The brains of two genetically edited girls born in China last year may have been changed in ways that enhance cognition and memory, scientists say.
The twins, called Lulu and Nana, reportedly had their genes modified before birth by a Chinese scientific team using the new editing tool CRISPR. The goal was to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Now, new research shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls’ DNA, deletion of a gene called CCR5, not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school.
“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” says Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose lab uncovered a major new role for the CCR5 gene in memory and the brain’s ability to form new connections.
“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” says Silva. He says the exact effect on the girls’ cognition is impossible to predict, and “that is why it should not be done.”
The Chinese team, led by He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed it used CRISPR to delete CCR5 from human embryos, some of which were later used to create pregnancies. HIV requires the CCR5 gene to enter human blood cells.
The experiment has been widely condemned as irresponsible, and He is under investigation in China. News of the first gene-edited babies also inflamed speculation about whether CRISPR technology could one day be used to create super-intelligent humans, perhaps as part of a biotechnology race between the US and China.
There is no evidence that He actually set out to modify the twins’ intelligence. MIT Technology Review contacted scientists studying the effects of CCR5 on cognition, and they say the Chinese scientist never reached out to them, as he did to others from whom he hoped to get scientific advice or support.
“As far as I know, we never heard from him,” says Miou Zhou, a professor at the Western University of Health Sciences in California.
Although He never consulted the brain researchers, the Chinese scientist was certainly aware of the link between CCR5 and cognition. It was first shown in 2016 by Zhou and Silva, who found that removing the gene from mice significantly improved their memory. The team had looked at more than 140 different genetic alterations to find which made mice smarter.
Silva says because of his research, he sometimes interacts with figures in Silicon Valley and elsewhere who have, in his opinion, an unhealthy interest in designer babies with better brains. That’s why, when the birth of the twins became public on November 25, Silva says he immediately wondered if it had been an attempt at this kind of alteration. “I suddenly realized—Oh, holy shit, they are really serious about this bullshit,” says Silva. “My reaction was visceral repulsion and sadness.”
During a summit of gene editing scientists that occurred two days later in Hong Kong, He acknowledged he had known all along about the potential brain effects from the UCLA research. “I saw that paper, it needs more independent verification,” He replied when asked about it during a Q&A session (see video here). He added: “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”
Whatever He’s true aims, evidence continues to build that CCR5 plays a major role in the brain. Today, for example, Silva and a large team from the US and Israel say they have new proof that CCR5 acts as a suppressor of memories and synaptic connections.
According to their new report, appearing in the journal Cell, people who naturally lack CCR5 recover more quickly from strokes. What’s more, people missing at least one copy of the gene seem to go further in school, suggesting a possible role in everyday intelligence.
“We are the first to report a function of CCR5 in the human brain, and the first to report a higher level of education,” says UCLA biologist S. Thomas Carmichael, who led the new study. He calls the link to educational success “tantalizing” but says it needs further study.
The discoveries about CCR5 are already being followed up in drug trials on both stroke patients and people with HIV, who sometimes suffer memory problems. In those studies, one of which is under way at UCLA, people are being given an anti-HIV drug, Maraviroc, which chemically blocks CCR5, to see if it improves their cognition.
Silva says there is a big difference between trying to correct deficits in such patients and trying to create enhancement. “Cognitive problems are one of the biggest unmet needs in medicine. We need drugs, but it’s another thing to take normal people and muck with the DNA or chemistry to improve them,” he says. “We simply don’t know enough to do it. Nature has struck a very fine balance.”
Just because we shouldn’t alter normal intelligence doesn’t mean we can’t. Silva says the genetic manipulations used to make “smart mice” show not only that it is possible, but that changing CCR5 has particularly big effects.
“Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we could increase the average IQ of the population? I would not be a scientist if I said no. The work in mice demonstrates the answer may be yes,” he says. “But mice are not people. We simply don’t know what the consequences will be in mucking around. We are not ready for it yet.”
These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019
It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion. This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would…
It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.
This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.
Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.
Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.
As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.
Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0
The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom. Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition. To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and…
The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.
Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.
To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.
Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.
African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.
But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.
Jumia vs. Konga
The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.
Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.
Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.
In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.
Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.
That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.
While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.
E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.
So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.
In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.
Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.
Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).
Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate
Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between. It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in…
Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.
It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in this coming year’s technology exit market. Expect the NYSE and Nasdaq to compete for the listing, bankers to queue to take part, and endless media coverage.
Given that that’s ahead, we’re going to take periodic looks at Airbnb as we tick closer to its eventual public market debut. And that means that this morning we’re looking back through time to see how fast the company has grown by using a quirky data point.
Airbnb releases a regular tally of its expected “guest stays” for New Year’s Eve each year, including 2019. We can therefore look back in time, tracking how quickly (or not) Airbnb’s New Year Eve guest tally has risen. This exercise will provide a loose, but fun proxy for the company’s growth as a whole.
Before we look into the figures themselves, keep in mind that we are looking at a guest figure which is at best a proxy for revenue. We don’t know the revenue mix of the guest stays, for example, meaning that Airbnb could have seen a 10% drop in per-guest revenue this New Year’s Eve — even with more guest stays — and we’d have no idea.
So, the cliche about grains of salt and taking, please.
But as more guests tends to mean more rentals which points towards more revenue, the New Year’s Eve figures are useful as we work to understand how quickly Airbnb is growing now compared to how fast it grew in the past. The faster the company is expanding today, the more it’s worth. And given recent news that the company has ditched profitability in favor of boosting its sales and marketing spend (leading to sharp, regular deficits in its quarterly results), how fast Airbnb can grow through higher spend is a key question for the highly-backed, San Francisco-based private company.
- 2009: 1,400
- 2010: 6,000 (+329%)
- 2011: 3,1000 (+417%)
- 2012: 108,000 (248%)
- 2013: 250,000 (+131%)
- 2014: 540,000 (+116%)
- 2015: 1,100,000 (+104%)
- 2016: 2,000,000 (+82%)
- 2017: 3,000,000 (+50%)
- 2018: 3,700,000 (+23%)
- 2019: 4,500,000 (+22%)
In chart form, that looks like this:
Let’s talk about a few things that stand out. First is that the company’s growth rate managed to stay over 100% for as long as it did. In case you’re a SaaS fan, what Airbnb pulled off in its early years (again, using this fun proxy for revenue growth) was far better than a triple-triple-double-double-double.
Next, the company’s growth rate in percentage terms has slowed dramatically, including in 2019. At the same time the firm managed to re-accelerate its gross guest growth in 2019. In numerical terms, Airbnb added 1,000,000 New Year’s Eve guest stays in 2017, 700,000 in 2018, and 800,000 in 2019. So 2019’s gross adds was not a record, but it was a better result than its year-ago tally.
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