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4th July 2015

The first comprehensive analysis of the woolly mammoth genome

The first comprehensive analysis of the mammoth genome has been completed – revealing a number of traits that enabled the animals to survive the Arctic cold.

 

woolly mammoths 2015 research
CREDIT: IMAGE COURTESY OF GIANT SCREEN FILMS © 2012 D3D ICE AGE, LLC

 

2015 is turning out to be a significant year for research on mammoths. In March, DNA from an ancient specimen was spliced into that of an elephant and shown to be functional for the first time. In April, a team sequenced the entire genome of the extinct animal. Following those breakthroughs, it is now reported that scientists have completed the first detailed analysis of the genome, revealing extensive genetic changes that helped mammoths adapt to life during the Ice Age.

The research was published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Cell Reports. It concludes that mammoths possessed genes with striking differences to those found in elephants. These genes played roles in skin and hair development, fat metabolism, insulin signalling and numerous other traits for adaptation in extreme cold environments. Genes linked to physical traits such as skull shape, small ears and short tails were also identified. As a test of their function, a mammoth gene involved in temperature sensation was "resurrected" in the laboratory and its protein product characterised.

“This is by far the most comprehensive study to look at the genetic changes that make a woolly mammoth a woolly mammoth,” says Vincent Lynch, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago. “They are an excellent model to understand how morphological evolution works, because mammoths are so closely related to living elephants, which have none of the traits they had.”

Well-studied due to the abundance of skeletons, frozen carcasses and depictions in prehistoric art, these animals possessed long, coarse fur, a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, small ears and tails and a brown-fat deposit behind the neck which may have functioned similar to a camel hump. They last roamed the frigid tundra steppes of northern Asia, Europe and North America roughly 10,000 years ago.

 

last glacial maximum earth ice
Artist's impression of the northern hemisphere during the last Ice Age. By Ittiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Previous efforts to sequence preserved mammoth DNA were error-prone, or yielded insights into only a limited number of genes. Lynch and his team performed deep sequencing of two specimens to identify 1.4 million genetic variants unique to woolly mammoths. These are now known to have caused changes to the proteins produced by around 1,600 genes.

Of particular interest was a group of genes responsible for temperature sensation, which also play roles in hair growth and fat storage. The team used ancestral reconstruction techniques to “resurrect” the mammoth version of one of these genes, TRPV3. When transplanted into human cells in the lab, the mammoth TRPV3 gene produced a protein that was less responsive to heat than an ancestral elephant version of the gene. This result is supported by experiments with TRPV3 on mice, which prefer colder environments and have wavier hair than normal mice.

However, although the functions of these genes match well with the environment in which woolly mammoths were known to live, Lynch warns that it is not direct proof of their effects in live mammoths. Regulation of gene expression, for example, is extremely difficult to study through the genome alone.

“We can’t know with absolute certainty the effects of these genes unless someone resurrects a complete woolly mammoth, but we can try to infer by doing experiments in the laboratory,” he says. Lynch and his colleagues are now identifying candidates for other mammoth genes to functionally test, alongside planning experiments to study mammoth proteins in elephant cells.

High-quality sequencing and detailed analysis of genomes can serve as a blueprint for efforts to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth, according to Lynch: “Eventually, we’ll be technically able to do it,” he states. “But the question is: if you’re technically able to do something, should you do it? I personally think no. Mammoths are extinct and the environment in which they lived has changed. There are many animals on the edge of extinction we should be helping instead.”

 

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1st July 2015

Oregon becomes the fourth US state to make recreational marijuana legal

Oregon has become the fourth state in the US to make recreational marijuana legal. A new voter-approved law – Measure 91 – comes into effect today allowing for adult possession and home cultivation of the drug. The law permits adults 21 and older to grow four plants and keep eight ounces at home, and possess one ounce in public. Public consumption and sales will continue to remain illegal. Taking marijuana across the Oregon border is also illegal.

Retail businesses offering the drug can apply for licenses from 4th January 2016 and are expected to begin operating later that same year. More time was allotted to create specific regulations for sellers to ensure the best possible public safety outcome.

"Expending law enforcement resources by going after nonviolent marijuana users is a shameful waste of time and tax dollars, and a distraction from what's really plaguing neighbourhoods," says Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a criminal justice group opposed to the drug war. "Cops in Oregon can now get into doing their jobs; protecting communities and helping victims of violent crimes get justice."

"Oregon still has more to do to ensure marijuana legalisation is done properly; lawmakers and regulators are currently working to expunge the records of many non-violent marijuana offenders as well as develop proper regulations for taxes, concentrates, and labelling for consumer and child protection," says Inge Fryklund, a former prosecutor, and board member of LEAP. "We must promote honest and accurate public information along with sensible regulations. Oregon can and will be a model for future states looking to consider legalisation in 2016 and beyond."

A total of 23 states and the District of Columbia have now permitted some form of medical marijuana access, while four states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – and the capital Washington, D.C., have legalised it for recreational use. Oregon's regulatory model will be developed with previous successes and failures of other states in mind. Among the priorities of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission are preventing accidental ingestion by children, with the use of appropriate childproof packaging and ensuring that extracts, concentrates, and edibles are carefully regulated, tested, and labelled.

According to state forecasts, Colorado and Washington could generate over $800 million in combined revenue by 2020 from marijuana sales. A clear and growing majority of Americans are in favour of nationwide legalisation of the drug, as evidenced by surveys from Gallup and others. Most of the remaining opposition comes from the conservative baby boomers, a demographic whose influence is beginning to wane. Some of the next states where legalisation may follow include Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, with advocates planning for ballot measures in 2016. Similar to the recent decision on same-sex marriage, a nationwide law on marijuana could follow in the not-too-distant future.

A dedicated website for Oregon's new law has been created at whatslegaloregon.com.

 

oregon marijuana legal 1 july 2015

 

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27th June 2015

Two important breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is among the deadliest known cancers, with a very low survival rate. Two separate but related studies were recently published that offer new hope for both detecting and treating the disease.

 

pancreatic cancer breakthrough 2015

Credit: Blausen.com/Wikiversity Journal of Medicine [CC BY 3.0]

 

In the USA, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is only around 7 per cent. Progress towards finding a cure has been very slow compared to other types of cancer with only small, incremental advances over the last few decades. At the current rate of progress, it will take almost two centuries for the survival figure to reach 100 per cent (see "When will cancer be cured?"). As death rates from other cancers begin to fall, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network predicts that pancreatic cancer will rise from the 4th to the 2nd leading cause of cancer death by 2020.

Part of what makes pancreatic cancer so deadly is the fact that it tends to be detected at a very late stage. By the time a patient knows they have it, options for treatment are very limited and in many cases it is already terminal. Improving the early detection and diagnosis of the illness to expose hidden tumours has been a major focus of research.

This week, a new study by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre, part of the University of Texas, was published in the journal Nature. The paper describes a protein that is found on exosomes (tiny particles released by cancer cells). This protein results in "cancer exomes" that are known as GPC1+ crExos. Researchers were able to distinguish – with 100% accuracy – between healthier patients with a benign pancreatitic disease, and those with early stage pancreatic cancer itself – based on the presence of this protein. Levels of the protein were much lower after surgical removal of tumours. This finding could lead to a blood test that would allow doctors to screen for pancreatic cancer much more effectively.

"GPC1+ crExos were detected in small amounts of serum from about 250 patients with pancreatic cancer with absolute specificity and sensitivity, importantly distinguishing patients with [non-cancerous] pancreatitis from those with early- and late-stage pancreatic cancer," says Dr. Raghu Kalluri, chair of Cancer Biology, in an accompanying press release. "This presents an unprecedented opportunity for informative early detection of pancreatic cancer and in designing potential curative surgical options."

In addition, he says: "GPC1+ crExos can be detected and isolated in blood samples that were stored in freezers almost 30 years ago, unlike circulating tumour cells (CTCs) that require large amounts of fresh blood. DNA, RNA and proteins can be isolated from cancer exosomes isolated from stored specimens for further genetic and biological analyses. Therefore, cancer exosomes are not just a biomarker – but isolating them provides a trove of cancer-specific information."

The study found that GPC1+ crExos detected the possibility of pancreatic cancer in mouse models, at a time when the mice showed no signs of pancreatic disease from MRI scans.

"Routine screening of the general population for pancreatic cancer using MRIs or CTs would be prohibitively expensive with the likelihood for many false positives," says David Piwnica-Worms, Ph.D., chair of Cancer Systems Imaging. "Our study suggests the potential for GPC1+ crExos as a detection and monitoring tool for pancreatic cancer in combination with imaging – with an emphasis on its application in early detection."

 

pancreatic cancer breakthrough 2015
Micrograph of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (the most common type of pancreatic cancer). Credit: KGH [CC BY-SA 3.0].

 

A second, separate paper was published this month in the journal Scientific Reports. This study explains how scientists from University College London (UCL) designed a new chemical compound, able to reduce the growth of pancreatic cancer tumours in mice by 80%. This compound – known as MM41 – can block faulty genes by targeting little knots in their DNA, called quadruplexes, which are very different from normal DNA and are especially found in faulty genes. It is confirmed that MM41 has a strong inhibiting effect on two genes – k-RAS and BCL-2 – both of which are found in the majority of pancreatic cancers.

The UCL team, led by Professor Stephen Neidle, conducted a small-scale trial involving two groups of eight mice with pancreatic tumours using different doses of the compound, twice a week for 40 days. A further control group received no treatment. The tumours in the group given the larger dose decreased by an average of 80% during the treatment period, and after 30 days, regrowth stopped in all the mice. For two of the mice in this group, the tumour disappeared completely with no signs of regrowth at all following the end of treatment, for a further 239 days (equivalent to the rest of their average natural life span).

Analysis of the mice tumours showed that the MM41 compound had been taken up into the nucleus of the cancer cells, showing that it was able to effectively target the pancreatic cancer tumour. No significant side effects were observed on the mice during the study: there was no damage to other tissue or organs and none of the mice showed any significant weight loss.

Discussing the results, Neidle explained: "This research provides a potentially very powerful alternative approach to the way that conventional drugs tackle pancreatic cancer, by targeting a very specific area of the DNA of faulty genes. One of the genes that MM41 blocks – the BCL-2 gene – is involved in regulating apoptosis, the body's natural process which forces cells to die if they become too damaged or unhealthy to be repaired. BCL-2 is present in high amounts in many tumours and helps cancer cells to survive, but when the BCL-2 gene is blocked by MM41 in mice, the cancer cells succumb to apoptosis and die."

Neidle stresses that although these results are exciting, MM41 is not ideal for trialling in humans and further refinements are needed: "We are now working to optimise this class of compounds, but it's clearly worthy of further investigation for potential use in treating pancreatic cancer in people."

 

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26th June 2015

Gay marriage is legal throughout the USA

In a historic and landmark decision, the US Supreme Court today ruled in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the USA.

 

US Supreme Court

 

The case, Obergefell v. Hodges, was a consolidation of three other same-sex marriage cases, Tanco v. Haslam (Tennessee), DeBoer v. Snyder (Michigan) and Bourke v. Beshear (Kentucky), challenging state laws that prohibited same-sex marriage.

With a majority of 5-4, the Court held that state recognition of same-sex marriage is a constitutional right under the 14th Amendment, due to the 1868 Equal Protection Clause, which provides that no state shall deny any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws." This ruling means the number of states where gay marriage is legal will rise from 37 to all 50. The USA is now the 21st country to legalise same-sex marriage nationwide.

Summing up, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated:

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfilment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilisation's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered."

 

 

 

On Twitter, the White House changed its avatar to the rainbow colours. President Barack Obama declared the ruling as a "victory for America" and said: "When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free."

"It's my hope that gay marriage will soon be a thing of the past, and from this day forward it will simply be 'marriage,'" an emotional Jim Obergefell said outside the court.

In a related development, a scientific study this month finds that children of same-sex parents experience "no difference" on a range of social and behavioural outcomes compared to children of heterosexual or single parents. Published in Social Science Research, the paper examined thousands of peer-reviewed articles going back decades and found "overwhelming" consensus on the issue among researchers.

"As same-sex marriage has been debated in courts across the country, there has been the lingering question about the effects of same-sex parenting on children," explains Jimi Adams, associate professor and lead author. "I wanted to analyse the research from past decades to determine if there was consensus amongst researchers about that effect. I found overwhelming evidence that scientists agree that there is not a negative impact to children of same-sex couples."

 

 

 

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26th June 2015

70% of the world using smartphones by 2020

By 2020, advanced mobile technology will be commonplace around the globe, according to a new report from Ericsson.

 

future timeline smartphone technology 2020

 

The latest edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report shows that by 2020, advanced mobile technology will be commonplace in every corner of the globe — smartphone subscriptions will more than double, reaching 6.1 billion, 70% of the world's population will be using smartphones, and over 90% will be covered by mobile broadband networks.

The report – a comprehensive update on the latest mobile trends – shows that growth in mature markets comes from an increasing number of devices per individual. In developing regions, it comes from a swell of new subscribers as smartphones become more affordable; almost 80% of smartphone subscriptions added by year-end 2020 will be from Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa.

With the continued rise of smartphones comes an exponential growth in data usage: smartphone data is predicted to increase ten-fold by 2020, when 80% of all mobile data traffic will come from smartphones (as opposed to basic feature phones). In North America, monthly data usage per smartphone will increase from an average of 2.4 GB today to 14 GB by 2020. It is likely that the 5G standard will be adopted by then.

 

future timeline mobile smartphone technology 2020

 

Rima Qureshi, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer of Ericsson, says: "This immense growth in advanced mobile technology and data usage, driven by a surge in mobile connectivity and smartphone uptake, will make today's big data revolution feel like the arrival of a floppy disk. We see the potential for mass-scale transformation, bringing a wealth of opportunities for telecom operators and others to capture new revenue streams. But it also requires greater focus on cost efficient delivery and openness to new business models to compete and remain effective."

An expanding range of applications and business models, coupled with falling modem costs, are key factors driving the growth of connected devices. Added to this, new use cases are emerging for both short and long range applications, leading to even stronger growth of connected devices moving forward. Ericsson's forecast, outlined in the report, points to 26 billion connected devices by 2020, confirming we are well on the way to reaching the vision of 50 billion connected devices.  

Each year until 2020, mobile video traffic will grow by a staggering 55 percent per year and will constitute around 60 percent of all mobile data traffic by the end of that period. Growth is largely driven by shifting user preferences towards video streaming services, and the increasing prevalence of video in online content including news, advertisements and social media.

When looking at data consumption in advanced mobile broadband markets, findings show a significant proportion of traffic is generated by a limited number of subscribers. These heavy data users represent 10 percent of total subscribers, but generate 55 percent of total data traffic. Video is dominant among heavy users, who typically watch around one hour of video per day, which is 20 times more than the average user.

To accompany the Mobility Report, Ericsson has created a Traffic Exploration Tool for creating customised graphs and tables, using data from the report. The information can be filtered by region, subscription, technology, traffic, and device type.

 

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25th June 2015

New type of comet-like planet is discovered

Astronomers report the discovery of a new type of planet, resembling a giant comet.

 

comet like planet discovery 2015 science
Artist's impression. Credit: University of Geneva (UNIGE)

 

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have discovered an immense cloud of hydrogen – dubbed "The Behemoth" – which is trailing away from a planet orbiting a nearby red dwarf. This huge, comet-like feature is about 50 times the size of the star.

Located 33 light years away, Gliese 436 b is a "warm Neptune" circling just 3 million miles (4.8 million km) from its host, or about 13 times smaller than the distance between Mercury and our Sun. It takes only two days and 15.5 hours to complete one orbit. This close proximity and the extreme radiation from the parent star have been gradually stripping away the atmosphere of Gliese 436 b. It is currently losing about 1,000 tons of gas per second.

"This cloud is very spectacular, though the evaporation rate does not threaten the planet right now," explains the study's leader, David Ehrenreich from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. "But we know that in the past, the star, which is a faint red dwarf, was more active. This means that the planet evaporated faster during its first billion years of existence. Overall, we estimate that it may have lost up to 10 percent of its atmosphere."

The cloud of hydrogen forms a circular head surrounding Gliese 436 b, measuring about 1.8 million miles (3 million km) in diameter. The tail behind it stretches up to 9.3 million miles (15 million km) in length, based on the researchers' computer models.

This comet-like planet is the first of its kind to ever be recorded. This type of observation is very promising in the search for habitable planets since "hydrogen from the ocean water that evaporates on slightly hotter terrestrial planets than the Earth could be detected," as Vincent Bourrier suggests, co-author of these results.

Its discovery could also help scientists to envisage the distant future of our own planet, billions of years from now, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands to engulf our atmosphere. It is hypothesised that the Earth would be turned into a giant comet, just like Gliese 436 b. The James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2018, could provide more accurate data and fresh insights into this system.

The study was published yesterday in the journal Nature.

 

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21st June 2015

3D-printed rhino horn could make poaching obsolete

A biotech startup firm has come up with an ingenious use of 3D printing that could save the rhino from extinction.

San Francisco-based Pembient reports that it has managed to synthesise fake rhino horn that is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. It even carries the same genetic fingerprint. The process involves a series of chemical reactions on synthetic keratin, which is mixed with rhino DNA to produce a dried powder used as the "ink" for the 3D printer.

The number of rhinos being killed in Africa has exploded in recent years, due to a combination of soaring demand and the industrial-scale killing methods of organised gangs. Several subspecies have already gone extinct, including the West African black rhino in 2006. The remaining five subspecies on current trends will be extinct or very near extinction as early as 2025-2030.

The illegal wildlife trade, a $20bn black market, is the fourth largest after drug, arms, and human trafficking. Pembient intends to flood China with these fake horns at well below the current market price. This same 3D printing technique could be applied to other illegal animal products like elephant ivory, tiger bones and pangolin scales.

"We can meet the demand for horns at one-eighth the black-market price. We'll make money; the poaching syndicates won't," says the co-founder and CEO of Pembient, Matthew Markus. "We can produce a rhinoceros horn product that is actually more pure than what you can get from a wild animal. There are so many contaminants, pesticides, fallout from Fukushima. Rhino horn in the lab is as pure as that of a rhino of 2,000 years ago."

A prototype is shown in the picture below. Markus will be hosting an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on social media website Reddit, tomorrow from 1pm PT.

 

3d printed rhino horn poaching obsolete future timeline technology
A prototype, 3D-printed rhino horn. Pembient will begin shipping these to Beijing later this year.

 

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19th June 2015

First full genome of a living organism sequenced and assembled using technology the size of smartphone

Researchers in Canada and the U.K. have for the first time sequenced and assembled de novo the full genome of a living organism, the bacteria Escherichia Coli, using Oxford Nanopore’s MinION device – a genome sequencer that can fit in the palm of your hand.

 

oxford nanopore minion

 

The findings, published this week in the journal Nature Methods, provide proof of concept for the technology and the methods lay the groundwork for using it to sequence full (as opposed to partial) genomes in increasingly more complex organisms – eventually including humans – said Jared Simpson, Principal Investigator at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and a lead author on the study.

“The amazing thing about this device is that it is many times smaller than a normal sequencer – you just attach it to a laptop using a USB cable,” said Simpson. “And while our work is a demonstration of the capabilities of the technology, the most significant advance is in the methods. We were able to mathematically model nanopore sequencing and develop ways to reconstruct complete genomes off this tiny sequencer.”

While standard sequencing platforms can either generate vast amounts of data, or read long enough stretches of the genome to allow complete reconstruction, the Nanopore device has the potential to achieve both goals, according to Simpson: “Long reads are necessary to assemble the most repetitive parts of genomes but we need a lot of reads if we want to sequence human genomes. The small size of the MinION suggests there is room to scale up and sequence larger and more complex samples,” Simpson said.

 

nanopore minion


 
A drawback of the technology is that the single reads it produces are currently less accurate than the reads produced by larger devices. Strong bioinformatics tools are needed to correct errors. The methods Simpson and colleagues developed are able to overcome the error rate and compute a more accurate final sequence.

"This was a fantastic example of a successful long distance research collaboration between Canada and the U.K.,” said Dr. Nicholas Loman, a co-lead author on the paper and an Independent Research Fellow from the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at University of Birmingham. “We explored new ways of working, including hosting a hackathon to explore new algorithm development and using shared computing resources on the Medical Research Council funded Cloud Infrastructure for Microbial Bioinformatics (CLIMB) based in the U.K. Midlands and Wales."

The method of assembly the authors devised had three stages. First, overlaps between sequence reads are detected and corrected using a multiple alignment process. Then the corrected reads are assembled using the Celera assembler and finally the assembly is refined using a probabilistic model of the electric signals caused by DNA moving through the nanopore.

“This work has incredible potential,” said Dr. Tom Hudson, President and Scientific Director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. “Scaled up, this technology could one day be used to sequence tumour genomes. The device’s portable nature would allow for sequencing to become far more accessible, bringing the option of more personalised diagnosis and treatment to more patients.”

As the speed, accuracy and cost of whole genome sequencing continues to improve, a wide range of practical applications will become possible. Investigators at crime scenes, for example, could analyse biological evidence without having to return to the laboratory. Foreign aid workers in developing nations could identify viruses and verify water quality. Food inspectors could check for harmful pathogens in restaurants. Wildlife biologists could study genes in the field.

 

nanopore minion

 

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18th June 2015

World's most lifelike bionic hand will transform the lives of amputees

A congenital amputee from London has become the first user in the UK to be fitted with a new prosthetic hand that launches this week and sets a new benchmark in small myoelectric hands.

 

bebionic small

 

Developed using Formula 1 technology and specifically in scale for women and teenagers, the bebionic small hand is built around an accurate skeletal structure with miniaturised components designed to provide the most true-to-life movements.

The bebionic small hand, developed by prosthetic experts Steeper, will enable fundamental improvements in the lives of thousands of amputees across the world. The hand marks a turning point in the world of prosthetics as it perfectly mimics the functions of a real hand via 14 different precision grips. A bionic extension of the arm that enables the utmost dexterity will enable amputees to engage in a range of activities that would have previously been complex and unmanageable.

Nicky Ashwell, 29, born without a right hand, received Steeper's latest innovation at a fitting by London Prosthetics Centre, a private facility providing expert services in cutting-edge prosthetics. Before being fitted with the bebionic small hand, Nicky would use a cosmetic hand without movement; as a result, Nicky learned to carry out tasks with one hand. The bebionic small hand has been a major improvement to Nicky's life, enabling her to do things previously impossible with one hand such as riding a bike, gripping weights with both hands, using cutlery and opening her purse.

Nicky, who is a Product Manager at an online fashion forecasting and trend service, said: "When I first tried the bebionic small hand it was an exciting and strange feeling; it immediately opened up so many more possibilities for me. I realised that I had been making life challenging for myself when I didn't need to. The movements now come easily and look natural; I keep finding myself being surprised by the little things, like being able to carry my purse while holding my boyfriend's hand. I've also been able to do things never before possible like riding a bike and lifting weights."

 

 

 

Bebionic small hand works using sensors triggered by the user's muscle movements that connect to individual motors in each finger and powerful microprocessors. The technology comprises a unique system which tracks and senses each finger through its every move – mimicking the functions of a real hand. Development follows seven years of research and manufacturing, including the use of Formula 1 techniques and military technology along with advanced materials including aerograde aluminium and rare Earth magnets.

Ted Varley, Technical Director at Steeper said, "Looking to the future, there's a trend of technology getting more intricate; Steeper has embraced this and created a smaller hand with advanced technology that is suitable for women and teenagers. An accurate skeletal structure was firstly developed, with the complex technology then specifically developed to fit within this in order to maintain anatomical accuracy. In other myoelectric hands the technology is developed first, at the expense of the lifelikeness."

Bebionic small hand at a glance:
• Contains 337 mechanical parts
• 14 grip patterns and hand positions to allow a range of precision movements
• Weighs approximately 390g – the same as a large bar of Galaxy chocolate
• 165mm from base to middle fingertip – the size of an average woman's hand
• Strong enough to handle up to 45kg – around the same as 25 bricks
• The only multi-articulated hand with patented finger control system using rare Earth magnets
• Specifically designed with women, teenagers and smaller-framed men in mind

 

 

 

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17th June 2015

NASA: 2015 is the hottest year on record (so far)

NASA has just released its latest update for GISTEMP – one of the most widely-cited datasets for the measuring of global temperatures. This shows that the first five months of this year were the hottest five-month period on record by a considerable margin. So far, 2015 has been 0.77°C (1.4°F) warmer than the 1951-1980 baseline. This is compared to 0.68°C (1.2°F) set during 2014, the previous record year.

These record high temperatures have occurred even before a substantial El Niño has yet to take full effect. Taking the pre-industrial temperature as the baseline (instead of 1951-1980) and projecting a future trend, the world is on course for a 1°C (1.8°F) rise by the early 2020s. One degree of warming might not sound like much, but the energy required to heat the entire surface and lower atmosphere of a planet is huge – equivalent to four Hiroshima atomic bombs detonating every second. That heat is being trapped by greenhouse gases, as shown by simple laboratory experiments and theorised as far back as the mid-19th century.

If global warming is to be kept below 2°C this century, then over 80% of coal, 50% of gas and 30% of oil reserves are "unburnable", according to a recent study published in Nature. This means that drilling in the Arctic Circle should be prohibited, since it contains a large fraction of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. Despite this scientific conclusion and the long-term risks, a number of nations including Canada, Russia and the US are racing to claim the available resources.

GISTEMP is based on publicly available data from 6,300 meteorological stations around the world; from ship-based and satellite observations of sea surface temperatures; and from Antarctic research stations. These three data sets are combined and adjusted to account for breaks in station records, the effects of urban heating, and the distribution of stations across the landscape.

 

nasa gistemp 2015 hottest year data

 

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10th June 2015

A plan to convert USA to 100% renewables by 2050

Engineers at Stanford University have developed a state-by-state plan to convert the USA to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2050.

 

usa energy future energy 2050 timeline

 

At the G7 summit in Germany this week, world leaders agreed to phase out fossil fuels by 2100. However, some countries may be able to achieve this target earlier than others. Indeed, a new study led by Stanford University outlines how each of the 50 states in the USA could achieve such a transition by 2050.

Mark Z. Jacobson – professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford – and colleagues including U.C. Berkeley researcher Mark Delucchi, demonstrate 50 individual plans, calling for aggressive changes to both infrastructure and the ways America currently consumes energy. While it may sound like a radical idea, their research indicates that the conversion is technically and economically possible through the wide-scale implementation of existing technologies.

"The main barriers are social, political, and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible," said Jacobson. "By showing that it's technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation."

Jacobson and his colleagues looked at future trends in energy use for residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors. Their research examined how the integration of zero-carbon, fully electric technology could affect energy savings in vehicles, homes and workplaces.

"When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050," Jacobson said. "About six percentage points of that is gained through efficiency improvements to infrastructure, but the bulk is the result of replacing current sources and uses of combustion energy with electricity."

Next, the team calculated the renewable energy resources available for each state by analysing sunlight exposure, wind maps, geothermal sources and determining whether local offshore wind turbines were an option. Geothermal energy was available at a reasonable cost for only 13 states. Their plans call for virtually no new hydroelectric dams, but do account for energy gains from improving the efficiency of existing dams. The report lays out individual roadmaps for each state to achieve an 80 percent transition by 2030, and a full conversion by 2050.

Several states are already on their way. Washington state, for instance, could make the switch to full renewables relatively quickly, thanks to the fact that more than 70 percent of its current electricity comes from existing hydroelectric sources. Iowa and South Dakota are also well-positioned, as they already produce nearly 30 percent of their electricity from wind power. California already has a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.

No more than 0.5 percent of any state's land would need covering in solar panels or wind turbines. The upfront cost of the changes would be significant, but wind and sunlight are free. So the overall cost spread over the long term would roughly equal the price of the fossil fuel infrastructure, maintenance and production. The plan also addresses the issues of base load and intermittency (a criticism that is frequently levelled at renewables) by using a combination of storage systems and demand response, with support from non-variable energy sources such as hydro and geothermal, to fill temporary gaps in supply from wind or solar. All in all, this new grid would not only be reliable, but actually more reliable than today's grid.

"When you account for the health and climate costs – as well as the rising price of fossil fuels – wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems," he continued. "A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilise fuel prices, reduce pollution-related health problems and eliminate emissions from the United States. There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science."

If the conversion is followed exactly as his plan outlines, the reduction of air pollution in the U.S. could prevent the deaths of approximately 63,000 Americans who die from air pollution-related causes each year. It would also eliminate U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases produced from fossil fuel, which would otherwise cost the world $3.3 trillion a year by 2050.

The study is published in the online edition of Energy and Environmental Sciences. An interactive map summarising the plans for each state is available at www.thesolutionsproject.org.

The USA currently produces 15% of the world's carbon emissions. An even bigger emitter is China, of course – responsible for 29%. While the sheer size and growth of China may appear daunting, it is actually a world leader in terms of clean energy investment. Last year, a report from WWF-US indicated that China could make a similar transition to that illustrated here, with potentially 82% of its electricity generated from renewables by 2050.

 

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8th June 2015

New mobile app could revolutionise human rights justice

The International Bar Association (IBA) today launched the eyeWitness app – a new tool for documenting and reporting human rights atrocities in a secure and verifiable way, so the information can be used as evidence in a court of law.

 

eyewitness mobile app technology iba

 

With social media increasingly the forum for communicating human rights, many online images have raised awareness of atrocities around the world but typically lack the attribution or information necessary to be used as evidence in a court of law. Now anyone with an Android-enabled smart phone – including human right defenders, journalists, and investigators – can download the eyeWitness to Atrocities app and help hold accountable the perpetrators of atrocity crimes, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes.

"The eyeWitness to Atrocities app will be a transformational tool in the fight for human rights, providing a solution to the evidentiary challenges surrounding mobile phone footage," said IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis. "Until now, it has been extremely difficult to verify the authenticity of these images and to protect the safety of those brave enough to record them. As an advocate for the voiceless, the International Bar Association is dedicated to empowering activists on the ground who are witnessing these atrocities with the ability to bring criminals to justice."

The app design is based on extensive research on the rules of evidence in international, regional and national courts and tribunals. It includes several features to guarantee authenticity, facilitate verification and protect confidentiality by allowing the user to decide whether or not to be anonymous.

"Putting information and technology in the hands of citizens worldwide has a powerful role to play in advancing the rule of law," said Ian McDougall, EVP and General Counsel of LexisNexis Legal & Professional, which partnered with the IBA. "LexisNexis Legal & Professional's world class data hosting capabilities will provide the eyeWitness programme with the same technology that we use to safeguard sensitive and confidential material for our clients every day. It's all part of our company's broader commitment to advancing the rule of law around the world, as we believe every business has a role to play in building a safer, more just global society."

How the App Works

When a user records an atrocity, the app automatically collects and embeds into the video file GPS coordinates, date and time, device sensor data and surrounding objects, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks. The user has the option of adding any additional identifying information about the image. This metadata will provide information integral to verifying and contextualising the footage. The images and accompanying data are encrypted and securely stored within the app. The app also embeds a chain of custody record to verify that the footage has not been edited or digitally manipulated. The user then submits this information directly from the app to a database maintained by the eyeWitness organisation.

Once the video is transmitted, it is stored in a secure repository that functions as a virtual evidence locker safeguarding the original, encrypted footage for future investigations and legal proceedings. The submitted footage is only accessible by a group of legal experts at eyeWitness who will analyse the footage and identify the appropriate authorities, including international, regional or national courts, to pursue relevant cases.

"The IBA is proud to be spearheading the project and allocating $1 million of IBA reserves as part of its efforts to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law," said David Rivkin, IBA President. The IBA is working in partnership with LexisNexis Legal & Professional, a part of RELX Group, which is hosting the secure repository, database and backup system to store and analyse data collected via the app. The IBA is also partnering with human rights organisations to put the app in the hands of those working in some of the world's most severe conflict zones.

"The eyeWitness app promises to revolutionise the effectiveness of ground-level human rights reporting," said Deirdre Collings, Executive Director of the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian research organisation. "We also see the app's usefulness for media activists in conflict and authoritarian environments who undertake vital but high-risk reporting. We're proud to include eyeWitness in our training programme for our partners in Syria and will be rolling it out across our projects in the CIS region and Vietnam."

Established in 1947 and headquartered in London, the IBA is the world's leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Through its global membership of individual lawyers, law firms, bar associations and law societies, it influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world.

 

 

 

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8th June 2015

New artist's renderings of Pluto

The New Horizons probe is now just 36 days away from its historic encounter with Pluto. Based on the little visual information gleaned so far, NASA has released these new artist's renderings of the dwarf planet and its moons. The mission team is currently looking for any indications of dust or debris that might threaten the spacecraft's flight through the Pluto system on 14th July. At such high speed, even a particle as small as a grain of rice could be fatal. They expect to complete a thorough analysis of the data and report on its results by Friday this week. No rings, new moons, or other potential hazards have been detected so far; but if any dangers are found, the team has until 4th July to divert the probe to one of three alternate routes.

 

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Pluto and its moons
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Pluto global view
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Pluto's south pole
           
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Pluto's north pole
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Pluto crescent
       

 

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3rd June 2015

The Large Hadron Collider is reactivated

The Large Hadron Collider has been reactivated after a two-year pause, during which upgrades and repairs were taking place. The machine is now able to experiment with higher energies, increasing from 8 to 13 trillion electron volts (TeV).

 

large hadron collider 2015 technology
© CERN

 

Today, CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) started delivering physics data for the first time in 27 months. After a two year shutdown and several months recommissioning, the LHC is now providing collisions to all of its experiments at the unprecedented energy of 13 TeV (6.5 Tev per beam), a more than 50% increase from the collision energy of its first run. This marks the start of season 2 at the LHC, opening the way to new discoveries. The LHC will now run round the clock for the next three years.

"With the LHC back in the collision-production mode, we celebrate the end of two months of beam commissioning," said Frédérick Bordry, CERN Director of Accelerators and Technology. "It is a great accomplishment and a rewarding moment for all of the teams involved in the work performed during the long shutdown of the LHC, in the powering tests and in the beam commissioning process. All these people have dedicated so much of their time to making this happen."

Today at 10.40am local time, the LHC operators declared "stable beams", a signal for the LHC experiments that they can start taking data. Beams are made of "trains" of proton bunches, moving at almost the speed of light around the 27 km ring of the LHC. These so-called bunch trains circulate in opposite directions, guided by powerful superconducting magnets. Today the LHC was filled with 6 bunches each containing around 100 billion protons. This rate will be progressively increased as the run goes on to 2,800 bunches per beam, allowing the LHC to produce up to 1 billion collisions per second.

During the first run of the LHC, the ATLAS and CMS experiments announced the discovery of the so-called Higgs boson, which was the last piece of the puzzle known as the Standard Model, a theory that describes the fundamental particles from which everything visible in the universe is made, along with interactions at work between them.

 

standard model

 

"The first 3-year run of the LHC, which culminated with a major discovery in July 2012, was only the start of our journey. It is time for new physics!" said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. "We have seen the first data beginning to flow. Let's see what they will reveal to us about how our universe works."

With run 2 starting today, physicists have the ambition to further explore the Standard Model and even to find evidence of new physics phenomena beyond its boundaries, which could explain remaining mysteries such as dark matter, believed to make up about a quarter of the universe, or nature's apparent preference for matter over antimatter, without which we would not exist.

Over the two-year shutdown, the four large experiments – ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb – also went through an important programme of maintenance and improvements in preparation for the new energy frontier.

 

lhc diagram
© CERN

 

"The collisions we are seeing today indicate that the work we have done in the past two years to prepare and improve our detector has been successful and marks the beginning of a new era of exploration of the secrets of nature," said CMS spokesperson Tiziano Camporesi. "We can hardly express our excitement within the collaboration: this is especially true for the youngest colleagues."

"The successful restart of physics data-taking, with all systems in great shape to collect, process and analyse the new data quickly, is a testament to the commitment and immense hard work of very many people from across ATLAS during the long shutdown," said Dave Charlton, spokesperson for ATLAS. "We are now starting to delve into the new data to see what nature has in store for us at these new unexplored energies."

"All within the collaboration are tremendously excited that the new run has now begun," said LHCb spokesperson Guy Wilkinson. "It will allow us to follow up on puzzles from our run-1 studies, and to probe with higher sensitivity the difference in behaviour between matter and antimatter."

"Proton-proton collisions will provide essential reference data for the run with heavy-ion beams foreseen for the end of the year, in which the LHC will provide both higher energy and luminosity as compared to run 1," said ALICE spokesperson Paolo Giubellino. "In addition, we plan to extend the exploration of the intriguing signals that have emerged from Run 1."

There are plans for even larger experiments in the decades ahead. China is planning a 52 km (32.5 mi) particle accelerator – twice the circumference of the LHC – with construction beginning in 2019 and the first tests in 2028. Meanwhile, a successor to the LHC known as the Very Large Hadron Collider (VLHC) with 50 TeV per beam is planned for 2035.

 

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