Natural selection is still shaping human evolution, find researchers

Natural selection, one of the primary drivers of evolution, is still occurring in humans, according to extensive research conducted by geneticists at Columbia University.

Analysing the genomes of 210,000 people across the US and the UK, the researchers found that people with longer lifespans had a lower incidence of the genetic variants associated with both Alzheimer’s disease and heavy smoking. This suggests that these traits are being slowly ‘weeded out’, as those with longer lifespans have a better chance of ensuring their genes are passed on to future generations.

“It may be that men who don’t carry these harmful mutations can have more children, or that men and women who live longer can help with their grandchildren, improving their chance of survival,” said study co-author Molly Przeworski, an evolutionary biologist at Columbia.

While this extra few years of life won’t make much of a difference over a generation or two, over thousands or even millions of years, such an ‘edge’ can have a profound impact on human genetics.

The notion that humans aren’t evolving is a common misconception among non-scientists; we are, although many had thought natural selection – one of several evolutionary mechanisms that also include genetic drift and sexual selection – was no longer in play in humans due to our radically adapted environment and tools such as modern medicine.

However, this research suggests that is not the case, and that natural selection is still shaping how our species evolves.

“It’s a subtle signal, but we find genetic evidence that natural selection is happening in modern human populations,” said study co-author Joseph Pickrell, an evolutionary geneticist at Columbia and New York Genome Center.


The research, which is published today in the journal PLOS Biology, involved the analysis of 60,000 genomes of Americans of European ancestry genotyped by California-based Kaiser Permanente, and 150,000 genomes of British people genotyped through the UK Biobank.

The researchers found that in women over 70 saw a notable drop in the frequency of ApoE4 – a gene linked to alzheimers – while in men a similar drop was observed in the frequency of a mutation in the CHRNA3 gene – associated with heavy smoking – at middle age.

The significance of just two common mutations was unexpected; with such extensive analysis the researchers had expected to find other variants, however their absence suggests they do not exist, indicating selection is in play.

However, whether this will lead to long-term evolutionary changes depends on whether the factors for selection remain the same.

“The environment is constantly changing,” said study lead author Hakhamenesh Mostafavi, a graduate student at Columbia. “A trait associated with a longer lifespan in one population today may no longer be helpful several generations from now, or even in other modern day populations.”

Scientists, software developers and artists have begun using VR to visualise genes and predict disease

A group of scientists, software developers and artists have taken to using virtual reality (VR) technology to visualise complex interactions between genes and their regulatory elements.

The team, which comprises of members from Oxford University, Universita’ di Napoli and Goldsmiths, University of London, have been using VR to visualise simulations of a composite of data from genome sequencing, data on the interactions of DNA and microscopy data.

When all this data is combined the team are provided with an interactive, 3D image that shows where different regions of the genome sit relative to others, and how they interact with each other.

“Being able to visualise such data is important because the human brain is very good at pattern recognition – we tend to think visually,” said Stephen Taylor, head of the Computational Biology Research Group at Oxford’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM).

“It began at a conference back in 2014 when we saw a demonstration by researchers from Goldsmiths who had used software called CSynth to model proteins in three dimensions. We began working with them, feeding in seemingly incomprehensible information derived from our studies of the human alpha globin gene cluster and we were amazed that what we saw on the screen was an instantly recognisable model.”

The team believe that being able to visualise the interactions between genes and their regulatory elements will allow them to understand the basis of human genetic diseases, and are currently applying their techniques to study genetic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

“Our ultimate aim in this area is to correct the faulty gene or its regulatory elements and be able to re-introduce the corrected cells into a patient’s bone marrow: to perfect this we have to fully understand how genes and their regulatory elements interact with one another” said Professor Doug Higgs, a principal researcher at the WIMM.

“Having virtual reality tools like this will enable researchers to efficiently combine their data to gain a much broader understanding of how the organisation of the genome affects gene expression, and how mutations and variants affect such interactions.”

There are around 37 trillion cells in the average adult human body, and each cell contains two meters of DNA tightly packed into its nucleus.

While the technology to sequence genomes is well established, it has been shown that the manner in which DNA is folded within each cell affects how genes are expressed.

“There are more than three billion base pairs in the human genome, and a change in just one of these can cause a problem. As a model we’ve been looking at the human alpha globin gene cluster to understand how variants in genes and their regulatory elements may cause human genetic disease,” said Prof Jim Hughes, associate professor of Genome Biology at Oxford University.

Using CRISPR, UK scientists edit DNA of human embryos

For the first time in the UK, scientists have altered human embryos. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, the scientists turned off the protein OCT4, which is thought to be important in early embryo development. In doing so, cells that normally go on to form the placenta, yolk sac and foetus failed to develop.

Source: BBC

Tesla and AMD developing AI chip for self-driving cars

Tesla has partnered with AMD to develop a dedicated chip that will handle autonomous driving tasks in its cars. Tesla's Autopilot programme is currently headed by former AMD chip architect Jim Keller, and it is said that more than 50 people are working on the initiative under his leadership.

Source: CNBC

Synthetic muscle developed that can lift 1,000 times its own weight

Scientists have used a 3D printing technique to create an artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle," said Dr Aslan Miriyev, from the Creative Machines lab.

Source: Telegraph

Head of AI at Google criticises "AI apocalypse" scaremongering

John Giannandrea, the senior vice president of engineering at Google, has condemned AI scaremongering, promoted by people like Elon Musk ."I just object to the hype and the sort of sound bites that some people have been making," said Giannandrea."I am definitely not worried about the AI apocalypse."

Source: CNBC

Scientists engineer antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains

Scientists have engineered an antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains and is built to attack three critical parts of the virus, which makes it harder for the HIV virus to resist its effects. The International Aids Society said it was an "exciting breakthrough". Human trials will begin in 2018.

Source: BBC

Facebook has a plan to stop fake news from influencing elections

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined nine steps that Facebook will take to "protect election integrity". “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," he said during a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine our democracy.”