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Fri, 29 Jul 2016
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Could your DNA betray you?

© Pasieka / SPL
This computer artwork shows the atomic structure of a DNA molecule. DNA from people in the UK may be being tested without their consent, despite a pioneering law that came into force more than two years ago expressly forbidding the practice.

DNA from people in the UK may be being tested without their consent, despite a pioneering law that came into force more than two years ago expressly forbidding the practice.

New Scientist approached genetic testing firms as a prospective UK customer, enquiring about running tests on DNA from stained bedding and other items. The responses raise serious concerns about some of the companies' understanding of the law, and about the difficulty of policing tests that are sold online to customers in the UK but conducted outside the country.

In many countries, consent is not required to run DNA tests for infidelity or paternity (New Scientist, 24 January, p 8). But since September 2006, it has been a criminal offence under the UK Human Tissue Act to have human bodily material with the intent to analyse its DNA without consent, except for certain specific purposes. These exceptions include when DNA is collected by the police for criminal investigations. Where consent is required, it must be provided by the individual concerned, or by their legal guardian in the case of a child. Breaches of the law are punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine.

Some DNA testing firms that target UK customers include information on their websites about testing various items that may carry an individual's DNA. These tests cost more than those run on cheek swabs, which would be the usual method of collecting a sample given by a person consenting to the test. Yet these websites do not always stress that UK customers must obtain consent from the people being tested.


New Evidence from Excavations Supports Theory of the 'Birth of Zeus'

© University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
On the leftis Dan Diffendale, research assistant, Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, in the ash altar of Zeus trench, at the discovery of a group of Mycenaean kylikes, circa 13th century BCE. Summer 2008. To the right is a small bronze hand of Zeus holding a silver lightning bolt (approximately 2 cm), circa 500 BCE, excavated at the ash altar of Zeus, Mt. Lykaion, Summer 2008.
In the third century BCE, the Greek poet Callimachus wrote a 'Hymn to Zeus' asking the ancient, and most powerful, Greek god whether he was born in Arcadia on Mt. Lykaion or in Crete on Mt. Ida.

A Greek and American team of archaeologists working on the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project believe they have at least a partial answer to the poet's query. New excavation evidence indicates that Zeus' worship was established on Mt. Lykaion as early as the Late Helladic period, if not before, more than 3,200 years ago. According to Dr. David Gilman Romano, Senior Research Scientist, Mediterranean Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum, and one of the project's co-directors, it is likely that a memory of the cult's great antiquity survived there, leading to the claim that Zeus was born in Arcadia.

Dr. Romano will present his team's new discoveries - and their implications for our understanding of the beginnings of ancient Greek religion - at a free public lecture, "The Search for Zeus: The Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project", Tuesday, January 27 in the Rainey Auditorium of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Better Earth

After Google Earth comes Google Ocean

The search engine Google launched a new service Monday to allow Internet users to explore the depths of the world's oceans from the comfort of their homes on dry land.

The "Ocean in Google Earth" feature will allow users to "dive beneath the water surface, explore 3D underwater terrain and browse ocean-related content contributed by marine scientists," a Google statement said.

"Google Earth is equipping itself with a new dimension: depth," Jean-Francois Wassong, an engineer at Google France, told a news conference.


Astronomers Discover Link Between Supermassive Black Holes and Galaxy Formation

Two giant elliptical galaxies, NGC 4621 and NGC 4472, look similar from a distance, as seen on the right in images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
A pair of astronomers from Texas and Germany have used a telescope at The University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory together with Hubble Space Telescope and many other telescopes around the world to uncover new evidence that the largest, most massive galaxies in the universe and the supermassive black holes at their hearts grew together over time.

"They evolved in lockstep," said The University of Texas at Austin's John Kormendy, who co-authored the research with Ralf Bender of Germany's Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and Ludwig Maximilians University Observatory. The results are published in this week's issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Astronomers know that galaxies, those vast cities of millions or billions of stars, grow larger through collisions and mergers. Kormendy and Bender's work involves the biggest galaxies in the universe--"elliptical galaxies" that are shaped roughly like footballs and that can be made of as many as a thousand billion stars. Virtually all of these galaxies contain a black hole at their centers, that is, an infinitely dense region that contains the mass of millions or billions of Suns and from which no light can escape.


Earth-hunter telescope prepared for launch

NASA's Kepler telescope in an undated illustration. NASA unveiled a modest telescope on Friday with a sweeping mission -- to discover if there are any Earth-type planets orbiting distant stars.

NASA unveiled a modest telescope on Friday with a sweeping mission -- to discover if there are any Earth-type planets orbiting distant stars.

Though astronomers have found more than 330 planets circling stars in other solar systems, none has the size and location that is believed to be key to supporting life.

"A null result is as important as finding planets," Michael Bicay, director of science at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, told reporters in Titusville, Florida, where the Kepler telescope is being prepared for launch.

Named after the 17th century astronomer who figured out the motions of planets, Kepler is scheduled for liftoff on March 5 aboard an unmanned Delta 2 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station


Neanderthals Survive Until 24,000 Years Ago In South East Of Spain

© Museum of Gibraltar
Present day landscapes of Gibraltar (above) and reconstructed landscapes of Gibraltar from 30,000 years ago (below).

Over 14,000 years ago during the last Pleistocene Ice Age, when a large part of the European continent was covered in ice and snow, Neanderthals in the region of Gibraltar in the south of the Iberian peninsula were able to survive because of the refugium of plant and animal biodiversity. Today, plant fossil remains discovered in Gorham's Cave confirm this unique diversity and wealth of resources available in this area of the planet.

The international team jointly led by Spanish researchers has reconstructed the landscape near Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, by means of paleobotanical data (plant fossil records) located in the geological deposits between 1997 and 2004. The study, which is published in the Quaternary Science Reviews, also re-examines previous findings relating to the glacial refugia for trees during the ice age in the Iberian Peninsula.


U.S. scientist sees use of resources on Moon in future

© Unknown
Professor Carle Pieters
"Scientists around the world have come to understand that the Moon is clearly the stepping stone for the future of the human species beyond the Earth," according to Carle Pieters, planetary geologist and Principal Investigator for National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Moon Mineralogy Mapper, one of the 11 scientific instruments onboard Chandrayaan-I that recently detected iron-bearing minerals in a lunar crater.

"And so it is no coincidence that four countries - India, China, Japan and U.S. - are showing simultaneous interest in the Earth's celestial neighbour," she says.

Professor Pieters is now faculty at the Department of Geological Sciences, Brown University, U.S. The Moon could support future explorations of Mars or near-Earth asteroids through fuel and, "if we get lucky," water resources too, she says.


Did a comet strike Earth, leaving crystalline dust in the Oklahoma Panhandle?

A giant comet slammed into the atmosphere and fractured. The resulting swarm of fragments also exploded, scattering tiny diamonds in widely separated locations and plunging the warming Earth into a renewed and deadly deep freeze.

When Leland Bement first heard the theory, "I was highly skeptical," he said. "You just roll your eyes."

But a discovery in the Oklahoma Panhandle changed his viewpoint. It began when Bement, research archaeologist with the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, was contacted by a team of scientists who had read about Bement's research. For years, Bement had been studying remnants of Indian communities that existed around the end of the last Ice Age - about 13,000 years ago - in the area that is now the Panhandle.


Where Do Comets Come From?

© Walter Pacholka, Astropics/SPL
Hale-Bopp, seen here from Joshua Tree National Park, California, was one of the brightest comets of the 20th century.
Few cosmic apparitions have inspired such awe and fear as comets. The particularly eye-catching Halley's comet, which last appeared in the inner solar system in 1986, pops up in the Talmud as "a star which appears once in seventy years that makes the captains of the ships err". In 1066, the comet's appearance was seen as a portent of doom before the Battle of Hastings; in 1456, Pope Callixtus III is said to have excommunicated it.

Modern science takes a more measured view. Comets such as Halley's are agglomerations of dust and ice that orbit the sun on highly elliptical paths, acquiring their spectacular tails in the headwind of charged particles streaming from the sun. We even know their source: they are Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) tugged from their regular orbits by Neptune and Uranus.

But there's a problem. Certain comets, such as Hale-Bopp, which flashed past Earth in 1997, appear simply too infrequently in our skies. Their orbits must be very long, far too long to have an origin in the Kuiper belt. The conclusion of many astronomers is that the known solar system is surrounded in all directions by a tenuous halo of icy outcasts, thrown from the sun's immediate vicinity billions of years ago by the gravity of the giant planets.


Albania Reveals Ancient Treasures

This sparkling stretch of the Ionian Sea is slowly giving rise to lost treasures dating back 2,500 years and shipwrecks from ancient times.

Over the past two years, a research ship carrying American and Albanian experts has combed the waters off southern Albania, using scanning equipment and submersible robots to seek out ancient wrecks. In what organizers have said is the first archaeological survey of Albania's seabed, at least five sites have been located, which could fill in blanks on ancient shipbuilding techniques.

"Albania is a tremendous untapped (archaeological) resource," U.S. archaeologist Jeffrey Royal from the Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation, a nonprofit group leading the survey, said.