozen Embryos

In 2022 a couple in Portland welcomed twins into the world. Whilst the chance of giving birth to twins is much smaller than a single child, what makes these twins even more extraordinary is that these children were born from embryos that had been frozen 30 years previously.

The babies were reported to be normal in every aspect, despite already being over 30 years old when they were born, after being perfectly preserved in liquid nitrogen at negative 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

The embryos were frozen in 1992 with the intention of being used for IVF (In-vitro fertilization) for a different couple. However, in 2007 that couple donated the embryos to the National Embryo Donation Center.

A viable embryo frozen in time which could then go one to become a child 30 years later, is a modern miracle, it’s not the first time embryos have successfully been transplanted in the future. Prior to 2022, the longest embryo to child gap had been 28 years. It just goes to show that the freezing process results in a stasis of the biological process which might theoretically mean that time doesn’t matter – could an embryo from 1992 be used successfully in 2092 to produce a child from the past?

Could this also help with the prospect of being cryogenically frozen to be reanimated at some time in the future?

The prospect of helping many childless couples in the future seems a lot brighter and promising, especially as mankind’s survival is becoming more and more precarious. Not only from climate change and global wars, but on the basic level of human reproduction.

Earlier in 2022 a team of scientists looked at over 250 studies from around the world to get a general idea of the global sperm count over the last 50 years. Incredibly, from 1973 to 2018 sperm count dropped by 1.2 percent per year until 2000, but then began dropping at a faster rate of 2.6 percent per year.

“We have a serious problem on our hands that, if not mitigated, could threaten mankind’s survival,” explained Professor Hagai Levine. “We urgently call for global action to promoted healthier environments for all species and reduce exposures and behaviors that threaten our reproductive health.”

With this alarming global decreases in sperm count, the use of frozen embryo’s in the future could be mankind’s best hope for survival.

Space Blood Mutations

There are many risks to be considered when sending someone into space, but no one ever predicted that an astronaut’s blood might genetically mutate as a result of leaving Earth. But this is exactly what researchers discovered when they examined the blood samples from 14 NASA astronauts who were active in missions between 1998 and 2001.

The blood samples, which were decades old, all showed a specific DNA mutation. Although they didn’t believe the mutations were serious enough to cause a major threat to the astronauts long term heath, it underlines the need for regular screenings, particularly for those heading off on longer missions in the future.

The mutation is caused by exposure to excess ultraviolet radiation and chemotherapy, and is known as Hematopoiesis, and shows a high proportion of blood cells from a single clone, compared to a normal blood sample. It seems possible that due to the length of exposure of astronauts to high levels of space radiation, the Hematopoiesis mutation is more likely, especially considering that every one of the blood sample tested from the astronauts showed exactly the same result. Hematopoiesis is similar to mutations we might normally see in older individuals, but in the samples taken, the median age of the astronauts was much younger at only 42.

David Goukassian, professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explained that “astronauts work in an extreme environment where many factors can result in somatic mutations, most importantly space radiation, which means there is a risk that these mutations could develop into clonal hematopoiesis.”

With the prospect of heading to Mars in the future, or developing a potential colony on the moon, the expectation of longer exposure to space radiation is a hot topic for NASA, who have already made proposals to change the radiation limit that astronauts can be exposed to.  This latest study seems to add weight to this proposal.

Goukassian added that “the presence of these mutations does not necessarily mean that the astronauts will develop cardiovascular disease or cancer, but there is the risk that, over time, this could happen through ongoing and prolonged exposure to the extreme environment of deep space.”

Living Longer

With the world on the brink of a potential nuclear Armageddon, sea levels rising, and micro plastics poisoning our oceans as well as our bodies, perhaps the last thing on your mind right now would be how to extend the length of time you endure on planet Earth. However, scientists have discovered a way to extend the life expectancy of mice by ten percent – which some people are considering a potential answer to extending human life.

Scientists from Harvard Medical School, administered a drug called Rapamycin into 130 genetically different mice during the first 45 days of life through their mother’s milk. 40 other mice also took part in the study, acting as a control group, and were not provided with Rapamycin. All of the 170 mice were kept in exact conditions until they reached a natural end to their life.

Those mice who had received Rapamycin during the early days of their lives lived significantly longer than those who hadn’t. Not only did they live longer, but scientists also believed that the aging process actually slowed down in the male mice, taking them longer to progress through the normal life cycles expected in rodents. In addition, the male mice were also faster, stronger and healthier than normal.

But why would this be? Once the study had finished the scientists found that there were cellular changes that made the mice live longer. They appeared to have younger liver transcriptomes (genetic codes) giving additional fuel to the hypothesis than the secret to anti-ageing begins with our early development.

“Overall, the results demonstrate that short-term Rapamycin treatment during development is a novel longevity intervention that acts by slowing down development and aging,” the study explains, “suggesting that aging may be targeted already early in life.”

Researchers have also tested the drug on a crustacean with similar results.

Rapamycin is an immunosuppressive drug used in the treatment of cancers, as well as being used to prevent rejection during organ transplants, but has gained the attention of medical scientists as a potential anti-ageing drug.

This study could be merely the beginning to a whole new scientific breakthrough in extending life on earth. Although it appears to work in mice, the administration of Rapamycin for humans could be a long way away, with health implications for a human remaining unclear.

Cancer Killing Virus

A genetically modified form of the Herpes virus has been successfully used to attack tumors in cancer patients. Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust created this unusual solution from the virus that causes the cold sore!

Even though this is in its early stages of development and requires many more follow up trials and studies, the initial results seem to be positive.

Krzysztof Wojkowski from West London was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland in 2017. “I was told there were no options left for me and I was receiving end-of-life care,” he explains. “It was devastating, so it was incredible to be given the chance to join the trial.”

The trial works by injecting the virus (RP2) directly into the tumor. The virus invades the cancer cells, causing them to burst and activating the patient’s immune system to help.

“I had injections every two weeks for five weeks which completely eradicated my cancer. I’ve been cancer-free for two years now.”

There were 40 participants in the trial – nine had the RP2 injections, while the rest had a combined treatment of RP2 and another drug called nivolamb. The tumors of three of the patients who had the RP2 injections shrunk after treatment.

Project lead researcher Kevin Harrington said, “It is rare to see such good response rates in early stage clinical trials, as their primary aim is to test treatment safety, and they involve patients with very advanced cancers for whom current treatments have stopped working.”

Using viruses to attack cancers isn’t actually a new treatment. In 2021 researchers from the University of Zurich modified a respiratory virus called adenovirus, to enter tumor cells and deliver genes that tricked tumor cells into producing therapeutic antibodies.

“We trick the tumor into eliminating itself through the production of anti-cancer agents by its own cells,” said Sheena Smith at University of Zurich.

Whilst traditional therapies such as Chemotherapy and radiotherapy attack the normal healthy cells in a patient’s body, this doesn’t happen when using viral based therapies. Interestingly the recent COVID vaccines utilize adenoviruses.

Speaking to the Dead

Artificial Intelligence has come a long way in the last decade, but this latest advancement might be one of the most unusual applications for it – allowing the dead to speak to you!

In what was a surprise to the mourners at her funeral, Marina Smith was able to address them via a holographic conversational video experience, which was created by a startup company called StoryFile. Interestingly StoryFile was founded by Marina Smith’s son, Stephen Smith, based in LA. StoryFile was originally created to preserve the memories, recollections and stories of the Holocaust survivors. But, with Marina, they took 20 cameras and filmed her answering about 250 questions, allowing them to virtually recreate her in their software to make her appearance at her own funeral appear as natural as possible.

With so much visual and vocal data, Stephen Smith was able to converse with his mother at the funeral, as well as allowing other attendants to ask questions.

“The extraordinary thing was that she answered their questions with new details and honesty,” Stephen explained. “People feel emboldened when recording their data. Mourners might get a freer, truer version of their lost loved one.”

However, this wasn’t the first time StoryFile had used their technology to recreate a dead person at their own funeral. Earlier this year former Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner answered questions from the mourners at his own funeral.

“Nothing could prepare me for what I was going to witness when I saw it,” said Matt Asner, Ed’s son. “Other attendees were ‘a little creeped out’ because it was like having him in the room.”

Currently, in Silicon Valley, there seems to be a bit of a trend to technology which allows users to speak to the dead. Amazon added a new feature to their Alexa speaker, allowing the voice of a dead relative to read a bedtime story to a child. Amazon made this possible, not by taking hours of recording in a studio, but by sampling less than a minute of speech. “We are unquestionably living in the golden era of AI, where our dreams and science fictions are becoming a reality,” said Rohit Prasad, head scientist for Alexa.

Whilst the application of mimicking a dead person’s voice might be comforting to some, it’s also seen by many as a step too far and an obscure use of Artificial Intelligence. It could also open up the possibilities for criminals using a person’s voice, dead or alive, for nefarious purposes.