This Way Up for Saturday 11 November 2017

Tech tax revelations, gene drives for predator control, growing new skin, a health warning about carbon nanotubes, and do professional video gamers need a union?

The Paradise Papers: tech tax revelations

Tech commentator Peter Griffin delves into the Paradise Papers, the disappearance of US$300 million of the cryptocurrency Ether, and Google's new driverless taxis and mail accounts for under-13s.

Apple rainbow

Photo: (Reza Shayestehpour via

The Paradise Papers are 13 million files including documents, emails and voicemails provided to the world's media this week that offer another window into the murky world of global tax.

The revelations shine a light on accounting practices at some of the world's biggest tech companies and their use of tax havens to pay lower rates of tax on their profits.

In other news, some US$300 million of the cryptocurrency Ether have disappeared. So how will it be recovered?

Google's self driving car operator Waymo beats UBER to offer the world's first driverless taxi in Phoenix, Arizona.

And Family Link, Google's new accounts for under-13s.

Gene drives: not a silver bullet for killing pests

Gene drives offer a way to hack the traditional inheritance process to make sure a specific trait is passed on to the next generation. Could they be used to get us to Predator Free 2050?

From left to right, a stoat, rat, and possum.

Photo: 123RF

Gene drives are an emerging technique to control predators and pests. They offer a way to edit genes and then hack the traditional inheritance process to make sure a specific trait is passed on to the next generation.

So in the case of the malarial mosquito for example, the vector for a disease that kills nearly half a million people a year, you could edit out the female gene and drive this into the wider population so that mosquitoes are all born male.

Eventually, mosquitoes would die out. That's the theory, anyway.

But now new research is casting doubt on the effectiveness of gene drives as a way of eliminating pests and predators, suggesting that evolution will always win.

It's work with particular resonance for New Zealand, where genetic biocontrols like gene drives are an important part of the government's Predator Free 2050 strategy (which has the goal of ridding New Zealand of all introduced predators like rats, stoats and possums within the next 30 years).

Science news: growing new skin and carbon nanotube warning

A sheet of the laboratory-grown, genetically modified skin.

A sheet of the laboratory-grown, genetically modified skin. Photo: CMR Unimore

A team of scientists has used gene therapy to grow a replacement skin for a young boy suffering from a rare genetic disorder. 

The boy was seven years old when he was admitted to University Children's Hospital, Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany, in 2015 with severe complications of junctional epidemolysis bullosa. The condition causes skin to be very fragile as surface layers, called the epidermis, are not connected properly to the deep layer of the skin, or the dermis. 

"Very trivial injuries and abrasions turn into horrible ulcers that don't heal very well," explains Dr Chris Smith from The Naked Scientists. "You get scarring and it's exquisitely painful and of course you're at great susceptibility to infection with organisms like staphylococcus aureus ," Dr Smith says.

The boy had turned up to hospital with around 80 percent of his skin missing. He was given morphine to cope with the pain as doctors were preparing to start palliative care after all conventional treatments had failed, including a skin transplant from his father. As a last resort, the team at Ruhr-University sought the help of Italian scientists who had pioneered a technique to regenerate healthy skin in the laboratory.

The experimental and unprecedented case saw the scientists not only attempt to replace the boy's skin, but also treat the genetic cause underpinning his problems. To do that, the team sourced a 4cm-squared piece of skin from the boy's groin, and from this sample they gathered skin stem cells or keratinocytes. Using a harmless retrovirus, they then introduced healthy copies of the defective gene into these keratinocytes. 

Having fixed the gene problem, the team then grew the skin stem cells to produce nearly a square metre of skin. The skin was grown in sheets, and was layered onto the boy over a two or three month period, completely replacing almost all of the skin on his boy like a patchwork quilt.

"This is a remarkable piece of work and it brings together stem cell biology and gene therapy rolled together to save someone's life," Dr Smith says. "They appear to have cured this boy and grown him a new skin at the same time."

The landmark case has recently been reported in the journal Nature, two years after the successful completion of the skin grafting. In that time the boy has returned to school, and even joined a football team. His skin repairs normally if injured, he does not need to take any medication, and the team has so far detected no adverse consequences from the gene therapy he underwent. 


A players' union for professional video gamers?

Game console

Photo: (Ugur Akdemir via

Professional video game players could soon have player unions, as the industry goes global and revenues soar.

Trying to juggle the competing interests of individual players, teams, and publishers of the game titles they play is proving to be a legal minefield so there are calls for e-sports players to belong to players' associations and unions as they do in other professional sports.