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Fri, 24 Nov 2017
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Science & Technology


CRISPR gene drives are too powerful to be used in the wild

© Pleio/Istock photo
SO CUTE, SO WRONG No one has a genetic way of getting rid of invasive brushtail possums in New Zealand, but now is the time to debate whether CRISPR gene drives are too strong to be considered, two researchers argue.
Gene-editing tools heralded as hope for fighting invader rats, malarial mosquitoes and other scourges may be too powerful to use in their current form, two new papers warn.

Standard forms of CRISPR gene drives, as the tools are called, can make tweaked DNA race through a population so easily that a small number of stray animals or plants could spread it to new territory, predicts a computer simulation released November 16 at bioRxiv.org. Such an event would have unknown, potentially damaging, ramifications, says a PLOS Biology paper released the same day.

"We need to get out of the ivory tower and have this discussion in the open, because ecological engineering will affect everyone living in the area," says Kevin Esvelt of MIT, a coauthor of both papers who studies genetic solutions to ecological problems. What's a pest in one place may be valued in another, so getting consent to use a gene drive could mean consulting people across a species's whole range, be it several nations or continents.

Green Light

Modern cars vulnerable to hacking and could be used in 'terror attacks'; what about driverless cars?

© Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters
Nine million cars in the United Kingdom are connected to wi-fi and linked by small computers that control systems such as brakes or power steering. These miniature computers communicate with each other to control the car, so what would happen if a hacker took control?

As driverless cars begin to hit the road, one of the world's experts in vehicle software has issued a grim warning: deaths will be inevitable in as little as five years if car manufacturers don't do something to patch up the vulnerabilities in the technology.

Carsten Maple, University of Warwick professor of cyber engineering, said terrorists could take control of cars and use them as weapons.


Most blue whales are 'right-handed' except when swimming upward

© Credit: Craig Hayslip, Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute
A team of scientists that used motion-sensing tags to track the movements of more than five dozen blue whales off the California coast discovered that most have a lateralization bias - in other words, they essentially are "right-handed" or "left-handed."

That didn't necessarily surprise the researchers because many animals have a right-side bias, and for good reason. In vertebrates, the left hemisphere of the brain controls coordination, predictive motor control and the ability to plan and coordinate actions - like feeding. And the left side of the brain is linked with the right eye.

However, even the "right-handed" whales become left-handed when it comes to one move, the scientists discovered. When blue whales rise from the depths to approach a krill patch near the surface, they perform 360-degree barrel rolls at a steep angle and nearly always roll to the left - even those that normally are "right-handed," according to Ari Friedlaender, a cetacean expert with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University who led the study.


Study doubts previous findings that adult brain's memory-forming region makes new cells

NO NEW NERVE CELLS A preliminary study suggests that new nerve cells are not produced in adult humans’ hippocampi, results that conflict with earlier data. Hippocampal nerve cell axons are shown in blue, and glial cells are green. All cells’ nuclei are stained red.
Adults may stop making neurons in the hippocampus, early findings from 54 human brains suggest

In stark contrast to earlier findings, adults do not produce new nerve cells in a brain area important to memory and navigation, scientists conclude after scrutinizing 54 human brains spanning the age spectrum.

The finding is preliminary. But if confirmed, it would overturn the widely accepted and potentially powerful idea that in people, the memory-related hippocampus constantly churns out new neurons in adulthood. Adult brains showed no signs of such turnover in that region, researchers reported November 13 at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C.

Previous studies in animals have hinted that boosting the birthrate of new neurons, a process called neurogenesis, in the hippocampus might enhance memory or learning abilities, combat depression and even stave off the mental decline that comes with dementia and old age (SN: 9/27/08, p. 5). In rodents, exercise, enriched environments and other tweaks can boost hippocampal neurogenesis - and more excitingly, memory performance. But the new study may temper those ambitions, at least for people.


'Helper' brain cells play significant role in forming traumatic memories

NEW ROLE A kind of brain cell called an astrocyte (shown) may help nerve cells in the hippocampus form traumatic memories, a study in rats suggests.
Helper cells in the brain just got tagged with a new job - forming traumatic memories.

When rats experience trauma, cells in the hippocampus - an area important for learning - produce signals for inflammation, helping to create a potent memory. But most of those signals aren't coming from the nerve cells, researchers reported November 15 at the Society for Neuroscience meeting.

Instead, more than 90 percent of a key inflammation protein comes from astrocytes. This role in memory formation adds to the repertoire of these starburst-shaped cells, once believed to be responsible for only providing food and support to more important brain cells (SN Online: 8/4/15).


World study sheds light on how alcohol takes you from sexy to sleepy

Quaffing red wine makes people feel relaxed and amorous - but your chances of fun between the sheets is likely to be limited because it also makes you extremely tired.

A new study published in the journal BMJ Open on Tuesday, November 21, has revealed that drinking red wine often leads to people whisking their partner off to bed - only to fall down on the job because they usually become sleepy very quickly.


Mouse study finds chronic demyelination linked to seizures in MS patients

© I. Pittalwala, UC Riverside.
Scientists at UC CA, Riverside have found that chronic demyelination is closely linked to, and is likely the cause of seizures in MS patients
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that affects nearly 2.3 million people worldwide. MS is triggered when the immune system attacks the protective covering around nerve fibers, called the myelin sheath. The "demyelination" that follows damages nerve cells and causes impaired exchange of information between the brain and body as well as within the brain itself.

As the protective sheath - best imagined as the insulating material around an electrical wire - wears off, nerve signals slow down or stop. The result is impairment to a patient's vision, sensation, and use of limbs depending where the damage takes place. Permanent paralysis occurs when nerve fibers are destroyed by the disease.

As though this were not enough, MS patients are three to six times more likely to develop seizures - abnormal hyperactivity of nerve cells - compared to the rest of the population. However, despite increased occurrence of seizures among MS patients, little research has been done to probe why they happen.

Cell Phone

Russian experts developed an 'impenetrable' smartphone security system based on behavioral biometrics

© Sputnik/ Alina Polyanina
A research team from the Institute of Cyber Intelligence Systems at the National Research Nuclear University (MEPhI) has developed a new system of continuous authentication for smartphones based on behavioral biometrics.

The results of the new research were presented at several international conferences, the university's press service told a RIA Novosti representative.

Password-based authentication is the most popular mobile device security system today. This system, however, is rather inconvenient for users, since they constantly have to re-enter their digital number or unlock patterns.


French and German scientists say radioactive cloud over Europe probably came from Russia

© David Filipov/The Washington Post
A city near the Ural Mountains in Russia that might be the origin of the radioactive cloud released in September.
Remember that harmless radioactive cloud that mysteriously drifted across Europe back in September? Turns out it may indeed have come from Russia after all - from an area that had radioactivity of about 1,000 times higher than normal, as officials there acknowledged for the first time Tuesday. Experts emphasized that the unusually high levels may still have been harmless.

What remains a mystery, however, is what produced this cloud. The most likely culprit, a serial offender nuclear reprocessing plant, still denies any connection.

It was Austria that first detected unusually high levels of radiation Oct. 3, with Germany confirming them the next day. Over the next two weeks, the levels went up and down and finally faded away over a vast swath of the continent.

France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety calmed fears this month, saying that the cloud of radioactive isotopes - Ruthenium-106 - had posed no health hazards. But the French researchers remained baffled by the cloud's origins, and over the next few weeks, they calculated that it most likely came from deep inside Russia. Germany's governmental Agency for Radiation Protection came to the same conclusion.

Comment: You can read more about the spike in radioactivity over Europe in September and October here. Bear in mind that the same thing happened already in January and February, except that back then the source was suspected to be somewhere near the Arctic Circle.


Discovery: 260 million-year-old Antarctica forest that thrived long before dinosaurs

© Unknown
Fossil fern from Alexander Island, Antarctic Peninsula.
Antarctica once had a forest and researchers are trying to figure out why it disappeared.

During Antarctica's summer, from late November through January, UW-Milwaukee geologists Erik Gulbranson and John Isbell climbed the McIntyre Promontory's frozen slopes in the Transantarctic Mountains. High above the ice fields, they combed the mountain's gray rocks for fossils from the continent's green, forested past.

By the trip's end, the geologists had found fossil fragments of 13 trees. The discovered fossils reveal that the trees are over 260 million years old, meaning that this forest grew at the end of the Permian Period, before the first dinosaurs.