Friday, October 31, 2014

Space project continues - Branson

Sir Richard Branson has vowed to continue his space tourism venture despite the fatal crash of one of his craft in the California desert.

One pilot died and the other was badly injured when Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo craft exploded on Friday.

The founder of the Virgin Group said he was 'shocked and saddened' but insisted he would 'persevere' with space travel.

The craft was flying a manned test when it experienced what the company described as 'a serious anomaly'.

Sir Richard said Virgin Galactic would co-operate fully with the authorities involved in the investigation.

Officials with the US National Transportation Safety Board will begin their investigation on Saturday morning, which will probably take several days.

'Space is hard'

In a blog post, Mr Branson said everyone involved in the project was 'deeply saddened'.

'All our thoughts are with the families of everyone affected by this tragic event,' he wrote.

He said that he was flying to California immediately, describing it as 'one of the most difficult trips I have ever had to make'.

'Space is hard - but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together,' he added.

George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said: 'Space is hard and today was a tough day.

'The future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the team to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we'll do.'

Wreckage from the crash was scattered across the Mojave desert, north-east of Los Angeles. Police secured the site amid fears that some of the debris could be explosive.

Both pilots were employed by Scaled Composites, the company that designed the craft. One was pronounced dead at the scene while the other was transported to a local hospital in an unknown condition.

The spacecraft had been carried into the air by an aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo before being released at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,700m) for a test of its rocket engine. It crashed shortly afterwards.

In a statement, Virgin Galactic said the 'vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo'.

The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft landed safely, the statement added.

Analysis: David Shukman, BBC science editor

Even as details emerge of what went wrong, this is clearly a massive setback to a company hoping to pioneer a new industry of space tourism. Confidence is everything and this will not encourage the long list of celebrity and millionaire customers waiting for their first flight.

An innovative design for a spacecraft combined with a new type of rocket motor to make the development challenge exceptionally hard. Despite an endless series of delays to its spacecraft, Virgin Galactic has over the years managed to maintain some very optimistic public relations and positive media coverage.

I interviewed Sir Richard Branson when he first announced the venture, and his enthusiasm and determination were undoubted. But his most recent promises of launching the first passenger trip by the end of this year had already started to look unrealistic some months ago.

Will crash set back space tourism?

Today's accident will delay plans even further. Space is never easy, and making it routine is even harder.

The head of the US space agency Nasa, Charles Bolden, voiced his shock at the crash, saying: 'The pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration.

'Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.'

It was the second accident this week involving a commercial space company in the US.

On Tuesday, an unmanned supply rocket called Antares exploded shortly after its launch from Virginia. It was carrying cargo to the International Space Station.

Virgin Galactic has been a frontrunner in the nascent space tourism industry, and Sir Richard said earlier in October he expected to see the craft make it to sub-orbital space within a few months.

More than 800 people have already paid or put down deposits for a trip on SpaceShipTwo, at a cost of about $200,000 (£125,000) per person, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wannabe is 'catchiest hit single'

The Spice Girls' debut hit, Wannabe, is the catchiest single in British history, an online experiment suggests.

Participants recognised the song in 2.3 seconds, compared with an average of five seconds for other popular hits.

Researchers developed the interactive game, called Hooked on Music, as part of a scientific study to unlock the secrets of what makes music memorable.

The initial results from the study will be unveiled at the Manchester Science Festival on Saturday evening.

Data from more than 12,000 participants was collected from the online experiment, which was developed by the Museum of Science and Industry (Mosi).

People who played the game were asked if they recognised a song, which was randomly selected from more than 1,000 clips of best-selling songs, dating from the 1940s until the present day.

The Spice Girls' debut single, which spent seven weeks at number one during 1996, was the most quickly recognised song by participants, taking an average of 2.29 seconds.

Second was Lou Bega's Mambo No 5, which was identified in an average of 2.48 seconds.

Survivor's Eye of the Tiger was third, with an average time of 2.62 seconds.

Overall, it took people an average of five seconds to recognise a clip from one of the UK's best-selling records.

The Hooked on Music concept was designed by Ashley Burgoyne, a computational musicologist from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, and colleagues.

'I work within a group that studies music cognition in general - any way in which the brain processes music - and we were particularly interested in music and memory and why exactly it is that certain pieces of music stay in your memory for such a long time,' he told BBC News.

'You may only hear something a couple of times yet 10 years later you immediately realise that you have heard it before.

The UK's top 10 catchiest songs

1. Spice Girls - Wannabe

2. Lou Bega - Mambo No 5

3. Survivor - Eye Of The Tiger

4. Lady Gaga - Just Dance


6. Roy Orbison - Pretty Woman

7. Michael Jackson - Beat It

8. Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You

9. The Human League - Don't You Want Me

10. Aerosmith - I Don't Want To Miss A Thing

(Source: Hooked on Music experiment/Mosi)

'Yet other songs, even if you have heard them a lot, do not have this effect.'

Dr Burgoyne said that his team wanted to see if it was possible to identify whether the most memorable pieces of music shared particular characteristics.

'When we went to look at this, you would have thought that it would have been studied to death yet, in fact, it has not - there is very little scientific literature,' he said.

'There are lots of ideas [about] why this is the case but very, very little empirical research.'

Manchester Science Festival director, Dr Marieke Navin, said people's appetite to participate in real scientific research and the experiment's need for a large, diverse group of participants made it an ideal addition to the festival's programme.

'It does not matter whether or not people want to do the science per se; they can just play an online game for fun,' she told BBC News.

'It has a wide appeal for gamers, or for people who just like music and want to test their knowledge and how good they are at recognising hooks.

'While people are playing, it is actually an experiment and scientists are collecting data. This allows the scientist to test different hypotheses about the musical hook.'

Dr Burgoyne added: 'The most important aspect of this stage of the experiment was getting this very precise measurement of exactly how memorable segments of the songs are.

'What I am going to focus on for the next year is asking what explains this; what are the musical features that makes something catchy?

'Although this is just a casual observation on my part, very strong melodic hooks seem to be the most memorable for people.'

The game will remain online until at least the end of the year, and Dr Burgoyne explained how the experiment fed into his team's wider research.

'While it is fun to know this - because people love music but in the long run - if we have a better understanding of how the musical memory works, we are hopeful that we can move into research on people with dementia,' he explained.

'There has already been some research that shows that if you can find the right piece of music, something that had a very strong meaning, playing that piece of music can be very therapeutic.

'But the challenge is figuring out what is the best piece of music.'

One dead in SpaceShipTwo test crash

Rockets 'destroy chemical weapons'

A team has developed micro-rockets that can neutralise chemical and biological weapons.

Powered by seawater, the micrometre-sized rockets are capable of degrading agents like anthrax and sarin.

The rockets can 'swim' in contaminated samples to decompose them, before eventually self-degrading.

Published in journal ACS Nano, the team says the technology could also decontaminate environmental waste.

'It needs no external stimuli, just expose it to seawater, it then generates a bubble and moves around. In the past, people needed external fuel but here we use seawater as the fuel,' explained Joseph Wang at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), who was involved in developing the rockets.

Prof Wang said it could degrade both biological weapons and nerve agents like sarin, commonly used as weapons in the Middle East.

'Our rockets can protect against these, faster, cheaper and using less reagents,' he told BBC News.

The rocket is made from magnesium coated with titanium dioxide. A small eye-like opening exposes the magnesium which reacts with the seawater causing a 'bubble propulsion' effect which powers it forward.

This propulsion then enables titanium dioxide to react and break down chemical and biological agents. Titanium dioxide is already known for its amazing ability to break down pollutants. It has previously been used for self-cleaning windows and engineers have even coated cotton with the chemical in an attempt to make clothes clean themselves.

The UCSD scientists say that titanium dioxide is also extremely useful for degrading chemical and biological warfare agents. It produces no toxic waste material and does not need chemicals which have toxic by-products.

One of the next challenges will be to scale up the project to enable the micro-motors to clear a large area of contaminants.

There are broader impacts of the technology too, said Prof Wang. His team are now working on a similar motor which could be used to help treat disease by targeting cancer cells, or it could release drugs inside the body.

The project was funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a US government organisation.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Newt flesh fungus 'brought by pets'

Zoologists say a skin-eating fungus threatens salamanders and newts across Europe, and probably arrived on pet amphibians imported from Asia.

It was discovered in the Netherlands in 2013 after wiping out all but 10 of the country's fire salamanders.

Now tests show that the fungus causes deadly skin diseases in many related species, but not those from Asia.

The findings, published in Science, suggest that the fungus coexisted with Asian salamanders for 30 million years.

Researchers from Imperial College and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) collaborated on the study with teams in the Netherlands and Belgium.

'Start Quote

There appear to be no real barriers that prevent the spread of the fungus throughout Europe'

End Quote Prof An Martel Ghent University

The parasitic fungus, called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, is related to another fungus ( Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) that causes a similar disease in frogs and other amphibians, mostly in the tropics.

According to the new study, the recently discovered 'B. sal' does not affect frogs or toads but kills a wide variety of salamanders.

It rapidly invades and eats an animal's skin, which is crucial to its survival because it helps it to breathe.

'Most of the salamander species that come into contact with this fungus die within weeks,' said lead author Prof An Martel from Ghent University, Belgium.

'There appear to be no real barriers that prevent the spread of the fungus throughout Europe.'

Prof Martel and her team screened more than 5,000 amphibians from 35 different species, across four continents.

The results pointed the finger squarely at Asia as the most likely source.

'It's extremely lethal to most of the European salamanders that we tested, but it doesn't seem to cause serious disease in any of the Asian species,' said Dr Trent Garner from ZSL's Institute of Zoology.

'The best explanation we have right now is this fungus originally arose in Asia.'

'Start Quote

Let's not call it a villain - they're not jumping onto aeroplanes of their own volition'

End Quote Dr Trent Garner Institute of Zoology, ZSL

Based on the evolutionary history of the group of Asian salamanders that can carry the fungus but survive, the team estimated that this branch of the family has lived with the fungus since the Palaeogene period, 30 million years ago.

They even detected the fungus in a museum specimen of an Asian newt dating from before 1870.

Since several species of Asian newts and salamanders are popular pets in Europe and the US, the animal trade seemed a likely explanation for the fungus turning up in Belgium.

To test this idea, the researchers also examined more than 2,000 skin samples from animals in museums and in pet shops around Europe, including Heathrow Airport, and at an export business in Hong Kong.

The pet shop samples were clean, but three specimens kept in European museums were infected - and had been imported from Asia in 2010.

This makes imported animals by far the most probable source. And although the pet shop samples in the study were fungus-free, this trade remains a likely explanation for the European outbreak because of the high numbers of amphibians that are imported to live in aquariums.

A particularly likely culprit is the Chinese fire-bellied newt, Cynops orientalis, which is such a common pet worldwide that 2.3 million arrived in the US between 2001 and 2009.

Dr Garner was keen to defend the newts themselves.

'Let's not call it a villain,' he told the BBC. 'They're not jumping onto aeroplanes of their own volition. Let's call it the poor, trafficked amphibian.'

He emphasised that the invasion could be controlled by careful management.

'We've got to work towards controlling pathogens in the wildlife pet trade,' Dr Garner said.

'Moving animals around moves their pathogens with them. Quite often in new situations, these pathogens have the weapons to overwhelm local hosts that haven't been exposed.'

He also said efforts could be made to tackle the fungus in the wild.

'It's no longer a matter of populations just going down - we're actually seeing species being eliminated by new infectious diseases.

'I personally think that we can develop these mitigation techniques - we do it for livestock and we do it for humans.'

Dr Garner has encountered widespread public interest in these issues in the UK.

'We've had ranavirus causing common frogs to die in the UK for 20 years. We're constantly hearing from people walking out and finding dead frogs in ponds in their own backyards. People are in tears!

'The British public really does care.'

Although the 'B. sal' fungus has not yet been found in the wild outside Belgium and the Netherlands, the researchers have said it is likely to spread further, because the animals pass it on when they touch each other.

The great crested newt, a protected species in the UK, is among the animals for whom the virus is fatal.

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A WW2 technology 'Plan B' for GPS

Technology developed during World War Two is to be used as a back-up for GPS.

The General Lighthouse Authorities (GLA) have announced that they have installed a system called eLoran in seven ports across Britain.

The GLA say many critical instruments on ships use Global Navigation Satellite Systems, and if they fail the consequences could be disastrous.

The new system, which is ground rather than satellite-based, is designed to be used in the event of a GPS failure.

'All vessels that sail today are massively dependent on GPS, ' Martin Bransby, research and radio navigation manager for the General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland, told the BBC's technology programme Click.

'It is their primary means of navigation - and a massive number of instruments rely on it too.

'If you don't have it, you are dead in the water.'

Testing for eLoran has taken place in Felixstowe, the busiest container port in the UK.

Each year, three million containers are brought in on some of the biggest ships in the world.

'Start Quote

A little bit of power from a jammer on the frequency used by GPS close to your receiver can deafen it'

End Quote Prof David Last Royal Institute of Navigation

Safely manoeuvring these vessels in this packed waterway is vital, and currently the only way to do this is with the help of GPS.

Onboard the Galatea, a ship that is 80m (260ft) long, the GLA have been finding out what happens if the satellite system goes wrong.

Martin Bransby demonstrates a GPS failure by pulling the plug on the ship's receiver.

Within a few seconds, alarms start to sound on the bridge as one by one the instruments stop working.

'This is the gyrocompass - it steers the ship - you can see it starting to fail,' says Mr Bransby.

'If we walk over here, this is the radar, and that's not working either. This is the dynamic positioning: it holds the ship's position, that's not working.

'The electronic chart display becomes unusable. Even the ship's clock stops working.'

In a series of tests, the GLA have found that almost every bit of kit on the boat uses GPS - even the onboard satellite entertainment system.

Mr Bransby says: 'You can imagine standing watch on this ship, it's the middle of the night, it's dark, it's foggy, you are in the English Channel, and then this happens.

'What do you do? You're in a right mess, basically.'

Losing GPS is not a just theoretical problem.

'Start Quote

The radio frequencies which eLoran transmits are completely different from those of GPS'

End Quote Prof David Last Royal Institute of Navigation

The system works using a fleet of satellites orbiting high above the Earth, but the signal they transmit is weak and can be easily interfered with.

Other sat-nav systems - such as Galileo in Europe and Glonass in Russia - have the same vulnerabilities, says Prof David Last from the Royal Institute of Navigation.

'A little bit of power from a jammer on the frequency used by GPS close to your receiver can deafen it, and it won't be able to hear the GPS signals,' he says.

'For example, jamming is a real issue in Korea. There have now been three occasions when the North Koreans have transmitted high-powered jamming in South Korea.'

The Sun too can knock satellite systems offline, he adds.

'It starts to transmit radio noise during solar storms, so intense that it either makes GPS positions wobble about or causes GPS to be lost across the entire sunlit side of the Earth.'

Until now, there has been no 'Plan B' if GPS goes wrong, but the GLA says eLoran will be an important tool.

The technology was developed during World War Two.

'Start Quote

There is an algorithm that decides to swap over to eLoran and it does that seamlessly'

The Long Range Navigation system (Loran) was the brainchild of US scientists and was used to guide US Navy warships as battles raged in the Pacific.

After the war ended, it was updated and renamed Loran-C, and adopted by mariners around the world - until GPS took over.

Now though, rebranded as eLoran, its infrastructure has been upgraded to make it more accurate and it is making a comeback.

While GPS transmitters are based in space, eLoran's are based on the ground.

Radio stations transmit long-range radio waves. They use the same method as GPS to pinpoint position, but there are crucial differences.

Professor Last says: 'The neat thing is this: the radio frequencies which eLoran transmits are completely different from those of GPS.

'The power levels, instead of being very weak, are very strong; the propagation of the radio signals is very different.'

He adds: 'Everything that matters is very different (from GPS) so there is no common mode of failure. The result you get is a plug-and-play replacement for GPS.'

The General Lighthouse Authorities have finished installing eLoran in seven ports along the east coast of Britain, completing the first phase of their roll out.

Onboard the Galatea, Martin Bransby demonstrates how a dual e-Loran and GPS receiver works.

He says: 'What happens inside this box is when we see some interference or jamming or a satellite failure, there is an algorithm that decides to swap over to eLoran. And it does that seamlessly.'

For now, eLoran is being tested for shipping, but it could also play a role on land for the vast array of systems that use GPS.

Prof Last says a back-up is long overdue.

'Most people think of GPS as the system that runs their car sat-nav and tells their smartphone where it is,' he tells the BBC's Click.

'But there is probably no area of industry, of commerce, or telecoms, that isn't now dependent on GPS. And if we lose GPS we lose them all.'

But the system may never go global.

The US Coast Guard is busy decommissioning the existing eLoran infrastructure. And in Europe, the governments of Norway and France have said they will cease operations next year.

Commercial companies may take up the reins, but without support from some of the biggest shipping nations, the eLoran safety net may not be around to rescue everyone.

Find out more on the Click website. If you are in the UK you can watch the whole programme on BBC iPlayer.

Low oxygen 'delayed life on Earth'

There's been much debate about why animals took so long to evolve and thrive on Earth.

Now scientists say it was due to incredibly low levels of oxygen on Earth more than a billion years ago.

A team determined the chemical composition of ancient rocks to find there was about 0.1% of the oxygen levels present compared with today.

The researchers present their work in Science journal.

Why complex life took so long to appear on the scene has puzzled scientists for many years. It was only over five million years ago that life on Earth began to flourish in a period known as the Cambrian explosion.

For the one billion years before that, in an era called the mid-Proterozoic, though life was present it consisted of very simple organisms.

These creatures were able to survive on very low levels of oxygen, but more complex life could not.

Inhibiting evolution

The idea that oxygen was far too low for animals to evolve before this period had been around for a long time, explained one of the lead authors of the study, Noah Planavsky of Yale University's Department of Geology and Geophysics.

'Our research now shows empirical evidence for a surface oxygen level that would have inhibited animal evolution.

'I had a hunch, which is why I went looking for this and I was surprised that my hunch was actually right, it doesn't usually pan out that well,' he told BBC News.

Scientists know that genetic innovations combined with the right environmental conditions were key to the evolution of all animals, from early marine arthropods to dinosaurs and eventually humans.

But the exact interplay between the two remains unclear.

'The question is not which one of those happened, they both had to have happened. What we showed is that soon after environments in which oxygen levels were high enough for animals to thrive, the genetic innovation that allowed them to emerge happened,' Dr Planavsky said.

The team analysed the chromium levels - a geochemical signature - of rock sediments from Australia, Canada, China, and the United States. This allowed them to understand how much oxygen would have been present.

'Major step forward'

They found a change in the chemical components of the rocks occurred about 800 million years ago, a period when oxygen levels began to rise rapidly, already documented by previous research.

Simon Poulton, a geochemist at the University of Leeds, commented that the authors of the research had used a powerful approach that built upon previous ideas about how atmospheric oxygenation could be tracked.

'Rather than taking a sledgehammer approach, the authors have been very careful about which samples they have chosen to analyse - focusing on the same type of samples from similar settings across Earth history.

'If correct, the very low levels of oxygen found in this study would have provided a major restriction on early animal evolution, thus suggesting that it was indeed a rise in oxygen that ultimately stimulated the evolution of our earliest animal ancestors,' he added.

But he cautioned that it was difficult to put a precise value on oxygen levels from rocks deposited more than a billion years ago.

'So the problem is far from solved, but this is a major step forward and I am sure that this will spark many further studies as the record is still far from complete - this study incorporates just a few analyses across a huge period of Earth history,' Prof Poulton told the BBC.

Another researcher was more critical of the study and said the role of oxygen was overstated. Nicholas Butterfield of Cambridge University's department of Earth Sciences said: 'All geochemistry is drawn from marine rocks, it's not directly measuring the atmosphere.

'The reason it took so long for animals to appear on the scene is it took an extraordinary long time to assemble the extraordinarily complex developmental machinery that builds even a simple animal.

'It's the most complex recipe that evolution has ever derived.'

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IPCC debates 'most important' report

Scientists and officials are meeting in Denmark to edit what's been termed the 'most important document' on climate change.

The IPCC Synthesis Report will summarise the causes and impacts of - and solutions to - rising temperatures.

It will be the bedrock of talks on a new global climate deal.

But there are concerns that political battles could neuter the final summary.

Over the past 13 months, the IPCC has released three major reports on the physical science, the impacts and the potential methods of dealing with climate change.

On Sunday they will release the Synthesis Report. This new study is meant to take the most important elements of all three and blend them into something new. It is not meant to be a cut-and-paste exercise.

'The new thing is there is going to be a stand-alone document that will be the most important for policymakers for the next few years,' Prof Arthur Petersen, a member of the Dutch government's team at the Copenhagen meeting, told BBC News.

'It will be the document for the Paris summit.'

The UN hopes to deliver a new global treaty on climate change at a meeting in the French capital at the end of 2015. The IPCC Synthesis Report will, in the eyes of many, play a critical role in that.

'Start Quote

The reality is we are facing a bleak future in absence of any ambition on mitigation and that needs to be addressed'

End Quote Sanjay Vashist Climate Action Network

'It is the last word that science will have in this process,' said Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is also attending the Copenhagen meeting as an observer.

'So it is important that they get it right and make it as relevant to policymakers as possible.'

'Warming unequivocal'

A draft of the report, seen by the BBC, underlines once again the near certainty of scientists about warming and man's role in it.

Continued emissions of greenhouse gases, it warns, increase 'the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems'.

The authors reiterate that each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

The period between 1983 and 2012 was very likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 800 years, according to the draft.

During this meeting the scientists and government officials will engage in a word-by-word review of the Summary, a document about 30 pages in length.

Concerns have been raised about the role of the government representatives here in Copenhagen.

There have been worries that they are trying to steer the science in a certain direction, to reflect their negotiating positions in the UN climate talks.

One insider told BBC News that the chair of the IPCC, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, had to remind the delegates at one point that they were working on a summary for policymakers, not by them.

'They are there to make sure that there is nothing in a document that their government approved that is inconsistent with their government's negotiation position,' said the person with knowledge of the proceedings.

In this series of reports, the IPCC introduced, for the first time, the concept of a 'carbon budget'.

They worked out the amount of greenhouse gases that the world could emit to raise global temperatures by no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

In Working Group III, issued in Berlin in April, they reported that two-thirds of that budget had been used up by 2011.

But attempts to include this idea in the Synthesis Report have faced considerable opposition from political representatives from a number of countries, including India and the USA.

India sees coal as playing a big part in attempts to get people out of poverty. A global limit on emissions, they argue, would interfere with that.

'It would mean many of the development programmes would need to be curtailed, if carbon budgets put an embargo on providing basic necessities to people, that would be a big concern for India,' said Sanjay Vashist from the campaign group Climate Action Network.

Another point of contention between the developed and developing world is the question of responsibility and impact.

Essentially poorer nations would like the language of the document to reflect the fact that they didn't cause this problem but they will suffer the most from rising temperatures.

'We are not all facing the same situation,' according to Sanjay Vashist.

'The IPCC has already predicted above 2 degrees C for South Asia, that means the disasters will be more threatening compared to other regions.

'Even if you tweak the scientific findings, it doesn't change that reality and the reality is we are facing a bleak future in absence of any ambition on mitigation and that needs to be addressed.'

There is some sense that the voices of developing countries have been getting stronger over the past 13 months as the IPCC has worked through the three reports.

According to Arthur Petersen of the Dutch government's team, that's a good thing.

'It gives strong signals to the scientific community that the whole development perspective is still a blind spot for the more modelling oriented people - do they really have a feel for what's going on in those countries?

'But there is still a general sense and feeling that we should be able to reach an agreement where scientists and governments are happy - we can pull off the miracle again!'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New species of frog in urban jungle

Scientists have confirmed that a frog found living in New York City wetlands is a new species.

Jeremy Feinberg, of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who led the study, first reported the discovery when he heard their 'very odd' chorusing call.

Teaming up with genetics experts to confirm the finding, Mr Feinberg has now published the discovery in the journal Plos One.

It is the first new frog species found in the region for nearly 30 years.

Mr Feinberg told BBC News he knew he might be on to something when he heard a group of them calling in chorus at a wetland study site on Staten Island.

'Frogs have very stereotyped calls within a species, so I knew this was different,' the ecologist told BBC News.

'But it took me two years to find someone to partner with me on the genetics side.'

He believes the frog, Rana kauffeldi - a leopard frog - probably once inhabited Manhattan, so it had been seen before. But it was assumed to belong to a similar-looking, previously known species of leopard frog (so named because of its spots) found in the same area.

Mr Feinberg's familiarity with the known species meant that its call finally gave it away.

When his colleagues tested samples of tissue taken from the frogs, they confirmed that he was right - this urban-dwelling amphibian was a genetically distinct species.

'Double whammy'

'Start Quote

We have to consider that this is a planet that we share'

End Quote Jeremy Feinberg Ecologist, Rutgers University

It is a rare finding in North America: the continent's frog species are well documented.

'This is only the third new species of frog to be discovered north of Mexico since 1986,' said Mr Feinberg.

'What also makes this crazy is that it's in a urban area - [that's] what makes it a double whammy.'

But he explained: 'You wouldn't find it hopping around Times Square' - or even in the ponds in Central Park.

'[These frogs] probably require wetland areas of something on the average minimum of 10 acres or more,' said Mr Feinberg.

'If I took you to this site on Staten Island [where he found the frogs], apart from the fact that you could see the Manhattan skyline in the distance, you wouldn't know you were in the city.'

Dr Gerardo Garcia, a specialist in conservation of rare amphibians and reptiles, based at the UK's Chester Zoo, described the discovery as 'big news'.

'[This] comes thanks to the combination of new technologies and advances in techniques in genetic analysis,' he said.

'Elsewhere though, in places such as Madagascar, taxonomists and conservationists are racing against time to describe species before they become extinct.

'There is a huge backlog of species to describe and find out about that we do already know of, but sadly we're late because the speed of extinction is faster than the capacity to protect them.'

Mr Feinberg said that the species' need for expansive wetland habitats in such a developed area could make it vulnerable.

'This frog is entitled to live. and we're entitled to our houses, too,' he said. 'So I think we have to consider that this is a planet that we share.'

He added: 'Imagine we moved forward 50 years and this frog had never been discovered. We might have destroyed its habitat and never known it was there.

'But this gives me hope that the species could be protected.'

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Koala chlamydia vaccine raises hope

Australian scientists say they have successfully tested a vaccine aimed at protecting wild koalas from chlamydia.

The disease has ravaged the native marsupial, which is under increasing threat.

Microbiologists in Queensland now hope to protect some of the remaining population after successfully trialling a vaccine developed over five years.

Koala numbers have plummeted in recent years and there are believed to be as few as 43,000 left in the wild.

In some areas, numbers have dropped by as much as 80% in the past 10 years.

The strain of chlamydia that affects koalas can lead to blindness, infertility and death among the animals.

In the trial, microbiologists from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland gave 30 koalas the vaccine while 30 others were left unvaccinated.

All 60 were then fitted with radio collars so they could be monitored in their natural habitat at Moreton Bay, north of Brisbane.

Of the 30 vaccinated, some were already infected with chlamydia, some were healthy and some were showing symptoms of the disease such as eye infections and reproductive tract infections.

Researchers said that seven out of eight koalas suffering from eye infections who received the vaccine showed an improvement.

But in the unvaccinated group, four of six koalas with eye infections saw their conditions worsen.

The researchers also found that koalas infected with the chlamydia strain did not go on to develop the full-blown disease after they were vaccinated.

'It's all very promising and it's not just that it's doing the right thing from an immune response point of view, but it's actually protecting a significant number of them out in the wild climbing around trees,' Professor Peter Timms told AFP news agency.

The Australian government has classified the koala as a vulnerable species as its numbers plummeted due to habitat loss, disease and other factors.

Prof Timms said chlamydia was one of the 'tipping points' contributing to the decline of the animal and it was crucial to stop its spread.

'The vaccine would actually make a difference,' he said.

Researchers intend to continue the trial in areas where koalas are most at risk.

Rocket explosion cause sought in US

The builders of an unmanned supply rocket which exploded on the way to the International Space Station have vowed to find the cause of the failure.

Antares, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, combusted seconds after leaving a launch pad in the US state of Virginia.

The company has warned locals near the crash site to avoid hazardous wreckage.

Crews have accessed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility to search for debris, which may shed light on the incident.

'We will not fly until we understand the root cause,' said Frank Culbertson, executive vice-president of Orbital Sciences, adding the top priority now was repairing the launch pad as 'quickly and safely as possible'.

The rocket, launched from Wallops Flight Facility, was due to carry nearly 5,000lb (2,200kgs) of supplies to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

It included equipment for astronauts to conduct tests on blood flow to the human brain and to analyse meteors.

There was also equipment for experiments to examine the growth of pea shoots in orbit and how the body's immune system reacts to space travel.

More than 1,300lb (600kg) of food was on board, including pre-packaged meals and freeze-dried crab cakes.

The flight - expected to be the third contracted mission with NASA - was initially planned for Monday but was delayed due to a yacht in the surrounding danger zone.

Meanwhile, the Russian Space Agency launched its own supply rocket to the ISS early on Wednesday. It arrived successfully six hours later with a reported three tons of food aboard.

Following the failed launch of Atares, NASA's station programme manager Mike Suffredini told US media all of the lost materials will be sent to the ISS at a later date. The six-person crew has enough supplies to last into next spring, he added.

Key to sounding charismatic revealed

Scientists say they now understand what makes a voice sound charismatic.

Some people have an innate ability to manipulate their vocal frequency to give their voice a richer quality, the US-based researchers said.

Such people can then apply additional vocal techniques to take advantage of this.

The researchers also found that political leaders with lower voices were perceived as more dominant and attractive.

Conversely, those who spoke with higher frequencies were viewed as submissive and benevolent. These findings are in line with previous research.

Controlling vocal frequency is an innate ability dependent on the size of a person's larynx.

A large larynx and long vocal fold result in a lower voice vibration. In a similar way, the same musical note will sound different played on a cello and a violin.

'Emotional state'

Leaders have the ability to manipulate their voices in order to be recognised as dominant figures, said Rosario Signorello at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who led the research.

'The internal characteristics of a dynamic or charming leader are always perceived through voice. Leaders use a charismatic voice to arouse an emotional state in their listeners,' he told the BBC.

The common feature of a charismatic leader is their ability to manipulate their vocal quality in order to convey different types of charisma. In political speeches this can help persuade audiences, he said.

Speakers perceived as charismatic add inflection, harshness or other characteristics to align with their audience's expectation.

'This function is learned, dependent on the languages that we speak and filtered by the culture one belongs to,' said Dr Signorello.

'Start Quote

In every culture there are ways to manipulate your voice to convey different types of charisma'

End Quote Dr Rosario Signorello University of California, Los Angeles

Conveying sexiness

In the research, Dr Signorello changed the frequency of male politicians' voices from Italy, France, Portugal and Brazil, including Luigi de Magistris, Francois Hollande and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

More than 250 participants in his research were then asked to rate the voices with 67 adjectives such as dishonest, scary, dynamic, attractive, convincing and fair.

The perception of a speaker was also based upon cultural preferences and the language spoken.

For example, French participants preferred a politician with a medium vocal pitch, perceiving him as prudent, calm, trustworthy and fair. Italian participants preferred a lower pitch, viewed as authoritarian, determined and menacing.

But changing one's voice to become more charismatic is not simple. Aside from one important aspect of it being innate, Dr Signorello said it also depended what type of charisma a person was seeking to portray.

'Lowering the vocal pitch, or fundamental frequency, can help to convey dominance but also sexiness. And adding a harsh voice can help [you] to be perceived as a threat or as sexy.

'A male with a low, deep voice would be perceived as dominant by other males but maybe as sexy by females. In contrast a higher vocal pitch can convey submission (male speaker, male listeners) or sexiness (female speaker, male listeners).

'So there is no general recipe for being charismatic but in every culture there are ways to manipulate your voice to convey different types of charisma.'

The research from UCLA's Bureau of Glottal Affairs was presented at the 168th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

Jan Schnupp, co-director of Oxford University's auditory neuroscience group said the work was interesting and fun. 'Intuitively the research makes a lot of sense to me. Normally, larger people have larger, heavier vocal folds which vibrate more slowly, and therefore produce a lower fundamental frequency.

'So we associate deep voices with an impressively large physique. However, how fast your vocal folds vibrate also depends on how much muscle tension you apply in your larynx. Often muscle tone increases, and hence voice pitch rises simply when people get excited.'

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

US rocket explodes during launch

An unmanned supply rocket bound for the International Space Station has exploded during its launch from the US state of Virginia.

Antares, a 14-storey rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp, combusted seconds after leaving the seaside launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility.

The cause of the cargo ship malfunction has yet to be determined.

The initial planned launch of the spacecraft on Monday was delayed due to a sailboat in nearby waters.

The flight was expected to be the third contracted mission with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The rocket was said to be carrying nearly 5,000 pounds (2,200 kgs) of supplies to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Salt destroying fertile land - UN

About 2,000 hectares of fertile land are lost each day due to damage caused by salt, according to a UN analysis.

The total area now affected is equivalent to the size of France - 62 million hectares - which has increased from 45 million 20 years ago.

Salt degradation occurs in areas of dry irrigated land with little rainfall and where there is no natural drainage.

The report is published in UN journal Natural Resources Forum.

It suggests tree planting, deep ploughing and the production of salt-tolerant crops. It also proposes digging drains or ditches around the affected land.

These methods would be expensive but the authors say the cost of inaction would be worse. They estimate the global cost to be $27.3bn (£16.9bn).

'To feed the world's anticipated nine billion people by 2050, and with little new productive land available, it's a case of all lands needed on deck,' said lead author Manzoor Qadir from the UN University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH).

'We can't afford not to restore the productivity of salt-affected lands,' he added.

Growing food needs

Many regions across 75 countries are affected, including the Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia, the Indo-Gangetic Basin in India and the Yellow River Basin in China, causing an impact on many important crop yields.

In India, for example, wheat, rice, sugar-cane and cotton production are all at risk - crops that are vital for livelihoods. In the Colorado River Basin reports have shown that damage from salt could cost the US up to $750m (£465m) per year.

Co-author of the work, Zafar Adeel, also of UNU-INWEH, said: 'A large portion of the affected areas in developing countries have seen investments made in irrigation and drainage, but the infrastructure is not properly maintained or managed.

'Efforts to restore those lands to full productivity are essential as world population and food needs grow, especially in the developing world.'

The authors estimate that food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed the world's growing population.

One of the methods proposed to combat the damage has already been developed by a Dutch farmer. Marc van Rijsselberghe said he had produced potatoes which can be irrigated with salt water.

He told the BBC's Farming today programme that his crops could reduce pressure on fresh-water resources and said he had already harvested 50 tonnes of saline-tolerant potatoes this year.

He said his potatoes could now be grown on 300 million hectares of land all over the world.

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Giant tortoise 'miraculous' recovery

Where once there were 15, now more than 1,000 giant tortoises lumber around Espanola, one of the Galapagos Islands.

After 40 years' work reintroducing captive animals, a detailed study of the island's ecosystem has confirmed it has a stable, breeding population.

Numbers had dwindled drastically by the 1960s, but now the danger of extinction on Espanola appears to have passed.

Galapagos tortoises, of which there are 11 remaining subspecies, weigh up to 250kg and live longer than 100 years.

'Start Quote

It looks like we can step back out of the picture'

The study, based on decades of observations of the variety found on Espanola, was published in the journal Plos One.

Slow release

It offers some good news that contrasts with the tale of Lonesome George, the very last of the related subspecies found on Pinta, on the other side of the archipelago. George's death, at the age of about 100, made international news in 2012.

Lead author Prof James Gibbs told BBC News the finding on Espanola was 'one of those rare examples of a true conservation success story, where we've rescued something from the brink of extinction and now it's literally taking care of itself'.

Prof Gibbs, from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York (SUNY-ESF), said he felt 'honoured' to be reporting the obvious success of the reintroduction programme, which the Galapagos Islands National Park Service commenced in 1973.

His team has found that more than half the tortoises released since that time are still alive, and they are breeding well enough for the population to plod onward, unaided.

'It looks like we can step back out of the picture,' Prof Gibbs said.

It is quite a contrast to the 1960s, when just 12 females and 3 males roamed the island.

'They were so rare at that point, they couldn't find one another. Many of the females had lichens growing on their backs, and fungi, that indicated they hadn't been mated in a very long time.'

Those animals were taken to an enclosure another island, to concentrate on breeding. Over the subsequent decades, more than 1500 of their captive-raised offspring have been released on Espanola.

Competing for cacti

It wasn't as simple as putting the tortoises back, however. Their problems began when feral goats were introduced in the 1800s and devoured much of the island's vegetation, severely disrupting the ecosystem.

'They can literally turn a rich ecosystem into a dustbowl,' Prof Gibbs said.

The goats even learned to feast on very tall cactus plants, whose dropped pads are a key food source for the tortoises in the dry season.

'They would feast on the roots... and chew away at the bark, and eventually that would topple these cacti. And then they had an incredible buffet of maybe 500-1000 years of cactus growth, demolished in a week or two.'

Conservationists set about culling the goats in the 1970s and finally eradicated them in the 1990s.

Their legacy, Prof Gibbs discovered, remains.

Analysis of the island's plant life and its soil show that it has seen a big shift to bigger, woodier vegetation in the 100 years since the goats started stripping the undergrowth.

These shrubs and trees are a problem both for the tortoises and for their summer food of choice, the cacti.

The trees even get in the way of an endangered albatross that breeds on the island, making it difficult for the big, ungainly birds to take flight.

'Population restoration is one thing but ecological restoration is going to take a lot longer,' Prof Gibbs said.

Dr Rebecca Scott, an ecologist who studies turtles at GEOMAR in Kiel, Germany, said the results showed how important it is to monitor reintroduction carefully.

'Reintroducing these large, keystone species, in combination with reducing the spread of invasive species, can really help return ecosystems to native state.

'This work highlights the merit of well-managed reintroduction programmes, but also of really monitoring how these animals do.'

Dr Gerardo Garcia, a herpetologist at Chester Zoo, agreed that the situation was complex and the programme had succeeded because of careful, long-term management.

'It's a long process but it's quite normal for it to take decades,' he told BBC News.

'Nothing gets released and stable in less than 20 or 30 years.'

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Google developing a cancer detector

Google is aiming to diagnose cancers, impending heart attacks or strokes and other diseases, at a much earlier stage than is currently possible.

The company is working on technology that combines disease-detecting nanoparticles, which would enter a patient's bloodstream via a swallowed pill, with a wrist-worn sensor.

The idea is to identify slight changes in the person's biochemistry that could act as an early warning system.

The work is still at an early stage.

Early diagnosis is the key to treating disease. Many cancers, such as pancreatic, are detected only after they have become untreatable and fatal.

There are marked differences between cancerous and healthy tissues.

Google's ambition is to constantly monitor the blood for the unique traces of cancer, allowing diagnosis long before any physical symptoms appear.

The project is being conducted by the search company's research unit, Google X, which is dedicated to investigating potentially revolutionary innovations.

It marks the firm's latest shift into the medical sector following its work on glucose-measuring contact lenses for patients with diabetes and the acquisition of a start-up that developed a spoon to counteract the tremors caused by Parkinson's disease.

Google has also bought stakes in Calico, an anti-ageing research company, and 23andMe, which offers personal genetic-testing kits.


The diagnostic project is being led by Dr Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist who previously developed a cheap HIV test that has become widely used.

'What we are trying to do is change medicine from reactive and transactional to proactive and preventative,' he told the BBC.

'Start Quote

Doctor-patient relationships are pretty privileged and would not involve Google in any way'

'Nanoparticles... give you the ability to explore the body at a molecular and cellular level.'

Google is designing a suite of nanoparticles which are intended to match markers for different conditions.

They could be tailored to stick to a cancerous cell or a fragment of cancerous DNA.

Or they could find evidence of fatty plaques about to break free from the lining of blood vessels. These can cause a heart attack or stroke if they stop the flow of blood.

Another set would constantly monitor chemicals in the blood.

High levels of potassium are linked to kidney disease. Google believes it will be possible to construct porous nanoparticles that alter colour as potassium passes through.

'Then [you can] recall those nanoparticles to a single location - because they are magnetic - and that location is the superficial vasculature of the wrist, [where] you can ask them what they saw,' said Dr Conrad.

Unattached nanoparticles would move differently in a magnetic field from those clumped around a cancer cell.

In theory, software could then provide a diagnosis by studying their movements.

As part of the project, the researchers have also explored ways of using magnetism to concentrate the nanoparticles temporarily in a single area.

The tech company's ambition is ultimately to create a wristband that would take readings of the nanoparticles via light and radio waves one or more times a day.

Prof Paul Workman, chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research in London, told the BBC News website: 'In principle this is great. Any newcomers with new ideas are welcome in the field.

'There is an urgent need for this. If we can detect cancer or other diseases earlier, then we can intervene with either lifestyle changes or treatment.

'How much of this proposal is dream versus reality is impossible to tell because it is a fascinating concept that now needs to be converted to practice.'

His team at the institute is investigating cancer cells and cancer DNA in the blood as new methods of diagnosis and planning treatment.

He did warn Google that a diagnosis could increase anxiety and lead to unnecessary treatment, so there needed to be 'very careful and rigorous analysis' before this type of blood monitoring could be used widely.

The scheme is being made public because Google is now seeking to establish partnerships.

But Dr Conrad sought to play down the idea that his firm wanted to run a search tool for the human body, alongside the one it already offers for the internet.

'We are the inventors of the technology but we have no intentions of commercialising it or monetising it in that way,' he said.

'We will license it out and the partners will take it forward to doctors and patients.

'These are not consumer devices. They are prescriptive medical devices, and you know that doctor-patient relationships are pretty privileged and would not involve Google in any way.'

Analysis: James Gallagher, health editor

From searching the internet to searching your blood, Google certainly has high ambitions. But is it feasible?

The basic principles are sound and mirror the work already taking place around the world.

Many research groups are looking at bits of cancer floating in the blood as a better way of diagnosing the disease and also to assess which tumours are more aggressive.

But Google will have to address concerns around 'false positives', when healthy people are told they are ill.

These have plagued the PSA test for prostate cancer, as PSA levels can soar even when cancer is absent.

There is also the issue of 'over-diagnosis'. Who needs treating even if a condition is discovered?

There is continuing controversy around breast cancer screening: for every life saved, three women have invasive treatment for a cancer that would never have proved fatal.

Screening the body for disease is littered with dangers, and if it is not done carefully, it could make hypochondriacs out of all of us.

The nanoparticle project is the latest so-called 'moonshot' to originate from Google X.

Other schemes include the firm's driverless car effort and Project Loon, an attempt to provide internet access to remote areas via a network of high-altitude weather balloons.

While such ideas have the potential to make money, there is also a high risk of failure, and Google X acknowledges that several of its ideas have been ditched before being made public.

One analyst commented that its parent was in a rare position to make such investments.

'Under normal circumstances this is the kind of thing that would worry investors because such projects are too long-term and the miss rate is too high,' said Cyrus Mewawalla, from CM Research.

'But because Google's core search business is currently so strong, shareholders are not worried at the moment and are allowing the firm to take a gamble.'

Analysis: Leo Kelion, technology desk editor

Google's diagnostic project may never come to fruition, but its significance lies in the fact it represents part of a wider push by the firm into health tech.

Bearing in mind this is already a crowded sector, it begs the question: why?

The search firm denies that it wants to run its own diagnosis service, with all the privacy headaches that would entail, but the patents it creates along the way could prove lucrative.

No doubt the fact that co-founder and Google X chief Sergey Brin has been told that a gene mutation has increased his likelihood of contracting Parkinson's has also focused efforts.

And the company clearly believes its expertise in 'big data' analysis and its freedom to focus on giant leaps forward, rather than incremental steps, plays to its advantages.

It's worth remembering that another much hyped health idea, Google Flu Trends - which aimed to predict the spread of the virus based on internet searches - has been dubbed a failure by some after researchers said it had overestimated the number of cases in 100 out of 108 weeks.

And US health watchdogs banned Google-backed 23andme from selling its genetic screening kits last year.

On the other hand, Google's 'smart lens' for diabetics shows promise, with Swiss firm Novartis stepping up to license the technology in July.

And the forthcoming Android Fit platform, designed to harness data from other apps and wearables, has a good chance of success given the huge number of people using the operating system.

Protection plan 'will not save reef'

Australia's Academy of Science says an Australian government draft plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef will not prevent its decline.

The group said the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan failed to address key pressures on the reef including climate change and coastal development.

Much bolder action was needed, said Academy Fellow Professor Terry Hughes.

'The science is clear, the reef is degraded and its condition is worsening,' said Prof Hughes.

'This is a plan that won't restore the reef, it won't even maintain it in its already diminished state,' he said in a statement released on Tuesday.

'It is also more than disappointing to see that the biggest threat to the reef - climate change - is virtually ignored in this plan.'

Public submissions on the draft plan - an overarching framework for protecting and managing the reef from 2015 to 2050 - closed on Monday.

The plan will eventually be submitted to the World Heritage Centre in late January, for consideration by Unesco's World Heritage Committee mid-next year. Unesco has threatened to place the reef on its List of World Heritage in Danger.

According to scientists, another major threat to the reef's health is continual expansion of coal ports along the Queensland coast.

In a controversial move earlier this year, the Australian government approved a plan to dredge a port at Abbot Point in Queensland, and dump thousands of tonnes of sediment in the sea.

Prof Hughes is one of the authors of a submission by the Academy to the Australian and Queensland governments.

The scientists argue the plan fails to effectively address major factors driving the reef's decline, including climate change, poor water quality, coastal development and fishing.

But a press release from the office of Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the plan was based on the 'best available science'.

'We have a clear plan and a strong commitment to ensure the reef is healthy and resilient - and we are making strong progress,' Mr Hunt said.

'Water quality in the World Heritage area is improving as a result of a partnership between farmers and governments to stop fertilisers, chemicals and sediments running off farming land and into the rivers and creeks along the Queensland coast.'

He said the government had also worked hard to eliminate the disposal of capital dredging - to deepen existing facilities - in the reef's Marine Park.

Two genes linked with violent crime

A genetic analysis of almost 900 offenders in Finland has revealed two genes associated with violent crime.

Those with the genes were 13 times more likely to have a history of repeated violent behaviour.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, said at least 4-10% of all violent crime in Finland could be attributed to individuals with these genotypes.

But they stressed the genes could not be used to screen criminals.

Many more genes may be involved in violent behaviour and environmental factors are also known to have a fundamental role.

Even if an individual has a 'high-risk combination' of these genes the majority will never commit a crime, the lead author of the work Jari Tiihonen of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden said.

'Committing a severe, violent crime is extremely rare in the general population. So even though the relative risk would be increased, the absolute risk is very low,' he told the BBC.

'Start Quote

We're all products of genetics and the environment but I don't think that robs us of free will or understanding right and wrong'

End Quote Dr Christopher Ferguson Stetson University, Florida

The study, which involved analysis of almost 900 criminals, is the first to have looked at the genetic make-up of so many violent criminals in this way.

Warrior gene

Each criminal was given a profile based on their offences, categorising them into violent or non-violent. The association between genes and previous behaviour was strongest for the 78 who fitted the 'extremely violent offender' profile.

This group had committed a total of 1,154 murders, manslaughters, attempted homicides or batteries. A replication group of 114 criminals had all committed at least one murder.

These all had similarly low levels of the MAOA gene, which previous research has dubbed the 'warrior gene' because of its link to aggressive behaviour.

Crime genes

  • The two genes associated with violent repeat offenders were the MAOA gene and a variant of cadherin 13 (CDH13)

  • The MAOA gene breaks down the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, which is important for controlling the amount of dopamine and serotonin in the brain

  • CDH13 has previously been associated with substance abuse and ADHD

  • Those classified as non-violent offenders did not have this genetic profile

A deficiency of the enzyme this controls could result in 'dopamine hyperactivity' especially when an individual drinks alcohol or takes drugs such as amphetamines, said Prof Tiihonen. The majority of all individuals who commit severe violent crime in Finland do so under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

For now, a person's genetic information should not have any influence on conviction outcomes in criminal courts, Prof Tiihonen added.

'There are many things which can contribute to a person's mental capacity. The only thing that matters is the mental capacity of the individual to understand the consequences of what he or she is doing and whether or not the individual can control his or her own behaviour.'

Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University in the US state of Florida agreed. He said it must be remembered that there was not 'one or even two genes that by themselves code for violence or crime'.

'To some extent we're all products of genetics and the environment but I don't think that robs us of free will or understanding right and wrong.'

Despite this view, echoed by many other scientists, there have been several instances of defence lawyers using genetic information to reduce sentences.

In 2009, a court in Italy reduced the sentence of a criminal with genes linked to bad behaviour. In a similar case in the US a murderer's genetic profile was highlighted as a contributing factor for his crime.

Commenting on the latest study, Dr Ferguson said it added to our understanding of the factors involved in violent crime.

'Studies like this really document that a large percentage of our behaviour in terms of violence or aggression is influenced by our biology - our genes - and our brain anatomy.

'It's important to conceptualise crime and violence, where it comes from, even if we would not want to radically change the criminal justice system.'

Brett Haberstick from the University of Colorado, Boulder in the US, said the work illustrates that 'finding genes for criminal behaviour is going to be difficult', despite a long tradition of biological work in the area of criminology'.

He said it would be important for others with similar data to replicate the study.

'It is worthwhile to look for biological contributions to criminal or antisocial behaviour as their impact on individuals, communities and society in general is sizeable. What I think, however, is that it is vital that environmental influences are considered as well,' he told BBC News.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Met Office supercomputer confirmed

Funding has been confirmed for a £97m supercomputer to improve the Met Office's weather forecasting and climate modelling.

The facility will work 13 times faster than the current system, enabling detailed, UK-wide forecast models with a resolution of 1.5km to be run every single hour, rather than every three.

It will be built in Exeter during 2015 and become operational next September.

The Met Office said it would deliver a 'step change' in forecast accuracy.

As well as running UK-wide and global forecasting models more frequently, the new technology will allow particularly important areas to receive much more detailed assessment.

For examples, forecasts of wind speeds, fog and snow showers could be delivered for major airports, with a spatial resolution of 300m.

The extra capacity will also be useful for climate scientists, who need massive amounts of computing power to run detailed models over much longer time scales.

Met Office chief executive Rob Varley said he was 'absolutely delighted' that the government had confirmed its investment, which was first promised by the chancellor in the 2013 Autumn Statement. He described it as 'news that we've been waiting for for some time'.

Analysis by David Shukman, BBC Science Editor

For an island nation that sits at a turbulent cross-roads between Atlantic moisture, Arctic cold and continental extremes, our weather is notoriously hard to forecast. Fickle winds, complicated topography and innumerable local influences add to the challenge.

But because the weather matters so much - to everything from whether to leave home with a brolly to preparing for closed runways at an airport - all eyes are on the Met Office, and the glances are often hostile.

The biggest failures have now entered the national vocabulary: Michael Fish's denial of an approaching hurricane in 1987 and the infamous suggestion of a 'barbecue summer' in 2009 when the reality proved relentlessly soggy.

The Met Office asserts that people never notice everyday successes, a gradual increase in reliability that has seen each decade allow the forecasts to reach another day into the future.

The new supercomputer should accelerate that process, crunching bigger numbers at a finer scale and more frequently than ever before.

But it may also raise expectations about accuracy. And, in a country obsessed with the weather, that brings its own risks.

The new system will be housed partly at the Met Office headquarters in Exeter and partly at a new facility in the Exeter Science Park, and will reach its full capacity in 2017.

At that point, its processing power will be 16 teraflops - meaning it can perform 16 quadrillion calculations every second.

The 'Cray XC40' machine will have 480,000 central processing units or CPUs, which is 12 times as many as the current Met Office supercomputer, made by IBM. At 140 tonnes, it will also be three times heavier.

It marks the biggest contract the Cray supercomputing firm has secured outside the US.

'It will be one of the best high-performance computers in the world,' Science Minister Greg Clark told journalists at the announcement, adding that it would 'transform the analytical capacity of the Met Office'.

The improved forecasts, according to the Met Office, could deliver an estimated £2bn in socio-economic benefits, including more advance warning of floods, less air travel disruption, more secure decision-making for renewable energy investments, and efficient planning for the impacts of climate change.

Mr Varley said this type of technology was 'fundamental' to modern forecasting.

'Computing power is right at the heart of what we do,' he said. 'It gives us the fuel in the tank to make real progress in all of these areas.'

Prof Tim Palmer, a climate physicist at the University of Oxford, also said the announcement was 'very exciting news' and emphasised the necessity for more and more powerful computers.

'Unlike other areas of science, you can't really do lab experiments,' he told the BBC. 'We can only do two things: wait and see what happens, or try and simulate it inside a computer.'

This means, Prof Palmer explained, 'fantastically complex machines' like the XC40 - and whatever comes next.

'This is the start of an important investment, but it's by no means the endpoint.'

The most detailed climate simulations currently being proposed, Prof Palmer said, will need exabytes of storage: another vast increase on the capacity of the Cray XC40, which will have storage capacity of 17 petabytes (a petabyte is one million gigabytes; an exabyte is 1,000 petabytes).

Piers Forster, a professor of climate change at the University of Leeds, said the increased power should 'massively improve understanding of extreme weather and climate change', but added: 'We also need to support brain power.

'When the Met Office opened some of its computers to work with UK university academics it benefited everyone.

'These problems are too big for one computer or organisation to solve, but as long as our fruitful collaborations continue, we can realise the promised benefits.'

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Population controls 'not effective'

Restricting population growth will not solve global issues of sustainability in the short term, new research says.

A worldwide one-child policy would mean the number of people in 2100 remained around current levels, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even a catastrophic event that killed billions of people would have little effect on the overall impact, it said.

There may be 12 billion humans on Earth by 2100, latest projections suggest.

Concerns about the impact of people on the planet's resources have been growing, especially if the population continues to increase.

'Can't stop it'

The authors of this new study said roughly 14% of all the people who ever existed were alive today.

These growing numbers mean a greater impact on the environment than ever, with worries about the conversion of forests for agriculture, the rise of urbanisation, the pressure on species, pollution, and climate change.

'Start Quote

Even if we had a third world war in the middle of this century, you would barely make a dent in the trajectory over the next 100 years'

End Quote Prof Corey Bradshaw University of Adelaide

The picture is complicated by the fact that while the overall figures have been growing, the world's per-capita fertility has been declining for several decades.

The impact on the environment has increased substantially, however, because of rising affluence and consumption rates.

Many experts have argued the best way of tackling this impact is to facilitate a rapid transition to much lower fertility rates.

To work out the impact on population, the team constructed nine different scenarios for population change up to the year 2100, using data from the World Health Organization, and the US Census Bureau's international database.

They also used 'catastrophe scenarios' to simulate the impacts of climate disruption, wars or global pandemics on population trends.

According to the study, attempts to curb our population as a short-term fix will not work.

If China's much criticised one-child policy was implemented worldwide, the Earth's population in 2100 would still be between five and 10 billion, it says.

'We've gone past the point where we can do it easily, just by the sheer magnitude of the population, what we call the demographic momentum. We just can't stop it fast enough,' said Prof Corey Bradshaw from the University of Adelaide.

'Even draconian measures for fertility control still won't arrest that growth rate - we're talking century-scale reductions rather than decadal scale, because of the magnitude.'

In their paper, the researchers also look at the impact on numbers of a global catastrophe in the middle of this century. They found that even an event that wiped out two billion people would still leave about eight and a half billion in 2100.

'Even if we had a third world war in the middle of this century, you would barely make a dent in the trajectory over the next 100 years,' said Prof Bradshaw, something he described as 'sobering'.

'Difficult to tackle'

The scientists said the issue of population and its impact on global consumption was often described as the 'elephant in the room' - a problem that the world ignores as it is politically and ethically difficult to tackle.

But the research shows that curbing numbers will not deal with environmental challenges in the short term.

'Our work reveals that effective family planning and reproduction education worldwide have great potential to constrain the size of the human population and alleviate pressure on resource availability over the longer term,' said Prof Barry Brook from the University of Tasmania.

'Our great-great-great-great grandchildren might ultimately benefit from such planning, but people alive today will not.'

As a result of this long-term impact, the world should focus on curbing consumption and designing ways to conserve species and ecosystems.

'Society's efforts towards sustainability would be directed more productively towards reducing our impact as much as possible through technological and social innovation,' says Prof Bradshaw.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc

Swan numbers show 'alarming crash'

The UK's smallest and rarest swan has suffered an 'alarming crash in numbers', the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has said.

The Slimbridge-based charity said more than a third of Bewick's swans have disappeared since 1995, when the total population peaked at 29,000.

The latest figures show that, by 2010, there were just 18,000 left.

Scientists believe illegal hunting, power lines and lead poisoning have contributed to the drop in numbers.

The charity said it feared the next census, due this winter, would reveal a 'further, more worrying decline' in population.

Head of UK waterbird conservation Eileen Rees said swans were not producing enough offspring to replace the ones that have died over the year.

'We have two possible solutions - to find out and address what's hampering breeding, and to reduce the number of preventable deaths along their migration route,' she added.

'We have a plan in place to do both, and much work is underway already, but we need to do it all if we're to change the fortune of our wildest and most beautiful swan.'

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust started studying Bewick's swans 50 years ago and it has now recorded in detail the lives of nearly 10,000 individual swans.

The charity is currently working on the Bewick's Swan International Action Plan, which aims to stabilise the population.

Bewick's swans breed in the cold Arctic tundra of northern Russia.

The western population winters in northern Europe, including the British Isles, while the eastern population heads towards China and Japan for the winter season.

Bewick's are a subspecies of the tundra swan and the smallest swan in Europe.

Eyeball link to Alzheimer's studied

Researchers at Dundee University are to lead a £1.1m study into whether eye tests can reveal the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

A team from the university's school of computing will carry out the three-year study with colleagues in Edinburgh.

Evidence suggests changes to veins and arteries in the eye could be linked to diseases including stroke and cardiovascular disease.

The team will study if this could act as an 'early warning' of Alzheimer's.

The new study uses specially-developed computer software to analyse high-definition images of the eye from multiple instruments to establish whether such changes in the eye could act as an early indicator of Alzheimer's disease.

The team will further develop existing software and cross-reference data with medical history information stored at Ninewells Hospital to see if a relationship can be established.

'Interesting proposition'

Emanuele Trucco, professor of computational vision at the school of computing, is leading the project.

He said: 'If you can look into someone's eyes using an inexpensive machine and discover something which may suggest a risk of developing dementia, then that's a very interesting proposition.

'There is the promise of early warning in a non-invasive way and there is also the fact that we even might be able to use the test to differentiate between different types of dementia.'

The project has been funded as part of an £8m investment at 11 universities by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The body's chief executive Prof Philip Nelson said: 'The UK faces a huge challenge over the coming decades, we have an ageing population and a likely rise in the numbers of people suffering from dementias.

'These research projects will improve our abilities to detect and understand dementias and how the disease progresses.'

The study will begin in April 2015 and run for three years.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Paper test can detect Ebola strains

DNA-programmed blotting paper could soon be giving doctors a simple disease test that will reveal an infection in 30 minutes for just a few pence.

Researchers have proved the technique works by developing a prototype Ebola test in just 12 hours, and using just $20 of materials.

The smart diagnostics use a soup of biological ingredients including the genetic material RNA.

The researchers say this can be freeze-dried and preserved on ordinary paper.

Team leader Jim Collins, who has joint appointments at Boston and Harvard Universities, says the biological powder can be reactivated by simply adding water, like living powdered soup.

'We were surprised at how well these materials worked after being freeze dried,' he told the BBC.

'Once they're rehydrated, these biological circuits function in these small paper disks as if they were inside a living cell.'

Genetic hacking

Jim Collins is a leading pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, whose 2000 paper showing genetic circuits could be created in the same way as electronic circuits can be programmed, helped launch the discipline.

Since then, synthetic biology has become a powerful tool in fundamental biology, with researchers hacking the genetic programmes of microbes to study their life processes, or give them the power to compute using logic like a digital processor.

Collins' group has previously reprogrammed bacteria to become cellular spies, recording events as they pass through an animal's bowels.

But the discipline has required specialist skills, so that few laboratories can take advantage of the techniques. The researchers' avowed intention in the new work, described in the journal Cell, is to make synthetic biology widely available.

They've definitely succeeded, says Professor Lingchong You, an expert in cellular reprogramming at Duke University.

'This paper-based approach is incredibly attractive. It feels like you could use it in your garage! It'll give scientists a synthetic-biology playground for a very low cost.'

'Biochemical soup'

The materials in the powdered biochemical soup include simple enzymes that bacteria need, molecules to power the chemical reactions, amino acids which are the bricks of cell biology, and importantly ribosomes, giant molecular machines that read genetic material and use it to assemble the bricks into functioning proteins.

In liquid form, these cell extracts are routinely used in biology labs. Linchong You gives credit to Collins for having the imagination to freeze dry them with synthetic genes.

'With hindsight, it's obvious it should work. But most of us don't think in this direction - there was a real leap of faith. But the fact you can leave these freeze-dried systems for a year, and they'll still work - that's quite remarkable.'

Alongside the paper-based biochemistry, Jim Collins' team - in collaboration with Peng Yin, also at Harvard University's Wyss Institute - has also introduced a new way of programming RNA, the molecular cousin of DNA which ribosome machines read. Their method makes the gene-circuits far more flexible than previous approaches.

The new type of RNA can be programmed to react and respond to any particular biochemical input, and then switch on the rest of the genetic machinery.

'This gives us a programmable sensor that can be readily and rapidly designed,' Collins explains.

The Ebola test they experimented with is a proof of principle showing how flexible the programming step is.

'In a period of just 12 hours, two of my team managed to develop 24 sensors that would detect different regions of the Ebola genome, and discriminate between the Sudan and the Zaire strains.'

In contrast, conventional antibody tests take months and cost thousands of pounds to devise, the researchers argue.

Quick response

The genetic test kit gives a simple colour output, turning the paper from yellow to purple, with the change visible within half an hour. By changing the input trigger, variants of the test could be used to reveal antibiotic resistance genes in bacterial infections or biomarkers of other disease conditions.

Their Ebola test is not suitable for use in the epidemic areas at the moment, Collins emphasises, but it would be simple to devise one that is.

The arrays of programmed paper dots would be easy to mass produce. Lingchong You envisions an 'entire fabrication process carried out by computer-aided circuit design, robotics-mediated assembly of circuits, and printing onto paper.'

And price is not the only consideration. Collins points out the freeze-dried circuits are stable at room temperature. In large parts of the world where electricity is unreliable, or there are no refrigerators, this would be a particular advantage.

'We are very excited about this,' he added. 'In terms of significance, I rank this alongside all the other breakthroughs I've been involved in.'

Friday, October 24, 2014

Google boss sets new skydive record

A senior Google vice president, Alan Eustace, has broken the world altitude record for a parachute jump set in 2012 by Austrian Felix Baumgartner.

Mr Eustace was carried by a large helium balloon from New Mexico to over 40km (25 miles) above the earth.

The 57-year-old leapt out in a specially-designed space suit, reaching speeds of more than 1,300km/h.

He exceeded the speed of sound, setting off a small sonic boom, and broke three skydiving records in the process.

The dive was part of a project led by Paragon Space Development Corporation, aimed at the exploration of the stratosphere above 100,000 feet (30,480 metres).

Years of preparation

Mr Eustace successfully jumped from near the top of the stratosphere at an altitude of 135,890 feet at 09:09 local time (16:00 GMT), the World Air Sports Federation (FAI) confirmed on Friday.

The previous record was set by Mr Baumgartner two years ago, after he jumped from a height of nearly 128,000 feet.

Mr Eustace also broke the world records for vertical speed reached with a peak velocity of 1,321km/h (822 mph) and total freefall distance of 123,414 feet - lasting four minutes and 27 seconds.

He set off from an abandoned runway in Roswell, New Mexico, at 07:00 connected to a balloon module, which carried him for two hours and seven minutes to his target altitude.

The Google executive - who is also a veteran pilot and parachutist - had been planning this jump for several years, working in secret with a small group of people trained in parachute and balloon technology, says the BBC's David Willis in Los Angeles.

But, our correspondent adds, Mr Eustace completed it without the aid of sponsorship, and with considerably less fanfare than the previous record holder, Felix Baumgartner, whose jump from the edge of space was streamed live over the internet two years ago.

'It was amazing,' Mr Eustace was quoted by the New York Times as saying.

'It was beautiful. You could see the darkness of space and you could see the layers of atmosphere, which I had never seen before.'

He told the newspaper that he did not feel or hear the sonic boom as he passed the speed of sound, although it was heard by observers on the ground.

Scifi short promotes comet mission

The European Space Agency has released a short scifi movie to promote its audacious Rosetta comet mission.

Called, suitably, Ambition, it stars Game of Thrones' Aidan Gillen and actress Aisling Franciosi as master and apprentice on an alien world.

In the seven-minute drama, the pair discuss the presence of water on planets and the origin of life.

These are themes Esa's Rosetta probe hopes to address in its study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Next month, the spacecraft will drop a small robot on to the surface of the 4km-wide ice body to analyse its chemistry.

Theory holds that comets may have been responsible for delivering water to the planets early in the Solar System's history. They could even have delivered important chemistry that helped to kick-start biology. The mission intends to test these ideas.

Esa hopes the movie-short will explain the goals of Rosetta to a wider audience and heighten excitement ahead of the landing attempt on 12 November.

Ambition was shot on location in Iceland, and was directed by Poland's Tomek BagiƄski, who received an Oscar nomination in 2003 for his animated short Katedra.

It is available to view online, and will be the first thing visitors to the Esa website see over the weekend.

The mission 'trailer' is starting to look like an essential part of the outreach activities for the biggest space ventures.

Nasa, the American equivalent of Esa, created a buzz ahead of its Curiosity rover landing in 2012 with a short called Seven Minutes of Terror. It described the engineering challenges of putting a one tonne robot on the surface of the Red Planet.

The comet landing will be more like seven hours of terror. That is how long it will take the little robot called Philae to reach the surface of 67P after being ejected by the Rosetta 'mothership'. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

First transplant of 'dead' heart

Surgeons in Australia say they have performed the first heart transplant using a 'dead heart'.

Donor hearts from adults usually come from people who are confirmed as brain dead but with a heart still beating.

A team at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney revived and then transplanted hearts that had stopped beating for up to 20 minutes.

The first patient who received a heart said she felt a decade younger and was now a 'different person'.

Hearts are the only organ that is not used after the heart has stopped beating - known as donation after circulatory death.

Beating hearts are normally taken from brain-dead people, kept on ice for around four hours and then transplanted to patients.

'Significant development'

The novel technique used in Sydney involved taking a heart that had stopped beating and reviving it in a machine known as a 'heart-in-a-box'.

The heart is kept warm, the heartbeat is restored and a nourishing fluid helps reduce damage to the heart muscle.

The first person to have the surgery was Michelle Gribilas, 57, who was suffering from congenital heart failure. She had the surgery more than two months ago.

'Now I'm a different person altogether,' she said. 'I feel like I'm 40 years old - I'm very lucky.'

There have since been a further two successful operations.

Prof Peter MacDonald, head of St Vincent's heart transplant unit, said: 'This breakthrough represents a major inroad to reducing the shortage of donor organs.'

It is thought the heart-in-a-box, which is being tested at sites around the world, could save up to 30% more lives by increasing the number of available organs.

The breakthrough has been welcomed around the world.

The British Heart Foundation described it as a 'significant development'.

Maureen Talbot, a senior cardiac nurse at the charity, told the BBC: 'It is wonderful to see these people recovering so well from heart transplantation when, without this development, they may still be waiting for a donor heart.'

Liver warming

Similar methods of warming and nourishing organs before transplant have been used to improve the quality of lung and liver transplants.

James Neuberger, the associate medical director at the UK's NHS Blood and Transplant service, said: 'Machine perfusion is an opportunity to improve the number and quality of organs available for transplant.

'We look forward to more work being carried out to determine the impact of this technology on increasing the number of organs that can safely be used for transplant and on improving the quality of those organs.

'It is too early to predict how many lives could be saved through transplantation each year if this technology were to be adopted as standard transplant practice in the future.'