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Sun, 26 Mar 2017
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Monkey Wrench

Rewriting life: New techniques being used to produce our food or shape the environment raise serious regulatory questions

© Nature.com
Lab-made meat. Hornless cattle. Designer bacteria. Dozens of futuristic-sounding products are being developed using new tools like CRISPR and synthetic biology. As companies seek to commercialize more of these products, one big question lingers: Who will regulate them?

A new report issued by the National Academy of Sciences says U.S. regulatory agencies need to prepare for new plants, animals, and microbes that will be hitting the market in the next five to 10 years. The new products, the report says, could overwhelm regulatory agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.

"All of these products have the potential to be beneficial, but the question to me is, how do they compare to the alternative?" says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee that prepared the report.

Comment: God's red pencil? CRISPR and the myths of precise genome editing
Why is this discussion of precision important? Because for the last seventy years all chemical and biological technologies, from genetic engineering to pesticides, have been built on a myth of precision and specificity. They have all been adopted under the pretense that they would function without side effects or unexpected complications. Yet the extraordinary disasters and repercussions of DDT, leaded paint, agent orange, atrazine, C8, asbestos, chlordane, PCBs, and so on, when all is said and done, have been stories of the steady unraveling of a founding myth of precision and specificity.

Nevertheless, with the help of industry propagandists, their friends in the media, even the United Nations, we are once again being preached the gospel of precision. But no matter how you look at it, precision is a fable and should be treated as such.

The issues of CRISPR and other related new "genome editing" biotechnologies are the subject of intense activity behind the scenes. The US Department of Agriculture has just explained that it will not be regulating organisms whose genomes have been edited since it doesn't consider them to be GMOs at all. The EU was about to call them GMOs but the US has caused them to blink, meanwhile the US is in the process of revisiting its GMO regulatory environment entirely. Will future safety regulations of GMOs be based on a schoolboy version of genetics and an interpretation of genome editing crafted in a corporate public relations department? If history is any guide it will.


Battle lasers! US, Russia, and China develop brighter beams for blasting enemies

© REUTERS/ John Williams/U.S. Navy
2017 has already seen a spate of bold statements by Russia and US officials about the development and testing of laser weapons in their countries; earlier this week, the US announced that it is preparing to test a new high-powered laser weapon which can be mounted on army trucks.2017 has already seen a spate of bold statements by Russia and US officials about the development and testing of laser weapons in their countries; earlier this week, the US announced that it is preparing to test a new high-powered laser weapon which can be mounted on army trucks.

On March 16, Lockheed Martin said that its new solid-state fiber laser can slice through targets with a record-breaking 58 kilowatts of direct power, and that in a matter of months it will deliver its High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck (HELMTT) to the US Army for testing.


Excavation of 14,000-yo mammoth reveals new information on ancient humans

© INAH TV / YouTube
The excavation of an enormous wooly mammoth, which lived between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, may provide evidence that ancient humans lived in Mexico at the time.

Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology (INAH) say the bones of the prehistoric mammoth were discovered by chance in December 2015, during construction work near the town of Tultepec, approximately 40km north of Mexico City.

Since the discovery, archaeologists have been painstakingly preserving the fossilized bones. Crucially, the mammoth was found cut up into pieces, which may indicate that prehistoric humans lived in Mexico 14,000 years ago.


Thunderbolts Space News: Another "Impossible" Neutron Star

© YouTube/Thunderbolts Project (screen capture)
What is a so-called neutron star? Scientists tell us that the material left over from a supernova explosion of a massive star collapses gravitationally, forming an incredibly small yet massively dense star mostly composed of tightly packed neutrons. A rotating neutron star is said to emit regular pulses of radio waves and other sources of radiation, called pulsars.

But the hypothesis of the neutron star was not a predictive theory that was composed and then verified through observation — rather, it was invented in the 1960's, after the completely unexpected discovery of radio pulses from the constellation Vulpecula. Today, we report on the latest in a string of "baffling" discoveries that in effect falsify the neutron star hypothesis, and we explore theoretical alternatives in the Electric Universe and plasma cosmology.

2 + 2 = 4

Birth may not be a major microbe delivery event for babies

Study finds no big differences in microbiomes of babies born vaginally or by C-section

© PHDG/istockphoto
Whether a baby is born vaginally or by C-section may not be a major determinant for babies’ microbiomes, a new study suggests.
Babies are born germy, and that's a good thing. Our microbiomes — the microbes that live on and in us — are gaining cred as tiny but powerful keepers of our health.

As microbes gain scientific stature, some scientists are trying to answer questions about how and when those germs first show up on babies. Birth itself may be an important microbe-delivery event, some researchers suspect. A trip through the birth canal can coat a baby with bacteria from his mother. A C-section, some evidence suggests, might introduce different bacteria, at least right after birth.


NASA unveils incredible high-def image of layered Martian crater

NASA has released an incredible high-definition image of the intricate layers of a Martian valley, providing further evidence of a once-flooded red planet.

Uzboi Vallis is situated in the Margaritifer Sinus quadrangle (MC-19) region on Mars, believed to have been formed by water that once existed on the planet.

The dramatic layers of rust-hued rock likely formed when the valley's drainage was blocked by a large impact that hollowed out the planet's Holden Crater.


NASA scientists reveal how 'spiders' grow on Mars

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
These five images from the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show different Martian features of progressively greater size and complexity, all thought to result from thawing of seasonal carbon dioxide ice that covers large areas near Mars' south pole during winter.
Erosion-carved troughs that grow and branch during multiple Martian years may be infant versions of larger features known as Martian "spiders," which are radially patterned channels found only in the south polar region of Mars.

Researchers using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) report the first detection of cumulative growth, from one Martian spring to another, of channels resulting from the same thawing-carbon-dioxide process believed to form the spider-like features.

The spiders range in size from tens to hundreds of yards (or meters). Multiple channels typically converge at a central pit, resembling the legs and body of a spider. For the past decade, researchers have checked in vain with MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera to see year-to-year changes in them.

"We have seen for the first time these smaller features that survive and extend from year to year, and this is how the larger spiders get started," said Ganna Portyankina of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "These are in sand-dune areas, so we don't know whether they will keep getting bigger or will disappear under moving sand."

Dunes appear to be a factor in how the baby spiders form, but they may also keep many from persisting through the centuries needed to become full-scale spiders. The amount of erosion needed to sculpt a typical spider, at the rate determined from observing active growth of these smaller troughs, would require more than a thousand Martian years. That is according to an estimate by Portyankina and co-authors in a recent paper in the journal Icarus. One Martian year lasts about 1.9 Earth years.

"Much of Mars looks like Utah if you stripped away all vegetation, but 'spiders' are a uniquely Martian landform," said Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona, a co-author of the report.

Comment: Other incredible NASA images from Mars' south pole include these giant 'worm' like features:

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The bizarre 'worms of mars': The polar cap is made from carbon dioxide (dry ice), which does not occur naturally on Earth.
Another image of the Martian landscape created by the photographer Michael Benson .

© Michael Benson/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Kinetikon Pictures


Another giant asteroid is about to brush by Earth on St. Patrick's day

© Shutterstock
A massive space rock is swinging by to say hello this Patrick's Day.

The "near Earth asteroid" - which was discovered by NASA earlier this year - will brush past on Friday.

NASA monitors "near Earth asteroids" or NEOs to predict possible collisions.

This particular space rock is dubbed 2017 EG3.

Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) are space rocks larger than approximately 100m that can come closer to Earth than 0.05 AU.


Quantum Theory: Can it explain why jokes are funny?

© Jokes | LearnEnglish | British Council
Some call this "pun"ishment.
Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 789!

Whether this pun makes you giggle or groan in pain, your reaction is a consequence of the ambiguity of the joke. Thus far, models have not been able to fully account for the complexity of humor or exactly why we find puns and jokes funny, but a research article recently published in Frontiers in Physics suggests a novel approach: quantum theory.

Aiming to answer the question of what kind of formal theory is needed to model the cognitive representation of a joke, researchers suggest that a quantum theory approach might be a contender. In their paper, they outline a quantum inspired model of humor, hoping that this new approach may succeed at a more nuanced modeling of the cognition of humor than previous attempts and lead to the development of a full-fledged, formal quantum theory model of humor. This initial model was tested in a study where participants rated the funniness of verbal puns, as well as the funniness of variants of these jokes (e.g. the punchline on its own, the set-up on its own). The results indicate that apart from the delivery of information, something else is happening on a cognitive level that makes the joke as a whole funny whereas its deconstructed components are not, and which makes a quantum approach appropriate to study this phenomenon.


Neuroscience may be on the wrong track in understanding the brain, a radical rethink is needed

© Justin Pickard/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Has neuroscience been on the wrong track for centuries?
Understanding the human brain is arguably the greatest challenge of modern science. The leading approach for most of the past 200 years has been to link its functions to different brain regions or even individual neurons (brain cells). But recent research increasingly suggests that we may be taking completely the wrong path if we are to ever understand the human mind.

The idea that the brain is made up of numerous regions that perform specific tasks is known as "modularity". And, at first glance, it has been successful. For example, it can provide an explanation for how we recognise faces by activating a chain of specific brain regions in the occipital and temporal lobes. Bodies, however, are processed by a different set of brain regions. And scientists believe that yet other areas - memory regions - help combine these perceptual stimuli to create holistic representations of people. The activity of certain brain areas has also been linked to specific conditions and diseases.

The reason this approach has been so popular is partly due to technologies which are giving us unprecedented insight into the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks changes in blood flow in the brain, allows scientists to see brain areas light up in response to activities - helping them map functions. Meanwhile, Optogenetics, a technique that uses genetic modification of neurons so that their electrical activity can be controlled with light pulses - can help us to explore their specific contribution to brain function.