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The UK Coronavirus Strain May Be Dominant in The US by March, CDC Says

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The fast-spreading “UK variant” of the coronavirus could become the predominant strain in the United States by March, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

 

About 76 cases of the new variant, known as B.1.1.7, have been detected in 10 US states so far, but its ability to spread more easily than other variants means it could take off rapidly here, according to a new computer model of the spread, detailed in a report Friday (Jan. 15) in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report



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NASA Says 2020 Was Basically The Hottest Year on Earth Since Records Began

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NASA announced Thursday that 2020 was likely the planet’s hottest year on record, edging out 2016 by one-tenth of a degree Celsius. The temperatures were close enough to fall within the scientists’ margin of error, so they considered it “a statistical tie.”

 

Average global temperatures in 2020 were 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than in the 30-year average between 1951 and 1980, NASA scientists found.

A second study of global warming conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that 2020 was actually the second-warmest year ever, behind 2016, perhaps due to the fact that NOAA researchers compared the annual temperature average to the 100-year average between 1901 and 2000.

Still, the data may help explain why the climate crisis surged to new heights in 2020, particularly in the US.

Scientists can’t say whether an individual storm or fire was directly caused by climate change, since many factors contribute to each event. But experts agree that as the planet warms, weather becomes more extreme.

“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a press release.

Extreme weather is linked to rising temperatures

It’s probably no coincidence that Earth’s hottest year (tied or not) was plagued by bizarre weather.

Bushfires raged through eastern Australia in January. In South America, the largest tropical wetland on Earth went up in flames. Typhoon Goni barreled into the Philippines with sustained winds of 195 mph (313 km/h), making it the strongest tropical cyclone landfall in history. A huge glacier broke off a Greenland ice shelf and drifted into the sea.

 

Research has shown that the changing climate is contributing to stronger hurricanes, more severe heat waves, larger and more destructive wildfires, and heavier rainfall that can cause flooding.

“Global warming won’t necessarily increase overall tropical storm formation, but when we do get a storm it’s more likely to become stronger,” Jim Kossin, an atmospheric scientist at NOAA, told The Guardian. “And it’s the strong ones that really matter.”

Some studies have linked the warming climate to the now-familiar arrival of the polar vortex at temperate latitudes. Rising temperatures could even be driving more severe thunderstorms and tornado outbreaks.

The US saw $US95 billion in climate disaster damages

No part of the US was spared a disaster last year.

Heat waves dried out the West and a polar vortex chilled the Northeast.

Wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and Rockies forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes in late summer. Four million acres burned in California – more than double the previous state record. Fires killed at least 31 people in California, nine in Oregon, and one in Washington.

 

Colorado, too, saw three of the four largest fires in state history. The region hadn’t seen fires of that scale in 1,000 years, journalist Eric Holthaus reported.

At the same time, more hurricanes howled along the Gulf and Southeast coasts than in any other year in recorded history. Lake Charles, Louisiana didn’t have time to recover from one cyclone before the next one hit. Hurricane Laura ripped up homes with 150 mph (240 km/h) winds. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta dumped more than 15 inches (38 cm) of rain.

The centre of the continental US, meanwhile, endured record storms, floods, and tornado swarms.

All told, the US had 22 weather and climate disasters in 2020 that cost the nation $US1 billion in damages or more – blowing by the previous annual record of 16 disasters in 2017.

The 22 billion-dollar disasters – seven linked to tropical cyclones, 13 to severe storms, one to drought, and one to wildfires – totaled $US95 billion in damages, according to NOAA.

No place to hide

Earth’s warming over time makes one thing increasingly clear: Soon, if not already, there will be no place to hide from the destructive consequences of humans’ climate-altering behaviour.

Extreme heat could make some regions across the central US, Middle East, and Australia almost unlivable in the summers. Scientists expect extreme storms and fires to get worse, too. All that could deal a severe blow to food production.

 

Some cities are also expected to run out of water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects severe reductions in water resources for 8 percent of the global population from 2021 to 2040.

The Amazon rainforest, the world’s coral reefs, and the Greenland ice sheet are all at risk of collapse. The Arctic is on track to lose more ice this century than at any point since the last Ice Age. By 2100, rising sea levels could swallow cities like New Orleans, Boston, Venice, Lagos, and Jakarta, driving waves of refugees inland.

“Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends,” Schmidt said. “With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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Critical Test of NASA’s Giant Moon Rocket Cut Short by ‘Major Component Failure’

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NASA’s mega-sized moon rocket encountered an engine issue during a critical test on Saturday, and the error could further delay the agency’s effort to send astronauts back to the moon.

 

The rocket, called Space Launch System (SLS), is designed to eventually stand 365 feet (111 meters) and ferry astronauts to the moon sometime in the mid- to late-2020s.

The system is an essential piece of a larger program called Artemis, a roughly $US30 billion effort to put boots back on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. NASA has spent about US$18 billion developing the rocket.

The SLS core stage – the system’s largest piece and its structural backbone – was assembled and heavily strapped down at Stennis Space Centre in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Saturday for a critical “hot fire” test.

For the first time, the rocket was ready to simultaneously fire its four powerful RS-25 engines as it would for launch.

The core stage is the world’s largest and most powerful rocket stage, according to NASA. It hosts five mains sections, including a 537,000-gallon (2 million-litre) tank for liquid hydrogen, a 196,000-gallon (742,000-litre) tank for liquid oxygen, four RS-25 engines, avionics computers, and other subsystems.

Boeing is the lead contractor for the stage, and Aerojet Rocketdyne is responsible for its RS-25 engines, which used to help propel NASA’s fleet of space shuttles.

 

The fuel tanks were filled with 733,000 gallons of cryogenically chilled propellant on Saturday, and the engines roared to life at about 5:27 pm EST.

“It was like an earthquake,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters in a press conference after the test.

“It was a magnificent moment. And it just brought joy that after all this time, now we’ve got a rocket. The only rocket on the face of the planet capable of taking humans to the moon was firing all four RS-25 engines at the same time.”

The engines were supposed to fire continuously for eight minutes. But about one minute into the test, the engine controller sent a command to the core-stage controller to shut them down.

60031b14e3d62500185fcf29Crews at Stennis Space Centre lift the core stage into place on Jan 22. (NASA)

Controllers had seen a flash next to the thermal-protection blanket covering engine four. Shortly afterward, that engine registered an MCF, or “major component failure”. It’s not yet clear what happened.

“At the time that they made the call we did still have four good engines up and running at 109 percent,” John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, said in the press conference.

The whole thing was captured on NASA’s live broadcast:

“The amount of progress that we’ve made here today is remarkable. And no, this is not a failure. This is a test. And we tested today in a way that is meaningful, where we’re going to learn and we’re going to make adjustments and we’re going to fly to the moon,” Bridenstine said.

The SLS team will spend the next few days poring over data from the test, assessing the core stage and the engines to figure out what happened and how to move forward.

 

NASA may need to re-do the hot fire test

Saturday’s hot fire was supposed to be the eighth and final step in NASA’s “Green Run,” a program designed to thoroughly test each part of the core stage ahead of SLS’s first launch, called Artemis 1 – an uncrewed test flight currently scheduled for November 2021.

But that timeline may be unrealistic now. If the hot fire went well, NASA was planning to ship the rocket to Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida in February. There, workers would stack all the segments of the two boosters required for sending Artemis 1 around the moon.

It’s unclear how long it will take NASA to correct the engine error and get the core stage to Florida now.

“It depends what the anomaly was and how challenging it’s going to be to fix it. And we’ve got a lot to learn to figure that out,” Bridenstine said.

“It very well could be that it’s something that’s easily fixable and we could feel confident going down to the Cape and staying on schedule. It’s also true that we could find a challenge that’s going to take more time.”

 

The agency may have to redo the hot fire test. The SLS team wanted to get to at least 250 seconds of the engines firing together to have high confidence in the vehicle. Saturday’s test lasted for just over 60 seconds.

It would take at least four or five days to prepare the Stennis Space Centre facilities for another test. If NASA needs to swap the current engines for new ones, workers can do it on-site at the Stennis Space Centre. Honeycutt estimated it would take about seven to 10 days to do that.

“This is why we test,” Bridenstine said. “Before we put American astronauts on American rockets, that’s when we need it to be perfect.”

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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Iceland Genetically Sequences Every COVID-19 Case in World-Leading Strategy

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Iceland has genetically sequenced all its positive COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, an increasingly vital practice as worrying new strains emerge from Britain and South Africa.

 

The World Health Organization on Friday urged all countries to ramp up genome sequencing to help combat the emerging variants.

Scientists at the Icelandic biopharma group deCODE Genetics’ laboratory in Reykjavik have worked relentlessly for the past 10 months, analysing each positive coronavirus test in Iceland at the request of the country’s health authorities.

The aim is to trace every case in order to prevent problematic ones from slipping through the net.

“It takes us relatively short time to do the actual sequencing,” explains the head of the lab, Olafur Thor Magnusson, adding that “about three hours” is all that is needed to determine the virus strain.

The entire process, from isolating the DNA to sequencing it, can take up to a day and a half, and has enabled Iceland to identify 463 separate variants – which scientists call haplotypes.

Prior to sequencing, the DNA of each sample is first isolated, then purified using magnetic beads.

The samples are then taken to a massive, bright room full of equipment, where a deafening sound emanates from small machines resembling scanners.

The machines are gene sequencers which map the novel coronavirus genome.

 

World leader

Inside each machine is a black box called a “flow cell”, a glass slide that contains the DNA molecules.

This technology has played a large role in Iceland since the start of the pandemic.

“The sequencing of samples is key to helping us follow the state and development of the epidemic,” Health Minister Svandis Svavarsdottir told AFP.

Authorities have used the sequencing information to decide on precise, targeted measures to curb the spread of the virus, she said.

While the South African variant has not been detected in Iceland, 41 people have been identified as carriers of the British variant.

All of them were stopped at the border – where PCR tests are conducted on travellers – effectively preventing the variant’s transmission on the subarctic island. 

DNA identification also made it possible to establish a clear link between visitors of a pub in central Reykjavik and the majority of infections in a new wave in mid-September – leading authorities to close bars and nightclubs in the capital.

Sequencing also identified a separate strain from two French tourists who tested positive on arrival in Iceland, and who were initially accused – mistakenly – of being the cause of the September surge.

 

All of the around 6,000 COVID-19 cases reported in Iceland have been sequenced, making it the world leader in COVID sequencing.

While several countries, such as Britain, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand, carry out high levels of sequencing, none of them come anywhere near Iceland’s levels, although global statistics are incomplete.

Child’s play

So why is Iceland so far ahead of the game?

Gene mapping is deCODE’s speciality.

Founded in 1996, the company has carried out the largest ever genetic study of a population.

For a 2015 study on cancer risk factors, it sequenced the entire genome of 2,500 Icelanders and studied the genetic profile of a third of the then-population of 330,000.

Compared to that, sequencing COVID-19 samples is child’s play.

“It’s very easy to sequence this viral genome: it’s only 30,000 nucleotides, it’s nothing,” quips Kari Stefansson, the 71-year-old founder and chief executive of the company.

By comparison, the human genome normally analysed in his labs consists of 3.4 billion pairs of nucleotides, or organic molecules, he adds.

While Iceland’s rigorous sequencing has been useful for tracking the spread of the virus, it has yet to lead to any major scientific discoveries for deCODE.

“If there are differences between viruses with the various pattern mutations, they aren’t very obvious. Not sufficiently obvious for us to pick it up,” says Stefansson.

© Agence France-Presse

 



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The Pandemic Has Made Dating Difficult, Even For a Rhinoceros

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A lonely rhinoceros at a Bangladesh zoo is looking for new love after losing her partner seven years ago, but pandemic travel restrictions are hampering her keeper’s attempts to play matchmaker.

 

Kanchi, a star attraction at the Bangladesh National Zoo, is at her most fertile age. But since the death of her male partner in 2014, she has been living on her own in her muddy pen in the northern suburb of the capital.

The malaise of Kanchi the rhino has become increasingly apparent to the two million-plus visitors a year at the Dhaka landmark. 

Kanchi refuses food and often snubs her carer Farid Mia, who hugs the rhino and scratches its neck and shoulders. 

The one-tonne vegetarian beast is served six kilograms (13 pounds) of rice bran and one kilo of chickpeas each day. 

“Her mood swings frequently. Sometimes she does not respond to my calls. It is mainly because she has grown up alone all these years,” Mia said. 

“I tell her that we will soon find her a male partner. But she is restless. She needs a partner desperately.” 

Abdul Latif, curator of the zoo, said the coronavirus pandemic had blocked recent efforts to bring in a male rhino from Africa.

“We know she feels lonely and we are trying our best to buy a suitable partner,” Latif told AFP. 

 

There has been more attention given to Kanchi, however, since the plight of Kaavan, the world’s loneliest elephant made international headlines in November. 

The Asian elephant, who had been alone since 2012, was moved from a zoo in Pakistan to a conservation park in Cambodia following an intervention from a global animal rights charity and singer Cher.

But the keepers in Dhaka do not want the same fate for Kanchi, who is now at her most fertile age. 

“A rhino can live up to 38 years in captivity. She has many more years to live here. So, it is our duty to find a partner,” said Latif. 

While she waits, Kanchi ambles around her pen and wallows in her mud spa. 

She also basks lazily in the sun, ignoring the multitudes who come to see the 3,000 animals at the zoo. 

“Her health is alright now, but I don’t know about the future,” said Mia. 

“She needs a partner badly and pretty soon.”

© Agence France-Presse

 



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Calculations Show It’ll Be Impossible to Control a Super-Intelligent AI

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The idea of artificial intelligence overthrowing humankind has been talked about for many decades, and scientists have just delivered their verdict on whether we’d be able to control a high-level computer super-intelligence. The answer? Almost definitely not.

 

The catch is that controlling a super-intelligence far beyond human comprehension would require a simulation of that super-intelligence which we can analyse. But if we’re unable to comprehend it, it’s impossible to create such a simulation.

Rules such as ’cause no harm to humans’ can’t be set if we don’t understand the kind of scenarios that an AI is going to come up with, suggest the authors of the new paper. Once a computer system is working on a level above the scope of our programmers, we can no longer set limits.

“A super-intelligence poses a fundamentally different problem than those typically studied under the banner of ‘robot ethics’,” write the researchers.

“This is because a superintelligence is multi-faceted, and therefore potentially capable of mobilising a diversity of resources in order to achieve objectives that are potentially incomprehensible to humans, let alone controllable.”

Part of the team’s reasoning comes from the halting problem put forward by Alan Turing in 1936. The problem centres on knowing whether or not a computer program will reach a conclusion and answer (so it halts), or simply loop forever trying to find one.

 

As Turing proved through some smart math, while we can know that for some specific programs, it’s logically impossible to find a way that will allow us to know that for every potential program that could ever be written. That brings us back to AI, which in a super-intelligent state could feasibly hold every possible computer program in its memory at once.

Any program written to stop AI harming humans and destroying the world, for example, may reach a conclusion (and halt) or not – it’s mathematically impossible for us to be absolutely sure either way, which means it’s not containable.

“In effect, this makes the containment algorithm unusable,” says computer scientist Iyad Rahwan, from the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany.

The alternative to teaching AI some ethics and telling it not to destroy the world – something which no algorithm can be absolutely certain of doing, the researchers say – is to limit the capabilities of the super-intelligence. It could be cut off from parts of the internet or from certain networks, for example.

The new study rejects this idea too, suggesting that it would limit the reach of the artificial intelligence – the argument goes that if we’re not going to use it to solve problems beyond the scope of humans, then why create it at all?

If we are going to push ahead with artificial intelligence, we might not even know when a super-intelligence beyond our control arrives, such is its incomprehensibility. That means we need to start asking some serious questions about the directions we’re going in.

“A super-intelligent machine that controls the world sounds like science fiction,” says computer scientist Manuel Cebrian, from the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development. “But there are already machines that perform certain important tasks independently without programmers fully understanding how they learned it.”

“The question therefore arises whether this could at some point become uncontrollable and dangerous for humanity.”

The research has been published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research.

 



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Most Microplastics in The Arctic Don’t Come From Trash

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Microplastics are everywhere. These tiny plastic fragments can be found throughout the oceans, infiltrating the animals within it, the food we eat, and even our children.

The proliferation extends from the highest peak in the world to the beginnings of life itself. Even the remoteness of Earth’s polar regions offers no shelter from the storm – and new research helps to explain just where this endless inundation of microplastic debris is coming from.

 

In a new study led by ocean pollution researcher Peter Ross from the Ocean Wise Conservation Association in Canada, scientists analysed the distribution of microplastics in the Arctic Ocean, sampling the contaminants in near-surface seawater at 71 sites across the European and North American Arctic, including the North Pole.

In addition to near-surface sampling – collecting microplastics at depths of 3 to 8 metres (10 to 26 ft) – the researchers also sampled at much lower depths in the Beaufort Sea to the north of Alaska and Canada, collecting microplastics at depths as low as 1,015 metres (3,330 ft) in the water column.

While it’s already known that microplastics have permeated the most remote reaches of the world, the mechanisms underlying their distribution and the scale of contamination remains unclear, the researchers say.

Here, the team used Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry to confirm an average Arctic-wide count of approximately 40 microplastic particles per cubic metre of ocean water, with the vast majority being microplastic fibres (92.3 percent), of which almost three-quarters (73.3 percent) were polyester.

But that’s not all.

“Particle abundance correlated with longitude, with almost three times more particles in the eastern Arctic compared to the west,” the researchers write in their paper, and in terms of the polyester pollutants, “an east-to-west shift in infra-red signatures [points] to a potential weathering of fibres away from source.”

 

In short, the researchers think that polyester fibres are delivered to the eastern Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean and possibly also via atmospheric transport from the south, breaking down into smaller pieces as they degrade and move to the west Arctic.

The culprit, the team suggests, is textile fibres in domestic wastewater, with polyester and synthetic fibres being shed from clothing when washed, before passing into waterways that transport the contaminants to the ocean.

According to the researchers’ estimates, a single apparel item can release millions of fibres during a typical domestic wash, and wastewater treatment plants can release over 20 billion microfibres annually.

“These estimates follow reports of large numbers of microfibres being shed by various textiles in home laundry, and a dominance of synthetic microfibres in municipal wastewater,” the authors explain.

“While further inventories will no doubt add to the source identification of Arctic MPs, we suggest that the combined, historical release of wastewater from Europe, the Americas and Asia, warrants additional scientific scrutiny.”

That’s putting it mildly. As Ross explains in a video from 2018, it’s imperative that we track where microplastic pollution is coming from, if we’re ever to have a chance of stopping this insidious threat.

“The more we look for microplastics in our environmental samples, the more we realise… we’re in a cloud of plastic dust,” Ross says. “Everywhere we look, we find microplastics… microplastics are everywhere.”

The findings are reported in Nature Communications.

 



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Sleep or The Brain? Scientists Think They’ve Found The Answer

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It’s not a question you might have thought about, but which came first: sleep or the brain? To put it another way, can organisms without brains go to sleep? Based on a study of primitive, water-dwelling life forms called Hydra vulgaris, scientists might finally have the answer.

 

New research shows how these tiny creatures can enter a sleep-like state despite not having brains – and that could teach us a lot about how animals evolved the need and capacity for sleep.

What’s more, the team behind the study found that the chemicals that bring on drowsiness in human beings had the same sort of effects on Hydra vulgaris, suggesting a biological link across the species, despite our vast differences.

“We now have strong evidence that animals must have acquired the need to sleep before acquiring a brain,” says biologist Taichi Itoh, from Kyushu University in Japan. “Based on our findings and previous reports regarding jellyfish, we can say that sleep evolution is independent of brain evolution.”

hydraHydra vulgaris. (Przemysław Malkowski/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The research mentioned on jellyfish is one of several previous studies that has found sleep-like behaviour in organisms without brains. However jellyfish, which have a more advanced arrangement of nerves than Hydra vulgaris, do seem to follow a circadian rhythm.

The team weren’t sure what they’d find in the simpler Hydra vulgaris specimens, which have nerves, but only in a primitive, decentralised organisation 

 

Using a video system to track movement – and a light flash system as an alarm clock – researchers observed the little creatures going into sleep cycles around every four hours on average. It seems they get worn out a bit quicker than we do.

Exposing the hydras to melatonin and the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA – both of which bring on sleep in many animals, including humans – got them ‘snoozing’ for longer. In contrast, exposure to dopamine, which usually wakes us up, actually increased sleep activity in the hydras.

These reactions give scientists more clues as to how sleep may have evolved in the animal kingdom, both before and after living organisms developed a brain. It’s not clear whether the disorganised network of nerves inside Hydra vulgaris is playing a role or not.

“While some sleep mechanisms appear to have been conserved, others may have switched function during evolution of the brain,” says Itoh.

Further experiments with vibrations and temperature changes disturbed the sleep of the hydras as you might expect – much as we might, after being disturbed they slept longer the next day, and sleep disruption even interfered with cell proliferation.

The expression of 212 genes were altered by this sleep disruption, including one called PRKG: a protein linked to sleep patterns in many animals, including mice and fruit flies. There’s a possibility that further study could reveal genes that we don’t yet know are connected to the sleep process, in a whole range of animals.

Our own brains have gone through more changes than you might think, and scientists are always making new discoveries about how the brain evolved – and the role it plays in telling our bodies when it’s time to sleep.

“Many questions still remain regarding how sleep emerged in animals, but hydras provide an easy-to-handle creature for further investigating the detailed mechanisms producing sleep in brainless animals to help possibly one day answer these questions,” says Itoh.

The research has been published in Science Advances.

 



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Scientists Engineer New ‘Living Materials’ by Hacking The Basis of Kombucha

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Scientists have created new kinds of ‘living materials’ by tweaking the base ingredients of kombucha – the popular tea drink fermented with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (aka SCOBY).

 

This kind of ‘tea fungus’ – sometimes called ‘kombucha mother’ – can do a lot more than just produce sour-tasting beverages, it seems.

By modifying the mixture of the culture, researchers were able to make engineered living materials (ELMs) that could one day have all sorts of practical applications, such as sensing light or detecting contaminants.

Better still, the scientists say these living materials can easily be made at home, much like tending a sourdough starter in your kitchen.

010 kombucha material 2(Imperial College London/MIT)

“Although we are still far from a future in which people can cheaply grow their own biological sensors, our new system moves us forward by creating materials that are scalable and therefore more likely to be useful in the real world,” says co-first author and synthetic biologist Charlie Gilbert from Imperial College London.

The roots of the current work trace back to 2014, when researchers at MIT engineered Escherichia coli cells to generate biofilms embedded with non-living structures such as gold nanowires.

While the innovation showed what ELMs were capable of, it did so at a microscopic scale, rendering the fabricated materials virtually useless for practical purposes.

 

The challenge was to do the same thing on a much larger scale, which led researchers eventually to experimentation with kombucha – or, rather, to the symbiotic culture that serves as its mother.

“We think this is a good system that is very cheap and very easy to make in very large quantities,” says co-first author and biological engineer Tzu-Chieh Tang from MIT.

“It’s at least a thousand times more material than the E.coli system.”

010 kombucha material 2(Tzu-Chieh Tang/Christoph Bader/Rachel Smith)

To create their ELMs, the researchers experimented with a strain of laboratory yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, combining it with the bacterium Komagataeibacter rhaeticus.

With lots of trial and error – involving finding the right ratio of yeast to bacteria, and experiments to perfect the density of the SCOBY mixture – the researchers eventually succeeded.

Within the engineered culture – called Syn-SCOBY – the bacteria produce large-scale amounts of cellulose, which acts as a scaffold structure, within which S. cerevisiae and its enzymes can perform various (programmed) functions, such as sensing chemicals in pollutants or pathogens, or making a protein that glows in the presence of blue light.

 

It’s early days, but this kind of system points to the future possibility of advanced, so-called ‘smart’ materials being locally made in the comfort of people’s homes, rather than requiring resource-intensive manufacturing in a factory far away.

“Pretty much everyone can do this in their kitchen or at home,” Tang says. “You don’t have to be an expert. You just need sugar, you need tea to provide the nutrients, and you need a piece of Syn-SCOBY mother.”

The findings are reported in Nature Materials.

 



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Herd Immunity Won’t Happen in 2021, WHO Warns

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Scientists at the World Health Organization warned Monday that mass vaccinations would not bring about herd immunity to the coronavirus this year, even as one leading producer boosted its production forecast.

 

England meanwhile launched the first of its mass-inoculation sites in major cities, racing to get ahead of the rapid spread of a new strain of the disease there.

The pandemic has infected more than 90 million people and the death toll has passed 1.94 million since China confirmed the first death in the central city of Wuhan a year ago.

China has largely brought the virus under control, but is tackling a number of local infections.

More than half a million people were placed under lockdown in Beijing on Monday as the government imposed strict measures to stamp out a handful of cases.

Infection numbers were, however, surging across Europe, particularly as Britain coped with a new strain of the disease that could see hospitals being overwhelmed.

Russia on Sunday confirmed its first case of the new UK coronavirus strain, which scientists fear is significantly more contagious.

The virus has also exploded across the United States, the hardest-hit country, where US President-elect Joe Biden publicly received his second dose of the vaccine.

‘Worst weeks’ to come

German company BioNTech said it could produce millions more doses of its coronavirus doses than originally expected this year, boosting production forecast from 1.3 to two billion.

The announcement by BioNTech, which partnered with US firm Pfizer to produce the first vaccine approved in the West, was a boost to countries struggling to deliver the jabs.

 

But the company also warned that COVID-19 would “likely become an endemic disease”, and said vaccines would need to fight against the emergence of new viral variants and a “naturally waning immune response”.

Later Monday, the WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan warned it would take time to produce and administer enough vaccine doses to halt the spread of the virus.

“We are not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021,” she said, stressing the need to maintain physical distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing to rein in the pandemic.

Britain, the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, opened seven mass vaccination sites across England on Monday.

But England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty told BBC television: “The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS (National Health Service).”

“What we need to do, before the vaccines have had their effect… is we need to really double down” on observing lockdown measures, he added.

India – with the world’s second-biggest virus caseload – will begin giving shots to its 1.3 billion people from Saturday in a colossal and complex undertaking.

Russian officials said Monday they would trial a one-dose version of the country’s Sputnik V vaccine, part of efforts to provide a stopgap solution for badly hit countries.

 

Safest city

South Africa meanwhile shut land borders for a month to counter an unprecedented resurge in cases fuelled by a new virus strain.

Restrictions already in place, such as a ban on alcohol sales and large gatherings, and an overnight curfew, remain.

Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa said Monday a new lockdown was unavoidable as the country suffered record numbers of virus deaths and infections.

“We are certainly facing a third wave” of the virus, Costa told journalists.

Lebanon tightened its virus restrictions with an 11-day total lockdown and fresh travel restrictions.

A team of 10 scientists from the WHO were preparing for a mission to China on Thursday to investigate the origins of the disease.

It will “conduct joint research cooperation on the origins of COVID-19 with Chinese scientists”, Beijing’s National Health Commission said in a statement that provided no further details.

The visit, comes more than a year after the pandemic began amid accusations that Beijing tried to thwart the investigation into the virus.

The United States and Australia have led international calls for an independent inquiry, enraging China.

The anniversary of the first reported death passed by unmarked on Monday in Wuhan, where commuters moved freely to work, and parks and riverside promenades buzzed with visitors.

“Wuhan is the safest city in China now, even the whole world,” 66-year-old resident Xiong Liansheng told AFP.

© Agence France-Presse

 



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