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Archives for china

Cloud Seeding

The China Meteorological Administration wants to increase rainfall and snow across 960,000 square kilometers of the country. A more effective way of making this happen that doesn’t involve a ritualistic rain dance? Spending $168 million on cloud seeding technology that they hope will allow them to manipulate the weather.

Here’s how it works. The money will be invested into four new aircrafts, upgrading eight



existing planes, and launching 900 rocket systems that will allow them to sprinkle substances above the clouds that could induce the rainmaking process. These substances range from silver iodide to dry ice. Adding these chemicals into clouds might lower their temperature and speed up the condensation process.

While this method has yet to be scientifically proven, the country claims it has already helped them to increase precipitation by 55 billion cubic meters from 2006 to 2016, especially in the western part of China.

“The […] project is expected to help with “ecological security, water resource allocation, drought fighting and forest fire prevention” in Gansu, Shaanxi, Qinghai, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, all of which are western regions plagued by water shortages.” reports The South China Morning Post.

Make it Rain

Cloud seeding schemes have been around for years. And theoretically, the method makes scientific sense. However, unrealistic claims regarding its success when it was first introduced prompted experiments with cloud seeding to be regarded with apprehension. Through the years, the consensus among weather scientists was that cloud seeding’s positive results had to be supported with greater scientific data. Ultimately, even with advanced tools and techniques, it’s still very difficult to establish whether weather conditions were prompted artificially or naturally-occurring.

However, this lack of concrete evidence hasn’t stopped people from using this weather modification technique. China, for instance, has used the method to ensure weather conditions for major events like the Beijing Olympics. Back in 2008, China launched over a thousand rockets to release silver iodide over the city sky to clear storm clouds and ensure that the international event would remain rain-free.

To that end, they’re now hoping that the same technique will work to address changes in temperature and precipitation caused by climate change, especially in drought-stricken regions, cities where they need to increase rainfall, or in cities suffering from heavy smog where they need rain to clear the air.

There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding cloud seeding, and scientists are still trying to find concrete solutions in the technique. But continued research into the field will indeed prove to be invaluable during a time where countries continue to experience extreme weather events due to climate change.

The post China’s New “Weather-Controlling Tech” Could Make it Rain on Demand appeared first on Futurism.

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The post This Week in Science: Feb 4 – 10, 2017 appeared first on Futurism.

China is looking toward more innovative — and in this case, breathtaking — solutions to its pollution problem.

More than eight million people live in Nanjing, the second largest city in the East China region, so there’s hardly any room to plant new trees to combat the city’s pollution. As an alternative, Nanjing is building a vertical forest by constructing living, breathing buildings that can serve to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen at the same time.

Credit: Boeri Studio

This vertical forrest is essentially two buildings whose construction will incorporate 1,100 trees and over 2,500 shrubs and plants. The buildings will stand at 107 and 199 meters (354 and 656 feet) tall, respectively, and they will be functional additions to Nanjing’s cityscape. The shorter tower is being eyed to become a Hyatt hotel, while the taller structure will house a museum, offices, and an architectural school.

Once construction is completed in 2018, the structures will be able to absorb enough carbon dioxide to produce 132 pounds (60 kilograms) of oxygen.

Credit: Boeri Studio

On the standard air quality index, which pegs 60 as “moderate” and anything above 100 as “unhealthy,” Nanjing’s 167 is well above ideal. The city is hoping that the creation of the Nanjing Vertical Forest will improve its air quality.

Two other vertical forests are already in place, one in Italy and one in Switzerland, but this is the first to be constructed in Asia, with additional ones expected to follow in Chongqing, Shijiazhuang, Liuzhou, Guizhou, and Shanghai.

Credit: Boeri Studio

The post China Is Building Living, Breathing Buildings appeared first on Futurism.

China has proven that it is, in fact, very serious about its intentions to lessen dependence on coal. According to China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), the country has more than doubled its solar energy production in 2016—making them the biggest producer of solar energy (in terms of capacity) in the world

Image Credit: Reuters

By the end of last year, China hit 77.42 gigawatts, which generated 66.2 billion kilowatt-hours of power. While significant, the figure is relatively small given China’s massive population. And being the world’s biggest industrial nation, this only accounted for one percent of the country’s total power generation. However, given that China is looking to significantly boost its use of renewable power, that number will hopefully increase in the years to come.

Following NEA’s development plan and energy goals, the country is working towards adding over 110 gigawatts of capacity by 2020. With continued focus and effort, they hope to increase their use of renewable power from 11 percent to 20 percent by 2030.

Transitioning to renewable energy will require a significant investment from China, but it’s an investment that China is clearly ready to make. In fact, the country has already allotted $364 billion (2.5 trillion yuan) towards this vision. Since China is such a large producer with such a massive population, this large step towards sustainability will have a tremendous impact. With the ever-progressing repercussions of climate change upon us, efforts like this are what make a green future possible.

The post China is Now the Biggest Producer of Solar Energy in the World appeared first on Futurism.


The post Seeing Stars: The FAST Radio Telescope appeared first on Futurism.

The Fastest Computer in the World

China just announced that they plan to release a prototype of an exascale computer by the end of this year. Just to put that into perspective, this computer would be capable of one quintillion (a billion billion) or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second. The machine would technically be classified as a ‘super-supercomputer.’

The enhanced supercomputer goes beyond any technological limits previously set by China. “A complete computing system of the exascale supercomputer and its applications can only be expected in 2020, and will be 200 times more powerful than the country’s first petaflop computer Tianhe-1, recognized as the world’s fastest in 2010,” stated Zhang Ting, application engineer from the Tianjin-based National Supercomputer Center.

Photo Credit: Jack Dongarra, Sunway Taihulight System Report

To put the performance capabilities of the Tianhe-1 into perspective as well, a single petaflop can compute one quadrillion arithmetic operations per second. An exascale system would be 1,000 petaflops. The only other supercomputer that nearly contains that functionality is China’s Sunway TaihuLight, which can reach up to 125 petaflops per second, it was the world’s first computer to exceed 100 petaflops.

The purpose of China’s exascale computer is two-fold. First, they’re trying to build a supercomputer program that will improve their scientific research capabilities. Second, they’re trying to build an IT industry that’s independent of the U.S.

The Future of Supercomputing

The U.S. has its own plans to develop an exascale system. While China’s release date is set for 2020, and they expect to have a prototype available by 2018, America predicts they will complete their system in 2023. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Exascale Computing Project will completely and utterly revolutionize the research industry. They mention the possibilities as follows:

“At a [quintillion] calculations per second, exascale computers will be able to quickly analyze massive volumes of data and more realistically simulate the complex processes and relationships behind many of the fundamental forces of the universe. Exascale computers will more realistically simulate the processes involved in precision medicine, regional climate, additive manufacturing, the conversion of plants to biofuels, the relationship between energy and water use, the unseen physics in material discovery and design…and much more.”

These predictions are just a piece of what exascale computers could be used for. But if it’s a race between China and the U.S. in their release and performance of exascale systems within the next few years, the U.S. has a lot of work to do.

For now, all that is certain is that the next few years will reveal incredible advances with China’s exascale computing system release. Many say that a computing system at this level would rival the processing power of a human brain at the neural level. And while many are making predictions about the potential innovation that is bound to follow this release, it is impossible to say for sure what could happen. All we can know for sure is that research and science as we know it will be able to grow in ways we have yet to understand.






The post China Set to Release the World’s Fastest Computer appeared first on Futurism.

The Greater Firewall

China is notorious for blocking internet access to many of the world’s most popular websites, including Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. It’s so bad that internet censorship in China has been humorously called the “Great Firewall.” And just like the historical landmark it was named after, the Great Firewall is being extended bit by bit. Now, according to a report by the South China Morning Poststate-sanctioned censorship is expanding to include special cable and virtual private network (VPN) services.

China Daily Mail

China Daily Mail

Most mainland Chinese citizens bypass the government’s ban on the world’s most popular websites using VPNs, but now, doing so could be illegal. This ban on unapproved VPN usage is being called a 14-month-long “clean up” of the nation’s internet connections in preparation for a reshuffle of leadership in China’s congress.

“China’s internet connection service market … has signs of ­disordered development that ­require urgent regulation and governance,” according to a notice released Sunday by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The new ruling is effective immediately and would last until March 31, 2018, to “strengthen cyberspace information security management.”

Major VPN services, such as Vypr and Express, are aware of the new situation, with Vypr already working on ways around it. That might be difficult, though, as the government remains vague about how it will implement these new rules, according to The Washington Post.

The Internet and Global Communications

Though not the first time the country has cracked down on VPNs, this new measure represents a more stringent China when it comes to its citizens’ online privacy and access to information. In a modern, globalized world where access to the internet is considered by many a necessity, China continues to uphold a rather backward stance.

There’s no doubt about how access to the internet — or, more specifically, access to information — can help people form opinions. And, indeed, it has done so in the past. For instance, many believe that the internet and social media played a very important role in the Arab Spring. The recent Syrian crisis is another example. More recently still, information on the internet has helped shape the opinions of many Americans — for better or worse — in the recently concluded elections. Information that comes through the internet is so influential that the proliferation of “fake news” has become an alarming phenomenon, so much so that Facebook was compelled to do something about it.

The internet has become essential to modern life, and there are various efforts to bring access to it to even the most remote parts of the world. The United Nations Human Rights Council has definitively condemned state-sponsored meddling with internet access. Granted, it does take some form of “policing” — usually personal vigilance — to sift through what is and isn’t factual information, but shouldn’t that policing be left to the individual? Besides, it’s doubtful that China is blocking VPNs for the sake of saving its citizens from fake news.

The internet, for all its imperfections, has become an essential avenue for freedom of expression. A state should be concerned with safeguarding the online privacy of its citizens, not curbing their access to this valuable tool of the information age.

The post China Just Made VPNs Illegal for Internet Users appeared first on Futurism.

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The post This Week in Science: Jan 14 – Jan 20, 2017 appeared first on Futurism.

War Against Coal

Almost three years ago, China declared their intentions to wage a war against pollution – a move in direct response to the dire state of the country’s air quality and worldwide efforts to address climate change. Even now, as the country announces plans to shut down the construction of more than one hundred coal-fired power plants, some of its major cities are still reeling from the toxic smog that blanketed the nation at the beginning of 2017. Around the globe, the very real consequences brought on by climate change continue to be felt.

Beijing Government

But with China’s National Energy Administration cancelling a significant number of its planned coal-fired projects, it looks like China is going to make significant strides toward winning this war. According to The RAND Corporation, China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and shutting down 104 coal-fired projects across 13 provinces – which are expected to deliver a total of 120 gigawatts of power – will have a significant impact on their total volume of carbon emissions.

It might actually be possible for the world’s biggest industrial nation to meet its target of limiting coal-fired power generation to 1,100 gigawatts by 2020.

Impending Victory

Electricity generated from coal is by far the largest source of greenhouse gasses that lead to global warming; and China, as well as the rest of the coal-dependent countries around the world, have a long way to go. For instance, while the steps China is taking right now are notable, the recent government-ordered cancellations total to only a third of the United States’ massive coal fleet.

Recognizing how coal affects the environment is one thing, stepping up and doing something about it is another – especially if leaders of the biggest nations are not going to make it a priority. But, as we pointed out in a previous report, numerous initiatives are already in place, or are being started, in a global and concerted effort to address global warming. While Donald Trump will be in a powerful position as the president of the United States, even he won’t be able to stop the global community from fighting back against man-made climate change.

Renewable energy sources are becoming more accessible, while awareness regarding the environmental consequences of continued use and dependence on fossil fuel is growing. To that end, high-profile investors are also coming together to dedicate money and time towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Technology designed to provide clean and affordable energy is also on the rise–constantly evolving and improving.

The post China Takes Serious Anti-Coal Stance, Cancelling 104 New Coal Plants appeared first on Futurism.


The post Sci-Tech Priorities in China’s Latest Five Year Plan appeared first on Futurism.

Made in China

If you’ve seen Rogue One (or any Star Wars movie), you’ve seen how those X-Wing and TIE fighters were able to do those crazy maneuvers in space using just their thruster engines, right? Well, that’s supposed to be impossible in a vacuum. But with the EmDrive (short for Electromagnetic Drive), which is able to generate thrust without needing a propellant, it just might be possible—of course, it’ll need more than just that.

This is assuming that the EmDrive actually works—and not just in theory.

Well, China claims to have been able to prove that it does, and says it’s already begun testing one. The news comes from a government-sponsored article published at the Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, which claims that the country has been doing “key technology research” for five years now into the EmDrive for “possible engineering applications.”

In a press conference announcement, officials from the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) confirm that they have indeed developed EmDrive prototypes and have begun testing if the device could actually work in space.

“We have successfully developed several specifications of multiple prototype principles,” claimed CAST communication satellite division head Chen Yue. “The establishment of an experimental verification platform to complete the milli-level micro thrust measurement test, as well as several years of repeated experiments and investigations into corresponding interference factors, confirm that in this type of thruster, thrust exists.”

Also at the press conference, Li Feng, chief designer of the communication satellite division of CAST, explained what exactly it is they’re doing. “This technology is currently in the latter stages of the proof-of-principle phase, with the goal of making the technology available in satellite engineering as quickly as possible,” he said. “Although it is difficult to do this, we have the confidence that we will succeed.”

This would seem to confirm information from unnamed sources which claim that an EmDrive is being tested on its Tiangong-2 space laboratory.

No Real Proof

Apart from these mysterious sources, however, there’s no actual indication that China indeed has a functioning EmDrive in space—especially since China doesn’t exactly enjoy a good record when it comes to trustworthy research. And, Chinese tests or no, it’s certainly not proven that this “propellantless” thruster technology actually works. Despite NASA’s recent publication of their peer-reviewed study, experts remain skeptical about the EmDrive. They are also taking the NASA study with a sizable grain of salt.

Credits: NASA

Credits: NASA

As the University of Connecticut’s advanced propulsions system expert Brice Cassenti explained:

This is a violation of Newton’s third law of motion, which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Action and reaction is a direct result of the conservation of momentum. The violation of such a basic law as the conservation of momentum would invalidate much of the basis for all of physics as we know it. Hence, many scientists and engineers feel the thrust measurements reported for the EM Drive are due to experimental error. Adding to this is the fact that those who believe the results are valid do not yet have an experimentally or a theoretically plausible proven physical explanation.

So we may not be zooming through space just yet.

The post China Claims It’s Made the Impossible EmDrive Possible appeared first on Futurism.

In an effort to stop the outflow of investments, and at the same time, reduce carbon emissions, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Commerce have announced a new policy that will relax the country’s protectionist laws for electric vehicles — subject to public approval.

The global superpower has laws in force that require foreign automobile companies wanting to establish a Chinese production base to form partnerships with the local ones, and divulge their manufacturing process. This discourages external competition and protects the domestic manufacturers. But apparently China can’t produce enough EVs by itself, so it’s bringing in foreign companies.

As it stands, the government is rallying for its citizens to make the switch to EVs. China wants to have 5 million EVs rolled out on the roads by 2020, as a measure to combat its massive carbon footprint.

Andy Wong

Photo credit: Andy Wong

This is backed up by studies which show that “electrification” of automobiles is a huge step towards being green. One of which shows that an across-the-table use of EVs reduces greenhouse gasses by 45 to 77 percent, carbon emissions by 80 to 100%, and air quality.

For a country that has been struggling with carbon emissions like China, EVs could be instrumental in achieving its goals. The relaxation of laws cultivates competition, which hopefully results in more EVs on the road, and more efficient models in the future.

The post Get Ready. Electric Cars are About to Takeover China appeared first on Futurism.

As the latest move in the country’s ambitious military modernization program, China is in the process of developing its first-ever strategic stealth bomber. The aircraft, called the Xian H-20, is expected to be able to deploy long-range weapons — something their current Xian H-6 models aren’t capable of doing.

The Director of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Expert Consultation Committee, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, said that the H-20 will be on the same level as the U.S.’s Nothtrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, which was made operational in 1997. Expected similarities with the B-2 Spirit include a subsonic low-observable flying wing design.



Adm. Zhuo believes that all the pieces are in place for this project, as China has gained a working knowledge of stealth technology and heavy transport design, both of which will be useful in creating the H-20. He also revealed that all the weapons that will arm the new aircraft, like nuclear bombs and cruise missiles, are ready.

The Xian H-20 will be produced by Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, the same company that produces the H-6 models currently in use. Adm. Zhuo noted that the creation process could take a long time, so the bomber might not be in service until 2025.

The post China Is Working on Creating Its Own Colossal Stealth Bomber appeared first on Futurism.

Giving the Government Advice

As the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, Landmark Theaters, and Magnolia Pictures, businessman Mark Cuban clearly knows a thing or two about where to invest money. And apparently, he isn’t shy about sharing his tricks with others. In a recent blog post, Cuban made an investment suggestion to the government.

“If it was me spending the money, I would take 100 billion of the proposed $1 trillion dollars in infrastructure investment and invest it in Robotics,” Cuban says. “I would invest it in the companies that do R&D, software, and design for robots and every other facet of the Robotics Industry.”

Cuban thinks the US is getting left behind in terms of robotics research and development. What’s more, he says, “none of the companies that actually make the robotics are based here in the USA. That’s a problem that needs to be solved.”

Winning the Robotics Race

Cuban seems to think that China is the opponent to beat. He notes how China, according to a recent report, is spending more on robotics than the US — about $3 billion a year. “We need to quickly pass them by,” he says. The Mavericks owner also notes how China, the EU, and Korea offer “billions in credits to support their robotics industry. We spend about $100m. That ain’t gonna work.”

Credits: Suidobashi Heavy Industry

Credits: Suidobashi Heavy Industry

According to Cuban, US “infrastructure” spending should look forward, not backward so that we can be the robotics hub of the world.” He believes the US currently doesn’t have the best robotic technology and the infrastructure needed to enable it. Cuban insists:

Why is this so important? Because technological change always accelerates. It never stagnates over time. Which means we are going to face the fact that if nothing in the States changes, we will find ourselves dependent on other countries for almost everything that can and will be manufactured in a quickly approaching future.

“We have to win the robotics race,” Cuban writes. “We are not even close right now.”

The post Robots Are the Way to Secure Our Future, and the U.S. Is Being Left Behind appeared first on Futurism.

A Timeline of Future Space Exploration_Part 1

The post A Timeline of Future Space Exploration: Part 1 [INFOGRAPHIC] appeared first on Futurism.

The Mothballed Bus

The Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) was unveiled several months ago in Hebei province’s Qinhuangdao City in China. The electric-powered, 4.8 meter (~16 ft) tall elevated bus straddled the road to allow cars to pass underneath it. Its design was meant to ease traffic as well as provide the people of the city an alternative mode of public transportation.

Once a sign of progress in the city, it has now fallen victim to a series of set-backs, mismanagement, and flawed design.

A local reporter followed up on the bus but instead of finding a working vehicle, the reporter found a rusting heap of metal guarded by a pair of security guards who couldn’t even get in touch with management.


It is the culmination of a string of set-backs that befell the once promising piece of technology since its introduction in August. The problems started with the design of the bus. With its vertical clearance just above 2 meters (6.5 ft), it didn’t make sense to deploy it on roads that also allow vehicles up to 4.2 meters (~14 ft) in height. There were also concerns that the TEB would be too heavy on Chinese roads, fearing that it might fall victim to sinkholes. Additionally, there are also accusations of fraud and postponed tests which lead investors to understandably pull their money out of the venture. It now sits on a leased road in the city and it currently obstructing 3 lanes of traffic, much to the irritation of local residents.

Innovation And Practicality

This case highlights a crucial lesson for city planners who wish to integrate new technologies within their cities: there must be a balance between innovation and practicality. It can come in the form small incremental changes to the existing infrastructure like Chile’s solar powered trains. It must also be unobtrusive when deployed so as not to disturb the everyday activities of its inhabitants. An example of this would be Singapore’s Smart Nation Program where a bunch of sensors and cctv cameras were scattered throughout the city allowing it to monitor flood levels, and traffic, among other things.

Hopefully, the local government in Qinhuangdao City is able to learn from this so that they will be able to produce better, thoughtful plans in the future.

The post This is the Sad Fate of China’s Futuristic Road Straddling Bus appeared first on Futurism.

Big Brother State

The Chinese government is taking a controversial step in security, with plans to implement a system that gives and collects financial, social, political, and legal credit ratings of citizens into a social credit score. The idea itself seems straight out of science fiction, but in a society like China’s, it’s already beginning to take shape.

For a nation that has a more-or-less openly totalitarian approach to governance, a move to install a Big Brother social credit system shouldn’t be surprising. Proponents of the idea are already testing various aspects of the system — gathering digital records of citizens, specifically financial behavior. These will then be used to create a social credit score system, which will determine if a citizen can avail themselves of certain services based on his or her social credit rating.

“China has a long way to go before it actually assigns everyone a score. If it wants to do that, it needs to work on the accuracy of the data. At the moment it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” explained Wang Zhicheng of Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management.

Taking a Cue From Science Fiction

If China successfully consolidates data from around 1.4 billion people into one system, then it’s more than likely that this social credit system will be put in place. Once it does, it’s going to be like an episode from Black Mirror — the social credit score of citizens will be the basis for access to services ranging from travel and education to loans and insurance coverage.

Credits: David Dettmann/Netflix

Credits: David Dettmann/Netflix

Of course, supporters of this system have their reasons, including developing a unitary system for granting citizen’s access to financial services, given that 1.3 billion Chinese don’t own a credit card. Besides, the government assures that the system would “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step,” as The Wall Street Journal reports. Which would never work in the United States — Washington, D.C., for instance, would become a ghost town.

But perhaps, in a country where even Facebook is largely censored and internet access is still limited to what the government allows, a social credit scoring system would be less beneficial than it would seem. Certainly, it would grant the government more access and control over the lives of its citizens. And, if that episode from Black Mirror is to be believed, it’s a system that can do more damage than good.

The post China’s New “Social Credit Score” Brings Dystopian Science Fiction to Life appeared first on Futurism.

While the middle part of the 20th century saw the world’s superpowers racing to explore space, the first global competition of this century is being set in a much smaller arena: our DNA.

This month, Chinese scientists announced that they have tested the CRISPR gene-editing technique on a human for the first time, and the race is on to hone the new technology. “I think this is going to trigger ‘Sputnik 2.0’, a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States,” Carl June, immunotherapy specialist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told Nature.

But while anyone with a view of the night sky could tell you what the Moon was when Neil Armstrong took his one small step on it back in 1969, not everyone has heard of CRISPR, and even fewer people understand how it works or why it’s so important.

A Brief History of Genetic Engineering

Even if it’s been a while since your last biology class, you likely know that most living organisms possess DNA. These little strands of molecules contain all of our genetic information. They determine what we look like, how our bodies function, and everything else that makes a living thing what it is.

Since the 1970s, scientists have been exploring ways to manipulate DNA. They’ve learned how to cut bits out, put chunks of code in, and generally rework these molecules to suit our needs. In 1974, they created genetically modified mice, improving researchers’ ability to conduct medical tests. In 1982, bacteria modified to produced insulin hit the market, eliminating the need for it to be sourced from animals. And ever since 1994, grocery stores have been carrying genetically modified crops, giving us access to longer-lasting, nutritionally superior foods.

As revolutionary as all this has been, genetic engineering has traditionally been expensive, complicated, and remarkably time-consuming. Then along came CRISPR.

CRISPR Uncovered

In the late-1980s, scientists noticed little repeating segments of DNA sequences that were palindromes (the same front to back). Their existence was unusual, and they named them “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” (CRISPR). In 2005, a microbiologist figured out that these sequences essentially did for the bacteria what our immune systems do for us: protect against pathogens.

Using CRISPR, the bacteria can snip out a little piece of the pathogen that has invaded its system and store it for future reference. The next time the bacteria encountered that pathogen, it would already be prepared to defend itself. Upon further study, scientists figured out more about how the CRISPR system worked: a protein called CAS9 would make the cut in the targeted DNA after being guided directly to it by a strand of RNA.

Scientists have since found CRISPR in 40 percent of sequenced bacterial genomes and 90 percent of sequenced archaea. It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that biochemist Jennifer Doudna and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier figured out that they could use this naturally occurring system as a programmable machine to modify DNA. They published their findings in 2012, and by 2013, papers were being published showing how CRISPR could be used in labs to edit genes in humans and mice.

mutant mice

Futurism / M.S.

Faster, Cheaper Gene Editing

This new gene editing system was 99 percent cheaper than the existing methods of genetic modification and also much faster — an experiment that would have previously taken a year could be completed in just a week — so once scientists realized how CRISPR worked, they began finding beneficial ways of manipulating the system.

They figured out how to guide the CAS9 protein to the right spot in the DNA to block a gene without cutting it, and they learned how to attach a different protein to the system to activate dormant genes. Some even figured out how to get the CAS9 protein to turn a gene on or off in response to stimuli, such as certain chemicals or light.

The new system was particularly useful for researchers using live mice in their experiments. No longer would they need to spend up to two years modifying and breeding generations of mice until they arrived at those with the perfect DNA to test new medicines or treatment options. Now, they could have their perfect mouse in as little as six months. As Rudolf Jaenisch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told Science, “You don’t need [skills] anymore. Any idiot can do it.”

From Mice To Men

The scientists who’ve since used CRISPR to test their theories on live animals are far from idiots, though. They’ve been smart enough to figure out how to repair the defect that causes sickle cell anemia, cut out the gene that causes HIV, and treat muscular dystrophy in live animals, all using CRISPR.

While animal testing is great for the early stages of research, though, we can never know how a human is going to react to a medication or treatment until we actually test it on humans. An estimated 80 percent of potential treatments fail in people even after they yield promising results in animals. Advances in computer processing and machine learning are improving the ability of researchers to perform in silico clinical trials, but even those can’t yet compete with the real thing.

However, the path from animal to human CRISPR testing has been fraught with controversy. While proponents are quick to point out all the good the system can do in helping us treat and even cure diseases, others are concerned about the possible implications, both moral and practical. A Pew research study this summer revealed that Americans are almost equally divided on whether “[gene editing] is meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross,” while only 36 percent thought the societal benefits of gene editing would outnumber the downsides.

Futurism / M.A.

Futurism / M.A.

Regulations Mount Up

Most of the world’s major governments are erring on the side of caution, enacting series of rules, regulations, and even bans on how CRISPR is used. The United States government currently prohibits funding for gene-editing research in human embryos, so CRISPR researchers won’t be using any government grants for their studies (though some are receiving funds from private donors). Earlier this year, a team in the UK was granted permission to use CRISPR on human embryos, but that’s just one team, it’s only in the pursuit of fertility treatments, and the embryos had to be destroyed after testing.

Even the scientific community is divided on the subject.

Some scientists have called for a halt to any CRISPR testing on humans until we better understand the technology, and others warn of the dangers if it falls into the wrong hands. In fact, just this month, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a group of 18 scientists and scientific policy experts from a variety of disciplines, wrote a letter urging the U.S. government to prepare now for potential future bioterrorist attacks made possible by CRISPR technology.

Others scientists have argued that regulations will leave the U.S. behind countries like Sweden and China in the race to tap the potential of CRISPR, and right now, that latter group is being proven right. With one small trial on a patient suffering from an aggressive form of lung cancer, China has already made the giant leap to human CRISPR test subjects.

Now, the question isn’t so much if the U.S. can win this new global race, but whether or not the country is going to let extreme caution prevent it from even entering in time to compete.

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