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Sat, 25 Feb 2017
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Science & Technology


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:


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.


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.


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.


Tiny, soft, transparent nanofabricated devices turned into ultrasensitive microphones

© Cheng Sun
The tiny, transparent Micro-ring device can fit into a contact lens.
A tiny, transparent device that can fit into a contact lens has a bright future, potentially helping a range of scientific endeavors from biomedicine to geology.

Developed by Northwestern University scientists, the device, called the Micro-ring resonator detector, can determine the speed of the blood flow and the oxygen metabolic rate at the back of the eye. This information could help diagnose such common and debilitating diseases as macular degeneration and diabetes.

The Micro-ring device builds upon Professor Hao F. Zhang's groundbreaking work in 2006 to develop photoacoustic imaging, which combines sound and light waves to create images of biological materials. The imaging technique is being widely explored for both fundamental biological investigations and clinical diagnosis, from nanoscopic cellular imaging to human breast cancer screening.


Earth's magnetic field strength recorded in ancient clay jars

© Oded Lipschits
A stamped handle from Ramat Rahel. Such fragments are an archive of the strength of the Earth's magnetic field at the time they were made.
A collection of clay storage jar handles from ancient Judah - modern-day Jerusalem - is providing fresh insight into fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field.

It's long been known that the magnetic field - extending from the centre of the planet out to about 65,000 kilometres above the surface - changes over time. The north and south poles shift to and fro over centuries, and every few hundred thousand years they even swap places.

Since the development of pottery, these movements have been inadvertently encoded in human artefacts. Clay contains small amounts of a mineral known as magnetite. When fired in a kiln, the magnetite transforms into a permanent record of the intensity and alignment of the magnetic field at that moment.

Today, movement in the magnetic fields are made accurately and easily, but recreating past shifts - a field known as archaeomagnetism - is confounded by, among other things, difficulties in accurately estimating the age of artefacts used in the dating process.

But now a research team led by Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University in Israel has used samples from clay jars dating from between the eighth and second centuries BCE to produce extremely accurate measurements of field activity in the Levant.

The key to the team's precision lies in the welcome habit of the ancient Judeans of marking their jars with stamps specific to the ruling entities of the area. As rulers came and went, so too did the inscriptions.


NASA spends $2mn on 'advanced life support tech' for deep space travel potentially furthering long distance space exploration

© Cortez III Service Corp / NASA
Artist's impression of a NASA base on Mars.
NASA has awarded $2 million to two companies for the development of technology that will help astronauts breathe safely in space for longer periods, potentially furthering long distance space exploration.

The projects aim to advance the use of oxygen recovery technology which will convert carbon dioxide back into oxygen. It's hoped it will help astronauts breathe a little easier in deep space during long missions.

The selected proposals came from Honeywell Aerospace based in Phoenix, Arizona and UMPQUA Research Co. from Myrtle Creek in Oregon.

Comment: See also: Life in space stops aging says NASA

Bizarro Earth

New study reveals major fault under Ventura California could cause more earthquake damage than previously suspected

© Gareth J. Funning and Scott T. Marshall.
The figure shows the location of the Ventura-Pitas Point fault with respect to the cities involved. The view is of Southern California, as seen from the Pacific coast looking east. The thin white line is the coastline; the outlines of the Channel Islands can be seen off to the right (the south). The pink triangulated surface is the Ventura-Pitas Point fault. At the edge of it can be seen the stair-step cross-section, the flat part being under Santa Barbara.
A new study by a team of researchers, including one from the University of California, Riverside, found that the fault under Ventura, Calif., would likely cause stronger shaking during an earthquake and more damage than previously suspected.

The Ventura-Pitas Point fault in southern California has been the focus of a lot of recent attention because it is thought to be capable of magnitude 8 earthquakes. It underlies the city of Ventura and runs offshore, and thus may be capable of generating tsunamis.

Since it was identified as an active and potentially dangerous fault in the late 1980s, there has been a controversy about its location and geometry underground, with two competing models.

Originally, researchers assumed the fault was planar and steeply dipping, like a sheet of plywood positioned against a house, to a depth of about 13 miles. But a more recent study, published in 2014, suggested the fault had a "ramp-flat geometry," with a flat section between two tilting sections, similar to a portion of a staircase.


Google's New AI Has Learned to Become "Highly Aggressive" in Stressful Situations Using Tactics to Always Come Out on Top

© agsandrew/Shutterstock.com
Late last year, famed physicist Stephen Hawking issued a warning that the continued advancement of artificial intelligence will either be "the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity".

We've all seen the Terminator movies, and the apocalyptic nightmare that the self-aware AI system, Skynet, wrought upon humanity, and now results from recent behaviour tests of Google's new DeepMind AI system are making it clear just how careful we need to be when building the robots of the future.

In tests late last year, Google's DeepMind AI system demonstrated an ability to learn independently from its own memory, and beat the world's best Go players at their own game.

It's since been figuring out how to seamlessly mimic a human voice.

Now, researchers have been testing its willingness to cooperate with others, and have revealed that when DeepMind feels like it's about to lose, it opts for "highly aggressive" strategies to ensure that it comes out on top.

Comment: See also: