Russians engaged in hacking campaign against U.S. utilities

The Russians used phony websites and phishing scams to gain access to networks.

Russian hackers successfully infiltrated U.S. electric utilities last year, the Department of Homeland Security said Monday, according to a report by Business Insider.

The agency said in an unclassified webinar that the hacking affected “hundreds of victims” and gave the hackers the ability to cause widespread blackouts.

The Russians used phony websites and phishing scams to gain access to corporate networks.

“They got to the point where they could have thrown switches,” said Jonathan Homer, the chief of industrial-control-system analysis for DHS.

The hackers, who are associated with the Russian state-sponsored group Dragonfly, began their assault on U.S. power companies in 2016 and continued through 2017. The infiltration efforts are probably ongoing, DHS officials said.

“While hundreds of energy and non-energy companies were targeted, the incident where they gained access to the industrial control system was a very small generation asset that would not have had any impact on the larger grid if taken offline,” said Lesley Fulop, a DHS spokeswoman, in a statement, as reported by NBC News. “Over the course of the past year as we continued to investigate the activity, we learned additional information which would be helpful to industry in defending against this threat.”

Earlier this month, 12 Russian intelligence agents were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of hacking democrats and the Democratic National Committee before the 2016 presidential election.

Bats use gene from ancient Ebola-like virus, study says

Mouse-eared bats contain a gene that they “stole” from an ancient Ebola-like virus 18 million years ago.

About 18 million years ago, a mouse-eared bat ancestor “stole” a gene called VP35 from an ancient Ebola-like virus. The new study that highlights the finding suggests that the gene has remained fairly intact over the years and sheds light on the possibility that the gene could regulate the immune system’s response to threats.

“We’re using a multidisciplinary approach to understand the evolution, structure and function of a viral gene co-opted by a mammal,” said Derek Taylor, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo. “From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s rare that you can actually see a viral gene sequence like this that has remained intact in a mammalian host. Most of these things are eroded over time — they get chopped up and shuffled around.”

“But VP35 is highly conserved,” he continued. “It’s similar in all the bats we looked at, and the bat versions remain very close to what you see in modern Ebola and Marburg viruses. This conservation suggests that the gene has been preserved for an important purpose.”

The data suggest that VP35 proteins are immune suppressors that carry instructions for the creation of a protein that inhibits the immune response of infected animals. But some questions still remain, such as the activity of the gene in mouse-eared bats, the protein’s possible production and—if mouse-eared bats do produce it—its specific benefits.

“Our study explores VP35 function, but further research is needed to determine the specific evolutionary benefit,” Taylor said. “Why has this gene been conserved for so long? We don’t quite know the answer, and it’s possible that VP35 has some other function in bats that we haven’t yet discovered.”

The findings were published in Cell Reports.

Ancient moon life is a possibility, study says

A new study suggests the Earth’s moon could have been habitable 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

Washington State University researchers Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Ian Crawford just released a study that suggests that there are two early windows of time in the lifetime of the Earth’s moon that could have been habitable for life.

“If liquid water and a significant atmosphere were present on the early moon for long periods of time, we think the lunar surface would have been at least transiently habitable,” Schulze-Makuch said.

The team’s work examined data from recent space missions and analyses of soil samples and lunar rock to suggest that the moon is not as dry as we thought. In particular, the team examined fossilized cyanobacteria that suggests that the moon was habitable during their time 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

“It looks very much like the moon was habitable at this time,” Schulze-Makuch said. “There could have actually been microbes thriving in water pools on the moon until the surface became dry and dead.”

The study also suggests potential directions that future moon research can explore.

“In addition, experiments could be conducted in lunar environment simulation chambers in laboratories on Earth to observe whether microorganisms can maintain viability under the environmental conditions predicted to have existed on the early Moon,” the researchers wrote.

“Indeed, the surface conditions predicted by Needham and Kring (2017) are not very different from those routinely produced in Mars simulation chambers,” they continued.

“Thus, we recommend utilizing both Moon simulation chambers on our planet and on the ISS to test whether there might have been an early habitability window on the Moon,” they concluded.

The findings were published in Astrobiology.

South African lion bone exports increase

Rising sales of lion bones are to meet demand in Asian markets.

Conservationists say the growing trade in lion bones must stop. They also urge curbing lion keeping and breeding.

A new report on these practices came out after South African ministers announced an almost doubling in the number of lion bones approved for exportation. The bones are in demand on the Asian markets for use in virility products and traditional medications.

News of the quota outraged animal-welfare activists. Organizations appealed directly to President Cyril Ramaphosa. They say the move would accelerate the drop in wild lion populations by encouraging poaching.

EMS conservation foundation and the Ban Animal Trading group produced the report called The Extinction Business. They want to dismantle the big-cat skeletons industry and demand intelligence-led investigations into the Asian criminal networks that fuel the growing trade. The report also identified flaws in the Cites system for issuing permits for bone exports.

The controversial lion-bone trade started in the country 10 years ago, and it is the largest exporter of lion bones to Asia – mostly to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Between 2008 and 2015, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs issued permits for the export of more than 5,363 lion skeletons. Last year the business brought in about 16m South African rand.

The new report’s key recommendations are:

  • A zero-export quota on lion and other big-cat body parts for commercial purposes
  • A forensic investigation into the financial affairs of all lion breeders and bone traders

Houseplants could act as toxin sensors: report

Genetically engineered houseplants may serve as sirens of home health.

Neal Steward, a University of Tennessee professor at the Herbert College of Agriculture, wants to engineer houseplants genetically to act as alarms to inform people that something is amiss in their home environment. His idea is to use houseplants to signal the health of an owner’s home.

This is synthetic biology. It involves designing and constructing new biological entities and systems and is a tool for agricultural production.

Engineered plants can react to certain atmospheric conditions, giving farmers an advantage on plant health. “Through the tools of synthetic biology it’s possible for us to engineer houseplants that can serve as architectural design elements that are both pleasing to our senses and that function as early sensors of environmental agents that could harm our health,” said Stewart.

His team wants to design plant biosensors to react to harmful agents in the home. Their plan is to create a plant wall in a place that has a dense population.

Building responsive capabilities into interior plants will allow biophilic elements within space to assume an integral role in the space. According to Stewart, plant biosensors could react to harmful agents in several ways including:

  • Gradually changing their foliage color
  • Using fluorescence
  • Alerting people to the presence of toxins

Their work should result in an interior environment that is more receptive to overall well-being of its occupants. It should also provide the benefits that plants bring to people daily.


Ytterbium may be the quantum memory of tomorrow

Scientists believe quantum communication and cryptography are the future of high security intelligence.

Quantum communication and cryptography are the future of high security intelligence. However, before scientists can set up a worldwide quantum network, they will have to deal with many challenges

One of the biggest challenges is to create memories with the capacity to store quantum information that light carries. Researchers at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in partnership with CNRS, France, recently discovered a new material in which ytterbium can store and protect the fragile quantum data even while operating at high frequencies.

Ytterbium is a perfect candidate for future quantum networks. This is true especially where the goal is to propagate the signal over long distances by acting as repeaters.

Now, quantum cryptography uses optical fiber over several hundred kilometers and has a high degree of security. It is impossible to intercept or copy information without making it disappear.

Scientists are currently working on how to make, quantum memories capable of repeating signals by capturing the photons and synchronizing them so they diffuse more and more. The only task left to do is to find the right material for making these quantum memories.

“The difficulty is finding a material capable of isolating the quantum information conveyed by the photons from environmental disturbances so that we can hold on to them for a second or so and synchronize them,” said Mikael Afzelius, a researcher in the Department of Applied Physics of UNIGE’s Faculty of Sciences.



Bizarre math equations may underlie nature’s laws

Physicists suspect that the strange array of forces and particles that make up reality stem from the properties of eight-dimensional numbers.

New findings support an old suspicion that fundamental forces and particles stem from strange eight-part numbers. These numbers are octonions.

In 2014, University of Waterloo, Canada graduate student Cohl Furey consulted with physics professor Murat Gunaydin of Pennsylvania State University. Furey had discovered a way to build on one of Gunaydin’s findings from 40 years earlier.

Many physicists and mathematicians had harbored suspicion that the bizarre array of forces and particles that make up reality spring from the properties of eight-dimensional numbers. The familiar real numbers get things started.

They can pair up real numbers in a certain way to form complex numbers. These complex numbers act like coordinates on a 2-D plane.

Subtracting, adding, dividing and multiplying are like translating and rotating positions around the plane. Irish Mathematician William Rowan Hamilton discovered 4-D quaternions in 1843.

Hamilton’s friend, attorney John Graves, subsequently proved that pairs of quaternions make octonions. Octonions are numbers that define coordinates in an abstract 8-D space.

“Octonions are to physics what the sirens were to Ulysses,” said Pierre Ramond, a particle physicist at the University of Florida. Gunaydin, of Pennsylvania State University, was a graduate student at Yale in 1973 when he and Gursey found the surprising link between the octonions and the strong force that binds quarks together inside atomic nuclei.

Decades later, no particles other than those of the Standard Model have been found. The strangeness of the octonions continues to attract the attention of occasional independent researchers.


Andromeda might have cannibalized our sister galaxy

Scientists believe that Andromeda cannibalized the Milky Way’s sister galaxy about 32 million years ago.

Researchers suggest that the Andromeda galaxy, with its satellite galaxies M110 and M32, cannibalized one of our sister galaxies. The result is M32, which is a remnant of the larger galaxy that was eaten approximately 32 billion year ago.

“Astronomers have been studying the Local Group—the Milky Way, Andromeda and their companions—for so long,” said Eric Bell, a professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan (UM). “It was shocking to realize that the Milky Way had a large sibling, and we never knew about it.”

The team used computer simulations to determine that most stars in the outermost edges of Andromeda’s “halo” originated from a single location.

“It was a ‘Eureka’ moment,” said study lead author Richard D’Souza. “We realized we could use this information of Andromeda’s outer stellar halo to infer the properties of the largest of these shredded galaxies.”

Additional modeling revealed the likely date of the merger 2 billion years ago and allowed them to reconstruct some details of the ancient galaxy. The team named it M32p, and believe that it was—at minimum—20 times bigger than any galaxy that has ever merged with the Milky Way.

And apparently it’s not completely destroyed either—M32 is likely the galaxy’s corpse.

“M32 is a weirdo,” Bell said. “While it looks like a compact example of an old, elliptical galaxy, it actually has lots of young stars. It’s one of the most compact galaxies in the universe. There isn’t another galaxy like it.”

The findings were published in Nature Astronomy.

Women are going bankrupt to treat breast cancer, study says

A new study highlights the financial hardships that women with breast cancer are faced with.

A new study suggests that women are going bankrupt to treat breast cancer. Not only that, but patients are worried about the financial implications of their treatment and diagnosis, and feel that doctor’s offices are unhelpful with their concerns.

“We have made a lot of progress in breast cancer treatment, which is wonderful. But this study shows we are only part of the way to our goal,” said says lead study author Reshma Jagsi of the University of Michigan. “We must now turn our efforts to confronting the financial devastation many patients face.”

The team surveyd approximately 2,500 patients that underwent early stage breast cancer treatment, as well as 845 medical oncologists, treating physicians, and radiation oncologists.

The results revealed that 38 percent of women were at least partially worred about finances due to breast cancer treatments, 14 percent reported losing over 10 percent of household income, and 17 percent said they spent over 10 percent of their household income on medical expenses.

Approximately half of medical oncologists and 43 percent of radiation oncologists said that someone in their practice always or often talks about financial burden with their patients. However, the researchers found that only 16 percent did.

And of the patients that worried about finances, 73 percent claim that their doctor’s office didn’t help. The results suggest that doctors need to work on communicating with their patients about financial hardship.

“To cure a patient’s disease at the cost of financial ruin falls short of our duty as physicians to serve,” Jagsi said. “It’s simply not acceptable to ignore patients’ financial distress any longer,”

The findings were published in Cancer.

Titan’s large craters are prime locations for life, study says

A new study suggests that Titan’s craters are prime locations for life.

A new study suggests that the large craters on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, are the prime locations for the crucial elements of life.

Titan is an icy moon that is littered with organic molecules, including methane lakes surrounded by hazy atmospheres of methane and nitrogen. And using data and images from the Cassini spacecraft in combination with the Huygens probe, researchers believe that Titan’s craters are the prime locations for the building blocks of life.

Morgan Cable, a technologist in the Instrument Systems Implementation and Concepts Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, said that “when we mix tholins with liquid water we make amino acids really fast. So any place where there is liquid water on Titan’s surface or near its surface could be generating the precursors to life – biomolecules – that would be important for life as we know it, and that’s really exciting.”

“Craters really emerged as the clear winner for three main reasons,” said Catherine Neish, a planetary scientist specializing in impact cratering at the University of Western Ontario. “One, is that we’re pretty sure there are craters on Titan.

“Cratering is a very common geologic process and we see circular features that are almost certainly craters on the surface,” she said.

Not only that, but Neish says that craters are likely to generate more melt than cryovolcanos, which suggests that “they take longer to freeze so [the water] will stay liquid for longer.” She also added that liquid water is crucial for the complex chemical reactions.

But David Grinspoon, a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, is hesitant to jump at the results.

“We don’t know where to search even with results like this,” he said. “I wouldn’t use it to guide our next mission to Titan. It’s premature.”

Grinspoon wants to instead examine more locations on Titan.

“Because there is so little that we actually know about the planet, it makes more sense to characterize a range of environments first,” he said.

Regardless, the study is a step in the right direction on the search for life’s building blocks in the frigid world of Titan.

The findings were published in Astrobiology.