But is it possible that attempts at preventing early death have also raised the maximum human life span and may continue to do so? Studying trends in maximum human life span over time could give an answer. But this kind of actuarial calculation is always complex and often wrong. For example in 1921 it was "demonstrated" that ages above 105 were "impossible." Estimating the limits to longevity has since been criticized because every "maximum limit" to life span so far proposed has been surpassed.
A century after they were discovered killing diarrhea-causing bacteria in the feces of World War I soldiers, the viruses known as bacteriophages, or simply phages, are drawing new attention for the role they might play within the human body. Phages have been found most everywhere, from oceans to soils. Now, a study suggests that people absorb up to 30 billion phages every day through their intestines. Though where those viruses end up is unclear, those data and other recent studies have some scientists wondering whether a sea of phages within the human body--a "phageome"--might play a key role in our physiology, perhaps by regulating our immune system.
South Africa's varied population makes it a magnet for research on public health and human diversity. But a new privacy law called The Protection of Personal Information Act, scheduled to go into effect in 2020, could upend such research. The law aims to protect South Africans from abuse of their personal data and says that such information, including genetic data, must be collected for a specific purpose--and that data subjects need to be "aware of the purpose." But giant sample and data repositories called biobanks are transforming health research around the world by allowing multiple researchers to ask new questions of the same data. At a meeting in Cape Town on 4–5 February, lawyers, ethicists, and researchers discussed how the new South African rule could limit such secondary use of data and hamstring international collaborations.
Editor's Note: The Global Affairs column is curated by Stratfor's board of contributors, a diverse group of thinkers whose expertise inspires rigorous and innovative thought. Their opinions are their own and serve to complement and even challenge our beliefs. We welcome that challenge, and we hope our readers do too. When scientists launched the Human Genome Project in 1990, it promised to be a major breakthrough in the study of human genetics for conquering disease. At least compared with the high expectations it initially inspired, it has been rather disappointing for the major diseases.
In 2006, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz was pregnant, unexpectedly, at age 42. A genetic test of the fetal portion of the placenta showed that roughly a third of the cells carried a serious abnormality: an extra copy of chromosome 2. The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom professor's specialty, developmental biology, was suddenly personal. Nature could hardly have come up with a more vivid irony. Zernicka-Goetz is not only a developmental biologist; she has spent more than a decade working in mice to pinpoint when and how cells in an early embryo start to differentiate.