Science & Technology


Bioengineers create first 'designer chromosome'

designer chromosome
© Lucy Reading-Ikkanda
An artist's rendering of a new "designer chromosome" shows red and blue pins and white diamonds at the spots where scientists engineered changes to the original chromosome. Yellow sections show where material was deleted to make the synthetic version.
Scientists have managed to re-engineer a form of brewer's yeast in a way that could help with the development of new types of drugs.

Researchers have chopped, spliced and manipulated DNA to craft the first extensively modified "designer chromosome," a genetic structure carefully engineered to spur scientific discovery.

The work is being hailed as a bioengineering feat and an important step toward producing a complex organism -- in this case brewer's yeast -- with a custom-made synthetic genome, or genetic blueprint. The research paves the way for producing new medicines and even biofuels from life forms with artificial chromosomes.

Artificial chromosomes have been built before. But those were relatively faithful copies of natural chromosomes, the tiny thread-like structures made of tightly packed DNA that serve as the body's blueprints. By contrast, the new chromosome is a product of purposeful tinkering, but the yeast that carry it act like normal yeast.

Previous artificial chromosomes were "copy-and-paste, more or less. It was plagiarism with a few edit marks in it," says Adam Arkin of the University of California-Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who was not involved in the research. The new structure is "a serious redesign of a chromosome with lots of very clever ways of ... making it more engineerable and more understandable."

The result "is a tour-de-force in synthetic biology," Boston University's James Collins, another outside researcher, says via e-mail.

Mars-bound comet Siding Spring sprouts multiple jets

C/2013 A1
© NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)
Left:Hubble Space Telescope picture of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring photographed March 11, 2014. At that time the comet was 353 million miles from Earth. Right: When the glow of the coma is subtracted through image processing, Hubble resolves what appear to be two jets of dust coming off the nucleus in opposite directions.
Comet Siding Spring, on its way to a close brush with Mars on October 19, has been kicking up a storm lately. New images from Hubble Space Telescope taken on March 11, when the comet was just this side of Jupiter, reveal multiple jets of gas and dust.
Cell Phone

Phone hacking drone let loose over London

Flying spy: A drone like this one could be used to hack smartphones
The device can access your data from two metres away and steal everything from passwords to location data

Drones, once just used by the armed forces, are now used for everything from delivering cold beer to fishermen to taking photographs of reindeer as the civilian market booms.

The Snoopy drone is the latest example and it presents a different kind of threat- to your personal data.

The device, which can hack into smartphones and steal users' information, shows how vulnerable phones are to hacking.

Sensepoint security, based in London, developed the hacking device which searches for mobiles which are trying to connect to a wifi network.

Phones remember previously used networks which the snoopy application exploits by tricking your phone into thinking it's a network you've used before.

NSA-proof internet platform created by MIT researchers

computer researchers
© REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Major online security and data hacks exposing sensitive user information have become commonplace in the digital age thanks to criminals and governments alike, but researchers at MIT think it's time to change that.

"Really, there's no trusting a server," MIT researcher Raluca Popa told MIT Technology Review while describing Mylar - a system capable of building Internet services that keep user data encrypted everywhere at all times, until safely being decrypted on a personal computer.

"You don't notice any difference, but your data gets encrypted using your password inside your browser before it goes to the server," Popa said. "If the government asks the company for your data, the server doesn't have the ability to give unencrypted data."

Mylar software works with the popular Internet building tool Meteor and runs inside of a browser to process and present information, as opposed to traditionally running through an outside server somewhere. It also lets users share data with other users by including an encryption key that can't be picked up by servers or potential third party communications monitors.

A thought experiment: What if we broke the internet?

© Chloe Cushman for the Guardian
Spying and cyber theft are not freak phenomena; they're unavoidable consequences of online access as it now exists.
What will life be like after the internet? Thanks to the mass surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and the general creepiness of companies like Google and Facebook, I've found myself considering this question. I mean, nothing lasts forever, right?

There's a broad tech backlash going on right now; I wonder just how deep the disillusionment runs. I get the feeling that there are folks out there who would relish putting the internet behind us sooner rather than later. Imagine that: even the internet could be a thing of the past one day. What would that be like? No Facebook. No Google. No government nerds looking through your webcam.

But could we become more secure without abandoning the internet? What if there's a third way? One that doesn't involve either passive resignation to being exploited or a Luddite smash-the-looms fantasy. What if we began to develop and encourage the adoption of machines and a network that are actually secure - through which neither thieves, corporations, nor the NSA could track us - and what if these could be configured by us, to really do what we want them to do? To stop the spying, stealing and monitoring, but to allow other things to continue.

What would that look like?

A problem: maybe the internet wasn't built to be secure

Astronomers 'disappointed' after discovering rings around Asteroid Chariklo

© Nick Risinger/L. Calçada/ESO
This artist's impression shows how the rings might look from close to the surface of Chariklo. They are 1,000 times closer than the moon is to Earth, but are each just a few kilometres wide.
Rings have been discovered around an asteroid for the first time to the dismay of astronomers who didn't think asteroids could have rings.

The asteroid Chariklo, which is also considered a minor planet, appears to be encircled by two narrow rings, reported an international team of scientists in a paper published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"We weren't looking for a ring and didn't think small bodies like Chariklo had them at all," said Felipe Braga-Ribas of the Observatório Nacional/MCTI in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, lead author of the report, in a statement.

"So the discovery - and the amazing amount of detail we saw in the system - came as a complete surprise!"

Chariklo is the largest of the Centaurs, a group of asteroids orbiting between Saturn and Uranus. Its diameter is about 250 kilometres. In comparison, Lake Ontario is 310 kilometres long and Prince Edward Island is 224 kilometres long.

Comment: The astronomers are disappointed because it's another nail in the coffin of their theories about how the Universe works.

SOTT Talk Radio: The Electric Universe - An interview with Wallace Thornhill


New dwarf planet hints at giant world far beyond Pluto

Dwarf planet
© Scott S. Sheppard, Carnegie Institution for Science
Three images, showing dwarf planet 2012 VP113 in red, then green, then blue, were combined to reveal its path across the night sky.
A surprise monster may be lurking in our solar system. A newly discovered dwarf planet has grabbed the crown as the most distant known object in our solar system - and its orbit hints at a giant, unseen rocky world, 10 times the mass of Earth and orbiting far beyond Pluto.

The dwarf planet, for now dubbed 2012 VP113 because it was spotted in images taken in November 2012 - is an interesting discovery in itself. Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC and his colleagues found that it is a lump of rock and ice 450 kilometres wide and lies at 80 astronomical units from the sun at its closest approach (1 AU is Earth's distance from the sun).

That's twice as far as the most famous dwarf planet, Pluto, which is 2340 kilometres wide and also beats the previous record holder, a 1000-kilometre-wide planetoid called Sedna, discovered in 2003, with a closest approach of 76 AU out.

Objects orbiting this far from the sun, in the "inner Oort cloud", are useful to probe the early solar system. That's because they lie too far away to be perturbed by the gas planets, but too close to the sun to be affected by the gravity of other stars in our galaxy - so their orbits and behaviour are thought to be almost unchanged since they first formed. "Once we find more objects in this region, we'll be able to start to strongly constrain the possible formation scenarios," says Sheppard.

Press conference in Brazil to announce discovery in outer Solar System

La Silla Observatory
ESO's La Silla Observatory.
An international team of astronomers, led by Felipe Braga-Ribas (Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), has used telescopes at seven locations in South America, including the 1.54-metre Danish and TRAPPIST telescopes at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, to make a surprise discovery in the outer Solar System.

This unexpected result raises several unanswered questions and is expected to provoke much debate. A press conference will be held in Brazil to present the new results and allow opportunities for questions.

Note that all information regarding these findings is under strict embargo until 19:00 CET (15:00 BRT) on Wednesday 26 March 2014.

When: The conference will be held on 26 March 2014 at 14:30 local time (BRT) and will take place in Portuguese with a summary in English.

Who: The conference presenters are:
  • Felipe Braga-Ribas, Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Bruno Sicardy, LESIA, Observatoire de Paris, CNRS, Paris, France
  • Prof. Roberto Martins, Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Prof. Julio Camargo, Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Where: The event takes place in Observatório Nacional, Auditório do Grupo de Pesquisas em Astronomia (GPA), in the GPA/LINEA Building in Rua General José Cristino, 77, Bairro de São Cristovão, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20921-400, Brazil.

New storms on Jupiter

We told you this was going to be a good season to observe Jupiter, and astrophotographers in the northern hemisphere have been making the most of this time of opposition where Jupiter has been riding high in the sky. What we didn't know was that there was going to be a familiar face staring back at us.

A combination of three storms has been noted throughout this Jupiter observing season for its resemblance to Mickey Mouse's face (at least in outline), and astrophotographer Damian Peach has captured some great images of these storms, along with the iconic Great Red Spot, its little brother Oval BA and other turbulence. Damian has also put together a stunning movie (below) showing about three hours of rotation of the king of the planets.

Damian explained the Mickey Mouse storms are two anticyclones (high pressure regions) that form the ears while a longer elongated cyclone (low pressure) forms the face.

Human nose can detect 1 trillion odours

The human nose can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odours, a resolution orders of magnitude beyond the previous estimate of just 10,000 scents, researchers report today in Science1.
© Richard Green/Commercial/Alamy
The human nose has roughly 400 types of scent receptors that can detect at least 1 trillion different odours.
Scientists who study smell have suspected a higher number for some time, but few studies have attempted to explore the limits of the human nose's sensory capacity. "It has just been sitting there for somebody to do," says study co-author Andreas Keller, an olfactory researcher at the Rockefeller University in New York.