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.
Read more stories about Nobel Prizes past and present by The Associated Press at https://www.apnews.com/NobelPrizes
David Keyton, Christina Larson And Frank Jordans, The Associated Press
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx grabs rocks from asteroid in historic mission – Al Jazeera English
A NASA spacecraft touched down on the rugged surface of the Bennu asteroid on Tuesday, grabbing a sample of rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system to bring home.
It was a first for the United States – only Japan has previously secured asteroid samples.
The so-called “Touch-And-Go” manoeuvre was managed by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado, where at 6.12pm (22:12 GMT) on Tuesday an announcer said: “Touchdown declared. Sampling is in progress,” and scientists erupted in celebration.
Seconds later, the Lockheed mission operator Estelle Church confirmed the spacecraft had eased away from the space rock after making contact, announcing: “Sample collection is complete and the back-away burn has executed.”
The historic mission was 12 years in the making and rested on a critical 16-second period where the minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft extended its 11-foot (3.35-metre) robotic arm towards a flat patch of gravel near Bennu’s north pole and plucked the sample of rocks – NASA’s first handful of pristine asteroid rocks.
The probe will send back images of the sample collection on Wednesday and throughout the week so scientists can examine how much material was retrieved and determine whether the probe will need to make another collection attempt.
Scientists want at least 2 ounces (60 grams) and, ideally, closer to 4 pounds (2 kilogrammes) of Bennu’s black, crumbly, carbon-rich material – thought to contain the building blocks of the solar system. The asteroid is located more than 200 million miles (321.9 million kms) from Earth.
NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, likened Bennu to the Rosetta Stone: “Something that’s out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years.”
If a successful collection is confirmed, the spacecraft will begin its journey back towards Earth, arriving in 2023.
“Everything went just exactly perfect,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said on a NASA live feed from Lockheed’s mission support building. “We have overcome the amazing challenges that this asteroid has thrown at us, and the spacecraft appears to have operated flawlessly.”
The robotic arm’s collection device, shaped like an oversized shower head, is designed to release pressurised gas to kick up debris.
The spacecraft launched in 2016 from Kennedy Space Center for the journey to Bennu. It has been in orbit around the asteroid for nearly two years preparing for the Touch and Go manoeuvre.
Bennu, which is more than 4.5 billion years old, was selected as a target because scientists believe it is a small fragment of what was once a much larger space rock that broke off during a collision between two asteroids early on in the history of the solar system.
“Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system,” Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of Planetary Science, told Al Jazeera. “They can provide valuable information about how planets, like our own, came to be.”
Thanks to data collected from orbit, the NASA team has determined two key discoveries: first, that between 5 and 10 percent of Bennu’s mass is water, and second, that its surface is littered with carbon-rich molecules. Atomic-level analysis of samples from Bennu could help scientists better understand what role asteroids played in bringing water to the Earth and seeding it with the prebiotic material that provided the building blocks for life.
Studying that material could also help scientists discover whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system, as well.
“If this kind of chemistry is happening in the early solar system, it probably happened in other solar systems as well,” Lauretta, OSIRIS-Rex’s principal investigator, told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s breakthrough. “It helps us assess the likelihood of the origin of life occurring throughout the galaxy and, ultimately, throughout the universe.”
Japan expects samples from its second asteroid mission – in the milligramMEs at most – to land in the Australian desert in December.
New Research Provides Comprehensive Reconstruction of End-Permian Mass Extinction | Paleontology – Sci-News.com
The end-Permian mass extinction, also known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event and the Great Dying, is the largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history that peaked about 252.3 million years ago. The catastrophe killed off nearly 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species on the planet over the course of thousands of years. Massive eruptions in a volcanic system called the Siberian Traps are thought to have played an important role, but the causational trigger and its feedbacks are yet to be fully understood. Now, a research team led by Dr. Hana Jurikova from the GEOMAR Helmholtz-Zentrum für Ozeanforschung Kiel and the Helmholtz Zentrum Potsdam has assembled a consistent biogeochemical reconstruction of the mechanisms that resulted in the end-Permian extinction.
Dr. Jurikova and her colleagues studied isotopes of the element boron in the calcareous shells of fossil brachiopods and determined the rate of ocean acidification over the Permian-Triassic boundary.
“These are clam-like organisms that have existed on Earth for more than 500 million years,” Dr. Jurikova said.
“We were able to use well-preserved brachiopod fossils from the Southern Alps for our analyses.”
“These shells were deposited at the bottom of the shallow shelf seas of the Tethys Ocean 252 million years ago and recorded the environmental conditions shortly before and at the beginning of extinction.”
Because the ocean pH and atmospheric carbon dioxide are closely coupled, the researchers were able to reconstruct changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide at the onset of the extinction from boron and carbon isotopes.
They then used an innovative geochemical model to study the impact of the carbon dioxide injection on the environment.
“With this technique, we can not only reconstruct the evolution of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, but also clearly trace it back to volcanic activity,” said co-author Dr. Marcus Gutjahr, a researcher at the GEOMAR Helmholtz-Zentrum für Ozeanforschung Kiel.
“The dissolution of methane hydrates, which had been suggested as a potential further cause, is highly unlikely based on our data.”
“Without these new techniques it would be difficult to reconstruct environmental processes more than 250 million years ago in the same level of detail as we have done now,” said co-author Professor Anton Eisenhauer, also from the GEOMAR Helmholtz-Zentrum für Ozeanforschung Kiel.
The team’s findings showed that volcanic eruptions in Siberian Traps released immense amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
This release lasted several millennia and led to a strong greenhouse effect on the late Permian world, causing extreme warming and acidification of the ocean.
Dramatic changes in chemical weathering on land altered productivity and nutrient cycling in the ocean, and ultimately led to vast de-oxygenation of the ocean.
The resulting multiple environmental stressors combined to wipe out a wide variety of animal and plant groups.
“We are dealing with a cascading catastrophe in which the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere set off a chain of events that successively extinguished almost all life in the seas,” Dr. Jurikova said.
“Ancient volcanic eruptions of this kind are not directly comparable to anthropogenic carbon emissions, and in fact all modern fossil fuel reserves are far too insufficient to release as much carbon dioxide over hundreds of years, let alone thousands of years as was released 252 million years ago.”
“But it is astonishing that humanity’s carbon dioxide emission rate is currently 14 times higher than the annual emission rate at the time that marked the greatest biological catastrophe in Earth’s history.”
The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.
H. Jurikova et al. Permian-Triassic mass extinction pulses driven by major marine carbon cycle perturbations. Nat. Geosci, published online October 19, 2020; doi: 10.1038/s41561-020-00646-4
Haunted houses find ways around COVID 19
Psychotic clowns. Axe murderers. Bedrooms possessed by poltergeists.
Many of the frights greeting visitors of horror attractions this Halloween will be familiar, but the thrill-creators behind them say one terrifying experience is squarely off-limits: the terrors of COVID-19.
Before the pandemic shook our lives, haunted houses sometimes dipped into the fears of contagion, splashing themed rooms with signs of a viral outbreak, hazmat suits and contamination warnings.
But with those experiences uncomfortably close to reality this year, horror masters like Shawn Lippert say reminding people of the virus is one line they’re not willing to cross.
“We use the analogy: Treat `COVID’ like the F-word in church,” said the owner of Scarehouse, an industrial-sized indoor haunted house in Windsor, Ont.
“It’s too real and so close to home. It’s almost like when you tell a joke and they say, `Too soon.”’
Lippert said that’s one of several rules he’s introduced at his haunt in order to keep people feeling safe and heath authorities satisfied. Ticketholders arrive at staggered times, and everyone is required to wear a mask.
Creepy objects that once brushed against visitors have been removed, and the giant airbags that evoke the feeling of claustrophobia have been stowed away to decrease the potential spread of germs.
Lippert describes those as small changes in a challenging year.
Many haunt operators were jittery about moving ahead with their usual Halloween festivities, considering health authorities could shut down the houses without much notice if the region experiences a surge in local cases. That would leave a brutal dent in their investments.
“If we can keep our doors open for the full run at this point, that would be a success for us,” Lippert said.
Several Toronto haunted houses decided the risk was too high. Casa Loma’s Legends of Horror and 28-year pillar Screemers at Exhibition Place were among the operators who decided to sit this year out, even before the city introduced tighter restrictions that would’ve closed them anyway.
Some organizers have used the pandemic to imagine ways to scare the living daylights out of people from a distance — often from the safety of their own vehicles.
The Pickering Museum Village put a historic spin on its spooky experience with a drive-thru tour that urged visitors to creep their cars along a roadway checkered with old houses, as ghost stories played on their FM radios.
Others have gone online with virtual group parties for kids or, for those of legal drinking age, what’s being sold as Canada’s first Virtual Halloween Cocktail Crawl.
Mentalist Jaymes White decided to embrace the digital world this year for his annual Halloween seances. His new Zoom experience, called Evoke, invites a small circle of friends to channel a spirit through video chat. He admits the idea goes against the traditions of a seance, where people usually hold hands around a table, but he’s confident the spirits will still be ready to unsettle his guests.
“They don’t care that we have a pandemic,” he said.
Paul Magnuson, one of the leaders at Calgary artist collective Big Art, will take over a downtown self-serve car wash for three days for a drive-in of the dead later this month.
Scare Wash is described as a trip to hell and back that begins when a wash attendee’s seemingly normal car rinse spirals into a nightmare.
Magnuson came up with the idea when it was clear plans for his usual neighbourhood spectacle wouldn’t be possible in the pandemic.
“Last year I turned my garage into a Dexter killer room where we did performances all night. In previous years I’ve had an interactive cemetery,” he said.
“I’m not going to let COVID take this holiday.”
Robby Lavoie felt a similar conviction for keeping Terror Train on track this year at the National Ontario Railroad Museum and Heritage Centre. The annual Halloween event draws thousands of people to Capreol, Ont., part of Greater Sudbury, and provides the museum with a healthy dose of revenue.
Lavoie said he drew inspiration from videos he saw of a Japanese zombie drive-in haunted house over the summer. He knew there was a way to tone down the gore and make the idea a bit more Canadian.
After speaking with museum organizers, Lavoie secured the board’s approval for “Inferno 6077,” an immersive drive-in horror experience inside the garage of the fire hall.
Pulling from his own knowledge of working in live theatre and movies, Lavoie began thinking on a grand scale. He hired a local writer who penned a story about townsfolk who seek revenge on an old man, and built rolling set pieces for the spectacle, which reaches its peak when the space is engulfed in flames, an illusion created with lights and projections.
“We’re putting you almost in an interactive movie, and it all came together within a month,” he said.
“I see myself doing this again next year, even if there isn’t COVID.”
Kathrine Petch understands the urge to keep Halloween on the calendar. As the general manager of Deadmonton Haunted House in Edmonton, she’s laid down strict COVID-19 precautions for their Area 51-themed haunt.
“The absolute, pure excitement of the customers is contagious to us,” she said.
“As long as we can pay the bills and have some money left over to make a different haunted house next year, I think we’ll be pretty happy.”
Petch said keeping Deadmonton open during the pandemic was important to everyone who runs the show.
“One of our biggest goals was to provide people with some kind of escape from all the crappiness that is 2020,” she said.
“And when they reach the end of our haunted house, at least they know the scares are done.”
Source: – CityNews Toronto
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