State Department pulls nonessential embassy staff out of Cuba, citing attacks

The State Department ordered a 60% staff reduction of its embassy in Cuba in response to unexplained sonic attacks that injured 21 embassy personnel. The decision will put most of the embassy’s consular services on indefinite hold.

The U.S. embassy in Cuba will be forced to undergo a 60% reduction in staff, following State Department orders this week for “nonessential” personnel and their families to return home. The State Department issued the orders while it investigates mysterious injuries that 21 embassy personnel suffered from sonic attacks.

“The decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a written statement. “We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”

The decision will effectively put visa-processing services for Americans or Cubans at the embassy on indefinite hold. Sources told CNN that the move is another major blow to the embassy’s operability, which is already on greatly reduced status because of flooding damage to the embassy during Hurricane Irma.

The Cuban government has denied any involvement in the attacks, which caused some victims to suffer long-term hearing loss. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met with Tillerson Tuesday and told him that the United States is “politicizing” the issue and that the Cuban government would work with its U.S. counterparts to determine the cause of the attack.

The State Department also issued a travel warning to all Americans not to travel to Cuba. Tourists could be at risk of some of the same attacks that occurred to embassy staff, an agency official told reporters. One senior U.S. official said that he also expects the agency to ask the Cuban embassy in Washington to reduce its staff, as well.

Undersea exploration sheds light on eighth continent

A new underwater study gives more credence to the idea that the land mass known as “Zealandia” is Earth’s eighth continent.

A study on Earth’s eighth continent — a large mass known as Zealandia — could give researchers new insight into our planet’s distant past.

The geological formation, which encompasses New Zealand and lies just east of Australia, is a sunken land mass roughly the size of India. While some are not sure if Zealandia — which sits 3,280 feet below the sea — properly qualifies as a continent, there are many scientists who believe it is related to the other seven.

In fact, GNS Science geologist Nick Mortimer and his colleagues already made a compelling case in February as to why Zealandia should be classified as a continent.

“Its isolation from Australia and large area support its definition as a continent — Zealandia,” the researchers wrote earlier this year in GSA Today, according to Tech Times. “Zealandia was formerly part of Gondwana. Today it is 94% submerged, mainly as a result of widespread Late Cretaceous crustal thinning preceding supercontinent breakup and consequent isostatic balance.”

To further explore such claims, scientists at the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) explored the region by drilling down into the seabed and collecting sediment cores that contained life records dating back millions of years. In addition, they also studied information that could help show how the continent slowly evolved over time.

Past studies reveal that Zealandia likely first submerged when it broke off from Antarctica and Australia some 80 million years ago. However, the recent findings showed that the land mass has not always been as deep as it is today. Researchers came to this conclusion by studying the microscopic shells of aquatic organisms and the spores of land plants that came from the supposed continent. This revealed both the climate and geography of Zealandia is drastically different than it was in the past.

The team also found evidence that the formation of the Pacific Ring of Fire some 40 million years ago caused dramatic changes in volcanic activity and ocean depth around the area. It may have buckled Zealandia’s seabed as well.

Further study of those shifts in relation to Zealandia could help scientists better understand how animals and plants spread around the Pacific Ocean. Such trials could also shed light on the evolution of ancient species and reveal how they moved around the region.

“Big geographic changes across northern Zealandia, which is about the same size as India, have implications for understanding questions such as how plants and animals dispersed and evolved in the South Pacific,” said expedition co-chief scientist Rupert Sutherland, a researcher at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, in a statement. “The discovery of past land and shallow seas now provides an explanation. There were pathways for animals and plants to move along.”

New procedure could one day repair embryo mutations

A new procedure may allow doctors to remove diseases from human embryos.

A new type of “chemical surgery” has managed to successfully remove a blood disorder from human embryos, according to a new report published in Protein and Cell.

The procedure comes from researchers at Sun Yat-sen University, who used a technique known as base editing to correct one error among three billion letters of genetic code. To do this, they altered lab-made embryos in a way that removed a life-threatening blood disease known as beta-thalassemia — which is caused by a change to a single base.

In order to edit genes, scientists need to alter one of the four DNA bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. All of those building blocks are essential to life and help properly run the human body.

The team conducted their experiment with tissues taken from a patient and in human embryos created through cloning. They then removed the disease by scanning DNA for the error and moving a G to an A.

This new process is exciting because it could be used to treat a wide range of inherited diseases. It could also lead to new ways to treat patients and prevent children being born with beta-thalassemia. The process has also proven to be more efficient than Crispr — another popular gene editing technique — and it comes with less side effects as well.

“About two-thirds of known human genetic variants associated with disease are point mutations,” said David Liu, a researcher at Harvard University who not involved in the study, according to BBC News. “So base editing has the potential to directly correct, or reproduce for research purposes, many pathogenic [mutations].”

While the study is controversial, it is a great example of how new advancements are allowing scientists manipulate human DNA to fight diseases. However, it is unlikely the new process will be used clinically anytime soon. Not only do researchers need to get approval, but they also need to make sure the procedure is completely safe before opening it up to larger trials.

“This powerful study sheds new light on precise gene correction for single gene disorders,” said Helen Claire O’Neill, a researcher at University College London who was not involved in the study, according to Phys.org. “It remains to be seen whether the efficiency… can be improved upon.”

Ancient remains may push back the origin of modern humans, study reports

A new study pushes back the origin of Homo sapiens by roughly 170,000 years.

A group of international researchers have discovered evidence that humans first came about 350,000 years ago, roughly 170,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The team reached their new date by analyzing a series of ancient DNA samples. This allowed them to trace the ancestry of people from South Africa back to the point where humans first split from other hominin species. Such research suggests the date of divergence occurred between 350,000 and 260,000 years ago.

A lot is known about early humans, but when they first diverged from other species is a big question that remains unanswered. The oldest human remains ever found date back 195,000 years, but that does not mean they are the first Homo sapiens.

Researchers hoped to shed light on that topic by looking at fossils from seven individuals who lived in KwaZulu-Natal between 2,300 and 300 years ago. Three of the humans existed during the Stone Age, while the other four lived between 300 and 500 years ago.

“It now seems that at least two or three Homo species occupied the southern African landscape during this time period, which also represents the early phases of the Middle Stone Age,” said study co-author Marlize Lombard, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg, in a statement. “It will be interesting to see in future if we find any evidence of interaction between these groups.”

The team specifically focused on a single specimen — known as the Ballito Bay Child — because it was a hunter gatherer that lived in a time where it would have not been affected by genetic mixing. That then allowed the scientists to compare it with other ancient genomes.

The new dating estimates fit with the current fossil record and also match up with recent evidence uncovered in Morocco. As a result, the team believes the new timeline is quite accurate. Two or three other Homo species lived in southern Africa during that time, and the team plans to look at those next to see what else they can discover about human origin.

“Both paleo-anthropological and genetic evidence increasingly points to multi-regional origins of anatomically modern humans in Africa, i.e. Homo sapiens did not originate in one place in Africa, but might have evolved from older forms in several places on the continent with gene flow between groups from different places,” explained lead author Carina Schlebusch, a researcher at Uppsala University, according to Newsweek

The new study is published in the journal Science.

Elon Musk hatches plan for spaceflight vehicle that doubles as an Earthbound airliner

Elon Musk has revised his concept Mars spacecraft plan. It will now be a spacecraft capable of flying to Mars, the Moon, and the International Space Station, and might even provide super-fast flights to and from cities here on Earth.

Elon Musk said Friday that his space-flight company SpaceX could transport human flight crews to Mars and that he is willing to “cannibalize” all its other flight vehicles and product lines in order to fund it—including its vehicles that currently fly missions to the International Space Station. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk presented the dramatic resource re-allocation as part of his revised plan to achieve human travel to Mars.

“All the resources that are being used for Falcon 9, Heavy, and Dragon can be applied to this system,” Musk said, referring to three existing SpaceX rocket-powered space vehicles. “That’s really fundamental. We believe that we can do this with the revenue that we receive for launching satellites and for servicing the station.”

Musk proposed an Interplanetary Transport System space vehicle that could theoretically take humans to the Red Planet in the future at the same forum last year. In Friday’s presentation, he described a more compact version of this vehicle, which he said could carry up to 100 passengers.

Mars travel won’t be this vehicle’s only use, however. Musk plans to also use it for all of SpaceX’s other existing space flights, starting with the present-day supply runs to and from the International Space Station. The new vehicle might additionally fly crews to the Moon to establish a moon base.

The vehicle might even work for fast travel on Earth. Musk said that the new vehicle will be capable of traveling from any one city on our planet to another in under an hour and render commercial airliners as we know them obsolete.

Modern homo sapiens might be 350,000 years old—eons older than scientists thought

The fully evolved human form might be 150,000 years more ancient than scientists used to think, according to the authors of a new study of genetic data from skeletal remains found in South Africa.

The fully evolved human form might be 150,000 years more ancient than scientists used to think, according to the authors of a new study of genetic data from skeletal remains found in South Africa. The study authors, whose study was published in the journal Science, said Thursday that they conclude that the first homo sapiens lived in Africa as far back as 350,000 years ago.
Until recently, most scientists estimated that the earliest homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago. This latest study arrived at an earlier date for modern humans’ rise when the researchers finished sequencing the genomes of seven individuals, including a hunter-gatherer youth who lived around 2,000 years ago. Analyses of the gene sequences indicated that homo sapiens split from older ancestral groups of primates between 260,000 and 350,000 years ago.
The researchers also found evidence for an earlier date in an excavation in June in Morocco that yielded hominid remains that appeared to be 300,000 or more years old. Additionally, scientists found a 260,000-year-old partial cranium in South Africa and determined that it is distinctly homo sapiens.
“The reconstruction of deep human history in Africa is becoming increasingly robust when the dating of fossils, such as those from Morocco, the Stone Age archaeological record and human DNA come together to highlight interesting periods in our evolutionary past,” said Marlize Lombard, a University of Johannesburg professor of Stone Age archaeology and co-leader of the Science study.
The progression from primate to modern human took place over millions of years and involved several divergences in the species family tree, according to anthropologists. One key split happened 600,000 to 700,000 years ago and led to the now-extinct Neanderthals. From that time point to the present day, a critical series of genetic evolutions took place and resulted in us.

Bed bugs are attracted to dirty laundry, study reports

A new study sheds light on the way bed bugs move throughout the world.

A team of researchers from the University of Sheffield have discovered that bed bugs travel around the world by hitching rides on dirty laundry, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

As international travel increases, so does the spread of bed bugs. Cases of the small insects have risen sharply over the last decade and they show no signs of slowing down. The team in the study looked to explore that trend by looking at the different ways bed bugs spread, and then analyzing ways to stop such travel.

That led them to realize the pests tend to navigate towards dirty laundry, which is how they get around.

“There are a lot of good studies out there focused on trying to understand how bed bugs are attracted to humans and how they get around apartment blocks, but no one has really talked about how they get into the house in the first place,” study author William Hentley, a researcher at the University of Sheffield, told Gizmodo. “Stopping people from bringing bed bugs home can be a big step in preventing them spreading throughout the world.”

In the study, the team placed bed bugs in a mock bedroom that contained two laundry bags; one filled with clean clothes and one filled with dirty ones. After numerous trials, researchers found that the bugs were twice as likely to gather on the dirty bag than the clean one. Researchers initially assumed this was related to the amount of carbon dioxide — which is what attracts bugs like mosquito — in the room. However, their results showed the element did not play a factor. Rather, the odor from the dirty laundry gathered in the pests.

The room was experimental, which means the data could be a bit skewed compared to more organic tests. However, the scientists believe their research is enough to show that bed bugs move throughout the world by latching onto dirty clothes. This reveals the importance of making sure your luggage is inaccessible to bed bugs, and shows why you should take extra steps to keeping your suitcase bed bug free.

“The biggest thing is not keeping your luggage on the bed,” said Richard Cooper, an entomologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick who was not involved in the research, according to Science.

Global crop surpluses threaten farmers’ incomes

Agro-business companies such as Monsanto use genetic modification to create faster-growing crops and crops that can withstand diseases, resist pests, and grow in historically cold or otherwise inhospitable climates.

World grain supplies have been running a massive surplus for four years straight, according to USDA data, and agriculture experts worry that the glut will drive down prices will hit the world’s farmers hard. Driven in part by high-tech farming innovations and crop breeding, farm production is soaring and end-of-season grain supplies are on track to total 638 million tons in 2016-2017, a historic record, the USDA reported.
“It’s somewhat the seed companies’ fault—they keep breeding better and better seeds every year,” said Jonas Oxgaard, an analyst with investment-management firm Bernstein.
Agro-business companies such as Monsanto use genetic modification to create faster-growing crops and crops that can withstand diseases, resist pests, and grow in historically cold or otherwise inhospitable climates. Monsanto spokespersons said that corn planters in relatively chilly western Canada could multiply to 10 million acres by 2025, which would raise the world corn supply by 1.1 billion bushels, or 3% of current production.
As farms’ crop output rises, however, the revenues the farmers earn for their crops falls. U.S. net farm incomes will total $63.4 billion this year, about half of their 2013 total, according to the USDA.
Even the agro-business giants feel the pinch. Monsanto’s 2016 profits were its lowest in six years. It agreed to merge last year with Bayer AG to soften the blow.
And the Saskatchewan-based Potash Corp., the world’s largest fertilizer company, shed more than 400 jobs last year and saw its U.S.-listed shares plummet by almost half since 2015. The company ended up merging with rival Agrium Inc. Oxgaard expects many more industry consolidations to take place as individual growers and suppliers struggle to not fall behind.

Record numbers of people viewed August 21 solar eclipse

Public outreach by science organizations and free webcasts drove high level of participation.

The August 21 “Great American Eclipse” was watched by record numbers of people, according to a joint study conducted by the University of Michigan and NASA.

A total of 154 million people observed the eclipse directly, using safety devices such as pinhole boxes or eclipse glasses, while another 61 million viewed it digitally through television and online broadcasts.

A record 88 percent of the US population, about 215 million adults, watched at least part of the eclipse. In contrast, 111 million people in the country watched the Superbowl on February 5, 2017.

The study included both those who watched the total eclipse, visible in a narrow 70-mile (113-km) band that swept from the northwest to southeast, and those who watched the partial eclipse in areas outside the path of totality.

Jon Miller, director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, reported more than 2,000 adults took part in the survey, which involved one set of questions in early 2017 and a second shortly after the eclipse.

Participants will be surveyed once more, in either October or November, and a final report will be published in January 2018.

A majority of viewers experienced the eclipse as being both enjoyable and educational.

Extensive public outreach by individuals and organizations is likely responsible for the large percentage of people who watched the first total solar eclipse visible in the US mainland in 38 years.

As part of a nationwide project, public libraries distributed 2.1 million free pairs of eclipse glasses.

Groups such as NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) spent significant time and effort educating people about the science of eclipses and how to safely view them, noted Paul Dusenbery, who heads the Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning in Boulder, Colorado.

NASA played a significant role in making the event accessible, conducting numerous free webcasts on the the day of the eclipse. Its nasa.gov and eclipse2017.nasa.gov sites had a record of 90 million views on that day.

“This level of public interest and engagement with a science-oriented event is unparalleled,” Miller emphasized.

A free copy of the study is available at https//www.isr.umich.edu/cps/initialeclipseviewingreport.pdf.

 

 

Scientists reveal atmospheric behavior of Venus’ night side

First observations of this side show chaotic, irregular atmospheric behavior.

For the first time, a team of scientists has successfully conducted a detailed study of Venus’ night side, discovering in the process that its atmosphere there behaves differently than it does on the day side.

Using the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Venus Express spacecraft, a research team led by Javier Peralta of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) found that the shape and dynamics of clouds on Venus’ night side are unlike those on the day side, appearing irregular, large, and wavy.

Observations for the study were conducted in the infrared with the spacecraft’s Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS), which enabled the researchers to see the night side’s clouds for the first time.

Instead of taking individual images, VIRTIS assembles “cubes” composed of several hundred images taken in several wavelengths.

This provides astronomers with multiple images of the night side’s clouds, revealing phenomena no one could previously see. While the uppermost clouds can be detected in the infrared through their thermal emissions, details and contrast are too faint for study in that wavelength.

Venus’ winds are so powerful that they travel faster than the planet rotates. Known as “super-rotation,” this phenomenon pushes and drags clouds in the atmosphere, especially those in its upper levels. The motion is clearly visible in ultraviolet light, Peralta noted.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to characterize how the atmosphere circulates on the night side of Venus on a global scale. While atmospheric circulation on the planet’s day side has been extensively explored, there was still much to discover about the night side. We found that the cloud patterns there are different to those on the day side and influenced by Venus’ topography,” he explained.

Computer models cannot reproduce Venus’ super-rotating winds, leading the researchers to believe there is more to the phenomenon than they currently understand. The models also predict Venus’ night side atmosphere will behave much like that of its day side, which the new study shows is wrong.

Just how surface topography influences the planet’s atmospheric behavior remains uncertain.

Findings of the study have been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.