New preconception testing could predict your child’s risk to common diseases
Another startup, Genomic Prediction, began offering polygenic risk reports in 2019, testing embryos for couples undergoing IVF. The company provides risk reports for some of the same multi-gene conditions as Orchid.
Amit V. Khera, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute who’s developed polygenic risk scores for heart disease and other conditions, says these scores could help adults mitigate their own risks by doing things like changing their diet or exercising more. But he doesn’t think the scores are ready to be deployed for preconception and embryo screening without further consideration.
For one thing, Khera says, there’s only so much risk you can eliminate when choosing among embryos that come from the same parents.
“For any two parents, the difference in risk between embryos is not going to be that big,” he says. “If my score is 0 and my wife’s score is 1, on average my kid’s score is going to be around 0.5. You might be able to find a 0.4 or 0.6 embryo, but they’re not going to be that different.”
Plus, Khera says, there are lots of genetic variants that researchers just don’t understand yet. His group has found variants that seem to protect against heart attacks but increase the risk of diabetes. In other words, there are genetic trade-offs.
Orchid’s test could also lure parents into a false sense of security that their future children won’t develop a particular disease. For instance, Patrick Sullivan, director of the Center for Psychiatric Genomics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that while genetics play a role in schizophrenia, the disease is often not inherited.
“The highest risk factors we get from schizophrenia are generally de novo variants, meaning neither parent has them,” he says. “This is a mutation that develops in the making of the child. It’s a random event.” These de novo mutations wouldn’t show up on a couple’s risk report generated by Orchid. They would on an embryo report, but that would require couples undergoing IVF and embryo screening.
Another limitation of current polygenic risk scores is that the data sets they rely on include mostly people of European ancestry. Historically, genetic studies haven’t included people of diverse backgrounds.
“You’re going to lose accuracy when you take those scores and try to use them on other groups,” says Genevieve Wojcik, a genetic epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.
Picking your best embryo
As polygenic scores get more accurate, embryo selection may offer a chance to reduce the prevalence of certain common diseases. But there is a more controversial prospect.
The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics
What are chemical pollutants doing to our bodies? It’s a timely question given that last week, people in Philadelphia cleared grocery shelves of bottled water after a toxic leak from a chemical plant spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River, a source of drinking water for 14 million people. And it was only last month that a train carrying a suite of other hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, unleashing an unknown quantity of toxic chemicals.
There’s no doubt that we are polluting the planet. In order to find out how these pollutants might be affecting our own bodies, we need to work out how we are exposed to them. Which chemicals are we inhaling, eating, and digesting? And how much? The field of exposomics, which seeks to study our exposure to pollutants, among other factors, could help to give us some much-needed answers. Read the full story.
This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
+ The toxic chemicals all around us. Meet Nicolette Bugher, a researcher working to expose the poisons lurking in our environment and discover what they mean for human health. Read the full story.
+ Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes. Professor Kristala Jones Prather is helping to turn microbes into efficient producers of desired chemicals. Read the full story.
+ Microplastics are messing with the microbiomes of seabirds. The next step is to work out what this might mean for their health—and ours. Read the full story.
The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects
People are gathering in virtual spaces to relax, and even sleep, with their headsets on. VR sleep rooms are becoming popular among people who suffer from insomnia or loneliness, offering cozy enclaves where strangers can safely find relaxation and company—most of the time.
Each VR sleep room is created to induce calm. Some imitate beaches and campsites with bonfires, while others re-create hotel rooms or cabins. Soundtracks vary from relaxing beats to nature sounds to absolute silence, while lighting can range from neon disco balls to pitch-black darkness.
The opportunity to sleep in groups can be particularly appealing to isolated or lonely people who want to feel less alone, and safe enough to fall asleep. The trouble is, what if the experience doesn’t make you feel that way? Read the full story.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting.
But as we knock out the easy climate wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)