The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include CRISPR babies, new discoveries on early humans and the latest robot landing on Mars.
By Zain Alhashem
First CRISPR babies are born
In a shocking revelation, Chinese scientists led by He Jiankui at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen have claimed to help make the world’s first genetically edited babies.
The researchers recruited couples who wanted to conceive babies but in order to participate, the man has to be HIV positive, and the woman, uninfected. Sperms and eggs were collected from the couples and in vitro fertilisation was performed to create embryos, which then were genetically edited using CRISPR. The researchers targeted a gene called CCR5, that codes for a protein the HIV virus uses to infect cells. The goal of this trial was to create children resistant to HIV infection and in early November, it has been reported that the world welcomed the first CRISPR edited twin Lulu and Nana.
This revelation has caused an uproar within the scientific community, which on an ethical basis, condemned the trail. Although the birth of the first genetically tailored humans is a great scientific achievement, it remains very controversial at the moment.
The source of the controversy stems from the fact that no fool-proof gene editing technique is currently available and there is no guarantee that the children resulting from gene editing will be healthy and will not pass harmful genetic changes to future generations. Despite the controversy, researchers at Harvard University plan to conduct their own gene editing experiments in sperms in hope of creating babies with greatly reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The cradle of humankind
The Oldowan is the earliest widespread stone tools industry in prehistory. These tools were very simple and usually made with stones chipped with another stone. For a long time, East Africa has been considered the cradle of humankind due to the discovery of the earliest hominins artefacts and Oldowan technology dating to ~2.6 million years ago (Ma).
However, this paradigm has been recently challenged thanks to a new study published in the Journal of Science. Two decades of archaeological excavation and laboratory research led by Dr Sahnouni have uncovered artefacts in North Africa that are near contemporary to the tools found in East Africa. At the sites in Ain Boucherit in northern Algeria, researchers have discovered stone tools and animal bones bearing cuts by stone tools dating to 2.4 Ma and 1.9 Ma respectively.
These tools are similar to those discovered in East Africa but with slight variations. The discovered bones with associated cutting marks provide an evidence that these early hominins utilised meat and bone from different animals and competed with carnivores.
These discoveries are really important in shedding a light on the origin of humankind, but the most important question remains to be answered: Who are the tool makers?
No hominin remains associated with these tools have been found in Northern Africa, in fact, no remains have been found in East Africa either. However, a recent discovery has revealed the existence of early hominins in Ethiopia dating to 2.8 Ma, which some scientists speculate to be a good candidate for the identity of the tool makers in East and North Africa.
Click here to read more about this discovery.
Taking the vital signs of Mars
Following seven minutes of terror, Mars welcomed its newest robotic resident, the InSight lander. NASA launched InSight in May and after a seven months journey travelling 483 million km, the robot landed on the surface of Mars and sent the first image within minutes of its landing.
During the two years mission, InSight will utilise a suite of instruments to study the composition of and dimensions of the red planet’s core, mantle and crust. The collected data will help scientists decipher how Mars and other rocky planets such as earth formed 4.6 billion years ago.
In its first day on Mars, the solar-powered InSight has already set a new record, where it generated more electrical power in one day than any previous Mars vehicle.
The InSight landing represents a big achievement as only 40% of missions destined to Mars Succeed. After the lender sets up its instruments, it will listen and record any tremors in the ground in the range of a dozen to 100 Marsquakes of magnitude. A heat probe will dig 5 metres into the ground and measure the rate at which heat rises through the planet. The scientists hope that this will increase our understanding of how planets form.