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French-American pair of scientists win Nobel Prize for chemistry for 'genome scissors' – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News

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David Keyton, Christina Larson And Frank Jordans, The Associated Press


Published Wednesday, October 7, 2020 6:26AM EDT


Last Updated Wednesday, October 7, 2020 1:51PM EDT

STOCKHOLM – Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for developing “molecular scissors” to edit genes, offering the promise of one day curing a host of inherited diseases.

Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer A. Doudna developed a method known as CRISPR-cas9 that can be used to alter the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms.

The award marked only the fourth time in the 119-year history of the prizes that a Nobel in the sciences was given exclusively to women.

Charpentier and Doudna’s work allows for laser-sharp snips in the long strings of DNA that make up the code of life, enabling scientists to precisely edit specific genes to remove errors that lead to diseases.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. “It has not only revolutionized basic science but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments.”

Dr. Francis Collins, who led the drive to map the human genome, said the technology “has changed everything” about how to approach diseases with a genetic cause.

“You can draw a direct line from the success of the human genome project to the power of CRISPR-cas to make changes in the instruction book,” said Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which helped fund Doudna’s work.

More than 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR in treatments for inherited diseases, and “many are very promising,” said Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine.

But many also cautioned that the technology raises serious ethical questions and must be used carefully.

Much of the world became more aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui revealed he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, to try to engineer resistance to infection with the AIDS virus. His work was denounced as unsafe human experimentation because of the risk of causing unintended changes that could pass to future generations, and he has been sentenced to prison in China.

In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it is still too soon to try to make genetically edited babies because the science isn’t advanced enough to ensure safety, but they mapped a pathway for countries that want to consider it.

“Being able to selectively edit genes means that you are playing God in a way,” said American Chemistry Society President Luis Echegoyen, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas El Paso.

George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, said: “New technology often presents this dichotomy – there is immense potential for human benefit, especially for disease treatment, but also the risk of misapplication.”

When asked about the significance of two women winning, Charpentier, 51, said that while she considers herself first and foremost a scientist, “it’s reflective of the fact that science becomes more modern and involves more female leaders.”

“I do hope that it will remain and even develop more in this direction,” she said, adding that it is “more cumbersome to be a woman in science than to be a man in science.”

Three times a woman has won a Nobel in the sciences by herself; this is the first time an all-female team won a science prize. In 1911, Marie Curie was the sole recipient of the chemistry award, as was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1964. In 1983, Barbara McClintock won the Nobel in medicine.

The breakthrough research done by Charpentier and Doudna was published in 2012, making the discovery very recent compared with a lot of other Nobel-winning research, which is often honoured only after decades have passed.

“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department.

Speaking to reporters from the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, which she leads, Charpentier said that despite how recently it was developed, the method is now widely used by scientists researching diseases, developing drugs and engineering new plants.

Among the most promising therapies being studied are those to treat eye diseases and blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, she said.

In addition to transforming medicine, CRISPR has the potential to be used to engineer plants to store more carbon or to withstand extremes of climate change, Doudna said from Berkeley. CRISPR opens the door for researchers to “address urgent problems humanity is facing,” she said.

The Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT have been in a long court fight over patents on CRISPR technology, and many other scientists did important work on it, but Doudna and Charpentier have been most consistently honoured with prizes for turning it into an easily usable tool.

The Nobel comes with a gold medal and 10 million kronor (more than $1.1 million), courtesy of a bequest left more than a century ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.

On Monday, the Nobel in medicine was awarded for the discovery of the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus. Tuesday’s prize in physics honoured breakthroughs in understanding black holes.

The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics.

This version has been corrected to show that Hodgkin won in 1964, not 1963.

Larson reported from Washington, and Jordans from Berlin. AP Chief Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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Where’s the sea ice? 3 reasons the Arctic freeze is unseasonably late and why it matters – The Conversation US

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With the setting of the sun and the onset of polar darkness, the Arctic Ocean would normally be crusted with sea ice along the Siberian coast by now. But this year, the water is still open.

I’ve watched the region’s transformations since the 1980s as an Arctic climate scientist and, since 2008, as director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. I can tell you, this is not normal. There’s so much more heat in the ocean now than there used to be that the pattern of autumn ice growth has been completely disrupted.

To understand what’s happening to the sea ice this year and why it’s a problem, let’s look back at the summer and into the Arctic Ocean itself.

Siberia’s 100-degree summer

The summer melt season in the Arctic started early. A Siberian heat wave in June pushed air temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit at Verkhoyansk, Russia, for the first time on record, and unusual heat extended over much of the Arctic for weeks.

The Arctic as a whole this past summer was at its warmest since at least 1979, when satellite measurements started providing data allowing for full coverage of the Arctic.

With that heat, large areas of sea ice melted out early, and that melting launched a feedback process: The loss of reflective sea ice exposed dark open ocean, which readily absorbs the sun’s heat, promoting even more ice melt.

The Northern Sea Route, along the Russian coast, was essentially free of ice by the middle of July. That may be a dream for shipping interests, but it’s bad news for the rest of the planet.

Warmth sneaks in underwater

The warm summer is only part of the explanation for this year’s unusual sea ice levels.

Streams of warmer water from the Atlantic Ocean flow into the Arctic at the Barents Sea. This warmer, saltier Atlantic water is usually fairly deep under the more buoyant Arctic water at the surface. Lately, however, the Atlantic water has been creeping up. That heat in the Atlantic water is helping to keep ice from forming and melting existing sea ice from below.

It’s a process called “Atlantification”. The ice is now getting hit both from the top by a warming atmosphere and at the bottom by a warming ocean. It’s a real double whammy.

While we’re still trying to catch up with all of the processes leading to Atlantification, it’s here and it’s likely to get stronger.

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Climate change’s assault on sea ice

In the background of all of this is global climate change.

The Arctic sea ice extent and thickness have been dropping for decades as global temperatures rise. This year, when the ice reached its minimum extent in September, it was the second lowest on record, just behind that of 2012.

As the Arctic loses ice and the ocean absorbs more solar radiation, global warming is amplified. That can affect ocean circulation, weather patterns and Arctic ecosystems spanning the food chain, from phytoplankton all the way to top predators.

On the Atlantic side of the Arctic, open water this year extended to within 5 degrees of the North Pole. The new Russian Icebreaker Arktika, on its maiden voyage, found easy sailing all the way to the North Pole. A goal of its voyage was to test how the nuclear-powered ship handled thick ice, but instead of the hoped-for 3-meter-thick ice, most of the ice was in a loose pack. It was little more than 1 meter thick, offering little resistance.

For sea ice to build up again this year, the upper layer of the Arctic Ocean needs to lose the excess heat it picked up during summer.

The pattern of regional anomalies in ice extent is different each year, reflecting influences like regional patterns of temperature and winds. But today, it’s superimposed on the overall thinning of the ice as global temperatures rise. Had the same atmospheric patterns driving this year’s big ice loss off Siberia happened 30 years ago, the impact would have been much less, as the ice was more resilient then and could have taken a punch. Now it can’t.

Is sea ice headed for a tipping point?

The decay of the Arctic sea ice cover shows no sign of stopping. There probably won’t be a clear tipping point for the sea ice, though.

Research so far suggests we’ll stay on the current path, with the amount of ice declining and weather systems more easily disrupting the ice because it’s thinner and weaker than it used to be.

[embedded content]

The bigger picture

This year’s events in the Arctic are just part of the climate change story of 2020.

Global average temperatures have been at or near record highs since January. The West has been both hot and dry – the perfect recipe for massive wildfires – and warm water in the Gulf of Mexico has helped fuel more tropical storms in the Atlantic than there are letters in the alphabet. If you’ve been ignoring climate change and hoping that it will just go away, now would be an appropriate time to pay attention.

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New Methane Discharge Discovered in Russia's Arctic – Guardian – The Moscow Times

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A new source of methane discharge has been discovered in the Arctic Ocean near eastern Siberia, raising concerns of a “new tipping point” that could speed up the pace of global warming, The Guardian reported Tuesday. 

Scientists found the potent greenhouse gas bubbling from a depth of 350 meters in the Laptev Sea, with surface-level concentrations that vent into the atmosphere between four and eight times the normal amount. One of the six monitoring points showed methane concentrations 400 times higher than expected under the normal air-sea equilibrium.

“The discovery of actively releasing shelf slope hydrates is very important and unknown until now. This is a new page,” said Igor Semiletov, chief scientist onboard the Akademik M. Keldysh research vessel that’s part of a multi-year Russian-Swedish International Siberian Shelf Study expedition.

The discovery is prompting concerns that a new feedback loop that accelerates climate change may have already been triggered. A recent study co-authored by a member of the expedition found that the loop could be activated if the Arctic warms by just a few degrees.

At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered,” Swedish scientist and study co-author Örjan Gustafsson told The Guardian from the vessel.

This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing.” 

The Guardian reported that warm Atlantic currents driven by human-induced climate disruption are the likely cause of the massive methane discharge.  

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as any other place on Earth and The Guardian reported that it is yet to begin freezing for the winter, already surpassing records for the latest date for sea ice formation after melting unusually early this spring. 

This is potentially the third source of methane emissions from the shallower parts of the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea. Semiletov’s expedition released first photos of a massive fountain of methane gas bubbling from the floor of the East Siberian Sea last fall.

The scientists stressed that their findings are considered preliminary until they analyze the data collected on the ground and have their studies peer-reviewed.

The discovery of actively releasing shelf slope hydrates is very important and unknown until now,” Semiletov said. “Potentially they can have serious climate consequences, but we need more study before we can confirm that.

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Researchers Worry Methane Discovery in Arctic Ocean Could Signal Dangerous New Climate Feedback Loop – Common Dreams

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An international team of researchers aboard a Russian research ship has discovered evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean have been dispersing over a large area of Siberia, potentially fueling a dangerous new climate feedback loop. 

The Guardian reports the International Siberian Shelf Study (ISSS-2020) found that slope sediments spreading over much of the continental shelf are rich in frozen methane hydrates that have been detected to a depth of 1,150 feet in the Laptev Sea.

Although the scientists said that most of the methane hydrate bubbles are dissolving in the water, methane levels at the sea surface are four to eight times higher than normal and the gas is venting into the atmosphere. What makes methane especially dangerous is that its heating effect is 80 times stronger than CO2 over 20 years. The new discovery has raised serious concerns that a new climate feedback loop may be starting.

According to ISSS-2020:

One of the greatest uncertainties surrounding climate warming [concerns] the emission of naturally accurring greenhouse gases, such as methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide (N2O) from Arctic thawing permafrost, and collapsing methane hydrates—crystals made of methane gas molecules “caged” between solid water molecules—in the seabed north of Siberia will increase in the future.  

“At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered,” Stockholm University researcher Örjan Gustafsson told The Guardian. “This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing.” 

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Gustafsson, a member of the research team, warned last month that “climate warming is awakening the ‘sleeping giants’ of the carbon cycle, namely permafrost and methane hydrates.”

“How much this will lead to added emissions of the strong greenhouse gas methane is poorly understood,” he said. “This is one of the grand challenges in current climate change research and a central goal of the expedition to address.” 

The chief scientist aboard the vessel, Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, called the hydrate discharges “significantly larger” than anything previously seen. 

“The discovery of actively releasing shelf slope hydrates is very important and unknown until now,” Semiletov told The Guardian. “This is a new page. Potentially they can have serious climate consequences, but we need more study before we can confirm that.” 

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