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Category : Transhumanism

Next Civilization game abandons Earth for the stars

Civilization made a strategy game of humanity's past. Now it's looking to humanity's future.

Everyone who has played a game in the Civilization series remembers seeing their country nuked by Mahatma Ghandi. In this historical strategy series, players attempt to guide a nation through the ages from its humble beginning to its role as a globe-spanning superpower. Anything can happen along the way, including being irradiated by one of history's greatest peacemakers.

After five instalments in a series that attempts to capture the spirit of humanity's ascent from darkness, developer Firaxis has announced an unexpected follow-up. Instead of beginning in the dirt and building to the heavens, Civilization: Beyond Earth begins with a voyage in the sky, one that will send colonists to begin anew in another star system. Slated for release on PC, Mac and Linux this fall, Beyond Earth surely will remind fans of Firaxis' 1999 classic space exploration game Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, although the developer seems eager to distance itself from that comparison.

While the gameplay mechanics will be similar to the previous Civilization games, this time you're not a human in a predictable human world. You're an alien on an alien planet. You don't know this place, nor do you belong here.

"You start out and you're all alone," said Dennis Shirk, a producer of the series. "So you've got to learn everything all over again."

Interstellar Oregon Trail In the game's fiction, humanity has endured some rough times on Earth due to an ambiguous event known as The Great Mistake. We survived but were greatly hobbled, and Earth just wasn't the same anymore. As civilisation recovered, we sent our best and brightest to create a new home.

This is where you come in.

The game begins with something Firaxis likens to "interstellar Oregon Trail." Ordinarily in a Civilization game, you select your leader from a series of historically-based archetypes like Genghis Khan or Hiawatha. But since Beyond Earth takes place in the future, the player is given more freedom to affect how events play out.

That begins as you select not only a leader whose disposition will affect your Civilization forever, but also which culture your ship will launch from, what types of colonists you'll bring, and what type of ship you'll launch. From that point on, how the future plays out is up to you.

"A lot of our pre-production was spent looking at futurist writers, and looking into transhumanism and post-humanism," said Anton Springer, one of the designers. "Not just science fiction writers, but scientists talking about where humanity is going. We're leaving that answer in the hands of the players."

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Next Civilization game abandons Earth for the stars

Recommendation and review posted by Alexandra Lee Anderson

Gene therapy successfully regenerates an old organ inside a living animal

In a landmark study sure to provoke interest, researchers from the University of Edinburgh have regenerated an aged organ in vivo, inside a living animal to its youthful state though noninvasive manipulation of genes. Its a breakthrough that not only brings hope for a wide variety of age-related ailments, but which fundamentally challenges our idea of what aging is. This study treats the natural impacts of of time like symptoms of a disease and by treating those symptoms it seems to have tracked the cells back to their pre-disease (youthful) state.

The organ in question is the thymus, a small immune node that sits near the heart. It produces T-cells, one of the bodys most important immune response units, but over the course of a lifetime the thymus shrinks and T-cell production slows. This is thought to be one big reason (one of many) that elderly people suffer decreased immune response relative to younger people. This study used1- and 2-year old mice, and saw the typical drop in both thymus size and T-cell production with age.

The thymus is one of the most important parts of the immune system, especially in younger people.

Prior research had already identified a protein called FOXN1 as likely linked to thymus degeneration; its expression levels in the thymus seem linked to that organs fate. The mice in this study were bred with a specific genetic sensitivity, however, so that when exposed to the drug tamoxifen they would begin producing fully youthful levels of FOXN1, regardless of their actual age. It should be pointed out that the fact that these were genetically engineered mice is more crucial to the experimental setup than the therapeutic one; without the need to control for variables, scientists could plausibly increase FOXN1 levels through less convoluted measures.

The results? Mutant mice treated with tamoxifen showed total or near-total regeneration of their youthful thymus, while control mice also given tamoxifen showed predictable thymus function for their age. This held true for both the size of the organ itself and the abundance of the T-cells it produces. The regeneration seems to arise from the fact that FOXN1 is a transcription factor that controls expression of several other genes, and that these genes activate stem cell-like action in some thymus cells. By restoring FOXN1 levels, the researchers seem to have convinced the thymus to de-age itself at least, in this one very specific way.[DOI:10.1242/dev.103614]

The researchers are quick to point out the possible benefits to elderly people, or those afflicted by immune diseases. Increasing the ability to fight infection could also revolutionize hospital medicine, helping vulnerable patients fight infection by overclocking the thymus to produce a boost of white blood cells. Restoring the immune response of sick and elderly people would be, without an ounce of hyperbole, one of the most important medical advances in all of human history.

A separate study found that improper FOXN1 function causes a wasting immune disease. Sad

But this study is a far cry from proof that such utility could actually exist. If nothing else, it stands as an uncomfortable challenge to our ideas about just what agingis. Has the thymus really been regenerated or is it simply bigger and more active than it used to be?We do have a few relatively non-arbitrary measures of cell age, in particular measurements of telomere decay. Telomeres are long stretches of inactive DNA that cap our chromosomes on either end, and which seem to fray and shorten as cells live and replicate. A functional regeneration such as this one, coupled with genetic implants to re-lengthen telomeres and undo other sources of aging damage, could be difficult to distinguish from literal reversal of the aging process. (Read:What is transhumanism, or, what does it mean to be human?)

Thats a long way out, however. In the extreme long term, patchwork replacement of organs and body parts is even prophesied to allow immortality, and this study shows that we might be able to supplement grown organs with regenerated ones. Theres no telling how many tissues might be usefully regenerated with such a simple molecular switch but theres also currently no telling if these regenerated thymuses will continue to function well, or if such manipulation could cause unintended side-effects.

A lot more research is needed before human applications could even be discussed, but its an enticing goal. Any tool that could maintain the bodys own immune system could end up saving both lives and healthcare costs immensely of course, as weve discussed previously though, there could be some massive problems if we all start living to 100 or more.

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Gene therapy successfully regenerates an old organ inside a living animal

Recommendation and review posted by Alexandra Lee Anderson

Intrepid biohacker gives himself infrared night vision, but at what price?

According to the World War II-era nautical lore, the Navy wanted sailors that could see IR signals. To this end volunteers were fed a diet that was missing the form of vitamin A normally used to make photopigments for our visual system. They were instead given supplements of an alternate form of the vitamin that gave sensitivity into the IR spectrum. While invention of the sniperscope brought these dubious experiments to a premature close, a group of biohackers has been inspired to pick up right where the early transhumanist pioneers left off.

Eyes are remarkably adaptable machines. Animals have morphed them into exotic polarization sensors, magnetic field orienteering aids, and even single photon detectors. An interesting anecdote from the astronautical lore is that flashes of light generally attributed to cosmic rays have been perceived by astronauts even with their eyes were closed. While it is possible that these figments are triggered in the brain, it seems more likely that the retina, perhaps even the photopigments themselves, are directly sensing energy deposited by the rays and realizing it as light. With the right photopigment, seamless detection of IR should be a piece of cake.

The only problem is that lack of vitamin A claims the lives of around a million children worldwide each year, and it is responsible for blindness in half that again. Anintrepid group of four biohackers hope that the replacement form of vitamin A, known as vitamin A2, will compensate completely. A2 is found in freshwater fish, and can be extracted (with some effort) from their livers. The group has created a project based on a Microryza crowdfunding model, and is now funded to the tune of $4,000. (Read: Seeing ultraviolet, exploring color.)

This is what our intrepid senior editor, Sebastian Anthony, looks like with thermal IR.

Much of the capital raised will be used to procure the vitamin itself. Additionally there will be funds for sensitive equipment to measure the electrical responses of the eye as its spectral sensitivity changes. Their results will be published in an open, peer-reviewed research journal. The diet the biohackers will use has been developed by computer engineer Rob Rhinehart, creator of a successful life-optimizing drink known as Soylent. Crowdfunded itself, Soylent also enjoys high-profile backing from venture capitalists like Andreessen Horowitz.

Vitamin A, and its precursors like beta-carotene, are metabolized into different forms that are used in various ways all throughout the body. Its ability to melt wrinkles or pimples when applied to the skin hints at its powers once inside a cells nucleus, where it has its main effects. The kicker in prescription drug Accutane is a vitamin A derivative called retinoic acid. This acid is actually the go molecule used in a developing embryo when it begins to push out the upper limb buds. Retinoic acid is a master regulator molecule that turns on other genes to get the bits and pieces of the arm just right.

The Milky Way, as seen by NASAs infrared Spitzer telescope. I doubt it would look like this with biohacked eyes, but its nice to dream

If you arent scared yet, consider one more thing: vitamin A deprived rats developed hypogonadism (reduced gonad functionality). This happened even when they were fed the retinoic acid that is needed by the testes because they are actually a bit pickier than that they need locally-synthesized retinoic acid to actually do the trick. The good news is that inhibiting retinoic acid makes a wonderful birth control in humans, and that has even been promoted as a male contraceptive. One further word of caution is in order. While the body can in fact metabolize the fishy A2 vitamin form, the proteins that transport it through cell membranes are only one-quarter as efficient at binding and taking up the A2 form.

Researchers sometimes seem to be motivated by fame and glory as much as by science. There may be a hint of that here, but transhumanists see themselves more as individual medical explorers than as medical trials guinea pigs with no control over their fate. (Read: What is transhumanism, or, what does it mean to be human?)That being said, one indication that times are tough in the academic research arena is the recent report of the guy who published a study of the absolute worst places to be stung, in descending order with himself as the subject. While there may be some value in research like that, it reminds one of the guy who ate a bicycle just to get into the Guinness book of World records. Fortunately for him, Guinness published it, but only with a note saying this will be the last time for things like that.

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Intrepid biohacker gives himself infrared night vision, but at what price?

Recommendation and review posted by Alexandra Lee Anderson

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