Friday, January 31, 2014

UK launch for £67bn EU science fund

The new European Union research budget has had its official UK launch.

Known as Horizon 2020, the programme is worth nearly £67bn (80bn euros) and covers the next seven years.

The funds are allocated through a competitive process, in which Britain traditionally fares very well - second only to Germany.

If this performance is maintained, UK universities, research centres and businesses could expect to receive £2bn in the first two years of Horizon 2020.

Such an allocation would equate to just over a fifth of the total British government spend on science.

'My challenge to the UK's researchers, universities, small and medium-sized enterprises, and large companies is to apply in huge numbers to participate in the programme,' said EU Research Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

'The competition will be fierce but I also believe that the excellence of the projects and the proposals coming from the UK means it will do very well out of Horizon 2020.'

Frontier research

The European bloc's 28 member states approved the implementation of Horizon 2020 last autumn, leading to the first grant applications call in December. The opening day of the process saw 70,000 forms being downloaded every hour.

As with the previous 'Framework Programmes', the old name given to EU science budgets, the intention is that the hefty investment can act as a kind of innovation growth factor, bringing on the next-generation high-value services and products that keep Europe at the forefront of world markets.

And as with those previous programmes, a large segment of the funding will be focused on some key areas of societal need or impact, such as health, climate change, the environment, energy, security, and transport.

But Horizon 2020 plans to put an even greater emphasis this time on basic, or frontiers, research.

The European Research Council, the EU's 'blue riband' funding agency, has had its own pot increased 60% to £10.7bn.

The ERC's sole criterion in judging grant applications is excellence, and UK-based researchers have been by far the biggest beneficiaries of its awards.

A fifth of all the grants have gone to British science, representing an investment of some £1.4bn to date.

Business partnerships

Sir Paul Nurse is president of the UK's Royal Society, which hosted Friday's launch event.

He told BBC News: 'European money is really important and it's very good that it is going up by 30%. I think also driving collaboration across Europe is really good because we get access to 350 million people - it's one of the reasons [science] works so well in the United States.

'But particularly, at least from my perspective at the discovery research end, the ERC has made a very real difference. The European Commission is very proud of it and rightly so.'

Horizon 2020 - EU research budget

  • Worth nearly £67bn (80bn euros) over 7 years

  • Represents a 30% increase on last budget

  • Research accounts for 7% of total EU spend

  • UK contributes 11% of EU's total budget

  • But receives about 16% of EU science funds

  • UK-based researchers dominate ERC grants

Past Framework Programmes have been criticised for their bureaucracy. Companies have sometimes been dissuaded from applying because of the 'expense' of winning an award (a grant will not cover all of the overheads of running a research project).

Horizon 2020 promises streamlined processes. 'We've cut out loads of red tape,' said Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn.

The hope is that many more businesses will now get involved, not least because they are the route through which discoveries become products, services, and jobs.

'Across Europe and elsewhere, we are concerned by impacts,' said Robert-Jan Smits, whose job is to run Horizon 2020 within the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.

'How can we ensure that the pounds we put into knowledge can be translated back into pounds again? That requires probably an industrial partner, to help ensure the results of research reach a market. There's no escape from that?'

International competition

The EU set a target in 2000 of making itself, 'by 2010, the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world'.

One of the metrics to judge this aspiration was the desire to spend 3% of GDP on research. However, four years after the target date, the EU-wide R&D spend has not gone much beyond 2%.

The economic downturn is undoubtedly a major reason for the undershoot. Companies cut back on R&D during the recession and government austerity measures have hit public investments hard.

But Europe's competitors have not stood still. The likes of the US, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore all have more intense spending than the EU bloc.

China, too, is emerging rapidly. 'If you look at the kind of massive investment they're making in research and innovation - I think that's a wake-up call for Europe,' said Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Thursday, January 30, 2014

TV doctor infests himself with worms

BBC TV presenter Dr Michael Mosley has infected himself with a number of parasites in an effort to understand how they affect the human body.

He swallowed tapeworm cysts, stuck a leech on his arm, and tried to infest himself with lice, in a new BBC Four documentary programme.

The worms lived in his body for several weeks - and he felt no ill effects.

The stool samples he gave while infected will be used by scientists studying signs of parasitic infection.

'Start Quote

Anyone thinking of popping parasites as a weight loss device should think twice'

End Quote Dr Michael Mosley

Dr Mosley is known for his 'gonzo' medical journalism - he has previously taken 'truth serum', trialled magic mushrooms, and undergone the fasting 5:2 diet.

'Delightful' discovery

In this latest film, he swallows three tapeworm cysts (eggs) which he obtained from infected cattle in Kenya.

Several weeks later, he swallows a 'pill camera' which travels into his gut and broadcasts live pictures to his iPad.

He discovers three worms - 'triplets' - attached to the lining of his intestine, about a metre in length.

'When I first saw the worms, I was in an Indian restaurant. I shouted out: 'Blimey! There's a tapeworm in me!' The other diners looked very surprised.'

'I was delighted, but at the same time, it was rather horrible.

'My wife wasn't too keen on the idea, either. But I told her not to worry - this particular tapeworm is relatively innocuous.'

The beef tapeworm, Taenia saginata, is transmitted from cows to humans via infected meat.

It can grow more than 10m long in the intestine, and reproduces by passing new eggs out in the faeces.

The worm is usually asymptomatic - and Dr Mosley suffered no obvious effects, although he did put on about 1kg (2.2lbs) in weight.

'It could be that the parasite increased my appetite. I ate a lot of chocolate,' he explained.

'So anyone who is thinking of popping parasites as a weight-loss device should think twice.'

While that idea may seem absurd, there is growing evidence that parasites may have health benefits in certain cases.

They are being considered as treatments for allergies and auto-immune diseases, as they appear to dampen the body's inflammatory responses.

Dr Mosley himself has 'mild' hay fever, but was disappointed to find that the worms made no difference to his symptoms.

By documenting his experiences, he hopes to help scientists at Salford University, who are searching for early warning signs of worm infections.

'There are other tapeworms that are very nasty in humans - especially the pork tapeworm. It can get into your brain and eyes and causes cysts,' he said.

'Blood everywhere'

If scientists could spot these infections early, they have a chance of treating patients. But in most cases the first clue that a person is infected comes much later - such as when they pass out larvae in their faeces.

In the programme, which will air in February, Dr Mosley also attempted to infest himself with head lice.

'I was unsuccessful - they didn't take to me,' he said.

However, a blood-sucking leech that he stuck to his forearm made itself perfectly at home.

'They told me it drank eight times its body weight in blood. There was blood everywhere when I took it off,' Dr Mosley said.

The main conclusion of his experiments, he said, was that 'parasites on the whole, are not crazy about me'.

His other conclusion: don't try this at home.

'I wouldn't recommend buying something on the internet and infecting yourself. Heaven knows where it's been,' he said.

'Some people get better, some get worse, it appears. And we never seem to hear from the people who get worse.'

'Michael Mosley: Infested! Living with parasites' will be broadcast in BBC Four's natural history season, starting in February.

2016 goal for Asian vultures release

After the devastation wrought by a drug on Asian vulture populations, a project hopes to begin releasing captive-bred birds into the wild by 2016.

The Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (Save) programme says it plans to release up to 25 birds into a 30,000-sq-km drug-free 'safe zone'.

Diclofenac - used by vets on cattle - was identified as causing a crash in vulture numbers and banned by India.

But, says Save, the version for human use is still given illegally to cattle.

Diclofenac was banned for use by vets and farmers in 2006 because of its effect on vultures that feed on livestock carcasses.

The link between the anti-inflammatory drug, used to reduce swelling in injured or diseased animals, and the devastating demise of Asia's vulture populations was firmly established in 2004.

Tests on captive vultures fed carcass flesh traced with the drug produced symptoms that were strikingly similar to those witnessed in sick birds in the wild.

Experts said vultures feeding on cattle either died from acute kidney failure within a few days or lost their ability to reproduce.

Rinkita Gurav from the Bombay Natural History Society - a member of the international Save consortium - said that it was vital to 'remove diclofenac from the market completely'.

'The veterinary version of the drug was banned in India back in 2006 but the major problem is that the human forms of the drug are being given illegally to cattle,' she told BBC News.

'Because of this, it is not completely out of the system... [and] is readily available in pharmacies and chemists.'

Environmentally essential

In order to ensure that the three local species affected do not disappear completely from the wild, Save identified a number of priorities.

One of these was to establish a number of vast 'safe zones' for the captive-bred birds to be released within.

The areas have a radius of 100km (62 miles), and the consortium has identified six such areas - some of which cross national borders into Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Ms Gurav said the consortium carried out a lot of advocacy work at grassroots levels within these areas in order to remove diclofenac from the environment.

'This work is basically spreading awareness and we have workshops and educational programmes,' she explained.

She added that there was a growing awareness of the important role vultures play in the wild.

'They clean a carcass completely so the bacteria or diseases cannot go into the soil or water and contaminate it,' she explained.

'There are a lot of farmers that say that they used to see a lot of vultures but now there are very few. Now, they do understand that these birds are very important.'

Another key priority identified by Save was the establishment of a captive-breeding programme, which would provide the birds to be released back into the wider environment, once it was safe to do so.

Since 2004, a number of vulture breeding centres have been set up in Nepal and Pakistan, as well as in India.

Funding fears

Chris Bowden, RSPB international species recovery officer and Save programme manager, assessed the centres' progress after a decade of work.

'Bearing in mind that these birds do not breed too well compared with other species - for example, they only lay one egg a year and the other natural constraints we have as a starting point - I think it is going very well,' he said.

'Dare I say it, but this year we are likely to break the 100 figure for the number of fledglings produced via the captive-breeding programme.

'We've bred all three species and these species had never been bred before so I think we can be very pleased about the way it is going.'

But he acknowledged that a project on this scale was an expensive affair, and costs were set to continue rising.

Mr Bowden observed that if the necessary funding was not in place then it was possible that the programme 'may have to take its foot off the gas'.

'I am optimistic that we can really get vultures back to the level where they are performing the environmental function that the populations used to perform within my lifetime,' he told BBC News. 'A few years ago, I would not have said that. But it is not going to be easy; there is still a lot to do.'

Drug smugglers boost deforestation

A new report says that drug smuggling in Central America is rapidly increasing rates of deforestation.

Remote forests in Honduras and Guatemala are being cut down to facilitate landing strips for the transportation of narcotics.

The scientists believe the influx of drug cash encourages ranchers, timber traffickers and oil palm growers to expand their activities.

The research has been published in the journal Science.

Drugs have been smuggled through Central America for decades, with marijuana and cocaine from countries like Colombia heading for lucrative markets in major US cities.

'Start Quote

'When we asked the local people the reason, they would tell us - 'los narcos' (drug traffickers) '

End Quote Dr Kendra McSweeney Ohio State University

But according to the researchers, the importance of the area as a route for trafficking has increased significantly over the past seven years after a crackdown on the narcotics trade in Mexico.

This prompted drug traders to move their operations into more remote areas in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Narco effect

The move has seen a rapid increase in the amount of land cleared for forest.

In Honduras, the level of large-scale deforestation per year more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, at the same time as cocaine movements in the country also showed a significant rise.

'A baseline deforestation rate in this region was 20 sq km per year,' said lead author Dr Kendra McSweeney from Ohio State University.

'Under the narco-effect, we see over 60 sq km per year. In some parts of Guatemala, the rates are even higher. We're talking up to 10% deforestation rates, which is just staggering.'

The problems caused by the narcotics trade usually commence with the building of clandestine roads and airstrips in remote forests.

The number of drug-related landing strips prompted Unesco to declare the Rio Platano biosphere reserve in Honduras a ' world heritage in danger,' in 2011.

In both Honduras and Guatemala, these forested areas are often poorly governed. With the influx of new cash and weapons, local ranchers, oil-palm growers and land speculators are emboldened to greatly expand their activities.

Conservation groups are threatened and state prosecutors are bribed to look the other way, says the report.

Laundering profits

The local indigenous populations are often too frightened to speak out.

'Real firebrand indigenous and conservation leaders don't breathe a word of this, out of fear,' said Dr McSweeney.

'Honduras now has the world's highest homicide rate. They've all been silenced.'

Drugs and the environment

  • Peru's forested Alto Huallaga region was also the country's largest coca cultivation area

  • The cultivation of opium in Thailand and Burma is depleting thin forest soils of nutrients

  • Areas of some US national parks have been used to grow cannabis by Mexican drug cartels

The drug dealers themselves often see advantages in converting the forests into agricultural land.

Buying and clearing the forests helps launder profits, and the traffickers usually have enough political influence to ensure their titles to the land are not contested.

Through this process, the 'improved' land can then be sold on to corporate concerns.

In this way, what was once forest is permanently lost to agriculture.

The researchers believe that the attempts by the authorities to declare a 'war on drugs' have merely pushed the traffickers into other remote areas, exacerbating pressures on vulnerable and ecologically important forests

'Once you start fighting them, you scatter them into more remote locales and greater areas become impacted, more people get involved and you raise their profits as they put a risk premium on their products,' said Dr McSweeney.

'You increase their profits and their need to launder the money.'

The authors say that this happened in Honduras in 2012. A crackdown on narcotics has seen the business shift operations and impacts to new areas of eastern Nicaragua.

The report authors argue that conservation groups now need to push for major changes in the use of military force to tackle the problem.

'Conservation groups have big offices in Washington DC and have proven successful at lobbying,' said Dr McSweeney.

'We would encourage them to use their clout to really explore alternatives to this appallingly inappropriate, militarised approach to the drug problem.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

January rainfall breaks records

Early figures suggest parts of England have had their wettest January since records began more than 100 years ago.

The Met Office said much of southern England and parts of the Midlands had already seen twice the average rainfall for January by midnight on Tuesday - with three days left in the month.

And it is warning of more rain, as well as snow and high winds, for much of the UK in the coming days.

In Somerset, the military is preparing to help flooded areas.

Up to and including January 28, the South East and central southern England had 175.2mm (6.9in) of rainfall in January - beating the previous record of 158.2mm for the same parts of England set in 1988.

Across south-west England and south Wales, the 222.6 mm (8.8in) of rainfall up to midnight on Tuesday meant January 2014 was already the fifth-wettest on record.

On Wednesday, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said military amphibious vehicles could be deployed to help flood victims in Somerset.

Military planners met council officials earlier, but details of what action will be taken have not yet emerged.

Roads round villages such as Muchelney in the Somerset Levels have been cut for almost a month and about 11,500 hectares (28,420 acres) of the Levels are flooded by about 65 million cubic metres of water.

Weather information

BBC Weather forecaster Emma Boorman said Thursday's weather would be 'quieter' than recent days of heavy rain.

She said the South West would be 'largely dry' with an 'outside chance' of showers, while showers would be more likely in the Midlands, South East and east of England.

'No dry spell'

The Met Office has issued numerous yellow warnings - the lowest of its three alert levels - for the next few days.

A rain warning for south-east England expires at 12:00 GMT, but a new warning covering most of southern England, southern Wales and parts of Northern Ireland has been issued for the period from 08:00 on Friday until the early hours of Saturday morning.

Parts of central Scotland and northern England are being warned of snow on Friday.

The Met Office is also warning of high winds for many western parts of the UK on Saturday and Sunday.

BBC Weather presenter Nick Miller said the long-range forecast suggested there was 'no prolonged dry spell in sight'.

The Environment Agency has numerous flood warnings and alerts in place, the majority in southern England.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency has also issued several flood warnings.

Mild temperatures

For the UK as a whole, 164.6 mm (6.5in) of rain has fallen so far this month - 35% above the long-term average.

Holding back the water

Dredging, flood barriers, natural flood management and sustainable drainage are recognised methods of preventing or alleviating flooding. BBC News looks at how these methods work and the scientific principles behind them.

The figures will come as no surprise to those in the country who are continuing to suffer the aftermath of severe winter floods.

But the Met Office said it had seen a contrast from south to north across the UK, with northern Scotland having received 85% of its long-term average rainfall so far this month, compared with 200% over southern England.

Wet weather in winter usually means temperatures have been mild, and the UK mean temperature up to 28 January was 4.9C (41F) - 1.2C above average.

Met Office analysts said the whole of the UK was on target for a wetter than average winter.

The South East and central southern England are already seeing their sixth-wettest winter since record began in 1910 and the wettest since 1995 (369.7mm of rain). The wettest winter on record was 1915, with 437.1mm.

The main reason for the mild and wet weather so far was a predominance of west and south-west winds, bringing in mild air from the Atlantic, the Met Office said.

The BBC News Channel is providing live coverage from some of the worst-affected areas throughout the day.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Magnetic poles can 'split in two'

If you break a magnet in two, you don't get a north half and a south half - you get two new magnets, each with two poles.

'Monopoles' were famously predicted to exist by physicist Paul Dirac in 1931 - but they have remained elusive.

Now scientists have engineered a synthetic monopole in a quantum system for the first time, allowing its mysterious properties to be explored.

They describe their breakthrough in Nature journal.

'Detecting a natural magnetic monopole would be a revolutionary event comparable to the discovery of the electron,' wrote the team from Aalto University, Finland, and Amherst College, US, in their paper.

'[Our work] provides conclusive and long-awaited experimental evidence of the existence of Dirac monopoles.

'It provides an unprecedented opportunity to observe and manipulate these quantum mechanical entities in a controlled environment.'

The discovery of magnetic monopoles has been long-awaited as they can help to explain various physical phenomena.

Researchers have hunted for them since Paul Dirac first theorised their quantum-mechanical characteristics in 1931.

He demonstrated that if even a single monopole exists, then all electrical charge must come in discrete packets - which has indeed been demonstrated.

To observe and test them in the lab, scientists engineered a quantum system - the magnetic field of a cloud of rubidium atoms in an unusual state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

Using direct imaging, they detected a distinct signature of the Dirac monopole - known as a ' Dirac string'.

The researchers note that - while other teams have previously made analogues of monopoles, their demonstration is the first in a quantum system which can be tested by experiment.

'This creation of a Dirac monopole is a beautiful demonstration of quantum simulation,' said Lindsay LeBlanc, of the University of Alberta, a physicist not involved in the study.

'Although these results offer only an analogy to a magnetic monopole, their compatibility with theory reinforces the expectation that this particle will be detected experimentally.

'As Dirac said in 1931: 'Under these circumstances one would be surprised if Nature had made no use of it'.'

Warming 'killing penguin chicks'

Penguin chicks are dying as a direct consequence of climate change, according to new research.

Drenching rainstorms and extreme heat are killing the young birds in significant numbers.

The long-term study looked at climate impacts on the world's biggest colony of Magellanic penguins, over a 27-year period.

The research has been published in the journal Plos One.

'Start Quote

They are turning their nests into swimming pools and they really don't like to be wet'

End Quote Prof Dee Boersma University of Washington

About 200,000 pairs of these penguins make their nests on the arid Punta Tombo peninsula in Argentina every year.

They reside there, in desert like conditions, from September until February to hatch their young.

However the life of a newborn chick is perilous, to say the least.

Downy death

They are too big for their parents to sit on top of and keep warm, but too young to have waterproof feathers.

As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to rainstorms. If they get drenched they usually die, despite the attentions of their despairing parents.

They can also succumb to extreme heat, as they can't cool off in the water like the others.

A new analysis of 27 years of data from Punta Tombo indicates that climate change is having an increasing impact on the chicks.

While on average, around 40% of the youngsters that die every year succumb to starvation, changes in the climate killed an average of 7%.

'Climate variability in the form of increased rainfall and temperature extremes, however, has increased in the last 50 years and kills many chicks in some years,' the authors write in the report.

In two years it was the most common cause, accounting for half the dead chicks in one year, and 43% in another.

'It's the first long-term study to show climate change having a major impact on chick survival and reproductive success,' said lead author Prof Dee Boersma, from the University of Washington.

The number of storms at the breeding site in the first two weeks of December, when the chicks are less than 25 days old, have increased between 1983 and 2010.

Magellanic penguins

  • These medium-sized birds stand about 35cm tall and weigh around 5kg

  • The males bray like donkeys when they vocalise

  • A majority of penguin species, including Magellanics, breed where there is no snow

'Penguins live in the desert and what's really happening with these rain storms, they are turning their nests into swimming pools and they really don't like to be wet,' said Prof Boersma.

Problems with ice

As well as more downpours, the researchers believe that fish are contributing to the rising numbers of deaths.

Over the 27-year period, the penguin parents have arrived at the breeding site later and later in the year, probably because the fish they eat are arriving later too.

The scientists say that the later in the year that the eggs are hatched, the more likely it is the chicks will still be at the vulnerable, downy stage when the storms arrive in November and December.

'The birds are coming back later and on average laying their eggs three days later than they did a decade ago, so they have a shorter breeding season and that cuts down the amount of time they have to raise their chicks,' said Prof Boersma.

This year though, the problem was heat, with several days over 30C.

In the longer term, the outlook for this species in the face of a changing climate is not good, say the researchers.

'We're going to see years where almost no chicks survive if climate change makes storms bigger and more frequent during vulnerable times of the breeding season as climatologists predict,' said co-author, Dr Ginger Rebstock, also from the University of Washington.

In a separate study, also published in Plos One, researchers found that changes in sea-ice were having an impact on Adélie penguins.

The authors found that under normal conditions, the penguins were successful at finding food at relatively low sea-ice concentrations and should be able to cope with predicted future changes.

However the researchers say that these penguins will have significant problems coping with infrequent, extreme environmental events such as the presence of giant icebergs.

'Our work shows that Adélie penguins could cope with less sea-ice around their summer breeding grounds,' said lead author Dr Amélie Lescroël from CNRS in France.

'However, we also showed that extreme environmental events, such as the calving of giant icebergs, can dramatically modify the relationship between Adélie penguins and sea ice.'

'If the frequency of such extreme events increases, then it will become very hard to predict how penguin populations will buffer future sea ice changes.'

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Neanderthals gave us disease genes

Genes that cause disease in people today were picked up through interbreeding with Neanderthals, a major study in Nature journal suggests.

They passed on genes involved in type 2 diabetes, Crohn's disease and - curiously - smoking addiction.

Genome studies reveal that our species ( Homo sapiens) mated with Neanderthals shortly after leaving Africa.

But it was previously unclear what this Neanderthal DNA did and whether there were any implications for human health.

Between 2% and 4% of the genetic blueprint of present-day non-Africans came from Neanderthals.

By screening the genomes of 1,004 modern humans, Sriram Sankararaman and his colleagues identified regions bearing the Neanderthal versions of different genes.

That a gene variant associated with the inability to stop smoking should be found to be of Neanderthal origin is a surprise.

The researchers are, of course, not suggesting that our evolutionary cousins were puffing away in their caves.

Instead, they argue, this gene may have more than one function; the modern effect of this genetic marker on smoking behaviour may be one impact among several.

Pastures new

'Start Quote

When Neanderthals and modern humans met and mixed, they were at the very edge of being biological compatible'

End Quote Prof David Reich Harvard Medical School

Researchers have found that Neanderthal DNA is not distributed uniformly across the human genome, instead being commonly found in regions that affect skin and hair.

This suggests some gene variants conferred characteristics that were useful to modern humans as they moved out of Africa and into the cooler environments of Eurasia. When the populations met, Neanderthals had already been adapting to these conditions for several hundred thousand years.

The stocky hunters once covered a range stretching from Britain to Siberia, but went extinct around 30,000 years ago as Homo sapiens was expanding from an African homeland.

Neanderthal ancestry was found in regions of the genome linked to the regulation of skin pigmentation.

'We found evidence that Neanderthal skin genes made Europeans and East Asians more evolutionarily fit,' said Benjamin Vernot, co-author of a separate study in Science journal.

Genes for keratin filaments, a fibrous protein that lends toughness to skin, hair and nails, were also enriched with Neanderthal DNA. This may have helped provide the newcomers with thicker insulation against cold conditions, the scientists suggest.

'It's tempting to think that Neanderthals were already adapted to the non-African environment and provided this genetic benefit to (modern) humans,' said Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School, co-author of the paper in Nature.

But other genes are implicated in human illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, long-term depression, lupus, billiary cirrhosis - an autoimmune disease of the liver - and Crohn's disease.

Asked whether Neanderthals actually suffered from these diseases too, or whether the genes in question only caused illness when transplanted to a modern human genetic background, Mr Sankararaman said: 'We don't have the fine knowledge of the genetics of Neanderthals to answer this,' but added that further study of their genomes might shed light on this question.

Desert regions

Still other regions of our genomes were discovered to be devoid of Neanderthal DNA, suggesting that certain genes had such harmful effects in the offspring of modern human-Neanderthal pairings that they have been flushed out actively through natural selection.

'We find that there are large regions of the genome where most modern humans carry little or no Neanderthal ancestry,' Mr Sankararaman told BBC News.

'This reduction in Neanderthal ancestry was probably due to selection against genes that were bad - deleterious - for us.'

The Neanderthal-deficient regions encompass genes that are specifically expressed in the testes, and on the X (female sex) chromosome.

This suggests that some Neanderthal-modern human hybrids had reduced fertility and in some cases were sterile.

'It tells us that when Neanderthals and modern humans met and mixed, they were at the very edge of being biological compatible,' said Prof Reich.

Another genome region that lacked Neanderthal genes includes a gene called FOXP2, which is thought to play an important role in human speech. and follow me on Twitter

Plato planet-hunter in pole position

Plato planet-hunter and star probe

  • Design calls for a suite of 34 telescopes to be mounted on one satellite

  • Mission should confirm and characterise hundreds of rocky worlds

  • Would have the sensitivity also to detect the planets' moons and rings

  • Intricate measurements of the host stars would yield key information

  • To launch from French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket in 2023/2024

  • Plato would be stationed 1.5m km from Earth on its 'nightside'

A telescope to find thousands of planets beyond our Solar System is the hot favourite for selection as Europe's next medium-class science mission.

Known as Plato, the concept was chosen by an expert panel as the standout candidate in a competition run by the European Space Agency (Esa).

The Paris-based organisation's Science Policy Committee will now have the final say at its meeting in February.

If given the go-ahead, Plato would probably not launch until 2024.

The name of the mission is an acronym that stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars.

It is not really one telescope but rather a suite of 34 telescopes mounted on a single satellite.

The intention is for Plato to sweep about half the sky, to investigate some of its brightest and nearest stars.

It would monitor these stars for the tell-tale tiny dips in light that occur when planets move across their faces.

Critically, Plato would be tuned to seek out rocky worlds orbiting in the 'habitable zone' - the region around a star where water can keep a liquid state.

A fundamental part of its quest would be to perform an intricate study of the host stars themselves, using their pulsations to probe their structure and properties.

Such observations, referred to as astroseismology, would provide key, complementary information for the proper characterisation of the rocky worlds.

Although, other missions have pursued this kind of science before, Plato is described as a major leap forward in capability.

The hope is that it could find really promising targets for follow-up by the big ground-based telescopes due to come online in the next decade.

These facilities, which will have primary mirrors measuring tens of metres in diameter, should be able to examine the atmospheres of distant worlds for possible life signatures.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, due for launch at the end of this decade, would likely still be working in 2024/2025 and could also pursue Plato's discoveries.

Plato has spent the past two years in an assessment process that has pitted it against four other concepts.

These alternatives included another planet observatory (Echo), an asteroid mission (Marco Polo-R), an X-ray telescope (Loft), and a satellite that would perform a precise test of Einstein's equivalence principle (STE-Quest).

All were vying for the third medium-class launch opportunity to be offered under Esa's so-called Cosmic Vision programme, which defines the organisation's space science priorities.

'Medium class' means a cost to the agency of no more than about 600m euros (£490m; $820m), although following the practice of previous missions this does not include the budget for instruments.

These are usually provided directly by Esa's national member agencies and mean the final price tag can approach one billion euros.

All the competitors were invited to make a final presentation to representatives of the scientific community, industry, and national member agencies on 21 January. This was followed by closed-session discussions by two working groups, which rated the quality of the missions.


  • Planets beyond our Solar System are often given the term 'exoplanet'

  • More than 1,000 have been detected to date using several techniques

  • But many of these worlds are large planets believed to resemble Jupiter or Neptune

  • Many gas giants have been found to be orbiting very close to their stars

  • It has prompted new ideas to describe the formation and evolution of solar systems

Their recommendations were then passed to Esa's top space science advisory committee (SSAC) to make an evaluation.

It proposed that Plato be carried forward as the mission of choice, and this preference has now been sent on by Esa's executive to the SPC. The committee has the prerogative of 'selection' at its 19 February gathering, and could still reject Plato - but this would be a major surprise.

The final green light is known as 'adoption' in Esa-speak. This is unlikely to happen until 2015, after member states have made firm commitments on their participation and an industrial team to build the satellite has been identified.

One big industrial contribution from the UK seems assured. This would be the camera detector at the base of the telescope suite.

Supplied by e2v in Chelmsford, the array of more than 130 charge-coupled devices would be 0.9 square metres in area.

This would make it the largest camera system ever flown in space, and twice the size of the array e2v produced for Esa's recently launched Gaia telescope.

The first two medium-class missions to be selected under Esa's Cosmic Vision programme in 2011 were Solar Orbiter, a space telescope to study the Sun, to launch in 2017; and Euclid, a telescope to investigate 'dark energy', to fly in 2020.

The American space agency (Nasa) plans a similar mission to Plato called Tess (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) in 2017, but the specifications mean that its rocky worlds will probably be in closer orbits around lower-mass stars than the discoveries made by the European project. In other words, the Plato planets are more likely to be in the habitable zones of more Sun-like stars. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Stem cell 'major discovery' claimed

Stem cell researchers are heralding a 'major scientific discovery', with the potential to start a new age of personalised medicine.

Scientists in Japan showed the usual painstaking methods of making the versatile cells can be replaced by little more than a short dip in acid.

Stem cells can transform into any tissue and are already being trialled for healing the eye, heart and brain.

The latest development could make the technology cheaper, faster and safer.

The human body is built of cells with a specific role - nerve cells, liver cells, muscle cells - and that role is fixed.

However, stem cells can become any other type of cell, and they have become a major field of research in medicine for their potential to regenerate the body.

Embryos are one, ethically charged, source of stem cells. Nobel prize winning research also showed that skin cells could be 'genetically reprogrammed' to become stem cells (termed induced pluripotent stem cells).

Now a study published in the journal Nature showed that shocking blood cells with acid could also trigger the transformation into stem cells - this time termed STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) cells.

Dr Haruko Obokata, from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Japan, said she was 'really surprised' that cells could respond to their environment in this way.

She added: 'It's exciting to think about the new possibilities these findings offer us, not only in regenerative medicine, but cancer as well.'

The breakthrough was achieved in mouse blood cells, but research is now taking place to achieve the same results with human blood.

Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, said if it also works in humans then 'the age of personalised medicine would have finally arrived.'

He told the BBC: 'I thought - 'my God that's a game changer!' It's a very exciting, but surprise, finding.

'It looks a bit too good to be true, but the number of experts who have reviewed and checked this, I'm sure that it is.

'If this works in people as well as it does in mice, it looks faster, cheaper and possibly safer than other cell reprogramming technologies - personalised reprogrammed cell therapies may now be viable.'

For age-related macular degeneration, which causes sight loss, it takes 10 months to go from a patient's skin sample to a therapy that could be injected into their eye -and at huge cost.

Prof Mason said weeks could be knocked off that time which would save money, as would cheaper components.


The finding has been described as 'remarkable' by the Medical Research Council's Prof Robin Lovell-Badge and as 'a major scientific discovery' by Dr Dusko Ilic, a reader in stem cell science at Kings College London.

Dr Ilic added: 'The approach is indeed revolutionary.

'It will make a fundamental change in how scientists perceive the interplay of environment and genome.'

But he added: 'It does not bring stem cell-based therapy closer. We will need to use the same precautions for the cells generated in this way as for the cells isolated from embryos or reprogrammed with a standard method.'

And Prof Lovell-Badge said: 'It is going to be a while before the nature of these cells are understood, and whether they might prove to be useful for developing therapies, but the really intriguing thing to discover will be the mechanism underlying how a low pH shock triggers reprogramming - and why it does not happen when we eat lemon or vinegar or drink cola?'

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Farmers urged to do more over floods

Farmers getting public grants should be forced to capture water on their land to prevent floods downstream, environmentalists have said.

Green group WWF said farmers should get subsidies only if they agreed to create small floods on their own land to avoid wider flooding in towns and villages.

The average family pays £400 a year in grants to farmers.

Farmers' leaders rejected the idea but said they would support incentives to farmers to prevent flooding.

WWF is already working with eight farmers on the young River Nar in Norfolk in an experimental project to restore upstream rivers to their original state.

Rivers have been squeezed into straight, fast-flowing channels over hundreds of years to hurry rainwater off fields.

But that has contributed to flooding of prime agricultural land downstream. Fast-flowing rivers also carry silt which causes rivers to clog up.

Meandering pattern

Using old maps, the experimental Norfolk scheme redirects rivers into their original meandering pattern.

Trees have been felled into the stream and when rain falls heavily the river floods and water soaks into the soil.

WWF said the speed of water flowing through the River Nar had fallen noticeably.

'Lazy rivers' do not have the energy to carry much silt, either, and this should reduce the need for dredging downstream.

Special ponds have also been created to catch much of the fertile silt running off fields and keep it for local farmers to spread on their land.

This is the sort of scheme the Environment Agency has in mind when it says dredging the rivers in the Somerset Levels may not be the best solution.

'Spending better'

WWF is supporting catchment management schemes in several countries including Colombia, Tanzania and China.

'Start Quote

There should be an obligation on farmers who benefit from payments to farm in a way that's sensitive to river catchments'

End Quote David Nussbaum WWF UK chief executive

The group's UK chief executive, David Nussbaum, told BBC News: 'We pay farmers a lot of money in grants through the Common Agricultural Policy [nearly £50bn a year]. What do we get in return?

'There should be an obligation on farmers who benefit from payments to farm in a way that's sensitive to river catchments and which contributes to managing water in a way that reduces flooding and silting downstream.'

He said 'rewilding' rivers this way would be much cheaper than installing high concrete walls downstream.

'You can achieve your aims on flooding by spending money better - not just spending more.'

WWF claimed that the 800 acres under the Norfolk scheme held back 157 million litres of water in 2013.

'Icing on the cake'

John Austen, a Norfolk farmer and chairman of a drainage board, said he supported the lazy river scheme.

'Here we have a flood plain protecting the village of Litcham. It's full of wildlife... absolutely fantastic. Drainage is not about diggers and silt - what we have to think about is the whole river starting with the catchment right the way down to the sea.'

But Mr Austen opposed the idea that grants should be made conditional on capturing water.

'It shouldn't be compulsory but to really incentivise the farmer to do these projects he will want a little bit of icing on the cake - I suggest £200 a hectare to allow your grass to be flooded.'

In theory farmers can already get extra EU grants to hold water on their land, and some of the participants in the Nar trial are receiving extra subsidies for wildlife - but experts say subsidies for water storage are much harder to obtain than grants for benefiting wildlife.

A study for the Environment Agency suggested that works such as these needed to be carried out across substantial portions of a river catchment to be really effective.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson planned to reshuffle farm grants so more money could be made available for such schemes but was overruled by the prime minister after the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said it might put rural votes at risk.

'Balanced approach'

An NFU spokesman said: 'Although we agree that 'slowing the flow' should have an important role to play in reducing flood risk from hilly upland catchments, techniques such as tree planting need to be located carefully.

'They are not a panacea, and should not be expected to significantly reduce flooding everywhere and on their own.

'For this reason we would not support a requirement for all farmers to have to capture water on their land in order to access grants from the EU.

'Our approach to river flooding must be balanced, looking at river systems as a whole; attenuating flows upstream where needed and maintaining capacity downstream, including de-silting and vegetation management.

'The NFU would welcome guidance and environmental stewardship options that facilitated farmers to use natural processes to help control flows in, over and around farms and where appropriate store water.'

The back-to-nature river scheme in Norfolk has been subsidised by Coca-Cola which has a global partnership with WWF on fresh water issues.

The company's local plant relies on sugar beet grown near the River Ouse which runs above field level and is prone to flooding. The Ouse is fed by the River Nar.

The Nar scheme has a cultural element too - Charles Rangeley Wilson, an author and conservationist, is researching old maps to find the original course of rivers so the meanders can be restored.

'You have to work with topography, not against it,' he said.

Follow Roger on Twitter@rharrabin.

Hidden hierarchy in music revealed

Scientists have come up with a way to reveal the pecking order within a string quartet.

A team from the Royal Academy of Music and the University of Birmingham found that analysing how individual musicians vary their timing to follow the rest of the group can indicate a hierarchy.

They say it shows some quartets have a clear leader to ensure perfect harmony.

However, in other 'democratic' quartets the musicians all follow each other, playing an equal role.

Prof Alan Wing, from the University of Birmingham, UK, said of the study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface: 'In one quartet, it was as if there was an autocracy. In the other, it was more like a democracy.'

Making changes

The subtle interactions within a string quartet can bring a performance to life, but the team says it is this interplay that reveals the hidden hierarchy.

To investigate, the researchers asked two well-established groups of chamber musicians to play a composition by Joseph Haydn.

'Start Quote

She wasn't correcting to the timing of the other players - the other players were correcting much more to her'

End Quote Prof Alan Wing University of Birmingham

Prof Wing said: 'We took them into a recording room and we fitted their instruments up with little microphones under the strings very close to the bridge, which would pick up the sound from each of the players individually.'

The team analysed each musician's timing as they played, and noted any tiny changes to the tempo.

They then looked at how these variations, which were in the order of one hundredth of a second, affected the rest of the group.

In one of the quartets, they found that three of the musicians were constantly having to speed up or slow down to stay in sync. However, the fourth player did not budge, letting the others adjust to her.

'The first violin was quite clearly providing a leadership,' explained Prof Wing.

'She wasn't correcting to the timing of the other players - the other players were correcting much more to her.'

However, in the other quartet, all of the members altered their timing equally, suggesting a more democratic arrangement.

Prof Wing said: 'There was no distinction between the first violin and the other players - they were all making equal corrections to each other.'

He added that the players were surprised to find that these kinds of hierarchies existed within their quartets. However, the musicians suspected that different pieces of music might alter the organisation within the group.

The scientists now want to find out if audiences notice a difference, and which performances they prefer.

They also want to discover whether similar hierarchies exist within other types of music.

Adrian Bradbury, a co-author from the Royal Academy of Music in London, said: 'Live interaction between musicians on stage is often the most electrifying element of a performance, but remains one of the least well understood.

'I hope fellow musicians will agree that this method of 'X-raying' a performance to expose a group's hierarchy will prove useful to us and fascinating to our audiences.'

Follow Rebecca on Twitter

Pesticide linked to Alzheimer's

Exposure to a once widely used pesticide, DDT, may increase the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease, suggest US researchers.

A study, published in JAMA Neurology, showed patients with Alzheimer's had four times the levels of DDT lingering in the body than healthy people.

Some countries still use the pesticide to control malaria.

Alzheimer's Research UK said more evidence was needed to prove DDT had a role in dementia.

DDT was a massively successful pesticide, initially used to control malaria at the end of World War Two and then to protect crops in commercial agriculture.

However, there were questions about its impact on human health and wider environmental concerns, particularly for predators.

It was banned in the US in 1972 and in many other countries. But the World Health Organization still recommends using DDT to keep malaria in check.

DDT also lingers in the human body where it is broken down into DDE.

The team at Rutgers University and Emory University tested levels of DDE in the blood of 86 people with Alzheimer's disease and compared the results with 79 healthy people of a similar age and background.

The results showed those with Alzheimer's had 3.8 times the level of DDE.

However, the picture is not clear-cut. Some healthy people had high levels of DDE while some with Alzheimer's had low levels. Alzheimer's also predates the use of DDT.

The researchers believe the chemical is increasing the chance of Alzheimer's and may be involved in the development of amyloid plaques in the brain, a hallmark of the disease, which contribute to the death of brain cells.

Prof Allan Levey, the director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Centre at Emory, said: 'This is one of the first studies identifying a strong environmental risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.

'The magnitude of the effect is strikingly large, it is comparable in size to the most common genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer's.'

Fellow researcher Dr Jason Richardson added: 'We are still being exposed to these chemicals in the United States, both because we get food products from other countries and because DDE persists in the environment for a long time,' .

Dr Simon Ridley, the head of research at the charity Alzheimer's Research UK, said: 'It's important to note that this research relates to DDT, a pesticide that has not been used in the UK since the 1980s.

'While this small study suggests a possible connection between DDT exposure and Alzheimer's, we don't know whether other factors may account for these results.

'Much more research would be needed to confirm whether this particular pesticide may contribute to the disease.'

UK-built cameras go on space station

Two British-built Earth-observation cameras have been successfully installed on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS)

The cameras will be operated by the Canadian Urthecast company, which intends to stream high-resolution video of the planet to web users.

Russian cosmonauts completed the attachment in a six-hour spacewalk on Monday.

It followed an aborted installation attempt in December.

On that occasion, there was a difficulty in getting telemetry through to Moscow mission control.

In a statement on Tuesday, Urthecast confirmed that both cameras were passing data to the ground following the latest effort.

'During the installation, we were able to complete all of the intended tests during the spacewalk,' the statement read.

'At this time, all telemetry received and analysed is within our expected results.'

The cameras were made for Urthecast by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire, UK.

The high-resolution video unit should provide a resolution on the ground of about 1m per pixel. Large crowds and moving vehicles would be visible on this scale.

The second camera will provide static imagery at a medium resolution of 5m per pixel.

'Testing of every part of the camera system will now follow. Once that's completed, we can expect the first imagery to be released publicly,' said Prof Richard Holdaway, the director of RAL Space.

'We'll be helping Urthecast. We'll be checking the optical alignment and focus, to see that it is everything we expected,' he told BBC News.

Urthecast hopes to build a business around space station imagery. One of the customer sectors for the hi-res video, for example, is likely to be news organisations that want moving pictures of major events, such as war zones and regions of the Earth hit by natural disasters.

It is hoping also to generate social media buzz around its imagery products, by enabling people to tag and share pictures through a special web portal.

Urthecast is one of a group of Earth observation start-ups currently in the process of launching and commissioning space hardware.

Skybox Imaging of San Francisco has already started to showcase video of Earth acquired by its small, free-flying SkySat-1 satellite. And Planet Labs, another San Francisco venture, has a 'flock' of 28 nano-satellite imagers that are about to be released out of the airlock on the ISS.

The station itself is increasingly becoming a platform for Earth observation. This is quite a challenge, however.

The movement of the astronauts inside the ISS makes it flex, and there is a constant vibration from onboard equipment.

All this requires cameras to have dampers built into their rigs to maintain a steady shot.

The US space agency (Nasa) will be launching another two Earth-observing instruments to the station this year. One will study ocean winds and storms; the other will examine small particles in the atmosphere that can influence the climate.

Monday, January 27, 2014

China's Moon rover hits trouble

China's Jade Rabbit Moon rover is in trouble after experiencing a 'mechanical control abnormality', state media report.

The moon exploration vehicle ran into problems due to the moon's 'complicated lunar surface environment', Xinhua news agency said, citing science officials.

The rover landed in December as part of China's Chang'e-3 mission - the first 'soft' landing on the Moon since 1976.

It was expected to operate for around three months.

Earlier this month, the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre said that Jade Rabbit, also known as Yutu, had successfully explored the surface of the moon with its mechanical arm.

Lunar night

The malfunction emerged before the rover entered its scheduled dormancy period on Saturday, Xinhua reported, citing the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND).

Scientists were organising repairs, the news agency added, without providing further details.

The rover was due to become dormant for 14 days during the lunar night, when there would be no sunlight to power the rover's solar panel, reports said.

The malfunctioning rover presents the first public mishap China's ambitious space programme has experienced in years, following several successful manned space flights, the BBC's Celia Hatton in Beijing reports.

Xinhua said the news of the rover's troubles had generated extensive discussion on Chinese social media.

'People not only hailed the authority's openness to the accident, but also expressed concern,' it said.

On Sina Weibo, China's largest microblog provider, users began tagging their posts with the hash tag '#hang in there Jade Rabbit'.

Users also circulated comic strips depicting a rabbit on the moon, and rabbit-themed pictures, while expressing their support for the rover.

User Jessica_S_AC_USK wrote: 'I want to cry. Go Jade Rabbit, even if we fail this time, we still have next time - our Chinese Jade Rabbit's goal is the sea of stars! We will not give up easily.'

Referring to a Chinese folktale about a rabbit on the moon, another microblog user wrote: 'Whatever happens, we must thank Jade Rabbit. When our generation tells stories to our children, we can confidently say: 'There really is a Jade Rabbit on the moon!''

Gravity satellite probes deep Earth

Europe's Goce gravity satellite has provided striking new visualisations of the Earth's deep interior.

Its gravity data has enabled variations in the density of rock to be traced up to more than 2,000km below the surface.

The maps, published by the journal Nature Geoscience, helping to reveal how material moves up and down, driving a range of geological phenomena.

These include subduction zones, where the great tectonic slabs covering the Earth's surface dive under one another.

'Ultimately, volcanic activity and earthquakes occur because of these slow movements inside the Earth's mantle,' explained Dr Isabelle Panet from the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, France.

'The volcanoes and earthquakes are, if you like, just the surface expression of these deep dynamics,' she told BBC News.

Researchers traditionally use seismic tomography to image the planet's interior.

By tracking the speed at which waves of energy from tremors propagate through rock, scientists can determine density differences and hence the relative buoyancy of material.

This might be hotter, lighter material on its up way, such as in a plume of magma; or cold dense rock on its way down, such as a swathe of oceanic crust descending at one of those subduction zones.

But seismic tomography is somewhat imprecise, and leans on quite a few assumptions, including the temperature and composition of the rock at various depths.

Goce offers some complementary information.

The satellite, which flew from March 2009 until November last year, gathered unprecedented information on the subtle changes in the pull of gravity around the Earth.

These deviations reflect differences in the mass, and by extension the density, of material at depth.

By viewing the rate of change, or gradient, in the acceleration due to gravity in three separate directions, Dr Panet and colleagues have been able to pull out a number of interesting features from the data.

These include major mantle plumes in the Pacific and off Africa, under the Indian Ocean.

Also visible are ancient subduction zones running deep under Asia and the along the Americas. What Goce is probably seeing is the buried remnants of old plate material of Jurassic age (older than 150 million years ago) in the case of Asia, and of roughly Cretaceous age (older than about 60 million years ago) in the case of the Americas.

In addition, the satellite's gravity also detects a residual signal of the former Tethys Ocean. Subducted material is seen in the maps stretching from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas. The Tethys Ocean is thought to have closed when India and Asia collided some 40-50 million years ago.

Dr Panet said: 'The main interest of these gravity gradient data is to use them in combination with seismic tomography because the maps of seismic velocity anomalies - they do not give you the mass.

'And the mass is a very important parameter to understand the dynamics of the mantle because it creates the buoyancy forces that drive material up and down. Now, by combining the structural information from seismic tomography and the mass sensitivity of the Goce data, we can better understand the dynamics of the mantle's convective fluids.'

Goce's ability to sense the uneven distribution of mass through the Earth has already allowed scientists to map the boundary globally between the Earth's crust and the mantle - the so-called Moho boundary. The famous 'discontinuity' lies some 10-70km below the surface and marks a sharp change in rock properties.

Other researchers are investigating old plate movements by linking gravity signals on different continents, such as on Africa and South America, to show how they were once joined together.

'What we are seeing is that Goce data enable us to sense features from really quite shallow regions in the crust, down to very deep in the mantle,' commented Dr Rune Floberghagen, the European Space Agency's mission manager for Goce. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Looks of early European revealed

Scientists have shed light on what ancient Europeans looked like.

Genetic tests reveal that a hunter-gatherer who lived 7,000 years ago had the unusual combination of dark skin and hair and blue eyes.

It has surprised scientists, who thought that the early inhabitants of Europe were fair.

The research, led by the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain, is published in the journal Nature.

The lead author, Dr Carles Lalueza-Fox, said: 'One explanation is that the lighter skin colour evolved much later than was previously assumed.'

Scandinavian links

Two hunter-gatherer skeletons were discovered in a cave in the mountains of north-west Spain in 2006.

The cool, dark conditions meant the remains (called La Brana 1 and 2) were remarkably well preserved. Scientists were able to extract DNA from a tooth of one of the ancient men and sequence his genome.

The team found that the early European was most closely genetically related to people in Sweden and Finland.

But while his eyes were blue, his genes reveal that his hair was black or brown and his skin was dark.

'This was a result that was unexpected,' said Dr Lalueza-Fox.

Scientists had thought the first Europeans became fair soon after they left Africa and moved to the continent about 45,000 years ago.

'It has been assumed that it is something that happens in response to going from Africa to higher latitudes where the UV radiation is very low and you need to synthesise vitamin D in your skin. Your skin becomes lighter quite soon,' explained Dr Lalueza-Fox.

'It is obvious that this is not the case, because this guy has been in Europe for 40,000 years and he still has dark skin.'

The hunter-gatherer's genome also gave the team an insight into how humans had changed as they moved from foraging to farming.

The early European would have subsisted on a diet of mainly protein, and his DNA reveals that he was lactose-intolerant and unable to digest starch. These are traits that came after agriculture was adopted and people changed what they ate.

'Start Quote

It will be very interesting to see how general this result is across ancient pre-agricultural Europe'

End Quote David Reich Harvard Medical School

Commenting on the research, David Reich, from Harvard Medical School in the US, said: 'The significance of this paper is that it reports the oldest European genome sequence reported to date - the first European genome sequence that predates the appearance of agriculture.

'The dark skin is a very interesting finding, as light skin is nearly universal across Europe today. These results suggest that the light skin seen across Europe today is a development of the last at least 7,000 years.'

He added: 'It will be very interesting to see how general this result is across ancient pre-agricultural Europe once additional genome sequences become available.'

Early results of research that Prof Reich has been involved with were recently published on the biology preprint website and a paper has been submitted to a journal.

He has looked at the genomes of several hunter-gatherers and early farmers in Europe. This work suggests that present-day Europeans derive from three ancient populations of early inhabitants of the continent.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter

Grand Canyon 'formed recently'

The world famous Grand Canyon, which snakes through the American state of Arizona, only took its present form relatively recently.

New research suggests that most of it was put in place just five to six million years ago.

Earlier studies had claimed the canyon was perhaps 70 million years old.

The latest investigation, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, agrees that some segments are very ancient, but says the full system is young.

'The 'old canyon model' has argued that the Grand Canyon was carved 70 million years ago in the same place and to nearly the same depth as the modern canyon. We are refuting that,' said Prof Karl Karlstrom from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

'We are also refuting the 'young canyon model', which claims the canyon was cut entirely in the last six million years. Instead, we show that the Colorado River used some old segments as it found its path from the Rockies to the Gulf of California in the past six million years.

'What's different here I think is that we finally have a description of the Grand Canyon that honours all the hard-won data,' he told BBC News.

Whether Karlstrom's and colleagues' paper will actually end the debate that has raged for 140 years remains to be seen. What is in little doubt is the great splendour of the canyon.

Running for almost 450km and to a depth of 1,800m, it is simply too vast for the five million tourists who visit the National Park each year to take it in. Many try their best by taking a plane or helicopter ride through the deep incision, which records nearly two billion years of Earth history.

That huge scale has also been problematic for scientists who have had to gather data from many different locations through the canyon in an attempt to gauge its true age.

The latest study used a couple of techniques that go under the term thermochronology.

This measures changes in the structure of rocks' mineral crystals as they get cooler through time. This transition occurs as deeply buried rocks come closer to the surface as erosion removes overlying layers of material.

Karlstrom's team used thermochronology to constrain the timing of the formation of four of the Grand Canyon's five segments.

They found that two of the three central segments - known as the 'Hurricane' segment and the 'Eastern Grand Canyon' - were indeed ancient palaeocanyons. The former was cut between 50 and 70 million years ago; the latter was incised some 15 to 25 million years ago.

But they determined that the two end segments of the canyon - known as the 'Marble Canyon' and the 'Westernmost Grand Canyon' - had to have been carved in the last five to six million years, when the Colorado River managed to link up the full system that everyone recognises today.

'If you were to add up the 280-mile length and ask, 'how much is young? More than half of it is young; a quarter of it is middle-aged - 15-25 million years old; and the rest of it is 70 million years old,' said Prof Karlstrom.

'It continues to deepen today, of course. Right now, over the course of the last half-a-million-years or so, it's been deepening by about the thickness of a piece of paper every year.

'It's a beautiful place to work and a wonderful laboratory where the geology is laid bare. It's great for research, and for the many students we take there to teach.' and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Friday, January 24, 2014

People power charts tree pest spread

A citizen science study, involving more than 3,500 people, has revealed the spread and establishment of the horse chestnut leaf-miner in the UK.

It also suggests that a native species of wasp that preys on the tiny insect will not be able to curb its impact.

A tree infested with the caterpillars of the non-native moth tunnel through leaves, causing them to turn autumnal brown, even in the middle of summer.

The study and its findings have been published in the journal PLoS One.

'It has now basically got everywhere south of Newcastle,' explained co-author Michael Pocock from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Dr Pocock and colleague Dr Darren Evans, based at the University of Hull, wanted the public to help them answer two questions.

The first asked whether the level of damage to the trees ( Aesculus hippocastanum) increased with the length of time the moth ( Cameraria ohridella) had been in an area.

'What we found was that it takes three years after the moth first arrives in a location for the levels of damage to basically reach a maximum, which causes trees to look as if autumn had arrived early,' Dr Pocock explained.

'The leaves will turn brown by the end of August, instead of naturally browning sometime in early November.'

People power

The second question the pair asked was whether the rate of predation of the leaf-miner by parasitic wasps increased with the length of time that the moth had been present.

Other threats facing the UK's trees

  • Phytophthora ramorum - fungal pathogen that infects the commercially important conifer species, Japanese larch

  • Acute oak decline (AOD) - An aggressive bacterial disease that can kill an infected tree in just four or five years

  • Ash dieback - 'a serious disease of ash trees', caused by a fungus called Chalara fraxinea, and can kill infected trees

  • Great spruce bark beetle - breeds under the bark, weakening the infected tree and in extreme cases, can kill the tree

(Source: Forestry Commission)

Dr Pocock said: 'What we found was that yes, the levels of predation do increase with the length of time the moth has been present but it appears to remain at very, very low levels.

'Because they do not seem to be attacking it at particularly high levels, I think that helps explain why this moth has been so successful and why it spreads and establishes so quickly.'

One of the experiments the professional scientists asked people to do was to seal an infested leaf in a plastic bag and wait for the insects to emerge.

The results from the experiment carried out by thousands of people, including hundreds of schoolchildren, offered an indication that the parasitic wasps were not numerous enough to effectively control the leaf-miner populations.

Dr Pocock observed: 'It seems almost like magic for children and other people to put a damaged leaf in a plastic bag, wait two weeks and then see insects - the adult moths or their pest controllers - emerge, but making these discoveries was a valuable contribution to understanding why some animals become so invasive.'

He added that using a 'hypothesis-led' approach to citizen science offered a 'win-win' scenario.

'Our study was tightly focused, people knew exactly what they could do. It was designed in such a way that it was very simple and anyone could do it and provide accurate results.

'Within science generally, there is a lot of emphasis on scientists not being stuck in ivory towers,' he said.

'Scientists need to engage very widely but I think one of the problems is that scientists still tend to be heavily evaluated in terms of winning grants and doing research.

'The advantage for me doing something like this is that I can do an activity that is engaging people with science but I can also be doing research at the same time.'

The study's findings suggested that the outlook for the ornamental tree species, which was first introduced to the UK during the 17th Century, was not favourable.

Horse chestnuts in the UK, until 2002, were considered disease-free and widely planted in parks and gardens.

However, the arrival of the leaf-miner moth and a disease called 'bleeding canker', which can kill an infected horse chestnut, meant that local authorities were reluctant to plant them.

Sales of white-flowered horse chestnut saplings have plummeted in recent years.

'This does suggest that the long-term prognosis for these beautiful trees is not actually that good and they will become rarer and rarer,' Dr Pocock suggested.

Dr Pocock said that he and his colleagues hoped in the near future to publish advice on what people could do to help their horse chestnuts.

GM purple tomatoes heading for shops

The prospect of genetically-modified purple tomatoes reaching the shelves has come a step closer.

Their dark pigment is intended to give tomatoes the same potential health benefits as fruit such as blueberries.

Developed in Britain, large-scale production is now under way in Canada with the first 1,200 litres of purple tomato juice ready for shipping.

The pigment, known as anthocyanin, is an antioxidant which studies on animals show could help fight cancer.

Scientists say the new tomatoes could improve the nutritional value of everything from ketchup to pizza topping.

The tomatoes were developed at the John Innes Centre in Norwich where Prof Cathie Martin hopes the first delivery of large quantities of juice will allow researchers to investigate its potential.

'With these purple tomatoes you can get the same compounds that are present in blueberries and cranberries that give them their health benefits - but you can apply them to foods that people actually eat in significant amounts and are reasonably affordable,' she said.

'Start Quote

I hope this will serve as a vanguard product where people can have access to something that is GM but has benefits for them'

End Quote Prof Cathie Martin John Innes Centre in Norwich

The tomatoes are part of a new generation of GM plants designed to appeal to consumers - the first types were aimed specifically at farmers as new tools in agriculture.

The purple pigment is the result of the transfer of a gene from a snapdragon plant - the modification triggers a process within the tomato plant allowing the anthocyanin to develop.

Although the invention is British, Prof Martin says European Union restrictions on GM encouraged her to look abroad to develop the technology.

Canadian regulations are seen as more supportive of GM and that led to a deal with an Ontario company, New Energy Farms, which is now producing enough purple tomatoes in a 465 square metre (5,000sq ft) greenhouse to make 2,000 litres (440 gallons) of juice.

According to Prof Martin, the Canadian system is 'very enlightened'.

'They look at the trait not the technology and that should be a way we start changing our thinking - asking if what you're doing is safe and beneficial, not 'Is it GM and therefore we're going to reject it completely'.

'It is frustrating that we've had to go to Canada to do a lot of the growing and the processing and I hope this will serve as a vanguard product where people can have access to something that is GM but has benefits for them.'

The first 1,200 litres are due to be shipped to Norwich shortly - and because all the seeds will have been removed, there is no genetic material to risk any contamination.

The aim is to use the juice in research to conduct a wide range of tests including examining whether the anthocyanin has positive effects on humans. Earlier studies show benefits as an anti-inflammatory and in slowing cancers in mice.

A key question is whether a GM product that may have health benefits will influence public opinion.

A major survey across the European Union in 2010 found opponents outnumbered supporters by roughly three to one. The last approval for a GM food crop in the EU came in 1998.

Prof Martin hopes that the purple tomato juice will have a good chance of being approved for sale to consumers in North America in as little as two years' time.

She and other plant researchers in the UK hope that GM will come to be seen in a more positive light.

Legacy of distrust

Earlier today, scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire announced that they were seeking permission for field trials for a GM plant that could produce a 'fish oil'.

In a parallel project, they have been cultivating a type of GM wheat that is designed to release a pheromone that deters aphids.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, an environmental psychologist at Cardiff University, has run opinion polls and focus groups on GM and other technologies.

He says that a legacy of distrust, including from the time of mad cow disease, will causing lasting concern.

'Highlighting benefits will make a difference but it's only one part of the story which is quite complex.

'People will still be concerned that this is a technology that potentially interferes with natural systems - they'll be concerned about big corporations having control over the technology and, at the end of the day, you feed it to yourself and your children and that will be a particular concern for families across the UK.'

'To change that quite negative view that people had 10-15 years ago will take quite a long time - it'll take a demonstration of safety, a demonstration of good regulation and of the ability to manage the technology in a safe way. And that doesn't happen overnight.'

Mini-shuttle gets 2016 launch date

The Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has set 1 November, 2016, for the debut flight of its space shuttle replacement.

Known as the Dream Chaser, the winged vehicle will launch atop an Atlas V from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre.

Though smaller than Nasa's famous orbiters, the Dream Chaser has still been designed to carry up to seven astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

The maiden voyage, however, will be an unmanned, autonomous flight.

The re-usable 'lifting body' will spend about a day in orbit before returning to a landing strip on the US West Coast.

If all goes well, SNC hopes to mount its first manned mission in 2017.

And, ultimately, the Dream Chaser will land back at Kennedy on the same runway as used by the shuttles, and be serviced in Kennedy's processing facilities.

The date for the demonstration flight was announced in a joint media conference that included representatives from SNC, the US space agency (Nasa), and United Launch Alliance (ULA), which operates the Atlas rocket.

The 9m-long Dream Chaser is one of the three commercial human transportation systems currently being developed with the financial and technical support of Nasa.

The other two are more traditional capsule designs known as CST-100 and Dragon, from the Boeing and SpaceX companies respectively.

Nasa is likely to concentrate its resources on two, perhaps even only one, of these systems from late this year as it seeks to restore America's capability to launch its own astronauts into space. This capability was lost when the shuttles were retired in 2011 and sent to museums.

Today, all US personnel travel to the International Space Station in Russian Soyuz capsules, with each seat costing US taxpayers about $60m.

The three American companies say their indigenous vehicles will be much cheaper to operate.

SNC is insistent that development of the Dream Chaser will continue even if it misses out on Nasa's next round of seed funding.

'We are building the vehicle to be launched, and we have made a commitment to the launch,' said SNC's Mark Sirangelo.

'[This first launch] is a direct relationship between Sierra Nevada and ULA, and Sierra Nevada is paying for the efforts of this; it's unconnected to the Nasa programme - the purchase of the launch was something done from company to company.

Two weeks ago, SNC announced tie-ups with the European and German space agencies that may lead to certain components and materials on future vehicles being sourced from across the Atlantic. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Space travel 'vital to our survival'

The British astronaut who is set to go into space next year has said that learning how to live and work in space will be essential to the survival of our species.

He is due to spend six months on the International Space Station next year.

Major Peake is currently undergoing intensive training in Germany to prepare for the mission.

He will travel on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and could eat a meal chosen by the public.

'Whether it's an asteroid mission or a Moon mission the ultimate aim is the future exploration of the Solar System and get to Mars on a manned mission,' he told BBC News.

'Humanity's aim is to explore the Solar System, not just for the sake of exploration. I genuinely believe it is for the sake of our own survival in the future.'

'Start Quote

There's lots of unglamorous work to do. At times we are plumbers, at times we're electricians. We do all sorts of jobs'

Tim Peake will be going to the ISS in November or December next year. He is currently undergoing intensive training at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne where I caught up with him.

I have met Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Chris Hadfield and I wondered how Tim Peake would compare. He came across as incredibly nice and refreshingly normal.

It is because of this that the nation is likely to empathise with him and through his eyes we will witness the wonders of a mission to the International Space Station.

But beneath his easy manner is an ice cool nerve. It was demonstrated most clearly on the day that his mission was announced.

He was quizzed on Newsnight about the value of his mission by Jeremy Paxman. Very few have matched the formidable presenter when he has been in full cry. But Tim Peake handled the grilling with aplomb.

'I was tired before the interview, which I think helped, because it meant I didn't have the energy to get wound up,' he confided modestly.

Reaching out

I asked Tim whether he would be reaching out to people on the ground and inspiring them as Chris Hadfield had done when he was on the ISS.

'I certainly hope that the mission will have an inspirational effect. But I'll be doing it my way,' he told me.

He wants the nation to be part of his ground control team.

'We are going to get the public involved in naming the mission, designing the (badge) for the mission and doing things like designing a meal for an astronaut for a day that will get cooked and sent up for me to eat,' he said.

The idea behind the meal for Tim is to get people thinking about science through nutrition, minerals and calorific content.

There will be activities involving sport and exercise too.

I met Tim at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne.

It is located in the outskirts of the city, in the midst of a desolate industrial complex which seemed to be fading into the grey German drizzle.

The misery of the landscape is blasted away though by the incredible sense of optimism one feels on entering the astronaut training centre. Its vast hall seems like an untidy giant's play room, strewn with life-sized replicas of parts of the ISS.

Tim grinned at my bemusement and showed me through to where he'll be working - a true-to-life representation of the Columbus module, which is Europe's laboratory in space.

Here, he is taught how to take apart a smoke detector and change its filter. Routine maintenance will be a large part of his job.

Only the brave

'There's lots of unglamorous work to do. At times we are plumbers, at times we're electricians. We do all sorts of jobs,' he said.

'Start Quote

It's easy to dismiss this stuff about 'Moon, Mars and Beyond' as Nasa propaganda but they are taking it seriously and I think it really will happen'

There was a time when all you needed to be an astronaut was to be very brave. Now you need to be able to do much more.

The former helicopter pilot is also learning how to be a scientist. It is hoped that he will be carrying a number of British-led experiments which would include watching how microbes grow in space and creating new types of metal alloys in zero gravity.

The ISS is now the orbiting laboratory it was designed to be but many leading researchers say that the projects that will be undertaken on board won't be cutting edge.

'It is definitely cutting edge science,' Tim protested. 'Some of the things we are doing on the space station are absolutely remarkable. We are finding things about our bodies that we genuinely had no ideas about before'.

The most interesting experiments on board the space station are the astronauts themselves. They are being constantly monitored to investigate the effects of long-term space travel.

Currently astronauts normally don't spend more than six months on the ISS because of exposure to radiation and bone loss caused by weightlessness.

It is the debilitating effects of long duration space missions that is one of the main obstacles to sending humans to Mars.

But, speaking candidly, Tim told me that among the astronaut corps, there was a firm belief that one among their number would, in the not-too-distant future, journey to another world.

'We are being trained for these kinds of missions on the new launch systems,' he said. 'It's easy to dismiss this stuff about 'Moon, Mars and Beyond' as Nasa propaganda. But they are taking it seriously and I think it really will happen.'

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Fracking will boost UK economy - PM

Shale gas extraction through fracking can boost the economy and encourage businesses to come back to the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron is to say.

Mr Cameron, who is attending the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland, will say fracking is already 'flooring' energy prices in the US, and could be a 'fresh driver' of UK growth.

He will say fracking is essential to 'make a success of globalisation'.

Opponents say fracking can cause water contamination and environmental damage.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves drilling deep underground and releasing a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to crack rocks and release gas stored inside.

The British Geological Survey estimates there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas present in the north of England.

Mr Cameron says this could deliver a large economic boost and ensure the supply of cheaper, more secure energy.

In his speech to political and business leaders, Mr Cameron will argue the UK has to do more to encourage 're-shoring' - the return of businesses that have moved abroad to cut costs.

'Start Quote

We cannot be starry-eyed about globalisation - it presents huge challenges as our economies and societies try to adapt - but neither should we take this pessimistic view'

End Quote David Cameron UK Prime Minister

He will say: 'There is no doubt that when it comes to re-shoring in the US, one of the most important factors has been the development of shale gas, which is flooring US energy prices, with billions of dollars of energy cost-savings predicted over the next decade.'

The prime minister will call for a greater competitiveness, saying: 'The key challenge for politicians and business leaders in Europe is how we make a success of globalisation.

'For years the West has been written off. People say that we are facing some sort of inevitable decline. They say we can't make anything any more.

'Whether it's the shift from manufacturing to services or the transfer from manual jobs to machines, the end point is the same dystopian vision - the East wins while the West loses; and the workers lose while the machines win. I don't believe it has to be this way.

'Of course, we cannot be starry-eyed about globalisation - it presents huge challenges as our economies and societies try to adapt - but neither should we take this pessimistic view.'

And Mr Cameron will point to a 'small but discernible trend' of jobs coming back from the East to the West, highlighting a practice where production facilities were moved to low-cost countries.

'A recent survey of small and medium-sized businesses found that more than one in 10 has brought back to Britain some production in the past year, more than double the proportion sending production in the opposite direction. '

But opponents of fracking fear water potentially carcinogenic chemicals used in the process may escape and contaminate groundwater and that fracking can cause small earth tremors.

They also argue that fracking is distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy, and encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels.

'Shale gas is not the solution to the UK's energy challenges,' said Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth. 'We need a 21st century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels that will add to climate change.'

For Labour, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said: 'David Cameron and George Osborne have failed to deliver the stronger, balanced recovery we need to see.

'Any help for manufacturers is welcome after three damaging years of flatlining and in a month where factory orders have fallen back. But after so many government schemes have failed to deliver for business, manufacturers will want to see what this one offers in practice.

'Labour would create a proper British Investment Bank supported by a network of regional banks, a skills system which delivers for businesses of all sizes and would cut business rates to help growing firms.'