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“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too, can become great.”

– Mark Twain

News and Happenings

In the beginning, there was Satoshi. It’s been a little over a decade since the pseudonymous founder of Bitcoin introduced the blockchain-based cryptocurrency that launched a thousand more blockchain-based cryptocurrencies. Since then, not a few folks have speculated that Bitcoin would take over the world and perhaps even supplant central-bank-controlled fiat currencies.

While central banks have taken cryptocurrencies more and more seriously over the years, they also remain the ultimate authorities any rising new form of money must reckon with before knocking down the system. If anything replaces fiat currencies (in stable economies, at least), it’d likely need central bank support or even be issued by a central bank.

To that end, the Bank of England, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, Bank of Canada, and Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) along with the Bank of International Settlements recently announced that they’ve banded together to research central bank digital currencies.

Some of the benefits of central bank digital currencies may include faster, cheaper, and more secure payments, especially across borders. They might also reduce money laundering and tax evasion, offer more refined methods for managing inflation, and give central banks more direct, flexible monetary and fiscal policy tools in economic crises.

How digital fiat currencies would work in practice remains unclear. There are a number of proposed designs for central bank digital currencies which range from completely anonymous (unlikely) to totally transparent (a degree of privacy will probably be important), whether they’ll bear interest, and who has access to them (everyone or financial institutions).

The new central bank group will continue sorting through the pros and cons. Still, alongside continued research, some are closer to implementation than others.

Uruguay completed a central bank digital currency pilot in 2018 (the e-Peso), and in Sweden, where almost 80 percent of transactions are digital, the Sveriges Riksbank is creating a pilot digital currency known as the e-Krona. China too, where the majority of payments are mobile, appears to be closing in on a digital currency pilot.

Is the End of Cold Cash Upon Us?

Perhaps. But there are those who question whether that’s such a good thing. The end of hard currency could also usher in a new level of government surveillance. While such surveillance is no secret in autocratic countries (and is on the rise thanks to digital technologies), it’s increasingly controversial in democracies too, where large companies hoover up personal data with alacrity.

“Our transactions say more about us than our words. The more your daily spend is micro-tracked, the more likely you are to face an Orwellian outcome. In this sense, the fight for private payments is a moral one,” Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation and faculty at Singularity University, wrote last year.

Gladstein is under no illusions about the demise of hard currency, suggesting cash usage will sink to near zero in the next decade—which is why he says building privacy into digital alternatives will be critical. Though some privacy may be offered at the central bank level, Gladstein favors decentralized payment methods, like the Bitcoin-based Lightning network (or its competitors). Fiat money won’t disappear, but a secure, global payments system may grow alongside it, offering an alternative to paper dollars, pounds, yen, and yuan.

While last decade witnessed the birth and steep rise of cryptocurrency in public awareness, this decade may see a multitude of digital currencies grow up in parallel—public and private, centralized and decentralized, or some combination of these. The details are clearly still in the works, but increasingly, it appears the future of money is digital.

Image Credit: Icons8 Team / Unsplash

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He did research and wrote about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he’ll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

In The new group 

Most biomedical researchers are busy finding ways to squash the new coronavirus. Meanwhile, synthetic biologists are busy cloning it in droves.

In late February a team from the University of Bern, led by Dr. Volker Thiel, published a relatively simple recipe to artificially cook up SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in the lab. It required only two main ingredients: synthetic chunks of the virus’s genomic instructions, which can be ordered online; and yeast. In experienced hands, the process isn’t much harder than baking sourdough bread from a self-made starter.

The manuscript, initially uploaded to the preprint server bioRXiv and now peer-reviewed and published in Nature, sent shock waves across the biomedical community. If further verified, it means that certified labs can clone whole samples of the coronavirus in a week at roughly $30,000. By “democratizing” access to the new virus, more labs can work on diagnostic tests, drugs, and vaccines, potentially bringing the virus to its knees faster and saving millions of people.

Yet there’s a dark side to that broader access: the same platform used to make SARS-CoV-2 from scratch can potentially also make it more deadly or more transmissible. In nightmare scenarios, the same technology that could rid us of the plague could also turn it into a bioweapon.

It’s a dilemma that’s long simmered in the field of synthetic viruses—the “dual-use” problem. “In biology…[it means that] the techniques needed to engineer a bioweapon are the same as those needed to pursue legitimate research,” explained Dr. Guoyu Wang from the Center of Biomedical Ethics at Fudan University in Shanghai, and colleagues. Even if original motivations were noble, any “deviation, misuse, or abuse during the research,” such as accidental leaks from labs, could spell global calamity.

These concerns often form the basis of conspiracy theories. But they aren’t pure fantasy. Back in 2014, federal scientists discovered half a dozen vials of smallpox virus, which most Americans born after 1972 don’t have immunity against, while cleaning out storage facilities at the National Institutes of Health. Forgetfulness aside, multiple influenza strains have been made more contagious using synthetic biology, based on testing in ferrets. Although there hasn’t yet been a synthetic viral Chernobyl, scientists are legitimately concerned about a lab-made or lab-leaked viral strain that could wreak havoc.

Thiel and team’s coronavirus recipe has brought these debates back in full fervor, thanks in part to the recipe’s simplicity. But perhaps more concerning is that the same platform can clone a wide variety of viruses—those known to us, and potentially, those yet to be discovered.

The Synthetic Virus Cookbook

To beat a virus, first know your foe. The easiest way to get a hold of a virus is by obtaining infected biological tissue, which was difficult at the beginning of the pandemic outside of Wuhan, China. The second route is to try to grow the virus inside immortalized cells—in SARS-CoV-2’s case, lung cells—but it’s like manufacturing cars that blow up the factory and themselves halfway through construction.

That leaves the third route: making the virus from scratch. Thanks to advances in synthetic biology and genome engineering, making entire virus genomes in bacteria or yeast hosts has become cheaper, easier, and faster. One recent paper for engineering SARS-CoV-2 used bacteria as the viral factory.

However, Thiel’s team went the yeast route. The reason, he explained, is that coronaviruses have extraordinarily large genomes, which makes it difficult for bacteria to cope with—like challenging a three-year-old with a complicated Lego set—which leads to mistakes in the virus’s genome. Yeast, in contrast, is far more pliable.

What’s more, yeast also has a special power to automatically glue chunks of external DNA material together into a full genome sequence. That’s huge: rather than synthesizing the entire coronavirus genome through chemistry, it’s possible to do it in chunks to reduce costs, and the yeast will “magically” assemble the pieces together like a puzzle.

The project kicked off in January, soon after Chinese researchers released the virus’s genomic blueprint. Thiel’s team split the genome into 14 manageable chunks, each with slightly overlapping sequences, and ordered synthetic DNA that corresponded to those viral genome bits from a commercial company.

Three weeks later, after receiving the fragments in the mail, they inserted the DNA—which together represent the entire SARS-CoV-2 genome—into yeast. They then sat back and watched yeast cells do their magic, gluing together the overlapping sequences on the fragments to turn them into full-length genomes. Just two days later, the team was able to check the yeast, now blossomed into dot-like “colonies” on a plate, for signs of the virus’s genome. Finally, they extracted the virus’s genetic material from the yeast in DNA form and transformed it into RNA—like translating one language to another—which the virus naturally uses to multiply.

Voilà: in less than a week, the team was able to generate a fully synthetic virus, one relatively new to humans, and use it to infect sacrificial cells in a dish to study. As a proof-of-concept to the platform’s power, the team also made a glow-in-the-dark version of the virus, which can help screen for anti-viral drugs. (If the drugs work, this rave version of the virus should lose its glow.)

The Biosafety Dilemma

Thiel’s platform for engineering SARS-CoV-2 stands out in its speed and simplicity. According to Dr. Susan Weiss, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who wasn’t involved in the study, the most exciting thing is that yeasts are very fast viral producers, whereas “other methods are tedious and difficult.”

Speed in an outbreak is essential, not just for containment but also for research. The new platform is a starting point for labs to easily change the coronavirus’s genome, seeing what prevents it from replication or what genomic sequences make it weaker or even unable to infect humans. The cherry on top: the system only requires the yeast to reassemble the virus’s genome one single time. It’s extremely easy to collect more coronavirus by reusing ready-made virus-producing yeast cells, like brewing beer.

Yet these selling points are exactly what worries bioethicists. “By publishing the technology roadmap, it is possible for both scientists and terrorists to apply the same technique to synthesize more complex viruses, or develop a ‘super virus’ with extremely high infectivity, virulence or vaccine-resistance,” write Wang and colleagues in a commentary of Thiel’s method.

To Thiel, the concerns shouldn’t be downplayed, but neither should the promise of synthetic biology in tackling outbreaks. “Synthetic biology has matured towards a powerful technique that will impact the scientific community—and our society in general,” he commented on one of the first studies using a similar yeast technique to reconstruct a large viral genome from scratch.

The takeaway, he argued, is that the technology is already here, and it’s up to multiple players such as governments to address the misuse potential. Synthetic viruses—including a clone of the 1918 flu virus, which scientists brought back to life in the lab—have already provided insights into deadly contagions that are otherwise handcuffed to the whims of the ground-zero country. Not every lab can participate in reconstructing the virus; for now, it’s regulated to a very few select institutions with the highest-grade biosafety features and highly-trained personnel.

Whether cloned viruses will ultimately help quash the current pandemic is anyone’s guess. As for the research-bioterrorism dual-use problem, we don’t have an answer. However, the use of cloned deadly viruses is increasingly championed as a way to battle outbreaks, whether we’re comfortable and ready or not.

Meanwhile, Thiel’s already looking ahead towards the next pandemic—and the future of synthetic biology as a whole. “We have to find a way to cope with the fact that this [synthetic biology] technology will allow the generation of designer microbes and, ultimately, synthetic life,” he said.

Image Credit: NIH Image Gallery

Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration. While studying biological brains, she became fascinated with AI and all things biotech. Following graduation, she moved to UCSF to study blood-based factors that rejuvenate aged brains. She is the …

1. Our dilemma is that we hate change, but we love it at the same time. What we really want is for things to remain the same, but get better.

2. You can't improve things unless you change things. How are you going to know the other way isn't better if you don't try it?

3. Everybody is in favour of progress. It's the change, they don't like.

4. We're not afraid to change, we're not afraid to stop doing something unfruitful and to start doing something else!

5. Take life as you find it, but don't leave it so.

6. All changes are difficult and sometimes costly, but if they're good changes, in the long run they pay off!

7. Let him that would move the World, first move himself.

8. When anything begins to hinder more than it helps, it's time to abolish it!

9. It costs to change! At first it costs more than it saves.

10. Everyone needs a change once in a while. Any situation can get to one's nerves after a while, until you could almost scream!
THANKFULNESS "Count your Blessings"

One of the best exercises you can do, is to compare yourself with others from time to time.--Not in the way you usually think of comparing yourself, that's negative, and of course, you don't want to get into that! What you should do, is compare yourself favourably with others, who are much worse off than you are, and to count your blessings, when you see others, who are suffering greater hardships.

You can even compare how things are for you now with how things were for you in the past, and almost always come up feeling or being much better off today that you used to be--perhaps not in every detail, but generally speaking, for most of your lives have gotten better and better!

Any time you are tempted to murmur about anything at all, if you would start this little "Count Your Blessings" game immediately, you would compare so favourably that you would come out shouting with joy for all your blessings.

Even with your worst problem, you can think of countless others who have even worse problems than yours. No matter how bad off you are, you're always better off than millions of others, and this is the way you should always look at it, and not the other way around.

"I used to worry a lot", says Harold Abbot of Webb City, Missouri. "But one spring day I was walking down West Dougherty Street when I saw a sight that banished all my worries. It all happened in ten seconds, but during those ten seconds I learned more about how to live than I had learned in the previous ten years! For two years I had been running a grocery store. But I had not only lost all my savings, but I was heavily in debt. In fact, my store had been closed the previous Saturday, and now I was going to the bank to borrow money so I could go to Kansas City to look for a job.

I walked like a beaten man. I had lost all my fight and faith. But then suddenly I saw coming down the street a man who had no legs. He was sitting on a little wooden platform equipped with roller skates for wheels. He propelled himself along the street with a block of wood in each hand. I met him just after he had crossed the street and was starting to lift himself up a few inches over the curb to the sidewalk. As he tilted his little wooden platform to an angle, his eyes met mine. He greeted me with a grand smile, "Good morning, Sir! It is a fine morning, isn't it?" he said with spirit!

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I now have the following words pasted on my bathroom mirror, and I read them every morning as I shave: "I had the blues because I had no shoes, until upon the street, I met a man who had no feet."
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