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Automated 'killer robots' to be debated at UN in Geneva

Automated 'killer robots' to be debated at UN in Geneva | Amazing Science |

A killer robot is a fully autonomous weapon that can select and engage targets without any human intervention. They do not currently exist but advances in technology are bringing them closer to reality. Those in favor of killer robots believe the current laws of war may be sufficient to address any problems that might emerge if they are ever deployed, arguing that a moratorium, not an outright ban, should be called if this is not the case.

However, those who oppose their use believe they are a threat to humanity and any autonomous "kill functions" should be banned.

"Autonomous weapons systems cannot be guaranteed to predictably comply with international law," Prof Sharkey told the BBC. "Nations aren't talking to each other about this, which poses a big risk to humanity."

Prof Sharkey is a member and co-founder of the Campaign Against Killer Robots and chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. Side events at the CCW will be hosted by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

Prof Arkin from the Georgia Institute of Technology told the BBC he hoped killer robots would be able to significantly reduce non-combatant casualties but feared they would be rushed into battle before this was accomplished.

"I support a moratorium until that end is achieved, but I do not support a ban at this time," said Prof Arkin. He went on to state that killer robots may be better able to determine when not to engage a target than humans, "and could potentially exercise greater care in so doing".

Prof Sharkey is less optimistic. "I'm concerned about the full automation of warfare," he says.

The discussion of drones is not on the agenda as they are yet to operate completely autonomously, although there are signs this may change in the near future.

The UK successfully tested the Taranis, an unmanned intercontinental aircraft in Australia this year and America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has made advances with the Crusher, an unmanned ground combat vehicle, since 2006.

The MoD has claimed in the past that it currently has no intention of developing systems that operate without human intervention.

On 21 November 2012 the United States Defense Department issued a directive that, "requires a human being to be 'in-the-loop' when decisions are made about using lethal force," according to Human Rights Watch.

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Microsoft’s quest for a topological quantum computer

Microsoft’s quest for a topological quantum computer | Amazing Science |

The race is on build a ‘universal’ quantum computer. Such a device could be programmed to speedily solve problems that classical computers cannot crack, potentially revolutionizing fields from pharmaceuticals to cryptography. Many of the world's major technology firms are taking on the challenge, but Microsoft has opted for a more tortuous route than its rivals.


IBM, Google and a number of academic labs have chosen relatively mature hardware, such as loops of superconducting wire, to make quantum bits (qubits). These are the building blocks of a quantum computer: they power its speedy calculations thanks to their ability to be in a mixture (or superposition) of ‘on’ and ‘off’ states at the same time.


Microsoft, however, is hoping to encode its qubits in a kind of quasiparticle: a particle-like object that emerges from the interactions inside matter. Some physicists are not even sure that the particular quasiparticles Microsoft are working with — called non-abelian anyons — actually exist. But the firm hopes to exploit their topological properties, which make quantum states extremely robust to outside interference, to build what are called topological quantum computers. Early theoretical work on topological states of matter won three physicists the Nobel Prize in Physics on 4 October, 2016.


The firm has been developing topological quantum computing for more than a decade and today has researchers  writing software for future machines, and working with academic laboratories to craft devices.

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Mitochondrial diseases

Mitochondrial diseases | Amazing Science |

Mitochondrial diseases are a group of genetic disorders that are characterized by defects in oxidative phosphorylation and caused by mutations in genes in the nuclear DNA (nDNA) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that encode structural mitochondrial proteins or proteins involved in mitochondrial function.


Mitochondrial diseases are the most common group of inherited metabolic disorders and are among the most common forms of inherited neurological disorders. One of the challenges of mitochondrial diseases is the marked clinical variation seen in patients, which can delay diagnosis. However, advances in next-generation sequencing techniques have substantially improved diagnosis, particularly in children. Establishing a genetic diagnosis allows patients with mitochondrial diseases to have reproductive options, but this is more challenging for women with pathogenetic mtDNA mutations that are strictly maternally inherited.


Recent advances in in vitro fertilization techniques, including mitochondrial donation, will offer a better reproductive choice for these women in the future. The treatment of patients with mitochondrial diseases remains a challenge, but guidelines are available to manage the complications of disease. Moreover, an increasing number of therapeutic options are being considered, and with the development of large cohorts of patients and biomarkers, several clinical trials are in progress.

Via MBN Comunicación
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Zika Virus Infection Alters Human and Viral RNA

Zika Virus Infection Alters Human and Viral RNA | Amazing Science |

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have discovered that Zika virus infection leads to modifications of both viral and human genetic material. These modifications — chemical tags known as methyl groups — influence viral replication and the human immune response. The study is published October 20 by Cell Host & Microbe.


“I’m excited about this study because it teaches us something new about the human immune system,” said senior author Tariq Rana, PhD, professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “But these findings are also something researchers should keep in mind as they are designing new Zika virus vaccines and treatments that target the viral genome — some approaches won’t work unless they take methylation into account.”


In human cells, RNA is the genetic material that carries instructions from the DNA in a cell’s nucleus out to the cytoplasm, where molecular machinery uses those instructions to build proteins. Cells can chemically modify RNA to influence protein production. One of these modifications is the addition of methyl groups to adenosine, one of the building blocks that make up RNA. Known as N6-methyladenosine (m6A), this modification is common in humans and other organisms.


In contrast to humans, the entire genomes of some viruses, including Zika and HIV, are made up of RNA instead of DNA. These viruses hijack the host’s cellular machinery to translate its RNA to proteins. Rana and his team previously discovered that m6A plays an important role in HIV infection. “After that, we decided to investigate m6A RNA in Zika virus as well, since we didn’t want to miss out on this important information the way we missed it for 30 years of HIV research,” Rana said.


When Zika virus infects a human cell, Rana’s team found, the cell modifies viral RNA with m6A as a means to get rid of the infection. RNA tagged with m6A is a beacon for human enzymes that come along and destabilize it. In addition, they found that this host response to Zika viral infection also induced specific m6A modifications on human RNA. These human RNA changes were not present in the absence of Zika virus.

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space

Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space | Amazing Science |

Welcome to Asgardia! Today, an international group of researchers, engineers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs announced the creation of a nation in space, named after the city of the skies ruled over by Odin in Norse mythology. Although Asgardia does not yet have any land, it is attracting citizens. Anyone can sign up on the nation’s website. Asgardia would allow space entrepreneurs to flourish, and protect Earth, too.


The idea behind the initiative, organizers say, is to create a new legal framework for the peaceful exploitation of space free of the control of Earth-bound nations (governance by Norse deities being preferable, obviously). The nation-building effort is led by Igor Ashurbeyli, a Russian space scientist and engineer who in 2013 founded the Aerospace International Research Center (AIRC) in Vienna, known mostly for publishing the space journal Room. Ashurbeyli told a press conference in Paris today: “The scientific and technological component of the project can be explained in just three words—peace, access, and protection.”


The protection component comes in the form of a satellite, scheduled to be launched in 2017, which will provide a “state-of-the-art protective shield for all humankind from cosmic manmade and natural threats to life on Earth such as space debris, coronal mass ejections, and asteroid collisions.” A bold plan, because the combined might of the world’s space agencies and military have yet to figure out how to prevent their own satellites colliding with each other, let alone protect Earth from a rock the size of a city. And it is not clear whether the organizers have the financing or technical capability to launch their own satellite.


The initiative appears to be an effort to sidestep the oversight of the United Nations’s Outer Space Treaty, which gives nations the duty of overseeing any space activities undertaken from its territory, whether by government bodies, commercial companies, or nonprofit organizations. The nation then takes responsibility for any damage that launchers and satellites may cause both in space and anywhere on Earth. “By creating a new Space Nation, private enterprise, innovation and the further development of space technology to support humanity will flourish free from the tight restrictions of state control that currently exist,” the project said in a statement. It’s not yet clear, however, what kind of governmental oversight, democratic or otherwise, is provided for in the Asgardian constitution—or whether the nation even has one.


Asgardia is not yet recognized by any other nation, nor by the United Nations, and it is not clear how, not having its own territory to launch from, it will be able to loft a satellite without it coming under some other nation’s control as described by the Outer Space Treaty. 

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‘On-the-fly’ 3-D printing system prints what you design, as you design it

‘On-the-fly’ 3-D printing system prints what you design, as you design it | Amazing Science |

Cornell researchers have developed an interactive prototyping system that prints a wire frame of your design as you design it. You can pause anywhere in the process to test or measure and make needed changes, which will be added to the physical model still in the printer.


In conventional 3-D printing, a nozzle scans across a stage depositing drops of plastic, rising slightly after each pass to build an object in a series of layers. With the On-the-Fly-Print system, the nozzle instead extrudes a rope of quick-hardening plastic to create a wire frame that represents the surface of the solid object described in a computer-aided design (CAD) file and allows the designer to make refinements while printing is in progress.

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Biologists first to observe direct inheritance of gene-silencing RNA

Biologists first to observe direct inheritance of gene-silencing RNA | Amazing Science |

The basics of genetic inheritance are well known: parents each pass half of their DNA to their offspring during reproduction. This genetic recipe is thought to contain all of the information that a new organism needs to build its body. But recent research has shown that, in some species, parents' life experiences can alter their offspring. Being underfed, exposed to toxins or stricken by disease can cause changes in a parent's gene expression patterns, and in some cases, these changes can be passed down to the next generation. However, the mechanisms that cause this effect—known as non-genetic inheritance—are a mystery.


New research from the University of Maryland provides a surprising possible explanation. For the first time, developmental biologists have observed molecules of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA)—a close cousin of DNA that can silence genes within cells—being passed directly from parent to offspring in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Importantly, the gene silencing effect created by dsRNA molecules in parents also persisted in their offspring.


The work, published October 17, 2016 in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the mechanisms for non-genetic inheritance might be simpler than anyone had suspected. "This is the first time we've seen a dsRNA molecule passing from one generation to the next," said Antony Jose, an assistant professor in the UMD Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics and senior author on the study. "The assumption has been that dsRNA changes the parent's genetic material and this altered genetic material is transmitted to the next generation. But our observations suggest that RNA is cutting out the middle man."


Jose and his team, including graduate student and lead author Julia Marré and former research technician Edward Traver, introduced dsRNA marked with a fluorescent label into the circulatory system of C. elegans worms. They then watched as these fluorescent RNA molecules physically moved from the parent's circulatory system into an egg cell waiting to be fertilized.

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In a scientific first, mouse eggs grown from skin cells

In a scientific first, mouse eggs grown from skin cells | Amazing Science |

For the first time, researchers have grown eggs entirely in a lab dish. Skin-producing cells called fibroblasts from the tip of an adult mouse’s tail have been reprogrammed to make eggs, Japanese researchers report online October 17 in Nature. Those eggs were fertilized and grew into six healthy mice.


The accomplishment could make it possible to study the formation of gametes — eggs and sperm — a mysterious process that takes place inside fetuses. If the feat can be repeated with human cells, it could make eggs easily available for research and may eventually lead to infertility treatments.

“This is very solid work, and an important step in the field,” says developmental biologist Diana Laird of the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. But, she cautions, “I wouldn’t want patients who have infertility to think this can be done in humans next year,” or even in the near future.


Stem cells reprogrammed from adult body cells have been coaxed into becoming a wide variety of cells. But producing eggs, the primordial cells of life, is far trickier. Egg cells are the ultimate in flexibility, able to create all the bits and parts of an organism from raw genetic instructions. They are far more flexible, or potent, than even the embryonic-like stem cells from which the researchers created them.


Making eggs in a dish is such a difficult task that it required a little help from ovary cells that support egg growth, stem cell researcher Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, and colleagues found. The team had previously reprogrammed stem cells to produce primordial germ cells, the cells that give rise to eggs. But they had to put those cells into mice to finish developing into eggs in the ovary (SN: 11/3/12, p. 14).

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“Singing” fish rely on circadian rhythm and melatonin for for nocturnal courtship vocalization

“Singing” fish rely on circadian rhythm and melatonin for for nocturnal courtship vocalization | Amazing Science |
For widemouthed, musical midshipman fish, melatonin is not a sleep hormone — it’s a serenade starter.

In breeding season, male plainfin midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus) spend their nights singing — if that’s the word for hours of sustained foghorn hums. Males dig trysting nests under rocks along much of North America’s Pacific coast, then await females drawn in by the crooning.

New lab tests show that melatonin, familiar to humans as a possible sleep aid, is a serenade “go” signal, says behavioral neurobiologist Ni Feng of Yale University.

From fish to folks, nighttime release of melatonin helps coordinate bodily timekeeping and orchestrate after-dark biology. The fish courtship chorus, however, is the first example of the hormone prompting a launch into song, according to Andrew Bass of Cornell University. And what remarkable vocalizing it is.

The plainfin midshipman male creates a steady “mmm” by quick-twitching specialized muscles around its air-filled swim bladder up to 100 times per second in chilly water. A fish can extend a single hum for about two hours, Feng and Bass report October 10 in Current Biology. That same kind of super-fast muscle shakes rattle-snake tails and trills vocal structures in songbirds and bats.
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Dust mite allergens share rare combination of qualities

Dust mite allergens share rare combination of qualities | Amazing Science |

A combination of stability and abundance may be what gives allergy-triggering dust mite proteins their sneeze-inducing power, says a new study by scientists at Duke University and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Of the thousands of proteins that make up your common house dust mite, only about two dozen trigger the miserable sniffling, sneezing and itching of an allergic reaction. Why people consistently develop allergies to some proteins, be they in dust mites, pollen, cat dander or cockroaches, but not to the large number of other proteins in the environment has been a long standing question for allergen researchers.


To tackle this question, the researchers employed a new technique that makes it possible to measure of the stability allergens and non-allergens in the dust mite on a large scale. "Interestingly the allergens weren't just more abundant, and they weren't just more stable, they were both more abundant and more stable," said Michael Fitzgerald, professor of chemistry at Duke University and a co-author on the study. "This helps us understand at a fundamental level why certain proteins are allergenic."


The results may lead to new allergy treatments or be used to predict when proteins that are artificially added to our environments, such as those used in food, medicine or other consumer products, have the potential to become allergenic.


The study appears online on Oct. 19, 2016 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.


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Google's 'DeepMind' AI platform can now learn without human input

Google's 'DeepMind' AI platform can now learn without human input | Amazing Science |

The DeepMind artificial intelligence (AI) being developed by Google's parent company, Alphabet, can now intelligently build on what's already inside its memory, the system's programmers have announced. Their new hybrid system – called a Differential Neural Computer (DNC) – pairs a neural network with the vast data storage of conventional computers, and the AI is smart enough to navigate and learn from this external data bank.


“These models can learn from examples like neural networks, but they can also store complex data like computers,” wrote DeepMind researchers Alexander Graves and Greg Wayne. Much like the brain, the neural network uses an interconnected series of nodes to stimulate specific centers needed to complete a task. In this case, the AI is optimizing the nodes to find the quickest solution to deliver the desired outcome. Over time, it’ll use the acquired data to get more efficient at finding the correct answer.


The two examples given by the DeepMind team further clear up the process:

  1. After being told about relationships in a family tree, the DNC was able to figure out additional connections on its own all while optimizing its memory to find the information more quickly in future searches.
  2. The system was given the basics of the London Underground public transportation system and immediately went to work finding additional routes and the complicated relationship between routes on its own.


Instead of having to learn every possible outcome to find a solution, DeepMind can derive an answer from prior experience, unearthing the answer from its internal memory rather than from outside conditioning and programming. This process is exactly how DeepMind was able to beat a human champion at ‘Go’ — a game with millions of potential moves and an infinite number of combinations.


Depending on the point of view, this could be a serious turn of events for ever-smarter AI that might one day be capable of thinking and learning as humans do. Or, it might be time to start making plans for survival post-Skynet.

Via Fernando Gil
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Stephen Wolfram: AI & The Future Of Human Civilization

Stephen Wolfram: AI & The Future Of Human Civilization | Amazing Science |

What makes us different from all these things? What makes us different is the particulars of our history, which gives us our notions of purpose and goals. That's a long way of saying when we have the box on the desk that thinks as well as any brain does, the thing it doesn't have, intrinsically, is the goals and purposes that we have. Those are defined by our particulars—our particular biology, our particular psychology, our particular cultural history.


The thing we have to think about as we think about the future of these things is the goals. That's what humans contribute, that's what our civilization contributes—execution of those goals; that's what we can increasingly automate. We've been automating it for thousands of years. We will succeed in having very good automation of those goals. I've spent some significant part of my life building technology to essentially go from a human concept of a goal to something that gets done in the world.


There are many questions that come from this. For example, we've got these great AIs and they're able to execute goals, how do we tell them what to do?...


STEPHEN WOLFRAM, distinguished scientist, inventor, author, and business leader, is Founder & CEO, Wolfram Research; Creator, Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha & the Wolfram Language; Author, A New Kind of Science. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page

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NASA: MAVEN Gives Unprecedented UV View of Mars

NASA: MAVEN Gives Unprecedented UV View of Mars | Amazing Science |

New global images of Mars from the MAVEN mission show the ultraviolet glow from the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail, revealing dynamic, previously invisible behavior. They include the first images of "nightglow" that can be used to show how winds circulate at high altitudes. Additionally, dayside ultraviolet imagery from the spacecraft shows how ozone amounts change over the seasons and how afternoon clouds form over giant Martian volcanoes. The images were taken by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN).


"MAVEN obtained hundreds of such images in recent months, giving some of the best high-resolution ultraviolet coverage of Mars ever obtained," said Nick Schneider of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Schneider is presenting these results Oct. 19 at the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Pasadena, California, which is being held jointly with the European Planetary Science Congress.


Nightside images show ultraviolet (UV) "nightglow" emission from nitric oxide (abbreviated NO). Nightglow is a common planetary phenomenon in which the sky faintly glows even in the complete absence of external light. Mars' nightside atmosphere emits light in the ultraviolet due to chemical reactions that start on Mars' dayside. Ultraviolet light from the sun breaks down molecules of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and the resulting atoms are carried around the planet by high-altitude wind patterns that encircle the planet. On the nightside, these winds bring the atoms down to lower altitudes where nitrogen and oxygen atoms collide to form nitric oxide molecules. The recombination releases extra energy, which comes out as ultraviolet light.


Scientists predicted NO nightglow at Mars, and prior missions detected its presence, but MAVEN has returned the first images of this phenomenon in the Martian atmosphere. Splotches and streaks appearing in these images occur where NO recombination is enhanced by winds. Such concentrations are clear evidence of strong irregularities in Mars' high altitude winds and circulation patterns. These winds control how Mars' atmosphere responds to its very strong seasonal cycles. These first images will lead to an improved determination of the circulation patterns that control the behavior of the atmosphere from approximately 37 to 62 miles (about 60 to 100 kilometers) high.

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The limits to human lifespan must be respected

The limits to human lifespan must be respected | Amazing Science |
Lengthening our lives will come at a cost.


A study published online in Nature uses demographic data to reveal a lifespan that human beings cannot exceed, simply by virtue of being human. It’s like running, as an accompanying News and Views article points out. Elite athletes might shave a few milliseconds off the world record for the 100-meter sprint, but they’ll never run the same distance in, say, five seconds, or two. Human beings are simply not made that way. The same is true for longevity. The consequences of myriad factors related to our genetics, metabolism, reproduction and development, all shaped over millions of years of evolution, means that few humans will make it past their 120th birthdays. The name of Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122, is likely to remain as long in the memory in the Methuselah stakes as that of Usain Bolt on the Olympic track.


Maximum lifespan is a bald measure of years accumulated. It is not the same as life expectancy, which is an actuarial measure of how long one is expected to live from birth, or indeed from any given age. Life expectancy at birth has increased in most countries over the past century, not because people have longer lifespans, but mainly because infectious disease does not kill as many infants as it once did. Factors such as poverty and warfare conspire to decrease life expectancy. Although life expectancy at birth has risen steadily for both men and women in France since 1900, for example, there are dramatic and poignant drops that coincide with the two world wars.


In Britain in the early twentieth century, many children still died from infectious diseases, and men would die shortly after retiring from physically demanding jobs. The National Health Service was the political response. It has become, in some ways, the victim of its own success. People live longer than they did even a few decades ago, and die (eventually) of different (and more expensive) complaints. As any beginning medical student is soon taught, gerontology is far from a dying discipline. So if we owe our increases in life expectancy to better public health, nutrition, sanitation and vaccination, is it not fair to ask whether more-effective treatments for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s might also yield dividends in maximum lifespan? Will 120th birthday parties become routine, outmatched by a small yet increasing number of sesquicentenarians? The demographic data say no. People are living longer, and the population as a whole is greying, but the rate of increase in the number of centenarians is slowing, and might even have peaked.

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Gene-edited CRISPR-Cas9 mushroom escapes US regulation

Gene-edited CRISPR-Cas9 mushroom escapes US regulation | Amazing Science |

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will not regulate a mushroom genetically modified withthe gene-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9. The long-awaited decision means that the mushroom can be cultivated and sold without passing through the agency's regulatory process — making it the first CRISPR-edited organism to receive a green light from the US government.


“The research community will be very happy with the news,” says Caixia Gao, a plant biologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing, who was not involved in developing the mushroom. “I am confident we'll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.”


Yinong Yang, a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in University Park, engineered the common white button (Agaricus bisporus) mushroom to resist browning. The effect is achieved by targeting the family of genes that encodes polyphenol oxidase (PPO) — an enzyme that causes browning. By deleting just a handful of base pairs in the mushroom’s genome, Yang knocked out one of six PPO genes — reducing the enzyme’s activity by 30%.


The mushroom is one of about 30 genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to sidestep the USDA regulatory system in the past five years. In each case, the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has said that the organisms — mostly plants — do not qualify as something the agency must regulate. Once a crop passes the USDA reviews, it may still undergo a voluntary review by the US Food and Drug Administration.


Several of the plants that bypassed the USDA were made using gene-editing techniques such as the zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) and transcription activator-like effector nuclease (TALEN) systems. But until now, it was not clear whether the USDA would give the same pass to organisms engineered with science’s hottest new tool, CRISPR–Cas9.

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Was Venus the first habitable planet in our solar system?

Was Venus the first habitable planet in our solar system? | Amazing Science |

Its surface is hot enough to melt lead and its skies are darkened by toxic clouds of sulphuric acid. Venus is often referred to as Earth’s evil twin, but conditions on the planet were not always so hellish, according to research that suggests it may have been the first place in the solar system to have become habitable.


The study, due to be presented this week at the at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Pasadena, concludes that at a time when primitive bacteria were emerging on Earth, Venus may have had a balmy climate and vast oceans up to 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) deep. Michael Way, who led the work at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, said: “If you lived three billion years ago at a low latitude and low elevation the surface temperatures would not have been that different from that of a place in the tropics on Earth,” he said.


The Venusian skies would have been cloudy with almost continual rain lashing down in some regions, however. “So while you might get nice sunsets you would have mostly overcast skies during the day and precipitation,” Way added.


Crucially, if the calculations are correct the oceans may have remained until 715m years ago - a long enough period of climate stability for microbial life to have plausibly sprung up. “The oceans of ancient Venus would have had more constant temperatures, and if life begins in the oceans - something which we are not certain of on Earth - then this would be a good starting place,” said Way.


Other planetary scientists agreed that, despite the differing fates of the two planets, early Earth and Venus may have been similar.

Via Kathy Bosiak
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70% Of Earth's Fresh Water Is Frozen

70% Of Earth's Fresh Water Is Frozen | Amazing Science |

About 71% of the Earth is covered in water. Most of that is in oceans, rivers, and lakes, but some is frozen in the Earth's two ice sheets. Those ice sheets, which cover most of Greenland and Antarctica, only contain 2% of the world's total water supply, but a whopping 70% of the Earth's fresh water.


Scientists estimate that if the Antarctic Ice Sheet—the larger of the two—melted, sea level would rise by around 60 meters (200 feet). Not only that, but it could affect the weather: a study showed that less sea ice in the Arctic causes rainier summers in western Europe, and another study suggests that it's causing more extreme heat waves in the United States and elsewhere. And counterintuitively, melting ice also causes more melting ice.


A 2016 study found that a shrinking in the Greenland Ice Sheet causes what are known as "blocking events," where high-pressure systems park themselves on top of one area for days or even weeks. This brings warm, moist air that heats the surface below and causes even more ice to melt. Explore the relationship between polar ice and climate change in the videos below.

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Unsolved math: The moving sofa problem

Unsolved math: The moving sofa problem | Amazing Science |

So you're moving into your new apartment, and you're trying to bring your sofa. The problem is, the hallway turns and you have to fit your sofa around a corner. If it's a small sofa, that might not be a problem, but a really big sofa is sure to get stuck. If you're a mathematician, you ask yourself: What's the largest sofa you could possibly fit around the corner? It doesn't have to be a rectangular sofa either, it can be any shape.


This is the essence of the moving sofa problem. Here are the specifics: the whole problem is in two dimensions, the corner is a 90-degree angle, and the width of the corridor is 1. What is the largest two-dimensional area that can fit around the corner?


The largest area that can fit around a corner is called—I kid you not—the sofa constant. Nobody knows for sure how big it is, but we have some pretty big sofas that do work, so we know it has to be at least as big as them. We also have some sofas that don't work, so it has to be smaller than those. All together, we know the sofa constant has to be between 2.2195 and 2.8284.

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Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch

Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch | Amazing Science |

As data demands continue to grow, scientists predict that it's only a matter of time before today's telecommunication networks reach capacity unless new technologies are developed for transporting data. A new technique could help avert this bandwidth crunch by allowing light-based optical networks to carry more than one hundred times more data than is possible with current technologies.


Laser light comes in many different shapes, or spatial modes. However, today's optical networks use just one spatial mode to carry information, limiting the amount of data that can be transmitted at one time. Researchers led by Andrew Forbes, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, developed a technique known as spatial multiplexing that reshapes a laser beam into many spatial modes that can each carry information.


In a paper presented at the OSA Laser Congress in Boston, the researchers demonstrate optical communication with more than 100 spatial modes by combining their new spatial multiplexing approach with wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), which uses different wavelengths of light to carry information.


"We created 35 spatial modes encoded in three different wavelengths, producing 105 total modes," said Carmelo Rosales-Guzmán, research fellow and first author of the paper. "Our new method might serve as the basis for future communication technologies."


The researchers demonstrated that their technique can transmit data with 98 percent efficiency in a laboratory free-space optical network, which uses light to transmit information over the air. The scientists say the approach should also work in optical fibers, the basis for fiber-optic communications.

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Quantum computers: 10-fold boost in stability achieved

Quantum computers: 10-fold boost in stability achieved | Amazing Science |

Australian engineers have created a new quantum bit which remains in a stable superposition for 10 times longer than previously achieved, dramatically expanding the time during which calculations could be performed in a future silicon quantum computer. 


The new quantum bit, made up of the spin of a single atom in silicon and merged with an electromagnetic field - known as 'dressed qubit' - retains quantum information for much longer that an 'undressed' atom, opening up new avenues to build and operate the superpowerful quantum computers of the future. The result by a team at Australia's University of New South Wales (UNSW), appears today in the online version of the international journal, Nature Nanotechnology.


"We have created a new quantum bit where the spin of a single electron is merged together with a strong electromagnetic field," said Arne Laucht, a Research Fellow at the School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications at UNSW, and lead author of the paper. "This quantum bit is more versatile and more long-lived than the electron alone, and will allow us to build more reliable quantum computers."


Building a quantum computer has been called the 'space race of the 21st century' - a difficult and ambitious challenge with the potential to deliver revolutionary tools for tackling otherwise impossible calculations, such as the design of complex drugs and advanced materials, or the rapid search of massive, unsorted databases.


Its speed and power lie in the fact that quantum systems can host multiple 'superpositions' of different initial states, which in a computer are treated as inputs which, in turn, all get processed at the same time.


"The greatest hurdle in using quantum objects for computing is to preserve their delicate superpositions long enough to allow us to perform useful calculations," said Andrea Morello, leader of the research team and a Program Manager in the Centre for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology (CQC2T) at UNSW.

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Mice share each other's pain through the sense of smell

Mice share each other's pain through the sense of smell | Amazing Science |
Pain can jump from one mouse to another, presumably through chemicals detected by the nose.


Pain is contagious, at least for mice. After encountering bedding where mice in pain had slept, other mice became more sensitive to pain themselves. The experiment, described online October 19 in Science Advances, shows that pain can move from one animal to another — no injury or illness required.  


The results “add to a growing body of research showing that animals communicate distress and are affected by the distress of others,” says neuroscientist Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal of the University of California, Berkeley.


Neuroscientist Andrey Ryabinin and colleagues didn’t set out to study pain transfer. But the researchers noticed something curious during their experiments on mice who were undergoing alcohol withdrawal. Mice in the throes of withdrawal have a higher sensitivity to pokes on the foot. And surprisingly, so did these mice’s perfectly healthy cagemates. “We realized that there was some transfer of information about pain” from injured mouse to bystander, says Ryabinin, of Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland.


When mice suffered from alcohol withdrawal, morphine withdrawal or an inflaming injection, they become more sensitive to a poke in the paw with a thin fiber — a touchy reaction that signals a decreased pain tolerance. Mice that had been housed in the same cage with the mice in pain also grew more sensitive to the poke, Ryabinin and colleagues found. These bystander mice showed other signs of heightened pain sensitivity, such as quickly pulling their tails out of hot water and licking a paw after an irritating shot.


The results are compelling evidence for the social transmission of pain, says neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam.

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Nanowires as sensors in new type of atomic force microscope

Nanowires as sensors in new type of atomic force microscope | Amazing Science |

A new type of atomic force microscope (AFM) uses nanowires as tiny sensors. Unlike standard AFM, the device with a nanowire sensor enables measurements of both the size and direction of forces. Physicists at the University of Basel and at the EPF Lausanne have described these results in the recent issue of Nature Nanotechnology.


Nanowires are extremely tiny filamentary crystals which are built-up molecule by molecule from various materials and which are now being very actively studied by scientists all around the world because of their exceptional properties.


The wires normally have a diameter of 100 nanometers and therefore possess only about one thousandth of a hair thickness. Because of this tiny dimension, they have a very large surface in comparison to their volume. This fact, their small mass and flawless crystal lattice make them very attractive in a variety of nanometer-scale sensing applications, including as sensors of biological and chemical samples, and as pressure or charge sensors.


The team of Argovia Professor Martino Poggio from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) and the Department of Physics at the University of Basel has now demonstrated that nanowires can also be used as force sensors in atomic force microscopes. Based on their special mechanical properties, nanowires vibrate along two perpendicular axes at nearly the same frequency. When they are integrated into an AFM, the researchers can measure changes in the perpendicular vibrations caused by different forces. Essentially, they use the nanowires like tiny mechanical compasses that point out both the direction and size of the surrounding forces.


The scientists from Basel describe how they imaged a patterned sample surface using a nanowire sensor. Together with colleagues from the EPF Lausanne, who grew the nanowires, they mapped the two-dimensional force field above the sample surface using their nanowire "compass". As a proof-of-principle, they also mapped out test force fields produced by tiny electrodes.


The most challenging technical aspect of the experiments was the realization of an apparatus that could simultaneously scan a nanowire above a surface and monitor its vibration along two perpendicular directions. With their study, the scientists have demonstrated a new type of AFM that could extend the technique's numerous applications even further.

Via Mariaschnee
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Atomic-sized MRI uses quantum bits to help discover new drugs

Atomic-sized MRI uses quantum bits to help discover new drugs | Amazing Science |

Researchers have used quantum computing tech to miniaturize a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, making it small enough to pick up the structure of single biomolecules without damaging them or losing information in the process. This could make it a key tool for drug discovery and other biotech research.


Scientists at the University of Melbourne, lead by Professor Lloyd Hollenberg, used atomic-sized quantum bits (usually used inside quantum computers), to act as quantum sensors to image each atom that makes up more complicated bio-molecules. "By using quantum sensing to image individual atoms in a bio-molecule, we hope to overcome several issues in conventional biomolecule imaging," Prof Hollenberg said.


Current techniques involve using a crystal of the molecule that needs to be imaged, and X-ray diffraction to pick up the molecule's average structure. Both parts of this can lead to important information getting dropped in the process. Some bio-molecules can't be crystallized either, according to the news release.


"In a conventional MRI machine large magnets set up a field gradient in all three directions to create 3D images; in our system we use the natural magnetic properties of a single atomic qubit," says University of Melbourne PhD researcher Mr. Viktor Perunicic. In short, atomic quantum bits make great nano sensors.


"The construction of such a quantum MRI machine for single molecule microscopy could revolutionize how we view biological processes at the molecular level, and could lead to the de

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Mysterious origin of European bison revealed using DNA and cave art

Mysterious origin of European bison revealed using DNA and cave art | Amazing Science |

Threatened forest icon may be a hybrid of two extinct species.


The European bison (Bison bonasus) may be the continent’s largest land mammal, but its origins have long been a mystery. Hunted for millennia and pushed into the wild corners of Europe as agriculture expanded, the bison — also known as wisent — were reduced to just a few zoo specimens by the late 1920s. Today, a semi-wild population roams Białowieża Forest, near the Poland–Belarus border, where they slip between hornbeams and mighty oaks, their curly coats and horns lending an aura of the Pleistocene to the ancient forest. It took a reach into the past using ancient DNA and cave art to unveil the wisent’s origin story. Researchers published the species’ family tree on 19 October in Nature Communications1.


The team took almost a decade to complete their work. Much of the analysis used ancient mitochondrial DNA derived from 65 bison specimens ranging from 14,000 to more than 50,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until technological advances made it possible to examine nuclear DNA that researchers were able to produce a coherent family tree.


According to the team’s analysis, the wisent is a hybrid of two extinct animals: the steppe bison (Bison priscus), the Eurasian ancestor of the American bison, and the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of modern cattle. The steppe bison went extinct more than 11,000 years ago and the last aurochs was shot in 1627. From the DNA evidence researchers estimate that hybridization took place 120,000 or more years ago. In most cases, hybrid animals are less fertile and fit than their parents. But in this case, a whole new species seems to have taken flight.

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Bees can learn to pull a string for food and spread the skill to others

Bees can learn to pull a string for food and spread the skill to others | Amazing Science |

Bumblebees can learn to pull strings for food and pass on the ability to a colony, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).


Pulling strings to obtain food is an experiment often used to test the intelligence of apes and birds, but it is the first time this technique has been discovered in an insect. Moreover the cultural spread of such a technique from a single informed individual has also been described for the first time in an invertebrate animal.


The results, published in PLOS Biology, show that rare innovator bees were able to solve the problem of pulling the string to reach a sugar water reward by themselves while most others could learn to pull the string when trained.


Naïve bees were then able to learn the task by observing a trained demonstrator bee while this skill was passed down through several generations of learners, ensuring its longevity in the population.


Dr Sylvain Alem, lead author of the study, said: "We found that when the appropriate social and ecological conditions are present, culture can be mediated by the use of a combination of simple forms of learning. Thus, cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans."

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Human Cell Atlas—a collection of maps descibing the cellular basis of health and disease

Human Cell Atlas—a collection of maps descibing the cellular basis of health and disease | Amazing Science |

In London on 13 and 14 October, 2016, a collaborative community of world-leading scientists met and discussed how to build a Human Cell Atlas—a collection of maps that will describe and define the cellular basis of health and disease.


Cells are the most fundamental unit of life, yet we know surprisingly little about them. They vary enormously within the body, and express different sets of genes. Without maps of different cell types and where they are located in the body, we cannot describe all their functions and understand the biological networks that direct their activities.


A complete Human Cell Atlas would give us a unique ID card for each cell type, a three-dimensional map of how cell types work together to form tissues, knowledge of how all body systems are connected, and insights into how changes in the map underlie health and disease. It would allow us to identify which genes associated with disease are active in our bodies and where, and analyze the regulatory mechanisms that govern the production of different cell types.


This has been a key challenge in biology for more than 150 years. New tools such as single-cell genomics have put it within reach. It is an ambitious but achievable goal, and requires an international community of biologists, clinicians, technologists, physicists, computational scientists, software engineers, and mathematicians.

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