Earth may be crashing through dark matter walls

Earth is constantly crashing through huge walls of dark matter, and we already have the tools to detect them. That's the conclusion of physicists who say the universe may be filled with a patchwork quilt of force fields created shortly after the big bang.

Observations of how mass clumps in space suggest that about 86 per cent of all matter is invisible dark matter, which interacts with ordinary matter mainly through gravity. The most popular theory is that dark matter is made of weakly interacting massive particles.

WIMPs should also interact with ordinary matter via the weak nuclear force, and their presence should have slight but measurable effects. However, years of searches for WIMPs have been coming up empty.

"So far nothing is found, and I feel like it's time to broaden the scope of our search," says Maxim Pospelov of the University of Victoria in Canada. "What we propose is to look for some other signatures."

Bubbly cosmos

Pospelov and colleagues have been examining a theory that at least some of the universe's dark matter is tied up in structures called domain walls, akin to the boundaries between tightly packed bubbles. The idea is that the hot early universe was full of an exotic force field that varied randomly. As the universe expanded and cooled, the field froze, leaving a patchwork of domains, each with its own distinct value for the field.

Having different fields sit next to each other requires energy to be stored within the domain walls. Mass and energy are interchangeable, so on a large scale a network of domain walls can look like concentrations of mass – that is, like dark matter, says Pospelov.

If the grid of domain walls is packed tightly enough – say, if the width of the domains is several hundred times the distance between Earth and the sun – Earth should pass through a domain wall once every few years. "As a human, you wouldn't feel a thing," says Pospelov. "You will go through the wall without noticing." But magnetometers – devices that, as the name suggests, measure magnetic fields – could detect the walls, say Pospelov and colleagues in a new study. Although the field inside a domain would not affect a magnetometer, the device would sense the change when Earth passes through a domain wall.

Dark matter walls have not been detected yet because anyone using a single magnetometer would find the readings swamped by noise, Pospelov says. "You'd never be able to say if it's because the Earth went through a bizarre magnetic field or if a grad student dropped their iPhone or something," he says.

Network needed

Finding the walls will require a network of at least five detectors spread around the world, Pospelov suggests. Colleagues in Poland and California have already built one magnetometer each and have shown that they are sensitive enough for the scheme to work.

Domain walls wouldn't account for all the dark matter in the universe, but they could explain why finding particles of the stuff has been such a challenge, says Pospelov.

If domain walls are found, the news might come as a relief to physicists still waiting for WIMPs to show up. Earlier this month, for instance, a team working with a detector in Russia that has been running for more than 24 years announced that they have yet to see any sign of these dark matter candidates.

Douglas Finkbeiner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who was not involved in Pospelov's study, isn't yet convinced that dark matter walls exist. But he is glad that physicists are keeping an open mind about alternatives to WIMPs.

"We've looked for WIMP dark matter in so many ways," he says. "At some point you have to ask, are we totally on the wrong track?"

Journal reference: Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.110.021803

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Obama blames "terrorists" for Algeria hostage deaths

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama said on Saturday that blame for deaths stemming from a hostage crisis in Algeria lay with the "terrorists" who had earlier taken foreigners captive at a remote gas plant.

The remarks were the president's first direct comments about the protracted hostage crisis. His statement was released several hours after Algerian troops stormed the gas plant to end a situation that had began four days earlier.

"Today, the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the families of all those who were killed and injured in the terrorist attack in Algeria," Obama said.

"The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms."

Obama said the attack by Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen at the In Amenas facility deep in the Sahara was a reminder of the threat posed by "Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups in North Africa."

The United States had been in constant contact with Algerian officials over the crisis, the president said.

"In the coming days, we will remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this," Obama added.

Twenty-one hostages died during the siege and 32 kidnappers were also killed, while special forces were able to free "685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners," according to Algeria's Interior Ministry.

Among the dead were an unknown number of foreigners -- including from Britain, France, Romania and the United States -- and many were still unaccounted for, including Japanese.

In Saturday's assault, "the Algerian army took out 11 terrorists, and the terrorist group killed seven foreign hostages," state television said, without giving a breakdown of their nationalities.

A security official who spoke to AFP as army helicopters overflew the plant gave the same death tolls, adding it was believed the foreigners were executed "in retaliation".

- AFP/de

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Obama says US ready to assist Algerian officials

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Saturday the U.S. stands ready to provide whatever assistance Algerian officials need in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attack at a natural gas complex in the Sahara.

The four-day standoff appeared to end Saturday after Algerian special forces stormed the complex. The clash left at least 23 hostages dead and killed all 32 militants involved, the Algerian government said.

In a statement from the White House, Obama said the blame lay with the militants and that the United States condemns their actions.

"This attack is another reminder of the threat posed by al-Qaida and other violent extremist groups in North Africa," Obama said. "In the coming days, we will remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future."

Earlier Saturday, during a news conference in London with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, British Defense Minister Philip Hammond called the loss of life appalling and unacceptable.

"It is the terrorists that bear the sole responsibility," Hammond told reporters.

Hammond didn't criticize Algeria's handling of the attack directly, but he appeared to reference the increased concern from world leaders about the lack of transparency in Algeria's anti-terror operation.

"Different countries have different approaches to dealing with these things," he said. "But the nature of collaboration in confronting a global threat is that we work with people sometimes who do things somewhat different, slightly differently from the way we do them ourselves."

Panetta said that "those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide."

"Just as we cannot accept terrorism attacks against our cities, we cannot accept attacks against our citizens and our interests abroad," he said.


Baldor reported from London.

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Attack at Algeria Gas Plant Heralds New Risks for Energy Development

The siege by Islamic militants at a remote Sahara desert natural gas plant in Algeria this week signaled heightened dangers in the region for international oil companies, at a time when they have been expanding operations in Africa as one of the world's last energy frontiers. (See related story: "Pictures: Four New Offshore Drilling Frontiers.")

As BP, Norway's Statoil, Italy's Eni, and other companies evacuated personnel from Algeria, it was not immediately clear how widely the peril would spread in the wake of the hostage-taking at the sprawling In Amenas gas complex near the Libyan border.

A map of disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.

Map by National Geographic

Algeria, the fourth-largest crude oil producer on the continent and a major exporter of natural gas and refined fuels, may not have been viewed as the most hospitable climate for foreign energy companies, but that was due to unfavorable financial terms, bureaucracy, and corruption. The energy facilities themselves appeared to be safe, with multiple layers of security provided both by the companies and by government forces, several experts said. (See related photos: "Oil States: Are They Stable? Why It Matters.")

"It is particularly striking not only because it hasn't happened before, but because it happened in Algeria, one of the stronger states in the region," says Hanan Amin-Salem, a senior manager at the industry consulting firm PFC Energy, who specializes in country risk. She noted that in the long civil war that gripped the country throughout the 1990s, there had never been an attack on Algeria's energy complex. But now, hazard has spread from weak surrounding states, as the assault on In Amenas was carried out in an apparent retaliation for a move by French forces against the Islamists who had taken over Timbuktu and other towns in neighboring Mali. (See related story: "Timbuktu Falls.")

"What you're really seeing is an intensification of the fundamental problem of weak states, and empowerment of heavily armed groups that are really well motivated and want to pursue a set of aims," said Amin-Salem. In PFC Energy's view, she says, risk has increased in Mauritania, Chad, and Niger—indeed, throughout Sahel, the belt that bisects North Africa, separating the Sahara in the north from the tropical forests further south.

On Thursday, the London-based corporate consulting firm Exclusive Analysis, which was recently acquired by the global consultancy IHS, sent an alert to clients warning that oil and gas facilities near the Libyan and Mauritanian borders and in Mauritania's Hodh Ech Chargui province were at "high risk" of attack by jihadis.

"A Hot Place to Drill"

The attack at In Amenas comes at a time of unprecedented growth for the oil industry in Africa. (See related gallery: "Pictures: The Year's Most Overlooked Energy Stories.") Forecasters expect that oil output throughout Africa will double by 2025, says Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director of the energy and sustainability program at the University of California, Davis, who has counted 20 rounds of bidding for new exploration at sites in Africa's six largest oil-producing states.

Oil and natural gas are a large part of the Algerian economy, accounting for 60 percent of government budget revenues, more than a third of GDP and more than 97 percent of its export earnings. But the nation's resources are seen as largely undeveloped, and Algeria has tried to attract new investment. Over the past year, the government has sought to reform the law to boost foreign companies' interests in their investments, although those efforts have foundered.

Technology has been one of the factors driving the opening up of Africa to deeper energy exploration. Offshore and deepwater drilling success in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil led to prospecting now under way offshore in Ghana, Mozambique, and elsewhere. (See related story: "New Oil—And a Huge Challenge—for Ghana.") Jaffe says the Houston-based company Anadarko Petroleum has sought to transfer its success in "subsalt seismic" exploration technology, surveying reserves hidden beneath the hard salt layer at the bottom of the sea, to the equally challenging seismic exploration beneath the sands of the Sahara in Algeria, where it now has three oil and gas operations.

Africa also is seen as one of the few remaining oil-rich regions of the world where foreign oil companies can obtain production-sharing agreements with governments, contracts that allow them a share of the revenue from the barrels they produce, instead of more limited service contracts for work performed.

"You now have the technology to tap the resources more effectively, and the fiscal terms are going to be more attractive than elsewhere—you put these things together and it's been a hot place to drill," says Jaffe, who doesn't see the energy industry's interest in Africa waning, despite the increased terrorism risk. "What I think will happen in some of these countries is that the companies are going to reveal new securities systems and procedures they have to keep workers safe," she says. "I don't think they will abandon these countries."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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Algeria Hostage Crisis Over, One American Dead

After the Algerian military's final assault on terrorists holding hostages at a gas complex, the four-day hostage crisis is over, but apparently with additional loss of life among the foreign hostages.

One American, Fred Buttaccio of Texas, has been confirmed dead by the U.S. State Department. Two more U.S. hostages remain unaccounted for, with growing concern among U.S. officials that they did not survive.

But another American, Mark Cobb of Corpus Christi, Texas is now confirmed as safe. Sources close to his family say Cobb, who is a senior manager of the facility, is safe and reportedly sent a text message " I'm alive."

Inside Algerian Hostage Crisis, One American Dead Watch Video

American Hostages Escape From Algeria Terrorists Watch Video

In a statement, President Obama said, "Today, the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the families of all those who were killed and injured in the terrorist attack in Algeria. The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms. ... This attack is another reminder of the threat posed by al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups in North Africa."

According to Algerian state media, 32 militants are dead and a total of 23 hostages perished during the four-day siege of the In Amenas facility in the Sahara. The Algerian Interior Ministry also says 107 foreign nationals who worked at the facility for BP and other firms were rescued or escaped from the al Qaeda-linked terrorists who took over the BP joint venture facility on Wednesday.

The Japanese government says it fears "very grave" news, with multiple casualties among the 10 Japanese citizens working at the In Amenas gas plant.

Five British nationals and one U.K. resident are either deceased or unaccounted for in the country, according to British Foreign Minister William Hague. Hague also said that the Algerians have reported that they are still trying to clear boobytraps from the site.

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NASA planet-hunter is injured and resting

Lisa Grossman, physical sciences reporter


(Image: NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope has put its search for alien Earths on hold while it rests a stressed reaction wheel.

The injured wheel normally helps to control the telescope's orientation, keeping it pointed continuously at the same patch of sky. Kepler stares at the thousands of stars in its field of view to watch for the telltale blinks that occur when a planet crosses in front of its star. It has found nearly 3000 potential planets outside our solar system since its launch in 2009, transforming the field of exoplanet research and raising hopes of someday finding alien life.

When it launched, Kepler had four reaction wheels: three to control its motion along each axis, and one spare. But last July, one wheel stopped turning. If the spacecraft loses a second wheel, the mission is over.

So when another wheel started showing signs of elevated friction on 7 January, the team decided to play it safe. After rotating the spacecraft failed to fix the problem, NASA announced yesterday that they're placing Kepler in safe mode for 10 days to give the wheel a chance to recover.

The hope is that the lubricating oil that helps the wheel's ball bearings run smoothly around a track will redistribute itself during the rest period.

The telescope can't take any science data while in safe mode. But if the wheel recovers on its own, Kepler's extended mission will run until 2016, leaving it plenty of time to make up for the lost days.

"Kepler is a statistical mission," says Charlie Sobeck, Kepler's deputy project manager at NASA's Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California. "In the long run, as long as we make the observations, it doesn't matter a lot when we make the observations."

Despite the high stakes, the team doesn't seem too worried.

"Each wheel has its own personality, and this particular wheel has been something of a free spirit," Sobeck says. "It's had elevated torques throughout the mission. This one is typical to what we've seen in the past, and if we had four good wheels we probably wouldn't have taken any action."

"I prefer to picture the spacecraft lounging at the shore of the cosmic ocean sipping a Mai Tai so that she'll be refreshed and rejuvenated for more discoveries," wrote Kepler co-investigator Natalie Batalha in an email.

The team will check up on the wheel on 27 January and return to doing science as soon as possible.

There are two exoplanet missions currently being considered for after Kepler is finished, says Doug Hudgins at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. One, TESS (Terrestrial Exoplanet Survey Satellite), would scan the entire sky for planets transiting the stars nearest to the sun. The other, FINESSE (Fast Infrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer), would take spectra of planets as they passed in front of their stars as a way to probe their atmospheres.

The missions are being evaluated now, and NASA will probably select one this spring, Hudgins says. The winner will launch in 2017.

If Kepler goes down with its reaction wheel, that won't affect which mission wins, he adds. "That's a straight-up competition based on the merits of the two concept study reports."

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Boeing suspends 787 Dreamliner deliveries

NEW YORK: US aerospace giant Boeing said late Friday it had suspended deliveries of its new 787 Dreamliner jet until a battery problem is resolved, but continues to build the plane.

"We will not deliver 787s until the FAA approves a means of compliance with their recent Airworthiness Directive concerning batteries and the approved approach has been implemented," a Boeing spokesman said in an email.

"Production of 787s continues," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday ordered the grounding of US-operated 787s to address the battery problem after a damaged battery on an All Nippon Airways 787 forced an emergency landing.

The risk of fire from overheating power packs has emerged as a major concern for Boeing's cutting-edge new planes since the incident on the domestic flight in Japan, prompting airlines around the world to ground all 50 of the 787s in service.

- AFP/de

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Government again delays proposed 'fracking' rule

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Interior Department is again delaying a proposed rule that would require companies drilling for oil and natural gas on federal lands to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations.

The Obama administration first proposed a "fracking" rule last May, with a final rule expected by the end of the year. Officials later revised the timeline to early 2013. On Friday, the department pushed the deadline back again, announcing plans for a second draft version by the end of March, with publication of a final rule not expected until late 2013.

Interior Department spokesman Blake Androff said the administration is committed to responsible expansion of domestic oil and gas production, but said it is important that the public have confidence that proper environmental protections are in place.

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Hunting for Quail Eggs? Mind Your Steps

Female Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) lay their eggs on the ground where they can make tempting meals for rodents, snakes, and deer. But as new research published in the journal Current Biology shows, these mothers choose areas on the ground that best match their eggs' patterns.

Quail eggs have a pale yellow or beige background, but their appearance varies because of the amount of darker splotching—meaning there is no one-size-fits-all area for egg laying. Instead, researchers suggest that female quail "know" what their own eggs look like and will lay their eggs where they will be best camouflaged.

The birds seem to use two types of camouflage, said the study's lead author P. George Lovell, of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland—background matching and disruptive coloration.

Background matching is just what it sounds like; the pattern of an object to be camouflaged matches the pattern of its background, as when a peppered moth disappears on a tree branch.

Disruptive coloration, seen in zebras, works by visually breaking up the edges of the object being camouflaged. This "makes the outline harder to find because the contrasting edges may be mistaken for parts of the background," said Lovell. (Related: "Fish Mimics Mimic Octopus That Mimics Fish.")

The quail seem to use both techniques. Lovell and his collaborators offered the birds four different colors of sandy surfaces on which to lay their eggs. Birds whose eggs had more splotching tended to lay their eggs on the background that matched the splotches—employing disruptive camouflage.

However, birds whose eggs had smaller amounts of markings tended to choose surfaces that matched the background color of their eggs, perhaps because the lack of splotching on the edges of the egg would make disruptive camouflage difficult.

"Quail aren't any more clever than any other species," said Lovell, and all species make decisions as they try to successfully reproduce. "What we have found here is how finely scaled these decisions might be." (See pictures of cuttlefish that can mimic photos.)

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One American Confirmed Dead in Algeria

U.S. officials told ABC News that at least one American has been killed in the hostage standoff at an Algerian gas plant, and the family of the deceased American has been notified.

An al Qaeda-linked group called the Masked Brigade and led by the one-eyed jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar raided the BP joint venture facility in In Amenas on Wednesday, taking an undetermined number of hostages from more than half a dozen nations, including at least two Americans.

On Friday, the group demanded the release of two convicted terrorists held in U.S. prisons, including the "blind sheikh" who helped plan the first attack on New York's World Trade Center, in exchange for the freedom of two American hostages, according to an African news service.

The terror group reportedly contacted a Mauritanian news service with the offer. In addition to the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, they demanded the release of Aifia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist who shot at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008.

Asked about the unconfirmed report of a proposed swap, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said firmly, "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists." She repeated the statement again when questioned further. She also said she was not prepared to get into any details about the status of Americans in "an ongoing hostage situation."

At least three Americans were being held hostage by the militants when the Algerian military mounted a rescue operation at the facility Thursday that reportedly resulted in casualties.

Five other Americans who were at the facility when it was attacked by the terrorists are now safe and believed to have left the country, according to U.S. officials.

Algeria Hostage Situation: Military Operation Mounted Watch Video

Reports that dozens of hostages were killed during the Algerian military's attempt to retake the compound have not been confirmed, though Algeria's information minister has confirmed that there were casualties. It's known by U.S. and foreign officials that multiple British, Japanese and Norwegian hostages were killed.

According to an unconfirmed report by an African news outlet, the militants said seven hostages survived the attack, including two Americans, one Briton, three Belgians and a Japanese national. U.S. officials monitoring the case had no information indicating any Americans have been injured or killed, but said the situation is fluid and casualties cannot be ruled out.

On Friday, a U.S. military plane evacuated between 10 and 20 people in need of medical attention, none of them American, from In Amenas and took them to an American medical facility in Europe. A second U.S. plane is preparing to evacuate additional passengers in need of medical attention.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament today that the terror attack "appears to have been a large, well coordinated and heavily armed assault and it is probable that it had been pre-planned."

"The terrorist group is believed to have been operating under Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a criminal terrorist and smuggler who has been operating in Mali and in the region for a number of years," said Cameron.

Cameron said Algerian security forces are still in action at the facility. On Thursday, he said that the situation was "very bad … A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already, we know of one who has died. ... I think we should be prepared for the possibility for further bad news, very difficult news in this extremely difficult situation."

The kidnappers had earlier released a statement saying there are "more than 40 crusaders" held "including 7 Americans."

U.S. officials had previously confirmed to ABC News that there were at least three Americans held hostage at the natural gas facility jointly owned by BP, the Algerian national oil company and a Norwegian firm at In Amenas, Algeria.

"I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation," said Panetta. "I don't think there's any question that [this was] a terrorist act and that the terrorists have affiliation with al Qaeda."

He said the precise motivation of the kidnappers was unknown.

"They are terrorists, and they will do terrorist acts," he said.

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Matching names to genes: the end of genetic privacy?

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Are we being too free with our genetic information? What if you started receiving targeted ads for Prozac for the depression risk revealed by your publicly accessible genome? As increasing amounts of genetic information is placed online, many researchers believe that guaranteeing donors' privacy has become an impossible task.

The first major genetic data collection began in 2002 with the International HapMap Project – a collaborative effort to sequence genomes from families around the world. Its aim was to develop a public resource that will help researchers find genes associated with human disease and drug response.

While its consent form assured participants that their data would remain confidential, it had the foresight to mention that with future scientific advances, a deliberate attempt to match a genome with its donor might succeed. "The risk was felt to be very remote," says Laura Lyman Rodriguez of the US government's National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

Their fears proved to be founded: in a paper published in Science this week, a team led by Yaniv Erlich of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used publicly available genetic information and an algorithm they developed to identify some of the people who donated their DNA to HapMap's successor, the 1000 Genomes Project.

Anonymity not guaranteed

Erlich says the research was inspired by a New Scientist article in which a 15-year-old boy successfully used unique genetic markers called short tandem repeats (STRs) on his Y chromosome to track down his father, who was an anonymous sperm donor. Erlich and his team used a similar approach.

First they turned to open-access genealogy databases, which attempt to link male relatives using matching surnames and similar STRs. The team chose a few surnames from these sources, such as "Venter",and then searched for the associated STRs in the 1000 Genomes Project's collection of whole genomes. This allowed them to identify which complete genomes were likely to be from people named Venter.

Although the 1000 Genome Project's database, which at last count had 1092 genomes, does not contain surname data, it does contain demographic data such as the ages and locations of its donors. By searching online phonebooks for people named Venter and narrowing those down to the geographic regions and ages represented in the whole genomes, the researchers were able to find the specific person who had donated his data.

In total, the researchers identified 50 individuals who had donated whole genomes. Some of these were female, whose identity was given away because of having the same location and age as a known donor's wife.

Matter of time

Before publishing their findings, the team warned the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other institutions involved in the project about the vulnerability in their data. Rodriguez says that they had been anticipating that someone would identify donors, "although we didn't know how or when".

To prevent Erlich's method from being used successfully again, age data has been removed from the project's website. Erlich says that this makes it difficult, although not impossible, to narrow the surnames down to an individual.

"The genie's out of the bottle," says Jeffrey Kahn of Florida State University in Tallahassee. "It's a harbinger of a changing paradigm of privacy." A cultural zeitgeist led by companies such as Facebook has led to more information sharing than anyone would have thought possible back in 2002 when HapMap first began, he says.

Recurring problem

This is not the first time genome confidentiality has been compromised. When James Watson made his genome public in 2007, he blanked out a gene related to Alzheimer's. But a group of researchers successfully inferred whether he carried the risky version of this gene by examining the DNA sequences on either side of the redacted gene.

While someone is bound to find another way to identify genetic donors, says Rodriguez, the NIH believes it would be wrong to remove all of their genome data from the public domain. She says that full accessibility is "very beneficial to science", but acknowledges that the project needs to strike a careful balance between confidentiality and open access.

It is especially pertinent, says Kahn, because genetic data does not just carry information from the person from whom it was taken. It can also reveal the genetic details of family members, some of whom might not want that information to be public. A relative's genome might reveal your own disease risk, for example, which you might not want to know or have an employer learn of. While laws prohibit health insurers and employers from discriminating against people based on their genetic data, it would not be difficult to give another reason for denying you a job.

An individual's relatives could not prevent that individual from learning about themselves, says Rodriguez, but researchers should encourage would-be genome donors to discuss the risks and benefits with their families.

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Euro gains despite US economic data; yen loses

NEW YORK: The US dollar slipped against the euro Thursday despite encouraging US data on housing and jobs, while the yen slumped to new multi-year lows on speculation of new easing.

The euro benefited from more positive remarks from regional leaders and solid results of a Spanish bond auction, analysts said.

"The Euro rallied to 1.3376 as the European Central Bank and European Union President Herman Van Rompuy stirred hopes of seeing the euro-area return to growth in 2013, but optimism surrounding the single currency may fail to materialize as the debt crisis continues to drag on the real economy," said David Song of DailyFX.

Also helping was strong investor enthusiasm at a US$4.5 billion Spanish bond auction, pushing the troubled government's borrowing costs lower.

At 2200 GMT the euro was at US$1.3375, compared to US$1.3286 late Wednesday.

The US dollar failed to get a boost from a strong fall in weekly jobless claims, a sign of the pace of layoffs, and a rebound in housing starts in December, showing sustained strength in the housing sector.

The yen meanwhile fell to a fresh 30 month low. The dollar topped the 90 yen level briefly before slipping back to 89.86 yen, compared to 88.37 a day earlier.

The euro rose to 120.20 yen, its best level since April 2011, up from 117.42 Wednesday.

David Gilmore of Foreign Exchange Analytics, said speculation was rising that the Bank of Japan could add to stimulus measures in its next policy meeting on January 21-22.

The British pound fell to US$1.5992 from US$1.6006, while the US dollar gained to 0.9322 Swiss francs from 0.9309 francs.

- AFP/jc

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Will Obama's order lead to surge in gun research?

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Nearly as many Americans die from guns as from car crashes each year. We know plenty about the second problem and far less about the first. A scarcity of research on how to prevent gun violence has left policymakers shooting in the dark as they craft gun control measures without much evidence of what works.

That could change with President Barack Obama's order Wednesday to ease research restrictions pushed through long ago by the gun lobby. The White House declared that a 1996 law banning use of money to "advocate or promote gun control" should not keep the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies from doing any work on the topic.

Obama can only do so much, though. Several experts say Congress will have to be on board before anything much changes, especially when it comes to spending money.

How severely have the restrictions affected the CDC?

Its website's A-to-Z list of health topics, which includes such obscure ones as Rift Valley fever, does not include guns or firearms. Searching the site for "guns" brings up dozens of reports on nail gun and BB gun injuries.

The restrictions have done damage "without a doubt" and the CDC has been "overly cautious" about interpreting them, said Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"The law is so vague it puts a virtual freeze on gun violence research," said a statement from Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's like censorship: When people don't know what's prohibited, they assume everything is prohibited."

Many have called for a public health approach to gun violence like the highway safety measures, product changes and driving laws that slashed deaths from car crashes decades ago even as the number of vehicles on the road rose.

"The answer wasn't taking away cars," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

However, while much is known about vehicles and victims in crashes, similar details are lacking about gun violence.

Some unknowns:

—How many people own firearms in various cities and what types.

—What states have the highest proportion of gun ownership.

—Whether gun ownership correlates with homicide rates in a city.

—How many guns used in homicides were bought legally.

—Where juveniles involved in gun fatalities got their weapons.

—What factors contribute to mass shootings like the Newtown, Conn., one that killed 26 people at a school.

"If an airplane crashed today with 20 children and 6 adults there would be a full-scale investigation of the causes and it would be linked to previous research," said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

"There's no such system that's comparable to that" for gun violence, he said.

One reason is changes pushed by the National Rifle Association and its allies in 1996, a few years after a major study showed that people who lived in homes with firearms were more likely to be homicide or suicide victims. A rule tacked onto appropriations for the Department of Health and Human Services barred use of funds for "the advocacy or promotion of gun control."

Also, at the gun group's urging, U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, led an effort to remove $2.6 million from the CDC's injury prevention center, which had led most of the research on guns. The money was later restored but earmarked for brain injury research.

"What the NRA did was basically terrorize the research community and terrorize the CDC," said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who headed the CDC's injury center at the time. "They went after the researchers, they went after institutions, they went after CDC in a very big way, and they went after me," he said. "They didn't want the data to be collected because they were threatened by what the data were showing."

Dickey, who is now retired, said Wednesday that his real concern was the researcher who led that gun ownership study, who Dickey described as being "in his own kingdom or fiefdom" and believing guns are bad.

He and Rosenberg said they have modified their views over time and now both agree that research is needed. They put out a joint statement Wednesday urging research that prevents firearm injuries while also protecting the rights "of legitimate gun owners."

"We ought to research the whole environment, both sides — what the benefits of having guns are and what are the benefits of not having guns," Dickey said. "We should study any part of this problem," including whether armed guards at schools would help, as the National Rifle Association has suggested.

Association officials did not respond to requests for comment. A statement Wednesday said the group "has led efforts to promote safety and responsible gun ownership" and that "attacking firearms" is not the answer. It said nothing about research.

The 1996 law "had a chilling effect. It basically brought the field of firearm-related research to a screeching halt," said Benjamin of the Public Health Association.

Webster said researchers like him had to "partition" themselves so whatever small money they received from the CDC was not used for anything that could be construed as gun policy. One example was a grant he received to evaluate a community-based program to reduce street gun violence in Baltimore, modeled after a successful program in Chicago called CeaseFire. He had to make sure the work included nothing that could be interpreted as gun control research, even though other privately funded research might.

Private funds from foundations have come nowhere near to filling the gap from lack of federal funding, Hargarten said. He and more than 100 other doctors and scientists recently sent Vice President Joe Biden a letter urging more research, saying the lack of it was compounding "the tragedy of gun violence."

Since 1973, the government has awarded 89 grants to study rabies, of which there were 65 cases; 212 grants for cholera, with 400 cases, yet only three grants for firearm injuries that topped 3 million, they wrote. The CDC spends just about $100,000 a year out of its multibillion-dollar budget on firearm-related research, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said.

"It's so out of proportion to the burden, however you measure it," said Dr. Matthew Miller, associate professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. As a result, "we don't know really simple things," such as whether tighter gun rules in New York will curb gun trafficking "or is some other pipeline going to open up" in another state, he said.

What now?

CDC officials refused to discuss the topic on the record — a possible sign of how gun shy of the issue the agency has been even after the president's order.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement that her agency is "committed to re-engaging gun violence research."

Others are more cautious. The Union of Concerned Scientists said the White House's view that the law does not ban gun research is helpful, but not enough to clarify the situation for scientists, and that congressional action is needed.

Dickey, the former congressman, agreed.

"Congress is supposed to do that. He's not supposed to do that," Dickey said of Obama's order. "The restrictions were placed there by Congress.

"What I was hoping for ... is 'let's do this together,'" Dickey said.


Follow Marilynn Marchione's coverage at

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Opinion: Lance One of Many Tour de France Cheaters

Editor's note: England-based writer and photographer Roff Smith rides around 10,000 miles a year through the lanes of Sussex and Kent and writes a cycling blog at:

And so, the television correspondent said to the former Tour de France champion, a man who had been lionised for years, feted as the greatest cyclist of his day, did you ever use drugs in the course of your career?

"Yes," came the reply. "Whenever it was necessary."

"And how often was that?" came the follow-up question.

"Almost all the time!"

This is not a leak of a transcript from Oprah Winfrey's much anticipated tell-all with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, but instead was lifted from a decades-old interview with Fausto Coppi, the great Italian road cycling champion of the 1940s and 1950s.

To this day, though, Coppi is lauded as one of the gods of cycling, an icon of a distant and mythical golden age in the sport.

So is five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961-64) who famously remarked that it was impossible "to ride the Tour on mineral water."

"You would have to be an imbecile or a crook to imagine that a professional cyclist who races for 235 days a year can hold the pace without stimulants," Anquetil said.

And then there's British cycling champion Tommy Simpson, who died of heart failure while trying to race up Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, a victim of heat, stress, and a heady cocktail of amphetamines.

All are heroes today. If their performance-enhancing peccadillos are not forgotten, they have at least been glossed over in the popular imagination.

As the latest chapter of the sorry Lance Armstrong saga unfolds, it is worth looking at the history of cheating in the Tour de France to get a sense of perspective. This is not an attempt at rationalisation or justification for what Lance did. Far from it.

But the simple, unpalatable fact is that cheating, drugs, and dirty tricks have been part and parcel of the Tour de France nearly from its inception in 1903.

Cheating was so rife in the 1904 event that Henri Desgrange, the founder and organiser of the Tour, declared he would never run the race again. Not only was the overall winner, Maurice Garin, disqualified for taking the train over significant stretches of the course, but so were next three cyclists who placed, along with the winner of every single stage of the course.

Of the 27 cyclists who actually finished the 1904 race, 12 were disqualified and given bans ranging from one year to life. The race's eventual official winner, 19-year-old Henri Cornet, was not determined until four months after the event.

And so it went. Desgrange relented on his threat to scrub the Tour de France and the great race survived and prospered-as did the antics. Trains were hopped, taxis taken, nails scattered along the roads, partisan supporters enlisted to beat up rivals on late-night lonely stretches of the course, signposts tampered with, bicycles sabotaged, itching powder sprinkled in competitors' jerseys and shorts, food doctored, and inkwells smashed so riders yet to arrive couldn't sign the control documents to prove they'd taken the correct route.

And then of course there were the stimulants-brandy, strychnine, ether, whatever-anything to get a rider through the nightmarishly tough days and nights of racing along stages that were often over 200 miles long. In a way the race was tailor-made to encourage this sort of thing. Desgrange once famously said that his idea of a perfect Tour de France would be one that was so tough that only one rider finished.

Add to this the big prizes at a time when money was hard to come by, a Tour largely comprising young riders from impoverished backgrounds for whom bicycle racing was their one big chance to get ahead, and the passionate following cycling enjoyed, and you had the perfect recipe for a desperate, high stakes, win-at-all-costs mentality, especially given the generally tolerant views on alcohol and drugs in those days.

After World War II came the amphetamines. Devised to keep soldiers awake and aggressive through long hours of battle they were equally handy for bicycle racers competing in the world's longest and toughest race.

So what makes the Lance Armstrong story any different, his road to redemption any rougher? For one thing, none of the aforementioned riders were ever the point man for what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has described in a thousand-page report as the most sophisticated, cynical, and far-reaching doping program the world of sport has ever seen-one whose secrecy and efficiency was maintained by ruthlessness, bullying, fear, and intimidation.

Somewhere along the line, the casualness of cheating in the past evolved into an almost Frankenstein sort of science in which cyclists, aided by creepy doctors and trainers, were receiving blood transfusions in hotel rooms and tinkering around with their bodies at the molecular level many months before they ever lined up for a race.

To be sure, Armstrong didn't invent all of this, any more than he invented original sin-nor was he acting alone. But with his success, money, intelligence, influence, and cohort of thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers-and the way he used all this to prop up the Lance brand and the Lance machine at any cost-he became the poster boy and lightning rod for all that went wrong with cycling, his high profile eclipsing even the heads of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the global cycling union, who richly deserve their share of the blame.

It is not his PED popping that is the hard-to-forgive part of the Lance story. Armstrong cheated better than his peers, that's all.

What I find troubling is the bullying and calculated destruction of anyone who got in his way, raised a question, or cast a doubt. By all accounts Armstrong was absolutely vicious, vindictive as hell. Former U.S. Postal team masseuse Emma O'Reilly found herself being described publicly as a "prostitute" and an "alcoholic," and had her life put through a legal grinder when she spoke out about Armstrong's use of PEDs.

Journalists were sued, intimidated, and blacklisted from events, press conferences, and interviews if they so much as questioned the Lance miracle or well-greased machine that kept winning Le Tour.

Armstrong left a lot of wreckage behind him.

If he is genuinely sorry, if he truly repents for his past "indiscretions," one would think his first act would be to try to find some way of not only seeking forgiveness from those whom he brutally put down, but to do something meaningful to repair the damage he did to their lives and livelihoods.

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Officials: 5 Americans Escaped from Algeria Terrorists

Five Americans who were at an Algerian natural gas facility when it was raided by al Qaeda linked terrorists are now safe and believed to have left the country, according to U.S. officials. At least three Americans, however, were being held hostage by the militants when the Algerian military mounted an rescue operation earlier today that reportedly resulted in casualties.

Reports that as many as 35 hostages and 15 Islamist militants at a BP joint venture facility in In Amenas have been killed during a helicopter raid have not been confirmed, though Algeria's information minister has confirmed that there were casualties. According to an unconfirmed report by an African news outlet, the militants say seven hostages survived the attack, including two Americans, one Briton, three Belgians and a Japanese national.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Algerian forces had attacked the compound, and that the situation "was ongoing."

"We face a very bad situation at this GP gas compound in Algeria," said Cameron. "A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already we know of one who has died. ... I think we should be prepared for the possibility for further bad news, very difficult news in this extremely difficult situation."

An unarmed U.S. Predator drone is now above In Amenas and is conducting surveillance. A U.S. official says the U.S. was not informed in advance by the Algerians of the raid they launched today.

In a statement, BP, a joint owner of the facility, said it had been told by both the British and Algerian governments that "the Algerian Army is attempting to take control of the In Amenas site."

"Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information," said the statement. "There are also reports of hostages being released or escaping."

Algerian troops had surrounded the compound in the Sahara desert, where hostages from the U.S., Algeria, Norway, Japan, France and other countries are being held by terrorists who claim to be part of Al Qaeda and are led by a one-eyed smuggler known as Mr. Marlboro.

SITE Intel Group/AP Photo

Leon Panetta on Americans Held Hostage in Algeria Watch Video

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told ABC News that as many as 100 hostages are being held, and that there may be seven or eight Americans among them. "Right now, we just really don't know how many are being held," said Panetta, who said information about the situation, including the total number of hostages and where they are being held, is "pretty sketchy." The kidnappers have released a statement saying there are "more than 40 crusaders" held "including 7 Americans."

U.S. officials had previously confirmed to ABC News that there were at least three Americans held hostage at the natural gas facility jointly owned by BP, the Algerian national oil company and a Norwegian firm at In Amenas, Algeria.

"I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation," said Panetta. "I don't think there's any question that [this was]a terrorist act and that the terrorists have affiliation with al Qaeda." He said the precise motivation of the kidnappers was unknown. "They are terrorists, and they will do terrorist acts."

The terror strike came without warning Wednesday morning when an estimated 20 gunmen first attacked a bus carrying workers escorted by two cars carrying security teams.

At least one worker was killed. The terrorists moved on to the residential compound where they are now holed up with the American and other western hostages, including Norwegian, French, British, and Japanese nationals.

There is growing concern this morning about the fate of the hostages, and intelligence officials say the situation is tense. Without the element of surprise, they say, a raid to free them will be very dangerous.
"They are expecting an attack and therefore, it's going to be very, very difficult for Algerian special forces to sneak in without being seen," said Richard Clarke, a former White House counter terrorism advisor and now an ABC News consultant.

Mr. Marlboro: Kidnapper, Smuggler

Intelligence officials believe the attack was masterminded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a rogue al Qaeda leader who also runs an African organized crime network that reportedly has made tens of millions of dollars in ransom from kidnappings and smuggling. He is known as Mr. Marlboro because of his success smuggling diamonds, drugs and cigarettes. Officials think it unlikely that Belmohktar would actually be in the middle of the hostage situation, but would be calling the shots from his base in Mali more than 1,000 miles away.

Belmokhtar fought in Afghanistan alongside the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1990s, and lost an eye. He was formerly associated with al Qaeda's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and was said to be a liaison with al Qaeda's international leadership. Belmokhtar split with AQIM late last year over what other Islamist militants considered his preference for lucre over jihad. He remains affiliated with al Qaeda, however, heading a breakaway group that calls itself the "Signers with Blood Brigade" or the "Veiled Brigade."

According to a Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by Belmokhtar, Mr. Marlboro is "very, very cold, very businesslike."

Robert Fowler was a UN diplomat in Africa when he was kidnapped and held hostage by Belmokhtar for four months in 2009.

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NASA buys blow-up habitat for space station astronauts

NASA wants to blow up part of the International Space Station – and a Las Vegas firm is eager to help.

The US space agency has signed a $17.8-million contract with Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada to build an inflatable crew habitat for the ISS.

According to details released today at a press briefing , the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, will launch in 2015. Astronauts on the ISS will test the module for safety and comfort.

BEAM will fly uninflated inside the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Once docked and fully expanded, the module will be 4 metres long and 3 metres wide. For two years astronauts will monitor conditions inside, such as temperature and radiation levels.

Bigelow hopes the tests done in orbit will prove that inflatable capsules are safe and reliable for space tourists and commercial research, an idea almost as old as NASA itself. The space agency began investigating the concept of expandable spacecraft in 1958. Space stations like this would be easier to launch and assemble than those with metal components, so would be cheaper. But research ended after a budget crunch in 2000, and Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA.

Stronger skin

The company has made progress, developing shielding that resists punctures from space debris and micrometeorites. BEAM's skin, for instance, is made from layers of material like Kevlar to protect occupants from high-speed impacts. The craft's skin has been tested in the lab alongside shielding used right now on the rest of the ISS, says Bigelow director Mike Gold.

"Our envelope will not only equal but be superior to what is flying on the ISS today. We have a strong and absolute focus on safety," he says.

And we have to be sure that inflatable craft are safe, says William Schonberg, an engineer specialising in orbital debris protection at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. "The overall risk to the ISS is the sum of the risks of its individual components," he says.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but a flexible, inflatable design is just as likely to survive punishment from space debris as metal shielding, says Schonberg. "Certain composite cloth materials have been shown to be highly effective as shields against [high-speed space] impacts. So depending on what material is used, and in what combination it is used with other materials – such as thermal insulation blankets – the final design could be just as effective and perhaps better than the more traditional all-metal shields used elsewhere on the station."

Gold hopes BEAM will also demonstrate that fabric shielding can limit radiation risks. This is a major worry on missions to the moon or an asteroid say, where astronauts have to spend weeks or months outside Earth's protective magnetic field.

High-energy particles called cosmic rays constantly fly through the solar system, and when they strike metal shielding, they can emit secondary radiation in the form of X-rays. This doesn't happen with Kevlar-based fabric shields and so expandable habitats could be more desirable for travellers heading deeper into space, says Gold.

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FAA grounds 787 Dreamliner in US

WASHINGTON: The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all US-registered Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft Wednesday to address a possible battery fire risk.

"As a result of an in-flight, Boeing 787 battery incident earlier today in Japan, the FAA will issue an emergency airworthiness directive (AD) to address a potential battery fire risk in the 787 and require operators to temporarily cease operations," the regulator said in a statement.

"Before further flight, operators of US-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration that the batteries are safe," it said.

The FAA said it would work with Boeing and carriers to develop a corrective action plan "to allow the US 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible."

United Airlines, the world's biggest airline, is currently the only US airline operating the 787, with six airplanes in service.

The warning was prompted by a battery incident during an All Nippon Airways flight that resulted in an emergency landing in Japan Wednesday, following a January 7 battery incident on an ANA 787 that occurred on the ground in Boston.

"The AD is prompted by this second incident involving a lithium ion battery. The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes," the FAA said.

"The root cause of these failures is currently under investigation. These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment."

The FAA said that it also is alerting the international aviation community to the action so other civil aviation authorities "can take parallel action to cover the fleets operating in their own countries."

- AFP/jc

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FAA grounds Boeing 787s to address battery fires

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal officials say they are temporarily grounding Boeing's 787 Dreamliners until the risk of possible battery fires is addressed.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it will issue an emergency safety order requiring U.S. airlines to temporarily cease operating the 787, Boeing's newest and most technologically advanced plane.

The agency said it will work with Boeing and U.S. air carriers to develop a plan allowing 787s to "resume operations as quickly and safely as possible." United Airlines is the only U.S. carrier with 787s. It has six.

Only days ago, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared the plane safe.

But after an emergency landing in Japan early Wednesday, two Japanese airlines voluntarily grounded their 787s.

The FFA order applies only to U.S. carriers, but aviation authorities in other countries usually follow the lead of the country where the manufacturer is based. Fifty Dreamliners have been delivered in the U.S. and around the world.

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Colorful New Lizard Identified in Vietnam

Scientists have identified a new bright-blue lizard hiding in plain sight.

The lizard, found in Vietnam and named Calotes bachae, had long been thought to be another blue lizard species found in Myanmar and Thailand. A combination of genetic analysis and studying the size and scale characteristics of the animals revealed that the lizard belongs to a new species, according to an article in the January issue of the journal Zootaxa.

At first glance the new species looks more or less identical to another blue-headed lizard in Southeast Asia, Calotes mystaceus, said article lead author Timo Hartmann, and scientists had not taken a closer look until now. (Also see "Fantastic New Flying Frog Found—Has Flappy Forearms")

During mating season, the colors of the male lizards—which can measure up to 11 inches (28 centimeters)—become especially vivid, ranging from cobalt blue to bright turquoise. This serves to attract females and to intimidate other males, said Hartmann.

While by day the lizard's blue and green coloration is striking, at night it appears dark brown, "showing no bright coloration at all," said Hartmann, a Ph.D. candidate at the Herpetology Department at the Museum Koenig in Bonn, Germany. (Also see "New Self-Cloning Lizard Found in Vietnam Restaurant")

The newly identified animal was found in open areas of Cat Tien National Park, in dense tropical forests in Bu Gia Map National Park and, perhaps surprisingly, in parks in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

The discovery grew out of a survey of reptiles and amphibians in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park. Specimens from the project that were believed to be Calotes mystaceus were shared with Russian scientists working on a DNA barcoding database of all amphibian and reptile species from Vietnam.

Different Genes, Different Marks

The barcoding, which compares specific genetic markers, revealed a significant number of genetic differences between the previously known species and what is now known as Calotes bachae. The finding was unexpected, but not uncommon, said study co-author Nick A. Poyarkov, from the Department of Zoology of the Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow, Russia.

"In many cases two different species of frogs or lizards may look really similar but have profound genetic divergence," Poyarkov said.

Further research revealed that it's also possible to differentiate between the two species with the naked eye. (See more new species.)

Calotes bachae has faint brown blotches on its back, along with a yellowish moustache-like marking on its face. The Calotes mystaceus, by contrast, has dark brown spots and a white moustache. The differences become especially apparent during mating season, Hartmann said.

Hartmann suspects the surprising discovery points the way to other yet-to-be-identified lizard species: "I am sure that in Southeast Asia in general there are still many more new lizard species to discover."

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NRA President Defends Ad Attacking Obama

Jan 16, 2013 6:40pm

In an interview with ABC News this evening, NRA President David Keene said the gun-rights lobby is aggressively preparing for “battle” with the White House and Congress over President Obama’s sweeping new proposals to curb gun violence.

Keene criticized Obama’s announcement today, surrounded by four children from around the country, for “using kids to advance an ideological agenda.” And he expressed cautious confidence that few of the legislative measures would ultimately pass.

“It’s going to be very tough for the president to accomplish some of these things, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it if he really turns it on,” Keene told ABC.

“All bets are off when a president really wants to go to war with you,” he said. “We’re gonna be there and we’re gonna fight it.”

Keene said passage of the 1994 assault weapons ban remains fresh in the minds of NRA leaders, noting that initial widespread congressional opposition gradually gave way to a narrow margin in favor, thanks in part to pressure from then-President Bill Clinton.

NRA members would hold accountable any politicians who “sell them out to some pie-in-the-sky scheme such as the president is proposing,” he said.

The group launched a new “Stand and Fight” advocacy campaign Tuesday night, opposing Obama’s gun control measures, anchored by a controversial new TV ad that began airing online and on the Sportsman Channel.

The ad calls President Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for sending his daughters to a private school with armed guards while questioning whether all other U.S. schools should have the same security measures. The White House blasted the ad as “repugnant and cowardly.”

“When the question is the protection of children, which is what this is all about… it’s perfectly legitimate to ask why some children should be protected and other children should not be protected,” Keene said, defending the ad.

“We were not talking about the president’s kids. We were talking about an elite class who criticizes others in their desire to be safe while making sure that they and their families and their children are always protected.

“We’re not talking about the Secret Service protection the president’s children enjoy — they ought to have that wherever they go,” he added.

Keene also ribbed Obama for using children as “props” for his announcement:  “We didn’t line them up on a stage and pat them on the shoulder while we were urging somebody to take our position,” he said.

The NRA has acknowledged some areas of common ground for curbing gun violence included the Obama proposal — namely beefed up resources for mental health care, better background check data and increased presence of school resource officers (police) at public schools.

But Keene said many of those steps were just “fig leaves.”

“What the president did is say … ‘I care about armed security.’ He can check off that box on the Gallup polls. He can say to the people concerned about it, ‘It’s part of my package.’ … He said the problem of severely, mentally ill — we’re going to study it.”

Obama called for federal aid to states for the hiring of up to 1,000 new resource officers and school counselors.  Currently, there are armed resource officers at 28,000 U.S. schools.

“That’s a drop in the ocean in terms of the problem,” Keene said. “It’s simply a fig leaf so he can pursue an anti-gun agenda. It has less to do with security and more to do with gun.”

SHOWS: World News

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Why musical genius comes easier to early starters

Good news for pushy parents. If you want your child to excel musically, you now have better justification for starting their lessons early. New evidence comes from brain scans of 36 highly skilled musicians, split equally between those who started lessons before and after the age of 7, but who had done a similar amount of training and practice.

MRI scans revealed that the white matterSpeaker in the corpus callosum – the brain region that links the two hemispheres – had more extensive wiring and connectivity in the early starters. The wiring of the late starters was not much different from that of non-musician control participants. This makes sense as the corpus callosum aids speed and synchronisation in tasks involving both hands, such as playing musical instruments.

"I think we've provided real evidence for something that musicians and teachers have suspected for a long time, that early training can produce long-lasting effects on performance and the brain," says Christopher Steele of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and head of the team.

Sweet spot

Steele says that younger-trained musicians may have an advantage because their training coincides with a key period of brain development . At age 7 or 8, the corpus callosum is more receptive than ever to the alterations in connectivity necessary to meet the demands of learning an instrument.

However, he stresses that these connectivity adaptations are no guarantee of musical genius. "What we're showing is that early starters have some specific skills and accompanying differences in the brain, but these things don't necessarily make them better musicians," he says. "Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style and many other things we don't measure. So while starting early may help you express your genius, it won't make you a genius," he says.

Nor should older aspiring musicians despair. "They should absolutely not give up. It is never too late to learn a skill," says Steele.

Journal reference: Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.3578-12.2013

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Jeep to build cars in China with GAC

DETROIT: The iconic American Jeep brand will be manufactured in China and Italy's Fiat will also build more cars there through an expanded partnership announced Tuesday with Chinese carmaker GAC.

Guangzhou Automobile Group is already building the Fiat Viaggio and distributes imported models such as the Fiat 500, Freemont and Bravo in China.

The expansion will begin with introducing more models from the Fiat portfolio to China "in the coming years," the automakers said in a press release.

"After Fiat, the next brand planned to be localised by the GAC Fiat joint venture will be Chrysler Group's Jeep brand," the automakers said, noting this will include "production in China for (the) Chinese market only."

Chrysler's Jeep brand is currently exporting US-made vehicles to China and last year posted record sales both in China and worldwide.

The new deal "creates the basis for our JV to reach very ambitious objectives in Chinese market," said Zeng Qinghong, general manager of GAC Group.

Mike Manley, who heads both the Jeep Brand and Fiat's Asian operations, said the expansion "will allow us to unleash the potential of both our Fiat and Chrysler Group brands in China."

GAC and Fiat incorporated the joint venture in 2010 and launched the locally-built Viaggio in China in September.

GAC Fiat Automobiles is located in Changsha economic & technical development zone and handles the research and development, manufacturing, sales and after-sales services of vehicle, engines and parts & components.

The plant will have an annual production capacity of 140,000 vehicles in Phase I and will expand to an annual capacity of 250,000 to 300,000 vehicles in Phase II.

It currently is producing the Fiat Viaggio and the 1.4T-jet engine.

- AFP/jc

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Obama to take private oath in brief family service

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's private swearing-in will be a brief, sparsely attended ceremony in the Blue Room of the White House.

White House spokesman Jay Carney says Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath of office on Sunday just before noon, the time the Constitution says his second term begins. Obama's family will attend along with a few reporters, and Obama isn't expected to make a speech.

The Constitution requires the president's term to start on Jan. 20, but because that falls on a Sunday this year, Obama will have two ceremonies: one on Sunday and a larger, public ceremony on Monday, followed by a parade and inaugural balls.

Vice President Joe Biden will be sworn in during a separate ceremony Sunday morning at the Naval Observatory.

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A Wild Start for Weather in the New Year

Here we go again. The weather's going to extremes: a snowstorm in Jerusalem, wildfires in Australia, a cold snap in China, a heat wave in Brazil. Based on the first two weeks of the new year, 2013's picking up right where 2012 left off.

(What's up with the weather? Read the September 2012 National Geographic story and see a gallery of extreme weather pictures.)

As much as 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow fell on Jerusalem (map) last Thursday, closing roads across the city. It was the biggest winter storm there in 20 years. Scores of trees fell from the weight of the snow, snowball fights broke out in the parks, and Israeli President Shimon Peres was photographed building a snowman outside his residence with help from his bodyguards.

In Australia, where a heat wave was smashing records across the country, the national weather agency added two new colors to its maps to handle the possibility of unprecedented temperatures: deep purple for above 122°F (50°C) and pink for above 125.5°F (52°C). The first eight days of the year were among the warmest on record, with January 7 ranking as Australia's hottest day ever, with an average temperature of 104.6°F (40°C). Some beaches were so hot swimmers couldn't walk to the water without burning their feet on the sand.

Elsewhere around the globe, the weather has been equally extreme. While much of the eastern U.S. and northern Europe basked in springlike weather, Tokyo (map) saw 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of snow fall on the city this weekend, nearly half of its typical total for a full year.

In China, the average temperature fell to 25°F (-4°C) in early January, the lowest in nearly three decades. More than a thousand ships in China's Laizhou Bay (map) have been frozen into the ice.

At the same time, a heat wave and drought in northeast Brazil prompted officials to consider rationing electricity for the first time in a decade, and the temperature in Rio de Janeiro (map) reached a record 109.8°F (43°C).

The New Normal

Extremes like these are becoming the norm, a team of 240 U.S. scientists warned in a draft report released Friday. In an open letter to the American people, the authors of the latest National Climate Assessment said that the frequency and duration of extreme conditions are clear signs of a changing climate.

"Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has experienced," they wrote. "Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between."

The impacts of such changes are easy to see, they added. "Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience. So, too, have coastal planners from Florida to Maine, water managers in the arid Southwest and parts of the Southeast, and Native Americans on tribal lands across the nation."

Their report followed by a week the announcement by NOAA's National Climatic Data Center that 2012 ranked as the warmest year on record for the lower 48 states. Across the nation, more than 99 million people sweltered in temperatures above 100°F (38°C) for more than ten days. The average temperature last year was more than three degrees higher than the average for the 20th century.

On top of all the heat waves, the nation suffered 11 disasters with damages of at least $1 billion each, including the severe drought across the Midwest and superstorm Sandy along the East Coast. (See top reader photos of superstorm Sandy.)

Rough Waters Ahead

In another troubling sign of a changing climate, the amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean shrank to its lowest level ever in late 2012. Nearly half of the ocean was free of ice in mid-September, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported. Some scientists have speculated that the warming ocean is changing the pattern of the jet stream over the Arctic, increasing the likelihood of extreme weather for lower latitudes. (Related: "Polar Ice Sheets Shrinking Worldwide, Study Confirms.")

Even with all this weird weather, things could have been even worse if El Niño conditions had developed this winter, as many experts had predicted. During an El Niño phase, the pattern of storms across the Pacific typically increases the amount of warm, dry weather that reaches places like Australia, leading to severe drought or extended heat waves.

But last November, the anticipated El Niño fizzled out. If it hadn't, the Australian heat could have been even worse. "The fact that we have neutral El Niño conditions this year is helping to keep things less extreme than they might be otherwise," said meteorologist Jeff Masters of Weather Underground.

Looking ahead to the spring, Masters cautioned that the U.S. may be in for still more extreme weather. "The great drought of 2012 is now a two-year drought," he said, referring to the record-breaking dry spell that wiped out crops across the Midwest last summer. "If we come into spring with drought conditions as widespread and intense as they are now, we're at high risk of another summer of extreme drought, which could cost tens of billions of dollars—again." (Pictures: Surprising Effects of the U.S. Drought.)

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