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'Satellite' junk DNA may actually be essential for human survival

Junk DNA
© Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
When biologists first examined the landscape of human genes they were perplexed by the, seemingly useless pieces of DNA that floated in the structure. It was labelled 'junk DNA' and the name stuck.

However, new research suggests it may not be junk at all. In fact the DNA, which is now called satellite DNA, plays a crucial role in holding the genome together and, by extension, the survival of much of life on Earth.

The study, which has been published in the journal eLife, outlines that the "junk" is actually essential for the cell's survival because it performs the vital function of ensuring that chromosomes bundle correctly inside the cell's nucleus.

"We were not quite convinced by the idea that this is just genomic junk," lead author on the study, Yukiko Yamashita, said."If we don't actively need it, and if not having it would give us an advantage, then evolution probably would have gotten rid of it. But that hasn't happened."


Stream of viruses circling planet, trillions fall from the sky every day

© Biophoto Associates/Science Source
Viruses attached to a fragment of a bacterial cell wall. “Viruses modulate the function and evolution of all living things,” scientists wrote last year. “But to what extent remains a mystery.”
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, an international team of researchers set out four buckets to gather a shower of viruses falling from the sky.

Scientists have surmised there is a stream of viruses circling the planet, above the planet's weather systems but below the level of airline travel. Very little is known about this realm, and that's why the number of deposited viruses stunned the team in Spain. Each day, they calculated, some 800 million viruses cascade onto every square meter of the planet.

Most of the globe-trotting viruses are swept into the air by sea spray, and lesser numbers arrive in dust storms.

"Unimpeded by friction with the surface of the Earth, you can travel great distances, and so intercontinental travel is quite easy for viruses", said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia. "It wouldn't be unusual to find things swept up in Africa being deposited in North America."

The study by Dr. Suttle and his colleagues, published earlier this year in the International Society of Microbial Ecology Journal, was the first to count the number of viruses falling onto the planet. The research, though, is not designed to study influenza or other illnesses, but to get a better sense of the "virosphere," the world of viruses on the planet.

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Space hunter: Scientists pin alien exoplanet hopes to NASA's latest sky scanner, TESS

© An illustration of the TESS satellite. / NASA
Mankind's hunt for alien life and potentially habitable planets continues Monday, when a new rocket will push through the Earth's atmosphere carrying precious NASA cargo.

Instead of the regular care packages usually sent to NASA astronauts on the International Space Station, SpaceX hopes to fire an exoplanet satellite known as TESS into the great expanse. As it stands, US Air Force meteorologists predict an 80-percent chance for favourable liftoff weather.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the heir to NASA's Kepler exoplanet mission throne, is set to orbit Earth while pointing it's viewfinders out to space. It's thought the satellite will pull back the mystery surrounding thousands of potentially life-sustaining exoplanets, some of which could be colonized in the future or contain astonishing alien life.


Watch: Thirty-two discordant metronomes achieve synchrony in a matter of minutes

If you place 32 metronomes on a static object and set them rocking out of phase with one another, they will remain that way indefinitely. Place them on a moveable surface, however, and something very interesting (and very mesmerizing) happens.

The metronomes in this video fall into the latter camp. Energy from the motion of one ticking metronome can affect the motion of every metronome around it, while the motion of every other metronome affects the motion of our original metronome right back. All this inter-metranome "communication" is facilitated by the board, which serves as an energetic intermediary between all the metronomes that rest upon its surface. The metronomes in this video (which are really just pendulums, or, if you want to get really technical, oscillators) are said to be "coupled."

Comment: See also:

Finches keep the beat with a mental metronome


Hubble telescope captures amazing photo of Einstein Ring phenomenon

Einstein ring
© ESA/Hubble & NASA / Judy Schmidt
The new picture snapped by the Hubble Telescope and analyzed by NASA scientists is jam-packed with galaxies - and among them, there's an even more spectacular feature: a so-called Einstein Ring.

This charming part of the universe is called SDSS J0146-0929, a galaxy cluster which features a great variety of spiral and elliptical galaxies presented to us at different angles - some are face-on, some are angled, but all are locked together by the inescapable tug of gravity. But here, gravity does even more than just hold the galaxies together: it bends light in a way that creates a ring-like feature, a so-called Einstein Ring.

Einstein's ring occurs when light coming from a bright source is bent by the gravitational effect of a very large structure or object - in this case, SDSS J0146-0929. The phenomenon is called gravitational lensing and requires that the three participants (the light source, the massive structure, and the observer - which is Earth) be aligned in a straight-line configuration of called a syzygy.

In this sense, an Einstein Ring is a special case of gravitational lensing, caused by the exact alignment of the source, lens, and observer. This results in a symmetry around the lens, causing a ring-like structure. NASA's Karl Hille describes the image:

"In this image, the light from a background galaxy is diverted and distorted around the massive intervening cluster and forced to travel along many different light paths toward Earth, making it seem as though the galaxy is in several places at once."


China plans to grow flowers and silkworms in 'mini biosphere' on the dark side of the moon

half moon
© Albert Garnelis/TASS
28 Insects, plants, potato seeds and arabidopsis-a small flowering plant belonging to the mustard family - will be taken to the Moon on board the Chang'e-4 lander and rover in December
China hopes to create a 'mini biosphere' on the dark side of the Moon, with flowers and silkworms sustaining each other as they grow on the lifeless lunar surface.

The unprecedented plan to create life in outer space is the most intriguing part of China's lunar probe mission later this year, and could be a major boost for dreams that humans will one day live on the Moon.

The insects, plants, potato seeds and arabidopsis -- a small flowering plant belonging to the mustard family - will be taken to the Moon on board the Chang'e-4 lander and rover in December.

They will be placed in an 18cm tall bucket-like tin made from special aluminum alloy materials, together with water, a nutrient solution, and a small camera and data transmission system.


Cells use light to communicate

light in the body
"Your body is woven from the light of Heaven." ~Rumi
Have you ever wondered what makes the difference between a living and non-living process? What makes us "alive" instead of just machines or robots acting out commands? What is the life force, or what ancient philosophers called the "animus"? It is light, and this is the fundamental method by which your cells and DNA communicate.

After all, a cell contains the same components when it is alive and when it is dead. The same molecules and structures are there, but what gives the cell life? What allows an average human being to become the accumulation of 10 trillion cells communicating in a precise way every second to every molecule in our bodies?



Hybrid swarm of 'mega-pests' threatens crops worldwide, scientists warn

Hybrids of two major pest species, cotton bollworms and corn earworms, could be a major threat to global agriculture

New strain could be significant biosecurity risk and has potential to go 'completely undetected'

A pair of major agricultural pests have combined to produce a "mega-pest" that could threaten crops around the world.

Losses from the original pest species, cotton bollworms and corn earworms, already amounts to billions of dollars worth of food.

But a hybrid of the two, shows signs of rapidly developing resistance to pesticides and it scientists fear it could cross international boundaries undetected, wiping out all the crops it comes across.

Bollworms and earworms are closely related. The bollworm has its origins in Africa, Asia and Europe while the earworm is a native of the Americas.

Both are in fact moth caterpillars and they feed on more than 100 plant species including vital crops like corn, cotton, tomato and soybean.

A team of Australian scientists who discovered the hybrid mega-pests think the combination of international species could be creating a new strain with unlimited geographical boundaries.

It is impossible to tell which individuals are hybrids just by looking at them, meaning by the time the hybrids have been detected it may be too late.

"A hybrid such as this could go completely undetected should it invade another country," said Dr Paul De Barro, a biosecurity expert at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The scientists studied nine from Brazil and found that every one was a hybrid.


5 times artificial intelligence revealed sexist and racist biases

brain scan
© John Lamb/Getty
Modern life runs on intelligent algorithms. The data-devouring, self-improving computer programmes that underlie the artificial intelligence revolution already determine Google search results, Facebook news feeds and online shopping recommendations. Increasingly, they also decide how easily we get a mortgage or a job interview, the chances we will get stopped and searched by the police on our way home, and what penalties we face if we commit a crime, too.

So they must be unimpeachable in their decision-making, right? Wrong. Skewed input data, false logic or just the prejudices of their programmers mean AIs all too easily reproduce and even amplify human biases - as the following five examples show.


Researchers find huge solar 'tornadoes' don't spin after all

solar prominance eruption
An erupting solar prominence on Aug. 31, 2012, imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit:
Giant plasma "tornadoes" raging across the surface of the sun don't actually spin like astronomers once thought, new research shows.

Massive solar tornadoes, formally known as tornado prominences, which were first observed about 100 years ago, seemed to bear a striking resemblance to tornadoes on Earth. These gigantic structures - each one several times the size of Earth - are made of hot, flowing gas and tangled magnetic field lines, ultimately driven by nuclear reactions in the solar core.

However, using a method known as the Doppler effect, scientists have precisely measured the speed of the moving plasma, as well as its direction, temperature and density, revealing that twisters on the sun do not rotate like earthbound tornadoes do, according to a statement from the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) conference.