First new seeds put into Svalbard’s upgraded doomsday vault

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is open for deposits after upgrades

Global Crop Diversity Trust

Hundreds of plant species around the world will be backed up today at a “doomsday vault” in the Arctic, the first deposit since an upgrade to futureproof the Norwegian facility against climate change.

The seeds of onions from Brazil, guar beans from central Asia and wildflowers in a meadow at Prince Charles’ home in the UK are among the species being safeguarded at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in a mountain cavern about 1200 kilometres from the North Pole.

Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg will attend the mass deposit, the single biggest since the opening of the facility in 2008. “The deposit event is especially timely,” she said, because this is the year by which countries should have safeguarded the genetic diversity of crops to meet the UN goal of eliminating hunger by 2030.

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The vault is designed as the ultimate insurance policy for restoring crop diversity to smaller seed banks around the world after extreme weather, conflict and other events. The first withdrawal from the bank took place in 2015, to help conservationists who lost access to a major seed bank in Aleppo in the Syrian war.

However, recently the resilience of the vault itself has come under the spotlight. The permafrost on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago where the bank is located, means the seeds should stay frozen even if the -18°C cooling is hit by a power failure.

Yet in October 2016, the entrance tunnel to the facility was flooded due to a combination of heavy rainfall and permafrost melting. While the vault itself was untouched, that year the Arctic experienced record heat that scientists say was almost certainly due to human-made climate change.

The deposits mark the first time the vault has opened its doors to new seeds since a €20 million upgrade that includes a new waterproofed access tunnel, plus measures to prepare it for a world on track to be several degrees hotter by the century’s end.

Seed collectors from 36 banks around the world – eight for the first time – have brought seeds for accessions, as new samples entering the bank are known.

Among those who have made the flight north from Oslo to safeguard their farming future are the Cherokee Nation, the first US indigenous tribe to deposit seeds at the vault. Corn sacred to the Cherokee people, beans and a squash that can stay fresh for a year without refrigeration are among their crops being backed up.

The UK’s Kew Gardens is bringing 27 wild plant species from Prince Charles’ residence in the west of England. “It’s more urgent than ever that we act now to protect this diversity before it really is too late,” the prince said in a statement.

Around 60,000 new seed samples are being added to the vault, taking the total to more than a million. The Indian seed bank ICRISAT is bringing more than 2800 accessions, adding to the more than 110,000 it has already deposited.

Others, like the Julius Kühn Institute in Germany are bringing their first seeds, including the European crab apple (Malus sylvestris), a wild relative of domesticated apples. Seed banks from Morocco and South Korea are also making their first deliveries.

Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop Trust, one of the partners that runs the vault with the Norwegian government, says although today’s deposit takes the samples past the milestone of one million, Svalbard is “not just a number’s game” but is about prioritising unique species.

It is best practice to have a double backup of global seed banks, he says, both at the Svalbard vault and in other seed banks. Maintaining plant diversity is “incredibly important” for developing new, more productive crop varieties, he adds.

But increasingly, he says, seed banks are being called upon to help farmers adapt to a warming world too. “As we see the climate heating up and places looking for [crop] varieties to use in more challenging conditions, these seed banks are being more actively used.”

Safeguarding a diversity of crops is considered vital to humanity being able to feed itself as climate change takes hold.

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UK government refuses request to explain cost of hitting net zero

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Protesters have called for the UK to hit net-zero emissions

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The UK government has refused a request to explain why its estimated cost of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is tens of billions of pounds more than its independent advisers found.

Last summer, shortly before the UK enshrined the net-zero target in law, a leaked letter from Phillip Hammond, the then chancellor, warned that the transition to a zero-carbon economy was likely to be “well in excess of a trillion pounds”.

Hammond’s letter cited analysis by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that put the cost of meeting the 2050 goal at £70 billion a year. That was 40 per cent more than the £50 billion that the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) had arrived at. But unlike the CCC analysis, the letter supplied no evidence or methods to explain the significantly higher figure.

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New Scientist attempted to use freedom of information legislation to obtain the evidence supporting the bigger net-zero price tag, but BEIS declined to release the information. Following an appeal, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office last week ruled in favour of BEIS withholding the explanation.

BEIS told the ICO that releasing the evidence now could harm public understanding due to a lack of context. “There is real potential to distract the public debate away from the substantive environmental issue of climate change with cost estimates that are not properly contextualised,” the department said.

The refusal means Hammond’s £70 billion figure, provided without context, is the only information available to the public on the cost of the government hitting the net-zero target.

The Treasury plans to publish the government’s official net-zero cost review in November, the same month that the UK is hosting a major UN climate summit in Glasgow.

But it appears the ultimate cost could differ from the £70 billion figure, which Hammond had warned would mean less money being available for other areas of public spending. The ICO reported that BEIS is: “Currently completing and refining their analysis in the context of the new legislated target.”

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Record-breaking hot years look set to continue through the next decade

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There may be many record-breaking warm years on the horizon

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The recent streak of record-breaking hot years is set to continue throughout the next decade. It is likely that every year from 2019 to 2028 will be one of the ten warmest on record.

“After the last five years, we’ve really separated ourselves from the past,” says Anthony Arguez at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina. “It looks pretty likely that we’re going to have a whole lot of top ten years.”

Many recent years have been among the warmest on …

Tackling air pollution may accidentally trigger serious health issues

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Cleaning up dirty air might sometimes make things worse

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Cities tackling one major air pollutant risk inadvertently making things worse by fuelling the growth of another, potentially more harmful type of pollution.

Many urban areas around the world are in breach of World Health Organization guidelines on PM2.5, particulate matter with a maximum diameter of 2.5 micrometres. Vehicles are a common source of this kind of pollution.

But simply reducing levels of PM2.5 pollution may not improve the safety of urban air. A Chinese-US team has found that PM2.5 plays a key role in suppressing the formation of another type of pollution in built-up areas – “ultrafine particles”. These have a diameter of under 50 nanometres, and an emerging body of work has linked them to health concerns including birth defects.

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Complex chemistry

The new study shines a light on how ultrafine particles form in the real world. While most previous work on the subject has been lab-based, the researchers attempted to reflect the complex chemistry of city air with tests by a Beijing road, as well as within an enclosed chamber with a car running.

They found high concentrations of PM2.5 in polluted air suppress the formation of ultrafine particles. That’s because the larger particles capture the smaller ones as they form. The team also concluded the creation of the ultrafine particles is fuelled by another pollutant released by cars: volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

In other words, cities need to simultaneously cut PM2.5 and VOCs from cars, or risk unintentionally making ultrafine particle pollution worse. Failure to do both at the same time could be “ineffective and can even exacerbate this problem”, the researchers say.

“I’ve said before that great care is needed to avoid inadvertently worsening the situation by reducing the mass of airborne particulate matter, only to increase… the numbers and the toxicity of the ultrafine [particles] as a result,” says Barbara Maher at Lancaster University, UK, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Dropping diesel

This doesn’t mean cities with a PM2.5 problem should give up tackling it, she says. Alastair Lewis at the University of York, UK, echoes that. “I don’t think anything here fundamentally changes the imperative to reduce PM2.5 as a high policy priority,” he says.

Halting use of petrol and diesel entirely would cut both PM2.5 and the VOCs that may help ultrafine particles flourish. “Electric cars will definitely help,” says Renyi Zhang at Texas A&M University, part of the Chinese-US team. But electric models account for less than 0.5 per cent of the billion-plus vehicles on the world’s roads. They also still release some PM2.5s from tyres and brake pads.

Roy Harrison at the University of Birmingham, UK, says the balancing act of cutting PM2.5 without encouraging ultrafine particles is more of an issue for a city such as Delhi than London. That is because the Indian capital has much higher PM2.5 levels, while in the UK capital levels are much lower and therefore unlikely to have much effect upon ultrafine particle numbers. London’s air pollution problem is primarily with nitrogen dioxide, which Zhang’s research found had no bearing on ultrafine particles.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: pnas.201916366

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Albatrosses strapped with sensors help spy on illegal fishing boats

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A wandering albatross coasting over the sea

Image courtesy of Alexandre Corbeau

Birds carrying radar sensors have been used to spy on fishing boats, revealing a quarter of vessels in the Indian Ocean are operating illegally.

Globally, illegal fishing is estimated to cost £17.6 billion a year, but satellite monitoring can be costly, sometimes slow and can miss boats. An international team decided to give flight to a pioneering alternative: strapping sensors to 169 albatrosses and releasing them in the south of the Indian Ocean.

The birds can travel vast distances, are naturally attracted to fishing vessels and had sensors that could pick up the boats’ use of radar from around 30 kilometres away.

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Between December 2018 and June 2019, they detected a total of 353 fishing boats in the region. Of those operating in countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), where vessels have to declare fishing, 25.8 per cent had their ‘Automatic Identification Systems’ – used for avoiding collisions and allowing authorities to track them – switched off. Such behaviour is often a sign of illegal fishing.

In international waters, fishing is not illegal but should be declared. There, the birds found 36.9 per cent of vessels had the system turned off.

Henri Weimerskirch at the French National Centre for Scientific Research says the success of the project shows it is a cheap form of surveillance that could complement satellite monitoring. “We have shown that it is possible,” he says.

The birds could even be used as part of enforcement efforts in conjunction with navies, because they relay data in real-time, he says.

But to direct them to spy on certain areas would require expert knowledge from ornithologists. And improvements in satellites may do away with the need for bird spies.

John Amos at SkyTruth in West Virginia, which uses satellites for environmental protection, says, “Fortunately for us, and the albatrosses, we soon won’t have to rely on wild animals to do our data collection work for us. Orbital technologies are rapidly improving and steadily closing the net on shady operators in the ocean.”

He is working with the Global Fishing Watch project to use satellite radar images to detect vessels that don’t broadcast their signal. Other satellite surveillance firms including Hawkeye 360 and UnseenLabs are also working to detect shipboard radar.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1915499117

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CRISPR-edited chickens made resistant to a common virus

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Gene edited and virus resistant

Pavel Trefil

CRISPR genome editing has been used to make chickens resistant to a common virus. The approach could boost egg and meat production worldwide while improving welfare.

The altered chickens showed no signs of disease even when exposed to high doses of the avian leukosis virus (ALV). The virus is a problem for poultry farmers around the world, says Jiri Hejnar at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Infected birds become ill, emaciated and depressed, and often develop tumours. The virus gets into cells by binding to a protein called chicken NHE-1 (chNHE-1). Hejnar’s team has previously shown that deleting three DNA letters from the chNHE-1 gene that makes this protein prevents ALV from infecting chicken cells.

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The challenge was to make this change in entire animals rather than just in a few cells. No strains of chickens naturally have this mutation, so it can’t be done by breeding alone. But genetically modifying chickens is more difficult than modifying other animals such as pigs.

The conventional method is to extract so-called primordial germ cells, alter them outside the body and then add the modified cells to embryos inside freshly laid eggs. This approach was used to create CRISPR chickens in 2016, but the success rate is extremely low.

In 2017, Hejnar developed a better method: using altered germ cells to restore semen production in sterilised cockerels. His team then went on to create a cockerel with sperm that have the precise deletion in the chNHE-1 gene.

By crossing its offspring, they have produced a flock of white leghorn chickens that have this deletion in both copies of the gene.

A company called Biopharm is now in discussion with poultry producers in Vietnam and China about introducing this change into commercial breeds. “It’s quite simple to do,” says Hejnar.

Hejnar also plans to use CRISPR to make chickens resistant to other viruses, such as bird flu. This would make us all safer: bird flu viruses sometime kill people and there are fears a mutant strain could cause a deadly global pandemic.

However, there is still opposition to GM foods in many countries. It remains to be seen whether consumers will find CRISPR chickens to their taste.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1913827117

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Climate change-related injuries will kill thousands in the US

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Accidental deaths in the US from drowning and car crashes may rise as the climate warms

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The US is likely to see more than 2000 extra deaths a year from car accidents, suicide, drowning and other fatal injuries because of climate change, even if the world manages to hold temperature rises to the Paris climate deal’s target of 2°C.

Research on deaths due to climate change usually focuses on older people who might be at a higher risk of heart and lung problems. Many older people were among the estimated 35,000 people who died in the 2003 Europe heatwave. But a team led by Robbie Parks at Imperial College London has found one way in which rising temperatures will increase death rates among younger people.

The researchers examined government figures on the 6 million people who died after an injury between 1980 and 2017 in the US, excluding Hawaii and Alaska.

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Combining the data with monthly temperature spikes above the long-term average over the period, they found that in a future year that is anomalously hot by 1.5°C – the Paris accord’s toughest target – there will be 1601 extra deaths from injuries each year. If temperatures rise by the worst-case Paris goal of 2°C, the number climbs to 2135.

Car crashes

“Climate change as a health issue goes beyond the physical and goes to the behavioural and the mental,” says Parks, who says the projected increase in deaths isn’t insignificant.

Notably, the extra deaths would fall overwhelmingly – 84 per cent – on men, with most of them aged between 15 and 64. The biggest number of extra deaths would be related to transport, such as car crashes, followed by suicide. There will also be a smaller rise in deaths from drowning.

The study doesn’t show why younger men will be affected more, but it may be down to more reckless behaviour causing unintentional deaths such as drowning, says Parks.

The total number of extra deaths is relatively small: 2135 deaths equates to 1 per cent of all injury-related deaths in the US. But Parks says that the way the deaths fall on otherwise young and healthy men would have knock-on effects, including on the economy.

“It is concerning that most of these injury-related deaths are expected to occur among young adults,” says Francesca Dominici at Harvard University. Moreover, she expects there may be an even higher death toll when other factors are considered, such as accidental deaths linked to wildfires during heatwaves.

The risk of more deaths can be reduced by cutting carbon emissions and limiting future warming, and by public health efforts, such as targeting young men with campaigns about the risks of drowning, says Parks.

Journal reference: Nature Medicine, DOI: 10.1038/s41591-019-0721-y

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Gravitational wave mystery could be a sign of a new kind of black hole

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A strange set of gravitational waves have been sent across space by a mysterious object. It could be the smallest black hole ever found or the largest neutron star.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space time that are caused by the motion of massive objects. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected these waves from many pairs of black holes colliding over the last few years, as well as one pair of neutron stars.

Now they have found a truly puzzling collision, said LIGO team member Katerina Chatziioannou at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Hawaii on 6 January. A LIGO detector in Louisiana spotted signs of two objects colliding, but nobody is quite sure what one of the objects is.

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In this smash-up, one of the objects was definitely a neutron star with a mass between 1.1 and 1.7 times the mass of the sun. While the other object is probably also a neutron star, months of analysis have not been able to prove it is, says LIGO team member Nelson Christensen.

Its mass could be as high as 2.5 times that of the sun, which means it could be massive enough to be a black hole.

“We’ve never seen any neutron star with this large a mass,” says Christensen. “The question is, is it really a neutron star? If it is, then we’ve detected a really strange heavy neutron star, but if it’s a black hole it’s a really light black hole.”

While the idea of such a low-mass black hole is plausible, the lightest one anyone has found thus far is 3.3 times the mass of the sun. If it is not the smallest black hole ever found, but in fact a neutron star, this object is still unusual because it’s not clear how a neutron star with a nearby partner could get so large.

“It’s clearly heavier than any other pair of neutron stars ever observed,” said Chatziioannou in a press conference. “The existence of a system like that challenges our current understanding of how those systems form binaries and merge to give off gravitational waves.”

We should get used to this kind of strange discovery, says Christensen. “We’re getting about one gravitational wave event a week now, and that’s a lot,” he says. “With a lot of events you inevitably see cool stuff every now and then.”

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Scientist behind world’s first gene-edited babies sentenced to prison

He Jiankui attempted to make babies resistant to HIV

He Jiankui attempted to make babies resistant to HIV

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The scientist behind the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies has been sentenced to three years in prison. He Jiankui, who announced he had used CRISPR technology on embryos that led to two births in 2018, has also been fined 3 million yuan, equivalent to about $430,000, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

On Monday 30 December, a court in Shenzen found that He and his colleagues forged ethical review materials, violated national regulations on scientific research and medical management and caused harm to society, according to the report. Two of He’s colleagues, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, have also been given prison sentences and fines.

All three pleaded guilty in a private trial. They also face a lifelong ban on engaging in any human assisted reproductive technology services and some scientific research projects.

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Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London told the UK Science Media Centre that a prison sentence and fine would also have been the likely penalties if someone had conducted similar work in the UK.

Widespread controversy

The birth of two gene-edited twin girls was announced by He at a conference in 2018, days after news reports revealed the first details of his experiments. He claimed to have used CRISPR gene editing technology to disable a gene for a protein that the HIV virus binds to. His team hoped that the babies would be born resistant to HIV.

The team created 22 embryos using cells from seven couples, and 16 appeared to have been successfully gene edited. Eleven were implanted into women, with one woman becoming pregnant.

There were other issues with the experiment. All of the fathers in the study were HIV positive, but this doesn’t mean that they would have passed the infection to their children – HIV transmission can be controlled with simple medical measures, with no need for experimental genetic techniques. And there are concerns that CRISPR can have unpredictable effects on other genes.

He’s work was widely denounced by the scientific community. He lost his job at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen in January 2019, after an investigation by the Health Commission of China in southern Guangdong province found that he had “illegally conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain”.

Back in 2018, He mentioned that a second woman had since become pregnant. The court report confirms that two women became pregnant with gene-edited babies, and that, in total, three have been born.

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We’ve found six scorchingly hot exoplanets that are over 1100°C

An artist’s visualisation of a planet orbiting star DMPP-2

An artist’s visualisation of a planet orbiting star DMPP-2

Mark A. Garlick

We have discovered six new exoplanets by looking at hot gas nearby. Carole Haswell at the Open University in the UK and her colleagues made the discovery by studying nearby stars that the exoplanets orbit.

The six exoplanets are all extremely hot, with temperatures of between 1100°C and 1800°C. They range in mass from around 2.6 times the mass of Earth up to almost half Jupiter’s mass.

Some exoplanets are located much closer to their stars than planets in our solar system are to …