Monday, March 31, 2014

Climate inaction to be 'catastrophe'

The costs of inaction on climate change will be 'catastrophic', according to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr Kerry was responding to a major report by the UN which described the impacts of global warming as 'severe, pervasive and irreversible'.

He said dramatic and swift action was required to tackle the threats posed by a rapidly changing climate.

Our health, homes, food and safety are all likely to be threatened by rising temperatures, the report says.

Scientists and officials meeting in Japan say the document is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impacts of climate change on the world.

In a statement, Mr Kerry said: 'Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Denial of the science is malpractice.

'There are those who say we can't afford to act. But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.'

Some impacts of climate change include a higher risk of flooding and changes to crop yields and water availability. Humans may be able to adapt to some of these changes, but only within limits.

An example of an adaptation strategy would be the construction of sea walls and levees to protect against flooding. Another might be introducing more efficient irrigation for farmers in areas where water is scarce.

Natural systems are currently bearing the brunt of climatic changes, but a growing impact on humans is feared.

'Start Quote

Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change'

End Quote Rajendra Pachauri Chairman, IPCC

Members of the UN's climate panel say it provides overwhelming evidence of the scale of these effects.

The report was agreed after almost a week of intense discussions here in Yokohama, which included concerns among some authors about the tone of the evolving document.

This is the second of a series from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due out this year that outlines the causes, effects and solutions to global warming.


The prognosis on the climate isn't good - but the doctor's changing his bedside manner with the people in charge of the planet's health.

The report's chair, Dr Chris Field, is worried that an apocalyptic tone will frighten politicians so much that they'll abandon the Earth to its fate.

There is nothing inevitable about the worst impacts on people and nature, Dr Field says. We can cut emissions to reduce the risks of catastrophe and adapt to some changes that will inevitably occur.

We have to re-frame climate change as an exciting challenge for the most creative minds.

Cutting local air pollution from, say coal, can also reduce carbon emissions that cause warming; creating decent homes for poor people in countries like Bangladesh can improve lives whilst removing them from the path of flood surges.

Some will criticise Dr Field for being too upbeat. But many politicians have gone deaf to the old-style warnings. Maybe it's worth a new approach.

This latest Summary for Policymakers document highlights the fact that the amount of scientific evidence on the impacts of warming has almost doubled since the last report in 2007.

Be it the melting of glaciers or warming of permafrost, the summary highlights the fact that on all continents and across the oceans, changes in the climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems in recent decades.

In the words of the report, 'increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts'.

'Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,'' IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri told journalists at a news conference in Yokohama.

Dr Saleemul Huq, a convening lead author on one of the chapters, commented: 'Before this we thought we knew this was happening, but now we have overwhelming evidence that it is happening and it is real.'

Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said that, previously, people could have damaged the Earth's climate out of 'ignorance'.

'Now, ignorance is no longer a good excuse,' he said.

Mr Jarraud said the report was based on more than 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies. He said this document was 'the most solid evidence you can get in any scientific discipline'.

US Secretary of State John Kerry commented: 'Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Denial of the science is malpractice.'

He added: 'No single country causes climate change, and no one country can stop it. But we need to match the urgency of our response with the scale of the science.'

Ed Davey, the UK Energy and Climate Secretary said: 'The science has clearly spoken. Left unchecked, climate change will impact on many aspects of our society, with far reaching consequences to human health, global food security and economic development.

'The recent flooding in the UK is a testament to the devastation that climate change could bring to our daily lives.'

The report details significant short-term impacts on natural systems in the next 20 to 30 years. It details five reasons for concern that would likely increase as a result of the warming the world is already committed to.

British winters are likely to become milder and wetter like the last one but cold spells still need to be planned for, says the UK Met Office.

Summers are likely to be hotter and drier, but washouts are still on the cards, it adds.

The assessment of future weather extremes finds the role of human influence is 'detectable' in summer heatwaves and in intense rainfall.

However, the Met Office says a lot more work must be done to confirm the links.

If the study is correct, it means everything from gumboots to snowploughs and sunscreen to anoraks will still be needed.

These include threats to unique systems such as Arctic sea ice and coral reefs, where risks are said to increase to 'very high' with a 2C rise in temperatures.

The summary document outlines impacts on the seas and on freshwater systems as well. The oceans will become more acidic, threatening coral and the many species that they harbour.

On land, animals, plants and other species will begin to move towards higher ground or towards the poles as the mercury rises.

Humans, though, are also increasingly affected as the century goes on.

Food security is highlighted as an area of significant concern. Crop yields for maize, rice and wheat are all hit in the period up to 2050, with around a tenth of projections showing losses over 25%.

After 2050, the risk of more severe yield impacts increases, as boom-and-bust cycles affect many regions. All the while, the demand for food from a population estimated to be around nine billion will rise.

Many fish species, a critical food source for many, will also move because of warmer waters.

What is the IPCC?

In its own words, the IPCC is there 'to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts'.

The offspring of two UN bodies, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, it has issued four heavyweight assessment reports to date on the state of the climate.

These are commissioned by the governments of 195 countries, essentially the entire world. These reports are critical in informing the climate policies adopted by these governments.

The IPCC itself is a small organisation, run from Geneva with a full time staff of 12. All the scientists who are involved with it do so on a voluntary basis.

In some parts of the tropics and in Antarctica, potential catches could decline by more than 50%.

'This is a sobering assessment,' said Prof Neil Adger from the University of Exeter, another IPCC author.

'Going into the future, the risks only increase, and these are about people, the impacts on crops, on the availability of water and particularly, the extreme events on people's lives and livelihoods.'

People will be affected by flooding and heat related mortality. The report warns of new risks including the threat to those who work outside, such as farmers and construction workers. There are concerns raised over migration linked to climate change, as well as conflict and national security.

Report co-author Maggie Opondo of the University of Nairobi said that in places such as Africa, climate change and extreme events mean 'people are going to become more vulnerable to sinking deeper into poverty'.

While the poorer countries are likely to suffer more in the short term, the rich won't escape.

'The rich are going to have to think about climate change. We're seeing that in the UK, with the floods we had a few months ago, and the storms we had in the US and the drought in California,' said Dr Huq.

'These are multibillion dollar events that the rich are going to have to pay for, and there's a limit to what they can pay.'

But it is not all bad news, as the co-chair of the working group that drew up the report points out.

'I think the really big breakthrough in this report is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change as a problem in managing risks,' said Dr Chris Field.

'Climate change is really important but we have a lot of the tools for dealing effectively with it - we just need to be smart about it.'

There is far greater emphasis to adapting to the impacts of climate in this new summary. The problem, as ever, is who foots the bill?

'It is not up to IPCC to define that,' said Dr Jose Marengo, a Brazilian government official who attended the talks.

'It provides the scientific basis to say this is the bill, somebody has to pay, and with the scientific grounds it is relatively easier now to go to the climate negotiations in the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and start making deals about who will pay for adaptation.'

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Court: Japan whaling 'not science'

The UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled that Japan's Antarctic whaling programme is not for scientific purposes.

Japan catches about 1,000 whales each year for what it calls scientific research.

Australia filed a case with the ICJ in May 2010, arguing that Japan's programme - under which it kills whales - is commercial whaling in disguise.

The court's decision is considered legally binding.

Japan had said earlier that it would abide by the court's ruling.

Reading out the judgement on Monday, Presiding Judge Peter Tomka ordered a temporary halt to the programme.

The court said it had decided, by 12 votes to four, 'that Japan shall revoke any extant authorisation, permit or licence granted in relation to JARPA II [Japan's whaling programme in the Antarctic] and refrain from granting any further permits in pursuance of that programme'.

In a statement, the court said that Japan's programme involved activities which 'can broadly be characterised as scientific research'.

However, it said that 'the evidence does not establish that the programme's design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives.'

It added: 'The court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not 'for purposes of scientific research' pursuant to [the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling].'

Sunday, March 30, 2014

'Step forward' in skin cancer fight

Scientists say they have taken a step forward in understanding why some people are at greater risk of skin cancer because of their family history.

A newly identified gene mutation causes some cases of melanoma, a type of skin cancer, says a UK team.

The discovery will pave the way for new screening methods, they report in Nature Genetics.

The risk of melanoma depends on several factors, including sun exposure, skin type and family history.

Every year in the UK, almost 12,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma.

'Start Quote

This is a step forward for people with a strong family history of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer'

End Quote Dr Safia Danovi, Cancer Research UK

About one in 20 people with melanoma have a well-established family history of the disease.

A team led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, found that people with mutations in a certain gene were at extremely high risk of melanoma.

The mutations switch off a gene known as POT1, which protects against damage to packets of DNA, known as chromosomes.

Co-author Dr David Adams, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said the discovery should lead to the ability to find out who in a family was at risk, and who should be screened for skin cancer.

He told the BBC: 'The mutations in this gene result in damage to the end of the chromosomes and chromosomal damage in general is linked to cancer formation - that's the pathway for it.'

Early detection

A number of gene mutations have been identified as increasing the risk of melanoma, but others remain unknown.

Prof Tim Bishop, Director of the Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology, said the finding increased understanding of why some families had a high incidence of melanoma.

'Since this gene has previously been identified as a target for the development of new drugs, in the future it may be possible that early detection will facilitate better management of this disease,' he said.

The team found cancers such as leukaemia were common in these families, suggesting the gene may underlie other cancers and not just melanoma.

Dr Safia Danovi of Cancer Research UK said: 'This is a step forward for people with a strong family history of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

'But it's important to remember that, for most of us, avoiding sunburn and sunbeds is the best way to reduce the risk of this disease.'

Climate impacts 'overwhelming' - UN

Scientists and officials meeting in Japan have published the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impacts of climate change on the world.

Members of the UN's climate panel say that their report provides overwhelming evidence of the scale of these effects.

Natural systems are bearing the brunt right now but the scientists fear a growing impact on humans.

Our health, homes, food and safety are all likely to be threatened by rising temperatures, the summary says.

The report was agreed after almost a week of intense discussions here in Yokohama.

This is the second of a series from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due out this year that outlines the causes, effects and solutions to global warming.

This latest Summary for Policymakers document highlights the fact that the amount of scientific evidence on the impacts of warming has almost doubled since the last report in 2007.

Be it the melting of glaciers or warming of permafrost, the summary highlights the fact that on all continents and across the oceans, changes in the climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems in recent decades.

In the words of the report, 'increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts'.

'Before this we thought we knew this was happening, but now we have overwhelming evidence that it is happening and it is real,' said Dr Saleemul huq, a convening lead author on one of the chapters.

The report details significant short-term impacts on natural systems in the next 20 to 30 years. It details five reasons for concern that would likely increase as a result of the warming the world is already committed to.

These include threats to unique systems such as Arctic sea ice and coral reefs, where risks are said to increase to 'very high' with a 2C rise in temperatures.

The summary document outlines impacts on the seas and on freshwater systems as well. The oceans will become more acidic, threatening coral and the many species that they harbour.

Animals, plants and other species will begin to move towards higher ground or towards the poles as the mercury rises.

Humans, though, are also increasingly affected as the century goes on.

Food security is highlighted as an area of significant concern. Crop yields for maize, rice and wheat are all hit in the period up to 2050, with around a tenth of projections showing losses over 25%.

After 2050, the risk of more severe yield impacts increases, as boom-and-bust cycles affect many regions. All the while, the demand for food from a population estimated to be around nine billion will rise.

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Whale carcass 'cure' for rheumatism

Climbing inside the carcass of a whale was once thought to bring relief to rheumatism sufferers, an Australian National Maritime Museum exhibit shows.

Staying inside the whale for about 30 hours was believed to bring relief from aches and pains for up to 12 months, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

It was thought to have started in the whaling town of Eden on Australia's southern coast.

The practice is documented as part of the museum's special whales season.

'Tempting morsel of flesh'

A rheumatic patient would be lowered inside the carcass of a recently-slaughtered whale 'leaving just his or her head poking out,' the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

'Start Quote

'I don't know (if) there was scientific evidence per se but there was hearsay at the time that they felt better after being in the whale'

End Quote Michelle Linder Curator, Australian National Maritime Museum

One claim for the origins of the practice, which dates back to the late 19th century, is that a drunk man plunged into the dead carcass of a whale and emerged hours later apparently free of his rheumatism.

A story on the incident was published by the Pall Mall Gazette (later absorbed by the Evening Standard) entitled 'a new cure for rheumatism' on 7 March 1896.

It said 'a gentleman of convivial habits but grievously afflicted with rheumatism' had been walking along the beach with friends when he spotted the whale, which was already cut open, and 'appeared to our hilarious friend a tempting morsel of flesh'.

His friends, horrified by the heat and smell, left him inside for several hours, until he emerged sober and devoid of his rheumatism.

The paper says the incident, which occurred a few years prior, gave birth to the bizarre practice.

'The whalers dig a sort of narrow grave in the body and in this the patient lies for two hours, as in a Turkish bath, the decomposing blubber of the whale closing round his body, and acting as a huge poultice,' it says.

The curator of the Australian National Maritime Museum exhibit, Michelle Linder, told the Sydney Morning Herald, it was unlikely to have been 'a really popular thing to do'.

''I don't know (if) there was scientific evidence per se (to support the practice) but there was hearsay at the time that they felt better after being in the whale', she adds.

Rheumatism is a condition causing pain and swelling in the joints, commonly affecting the hands, feet and wrists.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Experts struggle with climate report

Negotiators worked through the night here in Yokohama in an effort to complete their review of a key report on the impacts of climate change.

At stake is a dense 29-page summary detailing the effects of climate change on the planet over the next 100 years.

Several hundred members of the UN's climate panel have been deep in deliberations since Tuesday, with many sessions running very late.

The report is the first such assessment since 2007.

'Start Quote

We... have a much sharper focus on the things that can be done to reduce the risks'

End Quote Dr Chris Field Co-chair, IPCC working group 2

The tired attendees left the conference centre at eight thirty in the evening as the lights were dimmed to commemorate Earth Hour.

But 60 minutes later they trooped back in to continue their word-by-word analysis of the contents.

The report is the second of three analyses developed by international teams of researchers. The first, published last September detailed the mechanics of climate change, explaining that warming was 'unequivocal' and humans were behind it.

This new document being prepared here in Japan will detail the impacts and vulnerabilities to rising temperatures that the world faces over the coming century.

Under the microscope

The previous report on climate impact released by the IPCC is remembered for two significant errors that damaged its credibility.

The first concerned the disappearance of glaciers in the Himalayas, which the IPCC erroneously said could happen by 2035.

The second was a statement that over half the Netherlands lies below sea level; the more accurate figure is 26%.

Dutch scientist Arthur Petersen says that this new summary has been put 'under the microscope' to avoid such errors.

There are now spreadsheets for every number referenced in the report's underlying chapters.

'I think this report will be better than any other climate change report that has ever been produced on the planet,' he says.

It will also highlight how much we can reduce the scale of these effects by adaptation.

Several versions of the report, called the Summary for Policymakers, have already been leaked but the final version won't be released until everyone - scientists and governments - are agreed on its contents.

There are likely to be a number of significant changes since the previous assessment came out in 2007.

There are now far more observations, more scientific studies on the effects of rising temperatures on humans and the species with which we share the planet. Running to 30 chapters in all, many delegates felt that it was the scale of the data that was causing delays.

There are two new chapters detailing impacts on the oceans. There are chapters on human health, on food security and conflict, but also four chapters on how we can adapt to the effects.

'We have a lot more information,' said Dr Chris Field, who is the co-chair of the working group that is behind the report.

'The way I see it, we have a much sharper take on aspects of the issue that are serious but we also have a much sharper focus on the things that can be done to reduce the risks.'

The summary is likely to say that the observed impacts of climate change are 'widespread and consequential'.

Whether it is increased melting of glaciers, or tree mortality, or impacts on rainfall patterns, the report says that the very real effects of warming are happening in the here and now.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, the report highlights some important impacts that we have little chance of avoiding, given the level of warming the world is already committed to, say the scientists.

These include threats to some 'unique and threatened systems' even at 1C.

Risks from extreme weather events, including heat waves and flooding are also high at 1C.

At 2C, there are 'very high risks' for Arctic sea ice and coral reefs.

The report is, according to authors, likely to be more doubtful of the benefits of warming on agriculture than its predecessor.

It is expected to say that yield losses of up to 2% per decade will occur for the rest of this century, at a time when population is set to rise sharply.

'There is a lot more literature on the response of agriculture to a changing climate and we are able to make a more comprehensive assessment than before, based on observations and model calculations,' said Dr Field.

'The science on crop yields and especially on food security is getting to be a lot more actionable and usable.'

Flood risks for people living in Asia are highlighted as a particular vulnerability.

The report talks about impacts on human health, how mortality increases with greater heating and how species the world over are likely to respond by moving towards the poles.

Fish will move, some stocks will be significantly impacted and people who depend on them for food will have to find other sources of protein.

The threat of the oceans becoming more acidic is spelled out as are threats to human security and migration.

The report spells out the likely impacts at different levels of warming in different parts of the world.

'We've projected climate change impacts at different levels of temperature rise, at levels of 2C and 4C and now beyond,' said Dr Rachel Warren from the University of East Anglia, UK.

'We've also looked at how people and biodiversity can adapt to climate change. This notion of vulnerability is embedded in the concept of the report.'

Adaptation is a key element of the report, with clear tables showing that what are currently classed as high-risk impacts could be reduced to low risks, if steps are taken.

Overall there is a greater attempt to set climate change as one of a number of threats facing people now and in the future.

'Once we think of the challenge as one of managing risk, rather than of, oh once we know for sure what's going to happen then we can do something, it becomes much more tractable,' said Dr Field.

'It becomes much more a question of figuring out what are the smart and effective things to do.'

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Crossrail digs up Black Death victims

Skeletons unearthed in London Crossrail excavations are Black Death victims from the great pandemic of the 14th Century, forensic tests indicate.

Their teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and their graves have been dated to 1348-50.

Records say thousands of Londoners perished and their corpses were dumped in a mass grave outside the City, but its exact location was a mystery.

'Start Quote

This discovery solves a 660-year-old mystery. It's a hugely important step forward'

End Quote Jay Carver Lead archaeologist, Crossrail

Archaeologists now believe it is under Charterhouse Square near the Barbican.

They plan to expand their search for victims across the square - guided by underground radar scans, which have picked up signs of many more graves.

Crossrail's lead archaeologist Jay Carver says the find 'solves a 660-year-old mystery'.

'This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe's most devastating pandemic,' he said.

'Further excavations will follow to see if - as we expect - we are coming across a much bigger mass burial trench.'

Between 1347 and 1351 the 'Great Pestilence' swept westward across Europe killing millions of people. It later became known as the Black Death.

The plague

  • The plague is one of the oldest identifiable diseases known to man

  • Plague is spread from one rodent to another by fleas, and to humans either by the bite of infected fleas or when handling infected hosts

  • Recent outbreaks have shown that plague may reappear in areas that have long been free of the disease

  • Plague can be treated with antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline

  • Source: World Health Organization

It arrived on Britain's shores in 1348 and is believed to have wiped out up to 60% of the population at the time.

In London, two emergency burial grounds were dug outside the walls of the City. One has been found at East Smithfield, while the other is known to lie somewhere in Farringdon.

In March 2013, Crossrail engineers uncovered 25 skeletons in a 5.5m-wide shaft - alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century.

Samples from 12 of the corpses were taken for forensic analysis. In at least four cases, scientists found traces of the DNA of the Yersinia pestis, confirming they had contact with the plague prior to their death.

To pinpoint which historical plague outbreak the 'Charterhouse 25' could have fallen victim to, the researchers used radio carbon dating.

They determined the burial ground was used in at least two distinct periods - the earliest within the Black Death in 1348-50, followed by a later outbreak in the 1430s.

In a bid to understand just how far the grave extends across the square, Crossrail approached the University of Keele to undertake a forensic geophysics survey - using ground-penetrating radar.

The initial scan detected signs of further burials across Charterhouse Square and also the foundations of a building - possibly a chapel.

'We will undertake further excavations in Charterhouse Square later this year to confirm some of the results,' said Mr Carver.

The skeletons provide a rare opportunity to study the medieval population of London, according to osteologist Don Walker, of the Museum of London Archaeology.

He said: 'We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like?

'I'm amazed how much you can learn about a person who died more than 600 years ago.'

Analysis of isotope levels in the skeletons' bones and teeth indicate that:

  • Many of the skeletons appear to suffer signs of malnutrition and 16% had rickets.

  • There is a high rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.

  • The later skeletons from the 1400s had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.

  • 13 of the skeletons were male, three female, two children, the gender was undetermined in the other seven skeletons.

  • 40% grew up outside London, possibly as far north as Scotland - showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today.

Mr Carver said: 'We can see from the people here that Londoners weren't living an easy life.

'The combination of a poor diet and generally a struggle means they were very susceptible to the plague at that time and that's possibly one of the explanations for why the Black Death was so devastating.'

By sequencing the ancient bacterial DNA, researchers hope to understand how the plague has evolved and spread over the centuries.

Globally the infection still kills 2,000 people a year, including countries like Madagascar. Antibiotics are available, but if untreated the disease kills within four days.

Scientists hope to confirm whether the 14th Century strain was the grandmother of all plague that exists today.

The £14.8bn Crossrail project aims to establish a 118km-long (73-mile) high-speed rail link with 37 stations across London, and is due to open in 2018.

The excavations have already unearthed Roman skulls washed down a lost river, a Bronze-Age transport route, and the largest piece of amber ever found in the UK.

The latest announcement comes ahead of a Channel 4 documentary, Return of the Black Death: Secret History, on 6 April, which follows the Charterhouse Square discovery.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Comet lander checks in with Earth

The Philae lander, which Europe hopes to put on the surface of a comet later this year, has been re-activated after nearly three years in deep-space hibernation.

The small probe is currently riding piggy-back on the Rosetta satellite. This was despatched 10 years ago to rendezvous with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and was itself awoken in January.

'Mothership' and lander should arrive at the huge ice object in August.

After a period of mapping, Rosetta will then release Philae on its challenging bid to attach itself to 67P in November.


  • Named after its 1969 discoverers Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko

  • Referred to as a 'Jupiter class' comet that takes 6.45 years to orbit the Sun

  • Orbit takes it as close as 180 million km from the Sun, and as far as 840 million km

  • The icy core, or nucleus, is about 4km (2.5 mi) across and rotates every 12 hours

  • Its shape is reasonably well known (model above). There are three key active regions

Being only 4km across, the comet's gravitational field will be very weak, and the 100kg box of instruments will use harpoons and ice screws to try to hold itself down.

The German space agency (DLR) confirmed receipt of the activation message from Philae just after 1500 Central European Time (1400 GMT).

Philae's wake-up is part of a sequence of commissioning activities taking place over the next few weeks.

The main probe was sent so far from Earth to chase down 67P that it went beyond the distance where solar panels could pick up enough energy to run all onboard systems.

Engineers therefore took the decision to close down operations on the satellite for a period of 31 months.

Now that Rosetta is moving closer to the Sun again, those systems - and, in particular, the various scientific instruments - are all being switched back on, one by one.

Most will be switched straight back off again after an initial health-check because power availability remains constrained in the short-term.

The key exception is Rosetta's imaging system, Osiris. It will stay on because it is needed to help plot the precise position of 67P on the sky.

This leads to the next big event in the mission - the major manoeuvre that will start to refine Rosetta's trajectory to the comet.

This will be initiated on 21 May with a seven-hour, 21-minute burn on the spacecraft's thrusters.

A further eight burns are then planned over the summer, with Rosetta set to go into orbit around 67P in the first week of August.

Earlier this week, the European Space Agency issued the first pictures of 67P acquired by Osiris since its recommissioning.

Rosetta is currently 655 million km from Earth and about 3.8 million km from 67P.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Synthetic DNA advance is hailed

Scientists have created the first synthetic chromosome for yeast in a landmark for biological engineering.

Previously synthetic DNA has been designed and made for simpler organisms such as bacteria.

As a form of life whose cells contain a nucleus, yeast is related to plants and animals and shares 2,000 genes with us.

So the creation of the first of yeast's 16 chromosomes has been hailed as 'a massive deal' in the emerging science of synthetic biology.

The genes in the original chromosome were replaced with synthetic versions and the finished manmade chromosome was then successfully integrated into a yeast cell.

The new cell was then observed to reproduce, passing a key test of viability.

Yeast is a favoured target for this research because of its well-established use in key industries such as brewing and baking and its potential for future industrial applications.

One company in California has already used synthetic biology to create a strain of yeast that can produce artemisinin, an ingredient for an anti-malarial drug.

The synthesis of chromosome III in yeast was undertaken by an international team and the findings are published in the journal Science (yeast chromosomes are normally designated by Roman numerals).

Chucking the junk

Dr Jef Boeke of the Langone Medical Centre at New York University, who led the team, described the achievement as 'moving the needle in synthetic biology from theory to reality'.

'Start Quote

We have taught it a few tricks by inserting some special widgets into its chromosome'

End Quote Dr Jef Boeke Langone Medical Centre

In an interview with BBC News, he said: 'What's really exciting about it is the extent to which we have changed the sequence and still come out with a happy healthy yeast at the end.'

The new chromosome, known as SynIII, involved designing and creating 273,871 base pairs of DNA - fewer than the 316,667 pairs in the original chromosome.

The researchers removed repeated sections in the original DNA and so-called 'junk' DNA known not to code for any proteins - and they then added 'tags' to the chromosome.

Dr Boeke said that despite making more than 50,000 changes to the DNA code in the chromosome, the yeast was not only 'hardy' but had also gained new functions.

'We have taught it a few tricks by inserting some special widgets into its chromosome.'

One new function is a chemical switch that allows researcher to 'scramble' the chromosome into thousands of different variants making genetic manipulations far easier.

The hope is that the ability to create synthetic strains of yeast will allow these organisms to be harnessed for a wide range of uses including the manufacture of vaccines or more sustainable forms of biofuel.

While genetic modification involves transferring genes from one organism to another, synthetic biology goes far further by designing and then constructing entirely new genetic material.

Opponents of the field argue that scientists are 'playing God' by designing new forms of life with the danger of unexpected consequences. A report for the Lloyds insurance market in 2009 warned that the new technology could pose unforeseen risks.

The synthesis of chromosome III is the first stage of an international project to synthesise yeast's entire genome over the next few years.

A team at Imperial College London is tackling chromosome XI, one of the largest with 670,000 base pairs, using a similar technique of creating 'chunks' of bases to insert into the yeast's genome.

Dr Tom Ellis, who is leading the work, described the creation of the first synthetic chromosome for a eukaryotic organism - the branch of life including plants, animals and fungi - as a 'massive deal'.

'Yeast is the king of biotech - and it's great to use synthetic biology to add in new functions.

'The fitness of the chromosome is in line with the natural one. Making all these design changes has not caused any major issues - it behaves as it should - and it's great to see that others can do it.'

The Imperial scientists have so far synthesised about one third of the DNA for their chromosome XI with about 5-10% inserted.

Their research includes developing synthetic genes for yeast that would allow it to produce antibiotics and to turn agricultural waste into biofuel.

With critics arguing that synthetic biology involves meddling in Nature with unknown effects, Dr Ellis and others stress that the new organisms are designed with in-built restrictions.

The strains of yeast containing synthetic genetic material can only survive in a lab environment with specialist support.

To highlight the benefits of the work, Dr Boeke stresses the importance of yeast throughout human history and its potential for the future.

'Yeast has an ancient industrial relationship with Man - the baking of bread and the brewing of alcoholic beverages dates back the Fertile Crescent and today the industrial relationship goes far beyond that because we're making medicines, vaccines and biofuels using yeast.'

The paper describing the first synthetic chromosome concludes with a far-reaching vision looking beyond yeast to more sophisticated organisms, saying:

'it will soon become feasible to synthesise eukaryotic genomes, including plant and animal genomes'.

In his interview, Dr Boeke explained that this will not be immediate but is getting closer.

'It's still aways off in the future to do entire chromosomes for those organisms but certainly mini chromosomes containing tens or even hundreds of genes are definitely within the foreseeable future,' he said.

It was only in 2010 that the scientific world was stunned when Dr Craig Venter unveiled the first synthetic genome for bacteria. So this new science is gathering pace and growing in ambition.

Autism 'begins long before birth'

Scientists say they have new evidence that autism begins in the womb.

Patchy changes in the developing brain long before birth may cause symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), research suggests.

The study, in the New England Journal of Medicine, raises hopes that better understanding of the brain may improve the lives of children with autism.

It reinforces the need for early identification and treatment, says a University of California team.

US scientists analysed post-mortem brain tissue of 22 children with and without autism, all between two and 15 years of age.

'Start Quote

This reinforces the importance of early identification and intervention'

End Quote Dr Thomas Insel National Institute of Mental Health

They used genetic markers to look at how the outermost part of the brain, the cortex, wired up and formed layers.

Abnormalities were found in 90% of the children with autism compared with only about 10% of children without.

The changes were dotted about in brain regions involved in social and emotional communication, and language, long before birth, they say.

The researchers, from the University of California, San Diego and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, say their patchy nature may explain why some toddlers with autism show signs of improvement if treated early enough.

They think the plastic infant brain may have a chance of rewiring itself to compensate.

'The finding that these defects occur in patches rather than across the entirety of cortex gives hope as well as insight about the nature of autism,' said Prof Eric Courchesne, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Diego.

Dr Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said: 'If this new report of disorganised architecture in the brains of some children with autism is replicated, we can presume this reflects a process occurring long before birth.

'This reinforces the importance of early identification and intervention.'

Devastating impact

Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society Centre for Autism, said the study shed light on a complex and often misunderstood disability.

'Better understanding of the early brain development of children with autism could help us find new and more effective ways to support the estimated 700,000 people living with the condition across the UK,' she said.

'Autism can have a profound and devastating impact but the right support can make a huge difference.'

'Mars yard' to test European rover

Airbus has built a giant sand pit in Stevenage to mimic the surface of Mars.

The indoor terrain, about the size of a basketball court, will be used to test systems on the rover that Europe will send to the Red Planet in 2018.

ExoMars, as it is known, will be a six-wheeled robot tasked with finding signs of past or present life.

The UK division of Airbus Defence and Space will assemble the rover from parts built across member states of the European Space Agency (Esa).

But it has the specific role also of developing the vehicle's autonomous navigation system.

The great distance between Earth and Mars means the robot cannot be controlled in real time; commands take tens of minutes to cross the space between the planets.

Instead, ExoMars will be given a destination to reach, and its onboard cameras and computer will then work out the most appropriate route, avoiding large boulders and potential fissures in the ground.

Euro-Russian mission to Mars

  • ExoMars rover set for launch in May 2018

  • Proton rocket will send it on its way

  • Russians also building landing system

  • Touchdown should occur in January 2019

  • Rover will look for biosignatures on Mars

  • Initial mission duration will be 218 Mars days

The new 'Mars yard' is being used to develop the necessary algorithms.

'We need to verify the performance, to check that the algorithms and the processes that we're using will actually work - will be fit for purpose to deal with the conditions and obstacles we expect to find on Mars,' said Dr Ralph Cordey from Airbus.

The sandpit will play a critical role also in testing the rover's drive systems.

Like previous vehicles sent to the Red Planet, ExoMars will be based on a free-moving, rocker-bogie suspension that allows it to climb over small rocks.

This equipment will be provided by robotics experts at MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates in Canada (Canada is a co-operating member state of Esa).

Various prototypes already at Stevenage have been trying out the new 'Marscape'.

The lessons learned will be built into the eventual 'flight' model - the actual vehicle that is sent to Mars.

This itself will never see the Mars yard. It will be assembled in a new 'cleanroom' at the Airbus factory to ensure it is kept spotless, and free from any Earthly contamination that could confuse its instruments when they go hunting 'biosignatures' on Mars.

Once Airbus has assembled the flight model, it will be sent to Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy, where its payload of scientific instruments will be added.

The key UK science contribution is the PanCam imaging system developed by a team under the leadership of Prof Andrew Coates at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The current US rover, Curiosity, has wowed us with its pictures from Gale Crater. ExoMars hopes to do the same.

'Curiosity can see a lot, but PanCam will be able to see a much larger region in its field of view,' Prof Coates explained.

'It can also zoom in and view sections in great detail with our high-resolution camera. With that we'll be able to narrow down where to drill to search for signs of life.'

Precisely where on the Red Planet ExoMars will go has yet to be decided.

The project is holding its first landing-site selection meeting this week in Madrid, Spain. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Pet cats infect two people with TB

Two people in England have developed tuberculosis after contact with a domestic cat, Public Health England has announced.

The two human cases are linked to nine cases of Mycobacterium bovis infection in cats in Berkshire and Hampshire last year.

Both people were responding to treatment, PHE said.

It said the risk of cat-to-human transmission of M. bovis remained 'very low'.

'Start Quote

These are the first documented cases of cat-to-human transmission...'

End Quote Dr Dilys Morgan Public Health England

M. bovis is the bacterium that causes tuberculosis in cattle, known as bovine TB, and other species.

Transmission of M. bovis from infected animals to humans can occur by breathing in or ingesting bacteria shed by the animal or through contamination of unprotected cuts in the skin while handling infected animals or their carcasses.

Screening tests

The nine cases of M. bovis infection in cats in Berkshire and Hampshire were investigated by PHE and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) during 2013.

The findings of the investigation are published in the Veterinary Record on Thursday.

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by a germ which usually affects the lungs.

Symptoms can take several months to appear and include

*Fever and night sweats

*Persistent cough

*Losing weight

*Blood in your phlegm or spit

Almost all forms of TB are treatable and curable, but delays in detection and treatment can be damaging.

TB caused by M. bovis is diagnosed in less than 40 people in the UK each year. The majority of these cases are in people over 65 years old.

Overall, human TB caused by M. bovis accounts for less than 1% of the 9,000 TB cases diagnosed in the UK every year.

Those working closely with livestock and/or regularly drinking unpasteurised (raw) milk have a greater risk of exposure.

Screening was offered to people who had had contact with the infected cats. Following further tests, a total of two cases of active TB were identified.

Molecular analysis showed that M. bovis taken from the infected cats matched the strain of TB found in the human cases, indicating that the bacterium was transmitted from an infected cat.

Two cases of latent TB were also identified, meaning they had been exposed to TB at some point, but they did not have the active disease.

PHE said it was not possible to confirm whether these were caused by M. bovis or something else.

No further cases of TB in cats have been reported in Berkshire or Hampshire since March 2013.

'Uncommon in cats'

Dr Dilys Morgan, head of gastrointestinal, emerging and zoonotic diseases department at PHE, said: 'It's important to remember that this was a very unusual cluster of TB in domestic cats.

'M. bovis is still uncommon in cats - it mainly affects livestock animals.

'These are the first documented cases of cat-to-human transmission, and so although PHE has assessed the risk of people catching this infection from infected cats as being very low, we are recommending that household and close contacts of cats with confirmed M. bovis infection should be assessed and receive public health advice.'

Prof Noel Smith, head of the bovine TB genotyping group at the AHVLA, said testing of nearby herds had revealed a small number of infected cattle with the same strain of M. bovis as the cats.

However, he said direct contact between the cats and these cattle was unlikely.

'The most likely source of infection is infected wildlife, but cat-to-cat transmission cannot be ruled out.'

Cattle herds with confirmed cases of bovine TB in the area have all been placed under movement restrictions to prevent the spread of disease.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Europe begins Mars site selection

The European Space Agency (Esa) has published the 'longlist' of eight sites it is considering as a destination for the ExoMars rover.

The 300kg vehicle will be put on the surface of the Red Planet in January 2019 to search for evidence of past or present life.

It should operate for at least seven months and will carry a drill to probe up to 2m underground.

The sites are generally clustered in a relatively tight zone close to the equator. They are: Hypanis Vallis, Simud Vallis, Mawrth, Oxia Planum (x2), Coogoon Valles, Oxia Palus and Southern Isidis.

The ExoMars Landing Site Selection Working Group is meeting now in Madrid to begin the process of downselection. The teams that proposed these locations will make their case during the Spanish gathering (two, virtually identical proposals were received for Mawrth).

It is hoped to have a shortlist of no more than four locations in June or July. These will then be intensively studied, calling on new high-resolution pictures and mineralogical data acquired by satellites in orbit at Mars.

'Start Quote

I have to say, the height constraint is very taxing'

End Quote Dr Jorge Vago ExoMars project scientist

A final decision is likely to be announced in 2017. This will probably take the form of a first choice and a back-up.

We've been talking about ExoMars for a long time. The project has had several ups and downs, but it is now moving positively in the right direction.

The venture is a joint undertaking with the Russians, who, as well as providing the launch rocket in May 2018, and some of the instrumentation, will also build the landing system. This will see the rover enter the Martian atmosphere in 2019 in a protective shell, deploying parachutes and retro-rockets to reduce the descent velocity.

The robotic vehicle will arrive at the surface on a legged lander, driving down a ramp to begin its grand traverse.

Everything hinges on a safe touchdown, of course. However, scientifically, it's vital ExoMars goes to the right place.

I have used two maps on this page to help explain how the final decision will be made.

Euro-Russian mission to Mars

  • ExoMars rover set for launch in May 2018

  • Proton rocket will send it on its way

  • Russians also building landing system

  • Rover will look for biosignatures on Mars

  • Initial mission duration will be 218 Mars days

They are both Mercator projections of Mars which will be familiar from Earth maps that also pull the 360-degree globe on to a flat surface.

For reference, I've marked the locations of the two current American rovers - Curiosity and Opportunity - on the top map.

Choosing a site is a trade-off between what's scientifically desirable and what's achievable with the available engineering.

ExoMars wants to look for life markers. Its best chance of finding these will be to go to places where there is abundant evidence for long-duration, or frequently reoccurring, water activity.

This will exist on the old terrains of Mars - ones that are billions of years old.

These are places where you would hope to roll across recently exposed fine-grained sediments; the kind of clay-bearing mudstones that Curiosity has been enjoying in Gale Crater.

If you get lucky, you just might hit upon preserved organic molecules that hint at some past biology.

But choosing the places you'd love to go is the easy part; having the capability to reach them is another question.

Engineers describe an ellipse of confidence into which they can put a Mars lander.

With the extraordinary skycrane used on Curiosity, this ellipse measured just 20km by 7km. It meant the US space agency had the belief to shoot for one of the deepest holes on Mars.

ExoMars, by comparison, will have a landing ellipse that measures about 105km by 15km - not dissimilar to Nasa's Phoenix mission of 2008.

So, this immediately rules out places like Gale Crater, for example. The greater uncertainty in landing performance would put ExoMars in danger of slamming into the crater's walls or its big central mountain.

Can the eight sites accommodate the Russian landing ellipse?

Another consideration: You need to give your parachutes time to work in Mars' thin atmosphere. This means that any terrain that exceeds 2km above datum (what we on Earth would think of as sea level) is out of reach.

And yet another: Although ExoMars will have a sizeable drill, it doesn't want to be probing through decimetres of dust, and there are places where Mars' ubiquitous 'red dirt' is worse than others. These will be avoided.

In addition, energy is an important consideration. ExoMars will use radioisotope heating units to cope with the cold, but it will rely on solar panels for day-to-day power. Given that it is landing in the northern summer, optimal operations will be found in a band between latitudes of 5 degrees South and 25 degrees North.

And boulder fields - you need to avoid those, too. Although, the landers' legs will give a surface clearance of about 30-50cm, you want to try to avoid coming down on big rocks.

I could go on. The point is the scientists on the mission will be working very closely with the engineers to pick a destination that balances the highest return with the lowest risk.

'The eight sites all have possibilities,' ExoMars project scientist Dr Jorge Vago told me.

'Some have more problems than others and we'll see how the discussions turn out. I have to say, the height constraint is very taxing. There is very little of Mars that is scientifically interesting that also fits the elevation bill.'

And working group member Dr John Bridges of Leicester University added: 'We've got some serious things to discuss, for sure. But I'm very positive about it; I think we've got some cracking sites on the list.'

  • The above graphic uses Gale Crater to illustrate past landings

  • Engineers define an ellipse in which they can confidently put down

  • Curiosity had the precision to get into the crater safely

  • Viking's ellipse was 300km across - wider than Gale Crater itself

  • Phoenix (100km by 20km) could not confidently fit in Gale

  • ExoMars' ellipse is very similar, and so Gale would be off-limits

How stag beetles bite so hard

Researchers have staged stag beetle battles to solve the mystery of how the male beetles bite so hard.

The extreme length of the beetles' jaws should make it difficult for them to produce a forceful bite.

As well as measuring the bite forces that the beetles could produce, the scientists, from Antwerp University, filmed stag beetle fights to assess their biting power.

The findings are reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Stag beetles do not use their impressive jaws to eat, as you might expect, but rather to attract females and to fight and wrestle with other males over territory.

'Start Quote

To maintain their jaws as a useful weapon, they had to change their entire head'

End Quote Jana Goyens University of Antwerp

'They seem very ferocious,' Jana Goyens, from the University of Antwerp, who led the study, told BBC News.

'But long [jaws] should not be very efficient when it comes to transferring very large bite forces - it would seem from a mechanical point of view that they would not bite forcefully.'

This is because the force generated by muscles in the beetle's head has to be transferred down to the end of each jaw, or mandible. So, just like a very long lever, the force has to work over a long distance.

You can experience this rule of mechanics with your own body.

If you hold your arms straight out in front of you and press your hands together, it is difficult to produce a great deal of force. But if you bring your hands in close to your chest, you can push your palms together with much more force.

Beetle battles

Ms Goyens staged and filmed fights between the male beetles to determine the distance between their jaws when they grab an opponent.

In detail: Stag beetle

  • Scientific name: Lucanus cervus

  • Adult males can reach up to 7cm (2.5in) in length

  • The species is Britain's largest known terrestrial beetle

  • The insects' enlarged jaws resemble stags antlers

  • Adults do not eat and live for only a few weeks as beetles, with the rest of their life - four to six years - spent underground as developing larvae

  • Distribution in the UK is primarily in the south and south-east of England, but numbers have fallen sharply in the past four decades

She then measured the bite force that the beetles could produce at the end of their jaws, and studied scans of the internal anatomy of their heads.

These measurements revealed first that the male head is a lot wider than the female.

'That makes space for longer input levers,' Ms Goyens said. Like the handle of a pair of pliers, there is a long lever inside the beetle's head that is hinged to each of its jaws.

'And that enhances the force,' he said.

'Second, their entire head is filled with these muscles to close the jaws.

'The head shape of the males is adapted to make space for these enormous muscles. And of course, the bigger the muscles, the larger the muscle force.'

Ms Goyens said this was an example of just how extreme evolutionary changes could be.

'Sexual selection has had a very large impact on their anatomy,' said Ms Goyens. 'To maintain their jaws as a useful weapon, they had to change their entire head.'

Beaked whale is deep-dive champion

Cuvier's beaked whales are likely to be the most extreme breath-holders among marine mammals.

A satellite tag attached to one of these animals, swimming off the coast of California, recorded a dive to nearly 3km below the ocean surface that lasted 137 minutes.

This performance exceeds that for any southern elephant seal, which is also known to be an extreme breath-holder.

The Cuvier's record-breaking dive is reported in the journal Plos Biology.

Erin Falcone is a research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Washington State, US, which led the research project.

She told BBC News that beaked whales had very high levels of the myoglobin protein in their muscles, to the point where the tissues appeared almost black.

This functions like haemoglobin in the blood, allowing the whales to store much higher levels of oxygen, and thus breathe less frequently while remaining active.

'One key adaptation that seems to allow beaked whales to dive more deeply than other species is a dramatic reduction in air spaces within their bodies,' she added.

'It is the presence of air spaces within the body that would crush a human at a fraction of the depths these whales can dive.

'Reduction in air spaces not only makes them more 'crush resistant', but also likely serves to reduce the uptake of dissolved gases into their tissues - which can lead to decompression sickness or 'the bends'.'

Sizeable ability

Cuvier's beaked whales have long been recognised as expert divers, but their precise abilities have been uncertain because of the paucity of data detailing their behaviour in the wild.

The Cascadia group and colleagues managed to put tags on eight animals, collecting over 3,700 hours of diving data.

This information covered more than 1,000 individual deep-dives, averaging depths of 1,400m; and some 5,600 shallow dives, averaging about 275m down.

The prevalent behaviour, says the team, is for a single deep foraging dive followed by a series of shallow dives. The time spent at the surface in between each dive can be very short - just a few minutes.

The deepest recorded dive was to 2,992m, lasting 137.5 minutes, beating the maximum duration for a diving marine mammal of 2,388m, for a duration of 120 minutes, reported for a southern elephant seal.

Dr Paul Jepson from the Zoological Society of London was not connected with the study. He told BBC News: 'This paper is incredible for how deep and long these relatively small cetacean species can dive. As a general rule, dive depth and duration tend to scale with body size and body mass - but Cuvier's (adults around 2,500kg) are much smaller than other deep-diving species like sperm whales (up to 57,000kg).

'Of course, what we really need is more tags on more animals. But people who study Cuvier's will tell you these animals are incredibly shy and it's very difficult to get near them to attach a tag.'

Sonar concerns

One interesting aspect of the study was its location - within the Southern California Anti-Submarine Warfare Range.

This is surprising because Cuvier's beaked whales are thought to be particularly susceptible to the disturbance caused by military sonar. Many strandings of the species have been reported coincident with military exercises.

The fact that the study animals persisted inside the range hints that they may have become habituated to sonar. But Erin Falcone urged some caution on this interpretation.

'The area where we conducted our study is one of the most heavily used sonar training areas in the world, and when we began working there we were shocked to find as many Cuvier's beaked whales as we did, given that they seem so sensitive to this type of disturbance elsewhere.

'We are actively working to identify periods of time when the whales we tagged were likely exposed to sonar (which has been no small challenge) to see how their behaviour changed, since it is hard to imagine that they are not affected in some way, and understanding how they alter their behaviour here might help to protect beaked whales elsewhere.' and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Icy body found orbiting far from Sun

Scientists have identified a new dwarf planet in the distant reaches of our Solar System.

It is being call 2012 VP113 for the time being, is about 450km across and is very likely icy in composition.

To date, only one other such object has been seen orbiting beyond the major planets in its region of space referred to as the inner Oort Cloud.

That previous object, called Sedna, is about 1,000km across, and was found 10 years ago.

But researchers believe there are hundreds more such objects awaiting detection.

'We've been using a large camera on a four-metre telescope in Chile, and it's a very powerful facility,' said Scott Sheppard from the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington DC, US.

'Our survey covered just a very small area of the sky - about 220 full Moons of sky. So, there's a lot more sky out there, and we predict, based on this one object, that across the whole sky we could expect to find 900 objects of 1,000km or bigger in size.

'Start Quote

It's so cold that the ice would be harder than the rock on Earth'

End Quote Scott Sheppard Carnegie Institution of Science

'Some of these could be bigger than Pluto; some could even be bigger than Mars or the Earth. The problem is they're just so distant, especially when they're in the far parts of their orbits, that they're just too faint to detect,' he told BBC News.

The observations of 2012 VP113 are reported in the journal Nature. They indicate that the object gets no closer than about 12 billion kilometres to the Sun, and at the farthest point in its eccentric orbit is a staggering 67 billion km from our star.

To put that in some context, the Earth is 149 million km from the Sun, and even the most distant major planet - Neptune - seems close at 4.5 billion km, by these standards.

Sheppard and his colleague Chad Trujillo, from the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, have calculated that 2012 VP113 takes 4,000 years to go around the Sun.

The big question is: how did it and Sedna come to be where they are?

'Reddish colour'

Astronomers have made great progress in mapping the close-in parts of the Solar System.

Even surveys in the region just beyond Neptune referred to as the Kuiper Belt have thrown many hundreds of detections, some of which rival the zone's best known inhabitant - Pluto.

But it is the Oort Cloud - the region beyond - that has proven very difficult to study.

Our models for Solar System formation suggest that it is highly unlikely 2012 VP113 was created in its present location. Its orbit is just too eccentric.

One explanation is that it was perturbed and pulled out of the Kuiper Belt by a planet that was expelled from our Solar System early in its history. Another idea is that it was pulled out of the Kuiper Belt by a star passing close by. A third, tantalising possibility is that it is actually an object stolen from a star that formed from the same 'nursery' of gas and dust as our Sun billions of years ago.

Additional detections would help narrow possibilities.

In the meantime, more precise information on 2012 VP113's orbit is being sought. Astronomy's nomenclature authority, the International Astronomical Union, requires such data before it will sanction a catchier name.

'Based on 2012 VP113's reddish colour and what we know about other objects in the Solar System, and where this object is, we believe it's probably made mostly of water-ice, and probably some methane ice and carbon dioxide ice, with a little rock thrown in. And it's so cold that the ice would be harder than the rock on Earth,' explained Dr Sheppard.

'If you could stand on the object and look towards the Sun, you'd be so far away it would look little more than just a bright star in the sky.'

  • This diagram gives a sense of the huge orbits of some objects

  • The Sun and inner planets are at the centre and too small to see

  • Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are shown by purple solid circles

  • Pluto is in a region of space called the Kuiper Belt, shown in light blue

  • Sedna's orbit is shown in orange; 2012 VP113's orbit is shown in red and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Small icy asteroid has ring system

The asteroid Chariklo has been confirmed as the smallest object in the Solar System to display a ring system.

Encircling bands of material are more usually associated with the giant planets, such as Saturn and Uranus.

Chariklo may be just 250km wide but observations made when it passed in front of a distant star reveal the presence of two distinct rings.

Astronomers tell the journal Nature that the rings are 7km and 3km wide, separated by a clear gap of 9km.

They probably comprise ice particles and perhaps small fragments of rock.

The origin of ring systems is uncertain, but may be the consequence of past collisions.

Even the Earth may have had such bands early in its history if our theory for the Moon's formation is correct.

This describes an impact that threw material into the sky that then encircled the globe before eventually coalescing into the planet's familiar satellite.

Icy Chariklo, too, may have experienced such a bombardment.

The object is technically known as a centaur. Like the mythical creature of the same name, it exhibits a half-way character, having the traits of an asteroid but also looking very comet-like.

Today, Chariklo moves beyond the orbit of Saturn. However, it is very probable that it formed much further out in the Solar System and was then perturbed inwards.

The observations that led to the rings' detection were carried out on 3 June 2013 using seven telescopes sited in South America.

Scientists had worked out that Chariklo would pass in front of the star called UCAC4 248-108672 and were therefore able to coordinate the various facilities.

The occultation, as it is known, lasted just five seconds.

Nonetheless, the researchers were able to use the event to better describe the size and shape of Chariklo, as well as pick out the surprising rings. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Space station crew delayed in orbit

A rocket carrying US and Russian astronauts to the International Space Station has had to delay docking for almost two days because of a glitch.

The craft was expected to dock with the station six hours after its launch from Kazakhstan early on Wednesday morning.

However, a 24-second engine thruster burn required to change its orbit path failed to work as planned.

The crew are not said to be in any danger. The joint mission comes amid high tension between the US and Russia.

The two governments have been exchanging terse rhetoric following Russia's annexation of Crimea this month.

However, co-operation on the space programme has continued, a legacy of the thaw in relations that accompanied the end of the Cold War.

At a press conference before the flight, the astronauts said they would treat dinners aboard the space station 'as an opportunity to come together as friends in the kitchen and look each other in the eye'.

The Soyuz booster rocket, carrying Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and American Steve Swanson, blasted off from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

However, shortly before the craft was due to dock with the space station, officials reported that an engine that was meant to guide the manoeuvre had not operated 'as planned'.

Oleg Ostapenko, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, said that the problem had been caused by a failure of the ship's orientation system.

'The crew have taken off their space suits and are continuing their flight normally,' he said.

The astronauts are now aiming to dock with the space station at the next best opportunity - likely to be 23:58 GMT on Thursday.

The crew have reverted to a two-day approach, used by Russian flights to the space station until 2012. This involves orbiting the earth 34 times.

The shorter, six-hour approach - orbiting the early only four times - was introduced in 2013.

The US relies on Russia to fly its astronauts to the space station since it retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011.

The space station - an orbiting laboratory high above the earth - is operated by 15 nations. It currently has a crew of three.

The arrival of the three astronauts aboard the Soyuz rocket will bring staff levels back to normal.

Scientists film inside a flying insect

Scientists from the UK and Switzerland have used very intense X-rays to film inside an insect's body as it flies.

The resulting footage - a 3D reconstruction made up of several X-ray snapshots - shows a blowfly's flight motor, the 'muscles and hinges' that power flight.

Researchers say the insights could be useful for the design of micro air vehicles.

The results are published in the journal Plos Biology.

'Start Quote

It's amazing how such tiny muscles have such a large effect'

End Quote Simon Walker University of Oxford

Dr Simon Walker from the University of Oxford's animal flight group, first author of the research, explained that the team used very fast, intense X-rays to record the extremely rapid movements. In the time that it takes a human to blink, a blowfly can beat its wings 50 times.

'The X-rays were also focused on to a very small area, which was necessary to achieve high-resolution of such a small object,' Dr Walker told BBC News. 'The blowfly thorax is about 4mm long.'

The scientists tethered the tiny fly to a vertical mount, which they rotated as the insect was X-rayed.

'Flies have an automatic response so that when their feet leave the ground they start flying,' Dr Walker explained. 'We also had a small air blower around the insect, which provides a continued stimulus so that they continued flying during the recording.'

By combining rapid snapshots of the insect's body, the researchers produced a 3D reconstruction of a blowfly in flight.

The X-rays also enabled the researchers to see through the insect's thorax, revealing the power muscles (coloured yellow to red in the footage) and the tiny steering muscles (coloured green to blue in the footage).

'The steering muscles are responsible for driving the wing beat by deforming the thorax.

One of the most surprising things, said Dr Walker, 'is how much deformation you see [in the body of the fly] - how everything bends and buckles'.

'And it's amazing how such tiny muscles have such a large effect.'

The steering muscles, he explained, are just 3% of the fly's muscle mass, but they can produce 'very big and rapid changes in direction'.

The team hopes the insights into these very fine-scale movements will prove useful in the design of micro air vehicles that aim to replicate insect flight.

There is a great deal of interest in mimicking insect flight in order to produce these types of vehicles.

Scientists in the US have already built the world's smallest flying robot, copying the high-speed motion of a fly's wings. The hope is that these could navigate disaster zones - moving through tiny crevices to locate survivors.

These 'robo-flies', however, have to be tethered to a power source, and Dr Walker says that it remains an engineering challenge to make micro-scale flying vehicles that are much more efficient at converting 'fast, small amplitude, linear motions into larger, three-dimensional motions'.

'Insects have solved this problem,' he added.

Living materials could grow products

Living materials based on bacteria and grown in a Boston lab could point to a greener way of manufacturing.

In future, complex and interactive structures could be grown using cells programmed to assemble into intricate patterns, the researchers argue.

They describe patterned biofilms made from proteins tougher than steel, designed to incorporate semiconducting crystals and electrical wiring.

Their research is published in Nature Materials.

'Start Quote

Just imagine if we could grow physical devices and structures from bottom up using cells'

End Quote Prof Timothy Lu Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The living biofilms are the creation of synthetic biologist Timothy Lu and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They are a marriage of advanced techniques in genetic engineering, which reprogramme a cell's function, and the kind of protein chemistry that underlies the biofilm gloss we find on our teeth.

'Our vision is to create living materials, in which living cells grow, lay down biopolymers and control the inorganic compounds around them,' Professor Lu explained.

'Just imagine what we could achieve if we could grow physical devices and structures from bottom up using cells and minimal inputs, rather than manufacture and shape them from top down.'

Zebra stripes

It is, of course, the kind of engineering nature has been doing for more than three billion years.

Bone growth, for example, starts with cells that arrange themselves into complex patterns, and excrete specially adapted proteins which template the strong, white calcium phosphate structures we see.

The new work builds on developments in protein engineering, where complex, functional biopolymers self-assemble to make scaffolds onto which other crystals can be templated.

What is different is that the proteins in this instance are produced by cells that have been reprogrammed using synthetic biology techniques developed by Timothy Lu and others at MIT, Harvard and Boston Universities.

These techniques are based on the understanding that some genes work like components of electronic circuits - switches, for example, that can turn on or off other parts of the genome.

Prof Lu's group is one of several that have developed living biological computer circuits this way. Other researchers have programmed cells so that they grow into complex patterns, like zebra stripes.

Electrical switch

The new work brings these trends together, creating genetic switches that respond to chemical signals, and engineered genes that produce synthetic filaments of a protein called curli - biopolymers already known to have the strength of steel.

'Start Quote

This is only a beginning - downstream we'd like to try more sophisticated designs'

End Quote Prof Timothy Lu Massachusetts Institute of Technology

As a result, bacteria secrete the protein matrix under instruction from stimulants added by the researchers, or broadcast by neighbouring cells.

The team has also adapted the proteins so that inorganic materials can grow on them - such as quantum dots which respond to light, or metals to make conducting wires.

In one experiment, they programmed bacteria to grow an electrical switch, either opening or closing an electrical circuit according to the chemical stimulus applied.

'This is only a beginning,' said Prof Lu. 'We've shown that even with simple modifications we can get some pretty interesting materials. Downstream we'd like to try more sophisticated designs.'

Synthetic biologist Lingchong You, from Duke University, agreed the new work was a remarkable step forward.

'In theory you can put a number of protein-expressing genes under the control of elaborate self-organising genetic circuits. Once you have that, every cell could carry the blueprint of the design you want to make,' he said.

Professor You envisages smart biofilms that not only scavenge and clean up the pollutant cadmium at solar-cell factories, but then grow integrate the metal into cadmium-selenide crystallites that would themselves be used in photovoltaic devices.

At MIT, Timothy Lu's team is working on a living glue that can work underwater like the adhesives of barnacles.

Cells engineered to produce the right combination of proteins to attach firmly to surfaces would also incorporate control elements to turn the process on or off, perhaps in response to light signals.

'We'd also like to include stress-responsive circuits, so that the cells would make more glue if the join is stretched or broken,' added Dr Lu. 'That way we'd have materials that self heal, the way wood can.'

Best suited to high-value materials ('we won't be making the world's bricks this way,' Dr Lu confessed), the synthetic biological approach would run at room temperature, avoiding the high energies and harsh chemicals used in today's manufacturing processes, the researchers said.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dissent over key climate report

Senior scientists and government officials are meeting in Japan to agree a critical report on the impacts of global warming.

Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will publish their first update on the scale of the threat in seven years.

Leaked documents speak of significant impacts on economies, food supplies and security.

But some attendees say the summary, due out next Monday, is far too alarmist.

This will be the second of a trilogy of reports on the causes, effects and solutions to climate change, from a body made up of some of the leading researchers in the world.

Long-term perspective

Last September in Stockholm, they produced a summary on the physical science of climate change, arguing that it was real, and humans were the 'dominant cause'.

Now in Yokohama, the second IPCC working group will set out the impacts that rising temperatures will have on humans, animals and ecosystems over the next century.

Under the microscope

The previous report on climate impacts released by the IPCC is been remembered for two significant errors that damaged its credibility

The first concerned the disappearance of glaciers in the Himalayas, which the IPCC erroneously said could happen by 2035

The second was a statement that over half the Netherlands lies below sea level; the more accurate figure is 26%.

Dutch scientist Arthur Petersen says that this new summary has been put 'under the microscope' to avoid such errors

There are now spreadsheets for every number in referenced in the report's underlying chapters

'I think this report will be better than any other climate change report that has ever been produced on the planet'

The scientists and government officials will agree on the exact wording of the final summary over the next few days, with publication coming early next Monday, UK time.

The summary is a short, dense document that sums up the findings of 30 underlying chapters, each made up of detailed assessments of relevant research that has been published since 2007.

A leaked draft of the summary, seen by the BBC, points to a range of negative effects that will in some instances, be 'irreversible'.

Millions of people living in coastal areas in Asia will be affected by flooding, and displaced due to land loss.

The draft says that crop yields around the world will decline by up to 2% per decade for the rest of the century.

If the world warms by 4C towards the end of this century, this will pose a 'significant risk to food security even with adaptation'.

The summary says that in the near term, at levels of warming that scientists say we are already committed to, there is a very high risk to Arctic sea ice and coral reefs.

They warn that the oceans will become more acidic as they warm, and species will move towards the poles to escape the heat.

The researchers say that in this report they have been able to call on a broader range of observations. Instead of just adding up all the impacts saying that together they suggest an influence of climate change, they have been able to look at individual events.

'We've reached the stage where we can go impact by impact, and say is there an influence of climate change?' Dr Chris Field, co-chair of Working Group II told BBC News.

'We don't see it with every one but we do see it with a lot. It's a real difference. Before it was a very general concept, now it is much more specific.'

But some researchers are decidedly unhappy with the draft report.

Prof Richard Tol is an economist at the University of Sussex, who has been the convening lead author of the chapter on economics.

He was involved in drafting the summary but has now asked for his name to be removed from the document.

'The message in the first draft was that through adaptation and clever development these were manageable risks, but it did require we get our act together,' he told BBC News.

'This has completely disappeared from the draft now, which is all about the impacts of climate change and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. This is a missed opportunity.'

What is the IPCC?

In its own words, the IPCC is there 'to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts'

The offspring of two UN bodies - the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme - it has issued four heavyweight assessment reports to date on the state of the climate

These are commissioned by the governments of 195 countries - essentially the entire world. These reports are critical in informing the climate policies adopted by these governments

The IPCC itself is a small organisation run from Geneva with a full time staff of 12. All the scientists who are involved with it contribute on a voluntary basis

Critics say that some aspects of the projected impacts are 'alarmist', such as the effects on conflict and migration caused by climate change.

'You have a very silly statement in the draft summary that says that people who live in war-torn countries are more vulnerable to climate change, which is undoubtedly true,' said Prof Tol.

'But if you ask people in Syria whether they are more concerned with chemical weapons or climate change, I think they would pick chemical weapons - that is just silliness.'

The assertions that the summary for policymakers is too alarmist has been countered by Dr Arthur Petersen, the chief scientist at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, who is representing his government in Yokohama.

He said that this working group had to anticipate all the challenges that might arise from a warming world.

'Working group I (the physical sciences) doesn't want to sound alarmist. In working group II, they don't want to chance not having spotted a particular risk so they have a bias in the other direction,' he said.

'In this report, they are more honest and open that they have a risk orientation because they do focus more on the risks than the opportunities.'

The report is shaping up to be more nuanced, with far more emphasis on adaptation than the last one in 2007.

According to many familiar with the text, it is about managing the risk rather than waiting to see if things get worse.

'We are going to frame the issue of climate change as more of a distributional issue,' said Dr Petersen.

'It's not doom and gloom but an additional stress on countries that are already severely stressed.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Oil well safety warning for fracking

Plans to expand shale gas 'fracking' in the UK must learn from leaks and poor monitoring at existing onshore oil and gas sites, scientists say.

A review of 2,152 wells drilled from 1902-2013 found up to 100 'orphaned' wells for which no firm is responsible.

Only two cases of well 'failure' were recorded, but legacy sites are not monitored for leaks, the authors note.

The study led by ReFINE (Researching Fracking in Europe) is published in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology.

It is perhaps the most comprehensive review yet of Britain's inland oil and gas legacy - pulling together scientific papers, government reports, and industry data.

The long-term stability of wells and the risk of pollution are key considerations if the coalition pushes ahead with plans to expand the shale gas industry as a 'driver' for the UK economy.

Lead author Prof Richard Davies, of Durham University and ReFINE, said: 'Going forward in the UK, we know that shale gas exploration will require a lot of wells if it goes ahead, and it's important we make proper provision [for safety].

'This review is a starting point. We've collated a huge bank of information.

'The findings confirm that well barrier failure and well integrity failure is an issue and that publicly available data in Europe on this seems to be sparse.

'Data from the monitoring of active wells and periodic surveys of abandoned wells would help assess the impact of shale exploitation.

'It is important that the public should have access to this information.'

The use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to recover shale gas has raised fears of earthquakes and contamination of drinking water by chemicals pumped into wells.

But scientists say there is another pollution risk - from structural failure of the well casing - and this risk is not particular to shale gas. It is common to all hydrocarbon drilling sites.

To investigate the risk of leakages, the ReFINE researchers reviewed the publicly available data on 143 actively producing onshore wells.

Between 2000 and 2013, nine pollution incidents were recorded involving the release of crude oil within 1km of an oil or gas well.

Two of these were well integrity failures, which occurred at Singleton oil field, in West Sussex, when the cement casing around the well was breached.

However, the researchers found no data for more than 2,000 inactive wells, many of which have been 'abandoned' (sealed and covered) and in many cases, 'orphaned'.

Orphaned wells are those where the operator has either gone out of business or is insolvent, meaning the company that operated it is no longer responsible for it.

The researchers found between 50 and 100 wells in the UK without any obvious parent company.

'If those wells were to leak, the question is who is responsible? We don't know - it's not clear,' Prof Davies told BBC News.

'We've exposed a legal issue that someone needs to investigate. A thorough look would be fruitful.'

ReFINE was launched in 2013 with the aim of providing unbiased scientific research into the risks of shale gas exploitation in the UK and Europe.

The consortium is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, Shell, Total and Chevron, with the Environment Agency and DECC in an advisory-stakeholder role.

Their review also considers worldwide data on more than four million wells - in countries such as Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Poland, and the US.

Datasets from eight countries published between 1989 and 2013 revealed highly variable well barrier and well integrity failure rates of 1.9%-75%.

For example, of 8,030 wells targeting the Marcellus shale inspected in Pennsylvania between 2005 and 2013, 6.3% were reported to the authorities for infringements related to well barrier or integrity failure.

Rob Jackson, professor of environmental science at Duke University, and co-author on the study, said:

'The data show enormous variation in the number of wells with integrity issues. Figuring out why - what conditions and practices work best in the field - is really important.

'As a society, we're not good at longterm thinking. We need to plan now for keeping track of wells and making sure there is enough money to plug and monitor them for at least 50 years.'