Science & Technology

Cell Phone

Apple has plans for your DNA

© MIT Techonology Review
Of all the rumors ever to swirl around the world's most valuable company, this may be the first that could involve spitting in a plastic cup.

Apple is collaborating with U.S. researchers to launch apps that would offer some iPhone owners the chance to get their DNA tested, many of them for the first time, according to people familiar with the plans.

The apps are based on ResearchKit, a software platform Apple introduced in March that helps hospitals or scientists run medical studies on iPhones by collecting data from the devices' sensors or through surveys.

The first five ResearchKit apps, including one called mPower that tracks symptoms of Parkinson's disease, quickly recruited thousands of participants in a few days, demonstrating the reach of Apple's platform.

"Apple launched ResearchKit and got a fantastic response. The obvious next thing is to collect DNA," says Gholson Lyon, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who isn't involved with the studies.

Nudging iPhone owners to submit DNA samples to researchers would thrust Apple's devices into the center of a widening battle for genetic information. Universities, large technology companies like Google (see "Google Wants to Store Your Genome"), direct-to-consumer labs, and even the U.S. government (see "U.S. to Develop DNA Study of One Million People") are all trying to amass mega-databases of gene information to uncover clues about the causes of disease (see "Internet of DNA").

In two initial studies planned, Apple isn't going to directly collect or test DNA itself. That will be done by academic partners. The data would be maintained by scientists in a computing cloud, but certain findings could appear directly on consumers' iPhones as well. Eventually, it's even possible consumers might swipe to share "my genes" as easily as they do their location.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment. But one person with knowledge of the plans said the company's eventual aim is to "enable the individual to show and share" DNA information with different recipients, including organizers of scientific studies. This person, like others with knowledge of the research, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the company's insistence on secrecy.

One of these people said the DNA-app studies could still be cancelled, but another said Apple wants the apps ready for the company's worldwide developers' conference, to be held in June in San Francisco.

Monkey Wrench

Student excavation uncovers hundreds of rare moa bones

© Frederick William Frohawk
Extinct North Island giant moa
Māori Studies staff and students from Victoria University of Wellington have excavated hundreds of moa bones from a central North Island site where few moa remains were known to exist.

The rare discovery was part of a field trip dubbed 'Operation Moa Hunt' in April, run by Victoria's Te Kawa a Māui, School of Māori Studies.

The bones belong to about 50 individual moa birds and were excavated from an area 3m2 and 50cm deep, on a farm south of Taihape.

Initial identifications indicate the bones come from mainly two moa species, the North Island giant moa and the little bush moa, and are at least 1800 years old.

The School's Kairuruku/Research Associate Dr Bruce McFadgen and Ahonuku/Associate Professor Peter Adds, both trained archaeologists, led the students on the weekend-long field trip, along with Te Papa Vertebrate Curator Alan Tennyson.

Mr Tennyson says the find has tripled the number of moa bones found on the volcanic plateau held in public museums.


Granddaddy of all birds discovered in China

© Zongda Zhang
The fossilized discovery in China of modern birds' oldest relative puts their origin six million years earlier than previously thought.

The fossils of the oldest known ancestor of modern birds, found by paleontologists in China, has prompted scientists to rethink the date of the first appearance of the Ornithuromorpha clade of birds, which includes all modern species.

As a result of the discovery, the date has jumped back by around six million years to 130.7 million years ago, a team led by researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing announced on Tuesday.


Has a sixth DNA base been discovered?

© Adrian Sanborn, Erez Lieberman Aiden
Physics simulation of 5 megabases of DNA forming loops and domains.
Most text books talk of four DNA bases. Later research has shown there to be five. No, wait, cross that out, there could be six. Scientists suggest that the methyl-adenine is the sixth base and that it is medically important.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the main component of genetic material, found in humans and all other animals. DNA is formed by combining four parts or bases. These are coded A, C, G and T (representing adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine).

The combination of these leads to thousands of possible sequences. This variation explains the genetic variability found across and throughout living creatures.

Use of the word base is historical, in reference to the chemical properties of 'nucleobases' in acid-base reactions; the term does not really describe their biological functions.

There are, in addition to the four main bases, two other bases. These are methylated forms of other DNA bases. Methylation is a form of alkylation with a methyl group. These have epigenetic implications. Epigenetics is essentially additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters that makes up DNA.


Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy

© The Independent, UK
Using the Turin Shroud, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus, police investigators have generated a photo-fit image from the negative facial image on the material.
Detectives claim to have revealed how Jesus Christ looked as a child - based on computer forensics and the world's most famous relic.

Using the Turin Shroud, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus, police investigators have generated a photo-fit image from the negative facial image on the material. And from this they reversed the ageing process to create an image of a young Jesus, by reducing the size of the jaw, raising the chin and straightening the nose.

The technique effectively reverses the method that Italian police use to generate current likenesses of criminals, including senior mob bosses, for whom new photo fit images are needed when they have been on the run for decades.

Such techniques were used to produce an image of Mafia boss of bosses Bernardo Provenzano, from a photo taken in 1959. Provenzano was eventually captured in 2006.


Scientists document fracking chemical contamination of Pennsylvania drinking water wells

© Susan Brantley, Penn State
This is a bottle containing foam from a water source.
Substances commonly used for drilling or extracting Marcellus shale gas foamed from the drinking water taps of three Pennsylvania homes near a reported well-pad leak, according to new analysis from a team of scientists.

The researchers used a new analytical technique on samples from the homes and found a chemical compound, 2-BE, and an unidentified complex mixture of organic contaminants, both commonly seen in flowback water from Marcellus shale activity. The scientists published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"These findings are important because we show that chemicals traveled from shale gas wells more than two kilometers in the subsurface to drinking water wells," said co-author Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Institute at Penn State. "The chemical that we identified either came from fracking fluids or from drilling additives and it moved with natural gas through natural fractures in the rock. In addition, for the first time, all of the data are released so that anyone can study the problem."

Such contamination from shale gas wells in shallow potable water sources has never been fully documented before, Brantley said. The new technique could be a valuable tool in evaluating alleged causes of unconventional gas drilling impacts to groundwater.

Comment: Despite numerous studies linking fracking to contamination of groundwater supplies, the oil and gas industry continues to collude with local governments to ignore citizen concerns and even forbid citizens to ban the practice. In a sick society, profits always trump environmental and health concerns.


Researchers: Asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago may have caused Deccan Traps' vast lava flow

© Gerta Keller
The Deccan Traps in India - between 17° - 24° North and 73° - 74° East - are a place where you can find layer upon layer of solidified rock. This region is thought to have been the site of extremely powerful volcanic activity in the past, so powerful that it caused mile-deep lava over an area as large as the state of California. Last week (April 30, 2015) geophysicists at UC Berkeley announced their evidence that this vast region is related to the asteroid thought to have slammed into the ocean half a world away. The impact near Chicxulub, Mexico - 66 million years ago - is believed by many researchers to have killed the dinosaurs and ushered in the age of mammals. The Berkeley researchers say the impact probably "rang the Earth like a bell," triggering powerful earthquakes and volcanos around the globe, including those that created the Deccan Traps.

The Berkeley researchers - who published their work online April 30 in the The Geological Society of America Bulletin - cited the "uncomfortably close" coincidence between the Deccan Traps eruptions and the asteroid impact 66 million years ago. Team leader Mark Richards of UC Berkeley said in a statement:
If you try to explain why the largest impact we know of in the last billion years happened within 100,000 years of these massive lava flows at Deccan ... the chances of that occurring at random are minuscule.
© UC Berkeley
Illustration of a hot mantle plume “head” pancaked beneath the Indian Plate. The theory by Richards and his colleagues suggests that existing magma within this plume head was mobilized by strong seismic shaking from the Chicxulub asteroid impact, resulting in the largest of the Deccan Traps flood basalt eruptions.
Richards had proposed in 1989 that plumes of hot rock, called "plume heads," rise through Earth's mantle every 20-30 million years and generate huge lava flows, called flood basalts, like the Deccan Traps. It struck him as more than coincidence that the last four of the six known mass extinctions of life occurred at the same time as one of these massive eruptions.

Comment: See also: Forget About Global Warming: We're One Step From Extinction!

Evil Rays

NASA balloon experiment record eerie infrasound from the edge of space

© Daniel Bowman
A spectrogram of infrasound recorded during the high-altitude balloon flight.
Eerie sounds from the edge of space were recorded for the first time in 50 years aboard a NASA student balloon experiment.

Infrasound microphones captured the mysterious hisses and whistles 22 miles (36 kilometers) above the Earth's surface last year. Daniel Bowman, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, designed and built the equipment. The instruments eavesdropped on atmospheric infrasound, or sound waves at frequencies below 20 hertz. Infrasound is below human hearing range, but speeding up the recordings makes them audible.

"It sounds kind of like 'The X-Files,'" Bowman told Live Science. [Listen: High-Altitude Infrasound Recorded in Space]

The infrasound sensors were dangling from a helium balloon that flew above New Mexico and Arizona on Aug. 9, 2014. The experiment was one of 10 payloads flown last year on the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP). The high-altitude balloon flight is an annual project conducted by NASA and the Louisiana Space Consortium that is meant to spark student interest in space research. Since 2006, HASP has launched more than 70 experiments designed by college students across the United States.

Comment: Also read: Infrasound: "There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres"


NASA records enormous burst of plasma erupting from the sun

Screenshot from NASA video
An enormous burst of plasma erupting from the sun has had astronomers glued to their telescopes for hours. Two orbital observatories managed to capture the phenomenon on video, published by NASA.

The event was filmed with the use of coronographs. They are specialized observation devices which use an occulter disk to block out light from the sun itself and create an artificial eclipse within the device. This enables astronauts to observe the dimmer parts of the star, its corona.

Filaments are unstable strands of solar matter which rise above the sun with the fluctuations of its magnetic field. They are much colder than the surface of the sun, and are thus visible as darker areas when viewed against it. However, when seen from the side, like in the video, they look like snake-like bursts of flame, which sometimes loop back onto the sun


Strange exoplanet orbiting small cool star challenges planetary formation theories

Artist's impression of HATS-6
The Australian discovery of a strange exoplanet orbiting a small cool star 500 light years away is challenging ideas about how planets form.

"We have found a small star, with a giant planet the size of Jupiter, orbiting very closely," said researcher George Zhou from the Research School of Astrophysics and Astronomy.

"It must have formed further out and migrated in, but our theories can't explain how this happened."

In the past two decades more than 1,800 extrasolar planets (or exoplanets) have been discovered outside our solar system orbiting around other stars.

The host star of the latest exoplanet, HATS-6, is classed as an M-dwarf, which is one of the most numerous types of stars in galaxy. Although they are common, M-dwarf stars are not well understood. Because they are cool they are also dim, making them difficult to study.