Christian Science Monitor
Christian Science Monitor
News Article | March 16, 2017
Nanotechnology - What You Should Know Tardigrades, perhaps more commonly known as water bears, are tiny creatures that maintain such strange characteristics. These Muppet-like creatures are able to survive extreme conditions, including staggering amounts of radiation, temperatures 302 degrees Fahrenheit to almost absolute zero, and pressures that would beat those in the deepest ocean trenches. Water bears can also endure being dried up for up to a decade or even longer. In a new study, researchers found that they have special genes encoding for disordered proteins to help water bears survive near 100 percent water loss. Scientists previously assumed that this survival ability is due to a sugar called trehalose, which is what sea monkeys or brine shrimps use for preserving cells during desiccation. Trehalose levels, however, appeared much lower in water bears, so it couldn’t possibly be the key. The team of Thomas Boothby at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, discovered clues in the water bears’ genes. "The big takeaway from our study is that tardigrades have evolved unique genes that allow them to survive drying out. In addition, the proteins that these genes encode can be used to protect other biological material — like bacteria, yeast, and certain enzymes — from desiccation,” explained Boothby, a postdoc fellow and the study first author, in a statement. The team discovered that water bears produce a special kind of glassy substance holding their essential proteins and molecules in a suspended state until their bodies are rehydrated. The glass practically traps desiccation-sensitive molecules in a form of matrix and hinder them from breaking like they usually would without the glassy protection, Boothby told Christian Science Monitor. Proteins known as tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins (TDPs) are responsible for producing this “bioglass,” where the shapeless yet highly flexible rearrange into solid bioglass once extreme drying takes place. Once the water bears are exposed to water again, the bioglass melts, and the unique proteins return to their old random state. The researchers figured out that they could also maneuver other creatures to carry the same proteins and survive extreme desiccation. When they inserted the genes into living bacteria and yeast, they discovered that the proteins equipped them against extreme desiccation just like they did with water bears. TDPs in a test tube are deemed adequately protective of desiccation-sensitive molecules, physically barring their breakage or folding. These results offer the exciting possibility that TDPs could also work the same wonders on larger and more complex animals. Cellular biologist John Crowe told the Monitor that it’s a “convincing piece of research,” but he is hardly convinced that the disordered proteins are tardigrade-specific as suggested. The proteins may also turn up in other desiccation-tolerant organisms, he said. Potential real-world uses and applications of TDPs include protecting crops from drought as well as allowing medications to be stored at room temperature instead of constantly chilled conditions. The latter could be a good development for supplying important drugs in remote communities or those that lack refrigeration. In light of rising global temperatures and greater spread of disease, results like this may also spell greater chances of survival for a number of life forms. The findings were discussed in the journal Molecular Cell. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | March 5, 2017
Nanotechnology - What You Should Know A leaked memo reveals that U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to slash the budget of a major climate science agency by nearly a fifth. This, according to experts fearing the move, could cost lives worldwide. The White House document, a memo from the Office of Management and Budget, detailed the proposed budget cuts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which undertakes climate change research. The plan also involves measures such as reducing funding for programs enabling U.S. coastal areas to survive extreme weather. The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research could see its budget reduced by 26 percent or $126 million, while the satellite department could lose 22 percent or $513 million. “Cutting NOAA’s satellite budget will compromise NOAA’s mission of keeping Americans safe from extreme weather and providing forecasts that allow businesses and citizens to make smart plans,” former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told the Washington Post, which obtained the budget memo on March 3. Trump earlier expressed plans to increase U.S. military spending by $54 million. This would partly entail cutting environmental initiatives, including those from the Environmental Protection Agency. NOAA leads the country’s weather forecasting, weather satellite program, fisheries and ocean services, as well as climate monitoring. But how exactly would you bear the brunt of a reduced climate science budget? Here are some ways, as enumerated by Forbes. Poised for elimination in the White House proposal is the Sea Grant program, which offers research, education, and legal programs to coastal communities for responsible use of oceans, coastal areas, and Great Lakes resources. At least 33 states benefit from the program, which addresses practical issues such as “sunny day flooding” or saltwater intruding into human drinking water. The potential budget cuts involve eliminating a portion of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services, which also comprises important climate data at the National Center for Environmental Indicators. Weather satellites are critical for the public, industry, and military alike, acting like “smoke detectors” and including a fleet of low-Earth and geosynchronous orbiting satellites. Large satellite programs, Forbes reminded, need sustained, consistent research, development, and support, unless one accepts a modern version of a 1900 hurricane slamming into Galveston, Texas and killing up to 12,000 people. Christian Science Monitor also noted that in practice, NOAA works in collaboration with NASA, pooling their funds together and combining expertise. This could also endanger the work being done on the space agency’s Earth Science Division, or the operation of next-gen satellites such as JPSS-1. Advances such as smartphones, precision agriculture, GPS, and life-saving medicine stem from sustained R&D — just like advanced weather forecasting. Current capabilities have been borne out of research around satellite systems and models (including one recently announced by NOAA that’s significant upgrade of its main weather modeling system), along with headways in ocean science. Even one to four years of lags in research could cause long-term damage, experts feared, especially in the face of changing climate and steady warming trends in the United States and elsewhere around the world. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | May 8, 2017
"Investors with more than $15 trillion of assets under management urged governments led by the United States to implement the Paris climate accord to fight climate change despite U.S. President Donald Trump's threats to pull out. "As long-term institutional investors, we believe that the mitigation of climate change is essential for the safeguarding of our investments," according to the letter signed by 214 institutional investors and published on Monday. "We urge all nations to stand by their commitments to the Agreement," it said. Signatories of the letter included the California Public Employees Retirement System and other pension funds from Sweden to Australia." "Inside the White House War Over the Paris Climate Treaty" (InsideClimate News) "Worries Over US Pullout To Dominate UN Climate Talks" (BBC News) "Worried World Urges Trump Not To Pull Out Of Paris Climate Agreement" (Guardian) "Should US Exit The Paris Climate Deal? Some Fossil-Fuel Firms Say No." (Christian Science Monitor) "As US, EU Step Back, Climate Talks Could Signal Geopolitical Shift" (Daily Climate)
News Article | May 3, 2017
"White House officials are leaning towards taking the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, people familiar with the deliberations say. While some in the Trump administration have warmed in recent days to the idea of staying in the non-binding pact while potentially changing the United States’ commitment, top officials are now leaning the other way, sources said Tuesday. Trump could announce as soon as next week his plans to pull out. The Huffington Post and New York Times reported on the developments earlier Tuesday." Timothy Cama reports for The Hill May 2, 2017. "In the Trump White House, the Momentum Has Turned Against The Paris Climate Agreement" (Washington Post) "White House Leaning Toward Exiting Paris Agreement By Next Week, Sources Say" (Huff Post) "German Minister To Try To Persuade U.S. To Remain In Climate Pact" (Reuters) "Debate Over Paris Climate Deal Could Turn on a Single Phrase" (New York Times) "Trump’s Lawyer Raises Concerns About Remaining In Paris Climate Accord, Sources Say" (Politico) "Should US Exit The Paris Climate Deal? Some Fossil-Fuel Firms Say No." (Christian Science Monitor) "Paris Agreement: Trump Says Other Nations Contribute 'Nothing.' He's Wrong" (ClimateWire) "Paris Climate Deal Backers Fear Trump Is Heading For The Exit" (Axios)
News Article | May 22, 2017
USR is represented by Quinn Emanuel, which has extensive experience with and has prevailed in patent cases against Apple. With about 800 attorneys on staff, Quinn Emmanuel is one of the world's most prominent law firms devoted to business litigation and patent infringement. This suit seeks unspecified damages, but details the scope of the infringement, claiming, "since 2014 Apple's backend servers and Visa's payment processing network VisaNet, including Visa Token Service, have supported and processed transactions made using Apple Pay, including billions of Apple Pay transactions made in the United States." According to the complaint, "Apple CEO Tim Cook stated at the iPhone 6 launch event in September 2014, '[p]ayments is a huge business. Every day between credit and debit we spend $12 billion. That's over $4 trillion a year and that's just in the United States. And this business is comprised of over 200 million transactions a day.'' "USR has set forth facts in the complaint which we believe will lead to discovery that will support claims of willful infringement against both Apple and Visa," Weiss said. If a jury finds that Apple and Visa's infringement were willful, up to triple damages could be awarded. In 2010, prior to the launch of Apple Pay in 2014, Weiss realizing the promise of USR's new patented technology approached the world's largest corporation, Apple Inc., and Visa Inc., the largest payment network in the United States, in attempt to partner with the companies to develop commercial implementation of the technology. Weiss reached out to both corporations with letters and meeting requests to discuss his cutting-edge technology. The lawsuit states, "during the meeting with Visa, USR made detailed presentations of the patented technology under protection of a non-disclosure agreement." After these attempts, no partnership was struck. However, according to the lawsuit "Apple and Visa began working together on Apple Pay at least as early as January 2013, and Visa dedicated approximately 1,000 people towards the development project with Apple." "It is not uncommon for large companies to be unresponsive to outside suggestions for innovation or improvements to their product or technology," said Weiss. "Occasionally, these companies infringe patents and force a patent owner to file a lawsuit as the only way to financially benefit from the technology he invented." Weiss pioneered the field of user-friendly methods to remotely authenticate personal identity for mission critical, high value computer systems and networks. According to the suit, he "realized the need existed for technology that would allow consumers to make payment-card transactions conveniently and with a high-degree of security." The complaint continues, "Weiss developed and patented superior technology using such devices to provide a mobile, efficient, and highly secure system for making payment-card transactions." USR holds a portfolio of Weiss's 13 seminal US patents plus additional patents pending and foreign patents authored by Weiss since 2000. The patents focus on software applications that secure and unimpeachable identity authentication can enable. These include payments, secure financial transactions, physical access and a substantially improved replacement for Weiss's original SecurID token. Weiss is an internationally recognized authority and spokesperson on the topics of computer security and identity authentication. He has authored more than thirty (30) U.S. patents and numerous foreign patents, has published more than 50 professional and peer reviewed articles, and has been a sought-after speaker globally including major network television and radio programs. He has been featured in major publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Fortune, Christian Science Monitor, and The Wall Street Journal. Weiss invented the SecurID token, and he was founder and CEO of Security Dynamics Technologies Inc., the company that is now Dell Inc. RSA division. More than 150 million people across the globe rely on computer security and identity authentication systems such as SecurID tokens invented, designed, and patented by Weiss, including more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies, and corporations, consumers, governments and banks in more than 30 countries, as well as all three branches of the United States government including the Defense Department, the Treasury Department, the Senate and the White House. About Universal Secure Registry LLC Universal Secure Registry™ LLC (USR) is an enabling-technology company. Integrating the convenience of a mobile phone with the security of a protected remote server, USR technology creates a secure system for transactions such as funds transfer and credit card purchases, and also has the added benefit of streamlining secure access to remote computers/networks, the cloud or physical facilities. Leveraging patented multi-factor identification authentication, USR's proprietary enabling identification technology designed for smartphone applications is available to third parties for licensing or purchase. USR is based in Newton, Massachusetts. https://universalsecureregistry.net/ SecurID, coined by Weiss, is a trademark of Dell Inc.'s RSA Security division. Universal Secure Registry and USR are trademarks of Universal Secure Registry, LLC. To view the original version on PR Newswire, visit:http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/universal-secure-registry-files-complaint-against-apple-inc-and-visa-inc-for-patent-infringement-300461319.html
News Article | May 24, 2017
File Photo: Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then-incoming White House national security adviser, speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace "2017 Passing the Baton" conference in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Russian intelligence and political officials discussed how to influence Donald Trump through his advisers according to information gathered by American spies last summer, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, Citing three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence, the newspaper said the conversations focused on Paul Manafort, then the Trump presidential campaign chairman, and Michael Flynn, a retired general who was then advising Trump. U.S. congressional committees and a special counsel named by the Justice Department this month are investigating whether there was Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia. The controversy has engulfed Trump's young administration since he fired FBI Director James Comey two weeks ago amid the agency's investigation of possible Russia ties. Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations and Trump denies any collusion. The New York Times report was the latest indication of the depth of concerns within the U.S. intelligence community about Russian efforts to tip November's election toward Trump as he battled Democrat Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, former CIA Director John Brennan told lawmakers he had noticed contacts between associates of Trump's campaign and Russia during the campaign and grew concerned Moscow had sought to lure Americans down "a treasonous path." According to the Times, some Russians boasted about how well they knew Flynn, who was subsequently named Trump's national security adviser before being dismissed less than a month after the Republican took office. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Manafort, who was dismissed from Trump's campaign, the newspaper reported. The intelligence was among the clues, including information about direct communications between Trump’s advisers and Russian officials, U.S. officials received last year as they began looking into Russian attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of Trump’s associates were assisting Moscow, the newspaper said. Separately, ABC News reported that Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign, would testify on June 6 before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. ABC News said Page himself told it about the scheduled testimony. Page was not immediately available to comment. A spokesman for the committee declined to confirm or deny whether Page would testify before the committee or, if he did so, whether he would appear in public. On Wednesday morning, the top Democrat on the committee said it would subpoena Flynn in its probe into alleged Russian meddling in the presidential election after he declined to appear before the panel. Watch news, TV and more Yahoo View, available on iOS and Android. "We will be following up with subpoenas, and those subpoenas will be designed to maximize our chance of getting the information that we need," Representative Adam Schiff told journalists at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. The leaders of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said on Tuesday they would subpoena two of Flynn's businesses after he declined to hand over documents in its separate Russia probe. Flynn, a retired general, is a key witness in the Russia investigations because of his ties to Moscow. He was fired from his position at the White House in February, after less than a month on the job, for failing to disclose the content of talks with Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, and misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations. On Tuesday, Brennan, the former CIA director, testified to the House intelligence panel that he had noticed enough contact between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign to justify an investigation by the FBI. Brennan’s confirmation of contacts between Russian officials and members of Trump's team, increased the pressure on investigators to determine whether the Trump camp colluded with the Russians. Schiff said the House panel had invited its first group of witnesses to testify, it is obtaining documents, and assessing who will cooperate voluntarily, and who will have to be subpoenaed.
News Article | May 25, 2017
File Photo: Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then-incoming White House national security adviser, speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace "2017 Passing the Baton" conference in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Russian intelligence and political officials discussed how to influence Donald Trump through his advisers according to information gathered by American spies last summer, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, Citing three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence, the newspaper said the conversations focused on Paul Manafort, then the Trump presidential campaign chairman, and Michael Flynn, a retired general who was then advising Trump. U.S. congressional committees and a special counsel named by the Justice Department this month are investigating whether there was Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the possibility of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia. The controversy has engulfed Trump's young administration since he fired FBI Director James Comey two weeks ago amid the agency's investigation of possible Russia ties. Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations and Trump denies any collusion. The New York Times report was the latest indication of the depth of concerns within the U.S. intelligence community about Russian efforts to tip November's election toward Trump as he battled Democrat Hillary Clinton. On May 18, Reuters reported that Flynn and other advisers to Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, citing current and former U.S. officials. On Tuesday, former CIA Director John Brennan told lawmakers he had noticed contacts between associates of Trump's campaign and Russia during the campaign and grew concerned Moscow had sought to lure Americans down "a treasonous path." In its report, the New York Times said some Russians boasted about how well they knew Flynn, who was subsequently named Trump's national security adviser before being dismissed less than a month after the Republican took office. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Manafort, who was dismissed from Trump's campaign, the newspaper reported. Separately, Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign, told Reuters via text message that he would testify before the House Intelligence Committee but was "still working out details." "Nothing (is) fully confirmed at this stage," Page wrote, adding that if invited, he would also testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, but had yet to receive such a request. ABC News, which first reported on Page's planned testimony, said he would testify before the House panel on June 6. A spokesman for the committee declined comment on whether Page would testify. In a letter to the panel seen by Reuters, Page accused Brennan of offering a "biased viewpoint" in Tuesday's testimony. On Wednesday morning, the top Democrat on the committee said it would subpoena Flynn in its probe into alleged Russian meddling in the presidential election after he declined to appear before the panel. "We will be following up with subpoenas, and those subpoenas will be designed to maximize our chance of getting the information that we need," Representative Adam Schiff told journalists at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. The leaders of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said on Tuesday they would subpoena two of Flynn's businesses after he declined to hand over documents in its separate Russia probe. Flynn, a retired general, is a key witness in the Russia investigations because of his ties to Moscow. He was fired from his position at the White House in February, after less than a month on the job, for failing to disclose the content of talks with Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, and misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
News Article | February 21, 2017
A combination photograph shows the beginning (top L) to the end (top L to bottom R) of a total solar eclipse as seen from the beach of Ternate island, Indonesia, on March 9, 2016. —Do you want to be a filmmaking star? Or at least make a film of a star? The University of California needs your help. As the clock ticks closer to this summer’s total solar eclipse, UC Berkeley and Google are partnering to carry out what they're calling the Eclipse Megamovie Project. By combining footage from over 1,000 cameras in the path of the eclipse, they hope to create a 90-minute “megamovie” that captures the phenomenon in a way no human being could alone. When the moon passes directly between the Earth and the sun on August 21, the center of its shadow will trace out a diagonal trail from Oregon to South Carolina. Observers located at the exact center of this “path of totality” may be able to see the total eclipse for as long as 2 minutes and 40 seconds as the shadow flies over the ground at up to 1,500 miles per hour. The Eclipse Megamovie Project hopes to choose and train over 1,000 volunteers to record as much of the eclipse as they are able, after which the terabytes of video data will be stitched together to generate a complete, high-resolution record of the eclipse as viewed from the ground. “We want everyone to know about the natural wonder, scientific importance and social impact of viewing a live total solar eclipse,” Laura Peticolas, a physicist who oversees the educational component of the Eclipse Megamovie Project, said in a press release. “It is truly a transformative, life-changing experience and we want to prepare people for that.” The Eclipse Megamovie Project will also release an app this summer that will let anyone contribute to the effort with their smartphone. This footage will be used to create a second, lower resolution video. While compiling the videos themselves is exciting, the team hopes to use them to answer some scientific questions, too. Of particular interest is the corona, the wispy filaments of plasma extending far beyond the solar surface. Generally hidden against the brilliance of the sun, the corona can normally be studied using a device called a coronagraph, which physically blocks out the sun’s disk. It turns out the moon makes a great natural coronagraph. Another point of interest is what’s called “Baily’s Beads,” little twinkles that appear around the rim of the moon as the sun shines through craters and gets blocked by peaks. Cellphone footage of these bright and dark spots can help astronomers map lunar features. The team will be putting the crowdsourcing system through its paces this week during an annular eclipse in Patagonia, and those who miss their chance to participate this summer may have a second shot during the next US total solar eclipse in April 2024. The Eclipse Megamovie Project is the latest in the recent trend of using so-called “citizen astronomers,” astronomy enthusiasts with little or no formal training who help the professionals sift through their data. Modern instruments often collect far more data than scientists can handle, and when it comes to many kinds of analysis, current computer programs still can’t beat good old-fashioned eyes and human attention. NASA recently invited citizen astronomers to help comb through images of nearby interstellar space to search for dim objects, such as an undiscovered planet or dwarf star, that might trick their computer software. “There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.” For any discoveries that lead to published work, the citizen astronomer will share credit, a point that can complicate the emerging field of collaboration between the public and scientists, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last fall: Citizen scientists interested in contributing their time and their cameras to the study of our sun and moon during this summer's eclipse can sign up for updates on the Eclipse Megavideo Project’s website.
News Article | March 2, 2017
—Computer engineers have created some amazingly small devices, capable of storing entire libraries of music and movies in the palm of your hand. But geneticists say Mother Nature can do even better. DNA, where all of biology's information is stored, is incredibly dense. The whole genome of an organism fits into a cell that is invisible to the naked eye. That's why computer scientists are turning to molecular biology to design the next best way to store humanity's ever-increasing collection of digital data. With every new app, selfie, blog post, or cat video, the hardware to store the world's vast archive of digital information is filling up. But, theoretically, DNA could store up to 455 exabytes per gram. In other words, you could have 44 billion copies of the extended versions of all three of The Lord of the Rings movies on the tip of your finger. (For reference, watching all those movies would take more than 164 million years.) George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first used DNA as storage for digital information in 2012, which he reported in a paper published in the journal Science. At the time, he revealed his success during an interview on the Colbert Report by showing Stephen Colbert a tiny piece of paper on which there was a small spot that contained millions of copies of Dr. Church's book, "Regenesis," in the form of DNA. Church and his colleagues were focused on proving that digital information could indeed be encoded in DNA at the time. But since then, teams of engineers and biologists have expanded on this proof-of-concept and worked to squeeze more and more data into DNA, eyeing the vast storage Church had predicted possible. A team at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, Britain, reported that they had made the largest DNA archive ever in 2013, putting 739 kilobytes worth of computer files into DNA strands. (Church's book had required about 650 kilobytes.) In July 2016, a team of Microsoft and University of Washington researchers announced that they had reset that record, storing 200 megabytes of data in DNA. Now, researchers at the New York Genome Center and Columbia University have ramped up the density of data stored in DNA molecules. They were able to reach a density of 214 petabytes per gram of DNA, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Science – which is over eight times as dense as previous work. "This is a huge leap forward," says Church, who was not involved in the new research. Although he had calculated that this high data density was possible in his own work, Church and his team hadn't actually made it work. "They've proven a hypothetical," he says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. From DVDs to DNA: How does it work? Digital data in its simplest form is just 0s and 1s, Yaniv Erlich, lead author of the new study, explains in a phone interview with the Monitor. Any file, be it a computer program or a movie, is made up of a series of 0s and 1s. Similarly, DNA has its own series of letters, A, C, G, and T. Those letters represent the nucleotides – adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine – that are the basic structural units of DNA. So to convert digital data to DNA, Dr. Erlich's team and others have essentially translated 0s and 1s into As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. Then, the resulting DNA sequence is sent to a company that prints synthetic DNA, in this case San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience. What they receive back is a vial about half the size of a thumb that looks like it just has a little liquid in it. But there's actually DNA in there. To access the data stored in it, the team sequences the DNA and translates it back into 0s and 1s. In this case, the researchers encoded and then retrieved a full computer operating system, an 1895 French film, "Arrival of a train at La Ciotat," a $50 Amazon gift card, a computer virus, a Pioneer plaque, and a 1948 study by information theorist Claude Shannon. As one of the tests of the data, Erlich used the computer operating system to play the game Minesweeper. The genetic material is not extracted from any animal or plant. "DNA is just a hardware here," Erlich writes in a follow-up email to the Monitor. "It is not related to anything that is living and is not even derived from anything that was alive before. The synthesis, copying, and sequencing process are purely chemical." Turning digital data into DNA may seem as simple as coming up with a code for 0s and 1s, and As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. But it's a bit more complicated than that. First of all, Erlich says, not all DNA sequences are robust. For example, a string of all the same nucleotides, say, AAAAAAAAAAAA, is particularly fragile and difficult to read correctly. But the same isn't true for computer code. In addition, not all DNA molecules will survive the sequencing and retrieval process. And the scientists can't risk losing key pieces of the code. To resolve these problems, Erlich used what is known in computing as a fountain code to act as sort of gatekeeper that provided clues to the code rather than the code itself. Because DNA Fountain, as he calls the algorithm, can provide an unlimited amount of clues, if a few get lost in the process they will still be able to decode the DNA sequence in the end. In addition to this method to make the translation more robust, Erlich wanted to see if the data-filled DNA could be replicated without error. The process of sequencing the DNA includes removing some molecules from the sample. So to preserve the data and be able to access it, scientists have to be able to make copies, Erlich explains. So he made 25 copies, and copies of the copies, and copies of the copies of the copies, and so on nine times. And even in the most copied copies, he says, "we were able to perfectly retrieve this information. It's very robust." Are we entering the age of DNA-computers? Despite these strides to move digital data from hard drives to DNA and back, don't expect your next computer or smartphone to contain DNA. "This is still the early stages of DNA storage. It's basic science," Erlich says. "It's not that tomorrow you're going to go to Best Buy and get your DNA hard drive. And we don't envision that this will be in some hard drive that people will buy." "I think the more immediate use is for archiving," Church says. The method lends itself to archiving vast amounts of data that doesn't need to be accessed regularly, like video surveillance, for example, he says. Besides density, one reason DNA data storage would be advantageous over, say, a massive warehouse full of hard drives, Erlich says, is that it doesn't need to be kept cool. Furthermore, DNA doesn't degrade like other data storage tools. Paleoanthropologists have sequenced DNA from Neanderthals and other ancient humans, so Erlich isn't concerned about the longevity of this sort of data storage. The Microsoft researchers see the applications of DNA data storage more broadly. "Any organization or individual who needs long-term archival storage of large amounts of data would benefit from a DNA storage option," write Karin Strauss of Microsoft and Luis Ceze of the University of Washington in an email to the Monitor. "For example, hospitals need to store clinical information for all their patients for a long time, research institutions have massive amounts of data from research projects that need to be preserved, and the emerging virtual reality industry needs high-capacity storage solutions for very large video files. In addition, consumers could benefit from DNA storage via the cloud, especially following the advent of highly portable video cameras and the demand to store personal video online." Currently, the cost and time required for this process is somewhat prohibitive for consumer applications. It cost $7,000 to synthesize the DNA Erlich developed and another $2,000 to read it. The synthesis process took two weeks and the sequencing took about a day. That's not to say that DNA data storage won't touch consumers' everyday life. Church's team has worked with Technicolor to use the new data storage method to preserve the company's many old films. During a media tour in 2016, Jean Bolot, vice-president for research and innovation at Technicolor, showed off a vial containing a million copies of the 1902 French silent film "A Trip to the Moon." He said, "This, we believe, is what the future of movie archiving will look like." [Editor's note: An earlier version of this article erroneously suggested that the Columbia University researchers broke the Microsoft/University of Washington 200-megabyte milestone. An earlier version of the headline of this mistakenly conflated molecular biology with microbiology.]
News Article | February 27, 2017
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disappears into clouds after it lifted off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Feb 9. —Two private citizens have booked a trip around the moon scheduled for 2018, according to a SpaceX announcement Monday afternoon. Yes, you read that right. The commercial spaceflight company that has yet to fly any crewed missions into space plans to send two non-astronauts beyond Earth's orbit next year. Is that really possible? "My guess is that 2020 is more realistic," Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. There's still a lot that has to be done before the space tourists can depart on their adventure. First, the equipment needs to be tested. According to SpaceX's announcement, the two space travelers will ride in the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft, or version 2 of its current Dragon capsule that carries supplies to the International Space Station. But the Crew Dragon isn't scheduled for an initial uncrewed test flight until later this year, with the goal of launching its first crewed test flight by mid-2018. And the rocket that Crew Dragon is supposed to fly atop, Falcon Heavy, hasn't been tested yet either. It's due for a test launch this summer. It's not impossible to shoot the SpaceX craft around the moon and back on that timeline, Dr. McDowell says, but one small delay could throw it all off. And there are always delays, he says. SpaceX has been criticized before for failing to leave room for such delays in its "punishing schedule," as Scott Pace, a former NASA official and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, put it in an interview with The New York Times in September 2016. This criticism came after one of SpaceX's semi-reusable rockets exploded during a routine test. Dr. Pace expressed concern that people working for the company might be run ragged by the demands, leading to human errors. That's a significant concern when talking about sending millions of dollars of equipment up to the International Space Station, but the stakes become much higher with humans, especially non-astronaut humans, on board. The lunar mission isn't the only major SpaceX mission set for 2018. The company aims to send an uncrewed spacecraft to Mars the same year as part of its long-term goal of colonizing the Red Planet. Having a circumlunar piloted flight by 2020 would be "an impressive achievement," McDowell says. That's not to say it won't happen, he says. "SpaceX has a great record of doing exactly what they say they're going to do but always several years later than they said they were going to do it. So I have full confidence that this will happen, but on 'Elon time'," McDowell says, referring to SpaceX's chief executive officer and founder Elon Musk. The passengers' trip would take about a week and they would travel about 300,000 to 400,000 miles, The Verge reported. The spacecraft would zoom by the surface of the moon, fly out farther into deep space, and then loop back to Earth. This would be the first time ever that space tourists fly beyond Earth's orbit, McDowell says. American businessman Dennis Tito, was the first private citizen to buy a ticket to the great unknown. On April 28, 2001, he flew aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. SpaceX isn't the only spaceflight organization considering a flight to the moon. NASA, too, has been considering a next generation rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), to send a capsule on a trip around the moon. Although the path would be similar, NASA's capsule would not contain people and the goal would be for it to fly in 2019. If SpaceX can meet the goal of sending a crewed capsule around the moon in 2018, beating NASA, McDowell points out, this could change the dialogue at the space agency from whether to build their own vessels or just to pay SpaceX for a ride.