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Sun, 26 Feb 2017
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Eye 1

The spy in your living room: Samsung confirms smart TV's capture all nearby conversations and transmit to a third party

Samsung has confirmed that its "smart TV" sets are listening to customers' every word, and the company is warning customers not to speak about personal information while near the TV sets.

The company revealed that the voice activation feature on its smart TVs will capture all nearby conversations. The TV sets can share the information, including sensitive data, with Samsung as well as third-party services.

The news comes after Shane Harris at The Daily Beast pointed out a troubling line in Samsung's privacy policy: "Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party."

Comment: Total surveillance: Your smart devices can now spy on your every move


Microscope 2

Scientists plan to use gene-editing to 'de-extinct' the woolly mammoth

© Jonathan Blair / Getty Images
Research from Harvard University is exciting some scientists about the prospects of being able to recreate the long extinct woolly mammoth. The ice age mammal's DNA could potentially be spliced with an Asian elephant to create a hybrid.

Harvard Geneticist Professor, George Church, briefed the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) about the progress his team has made in the past two years of trying to "de-extinct" the mammoth.

"Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo," said Church. "Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We're not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years."

Beaker

New science says that DNA is not the all powerful molecule biologists make it out to be

Test your understanding of the living world with this simple question. What kind of biomolecule is found in all living organisms? If your answer is "DNA", you are incorrect. The mistake is very forgiveable though. The standard English-language biology education casts DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) as the master molecule of life, coordinating and controlling most, if not all, living functions. This master molecule concept is popular. It is plausible. It is taught in every university and high school. But it is wrong. DNA is no master controller, nor is it even at the centre of biology. Instead, science overwhelmingly shows that life is self-organised and thus the pieces are in place for biology to undergo the ultimate paradigm shift.

The mythologising of DNA

Highly respected scientists make very strong claims for the powers of DNA. In his autobiography, Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis called it "The King of molecules" and "The big one". Maybe he read DNA: The Secret of Life, a popular science book that calls DNA the molecule that "holds the key to the very nature of living things". Its author should know. He is Nobel Laureate, James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Even institutions have strong opinions when it comes to DNA; the website of the US National Institutes of Health claims "Genes are at the center of everything that makes us human".

My edition of The Secret of Life features on its back cover Eric Lander. Lander is the celebrated brains behind modern human genetics. He is also the head of the Broad Institute at MIT. In his blurb, Lander endorses "The secret of life" trope. Just below him on the jacket is Professor of genetics Mary-Claire King. She writes: "This is the story of DNA and therefore the story of life, history, sex, money, drugs, and still-to-be-revealed secrets." According to Prof. King, DNA is life.

The Watson view of genetics dominates education too. The standard US high school biology textbook "Life", of which we own the 1997 edition, frames the entirety of biology around DNA, thereby giving it the biochemical status of life's centrepiece.

Info

New Zealand may be part of a submerged continent

© GSA Today
Zealandia, according to scientists, includes New Zealand and New Caledonia.
Scientists say they have identified a new continent, and called it Zealandia.

In a new paper, a team of 11 geologists have proposed that a region of the Pacific Ocean east of Australia and containing New Zealand and New Caledonia, be considered a continent.

Geographically speaking, six continents are recognised: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America. Eurasia is the geographical landmass that includes Europe and Asia.

At 4.9 million square kilometres, Zealandia would be Earth's smallest continent.

It is also the "youngest, thinnest and most submerged" of the continents, as 94 per cent of the landmass is submerged, the geologists wrote.

In the paper, titled Zealandia: Earth's Hidden Continent, the geologists argue that Zealandia has all four attributes necessary to be considered a continent.

Fireball

Rare asteroid discovered along the orbit of Uranus

© NASA/Erich Karkoschka (Univ. Arizona)
Now with added Trojans.
A rare Trojan asteroid of Uranus has been found, following the same orbit as the planet. Its existence implies there could be many more of these companion asteroids, and that they are more common than we thought.

A Trojan asteroid orbits the sun 60 degrees ahead of or behind a planet. Jupiter and Neptune have numerous Trojans, many of which have been in place for billions of years. These primordial rocks hold information about the solar system's birth, and NASA has just announced plans to visit several of them in the 2020s and 2030s.

But Saturn and Uranus live in a rougher neighbourhood: the giant planets on either side of them yank Trojans away through their gravitational pull. So Saturn has no known Trojan, and Uranus had only one.

In July, though, astronomers reported a new asteroid, named 2014 YX49, that shares Uranus's orbital period of 84 years. Now computer simulations of the solar system by brothers Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, indicate the asteroid is a Uranus Trojan. The simulations show that the asteroid has maintained its position ahead of Uranus for thousands of years.

"It is bigger, probably twice as big as the first one," says Carlos. The new asteroid is brighter than the first, but its exact size depends on how much light its surface reflects. If it reflects half the sunlight striking it, it's 40 kilometres across; if it reflects 5 per cent, its diameter is 120 kilometres.

Brain

Brain scans could detect high-risk autism before the age of two

© Rick Wilking/ Reuters
Scientists believe that there may be a correlation between brain growth visible on brain scans and the eventual development of autism spectrum disorder. These MRIs could potentially identify high-risk autism before the age of two.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects approximately 3.5 million Americans and is most likely to be identified by the age of four. However, a study published Wednesday in Nature, claims to have possibly discovered a formula to identify children with a high-risk for autism before they start to seriously lag in their social development.

ASD is a blanket term for a wide range of social impairments, from slightly to seriously disabling. As a result, children with autism often fall behind in developmental milestones related to social, communication and language skills.

The study claims that the brain scans revealed "hyperexpansions" of the brain surface in the first 12 months were a common feature in babies who would go on to develop ASD. The expansion was often followed by an increase in brain volume overgrowth that, according to the study, "was linked to the emergence and severity of autistic social deficits."

Comment: While early identification and treatment will no doubt be beneficial, the bigger question scientists continue to dance around are the reasons for the explosion of autism:


Hearts

Experiments suggest that monkeys and dogs have a human-like sense of morality

A team of researchers from Kyoto University has found that dogs and capuchin monkeys watch how humans interact with one another and react less positively to those that are less willing to help or share. In their paper published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, the team describes a series of experiments they carried out with several dogs and capuchin monkeys and what they discovered about both species social preferences.

Common sense suggests that most people prefer to deal with other people who are fair and in some cases, helpful. In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn if the same might be true of dogs and capuchin monkeys regarding human interactions. To that end, they set up three experiments designed to test how dogs and monkeys reacted to humans behaving rudely.

Seismograph

Southern California's Ventura-Pitas Point fault line has potential to trigger earthquakes, tsunamis

© Patrick T. Fallon / Reuters
New research has revealed that a fault in Southern California which was only identified as active in the 1980s has the potential to trigger devastating earthquakes and tsunamis along America's south west coast.

The Ventura-Pitas Point Fault runs under California from Ventura city through the Santa Barbara Channel and beneath Santa Barbara and Goleta. It also runs offshore, meaning it may be capable of generating tsunamis.

Since it was identified as a potentially dangerous fault in the late 1980s, there have been decades of debate about its exact location and its underground geometry. Initial theories assumed the fault was slightly dipping, or that it had two severe tilting sections with a flat section in between, similar to a staircase.

A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters states that the fault has the staircase-like geometry, meaning it is closer to the surface and would likely cause more damage during an earthquake than previously thought.

Beaker

What could go wrong? U.S. National Academy of Sciences advocates use of gene editing tools to modify human DNA

A US National Academy of Sciences report has said gene-editing tools should eventually be used to modify human DNA - does their ruling open the door for future "designer babies"? Some may have reservations about that eventuality, but a bioethics professor has told Sputnik scientists have a moral duty to pursue that possibility.

In a report, the committee of scientists, entrepreneurs, ethicists and patient advocates said human genomes could in future be edited to replace faulty genetic information from a parent with a third person's healthy DNA. It stresses that the technique should only be used in the most serious cases, where no other options are available, and conducted under strict guidelines with stringent oversight.

Comment: God's red pencil? CRISPR and the myths of precise genome editing
For the benefit of those parts of the world where public acceptance of biotechnology is incomplete, a public relations blitz is at full tilt. It concerns an emerging set of methods for altering the DNA of living organisms. "Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up"; "We Have the Technology to Destroy All Zika Mosquitoes"; and "CRISPR: gene editing is just the beginning." (CRISPR is short for CRISPR/cas9, which is short for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9; Jinek et al., 2012. It is a combination of a guide RNA and a protein that can cut DNA.)

The hubris is alarming; but the more subtle element of the propaganda campaign is the biggest and most dangerous improbability of them all: that CRISPR and related technologies are "genome editing" (Fichtner et al., 2014). That is, they are capable of creating precise, accurate and specific alterations to DNA.

[...]

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.



Bizarro Earth

The world's deepest ocean trenches are loaded with pollution

NOT far off the coast of Guam lies the deepest point on Earth's surface, the Mariana trench. Its floor is 10,994 metres below sea level. If Mount Everest were flipped upside down into it, there would still be more than 2km of clear water between the mountain's base and the top of the ocean. Such isolation has led many to assume that it and similar seabed trenches will be among the few remaining pristine places on the planet. However, a study led by Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in England, has shown that nothing could be further from the truth. As Dr Jamieson and his colleagues report this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution, trenches actually are loaded with pollutants.

Despite the cold, the darkness and the high pressure, ocean trenches are home to ecosystems similar in many ways to those found on other parts of the planet. In one important respect, though, they are different. This is where the energy that powers them comes from. In most ecosystems, sunlight fuels the growth of plants which are then consumed by animals. In a few shallower parts of the ocean, hydrothermal vents provide energy-rich chemicals that form the basis of local food chains. No vents are known to exist below 5,000 metres, though, and no sunlight penetrates a trench. The organisms found in them thus depend entirely on dead organic material raining down upon them from far above.