Biotech

Researchers Found Perfect Contraceptives In Traditional Chinese Medicine (inverse.com) 140

hackingbear writes: Researchers at U.C. Berkeley found a birth control that was hormone-free, 100 percent natural, resulted in no side effects, didn't harm either eggs nor sperm, could be used in the long-term or short-term, and -- perhaps the best part of all -- could be used either before or after conception, from ancient Chinese folk medicine... "Because these two plant compounds block fertilization at very, very low concentrations -- about 10 times lower than levels of levonorgestrel in Plan B -- they could be a new generation of emergency contraceptive we nicknamed 'molecular condoms,'" team leader Polina Lishko.
Space

New Zealand Joins Space Race With Successful Launch Of Lightweight 'Electron' Rocket (nzherald.co.nz) 47

"Rocket Lab: We have lift-off!" wrote long-time Slashdot reader ClarkMills on Wednesday. "History made as Electron launches successfully from Mahia." The New Zealand Herald reports: Rocket Lab engineers have started analyzing data from yesterday's historic launch from the Mahia Peninsula that took the company to space but not able to complete its orbital mission. Lift-off at 4.20 pm was the first orbital-class rocket launched from a private launch site in the world. New Zealand became the 11th country with potential to launch cargo into space, joining superpowers and tech heavyweights. The Government hailed the lift-off as a major milestone for the country's space industry...

"We didn't quite reach orbit and we'll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program," said founder and chief executive Peter Beck.

Beck added they'd developed their rocket "from scratch" in under four years, and the company's official Twitter feed is now proudly tweeting photos and videos from the launch.
Earth

A Third of the Nation's Honeybee Colonies Died Last Year (usatoday.com) 132

A third of the honeybees in the United States were lost over the last year, part of a decade-long die-off experts said may threaten our food supply. USA Today reports: The annual survey of roughly 5,000 beekeepers showed the 33% dip from April 2016 to April 2017. The decrease is small compared to the survey's previous 10 years, when the decrease hovered at roughly 40%. From 2012 to 2013, nearly half of the nation's colonies died. The death of a colony doesn't necessarily mean a loss of bees, explains vanEngelsdorp, a project director at the Bee Informed Partnership. A beekeeper can salvage a dead colony, but doing so comes at labor and productivity costs. That causes beekeepers to charge farmers more for pollinating crops and creates a scarcity of bees available for pollination. It's a trend that threatens beekeepers trying to make a living and could lead to a drop-off in fruits and nuts reliant on pollination, vanEngelsdor said. So what's killing the honeybees? Parasites, diseases, poor nutrition, and pesticides among many others. The chief killer is the varroa mite, a "lethal parasite," which researchers said spreads among colonies.
Bug

Two Different Studies Find Thousands of Bugs In Pacemakers, Insulin Pumps and Other Medical Devices 48

Two studies are warning of thousands of vulnerabilities found in pacemakers, insulin pumps and other medical devices. "One study solely on pacemakers found more than 8,000 known vulnerabilities in code inside the cardiac devices," reports BBC. "The other study of the broader device market found only 17% of manufacturers had taken steps to secure gadgets." From the report: The report on pacemakers looked at a range of implantable devices from four manufacturers as well as the "ecosystem" of other equipment used to monitor and manage them. Researcher Billy Rios and Dr Jonathan Butts from security company Whitescope said their study showed the "serious challenges" pacemaker manufacturers faced in trying to keep devices patched and free from bugs that attackers could exploit. They found that few of the manufacturers encrypted or otherwise protected data on a device or when it was being transferred to monitoring systems. Also, none was protected with the most basic login name and password systems or checked that devices they were connecting to were authentic. Often, wrote Mr Rios, the small size and low computing power of internal devices made it hard to apply security standards that helped keep other devices safe. In a longer paper, the pair said device makers had work to do more to "protect against potential system compromises that may have implications to patient care." The separate study that quizzed manufacturers, hospitals and health organizations about the equipment they used when treating patients found that 80% said devices were hard to secure. Bugs in code, lack of knowledge about how to write secure code and time pressures made many devices vulnerable to attack, suggested the study.
NASA

NASA To Make Announcement About First Mission To Touch Sun (nasa.gov) 84

NASA published the following media advisory moments ago: NASA will make an announcement about the agency's first mission to fly directly into our sun's atmosphere during an event at 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday, May 31, from the University of Chicago's William Eckhardt Research Center Auditorium. The event will air live on NASA Television and the agency's website. The mission, Solar Probe Plus, is scheduled to launch in the summer of 2018. Placed in orbit within four million miles of the sun's surface, and facing heat and radiation unlike any spacecraft in history, the spacecraft will explore the sun's outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work. The resulting data will improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space.
Earth

Scientists Develop Technology That Burns Natural Gas With No CO2 Emissions (scienceblog.com) 148

New submitter Ben Sullivan writes: Researchers and engineers in Vienna have developed a way to burn natural gas without releasing CO2 into the air through a combustion method called chemical looping combustion (CLC). In this process, CO2 can be isolated during combustion without having to use any additional energy, which means it can then go on to be stored. The method had already been applied successfully in a test environment, and has now been upscaled to allow use in up to a 10 MW facility. ScienceBlog.com reports: "A granulate made of metal oxide circulates between the two chambers and is responsible for transporting oxygen from air to fuel: 'We pump air through one chamber, where the particles take up oxygen. They then move on to the second chamber, which has natural gas flowing through it. Here is where the oxygen is released, and then where flameless combustion takes place, producing CO2 and water vapor,' explains Stefan Penthor from the Institute of Chemical Engineering at TU Wien. The separation into two chambers means there are two separate flue gas streams to deal with too: air with a reduced concentration of oxygen is discharged from one chamber, water vapor and CO2 from the other. The water vapor can be separated quite easily, leaving almost pure CO2, which can be stored or used in other technical applications."
Space

Juno Spacecraft Reveals Spectacular Cyclones At Jupiter's Poles (arstechnica.com) 22

Joe Palca reports via NPR: NASA's Juno spacecraft has spotted giant cyclones swirling at Jupiter's north and south poles. That's just one of the unexpected and puzzling findings being reported by the Juno science team. Juno arrived at Jupiter last summer. It's the first spacecraft to get a close-up look at the planet's poles. It's in an orbit that takes it skimming close to the cloud tops of the gas giant once every 53 days. After each close pass, the spacecraft sends a trove of data back to Earth. Ultimately, scientists will want to understand how these cyclones change over time and whether they form differently in the north and south poles. Another puzzle that Juno is supposed to help solve is whether Jupiter, a gas giant, has a solid core. Another surprise from Juno is the concentration of ammonia in Jupiter's atmosphere. Scientists thought ammonia was most likely distributed evenly throughout the atmosphere. The data show there's more ammonia near the equator than there is at other latitudes.
Education

It's Time For Academics To Take Back Control Of Research Journals (theguardian.com) 74

Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, has a piece on The Guardian today in which he outlines the history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research. An excerpt from the article: "Publish or perish" has long been the mantra of seeking to make a success of their research career. Reputations are built on the ability to communicate something new to the world. Increasingly, however, they are determined by numbers, not by words, as universities are caught in a tangle of management targets composed of academic journal impact factors, university rankings and scores in the government's research excellence framework. The chase for metricised success has been further exacerbated by the takeover of scholarly publishing by profit-seeking commercial companies, which pose as partners but no longer seem properly in tune with academia. Evidence of the growing divergence between academic and commercial interests is visible in the secrecy around negotiations on subscription and open access charges. It's also clear from the popularity among academics of the controversial site Sci-Hub, which has made over 60m research articles freely available on the internet. Over-worked researchers could be forgiven for thinking that the time-honoured mantra has morphed to "publish, and perish anyway."
Earth

8 In 10 People Now See Climate Change As a 'Catastrophic Risk,' Says Survey (trust.org) 377

An anonymous reader quotes a report from the Thomas Reuters Foundation: Nearly nine in 10 people say they are ready to make changes to their standard of living if it would prevent future climate catastrophe, a survey on global threats found Wednesday. The survey of more than 8,000 people in eight countries -- the United States, China, India, Britain, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Germany -- found that 84 percent of people now consider climate change a "global catastrophic risk." That puts worry about climate change only slightly behind fears about large-scale environmental damage and the threat of politically motivated violence escalating into war, according to the Global Challenges Foundation, which commissioned the Global Catastrophic Risks 2017 report. The survey, released in advance of this week's G7 summit of advanced economies in Italy, also found that 85 percent of people think the United Nations needs reforms to be better equipped to address global threats. About 70 percent of those surveyed said they think it may be time to create a new global organization -- with power to enforce its decisions -- specifically designed to deal with a wide range of global risks. Nearly 60 percent said they would be prepared to have their country give up some level of sovereignty to make that happen.
Space

Boeing Will Make the Military's New Hypersonic Spaceplane (theverge.com) 89

The Department of Defense has selected Boeing to make a new hypersonic spaceplane that can be reused frequently over a short period of time to deliver multiple satellites into orbit. "DARPA, the agency that tests new advanced technologies for the military, has picked Boeing's design concept, called the Phantom Express, to move forward as part of the agency's Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program," reports The Verge. From the report: The goal of DARPA's XS-1 program is to create a spacecraft that's something of a hybrid between an airplane and a traditional vertical rocket. The spaceplane is meant to take off vertically and fly uncrewed to high altitudes above Earth. From there, the vehicle will release a mini-rocket -- a booster with an engine that can propel a satellite weighing up to 3,000 pounds into orbit. As the booster deploys the satellite, the spaceplane will then land back on Earth horizontally just like a normal airplane -- and then be fueled up for its next mission. DARPA wants the turnaround time between flights to last just a few hours. But perhaps the most audacious goal is the price DARPA wants for each flight. The agency is aiming for the spaceplane to cost $5 million per mission, a significant bargain considering most orbital rockets cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to launch. And Boeing says it's up to the task. "Phantom Express is designed to disrupt and transform the satellite launch process as we know it today, creating a new, on-demand space-launch capability that can be achieved more affordably and with less risk," Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said in a statement.
Medicine

Study Finds Magic Mushrooms Are the Safest Recreational Drug (theguardian.com) 198

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Mushrooms are the safest of all the drugs people take recreationally, according to this year's Global Drug Survey. Of the more than 12,000 people who reported taking psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms in 2016, just 0.2% of them said they needed emergency medical treatment -- a rate at least five times lower than that for MDMA, LSD and cocaine. Global Drug Survey 2017, with almost 120,000 participants in 50 countries, is the world's biggest annual drug survey, with questions that cover the types of substances people take, patterns of use and whether they experienced any negative effects. Overall, 28,000 people said they had taken magic mushrooms at some point in their lives, with 81.7% seeking a "moderate psychedelic experience" and the "enhancement of environment and social interactions."
Education

Airbnb Is Running Its Own Internal University To Teach Data Science (techcrunch.com) 32

In an effort to fill the demand for trained data scientists, Airbnb will be running its own university-style program, complete with a custom course-numbering system. Since traditional online programs like Coursera and Udacity weren't getting the job done because they weren't tailored to Airbnb's internal data and tools, the company "decided to design a bunch of courses of its own around three levels of instruction for different employee needs," reports TechCrunch. From the report: 100-level classes on data-informed decision making have been designed to be applicable to all teams, including human resources and business development. Middle-tier classes on SQL and Superset have enabled some non-technical employees to take on roles as project managers, and more intensive courses on Python and machine learning have helped engineers brush up on necessary skills for projects. Since launching the program in Q3 2016, Airbnb has seen the weekly active users of its internal data science tools rise from 30 to 45 percent. A total of 500 Airbnb employees have taken at least one class -- and Airbnb has yet to expand the program to all 22 of its offices.
Science

Scientists Are Using Gene Editing To Create the Perfect Tomato For Your Salad (qz.com) 124

An anonymous reader shares an article: Geneticists are now using technology to isolate the precise genes responsible for excessive branching and flowering, characteristics which lead to less fruit and thus less yield for farmers. In a study published in the journal Cell last week, geneticist Zachary Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory explains his research team's efforts to fix mutated tomatoes using CRISPR gene editing technology. By identifying the genes associated with undesired mutations, Lippman was able to edit them and suppress their effects. After playing with the plant architecture, Lippman's team was ultimately able to engineer highly productive plants that yielded more of the desired fruit and less of the unwanted flowers and branches. Original research paper; further reading on Nature magazine.
Education

Researchers Find Dozens of Genes Associated With Measures of Intelligence (arstechnica.com) 266

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: We don't know a lot about the biological basis of our mental abilities -- we can't even consistently agree on how best to test them -- but a few things seem clear. One is that performance on a number of standardized tests that purport to measure intelligence tends to correlate with outcomes we'd associate with intelligence, like educational achievement. A second is that this performance seems to have a large genetic component. But initial studies clearly indicated that the effect of any individual gene on intelligence is small. As a result, the first genetics studies found very little, since you needed to look at a large number of people in order to see these small effects. Now, a new study has combined much of the previous work and has turned up 40 new genetic regions associated with intelligence test scores. But again, the effect of any individual gene is pretty minor. The team behind the new work took advantage of open data to pull together information from 13 different studies, which cumulatively looked through the genomes of over 78,000 individuals. While those individuals had been given a variety of tests, the authors focused on measures of general intelligence or fluid intelligence (the two seem to measure similar things). The genomes of these individuals had been scanned for single base pair differences, allowing the authors to look for correlations between regions of the genome and test scores. Two separate analyses were done. The first simply looked at each base difference individually. That turned up 336 individual bases, which clustered into 22 different genes. Half of these had not been associated with intelligence previously. To provide a separate validation of these results, the authors did a similar analysis with educational achievement. They found that nearly all of the sites they identified also correlated with that. In a second analysis, the authors tracked base differences that cluster in a single gene. Since there are more markers for each gene, this tends to be a more sensitive way of looking for effects. And in fact, it produced 47 genes associated with the intelligence test scores. Seventeen of those had been identified in the earlier analysis, which brought the total genes identified to 52, only 12 of which had been previously associated with intelligence test scores.
AI

When AI Botches Your Medical Diagnosis, Who's To Blame? (qz.com) 200

Robert Hart has posed an interested question in his report on Quartz: When artificial intelligence botches your medical diagnosis, who's to blame? Do you blame the AI, designer or organization? It's just one of many questions popping up and starting to be seriously pondered by experts as artificial intelligence and automation continue to become more entwined into our daily lives. From the report: The prospect of being diagnosed by an AI might feel foreign and impersonal at first, but what if you were told that a robot physician was more likely to give you a correct diagnosis? Medical error is currently the third leading cause of death in the U.S., and as many as one in six patients in the British NHS receive incorrect diagnoses. With statistics like these, it's unsurprising that researchers at Johns Hopkins University believe diagnostic errors to be "the next frontier for patient safety." Of course, there are downsides. AI raises profound questions regarding medical responsibility. Usually when something goes wrong, it is a fairly straightforward matter to determine blame. A misdiagnosis, for instance, would likely be the responsibility of the presiding physician. A faulty machine or medical device that harms a patient would likely see the manufacturer or operator held to account. What would this mean for an AI?
Space

Could Giant Alien Structures Be Dimming a Far Away Star? (sciencemag.org) 395

sciencehabit quotes a report from Science Magazine: Astronomers and alien life enthusiasts alike are buzzing over the sudden dimming of an otherwise unremarkable star 1300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. KIC 8462852 or "Tabby's star" has dimmed like this several times before, prompting some researchers to suggest that the megastructures of an advanced alien civilization might be blocking its light. And now -- based on new data from numerous telescopes -- it's doing it again. "This is the first clear dip we have seen since [2013], and the first we have ever caught in real time," says Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University in State College. If they can rope in more telescopes, astronomers hope to gather enough data to finally figure out what's going on. "This could be the first of several dips about to come," says astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University. "Many observers will be closely watching." KIC 8462852 was first noticed to be dipping in brightness at seemingly random intervals between 2011 and 2013 by NASA's Kepler telescope. Kepler, launched to observe the stellar dimmings caused when an exoplanet passes in front of its star, revealed that the dimming of Tabby's star was much more erratic than a typical planetary transit. It was also more extreme, with its brightness sometimes dropping by as much as 20%. This was not the passage of a small circular planet, but of something much larger and more irregular.
Space

Sperm Stored In Space Produces Healthy Baby Mice On Earth (theguardian.com) 53

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Reproduction may be possible in space, Japanese researchers have said, after freeze-dried sperm stored on the International Space Station for nine months produced healthy offspring. The scientists said their findings could have significant ramifications for human settlements in space, which they consider "likely." The average daily radiation dose on the ISS is about 100 times stronger than that on Earth, posing a threat of serious reproductive problems for any space-dwelling organism. But mouse sperm stored on the ISS for 288 days from August 2013 to May 2014, then returned to Earth, fertilized in vitro and transferred into female mice, produced healthy offspring. The space-preserved samples showed evidence of slightly increased DNA damage compared with control samples preserved on Earth, but this was found to be largely repaired in embryos following fertilization. The birth rate and sex ratio of pups derived from the sperm stored in space was comparable to those of pups derived from the control samples. Subsequent whole genome analysis revealed only minor differences, and the pups developed into adults with normal fertility. The study was published in the proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on Monday.
Earth

Remote Pacific Island Is the Most Plastic-Contaminated Spot Yet Surveyed (arstechnica.com) 132

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Plastic is durable -- very, very durable -- which is why we like it. Since it started being mass-produced in the 1950s, annual production has increased 300-fold. Because plastic is so durable, when our kids grow up and we purge our toy chests, or even just when we finish a bottle of laundry detergent or shampoo, it doesn't actually go away. While we're recycling increasing amounts of plastic, a lot of it still ends up in the oceans. Floating garbage patches have brought some attention to the issue of our contamination of the seas. But it's not just the waters themselves that have ended up cluttered with plastic. A recent survey shows that a staggering amount of our stuff is coming ashore on the extremely remote Henderson Island. Henderson Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Pitcairn Group of Islands in the South Pacific, roughly half way between New Zealand and Peru. According to UNESCO, Henderson is one of the best examples we have of an elevated coral atoll ecosystem. It was colonized by Polynesians between the 12th and 15th centuries but has been uninhabited by humans since then. It is of interest to evolutionary biologists because it has 10 plant species and four bird species that are only found there. Despite its uninhabited status and its extremely remote location, a recent survey of beach plastic on Henderson Island revealed that the island has the highest density of debris reported anywhere in the world: an estimated minimum of 37.7 million items weighing 17.6 tons. This represents the total amount of plastic that is produced in the world every 1.98 seconds. Further reading: Here And Now
Data Storage

Microsoft Wants To Use DNA For Cloud Data Storage (technologyreview.com) 50

Last July, researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington said that they had successfully encoded about 200 megabytes of data onto synthetic DNA molecules. The company is now planning to take the technology commercial. "Computer architects at Microsoft Research say the company has formalized a goal of having an operational storage system based on DNA working inside a data center toward the end of this decade," reports MIT Technology Review. "The aim is a 'proto-commercial system in three years storing some amount of data on DNA in one of our four centers for at least a boutique application,' says Doug Carmean, a partner architect at Microsoft Research." From the report: Internally, Microsoft harbors the even more ambitious goal of replacing tape drives, a common format used for archiving information. Major obstacles to a practical storage system remain. Converting digital bits into DNA code (made up of chains of nucleotides labeled A, G, C, and T) remains laborious and expensive because of the chemical process used to manufacture DNA strands. In its demonstration project, Microsoft used 13,448,372 unique pieces of DNA. Experts say buying that much material on the open market would cost $800,000. According to Microsoft, the cost of DNA storage needs to fall by a factor of 10,000 before it becomes widely adopted. While many experts say that's unlikely, Microsoft believes such advances could occur if the computer industry demands them.
Medicine

Baking Soda Shortage Has Hospitals Frantic, Delaying Treatments and Surgeries (arstechnica.com) 250

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Amid a national shortage of a critical medicine, US hospitals are hoarding vials, delaying surgeries, and turning away patients, The New York Times reports. The medicine in short supply: solutions of sodium bicarbonate -- aka, baking soda. The simple drug is used in all sorts of treatments, from chemotherapies to those for organ failure. It can help correct the pH of blood and ease the pain of stitches. It is used in open-heart surgery, can help reverse poisonings, and is kept on emergency crash carts. But, however basic and life-saving, the drug has been in short supply since around February. The country's two suppliers, Pfizer and Amphastar, ran low following an issue with one of Pfizer's suppliers -- the issue was undisclosed due to confidentiality agreements. Amphastar's supplies took a hit with a spike in demand from desperate Pfizer customers. Both companies told the NYT that they don't know when exactly supplies will be restored. They speculate that it will be no earlier than June or August. With the shortage of sodium bicarbonate, hospitals are postponing surgeries and chemotherapy treatments. A hospital in Mobile, Alabama, for example, postponed seven open-heart surgeries and sent one critically ill patient to another hospital due to the shortage.

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