Fall armyworm 'threatens African farmers' livelihoods'

Scientists are calling for urgent action to halt the spread of a pest that is destroying maize crops and spreading rapidly across Africa.

The fall armyworm poses a major threat to food security and agricultural trade, warns the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi).

It says farmers' livelihoods are at risk as the non-native insect threatens to reach Asia and the Mediterranean.

The Food and Agriculture Organization plans emergency talks on the issue.

The fall armyworm, so called because it eats its way through most of the vegetation in its way as it marches through crops, is native to North and South America but was identified for the first time in Africa last year.

Cabi chief scientist Dr Matthew Cock said: "This invasive species is now a serious pest spreading quickly in tropical Africa and with the potential to spread to Asia.

"Urgent action will be needed to prevent devastating losses to crops and farmers' livelihoods."

Scientists think the caterpillar or its eggs may have reached the continent through imported produce.

Once established in an area, the adult moths can fly large distances and spread rapidly.

Army worm caterpillar The caterpillar can march like an army across the landscape / Image copyright CABI

Dr Jayne Crozier, of Cabi, said the fall armyworm's presence had now been confirmed in west Africa and was thought to be present in the south and east of the continent, many parts of which rely on maize for their staple diet.

"It's possibly been there for some time and it's causing a lot of damage now," she told BBC News.

"The recent discovery of fall armyworm in Africa will be a huge threat to food security and also to trade in the region."

The FAO is to hold an emergency meeting in Harare between 14 and 16 February to decide emergency responses to the fall armyworm threat.

It says the pest has been confirmed in Zimbabwe and preliminary reports suggest it may also be present in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

An investigation by Cabi has found that the fall armyworm is established in Ghana.

Experts at Cabi say it could take several years to develop effective methods to control the pest.

And they say there is confusion over the identity of the fall armyworm as it is similar to other types of armyworm, which are already present in Africa.

Zambia has used army planes to spray affected areas with insecticides.

Mission To Build Better Tomatoes Has Begun

WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/AP) — The mission to build a better tomato has begun, as scientists are working on some new techniques hoping to make flavorless a tomatoes a thing of the past.

Bite into a supermarket tomato and you’ll probably notice something missing: taste.

Scientists think they can put the yum back into the grocery tomato by tinkering with its genetic recipe.

Researchers are reinstalling five long-lost genetic traits that add much of the sweet-yet-acidic taste that had been bred out of mass-produced tomatoes for the past 50 years. They’re using mostly natural breeding methods, not genetic modification technology.

“We know what’s wrong with modern tomatoes and we have a pretty good idea how to fix it,” said University of Florida horticultural scientist Harry Klee , co-author of a study in Thursday’s journal Science.

Yield of tomatoes has tripled since 1960, but there’s been a slow decline in taste quality as tomatoes have been bred for size and sturdiness at the expense of flavor. Klee said a tastier supermarket tomato could be ready within three years.

“Nobody deliberately set out to make tomatoes that don’t have flavor,” Klee said. “Basically it was a process of neglect.”

One key issue is size. Growers keep increasing individual tomato size and grow more per plant. The trouble is that there is a limit to how much sugar each tomato plant can produce. Bigger tomatoes and more of them means less sugar per tomato and less taste, Klee said.

So Klee and colleagues looked at the genomes of the mass-produced tomato varieties and heirloom tomatoes to try to help the grocery tomatoes catch up to their backyard garden taste.

Good tiny heirloom tomatoes “are like eating candy,” said New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who wasn’t part of the study. “For people who care about how food tastes, it’s a very big deal.”

Klee isolated some sugar genes and ones that were more geared to pure taste, but figured those won’t work as well because they clash against growers’ shipping and size needs. So he found areas that affect the aroma of tomatoes but not size or heartiness. Reintroducing those into mass-produced tomatoes should work because smell is a big factor in taste, he said.

Altering genes in a lab would make the process faster, but because of consumer distrust and regulations, Klee is opting for natural breeding methods — with help from an electric toothbrush to spread pollen. He’s not quite there yet, but is close.

Jose Ordovas, a nutrition professor at Tufts University, applauds the work, but cautions: “It is possible that some traits are not compatible and you cannot make the plant to behave exactly the way that you want.”

Reggie Brown of growers’ Florida Tomato Committee praised the study, saying it could help make supermarket tomatoes taste better.

No matter how much tinkering scientists do to mass-produced tomatoes, picking them too early and refrigerating them can make them bland. And consumers do have to be willing to pay more to have fresher, unrefrigerated tomatoes, said Klee, who generally doesn’t do the taste testing in his lab.

“I don’t like raw tomatoes very much at all. You know, I’m kind of tired of them,” he said.

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New Study Shows No Global Warming Pause

UNITED STATES—There has not been a pause in global warming according to newly published findings. A new study in the journal “Science Advances” back an earlier NOAA study that came to similar conclusions.

According to The Washington Post, a 2015 NOAA study contradicted an argument questioning the scientific consensus on climate change.

“The skeptics had for years suggested that following the then-record warm year of 1998 and throughout the beginning of the 21st century, global warming had slowed down or ‘paused,’” the article states. “But the 2015 paper, led by NOAA’s Thomas Karl, employed an update to the agency’s influential temperature dataset, and in particular to its record of the planet’s ocean temperatures, to suggest that really, the recent period was perfectly consistent with the much longer warming trend.”

The article goes on to explain that the study caused controversy in Congress.

“It actually led to a congressional subpoena from Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the House Committee on Science, who charged that ‘NOAA’s decision to readjust historical temperature records has broad national implications’ and requested more information on why NOAA had made the dataset adjustment, including data and communications from the scientists involved,” the article says.

A new study published on January 4 supports the findings of the earlier NOAA study. The study’s lead authors, Kevin Cowtan and Zeke Hausfather, wrote a blog post for Scientific American on their study and the political controversy around the older NOAA findings.

“Our results suggests that the new NOAA record is likely the most accurate of the various sea surface temperature records during the past two decades, and should help resolve some of the criticism that accompanied the original NOAA study,” the Washington Post said.

“However the scientific question of how fast the Earth has been warming over the past two decades can be answered by replication from the scientific community, not by a political investigation. And the best evidence we have says that NOAA got it right,” the post says.

The new study can be found here.

Researchers Discover Jet Stream in Earth’s Molten Iron Core

A jet stream within the Earth’s core has been discovered by researchers using data from ESA’s Swarm satellite mission.

Launched in 2013, the three Swarm satellites are measuring and untangling the different magnetic fields that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere.

Together, these signals form the magnetic field that protects us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that stream towards Earth in solar winds.

The field exists because of an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up the outer core. Like a spinning conductor in a bicycle dynamo, this moving iron creates electrical currents, which in turn generate our continuously changing magnetic field.

Tracking changes in the magnetic field can, therefore, tell researchers how the iron in the core moves.

“We know more about the Sun than Earth’s core because the Sun is not hidden from us by about 1,870 miles (3,000 km) of rock,” noted Dr. Chris Finlay, a senior scientist in the Division of Geomagnetism at DTU Space at the Technical University of Denmark and senior author of a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The accurate measurements by Swarm satellites allow the different sources of magnetism to be separated, making the contribution from the core much clearer.

Previous research had found that changes in the magnetic field indicated that iron in the outer core was moving faster in the northern hemisphere, mostly under Alaska and Siberia.

But the new Swarm data have revealed these changes are actually caused by a jet stream moving at more than 25 miles (40 km) per year — three times faster than typical outer-core speeds and hundreds of thousands of times faster than Earth’s tectonic plates move.

“We can explain it as acceleration in a band of core fluid circling the pole, like the jet stream in the atmosphere,” said lead author Dr. Phil Livermore, from the University of Leeds.

So, what is causing the jet stream and why is it speeding up so quickly?

The jet flows along a boundary between two different regions in the core. When material in the liquid core moves towards this boundary from both sides, the converging liquid is squeezed out sideways, forming the jet.

“Of course, you need a force to move the fluid towards the boundary. This could be provided by buoyancy, or perhaps more likely from changes in the magnetic field within the core,” said co-author Prof. Rainer Hollerbach, also from the University of Leeds.

As for what happens next, the Swarm team is watching and waiting.

“Further surprises are likely,” said ESA’s Swarm mission manager Dr. Rune Floberghagen, who was not involved in the current study.

“The magnetic field is forever changing, and this could even make the jet stream switch direction.”

How bacteria survive antibiotic treatment

Multiresistant bacteria Scientists around the world are working hard to win the battle against multi-resistant bacteria. A new publication from the BASP Centre, University of Copenhagen now presents how even sensitive bacteria often manage to survive antibiotic treatment as so-called 'persister cells'. The comprehensive perspective on this phenomenon may help to improve current options of drug treatment and could even inspire the discovery of novel antibiotics targeting these notoriously difficult-to-treat persister bacteria.

In the current issue of the journal Science, Alexander Harms and colleagues from the BASP Centre, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen summarise newly discovered molecular mechanisms explaining how bacteria manage to survive antibiotic treatment and cause chronic and recurrent infections.

Post-Doc Alexander Harms explains: "This amazing resilience is often due to hibernation in a physiological state called persistence where the bacteria are tolerant to multiple antibiotics and other stressors. Bacterial cells can switch into persistence by activating dedicated physiological programs that literally pull the plug of important cellular processes. Once they are persisters, the bacteria may sit through even long-lasting antibiotic therapy and can resuscitate to cause relapsing infections at any time after the treatment is abandoned."

Using novel detection methods, recent work in the field has uncovered the molecular architecture of several cellular pathways underlying the formation of bacterial persisters -- and these results confirmed the long-standing notion that persistence is intimately connected to slow growth or dormancy. Bacterial persistence can therefore be compared to hibernation of animals or the durable spores produced by many mushrooms and plants.

Across many different bacteria, these programs are controlled by a regulatory compound known as "magic spot" that plays a central role in the persistence phenomenon. These important discoveries, many of which were accomplished by the BASP Centre, may in the future facilitate the development of improved drug treatment regimens and eventually lead to the development of novel antibiotics.

Secret 13ft Robot inspired by Avatar

Scientists have programmed a monster one-tonne robot that can walk and mimic human movements resembling something from Avatar .

The METHOD-1 machine is four metres tall and when it stomps it leaves the ground “shaking”, according to designer Vitaly Bulgarov.

The giant robot, built in South Korea, works by repeating the actions of its pilot sitting inside by moving its enormous arms and legs up and down.

In astonishing video the sinister machine can be seen walking across a laboratory floor using its mechanical joints.

A control room just big enough for a human operator to squeeze in sits where the robot’s chest should be.

It was created by Seoul-based Korea Future Technology but it is unclear how it will be used.

 The designer modelled his high-tech creation after working on Hollywood blockbusters including Robocop, Transformers 4 and Terminator Genisys.

Vitaly is remaining tight-lipped about the robot, but said it could be used to “solve problems” rather than for evil.

He wrote on Facebook: “I’ll just say for now that from a mechanical/software/hardware/electric engineering stand point it was quite an ambitious project that required developing and enhancing a lot of technologies along the way.

“That growth opens up many real world applications where everything we have been learning so far on this robot can be applied to solve real world problems.”

People can control a robotic arm with only their minds

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have made a major breakthrough that allows people to control a robotic arm using only their minds. The research has the potential to help millions of people who are paralyzed or have neurodegenerative diseases.

The study is published online today in Scientific Reports, a Nature research journal.

"This is the first time in the world that people can operate a robotic arm to reach and grasp objects in a complex 3D environment using only their thoughts without a brain implant," said Bin He, a University of Minnesota biomedical engineering professor and lead researcher on the study. "Just by imagining moving their arms, they were able to move the robotic arm."

The noninvasive technique, called electroencephalography (EEG) based brain-computer interface, records weak electrical activity of the subjects' brain through a specialized, high-tech EEG cap fitted with 64 electrodes and converts the "thoughts" into action by advanced signal processing and machine learning.

Eight healthy human subjects completed the experimental sessions of the study wearing the EEG cap. Subjects gradually learned to imagine moving their own arms without actually moving them to control a robotic arm in 3D space. They started from learning to control a virtual cursor on computer screen and then learned to control a robotic arm to reach and grasp objects in fixed locations on a table. Eventually, they were able to move the robotic arm to reach and grasp objects in random locations on a table and move objects from the table to a three-layer shelf by only thinking about these movements.

All eight subjects could control a robotic arm to pick up objects in fixed locations with an average success rate above 80 percent and move objects from the table onto the shelf with an average success rate above 70 percent.

"This is exciting as all subjects accomplished the tasks using a completely noninvasive technique. We see a big potential for this research to help people who are paralyzed or have neurodegenerative diseases to become more independent without a need for surgical implants," He said.

The researchers said the brain-computer interface technology works due to the geography of the motor cortex -- the area of the cerebrum that governs movement. When humans move, or think about a movement, neurons in the motor cortex produce tiny electric currents. Thinking about a different movement activates a new assortment of neurons, a phenomenon confirmed by cross-validation using functional MRI in He's previous study. Sorting out these assortments using advanced signal processing laid the groundwork for the brain-computer interface used by the University of Minnesota researchers, He said.

The robotic arm research builds upon He's research published three years ago in which subjects were able to fly a small quadcopter using the noninvasive EEG technology.

"Three years ago, we weren't sure moving a more complex robotic arm to grasp and move objects using this brain-computer interface technology could even be achieved," He said. "We're happily surprised that it worked with a high success rate and in a group of people."

He anticipates the next step of his research will be to further develop this brain-computer interface technology realizing a brain-controlled robotic prosthetic limb attached to a person's body or examine how this technology could work with someone who has had a stroke or is paralyzed.

In addition to Professor He, who also serves as director of the University of Minnesota Institute for Engineering in Medicine, the research team includes biomedical engineering postdoctoral researcher Jianjun Meng (first author); biomedical engineering graduate student Bryan Baxter; Institute for Engineering in Medicine staff member Angeliki Bekyo; and biomedical engineering undergraduate students Shuying Zhang and Jaron Olsoe. The researchers are affiliated with the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering and the Medical School.

The University of Minnesota study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the University of Minnesota's MnDRIVE (Minnesota's Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) Initiative funded by the Minnesota Legislature.

The first-in-human clinical trial targeting Alzheimer's tau protein

So far, many of the antibody drugs proposed to treat Alzheimer's disease target only the amyloid plaques. Despite the latest clinical trial that is hailed as our best chance in the quest for treating AD, all later phase trials have failed with many causing severe side effects in the patients, such as abnormal accumulation of fluid and inflammation in the brain. One of the reasons for side effects, many speculate, is due to the antibody directing a reaction towards normal amyloid present in blood vessels or simply releasing beta-amyloid caught in the vessel wall.

The authors of the study have developed a vaccine that stimulates the production of an antibody that specifically targets pathological tau, discovering its "Achilles' heel." It is able to do this because healthy tau undergoes a series of changes to its structure forming a new region that the antibody attacks. This new region (the "Achilles' heel"), while not present in healthy tau, is present in diseased tau early on. Therefore, the antibody tackles all the different varieties of pathological tau. In addition to this important specificity, the antibody is coupled to a carrier molecule that generates a considerable immune response with the added benefit that it is not present in humans, thus avoiding the development of an immune reaction towards the body itself.

Side effects have included a local reaction at the site of injection. This skin reaction is thought to occur due to the aluminum hydroxide, an adjuvant used in vaccines to enhance the body's own antibody production. No other serious secondary effects were directly related to the vaccine. Overall, the safety of the drug and its ability to elicit an immune response were remarkable.

While many trials against Alzheimer's disease stubbornly continue to target amyloid, our study dares to attack the disease from another standpoint. This is the first active vaccination to harness the body's ability to produce antibodies against pathological tau. Even though this study is only a phase 1 trial, its success so far gives the authors confidence that it may be the answer they are looking for to halt the progress of this devastating disease.

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