Can Science Create Superhumans?

Can genetics, technology or drugs engineer a generation of superhumans?
20 November 2018
Presented by Georgia Mills, Chris Smith
Production by Georgia Mills.


Child dressed as a superhero


This week - Humanity 2.0! Can we use genetics, drugs and technology to become superhuman? Plus, in the news, do men and women really think differently, why what we call a “kilogram” is changing, and researchers uncover an animal that talks about the past.

In this episode

Competing sperm

00:48 - Climate change killing sperm

How heatwaves are causing the sperm of insects to die, which could destroy much biodiversity.

Climate change killing sperm
with Matt Gage, University of East Anglia

With rising climate temperature, heat waves are becoming more frequent and more intense, but what impact is this having on the plants and insects around us? As the temperature of our planet goes up, biodiversity tends to fall, but researchers have been stumped as to why. Now, a team at the University of East Anglia have found that heat waves can compromise sperm counts in insects. Izzie Clarke heard how from Matt Gage...

Matt - So although there's been a lot of research looking at warm blooded species and how heat can impact on male fertility and sperm function, there's been very little work looking at cold blooded species like insects for example which we thought was quite a knowledge gap because most of biodiversity on our planet is cold blooded. They may even be more sensitive to environmental temperature change because our own core body temperature will change as the external thermal environment changes as well.

Izzie - Okay so what did you find looking at these cold blooded species?

Matt - We were basically interested in how experimentally induced heat wave conditions impacted on reproductive performance and reproductive biology. We chose a beetle because first of all it's an insect. About a quarter of insects are beetles. So what we did was we quite simply took adult male and female beetles and we expose them to simulated heatwave conditions and our heatwave conditions were those that are widely accepted as a definition of a heat wave which is when their normal temperature rises by 5 degrees for five, days and then what we found was that male fertility or male reproductive output declined markedly with heat wave exposure. So one heat wave about halved a male’s reproductive performance and when we gave males a second heat wave they basically became sterile.

Izzie - What about female beetles? 

Matt - So the females were in themselves resistant to heat wave so if you heat wave a female Beetle and then mate her to a male who hasn't been heat wave she's fine. Her reproductive output is exactly the same as if she's never experienced the heat wave. But if you mate the female so she's got mature inseminated sperm in her sperm storage organs which most female insects have then she suffers as a consequence a heat wave. So somehow the heat waves are damaging the sperm that she has stored inside her. And then we see about a 30 percent decline in a female subsequent fertility.

Izzie - So they essentially they'll mate with a male they store that sperm and use it as and when they like but if they experience a heat wave the female isn't really affected but the sperm that she's carrying is.

Matt - That's right. But what we also found was a trans generational impact of heat waves so if you're an offspring born from a dad who experienced the heat wave or indeed from a sperm we found a lifespan cut in those offspring so they live to about 20 percent shorter than the offspring whose dad’s or sperm never experienced the heat wave. And if you're a son from a dad or a sperm that experienced the heat wave your reproductive potential also was reduced.

Izzie - Oh gosh. And do you know what is actually going on in that reproductive biology to cause this effect?

Matt - We don't at the moment but our prime suspect is DNA damage. We know that heat can damage DNA inside sperm and we know that sperm that have damaged DNA also have fertility and indeed pregnancy problems for example in humans. But we haven't actually shown yet what the mechanism is that this transgenerational damage occurs by.

Izzie - And what about the impact if we're seeing these reproductive issues and climate change affecting male fertility. What impact could that have?

Matt - Well I guess if you're thinking from a biodiversity perspective it could be a pretty big impact because if you can't reproduce, your population viability is not very good, so we've shown under control conditions that sperm sensitivity could lead to population declines we're seeing in the natural environment. But we really want to pin that down more closely and we're planning to do that both in the lab at population level and maybe to try and take that to the field as well and have a look at it in insects under more field relevant conditions.

We'd like to know whether populations can adapt evolutionarily to changes in the climate and how quickly they can adapt. And of course we'd really like to understand what the mechanism that is that's leading to that transgenerational damage because that could have relevance for a lot of species including our own.

05:27 - Empathy, logic and gender

Do men and women really think differently, and what does it have to do with autism?

Empathy, logic and gender
with Varun Warrier, University of Cambridge

The 1992 book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” was a bestseller for US author John Gray. Admittedly it was all about relationships, but, at its core, was the claim that males and females think differently. Put another way, psychologists have suggested in two theories that women tend to be better empathisers, men tend to be better systemisers, and autistic people tend have a brain that’s an extreme example of the male-type. But those claims were based on studies of fewer than 100 people. So now scientists have repeated the analysis on a very large sample. But what did they find? Chris Smith heard from Varun Warrier, one of the authors on the new study…

Varun - These two theories look at how men and women think about certain things. So the first theory is called the “empathising-systemising theory of sex differences” and according to this theory we can look at two particular domains: Empathy, which is the ability to recognise what someone is thinking or feeling, and the other one is called systemising, identifying and recognising patterns. What this theory suggests is that men on average are better than women on systemising, and women on average are better on empathising. The second theory deals with autistic individuals. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition where individuals typically have difficulties in social interactions and unusually restricted interests. This theory which is called “the extreme male brain theory of autism” suggests that autistic individuals tend to be better at systemising and poor at empathy compared to the typical population.

Chris - So what did you set out to test?

Varun - So the previous studies had examined these two theories using relatively small sample sizes. We wanted to see how robust these results are. So we got data from approximately 650,000 individuals, which also included data from 36,000 individuals who had been diagnosed with autism and all of them filled out these two measures of empathy and systemising.

Chris - Can you just explain, how do you work out how empathic I am? How do you work out to what extent I systemise?

Varun - One way is using a self report measure, which asks questions like how much do you agree or disagree with particular statements. So statements include: “People have often told me that what I say is rude.” In this particular study we use ten such questions. Similarly we use ten such questions which maps self reported systemising; questions like “ I often notice small details that other people don't.”

Chris - And you're now bringing to the party enormous numbers of people that you've been able to study. You say you know it's more than 650,000 who've been studied isn't it? What trends emerge?

Varun - Well, what we see is that on average, typical men will score slightly higher, but statistically significantly higher than typical women on the self report measure of systemising and typical women on average score slightly higher than typical men on the self report measure of empathy. When we dig a bit deeper and look at autistic individuals, we see that on average autistic individuals, regardless of their sex, tend to score higher on this test of systemising and tend to score slightly lower on this measure of empathy compared to the typical population.

Chris - Have you broken it down by age? Is this something that people grow into, from a child growing up, or is it an innate thing that's present from the minute an individual’s born, as a boy or a girl, they're going to develop into these traits?

Varun - Yeah. So we looked at some sort of correlates of age with scores on these tests. We know that both empath and systemising are partly genetic, so there is some innate component to it, but this is only a fraction. So genetics explain approximately a third of the total variance in both systemising and empathy. So there is considerable other factors that might contribute to, you know, typical variance in empathy and systemising, and we don't really know what these factors are. It is very likely that, you know, environmental factors such as societal norms do indeed shape empathy and systemising, and certainly people's awareness of empathetic or systemising they are.

Chris - What are the implications of this now, because this basically adds additional weight to the theory you come up with 20 years ago but where does it leave us? Where next?

Varun - Going forward we also need to understand where these typical sex differences emerge. Do they come from environmental factors? If they are from environmental factors, what policies can we have in place to, sort of, minimise these sex differences. How can we encourage more women into STEM, how can we have policies in place which encourage more people into fields of systemising and equally how can we encourage more men to be more empathetic? So that's something that we really need to dive in to.


10:58 - The road to lab-grown meat

Would you eat a burger that was grown in a lab?

The road to lab-grown meat
with Mark Kotter, University of Cambridge, Elpis Biomed

The meat industry is one of the worst producers of greenhouse gases globally. And what feeds this industry is that the average westerner eats about their own body weight in meat every year; and although some people have cut their consumption, or gone vegetarian, to reduce their impact, most people remain staunch carnivores. So can science help? Georgia Mills heard from Mark Kotter from the Cambridge University spin out company Elpis Biomed; one of their technologies is lab-grown meat...

Mark - Essentially in my academic lab we generated a new approach of making very consistent batches of cells.

Georgia - And what has that got to do with the meat industry?

Mark -  Well I didn't know until recently our view was to create cells that we can use to study human diseases. And one of the cells that we generated really as a proof of principle was a muscle cell. So some individuals who were interested in cultured meat thought this might be applicable to their problem, which is basically trying  to create muscle and fat.

Georgia- Right, which is what you would find in your lovely burger?

Mark - That's correct.

Georgia - So you're taking the cow, well, not out of the equation, but the growing it chopping it up and eating it but you're sort of taking out the middleman and taking stem cells and hopefully turning that into a burger. So how would that work?

Mark -  So basically we treat stem cells as the hardware. The analogy is really a computer. If you run a new program on a computer you get a new function. If you run a new program in a cell you can switch the identity of that cell into a new cell type. The little contribution that we made was to make this a very robust process. So we can turn all stem cells in the culture Into a muscle or a fat or a neuron. And what we did is we are using gene editing technology that CRISPRs to bury the program in the DNA of the cell and then once we want we can turn it on and the entire population of cells will switch to a new cell type.

Georgia - Do you think people will take this up as a new form of meat eating?

Mark -   From my own experience, it was a very alien concept to me but to be honest it makes such a lot of sense. First there's the ethics we grow a cow and the cow really is a complex organism which behaves a little bit like us as well. And what do you do with the end is you chop it up and you just take the muscle. So I think that’s quite barbaric to be honest. The other thing is it has health implications. You can actually optimise the meat so that you can take up some of the fatty acids that might be damaging you and you can get rid of a lot of the antibiotics that are currently used for farming. And the third factor, of course, are the environmental issues. It takes a lot of energy to raise a cow and then harvest it.

Chris -  Will it scale, Mark? Can you grow enough cells to feed seven point five billion people and possibly 10 billion by 2050? Sounds like a tall order...

Mark -  You definitely are right. The scale up will be the biggest challenge there but if you think about the base population that we use which are the stemcells they really grow incredibly fast. And so if you put them into the right context the models that I've seen suggest that you could do that in effect for example if you wanted to go to Mars it’s the only option to have some meat...

Chris - ...unless you resort to cannibalism of course!

Georgia -  Speaking of which, would it work for any animal?

Mark -  In theory yes. I mean if you know the transcription that program that controls a Musselburgh effect in that species it should be perfectly achievable.

Georgia -  When do you think we might see this in the shops. Could you put a good guess on how long it might take?

Mark -  I don't know. I think their ambition is to create the first burgers within three four years and of course then the real challenges of scale will kick in.

Scales reading 5kg

15:01 - The weight is over: Redefining the Kilogram

Some massive news this week: scientists have voted to redefine the kilogram.

The weight is over: Redefining the Kilogram
with Perdi Williams, NPL

Now speaking of meat, the last time you were weighing out your pork chops, did you spare a thought for how we know what a “kilogram” actually is? Probably not, because it’s not changed for over a century. A “kilo” is the weight of a big lump of metal in London, and that’s a clone of a similar object in Paris. But now scientists have been voting at a conference to bring the kilo into the twenty-first Century. Adam Murphy’s been weighing up why with National Physical Laboratory researcher Perdi Williams...

Adam - It's important to be able to weigh things accurately; from baking cakes properly, to the minute amounts required to get drug doses right. But we all need to be talking about the same thing.
My kilogram has to be the same as your kilogram or one of us is getting a terrible cake, or not enough medicine. The standards were decided in the 19th century in France, something for us all to agree on. Initially one kilogram was the same as one litre of water, but the density of water changes with temperature, with pressure, and with purity. So we came up with a different solution.

Perdi Williams - We've had the kilogram for a long time. The ‘UK Standards of the Kilogram Number 18’ was given to us in 1889.

Adam - That is Perdi Williams, assistant researcher at the National Physical Laboratory where they keep one of the UK’s kilograms - lumps of metal that tell every weighing scale in the UK and Ireland what one kilogram is supposed to be

Perdi - And it's been working incredibly well. It's an amazing thing but it is a single point of failure in the system. Also we need to make sure that the original kilogram, IPK, we need to make sure that's stable.

Adam - That's right. Also known as ‘Le Grand K’, the International Prototype Kilogram is a cylinder of platinum iridium about the size of a golf ball that’s sitting in a vault in Paris. And it is one kilogram, and it's what all national kilograms like NPL’s Kilogram 18 take their cues from on what a kilogram is.
So if I could get into that vault and say hack a bit off, or eat a bit, I would change what one kilogram was - how it was defined. I could invalidate every scale in the world. But the thing is, isn't it going to change with time?

Perdi - Yes. So we believe the kilogram is changing over time but we don't know by how much. IPK could be changing and gaining mass, and ours are all staying the same. We can’t accurately see what's going on. So with the redefinition we'll be able to have a better idea of what's going on with the mass scale and also it will be changed to a constant and that can't change.

Adam - We're changing it hopefully this week. What are we changing it to?

Perdi - So the new definition will be based on Planck constant.

Adam - Planck's constant is a number used in quantum physics. It's a zero-point-thirty-four-more-zeros and a 6. It's incredibly small.

Perdi - And this will be done using Kibble balance. Basically, it's making an electric kilogram. So we're balancing out the force from the kilogram with an electric force. So its main concept is a magnet and a coil within the magnetic field. Once you pass a current through the coil it produces a force and moves the platform up and down, and using the planck constant we can get mass from that.

Adam - And is our whole world about tilt on its axis? Is everything going to change with this vote?

Perdi - We've worked incredibly hard to make sure that the general public and end users don’t see any change. A kilogram is a kilogram, it’s just going to be defined differently

Adam - And at the end of the day, why does this matter?

Perdi - Measurement is so incredibly important. Everything can be measured, so we need to be as accurate as possible with the way we measure things and how we define things. People have been obsessed with measurements since the beginning of time - in ancient Egypt they used used the ‘cubit’, which was the length of the Pharaoh's elbow to the end of his fingers, and that was how they did measurement. Even back then they still were worried about things not fitting together or being scammed with how many seeds they were buying. We’re just getting better at defining things.

Sumatran orangutan at the Orang rehabilitation centre, Buket Lawang, Sumatra.

19:58 - Orangutans can talk about the past

How one of our closest relatives has developed the basis for language.

Orangutans can talk about the past
with Adriano Lameira, University of St Andrews

Now, the ability to discuss what happened yesterday or last week, is a subtle but really important cornerstone of language. But we don’t know when or how this ability to react to something historical came about. But this week scientists announced they’ve discovered that one of our closest relatives also has this ability; Georgia Mills has been to the jungle to hear which one…

Georgia - If you went down to the jungles of deepest darkest Sumatra what might you see? A sun bear, a pygmy elephant or perhaps a scientist crawling around under a stripy blanket pretending to be a tiger. That's exactly what Adriano Lameira and his team at the University of St. Andrews were doing but I promise you there is a reason. They were trying to find out more about perhaps Sumatra’s most famous inhabitant and our close cousin the orangutan.

Adriano - I am looking at orangutan calls as living models of the precursor system of language. Language fundamentally transformed how our species transmits information and knowledge. But we have very little clues of how did this happen. How did such a new powerful system emerge within our own lineage? Orangutans provide a really interesting case where we can go back and use their vocal behaviour as models for what may have happened within our own lineage.

Georgia - So, Adriano and his team went on a fact finding mission to Borneo and Sumatra to find out what kinds of calls the orangutans make. But there's only one problem, orangutans aren't all that chatty.

Adriano - I've spent many days with the microphone over my head waiting for them to say something and I would go back to camp with no recording to speak of.

Georgia - What to do? The team had an idea. What if they could get them to make an alarm call by showing them what appeared to be one of their predators like a tiger or a leopard.

Adriano - Yeah, so typically it was me walking on all fours and then we had sheets covering and then it was the pattern of the sheets that differed between different types of predator that we wanted to simulate. You know I was the lead author so I had to take the example role.

Georgia - The things you do for science.

Adriano - Exactly.

Georgia - And this disguise apparently seemed to work. The orangutans behaved nervously climbing away and urinating. But…

Adriano - But we were not getting any vocal responses, which was confusing at first. To our surprise it was only minutes later up to 20 minutes later actually that the female started to engage in vocal responses. So we immediately knew that there was something odd about the whole situation.

Georgia - So why wait for minutes before making a distress call?

Adriano - You wouldn't want to respond in the presence of the tiger and therefore incur the risk of an attack at that moment. On the other hand, because they could have simply remained silent forever, otherwise the infant would have never properly understood that what just happened was a dangerous event and so they are waiting to be in safety to inform their infants about the danger.

Georgia - What does this, the fact that they're delaying their calls, what does this tell us about orangutans?

Adriano - So far there is this saying that animals typically communicate while being stuck in the present. What this shows us is that they actually can disassociate this and therefore communicate the information about something that is not happening in the here and the now and this is a characterizing feature of language across all the world's languages. We are constantly speaking of things that are not here or now. So this characterises language and yet there were so far no examples in mammals or within the primate order.

Georgia - Right, so you are saying this is a kind of a really important stepping stone in the advance of language to be able to talk about things that aren't what's right in front of us right now.

Adriano - Absolutely I think it really becomes powerful because the information that you can start actually reporting on in transmitting really expands in all directions, right, because then you can refer to things in the past you can refer to things into the future and so to cross these threshold is terribly important and I think we really start to have a lot of the ingredients that we see in language coming together within one of our ancestral lineages and now we can really start seeing how they may have interacted and therefore how could they have past that threshold and really started something that we could potentially call a proto-language, a system that really became the forerunner of language.

Pills on a plate

Can drugs make us smarter?
with Barbara Sahakian, Cambridge University

We all modify ourselves with drugs to some extent: caffeine gives us super shakes and wakefulness; alcohol makes us chatty and other people look more attractive; and anabolic steroids are used by some to bulk up. But they can also make us more intelligent. Chris Smith and Georgia Mills found out more from Cambridge University's Barbara Sahakian.

Barbara - So human enhancement is something that people have strived for for a long time in different forms, as you pointed out. But cognitive enhancement is something that's really quite topical now and seems to be on the increase. So people are taking smart drugs or cognitive enhancing drugs to do better at work, get into better universities, and just improve themselves.

Chris - What are the drugs in question?

Barbara - So two of the most common ones are Methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, which of course is a common treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That acts by boosting noradrenaline chemicals in the brain - noradrenaline and dopamine which kind of fine tune our cognition. Things such as attention, problem solving, planning, learning, and memory - all those sorts of different forms of cognition. And then there's also Modafinil, which seems to act similarly to increase our noradrenaline and dopamine in the brain, but also probably other chemicals through the balance of GABA and glutamate. So it acts on glutamate as well.

Chris - So as you say, we're tweaking brain neurochemistry to enable us to do certain things that we want to do a bit better. Therefore if we can improve the way our brains work at certain tasks, why hasn't nature done that for us?

Barbara - In a way, many times we wake up and we just feel great. We've got a good night's sleep and we get down to work and we feel energized. Our motivation is good - maybe we're doing a task we're really looking forward to. And so we're kind of then at what we might call our optimal level of performance. But many times, of course, we’re suffering from jetlag - I know you got back from Australia recently. Some people have small children who wake them up in the middle of the night. So we're travelling around the world; and a lot of people are also under stress which impairs your cognitive performance. So even as a healthy person you can often be performing lower then you should. But these drugs will actually improve performance, including people who, for instance, are Cambridge undergraduates. So you can get improved performance in people who are not sleep deprived and who are actually of very high intelligence.

Chris - All the things you've described are symptoms of an overbusy lifestyle, a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends approach to life. Are we not just giving ourselves another crutch to lean on?

Barbara - I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, we really have to think of this as a society where we will all be pill poppers in the future just so that we can get in a bit more work, stay awake and alert for longer, and be competitive with somebody else who's working alongside us - and so forth. I mean, there are really great ways, such as exercise, to enhance your cognition. That really boosts your cognition - it improves your mood and it's very good for your physical health. So really we should be doing things like taking exercise, maybe doing a lifelong learning course, or something else interesting like that.

Chris - What I’m uneasy about is that we may find ourselves in a situation with almost a two tier society, where you've got people who are chemically enhanced and they'll turn up for their exams at university having pulled all nighters for three weeks beforehand and they'll be at the top of their game - because they're popping pills, quite legitimately. Whereas someone who takes the same approach to exams that the athletics and doping association take to sport, which is that you should not chemically dope your body and were going to ban you if you do, those people who turn up with a clean sheet - they haven't done any of this sort of thing. You're going to perform less well, not because they're less able, but they've got fewer drugs on board.

Barbara - Well that's a really good point. I mean sometimes when I’m lecturing to students about these issues students will come up afterwards and say, you know, I don’t want to take these drugs but I feel pressure put upon me. The sort of coercion to take these drugs, because I can see other people passing them around in the library and I feel I’ll be at a disadvantage if I don’t take them. And we know that even a small 10 percent improvement in a memory score could lead to a higher A level, or greater degree class. So we have to think about it very carefully.

Georgia - It sounds like these drugs can have quite a big impact on how well someone does, but where might it go in future with with scientific improvements? Like the films Limitless and Lucy, I think they pop one pill and become super Einsteins straightaway. Will that ever be possible do you think?

Barbara - Well already the effects are what we call mild to moderate, so a moderate effect is really very good for a healthy person to get up to that level of improvement - sometimes a 10 to 40 percent improvement. So that’s really very good for these drugs that we already have, like Ritalin Methylphenidate and Modafinill. But other people are looking at sort of enhancing creativity, and they are looking at micro-dosing with LSD. This is going on in Silicon Valley and places and that’s another drug that’s affecting the brain in different ways as well. So there are new experiments going on but unfortunately not with pharmaceutical companies - they’re not developing too many of these new cognitive enhancing drugs. Which is a shame because really my research has to do with trying to improve cognition for people with psychiatric disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease, and brain injury.

Georgia - And thinking of jobs - like being a pilot, being a doctor. Do you think, in the future, it would just be like a matter of course for these people to just take something that makes them more efficient at their jobs?

Barbara - Well we first need the long term safety and efficacy studies in healthy people, because we don’t have those. But if a drug is shown to be safe and effective for a healthy person to take it may be better than caffeine. So I did a study with Lord Ara Darzi at Imperial College, and he wanted to look at sleep deprived doctors because a lot of his doctors have to operate at night. They take a lot of coffee to get the caffeine - we heard about caffeine as a booster. But the trouble is then they get a hand tremors because that’s a very common side effect of caffeine. So Modafinil may be a better cognitive enhancing drug, and awake-alerting agent for doctors to use - but we really need those studies first. I’m really quite concerned about some of the very young people, you know people under 24-25 years of age, who are using these drugs because we know our brains are still in development then. So it’s one thing to use these drugs as an adult where your brain is fully developed, but if you’ve still got this essentially adolescent brain which is in development, what are the effects of putting a drug into a healthy normal developing brain?

Cyborg mask

How to become a cyborg
with Kevin Warwick, Coventry University and Reading University

One of the most popular superheros is Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.He’s a regular guy who uses technology to fly around and kick butt. Georgia Mills and Chris Smith were joined by someone who, probably can't quite fly, but does hold the incredible title of the world’s first cyborg: Kevin Warwick of Coventry and Reading University.

Kevin - Well I've had two implants. The first is a fairly simple one, that quite a few people now have got, which is an identification implant. With that, as I was able to move around my building the computer could recognize where I was, and it opened doors for me, switched on lights, said “hello”... Things like that, that was the first one.

But I think what Barbara's been talking about, the chemical aspect, particularly of the human brain, and how you can affect them. But of course the brain is electro chemical and I'm really looking at the electrical side of things.

Georgia - And is it true technologically linked yourself to another person as well?

Kevin - Well, that happened to be my wife. Yes. We wanted to show you the different things. You were talking earlier about communication and what we did, my wife had electrodes pushed in her nervous system and we linked our nervous systems together. So every time she closed her hand, my brain got a pulse. So it was like a telegraphic communication directly between our nervous systems and clearly what we're looking at is the future of communication. It’s linking not just nervous systems together but brains together. So we'll be able to communicate, not in this antiquated way that you know surely now, we can start moving on as humans and enhance ourselves and start communicating electronically, directly, brain to brain.

Georgia - Man that sounds quite romantic but also potentially irritating.

Kevin - But I mean those are experiencing ultrasonic input. What we were looking at, the humans sensed the world in a very limited way, we miss most of what's going on around us because we don’t sense it but we can do in the future. And with the technology I was using, I was able to sense ultrasonics, which is like a distance like a bat senses the world, and our brains are brilliant. They adapt. They can take on new signals in that way.

Georgia - As well as Tony Stark, you’re also Batman…

Kevin - But, for real! Tony Stark and Batman are mere characters, in this is doing it for real. Science has gone further than than some of these characters, I think. One other example, I went to Columbia University in the U.S., we plug my nervous system into the Internet and link back to a robot hand which was in England in Reading.

What I actually did I moved my hand but my brain signals which were picking up from my nervous system were sent across the Internet to move the robot hand which was in England. And then when the hand grip to an object, signals was sent back from the fingertips in England to stimulate my nervous system in New York so I could feel how much force the hand was applying on another continent.

Georgia - That's madness. But what about if you're linking yourself up with technology, what about someone hacking your nervous system. Does that worry you at all?

Kevin - Well it didn't from the research point of view. I mean, my mind nervous system actually had an IP address for that particular experiment but we had security in the sense that we didn't tell anybody what we were doing. Clearly if we're looking ahead for this in a general sense, clearly then security would be a much much more important thing. We wouldn't want to allow hacking as we might do into our bank accounts and things like that nowadays.

Georgia - What other kind of ways might you be able to enhance yourself with technology?

Kevin - Well I think if we are looking at brain implants then clearly you can link your brain directly with an artificial intelligence system and gain all sorts of things from that. I mean we know human memory is not that wonderful, particularly as you get older and we get all sorts of problems with it. But computer memory, of course, can be absolutely fantastic. Extremely accurate and so on. So the possibility of simply not remembering anything in your own brain, outsourcing the whole lot to a much more accurate but instantly accessible source. Why not?

Georgia - I'm interested to hear how far you'd go in theory Kevin. I mean you're talking about mental enhancements. What about something like a super powered bionic arm and things like that. With that does that sound alright to you as well?

Kevin -  Well in a way I've already had that. That's something I've experienced in terms of connecting from my own nervous system to a robot arm. From that though, when you start connecting the nervous system and your brain up to the outside world, it doesn't have to be arms and legs and so on that you connect on. You can have buildings you can have vehicles, so your body, which can be separate from your brain as long as it's connected via the nervous system via a network your body can be whatever you want it to be whatever the network takes you to.

Chris - What’s next on your wishlist, Kevin? Just wondering what you might like to connect up next…

Kevin -  Ooooh, for me the big one is communicating brain to brain! I mean I would love to take part in the first thought communication experiment. It’s a very risky business because switching the switch to connect two brains together, what exactly is going to happen there? But I just have a hunch, I believe that we are going to be able to communicate just by thinking and I would love to be one of the first people to test that out.


39:34 - Genetically engineering superhumans

Can we edit our DNA to become spidermen and women?

Genetically engineering superhumans
with Sarion Bowers, Wellcome Sanger Institute

What about changing our very being, by modifying our DNA. Once the stuff of sci-fi, now a matter of getting the right equipment, but what is possible and what isn’t, and where do we draw the line! Chris Smith and Georgia Mills were joined by Sarion Bowers, Policy Lead at the Wellcome Sanger Institute...

[Clip of someone injecting a CRISPR gene-editing construct into themselves]

Sarion - This is a man who decided to inject himself with CRISPR, which is this genome editing tool, in order to enhance his muscle function. I think it was pretty much a bit of a gimmick to be honest but it certainly attracted some attention and I think it really effectively demonstrated how easy it is to do this technology or use this technology yourself.

Chris - And what actually is the technology and how does it work?

Sarion - CRISPR is, it's actually a bacterial system. It's the latest in a long line of genome editing tools. Scientists have been able to change the DNA of organisms for many years really since the 70s. But this discovery of this bacterial system has really sort of been a game changer. So it allows scientists to very very accurately target a gene, make the change very precisely and it's really easy to use as well.

Chris - Is it reliable? Does it go wrong?

Sarion - It is reliable but it also does go wrong, so there is a big discussion about off target effects. So when you're supposed to be targeting gene a, how many times it accidentally hits another gene. And that seems to vary depending on what exactly it is you're trying to do.

Chris - So what could we do with it?

Sarion - The options are sort of almost limitless but scientists at the moment are really interested in treating disease. So we've already had some patients that have had this done to them so there was Layla who had was a 11 month old baby who had leukemia who, this actually sort of precursor to CRISPR, but it was very much the same idea and they treated her leukemia with that. She's still in remission which is great. We've also had some patients who were actually edited to be more resistant to the HIV infection that they had.

Chris - Now we've discussed diseases and fixing those. But this program is very much about how we could enhance what we've got already, so started with the healthy state and making it better. So how might this technology be employed to do that?

Sarion - Well we've obviously already seen someone trying to enhance their muscles. In theory there are all sorts of things so intelligence and cognitive ability so that potentially is an area where people are interested. There's obviously super-strength. There is a lot of sort of fantasy speculation out there about what you can do. I think probably a little bit still very much fantasy.

Georgia - Because it’s tricky isn't it, because something like a single gene trait, that I can see in theory how you could change it, but intelligence and things like height, as far as I'm aware there's a massive massive interaction between loads of different genes that we don’t even really understand yet, so do you think we'll ever be able to sort of boost intelligence?

Sarion - On the intelligence point, I think it depends what you mean. So there was this recent article about IQ and the ability to identify the genes involved in IQ and effectively predict someone's IQ and therefore do screening of embryos. IQ is not a particularly great measurement of anything very much. Donald Trump claims to have an IQ of 160. That doesn't necessarily say very much. So I think yes you can make changes, but whether it's actually the change you really want is probably very much open to debate. You are absolutely right about this complexity in the genetic networks. You mentioned height for example, I mean height not only does it have a genetic component because it has an environmental component as well. So these are really complex systems that were talking about.

Georgia - And say the science does get there and you can have your wish list for either yourself or perhaps your kids. What about the ethics? What do you think will be allowed and what won't be?

Sarion - Currently it is completely illegal to edit embryos for reproductive purposes. And that's across Europe and much of the world has that kind of legislation as well and it's certainly the case in the UK. It may be considered ethical in future I think to do that kind of editing.

Chris - Is not one exception to this mitochondrial editing because when a person has a mitochondrial disease we know that's a genetic condition and there are now techniques which are being used a bit like CRISPR to alter the mitochondria that are in those affected cells so that they don't carry that particular abnormality.

Sarion - With mitochondrial disorder you're not actually editing, you’re completely replacing the mitochondria with healthy mitochondria and this is legal in the UK and the first treatments have just been licensed for it and it is a very very specific use case. So there is a very small number of people who will benefit from this technology and the case is very obvious for those people and I think most people feel very sympathetic towards that and so it is ethical. In terms of enhancement, I think Kevin actually raises quite an interesting discussion and I think there is going to be an ongoing debate about what is acceptable and what's not.

Georgia - Earlier in the program we mentioned Spiderman, so he was bitten by a radioactive spider and had all the powers of a spider and a man, so could you take a gene from an animal and put it in a human?

Sarion - So that's probably not that easy to do. There have been a few examples, not in humans I have to say, but you sort of occasionally see these stories, so there was one a while ago about fluorescent cats where they put this green fluorescent protein from jellyfish into cats. It was a proof of principle study really and there is a scientific use for that kind of technology. Although glowing kittens is probably not the actual output that you want. In terms of humans, I think it's going to be a little bit more complicated than that. I think there are many men out there who would like to look like Tobey Maguire. I don't think we're going to get there just yet and they're certainly not going to be swinging from building to building

Georgia - They’d probably be more Jeff Goldblum from the fly, wouldn’t it?

Chris - Do you think there's also a risk with this? We don't know what sits in the gene pool, because there may well be traits in the gene pool that at face value look initially disadvantageous but then when considered in other circumstances may carry a benefit. And I’m thinking for instance the cystic fibrosis gene, we now understand that carriers of that are at lower risk of catching diseases like typhoid and if we were to screen out everybody who is a carrier of cystic fibrosis we would potentially not have that resistance against typhoid. It’s one example and I mean there are many, but is that not a danger if we go thinking ‘well we want all these traits’ actually we may be losing some very important ones?

Sarion - I think that's absolutely right. Genes and genetics are a very complicated network and so while we can identify one gene as having an impact on something. If you start changing it, it may have downstream effects that we aren’t currently aware of and so I think while there will be some cases where the trade-off is worth it, in terms of enhancement, I think its always going to be too complicated for that, you’re always going to have these side effects that you don’t particularly want.

Georgia - And we started with a clip of that person injecting themselves with CRISPR, maybe not the best idea they ever had! Kevin I’d like to bring you back in here because you experimented on yourself essentially. Were you nervous about that? How did you feel about trying something out for the first time on your own body?

Kevin - Well I think it’s quite dangerous and one of the reasons for trying it on myself was in case something went wrong. If it goes right of course people say everyone knew you’d be able to do this, if it goes wrong people say what an idiot getting it wrong like that. But also I wanted to experience it for myself,  that was important as well.

Chris - Are you comfortable with this Barbara?

Barbara - Well it's always a worry when people are experimenting on themselves. I mean obviously Kevin took the procedure to go through ethics and so forth but a lot of people who are essentially putting themselves online doing these things don’t go through those sorts of procedures. And also I mean I find you know with people for instance buying these cognitive enhancing or smart drugs or buying them over the Internet you really don’t know what you’re buying. It could be anything.

Chris - Sage advice but the reason I ask you that is because people are using these drugs. That’s because they regard them as pretty much de rigueur. Once things start to become like Kevin's doing a bit more de rigueur people will just end up doing that too won’t they? So people will end up with  mental implants, drug implants, some will be doing CRISPR in our spare time?

Barbara - I’m all for safe enhancement. But on the other hand as we discussed one also wants to look at where the drivers are for society. I mean if it's you know a lot of philosophers and people like Kevin want to self-enhance themselves to see where their limits are and to carry on scientific experiments. And some people like John Harris at Manchester thinks that we should all be enhancing ourselves because it's our duty for the next generation that we try to do the best we can and we make new inventions and we make the place a better world.

But I think that there are some great ways that are just safer and perhaps more traditional like exercise that is incredibly good for you and people sort of override that in terms of just a quick fix with a pill.

48:38 - Real world superhumans

How do we all become a little bit super?

Real world superhumans
with Rowan Hooper, New Scientist

Perhaps superhumans already walk among us! Rowan Hooper is the managing editor of New Scientist, and he’s just written a book - called Superhuman, about the people who have become the best of the best. So what’s their secret, and how do we all become a little bit super? Georgia Mills spoke to Rowan to find out...

Rowan - I've met people who are superhuman in range of different traits. So from intelligence to running ability to longevity to even happiness. So why don’t you pick me a trait and I’ll talk about someone who's at the peak of human potential for one of those.

Georgia - as a science podcast going to have to go with intelligence for the first one.

Rowan -  Okay so it's really interesting. How do you think about intelligence? You could think well I'll pick the person with the highest IQ but I wanted to try and think of different kinds of intelligence. So I went to meet Hillary Mantell so she's one of our greatest living novelists and I wanted to ask her about what is it about your ability your talent. Where did it come from and when did you first notice it. And I did the same for a Nobel Prize winner a scientist Paul Nurse and a chess grandmaster as well who'd been in the world top 10 and for all of them I asked you know where does your skill come from. And interestingly they all noticed something about themselves from a very young age. So the chess grandmaster - he started to understand numbers before he could understand letters. Hilary Mantel she didn't speak for two and a half years when she was until she was two and a half and her parents were getting bit freaked out about it and then she started speaking like an adult and she'd just been biding her time and suddenly this skill of language seemed to be there from a very early age with her and with Paul Nurse there was this incredible sense of curiosity that he's just nurtured and built on his his whole life and he always felt that there was something a bit different about him compared to other people in his family and so that this kind of superhuman intelligence in different forms was there from an early age. But they all nurtured it and built it up.

Georgia -  And what about some of the physical traits you encountered.

Rowan - I met some endurance runners people who've done some absolutely mind blowing feats of endurance. So I met a young woman called Petra Kasparova. She lives and works in London this year she won - it's not even a marathon - it's a six day race where you literally run for six days round and round a track in New York.

Georgia -  do you get to sleep?

Rowan -  You do get to sleep but it's up to you when and how long you sleep for so you have a little tent in the middle of the track, you can crawl off, go into the tent and then just get up and carry on running. So they basically have a few hours sleep now and again. And the winner is the person who's run the furthest in six days and she ran 370 miles so it's more than 14 marathons! Absolutely extraordinary and you know you’d walk past her on the street and you wouldn’t think there’s a superhuman and this is what I think's amazing about her - she’s not like a super human like we might think of from the comics but she has this incredible inner fire and kind of meditative power that makes a carry on - she just keeps going.

Georgia - I think I just spent the entire six days in a tent. So what really, can you nail down, makes someone a superhuman.

Rowan -  They all tend to have a sense of optimism and a can do attitude and a kind of dedication to what they do and they love what they do as well. So for the rest of us trying to think how can I be a bit better in my life. A really good thing is not to do things you don't really love. It sounds stupid but I think a lot of us do do things we don't love. We might stay in jobs we don't love or play an instrument or do a sport we don't really love it doesn't suit us. So I think the take home message really is to find something you actually really like doing, because all the people I met who got to the top of the game, who were the best in the world that their particular trait or ability they really love what they're doing and I think that's a great take home message.

Georgia - Right so yeah an average Joe like me if I wanted to, I don't know, become super powered just do something I love?

Rowan -  Yeah do something you love! Okay look,  let's set a limit here. You know you might not become superhuman but you'll certainly get better at something. It's the same in athletics. The people who get gold medals often they've tried many different sports at an early age before they find the one that they eventually go on to become a medalist for. The ones who don’t get medals tended to be ones who specialised earlier in a sport and didn't try other sports as they were growing up and training. So try different things until you find the one that's right for you.

Georgia -  Would you say that there is also a genetic component. I don’t think I'd ever be good at the high jump for example.

Rowan -  Well yeah I mean something like the high jump tall people are better and there's a big genetic component to height, but more generally there absolutely is a genetic component to expertise. You’re going to need genetic leg up. And what's also interesting is, it turns out from genetics studies we found out that the amount people practice something - that itself is genetic. We all know people who have got the sort of real fire in their belly, a real dedication, they get up in the morning start doing something or they learn something and they don’t give up - that kind of attitude itself seems to have a genetic component.

Georgia -  And given that there is this genetic component and given that humanity is constantly pushing ourselves, doing these crazy things, running for six days,  do you think that we're as a species getting more more super, if that makes  sense?

Rowan -  Yeah I do. We are we are getting better. I mean if you look at what the average person could do 100 or 200 years ago were better now, we're getting incrementally better, and I think that there’s a lot more potential left in us there's a lot more things we can do a lot more. So I think that's what's really interesting: we’re by far from the end of fulfilling our potential as a species, there’s loads more we can do.

hurricane Rita

How do planes fly into the heart of a hurricane?

This week, Daniel wants to know why hurricane researchers seem to use propeller-driven planes when flying into the eye of the storm. Eva Higginbotham spoke to Dr Anna Young of the University of Cambridge's Whittle laboratory, to find out what's 'up' in the field of aeroplane engines.

Anna - Well there are two different types of aircraft engine, the smallest light aircraft have a propeller powered by piston engines much like the engine in your car. The problem with these engines is that they can't fly very high or very fast. So most planes are powered by turbine engines, and these are what we call jet engines. The jet engine then has a couple of different types. Turboprops where the turbine engine powers a propeller, and turbo fans where the turbine powers a fan. you'd normally see a turbo fan on a large passenger plane and a turbo prop on a smaller plane. So both turboprops and turbo fans get their power from a turbine. It's just in the case of a turboprop it powers a propeller in front of the engine. And in the turbo fan it powers a fan inside the engine.

Eva - So what about planes used for research into hurricanes? Do they use turboprops or turbo fans?

Anna - A lot of the planes used for hurricane measurements have turboprop engines, so they do have jet engines. They just don't have turbo fan engines. The reason turboprops are used on smaller planes is simply that they're more efficient at lower flight speeds. You don't need to fly so fast when you're just doing a short domestic flight. And that's the same when you're popping into your local hurricane. if you're flying through a hurricane. The advantage of flying slower is that you can spend longer inside the hurricane taking measurements. There is also a safety advantage in that flying more slowly is that bit safer when you're being bashed about by the wind.

Eva - But there's also a second benefit of using a turboprop engine in a really gusty environment like a hurricane...

Anna - and that is that the propulsion from the propeller is independent of the power created by the turbine engine. This is important because really big gusts or side winds can cause the propeller on a turboprop or the fan in the turbo fan to stall. So mainly, hurricane scientists use turboprops because they're better suited for the kind of flight speeds they want. But there is also a potential safety advantage.

Eva - So there you have it. No need to get in a spin. Next time will be fetching the answer to this question from Dottie.

Dottie - If you look at a Great Dane and then you look at a Chihuahua, they are so different. Do we know if a Great Dane meeting a Chihuahua recognises it as another dog?


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