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

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

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

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

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

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


Researchers identify the one gene that may be responsible for Zika birth defects

Chinese researchers reported that they have figured out why the Zika virus is causing a major upswing in cases of the severe birth defect microencephaly. In a paper published Thursday in Science, the researchers identified one single genetic change that one of the virus’s three structural proteins may have undergone in May 2013 with devastating consequences for expectant mothers and their children ever since.

Scientists discovered the Zika virus around 60 years ago in Africa, but until three years ago it was known to cause only minor, typically non-fatal fevers and rashes. The outlook on Zika changed in 2014, when doctors across the Americas reported never-before-seen increases in the numbers of infants born with microcephaly, the symptoms of which are shrunken skulls and majorly impaired brain function. The CDC stated conclusively in April 2016 that Zika was fueling the rise but could not explain how.

The Chinese researchers arrived at an answer when they compared an older strain of the virus from Cambodia with three modern strains in the Caribbean, Samoa, and Venezuela. When they injected the old strain into mice, three-quarters survived. But when they injected mice with the newer strains, none survived.

The researchers analyzed the new strains’ genomes and identified numerous genetic mutations that they incurred over time. One mutation, which switched an amino acid from serine to asparagine, occurred in May 2013 and coincided with the microencephaly outbreaks.

“The results of the paper are very intriguing and beautifully laid out,” says Pardis Sabeti, a Harvard computational biologist and accomplished virus hunter.  “Viruses continually mutate, and the more opportunities we give them to take hold in a population the more opportunities they have to change in ways with great consequences.”

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Undersea exploration sheds light on eighth continent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New procedure could one day repair embryo mutations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new study is published in the journal Science.


2011 tsunami brought new species to Pacific coast

Researchers from Williams College have found that the deadly tsunami in 2011 brought hundreds of aquatic Japanese species to the U.S. coastline, a new study published in the journal Science reports.

The foreign animals moved across the Pacific Ocean when a huge earthquake off the coast of north-eastern Japan caused a giant tsunami. That event displaced a wide number of species, including certain types of mussels and starfish. Scientists are surprised so many animals survived the long journey, and new species are still washing up this year.

“Many hundreds of thousands of individuals were transported and arrived in North America and the Hawaiian islands – most of those species were never before on our radar as being transported across the ocean on marine debris,” lead author James Carlton, a professor at Williams College, told BBC News.

So far, researchers have uncovered 289 foreign species. Mussels are the most common, but there are large numbers of crabs, clams, and sea anemones as well. In addition, the team believes there are many other animals that made the journey that have not been found yet. While none of the foreign animals have been established as invasive threats, scientists believe it is just a matter of time before that situation occurs.

Most tsunamis do not spur such large amounts of movement. However, the 2011 event is different because it washed away a large number of products that do not decompose, such as plastic and fiberglass. This gave many animals a way to stay afloat in the open water. In addition, as such objects tend to drift slowly, they also gave the species time to gradually adjust to their new environment.

This research is important because scientists are currently concerned with the amount of plastic in the oceans. As climate change continues to bring about extreme weather events, it is likely the number of invasive or foreign aquatic species will increase around the world.

“This is a really nice example of the very important role that long-distance dispersal in general, and rafting in particular, plays in structuring global patterns of biodiversity,” said Ceridwen Fraser, a marine biologist at Australian National University who was not involved with this research, according to The Washington Times.


Nonprofit looks after Chernobyl’s lost dogs

All the humans left Chernobyl following its infamous 1986 nuclear-reactor meltdown, but their dogs stayed behind. Large numbers of those lost pets’ descendants still roam the abandoned city and its environs. And the nonprofit Clean Futures Fund has set up shop in Chernobyl to give them as much care as the circumstances will allow.

The zone’s dogs often suffer from scarce food or water. They also become prey for wolves and other predators.
Clean Futures Fund is working to address these and other hazards. It is leading a five-year plan to spay and neuter the free-roaming dogs and is also operating food and water stations and a veterinary clinic for the resident dogs.
“I think there will always be a population of dogs in the area,” said Lucas Hixson, a radiation specialist and Clean Futures Fund co-founder. “But hopefully, we can get down to a manageable population where they can have a good quality of life.”

The nonprofit began its Chernobyl work earlier this summer. Ukrainian veterinarians and nonprofits are assisting it, along with volunteers from Ukraine, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Volunteers are prohibited from petting the dogs or taking them out of the zone, however, due to latent radiation in the dogs’ bodies and fur. The nonprofit’s teams are also testing the dogs to determine exactly how much radiation is in their systems. Ukrainian officials may allow for some dogs to be adopted outside the zone in the future if tests show that they are not too radioactive and will not pose a contamination risk to people.

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

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

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Bed bugs are attracted to dirty laundry, study reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business NONE SCI Science

Global crop surpluses threaten farmers’ incomes

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