While kangaroos and koalas are more well-known, researchers who study marsupials often use opossums in lab experiments, since they’re smaller and easier to care for. Gray short-tailed opossums, the species used in the study, are related to the white-faced North American opossums, but they’re smaller and don’t have a pouch.
The researchers at Riken used CRISPR to delete, or knock out, a gene that codes for pigment production. Targeting this gene meant that if the experiments worked, the results would be obvious at a glance: the opossums would be albino if both copies of the gene were knocked out, and mottled, or mosaic, if a single copy was deleted.
The resulting litter included one albino opossum and one mosaic opossum (pictured above). The researchers also bred the two, which resulted in a litter of fully albino opossums, showing that the coloring was an inherited genetic trait.
The researchers had to navigate a few hurdles to edit the opossum genome. First, they had to work out the timing of hormone injections to get the animals ready for pregnancy. The other challenge was that marsupial eggs develop a thick layer around them, called a mucoid shell, soon after fertilization. This makes it harder to inject the CRISPR treatment into the cells. In their first attempts, needles either would not penetrate the cells or would damage them so the embryos couldn’t survive, Kiyonari says.
The researchers realized that it would be a lot easier to do the injection at an earlier stage, before the coating around the egg got too tough. By changing when the lights turned off in the labs, researchers got the opossums to mate later in the evening so that the eggs would be ready to work with in the morning, about a day and a half later.
The researchers then used a tool called a piezoelectric drill, which uses electric charge to more easily penetrate the membrane. This helped them inject the cells without damaging them.
“I think it’s an incredible result,” says Richard Behringer, a geneticist at the University of Texas. “They’ve shown it can be done. Now it’s time to do the biology,” he adds.
Opossums have been used as laboratory animals since the 1970s, and researchers have attempted to edit their genes for at least 25 years, says VandeBerg, who started trying to create the first laboratory opossum colony in 1978. They were also the first marsupial to have their genome fully sequenced, in 2007.
Comparative biologists hope the ability to genetically modify opossums will help them learn more about some of the unique aspects of marsupial biology that have yet to be decoded. “We find genes and marsupial genomes that we don’t have, so that creates a bit of a mystery as to what they’re doing,” says Rob Miller, an immunologist at the University of New Mexico, who uses opossums in his research.
The Download: COP28 controversy and the future of families
The United Arab Emirates is one of the world’s largest oil producers. It’s also the site of this year’s UN COP28 climate summit, which kicks off later this week in Dubai.
It’s a controversial host, but the truth is that there’s massive potential for oil and gas companies to help address climate change, both by cleaning up their operations and by investing their considerable wealth and expertise into new technologies.
The problem is that these companies also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. If they want to be part of a net-zero future, something will need to change—and soon. Read the full story.
How reproductive technology can reverse population decline
Birth rates have been plummeting in wealthy countries, well below the “replacement” rate. Even in China, a dramatic downturn in the number of babies has officials scrambling, as its population growth turns negative.
So, what’s behind the baby bust and can new reproductive technology reverse the trend? MIT Technology Review is hosting a subscriber-only Roundtables discussion on how innovations from the lab could affect the future of families at 11am ET this morning, featuring Antonio Regalado, our biotechnology editor, and entrepreneur Martín Varsavsky, founder of fertility clinic Prelude Fertility. Don’t miss out—make sure you register now.
Unpacking the hype around OpenAI’s rumored new Q* model
While we still don’t know all the details, there have been reports that researchers at OpenAI had made a “breakthrough” in AI that had alarmed staff members. Reuters and The Information both report that researchers had come up with a new way to make powerful AI systems and had created a new model, called Q* (pronounced Q star), that was able to perform grade-school-level math. According to the people who spoke to Reuters, some at OpenAI believe this could be a milestone in the company’s quest to build artificial general intelligence, a much-hyped concept referring to an AI system that is smarter than humans. The company declined to comment on Q*.
Social media is full of speculation and excessive hype, so I called some experts to find out how big a deal any breakthrough in math and AI would really be.
Researchers have for years tried to get AI models to solve math problems. Language models like ChatGPT and GPT-4 can do some math, but not very well or reliably. We currently don’t have the algorithms or even the right architectures to be able to solve math problems reliably using AI, says Wenda Li, an AI lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Deep learning and transformers (a kind of neural network), which is what language models use, are excellent at recognizing patterns, but that alone is likely not enough, Li adds.
Math is a benchmark for reasoning, Li says. A machine that is able to reason about mathematics, could, in theory, be able to learn to do other tasks that build on existing information, such as writing computer code or drawing conclusions from a news article. Math is a particularly hard challenge because it requires AI models to have the capacity to reason and to really understand what they are dealing with.
A generative AI system that could reliably do math would need to have a really firm grasp on concrete definitions of particular concepts that can get very abstract. A lot of math problems also require some level of planning over multiple steps, says Katie Collins, a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in math and AI. Indeed, Yann LeCun, chief AI scientist at Meta, posted on X and LinkedIn over the weekend that he thinks Q* is likely to be “OpenAI attempts at planning.”
People who worry about whether AI poses an existential risk to humans, one of OpenAI’s founding concerns, fear that such capabilities might lead to rogue AI. Safety concerns might arise if such AI systems are allowed to set their own goals and start to interface with a real physical or digital world in some ways, says Collins.
But while math capability might take us a step closer to more powerful AI systems, solving these sorts of math problems doesn’t signal the birth of a superintelligence.
“I don’t think it immediately gets us to AGI or scary situations,” says Collins. It’s also very important to underline what kind of math problems AI is solving, she adds.
The Download: unpacking OpenAI Q* hype, and X’s financial woes
This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.
Unpacking the hype around OpenAI’s rumored new Q* model
Ever since last week’s dramatic events at OpenAI, the rumor mill has been in overdrive about why the company’s board tried to oust CEO Sam Altman.
While we still don’t know all the details, there have been reports that researchers at OpenAI had made a “breakthrough” in AI that alarmed staff members. The claim is that they came up with a new way to make powerful AI systems and had created a new model, called Q* (pronounced Q star), that was able to perform grade-school level math.
Some at OpenAI reportedly believe this could be a breakthrough in the company’s quest to build artificial general intelligence, a much-hyped concept of an AI system that is smarter than humans.
So what’s actually going on? And why is grade-school math such a big deal? Our senior AI reporter Melissa Heikkilä called some experts to find out how big of a deal any such breakthrough would really be. Here’s what they had to say.
This story is from The Algorithm, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things AI. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 X is hemorrhaging millions in advertising revenue
Internal documents show the company is in an even worse position than previously thought. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation ‘super-spreaders’ on X are reportedly eligible for payouts from its ad revenue sharing program. (The Verge)
+ It’s not just you: tech billionaires really are becoming more unbearable. (The Guardian)
2 The brakes seem to now be off on AI development
With Sam Altman’s return to OpenAI, the ‘accelerationists’ have come out on top. (WSJ $)
+ Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever. (MIT Technology Review)
3 How Norway got heat pumps into two-thirds of its households
Mostly by making it the cheaper choice for people. (The Guardian)
+ Everything you need to know about the wild world of heat pumps. (MIT Technology Review)
4 How your social media feeds shape how you see the Israel-Gaza war
Masses of content are being pumped out, rarely with any nuance or historical understanding. (BBC)
+ China tried to keep kids off social media. Now the elderly are hooked. (Wired $)
5 US regulators have surprisingly little scope to enforce Amazon’s safety rules
As demonstrated by the measly $7,000 fine issued by Indiana after a worker was killed by warehouse machinery. (WP $)
6 How Ukraine is using advanced technologies on the battlefield
The Pentagon is using the conflict as a testbed for some of the 800-odd AI-based projects it has in progress. (AP $)
+ Why business is booming for military AI startups. (MIT Technology Review)
7 Shein is trying to overhaul its image, with limited success
Its products seem too cheap to be ethically sourced—and it doesn’t take kindly to people pointing that out. (The Verge)
+ Why my bittersweet relationship with Shein had to end. (MIT Technology Review)
8 Every app can be a dating app now
As people turn their backs on the traditional apps, they’re finding love in places like Yelp, Duolingo and Strava. (WSJ $)
+ Job sharing apps are also becoming more popular. (BBC)
9 People can’t get enough of work livestreams on TikTok
It’s mostly about the weirdly hypnotic quality of watching people doing tasks like manicures or frying eggs. (The Atlantic $)
10 A handy guide to time travel in the movies
Whether you prioritize scientific accuracy or entertainment value, this chart has got you covered. (Ars Technica)
Quote of the day
“It’s in the AI industry’s interest to make people think that only the big players can do this—but it’s not true.”
—Ed Newton-Rex, who just resigned as VP of audio at Stability.AI, says the idea that generative AI models can only be built by scraping artists’ work is a myth in an interview with The Next Web.
The big story
The YouTube baker fighting back against deadly “craft hacks”
Ann Reardon is probably the last person you’d expect to be banned from YouTube. A former Australian youth worker and a mother of three, she’s been teaching millions of subscribers how to bake since 2011.
However, more recently, Reardon has been using her platform to warn people about dangerous new “craft hacks” that are sweeping YouTube, such as poaching eggs in a microwave, bleaching strawberries, and using a Coke can and a flame to pop popcorn.
Reardon was banned because she got caught up in YouTube’s messy moderation policies. In doing so, she exposed a failing in the system: How can a warning about harmful hacks be deemed dangerous when the hack videos themselves are not? Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ London’s future skyline is looking increasingly like New York’s.
+ Whovians will never agree on who has the honor of being the best Doctor.
+ How to get into mixing music like a pro.
+ This Japanese sea worm has a neat trick up its sleeve—splitting itself in two in the quest for love.
+ Did you know there’s a mysterious tunnel under Seoul?