First Planet Discovered Orbiting a Brown Dwarf (TechnologyReview.com)

This is really interesting. Using a different detection technique, astronomers aren’t required to search for planets and stars based on brightness alone. I’d expect to see dozens of new brown dwarf planets to be found in the near future due to this discovery.

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Astronomers have long supposed that planets can form around brown dwarfs just as they do around ordinary stars. Now they’ve found the first example.

Astrophysical calculations show that any star that is smaller than about 1/10th of the mass of the sun cannot sustain hydrogen fusion reactions at its core. These failed stars never light up. Instead they wander the galaxy as warm, dark balls of hydrogen known as brown dwarfs.

Brown dwarfs probably form through the same process that lead to ordinary stars but merely on a smaller scale. If that’s correct, planets should also form in the protoplanetary disks of gas and dust around brown dwarfs. Indeed, astronomers have seen a number of protoplanetary disks of this type.

Until now, however, they’ve never seen a planet orbiting a brown dwarf. That’s not really surprising.

The standard methods for detecting planets look for the way a star wobbles as a planet orbits or at how its magnitude changes as a planet passes in front. But given that brown dwarfs are dim and difficult to see, these methods have yet to produce fruit.

All that changes today with the announcement by an international team of astronomers that they’ve discovered a planet orbiting a brown dwarf the first time. These guys have made their discovery using an entirely different method of detection called gravitational lensing. This occurs when one body passes in front of another and its gravity focuses light from the more distant object towards Earth. That works regardless of the brightnesses involved.

The brown dwarf in question is almost 6000 light years from Earth in the Fish Hook constellation. Astronomers first noticed an unusual change in its brightness in April 2012. Further investigation showed that this was indeed a lensing event.

These guys conclude that the brown dwarf is being orbited by a planet about twice the mass of Jupiter at a distance of just under one astronomical unit. The brown dwarf itself is about 10 times larger than its companion.

That’s the first time astronomers have found an object orbiting a brown dwarf that can be truly described as a planet. The technical definition of a planet is that it must have formed in the parent object’s protoplanetary disk.

Astronomers have seen other planet-sized objects orbiting brown dwarfs but only at distances of several tens of astronomical units. That’s too far to have been part of the protoplanetary disk. “Thus,…,they are not bona fide planets,” say the team.

So that’s a modest first for this team. It raises the question of what kind of conditions exist on such a planet and, of course, whether these could support life.

This planet almost certainly does not fall into that category but where there is one planet, there are almost certainly others. Astronomers can now have some fun speculating on the Goldilocks zones around brown dwarfs where conditions are just right for life and how to spot the interesting planets inside them.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1307.6335 : Microlensing Discovery Of A Tight, Low Mass-Ratio Planetary-Mass Object Around An Old, Field Brown Dwarf

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Neil deGrasse Tyson + 13-Part Mini-Series = YES! (PopSci.com)

Every single time I see Neil deGrasse Tyson on The Daily Show or PBS or I stumble upon new vids of him on YouTube, I smile, I often laugh, and I learn a helluva lot. The man should be in charge of everything. The man is brilliant and I cannot wait to see him in this upcoming TV show. It sucks we have to wait until 2014 though.

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Check Out The First Trailer For Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ‘Cosmos’

Oh, man. Oh, man. (Please be amazing.)

It’s awesome on its own that Neil deGrasse Tyson is hosting a new mini-series. It’s doubly awesome that the astrophysicist/science educator/Jon Stewart-corrector is hosting the next generation of Carl Sagan’s beloved 13-part science series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Now the trailer for deGrasse Tyson’s (also 13-part) Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey just premiered at Comic-Con, and we can say: it looks pretty neat! There’s Sagan’s voice, then deGrasse Tyson takes over for him (SYMBOLISM), and there’s a levitating baby and a spaceship and some explosions and other stuff. Check it out!

Lost City of Atlantis Found? (PopSci.com)

This report is well over two years old, but it’s something that I never heard. Lucky for you, I stumbled upon it this morning. Why wasn’t this more prominent? (Or maybe I’ve just been living under a rock or something.) I did forward this link to a couple friends and none of them had heard of this report. So, yeah.

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Scientists Say They May Have Found Lost City of Atlantis Near Spain


Donaña National Park, Spain Scientists believe the lost city of Atlantis is buried in the mudflats of Spain’s Donaña National Park. Harres via Flickr.

All the news about devastating tsunamis is drawing greater attention to a new claim that researchers have found the lost city of Atlantis — buried in mud on the southern tip of Spain. Scientists say they have found proof of a 4,000-year-old civilization that was buried by a tsunami.

The research was unveiled Sunday in a new TV special.

This effort to find Atlantis began in 2004, when German physicist Rainer Kuhne identified some strange features on satellite photos. Swamps at the mouth of Spain’s Guadalquivir River, northwest of Cadiz, held strange geometric shadows that some thought resembled the remains of a ringed city.

To follow up on the findings, teams of researchers from three countries used ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity tomography, magnetometers and spectrometers to map the ground and sniff out evidence of human-built objects buried in the mud. They say they found a communal oven and evidence of canal systems buried in Spain’s Donaña National Park.Richard Freund, an archaeologist from Hartford University in Connecticut, said a tsunami flooded the ancient community, located 60 miles inland.

“This is the power of tsunamis,” he said,according to Reuters.

The team also found artifacts from farther north that suggest refugees may have settled a second city, where they built memorial artworks to commemorate the one they lost.

Other researchers criticized the results, however, including members of a Spanish team who have been studying the site since 2005.

Archaeologists have been looking for Atlantis since Plato first described it about 2,600 years ago in one of his late dialogues. He said the city was located near the “pillars of Hercules,” which classical scholars say is the Strait of Gibraltar. (The mudflats are just north of the strait.) Plato said Atlantis “in a single day and night… disappeared into the depths of the sea.”

Previous attempts to find it have looked on the ocean floor; on various Mediterranean and Aegean islands; the Bermuda Triangle; Bolivia; and even Antarctica. Historians have said Atlantis was inspired by the 1600 BCE volcanic explosion at Santorini, one of the largest in recorded history. Others maintain it’s simply a myth.

The Spanish team said they will present their own findings later this year.

iKnife is Capable of Sniffing Cancer During Surgery (Gizmag.com)

Gizmag.com has posted an article about a truly groundbreaking new surgical knife capable of sniffing tissue and determining if it’s cancer or benign. This breakthrough is amazing and offers a ridiculous amount of potential in other fields.

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The iKnife has been used in tests in 91 operations, where it showed 100 percent accuracy when compared to conventional tests.

Dr. Zoltan Takats of the Imperial College London has developed one very sharp knife – and we’re not referring to its keen edge. The Intelligent Knife (iKnife) is equipped with a nose and a brain that can sniff out cancer as it cuts. Using a mass spectrometer to detect chemical profiles associated with tumors, it enables instant identification of cancerous tissue and helps surgeons to make sure that all of a tumor has been removed.

Cancer is obviously something you want to catch early and get rid of completely at the first opportunity. Removing tumors is the simplest and often the least harmful way, but surgeons need to ensure they’ve removed all of the cancerous tissue to prevent the disease from reestablishing itself.

Unfortunately, cancerous tissue isn’t always obvious by sight and laboratory tests are needed. During an operation, this means leaving the patient waiting under anesthetic while the tests are run. Even then, the results aren’t always reliable. According to Imperial College, one in five breast cancer patients must undergo surgery a second time.

The iKnife uses electrosurgery; a common technique developed in the 1920s designed to reduce bleeding in particularly bloody operations, such as liver resectioning. The knife is subjected to an electric current, which heats tissue so fast and at such a temperature that the knife cuts through and cauterizes the tissue to prevent bleeding. Not surprisingly, this produces a cloud of unpleasant smoke, which is sucked away.

However, this cloud also contains all sorts of useful information about the tissue being burned through, so Takats hit on the idea of hooking an electrosurgical knife to a mass spectrometer, which would analyze the smoke and produce a profile of the chemicals that make it up. Some of these chemicals or their combinations are indicative of cancerous tissue.

Once the prototype iKnife was constructed, the next step was to teach it what to look for. This involved using the device to burn tissue samples collected from 302 surgery patients and building up a library of profiles of thousands of cancerous and noncancerous tissues from various organs of the body. As the iKnife cuts through tissue, it matches what it “smells” against this library and alerts the surgeon as to what it finds in about three seconds. This is a considerable improvement over the half hour needed for conventional laboratory tests.

The iKnife has been used in tests in 91 operations, where it showed 100 percent accuracy when compared to conventional tests. According to Imperial College, the next step will be clinical trials where the surgeons will be allowed to see the results in real time instead of after the operation, as was the case in the tests.

“These results provide compelling evidence that the iKnife can be applied in a wide range of cancer surgery procedures,” Dr Takats says. “It provides a result almost instantly, allowing surgeons to carry out procedures with a level of accuracy that hasn’t been possible before. We believe it has the potential to reduce tumor recurrence rates and enable more patients to survive.”

Takats sees the iKnife as having broader applications beyond cancer surgery. Mass spectrometry is a rather general tool and Takat says that it could be used to identify tissues with inadequate blood supply, the presence of certain bacteria, and might even be of use to the local butcher in telling beef from horsemeat.

The results of the iKnife project were published in Science Translational Medicine.

The video below introduces the iKnife.

Antimatter Particles Detected Erupting From Solar Flares (PopSci.com)

It no longer requires a science fiction movie to see antimatter. Here’s a photo from NASA showing antimatter particles streaming away from the sun back in May of this year.

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2013 Solar Flare

2013 Solar Flare This image shows a mid-size solar flare that peaked May 3, 2013. It’s been colorized teal. NASA/SDO/AIA

In the surge of energy of solar flares, physicists have now detected antimatter particles streaming away from the sun.

Researchers already knew that the reactions that fuel the sun create antimatter particles called positrons, among other particles. However, this is the first time the sun’s positrons have been detected in this way, according to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The lead scientist in the discovery, Gregory Fleishman, is a professor at the institute.

Fleishman and his colleagues’ new measurements could help scientists better understand solar flares and the basic structure of matter. The techniques they worked out could also make it easier for other scientists to detect positrons coming from other objects in space. In a summary of their research, Fleishman and his colleagues sounded optimistic, saying that their discovery could soon make it routine to detect positrons in solar flares, which are brief, bright eruptions of energy on the sun’s surface. (Large solar flares may cause radio blackouts on Earth.)

Positrons are the antimatter counterparts to electrons. They have the same mass as electrons, but have a positive, instead of a negative, charge. They also emit microwave radiation of the opposite polarization as electrons do. So Fleishman and his colleagues used data from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and the Nobeyama Radioheliograph in Japan to find instances of polarized radiation that matched positrons.

They’re presenting their work this week at a meeting hosted by the American Astronomical Society.

Original PopSci Article

Paraffin-Dipped Brain Cut Into 7,400 Slices Offers Highest Resolution 3-D Brain Imagery Ever (TechnologyReview.com)

(That’ll teach me to edit posts after 2:00 AM. Brain. Brain. Not Brian. *sigh*)

This is intense. Scientists have completed a 3-D image of an entire human brain in breathtaking detail using over 7,400 micro-slices of tissue. I wonder how long it took for them to reassemble all of those slices? That waxy-brain-feeding-tray machine is a bit creepy.

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Human Brain

Scientists have imaged the anatomy of an entire human brain at unprecedented resolution.

A new resource will allow scientists to explore the anatomy of a single brain in three dimensions at far greater detail than before, a possibility its creators hope will guide the quest to map brain activity in humans. The resource, dubbed the BigBrain, was created as part of the European Human Brain Project and is freely available online for scientists to use.

The researchers behind the BigBrain, led by Katrin Amunts at the Research Centre Jülich and the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany, imaged the brain of a healthy deceased 65-year-old woman using MRI and then embedded the brain in paraffin wax and cut it into 7,400 slices, each just 20 micrometers thick. Each slice was mounted on a slide and digitally imaged using a flatbed scanner.

Alan Evans, a professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and senior author of a paper that reports the results in the journal Science, says his team then took on “the technical challenge of trying to stitch together 7,500 sheets of Saran wrap” into a three-dimensional object using digital image processing. Many slices had small rips, tears, and distortions, so the team manually edited the images to fix major signs of damage and then used an automated program for minor fixes. Guided by previously taken MRI images and relationships between neighboring sections, they then aligned the sections to create a continuous 3-D object representing about a terabyte of data.

Evans says that existing three-dimensional atlases of human brain anatomy are usually limited by the resolution of MRI images—about a millimeter. The BigBrain atlas, in contrast, makes it possible to zoom in to about 20 micrometers in each dimension. That’s not enough to analyze individual brain cells, but it makes it possible to distinguish how layers of cells are organized in the brain.

Joshua Sanes, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, says the project represents one step toward realizing neuroscientists’ aspiration of looking at the human brain “with the sort of cellular resolution [with which] we can look at mouse or fly brains.” But while the atlas is a technical achievement that gives an unprecedented view of an entire brain’s anatomy, it can’t answer questions about brain activity or function, or about the connections between brain cells. The atlas also represents only a single brain, so it doesn’t capture variability between brains.

But Evans says it can be an important resource for future research. One of the larger goals of several brain initiatives worldwide—including the European project and the nascent BRAIN Initiative in the U.S. (see “The Brain Activity Map”)—is to integrate different kinds of data about brain structure and function, he says, and to create computational models of the brain to study processes such as childhood development or neurological diseases. Evans says such work depends on having a clear picture of the brain’s anatomy as a reference, and the BigBrain can serve as a platform on which other information can be mapped. “It’s the mother ship,” he says.

The researchers plan to lead studies integrating the BigBrain with other kinds of data, examining questions such as how genes are expressed and how neurotransmitters are distributed across the brain. They hope to repeat this work in other brains to start to look at how their structures vary.

Original TechnologyReview.com Article

10 Sciencey Stats on the Man of Steel (ScientificAmerican.com)

Since the movie launches today, why not add even more nerdiness to the superhero movie? In the “overthinking it” section of Scientific American, Kyle Hill has listed 10 “sciency stats” about Superman. Did you know that Batman BEAT Superman? Read on to find out more!

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10 Sciencey Stats on the Man of Steel

Credit: Warner Bros. Online Press Kit

A new iteration of Superman—the Man of Steel—zooms into theaters today looking to reboot the series for the latest generation (with Kryptonian latex, apparently). Superman is neither human nor bound by the laws of science, but there are still some fascinating facts to read up on before accepting this born-again hero.

1. Superman is basically a solar panel with red and blue tights.

Superman is able to man-handle puny Earthlings and smash through buildings for two reasons. First, his home planet of Krypton had much more mass than Earth, making the surface gravity of the planet much higher. His muscles are overqualified for 1G. Living on Earth after growing up under the stress of intense gravity would be like you moving to the Moon (you’d finally be able to dunk).

The other reason Superman is so, well, super, is that his cells basically photosynthesize. He doesn’t use the yellow Sun of the Earth precisely like a plant, but more like a photovoltaic cell. In such a cell, the Sun’s rays hit semiconductors made of some material like silicon and their interaction releases electrons. These flowing electrons create electricity. It’s not exactly spelled out how Superman’s cells use the Sun’s energy, but his costume kind of looks like a solar panel, so we’ll go with that.

2. Superman doesn’t understand how time works.

Famously, at the end of Superman II, Superman (fantastically played by Christopher Reeve) is so distraught by the death of Lois Lane that he tries to turn back time. He does this by flying around the Earth at unimaginable speed. It’s a valiant effort that works in the movie, but has no basis in physics.

If you wanted to travel backwards in time, you’re out of luck. We have theories on how it might be possible to do so, but they all involve wormholes and black holes and other stuff that would probably kill you. If you want to travel forward in time, you just have to go really fast. If you go fast enough, according to Einstein, time will slow down for you. The faster you go, the slower you age. So if you did a Kessel run like Han Solo—a trip over many light-years in a few hours—you would only experience a few hours while the rest of the galaxy ages 40 years.

By flying really, really fast around the Earth, Superman will actually speed into the future, not the past. In fact, by the time he is done, he might return to find everyone he knew dead of old age.

3. Superman is a time traveler.

Before it blew up, Superman was sent to Earth from the planet Krypton—50 light years away. A little Kryptonian baby hurtling through space, Kal-El reached Earth in 1-3 years (the nerds disagree on the time). To travel such a long distance—300 trillion miles—in such a short time, the baby would have to warp the space-time continuum with his speed. Actually, such a speed, 25 times the speed of light, is physically impossible. But if the baby traveled for two years at nearly the speed of light—the universal speed limit—any remaining Kryptonians would be two years older while he only aged three months. Forward time travelers don’t get to make a lot of long-term friends.

4. Superman’s weakness was inspired by a real element.

Kryptonite, that glowing green rock from the core of Krypton, is one of Superman’s few Achilles’ heels. Time and again it is a plot device to make the hero human. In 1898, two British researchers discovered the element that would become the inspiration for this material.

William Ramsay and Morris Travers were looking for elements in the helium family when they stumbled upon krypton, a gas that doesn’t want to play with any other element. It’s too noble for that. The team later discovered other noble gases, and Ramsay won the 1904 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

When Superman was created in 1938, the authors Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster named the hero’s home planet after the previously discovered gas. (While an oxyanionof krypton could give scientists a reason to actually call something “kryptonite,” the gas is simply non-reactive with most other elements.)

5. It’s radiation that makes Superman weak.

The prevailing theory in geekdom is that kryptonite can kill Superman because it disrupts his solar panel-like energy absorption. Without energy from the Sun, he weakens and eventually dies. Though kryptonite is a fictional mineral, the way it interferes makes sense. Radioactive materials emit radiation in the form of particles and energy. This can be anything from whole helium nuclei to gamma rays. If gamma rays were emitted by kryptonite, they would ionize Superman’s cells. By knocking electrons and atoms around in his body, this process of ionization would wreak havoc and disrupt normal cell sun-gathering. Radiation sickness can be lethal, and it’s a form of it that reduces Superman to a defeated hero. (It’s also the reason why water bears should have saved the Enterprise instead of Captain Kirk.)

6. Superman didn’t destroy the Russian meteor earlier this year because it would have destroyed the city.

Quoting from an earlier piece that you can read right here on Scientific American:

Superman, who seemed to know a fair bit about reporting, used the International Space Station (ISS) to convince reporters during the conference that smashing the meteor with a super punch would be a terrible idea. “This meteor entered the atmosphere with 170 times more kinetic energy than the ISS has while orbiting the Earth,” he exclaimed. Superman continued, “thankfully, the atmosphere absorbed most of the meteor’s energy, with only the aftermath of the fireball doing damage to Chelyabinsk.”

The hero noted that only around 20% of the meteor’s energy went into shaking the city, still blowing out windows and crumbling buildings.

“If I released all of the meteor’s energy at once by destroying it, I would have made it much worse.”

You can read the rest of the totally not fake press conference that I had with Superman here.

7. Superman probably shaves with an angle grinder.

Everything about Superman is super, even his beard. Bill Nye has a theory on how Superman takes care of his tough-as-steel five o’clock shadow. (It’s product placement but it’s also good science. The Mythbusters have an answer too.)

8. Superman once gave Lex Luthor cognitive dissonance.

In the issue Superman #2 from 1987, Lex Luthor, Superman’s arch-nemesis, dumped resources into building a supercomputer able to deduce the hero’s identity. The machine worked like a dream and out the answer popped: “Clark Kent is Superman.” Done and done. But Luthor refused to believe it. The evil genius couldn’t easily resolve the cognitive dissonance in his head.

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is an internal tension between two beliefs a person holds. When it arises, we seek to alleviate that tension by compartmentalizing the beliefs or coming up with an explanation to deal with it. Lex simultaneously held the belief that Superman was Clark Kent and that he was too smart not to realize that obvious answer. To get rid of the dissonance, Lex made a logical fallacy that we can call “the argument from brilliance.” Lex believed himself too smart to miss an easy answer, therefore the answer had to be false. Superman’s true identity remains a secret, and Lex Luthor makes illogical arguments. The world is safe.

9. Batman would beat Superman.

First, because Batman. Second, because it happened. Third, Batman even faked his own death while doing it, because he’s Batman.

10. Nobody recognizes Superman because they all have face-blindness.

In a piece appearing in the science section of Slate today, I explain a neuropsychological answer to the age old question of why, simply by matching faces, no one realizes that Superman is Clark Kent. I have excerpted a section below:

The most powerful superhero of all time, Superman, has arguably the worst disguise of all time. A slight application of hair gel and some glasses turn theMan of Steel, the statuesque savior of humanity, into Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet. It’s a façade that a toddler should be able to see through, but no one does. Why not?

This bizarre failure of perception can only be attributed to Superman’s greatest and perhaps most scientifically astute superpower: He is able to surround himself with friends and co-workers who all suffer from prosopagnosia—face blindness.

Original Scientific American Article

Gamers See More Than Non-Gamers, Study Finds (T3.com)

If you’ve ever struggled to figure out an awesome comeback for a conversation in which gamers are being put down, new research proves that gamers tend to process more information better than non-gamers. Yay us!

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Gamers see more than non-gamers, study finds

Battlefield 4 review

Hours of gaming improves data input and decision making, claim researchers from Duke University

A study has found that people who spend hours playing games are better at taking in information quickly and processing what they see than those that don’t. Previous research has shown that gamers often have better dexterity and are more precise in their hand movements.

Other studies have also found that gamers tend to be better at reacting to stimuli, but this is the first time research has proven a link between playing games and recall.

The study was conducted by Duke University researchers.

“Gamers see the world differently,” said Greg Appelbaum, an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Duke School of Medicine. “They are able to extract more information from a visual scene.”

The study looked at 125 college students, a mix of intensive gamers and non-gamers.

According to ScienceDaily, each student was put through a visual sensory memory task. This flashed a circular arrangement of eight letters for just one-tenth of a second.

After a delay ranging from 13-milliseconds to 2.5 seconds, an arrow appeared pointing to where one of the letters had been.

Participants were asked to identify which letter had been in that spot.

At every time interval, intensive gamers of action video games outperformed those who don’t play games.

The study said that playing action games required gamers to be able to make split second decisions of whether the character in front of them is an enemy or friend.

It said that gamers make “probabilistic inferences” about whether to shoot or not, what direction they are running in and so on, as quickly as they can.

According to Appelbaum, the more someone plays games, the better they get at doing this. “They need less information to arrive at a probabilistic conclusion, and they do it faster.”

However, the gamers as well as the non-gamers suffered from rapid decay in memory of what letters had been seen on the screen. He said that this suggests gamers don’t have better memories than non-gamers; rather they appear to start off with more information to start off with.

According to Appelbaum, the researchers hypothesised that the increased performance could be down to three things. Either they see better, they retain visual memory longer or they’ve improved their decision-making.

He said that based on the rate of memory decay, it is extremely unlikely to be due to improved memory. However, he can’t say for certain whether the improved response is a result of a combination of the two other factors, or just one.

Appelbaum said that the university will be continuing with the study to find out.

Original T3 Article

Supreme Court: “Natural” Human Genes May Not Be Patented (TechnologyReview.com)

I haven’t been a massive fan of the Supreme Court over the past few years (companies = people, unlimited donations to politicians, etc.), but I think this is a really important ruling. Just look at Monsanto and how they and their competition have almost completely taken over all agriculture in the US. Can you imagine one of the big biotech firms owning rights on the human body? Yikes. Unfortunately, the ruling only covers natural DNA, not synthetically produced DNA.

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The Supreme Court gave a mixed ruling on the issue of human gene patents on Thursday, deciding that while DNA found naturally cannot be patented, synthetically produced DNA can.

The ruling means that companies will no longer be able to patent a sequence that exactly matches a sequence found in nature. Such sequences have been patented by companies that use them to determine someone’s risk of developing a certain disease. The patent holders have then been able to charge others to use that sequence as part of a medical test.

The court’s decision specifically relates to the question of whether one such company, Myriad Genetics, could patent the sequences of two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that are related to the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Recently, actress Angelina Jolie announced that she underwent a preventive double mastectomy after learning she carried risk mutations in BRCA1. Myriad had held exclusive rights to determine whether a woman carried certain genetic variants in these genes that would predispose her to those cancers. It charged some $3,000 for the test.

The court’s decision says that Myriad does not have an exclusive right to test for these variants because they are naturally occurring. However, it also says that if a researcher or lab technician isolates a non-natural version of the gene in question—something known as complementary DNA, or cDNA—that person or company does have the exclusive rights to that sequence.

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring,” the court ruled. The decision could help clarify the best claim strategies for companies developing diagnostic tests (see “Questions over Gene Patents Shake Diagnostics Industry”).

In drawing this line between naturally occurring DNA and cDNA, the court was trying to encourage innovation within the industry as well as products derived from nature, says Barbara Rudolph, an expert on biotechnology intellectual property, who is a partner with the law firm Finnegan. “The court noted this balance in the patent system between creating incentives that lead to new invention and impeding access to information that would spur invention,” she says.

The distinction lies in the details of molecular biology and the way a gene is prepped to become the recipe for creating a protein. In genomic DNA, genes exist as a mixture of components called exons, which encode the information for making a protein, and noncoding sequences, known as introns. To make a protein, cellular machinery first transcribes a gene—exons, introns, and all—into an intermediary molecule. Cellular machinery then cuts out the introns from that intermediate, creating a mature messenger RNA or mRNA. In a cell, that mRNA would be used as a recipe for making a protein. Scientists can isolate that mRNA and use an enzyme to convert it into DNA, which is called complementary DNA or cDNA. That molecule and its nucleotide sequence, the court writes, does not exist in nature, so they are patentable.

In fact, cDNA does exist naturally. Retroviruses such as HIV convert their RNA-based genomes into cDNA before they integrate into a host genome. They do this using the same naturally occurring enzyme that scientists and technicians use to convert an mRNA template into a cDNA.

Although there are other ways of synthesizing DNA, the court’s decision emphases that patent eligibility lies in the sequence of that DNA and whether or not it matches a natural DNA sequence. However, “the extent of difference that you are going to need is not clear,” says Rudolph.

The impact of this decision on molecular diagnostics companies remains to be seen, but Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at the Stanford School of Medicine, says the decision won’t matter much to the genetics and biotech world. “There are thousands of patented genes used in genetic tests, but generally they are licensed on an open basis for a very low fee,” he says. “Myriad is the only company that has used strategies to get people upset.”

Even Myriad may not suffer too much from the decision. It will still have a competitive advantage because it has been building up its database of BRCA mutations for 15 years, Greely says: “Myriad is the best position to figure out what variants mean.”

The real impact of the decision may also be hard to know because technologies have moved beyond the methods patented by Myriad and because the decision focused on a DNA sequence, which is not going to be the focus of every diagnostic test claim. “Every patent claim is different,” Rudolph says.

Original Technology Review Article

Quantum ATM Aims to Make Us All Rich (CNET.com)

I’ve long been a supporter of volunteering, donating money, and “putting your money where your mouth is” on causes I believe in. Given I’m part of the 99%, I could see myself wishing the Quantum ATM becomes reality in my lifetime. Not that it will. 🙂

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Science-meets-art installation looks to put real cash into a quantum superposition so it can proliferate into billions of accounts, fixing the global economy with quantum cash.

(The green uranium-glass core of the ATM is surrounded by a cylinder inscribed with 7 billion boxes, representing the world’s “quantum accounts.”)

If you’ve spent much time looking into the peculiar world of quantum physics and the notion of a so-called quantum superposition that theoretically allows a particle to be everywhere at once, you’ve surely thought of some ways that being able to manipulate such properties could be pretty awesome.

In my case, it’s the strongest evidence I’ve found since turning 12 that the Santa Claus I grew up hearing about could actually exist.

But experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats is setting out to put quantum physics to a much more practical use, no matter how impractical the world of finance may find it.

“The problem with the economy is that it’s Newtonian,” Keats tells Crave in an e-mail. “Over the past century, physicists have learned that the universe is quantum. It’s about time that money started following the same laws as everything else in the cosmos.”

Next week, Keats will oversee the installation of a quantum ATM in the basement of 20 Rockefeller Center in New York City. He says the self-contained bank will be the first of its kind with the ability to make money quantum and without an observed location, theoretically allowing it to proliferate almost infinitely. Make a deposit in the quantum ATM, and suddenly it’s everywhere at once, he explains.

Here’s the more detailed explanation of how the device will work:

Anybody will be able to deposit any sum of money at the Quantum Bank. While the deposit is being processed, a uranium-glass sphere will emit an alpha particle into a custom-built cylinder inscribed with seven billion microscopic boxes, each uniquely identified with a single account.Were this process being monitored, the quantum particle would be observed to pass through only one of the seven billion boxes, crediting the deposit to a single account. However the entire quantum ATM is sheathed in metal, prevented any measurement from taking place. The superpositioned alpha particle will enter all seven billion boxes, crediting all seven billion accounts.

Supported by this quantum bookkeeping technique, the cash itself will effectively be in a superposition.

Keats says the quantum bank has enough accounts to serve everyone on the planet, and anyone can sign up for free and start collecting and withdrawing “quantum banknotes” after a dollar or other real-world currency equivalent is deposited. The notes can then be used wherever they’re accepted.

Of course, the problem is that we’ve yet to hear of anyplace that will accept quantum cash, but I suspect that’s not really the point, anyway.

For a more detailed explanation, and to find out if quantum notes could one day be a better investment than bitcoins, join me for a conversation with Keats in a Google+ Hangout on Air Monday, June 10, at 7:30 a.m. Pacific/10:30 am Eastern. You can also watch the live stream via YouTube.

The Quantum ATM is set to be installed and put into service the following day, on Tuesday, June 11.

Original CNET Article

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