Organs from pigs, implants from Ilon Musk and a climate Hague: scientific events of 2024

18.01.2024Ilya Kabanov

Mosquitoes against viruses, pig heart transplantation to humans and the most powerful computer in Europe - especially for "ZIMA" science journalist, author of the Telegram channel "Lifelong Flourish" Ilya Kabanov chose scientific discoveries and events to follow in 2024.

Fighting mosquitoes

The non-profit organization World Mosquito Program will open a “mosquito factory” in Brazil in 2024. Sounds strange – why would anyone want to produce mosquitoes, and on an industrial scale? The idea is to breed hordes – up to five billion a year! – of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes. These bacteria serve as a kind of inoculation against the viruses that cause yellow fever, dengue and Zika fever, preventing mosquitoes from becoming disease carriers.

The World Mosquito Program plans to release mosquitoes “inoculated” with the bacteria into the natural environment, where they will begin to infect their wild relatives, gradually making the entire population resistant to diseases that kill up to a million people each year. A study last year found that the incidence of dengue fever was reduced by about 95% in areas of Colombia where modified mosquitoes were released.

Unfortunately, the trick won’t work for malaria, since it’s caused by parasitic plasmodia rather than viruses, but perhaps in the future scientists will find a way to defeat it as well.

Implants from Mask

Neuralink, one of Ilon Musk’s firms specializing in connecting human brains to computers, will soon begin testing its implant on humans.

Volunteers with paralysis of all limbs or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis will receive neural implants that will allow them to control a cursor on a screen or type using the power of thought.

The company has already received approval from the U.S. regulator and plans to have a dozen operations within the first year. If all goes according to plan, Neuralink will implant more than 20,000 chips annually by 2030.

But Ilon Musk isn’t the only player in the brain-computer interface market. Similar implants are being tested by other companies. They take different approaches to the task – for example, Precision Neuroscience’s device is easier to implant than Neuralink’s, while Synchron has eschewed surgery altogether, implanting its electrodes through a vein in the patient’s neck. It is still hard to say which solution will prove to be the most promising, but it is already clear that in 2024 the era of neural interfaces has really begun.

A very powerful computer

JUPITER, the most powerful supercomputer in Europe, should be operational this year. It is in the exascale class, meaning it can perform a billion billion operations per second. That’s a lot! The number of such sophisticated devices in the world can be counted on the fingers of one hand: two exascale computers are working in the United States, and two more are rumored to be in China.

Why do we need cars like this? The researchers plan to use JUPITER to model the Earth’s climate in high resolution and create “digital twins” of the human heart and brain, which will be useful, for example, in drug development. Two new U.S. exascale computers, which will also become operational in 2024, will be used to map the brain and simulate the effects of nuclear explosions.

Such calculations are expensive. The three-year budget for the European supercomputer is 500 million euros, including 100 million spent on electricity alone.

However, the costs do not scare everyone: last year the British government announced that it would invest 900 million pounds to develop its own exascale computer.

Pig transplant

Biotech company eGenesis plans to begin transplanting pig hearts to children in 2024. This will allow patients with serious heart defects to buy time to wait for a transplant of a suitable human organ.

Transplants even between humans are complicated by the risk of rejection of the donor organ by the recipient’s immune system. To increase the chances of success, eGenesis is using CRISPR gene editing technology to make dozens of changes to the pig’s genome, such as “turning off” the genetic code it contains for ancient viruses that could be dangerous to humans. In addition, scientists add certain human genes to the pig genome that can “convince” the immune system not to attack the new heart.

Not only hearts can be transplanted, but also other genetically modified organs. For example, in late 2023, eGenesis researchers reported that monkeys that received a kidney from a pig lived for more than two years – an impressive length of time for an interspecies transplant.

The long-awaited verdict in The Hague

This year, the International Court of Justice in The Hague is due to rule on countries’ legal obligations to fight climate change. For the first time, the world’s top court will determine the legal consequences for nations that damage the climate “through their actions and inactions.”

A few years ago, the government of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, under pressure from youth climate activists, began a process that may lead to a historic precedent. In the spring of 2023, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution demanding that the International Court of Justice rule on the issue. The UN has previously included the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right – likely to be one of the arguments for judges.

By itself, the decision of the court in The Hague will not change anything: States are not obliged to comply with it. But the stance of a respected international institution should encourage countries to strengthen their climate goals and could come in handy in climate activists’ litigation with their governments.

Telegram channel of the author of the article – Ilya Kabanov: “Lifelong Flours”.

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