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Wed, 26 Oct 2016
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Scientists find black widow spider DNA lurking inside virus

© Maria Jeffs/Shutterstock
Scientists have found some toxic DNA lurking inside a virus that infects bacteria. In addition to its own genes, the virus holds a gene for black widow spider venom and DNA from other animals, the researchers found. The findings suggest that either the virus snagged this foreign genetic material or that these other animals have stolen DNA from the virus, the researchers said.

Future research could find that such swapping across domains of life, from the most complex to the most ancient, is more common than previously thought, scientists say.

Stealing DNA

Viruses infect all three domains of the tree of life. The most complex forms of life on Earth — including animals, plants and fungi — belong to the domain Eukaryota, whose cells possess nuclei. The other two domains include the prokaryotes, the earliest forms of life — single-celled microbes that lack nuclei. There are two prokaryotic domains — the familiar Bacteria, as well as Archaea, which includes microorganisms that thrive in harsh environments such as hot springs and underground petroleum deposits.

Each virus infects just one domain of life. For instance, bacteriophages, which are viruses that attack bacteria, cannot infect eukaryotes, or cells with nuclei. In part due to this specificity, scientists have explored using these so-called "phages" in therapies to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Fireball 3

Increasing number of meteorite impacts recorded on the Moon

© NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
A new lunar crater, formed about three years ago.
Meteorites have punched at least 222 impact craters into the Moon's surface in the past 7 years. That's 33% more than researchers expected, and suggests that future lunar astronauts may need to hunker down against incoming space rocks.

"It's just something that's happening all the time," says Emerson Speyerer, an engineer at Arizona State University in Tempe and author of a 12 October paper in Nature1.

Planetary geologists will also need to rethink their understanding of the age of the lunar surface, which depends on counting craters and estimating how long the terrain has been pummelled by impacts.

Although most of the craters dotting the Moon's surface formed millions of years ago, space rocks and debris continue to create fresh pockmarks. In 2011, a team led by Ingrid Daubar of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, compared some of the first pictures taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which launched in 2009, with decades-old images taken by the Apollo astronauts.

The scientists spotted five fresh impact craters in the LRO images. Then, on two separate occasions in 2013, other astronomers using telescopes on Earth spotted bright flashes on the Moon; LRO later flew over those locations and photographed the freshly formed craters2, 3.


New dwarf planet 2014 UZ224 discovered on edge of solar system

© JPL-Caltech / T. Pyle (SSC) / NASA
A new dwarf planet about half the size of Pluto has been discovered at the edge of our solar system, some 8.5 billion miles from the Sun.

The planet is called 2014 UZ224, measures about 530km (329 miles) in diameter and takes 1,100 years to orbit the Sun.

It was discovered by students from the University of Michigan and physicist David Gerdes, who uncovered it amongst a galaxy map created with his Dark Energy Camera (DECam) for a Dark Energy Survey project.

"Objects in the Solar System, when you observe them at one instant and then a little while later, they appear to be in a different place in the sky," Gerdes told NPR.

People 2

Epigenetic signatures: What your father did before you were born could influence your future

© Nature
It might not just be expectant mothers who have to pay attention to their lifestyle. Now a new study published in Science could be relevant to a growing body of research looking at ways in which the lifestyle and environment of men before they become fathers could influence the lives of their children and grandchildren.

We know that many human traits, such as weight, height, susceptibility to disease, longevity or intelligence, can be partly inherited, but researchers have so far struggled to identify the precise genetic basis for this. This may partly be due to limitations in our understanding of how genetics works, but now there is growing interest in the potential for something called "epigenetics" to explain this heritability.

Epigenetics refers to the information in the genome over and above that contained in the DNA sequence. This information takes a number of forms, but the most popular ones scientists have studied relate to the chemical modification (known as methylation and acetylation) of DNA and the proteins called histones that together make up the human genome.

Comment: Epigenetics: The keeper of the code

2 + 2 = 4

Intestinal diversity protects against asthma

© Thor Balkhed, Linköping University
Researchers at Linköping University, Sweden, study whether intestinal bacteria play a role in the development of allergy and asthma.
Children who develop asthma or allergies have an altered immune response to intestinal bacteria in the mucous membranes even when infants, according to a new study from Linköping University, Sweden, and Center for Advanced Research in Public Health, Spain. The results also suggests that the mother's immune defence plays a role in the development of asthma and allergies in children.

"The results confirm our idea that the intestinal flora (also known as the 'intestinal microbiota') early in life plays a role during the development of allergy symptoms. We believe that diversity among the bacteria contributes to strengthening the immune defence in the mucous membranes. In our new study we saw differences in the immune response against intestinal bacteria in children who subsequently developed allergy symptoms," says Maria Jenmalm, professor of experimental allergology at Linköping University and one of the authors of the study.


Air Force's X-37B secret mission space plane passes 500th day in orbit

© United Launch Alliance/Boeing
Artist's depiction of U.S. Air Force's unmanned X-37B space plane in orbit, solar array deployed, payload bay open.
The latest secretive mission of the United States Air Force's X-37B space plane has cruised beyond 500 days in Earth orbit since its launch last year.

The U.S. military launched the robotic X-37B space plane on May 20, 2015, marking the fourth flight for the Air Force program. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lofted the spacecraft from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to kick off the OTV-4 mission (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4).

© Boeing
Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after the program’s third mission complete.
Exactly what the winged space plane's duties are while it's in orbit continues to remain a tight-lipped affair. Similarly, how long the vehicle will remain in orbit has not been detailed. [The X-37B's Fourth Mystery Mission in Photos]

The first OTV mission launched in April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission — which used a different vehicle than the first — began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The subsequent OTV-3 mission reused the X-37B that flew on the first mission, and chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit.

So far, the U.S. military has not stated where the OTV-4 mission's craft will ultimately land once it's current flight ends. In the past, all three X-37B flights ended at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, gliding to a runway landing on autopilot.

People 2

The human element in the future of driverless cars

Driverless cars are an engineer's dream. At last, a technology that promises to remove the human factor from the traffic system.

It is humans, after all, whose errors contribute to 75% of road crashes, who introduce undesirable randomness into the mathematical simplicity of traffic flows, and who have been characterised (somewhat tongue in cheek) as "monkey drivers" with slow reaction times and short attention spans.

We are "monkey drivers".

If only we could eliminate the human factor, we would have cities teeming with safe, efficient cars whizzing us to our destinations. Right?


60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose interviews...a robot?

© CBS News
Sophia and creator David Hanson speak with Charlie Rose.
What happens when Charlie Rose attempts to interview a robot named "Sophia" for his 60 Minutes report on artificial intelligence.

"I've been waiting for you," Sophia tells 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose. They're mid-interview, and Rose reacts with surprise.

"Waiting for me?" he asks.

"Not really," she responds. "But it makes a good pickup line."

Sophia managed to get a laugh out of Charlie Rose. Not bad for a robot.

Rose interviewed the human-like machine for this week's two-part 60 Minutes piece on artificial intelligence, or A.I. In their exchange, excerpted in the clip above, Rose seems to approach the conversation with the same seriousness and curiosity he would bring to any interview.

"You put your head where you want to test the possibility," Rose tells 60 Minutes Overtime. "You're not simply saying, 'Why am I going through this exercise of talking to a machine?' You're saying, 'I want to talk to this machine as if it was a human to see how it comprehends.'"


A young Dutch inventor has a cleanup plan for the great pacific garbage patch

© chinabambi-blog.com
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat
The first aerial survey of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch shows that the amount of debris swirling in the North Pacific has been "heavily underestimated," the expedition group said.

On Monday, The Ocean Cleanup, a project founded in 2013 by then-18-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat with the goal of ridding the world's oceans of plastic, shared initial findings from its aerial expedition of the trash vortex between Hawaii and California.

Researchers documented more garbage at the edge of the gyre than they expected to see at its center, where debris is more concentrated, Slat said at a press conference at Moffett Airfield in Mountain View, California. In just 2 1/2 hours, he said, the crew observed more than 1,000 large floating objects.

"Although, again, we still need to get a detailed analysis of the results, I think it's really quite safe to say that it's worse than we thought," Slat said. "This underlines the urgency of why we need to clean it up and that we really need to take care of the plastic that's already out there in the ocean, because all this big stuff, over the next few decades, will crumble down into those small microplastics."

Understanding how much marine debris is out there will be essential to Slat's ambitious plan to clean it up, the foundation said.

Comment: Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. The UN Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, said:
"The slowly rotating mass of rubbish-laden water poses a risk to human health, too. Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets, or nurdles - the raw materials for the plastic industry - are lost or spilled every year, working their way into the sea. These pollutants act as chemical sponges attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT. They then enter the food chain. What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It's that simple"
Most of us are simply unaware.... that our ocean is being used as a trash can!


Scientists find unexpectedly deep seismic activity along California fault

© Google
Researchers have found that the Newport-Inglewood fault, a major formation that spans the Los Angeles basin, is ‘seismically active down to the upper mantle.’ This is said to be one of the most dangerous faults in the Los Angeles Basin
In Southern California, scientists listening to rumblings deep underground found seismic activity at deeper-than-expected levels, and it may signal new earthquake extremes, according to a new study.

Deeper or smaller seismic activity can be very difficult to monitor, especially in urban areas, due to the distance between seismicity monitors and the noise caused by traffic and industry. In order to better see these so-called micro signals, a group of researchers temporarily deployed detectors along the Newport-Inglewood fault (NIF), which stretches nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers), from Culver City to Newport Beach, in Southern California.

"It's very helpful for us to do these kinds of studies where the seismic risk is high because of the dense concentrations of population," study lead author Asaf Inbal, a geophysics graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, told Live Science. "Most of the damage is inflicted by large earthquakes, but these small earthquakes like the ones we observe at NIF occur much more frequently, and their location can be used to highlight active faults and their depth."

By filtering out the noise, the researchers found that activity along the NIF was unusually deep and frequent compared to similar faults in the region. The researchers said these signals could lead to a better understanding of the depths at which earthquakes can occur, and could further illuminate the structure of the fault.

"Many of these micro earthquakes are deeper than expected. They occur below the crust, in the upper mantle, where rocks are usually thought to be too hot to start quakes (mantle rocks are viscous, they deform like very thick honey, without breaking)," co-author Jean Paul Ampuero, a professor of seismology at Caltech, told Live Science in an email. "They are concentrated in what appears to be the deep continuation of the Newport Inglewood fault down into the upper mantle."