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29th September 2014

Breast cancer treatment breakthrough

A new drug for advanced breast cancer extends patients' lives by nearly 16 months, a 38 per cent improvement on current therapies.


breast cancer


Pharmaceutical giant Roche has announced the final results of its Phase III clinical trials on Perjeta. This drug – when combined with existing treatments – offers "unprecedented" improvements in survival rates, according to the study of 808 people. Those patients with previously untreated HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer (an advanced form of the disease) who received Perjeta, Herceptin and docetaxel chemotherapy lived a median of 56.5 months compared to 40.8 months for patients who received only Herceptin and chemotherapy.

Breast cancer cells produce a gene known as HER2. This makes a protein called the HER2 receptor, which acts like a broadcast antenna, promoting the growth and spread of more cancer cells. Perjeta is designed to prevent these receptors from pairing with each other on cell surfaces, a mechanism that is complementary to Herceptin. Used together, they can provide a more comprehensive blockade of HER signalling pathways.

"Adding Perjeta to treatment with Herceptin and chemotherapy resulted in the longest survival observed to date in a clinical study of people with HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer," said Sandra Horning, M.D., Roche’s Chief Medical Officer and Head of Global Product Development.

"These results are impressive," said Professor David Miles, who led the study for Roche. "They show a magnitude of survival benefit which we have never seen before in advanced breast cancer, let alone this particular type, previously regarded as having a poor prognosis and being difficult to treat."

In the US, approximately 230,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and 30% of those will eventually develop advanced (metastatic) forms of the disease. Perjeta in combination with Herceptin and chemotherapy is approved in the United States and the EU. It has also been granted accelerated approval as a neoadjuvant treatment (use before surgery) for early breast cancer by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


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28th September 2014

Humanity on track for worst-case emissions scenario

Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide continue to outpace reduction measures, putting the world on course for a worst-case scenario later in the 21st century.


global carbon emissions future trends 2020 2050 2100 timeline


This week, the United Nations hosted the Climate Summit 2014 in New York City. Prior to the conference, an estimated 400,000+ people took part in the People's Climate March, the largest ever protest of its kind. The summit opening featured an impassioned speech from actor Leonardo DiCaprio — pleading for world leaders to address the looming crisis and stating: "You can make history, or you will be vilified by it."

Despite rapid growth in clean tech, emissions continue to trend at the high end of scenarios, eroding the chances to keep warming below the recommended limit of 2°C. In 2013, the total output of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and cement production grew by 2.3 per cent to a record high of 36.1 billion tonnes. This year, emissions are set to increase by a further 2.5%, 65 per cent higher than the 1990 level. Globally, August 2014 was the hottest August on record, according to data from NOAA. This follows the hottest May and June also this year. As greenhouse gases continue to build in the atmosphere and oceans, the world appears to be heading for a genuine catastrophe unless immediate, large-scale action is taken.

In its yearly analysis of trends in global carbon emissions, the Global Carbon Project (GCP) has published three peer-reviewed articles, highlighting a number of recent developments. Among the findings are that China's emissions per head of population have now surpassed the EU for the first time, reaching 7.2 tonnes per person, compared to the EU's 6.8 tonnes. India is also forecast to overtake Europe's CO2 output by 2019.

“China continues to reshape the global distribution of emissions, and as politics impedes significant progress in the US and other key countries, observers increasingly look to China to provide a breakthrough in climate negotiations”, says Glen Peters, a co-author of the studies.

On current trends, the remaining "carbon budget" to surpass 2°C of global warming will be used up in around 30 years (one generation). This quota implies that over two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves – amounting to nearly a trillion tonnes – will have to remain in the ground.

“Globally, emissions would need sustained and unprecedented reductions of around 7%/year for a likely chance to stay within the quota”, says Peters. “Furthermore,” he adds, “because of differentiated capabilities, some countries would need even higher rates of emissions reductions. These rates have not been seen in any individual country outside of severe economic crises.”



The ability to keep temperatures below 2°C depends on three things: uncertainties in the climate system, when deep and sustained mitigation starts, and rapid development of new technologies.

Robbie Andrew from the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) in Oslo, Norway: “Most scenarios consistent with 2°C used in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report largely depend on carbon capture and storage, both from fossil-fuel combustion and, particularly, bioenergy.”

But the development and deployment of CCS technologies has not lived up to expectations.

“Today’s emission-reduction targets need to incorporate the risk that society is unable to commercially develop and rapidly deploy a technology that is so far largely unproven at the required scale”, says Peters. “If carbon capture and storage technologies are not realised, it may not be possible to keep the temperature increase below 2°C.”

There were some positive outcomes at the New York summit this week. A pledge was made by governments, multinational companies and campaigners to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020 and halt it completely by 2030, alongside restoring 1.35 million sq miles (3.5 million sq km) of degraded land, an area the size of India. It is estimated that this could save between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year by 2030 – the equivalent of taking all of the world’s cars off the road. More than 70 countries and 1,000 companies endorsed the idea of mechanisms to reflect the true costs of emissions and other forms of pollution. The Rockefeller family also announced a divestment of some $50bn (£31bn) in fossil fuel assets.

Next year's climate summit, hosted in Paris, will be seen as crucial to making progress. According to the organising committee, the 2015 conference will attempt to achieve – for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations – a legally binding and universal agreement on carbon emissions, from all the nations of the world. Implementation will follow in 2020 if successful.


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26th September 2014

Complex organic molecules found in the centre of our galaxy

In a star-forming cloud near the galactic core, chemicals have been discovered that are more similar to amino acids – the building blocks of life – than any previous finding. Furthermore, these are present in abundant quantities.


complex organic molecules in our galaxy


For the first time, astronomers have detected a carbon-bearing molecule with a "branched" structure in interstellar space. Iso-propyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN) was discovered in a giant gas cloud known as Sagittarius B2, a dense region of star formation measuring 150 light years across, located 390 light years from the centre of the Milky Way.

An international team from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (Germany), University of Cologne (Germany) and Cornell University (USA) made the discovery using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which became operational in March 2013. Twenty of the observatory's 12m radio telescopes were aligned towards the galactic core – about 27,000 light years from Earth.

"Thanks to the new capabilities offered by ALMA, we were able to perform a full spectral survey toward Sagittarius B2 at wavelengths between 2.7 and 3.6 mm, with sensitivity and spatial resolution ten times greater than our previous survey," says Arnaud Belloche, lead author of the study. "But this took only a tenth of the time."

The carbon atoms in the molecule feature a branched structure that is unlike the straight-chain backbone of other molecules detected so far. This opens a new frontier in the complexity of molecules found within star-forming regions, and bodes well for the presence of amino acids, for which this branched structure is a key characteristic. While various types of molecules have been detected in space, the hydrogen-rich and carbon-bearing (organic) molecules that are most similar to the ones necessary for life on Earth seem to be most common in the gas clouds where new stars are formed.

"Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry," says Belloche.


alma telescopes milky way galaxy
The central region of the Milky Way above the antennas of the ALMA observatory. © Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO


The search for organic molecules in space began in the 1960s, and 180 different molecular species have been discovered so far. Each type of molecule emits light at particular wavelengths, in its own characteristic pattern, acting like a fingerprint that allows it to be detected using radio telescopes.

Until now, the organic molecules discovered in star-forming regions have shared one major structural characteristic: they each consist of a "backbone" of carbon atoms that are arranged in a single and more or less straight chain. The new molecule discovered by the team, iso-propyl cyanide, is unique in that its underlying carbon structure branches off in a separate strand.

"This is the first ever interstellar detection of a molecule with a branched carbon backbone," says co-author Holger Müller, University of Cologne.

In addition to its structure, the researchers were also surprised by its abundance in this region – it was found to be plentiful, at almost half the concentration of its straight-chain sister molecule (normal-propyl cyanide), which the team had already detected a few years ago.

Robin Garrod, an astrochemist at Cornell University: "The enormous abundance of iso-propyl cyanide suggests that branched molecules may in fact be the rule, rather than the exception, in the interstellar medium."

"Amino acids identified in meteorites have a composition that suggests they originate in the interstellar medium," adds Belloche. “Although no interstellar amino acids have yet been found, interstellar chemistry may be responsible for the production of a wide range of important complex molecules that eventually find their way to planetary surfaces."

"The detection of iso-propyl cyanide tells us that amino acids could indeed be present in the interstellar medium, because the side-chain structure is a key characteristic of these molecules", says Karl Menten, director at Max Planck. "Amino acids have already been identified in meteorites and we hope to detect them in the interstellar medium in the future."


amino acids


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24th September 2014

India's first Mars probe arrives in orbit

India's first probe to Mars – Mangalyaan – successfully entered orbit at 02:00 UTC this morning.


india mars probe 2014
By Nesnad (Own work), CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Just three days after NASA's MAVEN mission, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has successfully delivered its first unmanned craft to Mars, becoming only the fourth agency to do so. Launched in November 2013, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan ("Mars-craft") was developed at a cost of only $74 million, nine times less than the $671 million spent on NASA's effort. This morning, after a journey of 422 million miles (680 million km), MOM fired its main motors along with eight smaller engines to reduce its velocity as it approached the Red Planet, before entering into a highly elliptical orbit of 261 x 48,000 miles (421 x 77,000 km).

In the coming weeks, the spacecraft will be thoroughly tested to ensure it is fully functional, before commencing observations of the planet using a suite of five scientific instruments: a Lyman-alpha photometer, methane sensor, exospheric neutral composition analyser, thermal infrared imaging and a colour camera providing images in the visual spectrum. With a mission duration of six months, it will study Mars' surface features, morphology, mineralogy, atmosphere and weather systems. It has autonomous features to handle contingency situations.

Including MOM, a total of five satellites are now actively orbiting Mars. The others are MAVEN (US), Mars Odyssey (US), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (US) and Mars Express (Europe). In addition, two rovers are operational on the surface – Opportunity and Curiosity.

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, applauded those who achieved the historic rendezvous: "Today, all of India should celebrate our scientists. Schools, colleges should applaud this. If our cricket team wins a tournament, the nation celebrates. Our scientists' achievement is greater."

Mars missions have been notorious for their high failure rate. India has now become the first country to make it to Mars on its first attempt: "The odds were stacked against us," added Modi. "Of the 51 missions attempted across the world so far, a mere 21 had succeeded. But we have prevailed."

ISRO plans to send a follow-up mission with a greater scientific payload in the 2017-2020 timeframe; this will include an orbiter and a stationary lander. Several other missions are planned by NASA and Europe. Another country with ambitions to reach Mars is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which plans to send a spacecraft in 2021.

You can follow India's Mars mission on Twitter @ MarsOrbiter.




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24th September 2014

1000-fold increase in next-generation battery capacity by 2023

New chemistries offering higher energy density and lower prices will lead to exponential growth in the worldwide capacity of next-generation advanced batteries.


exponential growth in next generation advanced battery capacity 2023


A report from Navigant Research analyses the global market for next-generation advanced batteries, focusing on the current leading battery chemistry – lithium ion – and the energy storage device types that might eventually replace it. While lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries offer many advantages over traditional battery technologies, research and development of new battery chemistries that, in many ways, surpass Li-ion is advancing rapidly and is expected to have a major impact on the battery industry in the coming years. These new chemistries are anticipated to enable even more applications for batteries, thus increasing the overall size of the market. According to Navigant, total worldwide capacity of advanced batteries is expected to grow from 30.4 megawatt-hours (MWh) in 2014 to more than 28,000 MWh in 2023.

“The limitations to Li-ion, including input costs, safety issues, and materials scarcity, could leave it vulnerable to new chemistries that solve some or all of those problems,” says Sam Jaffe, principal research analyst with Navigant Research. “Although most of the chemistries explored in this report are only at laboratory-scale production levels today, they could reshape the market for advanced batteries in the next 10 years.”

New emerging battery types include ultracapacitors, lithium sulfur, magnesium ion, solid electrolyte, next-generation flow, and metal-air. Their advent is occurring alongside an enormous growth in the world’s appetite for advanced energy storage devices. Increasingly, this will include electric vehicles and localised home energy storage, e.g. from rooftop solar.

The report, “Next-Generation Advanced Batteries”, offers detailed analysis of the market issues and battery landscape associated with next-generation advanced batteries. Global market forecasts for energy capacity, power capacity, and revenue, segmented by region, application, and chemistry, extend through 2023. The report also examines the key imminent and emerging technologies related to advanced batteries and provides in-depth profiles of the major industry players. An Executive Summary is available as a free download.


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23rd September 2014

Liberia to halt all deforestation by 2020

In return for development aid, Liberia will become the first African nation to completely stop cutting down its trees.


Liberia forests
Forests in Liberia. Credit: US Agency for International Development


At the UN Climate Summit in New York today, officials announced a $150m agreement that will see Norway paying Liberia to completely stop its deforestation by 2020. This deal prevents new logging contracts, gives more power to forest-dependent communities to manage their forests, and increases the protected forest areas, with more monitoring and policing. There will be independent verification that trees remain standing.

The small West African nation is currently dealing with an Ebola outbreak. This new partnership between the Norwegian and Liberian governments will help to repair the country's economy and place it on a more sustainable path to poverty reduction and environmental protection. Although Liberia has smaller forests than other regions, it is nevertheless a biodiversity hotspot – home to endangered chimpanzees, forest elephants and leopards. It is estimated that one third of Liberia’s 4.3 million people live in these forests, with many more reliant on them.

"We hope Liberia will be able to cut emissions and reduce poverty at the same time," said Jens Frolich Holte, an adviser to the Norwegian government, speaking to the BBC. "We have funded efforts in Indonesia and Brazil, but I think this is the first time we have entered a deal on a country level."


Liberia Africa forest map


"Today’s announcement by Liberia and Norway is momentous,” said Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness. “For decades, Liberia’s forests have been more of a curse than a blessing. Timber revenues funded Charles Taylor’s regime during Liberia’s brutal civil war. Since then the experiment to generate economic development through industrial-scale logging has failed, with logging companies routinely logging illegally, skirting taxes, and causing huge damage to forests and forest communities. The proposed shift towards community management and conservation could be a profound reversal of that failed model.”

“Over the past two years, the Liberian Government has taken steps to improve governance and is now showing real commitment to helping communities, not companies, benefit from the forest,” he added. “With today’s pledges and Norway’s help, we are hopeful that Liberia will continue down this path, although ultimately the proof of this deal will be in its implementation.”


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22nd September 2014

NASA's MAVEN probe arrives in orbit around Mars

The latest mission to Mars will attempt to uncover new clues about why the planet lost its atmosphere and surface water billions of years ago.


mars maven probe september 2014


Another entry on our timeline is becoming a reality, as the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe has successfully entered Mars' orbit. Launched by an Atlas V rocket in November 2013, the spacecraft travelled 442 million miles (711 million km) to reach its destination. As it approached the Martian north pole last night, MAVEN performed a 33-minute burn to reduce its speed, a manoeuvre that consumed over half its fuel. This allowed it to be captured by the planet's gravity and inserted into an elliptical orbit, with arrival confirmed shortly before 0230 GMT (2230 EDT Sunday; 0330 BST).

Using a total of eight instruments, MAVEN will now begin studying the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere and its interactions with the solar wind. There is strong evidence that Mars once possessed a denser atmosphere and higher temperatures, allowing vast amounts of liquid water on the surface – possibly including a large ocean that covered one-third of the planet. These conditions may even have been suitable for life to emerge. At some point in the distant past, however, Mars lost 99% of its atmosphere to space. It is theorised that over millions of years, the planet's core began to cool and its magnetic field decayed, allowing the solar wind to sweep away most of the water and volatile compounds that the atmosphere once contained.

The goal of MAVEN is to determine the history of the Martian atmosphere and its climate evolution. By measuring the rate at which gases are currently escaping to space and gathering knowledge about the relevant processes, researchers will be able to infer how the atmosphere changed over time. During the next twelve months, a series of "deep dips" will occur at 77 miles (125 km) minimum altitude to sample the upper atmosphere. This data will provide information down to where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

MAVEN is the first probe to study the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars in such detail. It will also examine the Sun's influence, looking at how much energy it puts into the planet and its climate. By chance, a comet will pass extremely close to Mars next month, offering a rare opportunity to see how incoming water and other molecules affect the physical processes. You can follow the mission progress at nasa.gov/maven and Twitter/MAVEN2Mars.


mars oceans
Artist's impression of what ancient Mars may have looked like, based on geological data. Credit: Ittiz [CC-BY-SA-3.0]


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18th September 2014

NASA awards $6.8bn contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to provide launch services from 2017

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA has been reliant on Russia for delivering manned flights to low-Earth orbit. The agency has been charged upwards of $70 million per person for rides on Russian Soyuz capsules. Russia's monopoly on space transportation looks set to end, however, as two major contracts worth $6.8 billion have just been awarded to Boeing and SpaceX.

From 2017, SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft – alongside Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 – will deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Prior to these services, the contracts will include at least one crewed test flight per company. Once the launch, manoeuvring and docking systems have been validated, as many as six crewed missions will be undertaken by each company. These spacecraft will also serve as lifeboats for astronauts aboard the ISS.

According to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars. The agency recently completed a review of its Space Launch System, the rocket intended to carry humans to the Red Planet, and has reaffirmed its commitment to achieving this goal during the 2030s.


falcon 9 dragon and cst-100


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17th September 2014

Ebola outbreak "out of all proportion" and severity cannot be predicted

A mathematical model that replicates Ebola outbreaks can no longer be used to ascertain the eventual scale of the current epidemic, finds a study conducted by the University of Warwick.


ebola 2014 outbreak cases and deaths trend graph
Credit: Leopoldo Martin R [CC-BY-SA-3.0]


Dr Thomas House, of the University’s Warwick Mathematics Institute, developed a model that incorporated data from past outbreaks that successfully replicated their eventual scale. The research, titled Epidemiological Dynamics of Ebola Outbreaks and published by eLife, shows that when applying the available data from the ongoing 2014 outbreak to the model that it is, according to Dr House, “out of all proportion and on an unprecedented scale when compared to previous outbreaks”.

Dr House commented: “If we analyse the data from past outbreaks, we are able to design a model that works for the recorded cases of the virus spreading and can successfully replicate their eventual size. The current outbreak does not fit this previous pattern and, as a result, we are not in a position to provide an accurate prediction of the current outbreak”.

Chance events, he argues, are an essential factor in the spread of Ebola and many other contagious diseases: “If we look at past Ebola outbreaks, there is an identifiable way of predicting their overall size based on modelling chance events that are known to be important when the numbers of cases of infection are small and the spread is close to being controlled”.

Chance events can include a person’s location when they are most infectious, whether they are alone when ill, the travel patterns of those with whom they come into contact or whether they are close to adequate medical assistance. The Warwick model successfully replicated the eventual scale of these past outbreaks by analysing two key chance events: the initial number of people and the level of infectiousness once an epidemic is underway.


ebola map africa 2014


“With the current situation, we are seeing something that defies this previous pattern of outbreak severity,” says Dr House. “As the current outbreak becomes more severe, it is less and less likely that it is a chance event – and more likely that something more fundamental has changed”.

Discussing possible causes for the unprecedented nature of the current outbreak, Dr House argues that there could be a range of factors that lead it to be on a different scale to previous cases: “This could be as a result of a number of different factors: mutation of virus, changes in social contact patterns or some combination of these with other factors. It is implausible to explain the current situation solely through a particularly severe outbreak within the previously observed pattern”.

In light of the research findings and the United Nations calling for a further $1bn USD to tackle the current outbreak, Dr House says that “Since we are not in a position to quantify the eventful scale of this unprecedented outbreak, the conclusion from this study is not to be complacent but to mobilise resources to combat the disease.”


ebola liberia
This image was captured in Monrovia, Liberia's capital city, during the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak that has affected
not only Liberia, but Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria as well. Credit: Athalia Christie, courtesy CDC


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16th September 2014

First evidence of water ice clouds beyond our
Solar System

Astronomers have discovered the first evidence of water ice clouds on an object outside our own Solar System.


WISE 0855–0714
W0855 is the fourth closest system to our Sun, at 7.3 light-years away. In this illustration, the Sun is the bright star directly to the right of the brown dwarf. The slightly shifted star field accurately reflects how the sky around the constellations of Aquila and Delphinus would appear from this vantage point.


Scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Washington report the first evidence of water ice clouds on a body outside of our own Solar System. Water ice clouds are present on the gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – but have never been seen outside the planets orbiting our Sun until now. This finding is published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

At the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, a near-infrared camera was used to detect WISE 0855–0714 (also called W0855) a tiny sub-brown dwarf located approximately 7.3 light years from Earth. This was first seen by a NASA space telescope – Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer – and confirmed in April 2014. But it was not known if the object could be seen by ground-based facilities. The Carnegie researchers managed to obtain 151 images from Las Campanas over a period of three nights.

"This was a battle at the telescope to get the detection," said Jacqueline Faherty, who led the study. 

Chris Tinney, co-author on the result, stated: "This is a great result. This object is so faint and it’s exciting to be the first people to detect it with a telescope on the ground."


nearest stars


Brown dwarfs are too small to be classified as stars, but too large to be considered planets. Because of their size, they are too small to sustain the hydrogen fusion process that fuels stars. Their temperatures can range from nearly as hot as a star to as cool as a planet, and their masses also range between star-like and giant planet-like. They are of particular interest to scientists because they offer clues to star-formation processes. They also overlap with the temperatures of planets, but are much easier to study since they are commonly found in isolation.

W0855 is the fourth closest system to our own, practically next door in terms of astronomical distances. It is also the coldest object of its type found in interstellar space, having a temperature between 225 to 260 K (−48 to −13°C; −55 to 8°F). A comparison of near-infrared images of W0855 with models for predicting the atmospheric content of brown dwarfs showed evidence of frozen clouds of sulfide and water.

"Ice clouds are predicted to be very important in the atmospheres of planets beyond our Solar System, but they've never been observed outside of it before now," Faherty said.

The next generation of telescopes – such as the E-ELT (2022), PLATO observatory (2024-2030) and the ATLAST project (2025-2035) – will provide more detailed views of planets' and brown dwarfs' atmospheres.



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13th September 2014

The coffee genome is sequenced

The coffee genome has been published, with more than 25,000 genes identified. This reveals that coffee plants make caffeine using a different set of genes from those found in tea, cacao and other such plants. The new findings could help to improve coffee production in the future.




Researchers have published the genome of Coffea canephora, a plant which accounts for about 30 percent of the world's coffee production. By comparing the sequences and positions of genes in coffee, tea and cacao (chocolate) plants, they have shown how enzymes involved in producing caffeine likely evolved independently in each of these three organisms. In other words, coffee did not inherit caffeine-linked genes from a shared common ancestor – but instead developed the genes on its own.

Compared to several other plant species – including the grape and tomato – coffee has larger families of genes that relate to the production of alkaloid and flavonoid compounds, which contribute to qualities such as aroma and bitterness. Coffee also has an expanded collection of N-methyltransferases, enzymes that are involved in making caffeine.

Upon taking a closer look, the researchers found that coffee's caffeine enzymes are more closely related to other genes within the coffee plant than to caffeine enzymes in tea and chocolate. This provides evidence that caffeine production emerged independently in coffee. If this trait had been inherited from a shared common ancestor, the enzymes would have been more similar between species.

There are several possible reasons why caffeine is so important in nature. The chemical may help to deter pests, as well as nearby competitors by stunting their growth when coffee leaves fall on the soil. It may also facilitate pollination. One recent paper showed that – like humans – certain insects can develop caffeine addiction. Bees visiting caffeine-producing plants often returned to get another taste.


coffee plant


Worldwide, over 2.2 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily. It is the principal agricultural product of many tropical countries. According to estimates by the International Coffee Organisation, more than 8.7 million tons of coffee is produced each year from 110,000 sq km (42,500 sq mi) of land – an area equivalent in size to the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Annual export revenue is $15.4 billion and the sector employs 26 million people in 52 countries.

Philippe Lashermes, at the French Institute of Research for Development: "Coffee is as important to everyday early risers as it is to the global economy. Accordingly, a genome sequence could be a significant step toward improving coffee."

In addition to new and exotic flavours, these improvements may include better resistance to drought and disease. Leaf rust, for example, is currently affecting about half the plants in Central America, in the worst outbreak since 1976. Scientists could also engineer the plants to grow faster and increase their output of coffee beans. Such genetic enhancements may prove vital in the future – a study in 2012 estimated that climate change alone will lead to the extinction of wild Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) by the 2080s.



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12th September 2014

512GB SD card announced by SanDisk

SanDisk has revealed a 512GB SD card, the highest storage capacity ever seen in this form factor.


512 gb sd card sandisk


SanDisk yesterday launched the 512GB Extreme PRO SDXC UHS-I, the world’s highest capacity SD card and the first to reach 512GB, or half a terabyte. This new offering is designed to meet the demands of industry professionals who require the most advanced gear available for shooting 4K Ultra HD (3840x2160p) video, Full HD video (1920x1080) and high-speed burst mode photography.

“As an industry leader, SanDisk continues to push the boundaries of technology to provide customers with the innovative, reliable, high-performance solutions they have come to expect from us,” said Dinesh Bahal, vice president of product marketing. “4K Ultra HD is an example of a technology that is pushing us to develop new storage solutions capable of handling massive file sizes. The 512GB SanDisk Extreme PRO SDXC UHS-I card is a tremendous advancement that enables professionals to reliably store more content on a single card than ever before.”

Since the first 1GB SD card in 2004, storage capacities have grown exponentially and this new 512GB card represents a 500-fold increase in a decade – yet maintains the same size form factor. It delivers write speeds up to 90MB/s and transfer speeds up to 95 MB/s. The card is also temperature-proof (withstanding between -40ºC and 85ºC), waterproof, shockproof and X-ray proof. The product will initially go on sale for $800 (£490), but this cost is likely to decline rapidly in the months and years ahead.

The same exponential trend has been witnessed in the smaller-sized microSD format. In February this year, SanDisk revealed the first microSD to reach 128GB of storage capacity.


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9th September 2014

Lifespan of fruit flies extended by 30 percent

Biologists have identified a gene that can slow the aging process throughout the entire body when activated "remotely" in key organ systems.


fruit fly


Working with fruit flies, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), activated a gene known as AMPK. This gene is a key energy sensor within cells; it gets activated when cellular energy levels are low. Increasing the amount of AMPK in fruit flies' intestines boosted their lifespans by 30% – to eight weeks from the typical six – and the flies stayed healthier for longer as well. This is equivalent to extending the average human lifespan for OECD countries from 80 to 104.

The research, published in the journal Cell Reports, could have important implications for delaying aging and disease in humans, explains David Walker, associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and senior author of the study.

“We have shown that when we activate the gene in the intestine or the nervous system, we see the aging process is slowed beyond the organ system in which the gene is activated,” Walker said.

These findings are important because extending the healthy life of humans would presumably require protecting many of the body’s organ systems from the ravages of aging – but delivering anti-aging treatments to the brain or other key organs could prove technically difficult. This study suggests that activating AMPK in a more accessible organ such as the intestine, for example, could ultimately slow the aging process throughout the entire body, including the brain.

Humans have AMPK, but it is usually not activated at a high level, Walker explained: “Instead of studying the diseases of aging – Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes – one by one, we believe it may be possible to intervene in the aging process and delay the onset of many of these diseases. We are not there yet, and it could, of course, take many years, but that is our goal and we think it is realistic. The ultimate aim of our research is to promote healthy aging in people.”


fly brain intestine autophagy


The fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is an excellent model for studying aging in humans, because scientists have identified all of the fruit fly’s genes and know how to switch individual genes on and off. The biologists studied approximately 100,000 of them over the course of the study.

Co-author Matthew Ulgherait, who conducted the research in Walker’s laboratory as a doctoral student, focused on a cellular process called autophagy, which enables cells to degrade and discard old, damaged cellular components. By getting rid of that “cellular garbage” before it damages cells, autophagy protects against aging, and AMPK has been shown previously to activate this process. Ulgherait studied whether activating AMPK in the flies led to autophagy occurring at a greater rate than usual.

“A really interesting finding was when Matt activated AMPK in the nervous system,” said Walker. “He saw evidence of increased levels of autophagy in not only the brain – but also in the intestine. And vice versa: activating AMPK in the intestine produced increased levels of autophagy in the brain and perhaps elsewhere, too.”

Many neurodegenerative diseases, including both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are associated with the accumulation of protein aggregates, a type of cellular garbage, in the brain, Walker noted.

“Matt moved beyond correlation and established causality,” he said. “He showed that the activation of autophagy was both necessary to see the anti-aging effects and sufficient; that he could bypass AMPK and directly target autophagy.”

AMPK is thought to be a key target of metformin – a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes – and metformin is believed to activate AMPK. In research published in May 2013, Walker and his colleagues identified another gene, called parkin, which delayed the onset of aging and extended the life span of fruit flies by 28%.


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8th September 2014

Blue whales in coastal California recover to
historic numbers

Blue whales off the California coast have recovered to near historical population levels, now numbering about 2,200.


blue whale


At 30 metres (98 ft) in length and reaching 190 tons or more in weight, the blue whale is the largest existing animal and the heaviest that ever existed – twice the weight of the largest known dinosaur. Blue whales were abundant in nearly all oceans on Earth until the early 20th century. For more than a hundred years they were hunted almost to extinction by whalers, until protected by the international community in 1966.

In coastal California waters, blue whale numbers have now rebounded to near historic levels, according to a study published in Marine Mammal Science – and while the number of these animals being struck by ships is higher than U.S. limits, such strikes do not immediately threaten that recovery. This is the only population of blue whales in the world known to have recovered from whaling.

"The recovery of California blue whales from whaling demonstrates the ability of blue whale populations to rebuild under careful management and conservation measures," says Cole Monnahan, from the University of Washington, lead author of the study.

California blue whales are at their most visible while feeding 20 to 30 miles off the California coast, but are actually found along the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean from the equator up into the Gulf of Alaska. Their numbers in this region are now estimated at 2,200 – which is likely 97 percent of the historical level, according to the model the researchers used.


coastal california map
Map of coastal California. Credit: BrendelSignature (Cc-by-sa-3.0)


There are likely at least 11 blue whales struck by ships every year along the West Coast, which is above the "potential biological removal" of 3.1 whales per year allowed by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, the new findings show there could be an 11-fold increase in vessels before there is a 50 percent chance that the population will drop below what is considered "depleted" by regulators.

"Even accepting our results that the current level of ship strikes is not going to cause overall population declines, there is still going to be ongoing concern that we don't want these whales killed by ships," said co-author Trevor Branch, assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.

The population returning to its historical level explains the slowdown in population growth, noted in recent years, better than the idea of ship strikes, according to the scientists. With no other readily apparent human-caused factor, whale numbers are reaching their habitat limit – something called the carrying capacity.


blue whales
Credit: J Gilpatrick/M Lynn/NOAA


"We think the California population has reached the capacity of what the system can take as far as blue whales," said Branch.

"Our findings aren't meant to deprive California blue whales of protections that they need going forward," Monnahan said. "California blue whales are recovering because we took actions to stop catches and start monitoring. If we hadn't, the population might have been pushed to near extinction – an unfortunate fate suffered by other blue whale populations."

"It's a conservation success story," Monnahan concluded.


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7th September 2014

The first coal plant in the U.S. to capture and store CO2 underground

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved permits allowing the FutureGen Industrial Alliance to capture and store CO2 deep underground near Jacksonville, Illinois – the first project of its kind in the U.S.


carbon capture and storage map
The Meredosia Energy Centre. Credit: FutureGen


Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) currently stand at nearly 400ppm, the highest concentration for millions of years. This is largely a result of human industrial activity, the evidence for which is overwhelming. A new study published in Climate Risk Management finds there is a 99.999% certainty that humans are driving global warming, while a paper earlier this year revealed a similar figure of 99.9%. Claims of a "pause" in warming are refuted when accounting for missing heat data in the Arctic, and in any case, 93% of heat is found in the oceans rather than surface temperatures.

Worldwide, coal supplies about 30% of energy, accounting for 44% of CO2 emissions. In the United States, its use has declined in recent years, but still represents nearly a quarter of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Plans are underway to reduce carbon pollution from U.S. coal plants by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030 – through efficiency measures, shifting from coal to gas, investing in clean energy and making power plant upgrades.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) will form part of this strategy. The trapping of CO2 in deep geological formations has been proposed, with studies having identified regions where centuries' worth of emissions could be safely sequestered. Industry forecasts indicate that CCS will achieve widespread adoption by the late 2020s, by which time sequestered coal-based electricity may cost less than unsequestered coal-based power today. The IPCC estimates that the economic potential of CCS could be up to 55% of the total carbon mitigation effort until the year 2100.


carbon capture system
The oxy-combustion process being developed by FutureGen.


Since 2003, a non-profit group known as the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, has been seeking to develop a first-of-its-kind, near-zero emissions coal plant. A new oxy-coal system using an innovative purification method has shown potential as a way of separating, compressing and storing over 90% of CO2 generated from the combustion process. After successful testing at 30 MW scale, the project was relaunched as FutureGen 2.0, with plans for commercial-scale validation at an existing 200 MW coal plant in Meredosia, Illinois. Retrofitting this old power station (seen in the photo above) would enable the capturing of 1.1 million tons of CO2 each year – equivalent to emissions from 232,000 cars.

The project has faced a number of setbacks and cost overruns. This week, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally approved permits allowing CO2 to be captured at Meredosia, transported along a 30 mi (48 km) pipeline and stored 4,000 ft (1.2 km) underground at a site in Jacksonville. Drilling of the four wells containing liquefied gas could begin as soon as next month, according to the EPA's press release. The project will also include a visitors, research and training centre.

A total of 22 million metric tons of CO2 are expected to be captured over the 20 year life of the project. This appears miniscule when compared to the almost 5.5 billion tons of annual emissions in the U.S. – not to mention the 1,400 gigatons of global CO2 output since the Industrial Revolution, something which is going to need resolving later in this century. Nevertheless, FutureGen 2.0 represents an important milestone in CCS technology and a vital early step on the long road to decarbonisation. For more information, visit FutureGenAlliance.org.


ccs map route


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4th September 2014

Google's health company spin-off Calico announces massive investment into anti-aging research

Last year, Google announced Calico, a spin-off company with the specific aim of developing treatments for age-related diseases. In its first major step since that launch, Calico has now formed a partnership with AbbVie, another biotech firm. Together, they will collaborate to accelerate the discovery, development and commercialisation of new therapies.

The companies will co-invest up to $1.5 billion to create a world-class R&D facility in the San Francisco Bay Area. This will combine Calico's discovery and early development capabilities with AbbVie's broad research, development and commercial expertise, with a focus on aging and age-related diseases including neurodegeneration and cancer.

Art Levinson, CEO and founder of Calico, says in a press release: “Our relationship with AbbVie is a pivotal event for Calico, whose mission is to develop life-enhancing therapies for people with age-related diseases. It will greatly accelerate our efforts to understand the science of aging, advance our clinical work, and help bring important therapies to patients everywhere.”


anti aging pill


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4th September 2014

Long-distance virtual telepathy is demonstrated

Direct brain-to-brain communication has been demonstrated in humans located 5,000 miles apart via the Internet.


virtual telepathy


In a first-of-its-kind study, an international team of neuroscientists and robotics engineers have demonstrated the viability of direct brain-to-brain communication in humans. Recently published in PLOS ONE, the highly novel findings describe the successful transmission of information via the Internet between the intact scalps of two human subjects – located 5,000 miles apart.

"We wanted to find out if one could communicate directly between two people by reading out the brain activity from one person and injecting brain activity into the second person, and do so across great physical distances by leveraging existing communication pathways," explains co-author Alvaro Pascual-Leone, PhD, Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. "One such pathway is, of course, the Internet, so our question became, 'Could we develop an experiment that would bypass the talking or typing part of Internet and establish direct brain-to-brain communication between subjects located far away from each other in India and France?'"

It turned out the answer was "yes."

In the neuroscientific equivalent of instant messaging, Pascual-Leone and his colleagues successfully transmitted the words "hola" and "ciao" in a computer-mediated brain-to-brain transmission, from a location in India to a location in France, using internet-linked electroencephalogram (EEG) and robot-assisted and image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) technologies.


brain to brain communication


Previous studies on EEG-based brain-computer interaction (BCI) have typically made use of communication between a human brain and computer. In these studies, electrodes attached to a person's scalp record electrical currents in the brain as a person realises an action-thought, such as consciously thinking about moving the arm or leg. The computer then interprets that signal and translates it to a control output, such as a robot or wheelchair.

But, in this new study, the research team added a second human brain on the other end of the system. Four healthy participants, aged 28 to 50, participated in the study. One of the four subjects was assigned to the brain-computer interface (BCI) branch and was the sender of the words; the other three were assigned to the computer-brain interface (CBI) branch of the experiments and received the messages and had to understand them.

Using EEG, the research team first translated the greetings "hola" and "ciao" into binary code, then emailed the results from India to France. There a computer-brain interface transmitted the message to the receiver's brain through non-invasive brain stimulation. The subjects experienced this as phosphenes, flashes of light in their peripheral vision. The light appeared in numerical sequences that enabled the receiver to decode the information in the message, and while the subjects did not report feeling anything, they did correctly receive the greetings.

A second similar experiment was conducted between people in Spain and France, the end result being a total error rate of just 15 percent, 11 percent on the decoding end and five percent on the initial coding side.

"By using advanced precision neurotechnologies including wireless EEG and robotised TMS, we were able to directly and noninvasively transmit a thought from one person to another, without them having to speak or write," says Pascual-Leone. "This in itself is a remarkable step in human communication, but being able to do so across a distance of thousands of miles is a critically important proof-of-principle for the development of brain-to-brain communications. We believe these experiments represent an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional language-based or motor-based communication."


brain to brain communication diagram


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3rd September 2014

NASA to go ahead with its huge new rocket

NASA has completed a review of the Space Launch System (SLS). The rocket will have its first test launch "no later than November 2018" with a possibility of manned flights to Mars in the 2030s.


space launch system rocket


NASA has completed a rigorous review of the Space Launch System (SLS) – a next generation rocket designed to carry humans beyond Earth orbit and eventually to Mars. The project has received the go-ahead to proceed from the formulation stage to development, something no other exploration class launch vehicle has achieved since the agency built the Space Shuttle.

"We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "And we’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey."

For its first test flight, the SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. In its most powerful configuration, it will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling missions even farther into our Solar System, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”

"The Space Launch System Program has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate, at the NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018.”

“Engineers have made significant technical progress on the rocket and have produced hardware for all elements of the SLS program,” said SLS program manager Todd May. “The team members deserve an enormous amount of credit for their dedication to building this national asset.”

In April, the program delivered the first piece of flight hardware for Orion’s maiden flight, targeted for December 2014. This features the same design that will be used on the SLS rocket’s first flight, Exploration Mission-1.

The SLS will be the largest, most capable rocket ever built. In addition to opening new frontiers for human explorers, it will enable a new generation of science missions in the outer Solar System – with heavier payloads and more complex robotic landers, for example.


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2nd September 2014

An office enriched with plants makes staff happier and boosts productivity by 15 per cent

Future working environments could benefit from adding more greenery, if they follow scientific advice from the University of Queensland.


office desk with plants


An office enriched with plants makes staff happier and boosts productivity by 15 per cent, a University of Queensland researcher has found. The study is the first of its kind to assess long-term impacts of plants in office environments. Co-authored by Professor Alex Haslam from UQ’s School of Psychology, the study found that adding plants to an office also improved employee satisfaction and quality of life. A green office helps employees to be more physically, mentally and emotionally involved in their work.

“Office landscaping helps the workplace become a more enjoyable, comfortable and profitable place to be,” said Haslam. “It appears that in part this is because a green office communicates to employees that their employer cares about them and their welfare. Employees from previously ‘lean’ office environments experienced increased levels of happiness, resulting in a more effective workplace.”

The study was conducted in partnership with researchers from Cardiff University, the University of Exeter and the University of Groningen. The research examined the impact ‘lean’ versus ‘green’ office space has on employees from two large commercial offices in the UK and the Netherlands. A team monitored staff productivity levels over a two-month period, and employees were surveyed to determine perceptions of air quality, concentration and workplace satisfaction.


office plants


“Employees were more satisfied with their workplace and reported increased concentration levels and better perceived air quality in an office with plants,” Professor Haslam said. “The findings suggest that investing in landscaping an office will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.”

Professor Haslam also said the findings challenge modern business philosophies that suggest a lean office is a more productive one.

“The ‘lean’ philosophy has been influential across a wide range of organisational domains,” he said. “Modern offices and desks have been stripped back to create sparse spaces. Our findings question this widespread theory that less is more – sometimes less is just less.”


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1st September 2014

In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions?

Children's social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a psychological study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).


boy with smartphone


UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA College and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

Researchers studied two sets of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school: 51 who lived together for five days at the Pali Institute, a nature and science camp about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and 54 others from the same school. The camp doesn’t allow students to use electronic devices — a policy that many students found to be challenging for the first couple of days. Most adapted quickly, however, according to camp counsellors.

At the beginning and end of the study, both groups were evaluated on their ability to recognise people’s emotions in photos and videos. The students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings. They also watched videos of actors interacting with one another and were instructed to describe the characters’ emotions. In one scene, students take a test and submit it to a teacher; one of the students is confident and excited, the other is anxious. In another scene, one student is saddened after being excluded from a conversation.

The children who had been at the nature camp improved significantly over the five days in their ability to read facial emotions and other non-verbal cues to emotion, compared with the students who continued to use their media devices.

Researchers tracked how many errors the students made when attempting to identify the emotions in the photos and videos. When analysing photos, for example, those at the camp made an average of 9.41 errors at the end of the study, down from 14.02 at the beginning. The students who didn’t attend the camp recorded a significantly smaller change. For the videos, the students who went to camp improved significantly, while the scores of the students who did not attend camp showed no change. The findings applied equally to both boys and girls.

“You can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said Yalda Uhls, lead author and senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

Students participating in the study reported that they text, watch television and play video games for an average of four-and-a-half hours on a typical school day. Some surveys have found that the figure is even higher nationally. Greenfield considers the results significant, given that they occurred after only five days. The implications of the research are that people need more face-to-face interaction — and that even when people use digital media for social interaction, they’re spending less time developing social skills and learning to read non-verbal cues.

“We’ve shown a model of what more face-to-face interaction can do,” Greenfield said. “Social interaction is needed to develop skills in understanding the emotions of other people.”

Emoticons are a poor substitute for face-to-face communication, Uhls concluded: “We are social creatures. We need device-free time.”

The research will appear in the October print edition of Computers in Human Behavior and is already published online.


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