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  • 6 | NewScientist | 31 August 2013



    IT IS an anticlimax, to say the least. The $10 million Archon Genomics X Prize intended to spur a revolution in fast, cheap and accurate human-genome sequencing has been abruptly cancelled just shy of its start date.

    The prize had asked innovators to design devices that could sequence 100 human genomes in 30 days or fewer, with goals for accuracy and cost. The cash was to be up for grabs from 5 September.

    Peter Diamandis, chair of the X Prize Foundation in Playa Vista, California, says the prize was withdrawn because it was outpaced by innovation. Today, companies are routinely sequencing human genomes

    for little more than the $1000 per genome the prize specified.

    But not all of the prizes targets have been outpaced particularly the goal of making only one error

    Genome prize axed per million DNA bases sequenced. Genomics pioneer Craig Venter, who conceived the prize, argues that high accuracy will be paramount as we move towards a future in which genome sequencing is used routinely for medical diagnosis.

    Clifford Reid of Complete Genomics in Mountain View, California, agrees. But he believes accuracy will improve, with or without an X Prize. The market forces are in the process of changing from meeting the needs of the research community to the needs of medicine, he says.

    Tribe caught on filmWHAT else can you do when backed into a corner? The Mashco-Piro, a so-called uncontacted tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, has come out of hiding after years of voluntary isolation. Members of the tribe have been filmed on the banks of a river on the edge of their land, attempting to make contact with outsiders.

    There are thought to be more than 100 uncontacted tribes around the world. Many choose to avoid contact with outsiders because they have had unpleasant

    encounters in the past. But such tribes often feel forced out by encroaching civilisation, says Rebecca Spooner of London-based Survival International, which has documented cases where settlements have been bulldozed and tribespeople harassed, or even killed. This leaves survivors feeling like they have no option but to give up and end their isolation.

    But tribes may seek contact with outsiders because they begin to trust their intentions, says Kim Hill at Arizona State University. Its a human trait to want to expand our contacts.

    Launch pad for saleWANT a portable piece of history that helped put astronauts on the moon? Youd better have a powerful pickup truck.

    NASA is seeking bids for its three mobile launcher platforms. The 3700-tonne hunks of steel were used at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to ferry rockets to the launch zone and as launch pads. They carried Saturn V rockets during the Apollo era, then were modified for the space shuttles.

    Left high and dry

    Hefty chunk of history

    Strike blinds telescopeBOTHERED by bad office coffee and rush-hour traffic? Tell that to the people who staff the worlds largest radio telescope, 5000 metres above sea level in Chiles Atacama desert.

    On 22 August, almost 200 staff at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) went on strike to demand higher pay for working in the extreme conditions at the observatory. The site, which will eventually boast 66 radio dishes, officially opened in March, although construction is ongoing.

    Water vapour in Earths atmosphere blocks shorter radio wavelengths, so the thin, dry air of the Atacama desert is ideal for radio astronomy. ALMA is already studying planet formation and detecting radiation from very distant galaxies in the early universe.

    But staff at the site have to deal with altitude sickness, chapped skin and chilly temperatures not to mention being hours away the nearest city.

    Victor Gonzalez, president of the ALMA union, says that the workers are on indefinite strike following a breakdown in negotiations with Associated Universities Incorporated, which manages the observatory. The union wants a 15 per cent pay rise and other benefits.

    ALMA is not making fresh observations during the strike, but off-site researchers are analysing existing data, scheduling new projects and refining software, says Charles Blue, a spokesman for the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia, which co-manages ALMA.


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    Current technologies are affordable, but are far from meeting the X Prize goal for accuracy

    130831_N_Upfront.indd 6 27/8/13 18:07:22

  • 31 August 2013 | NewScientist | 7

    With the shuttles now museum artefacts, NASA is out of uses for the platforms. Its next big rocket, the Space Launch System, will use a newer one that is already built.

    The historic platforms could be made into museum pieces, but they wont go to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Curator Paul Ceruzzi says there is no practical way to get them there.

    The platforms might be reused by a commercial space company, or turned into artificial reefs or oil rigs, says NASA. Failing that, the agency hopes someone will pay to have them recycled.

    Deadly well waterTWENTY million Chinese people are in danger of arsenic poisoning from drinking water, according to a new risk-mapping technique.

    Arsenic occurs naturally in the worlds rock, dissolving in underground water that can pollute wells. If consumed over decades, it can cause cancers, as well as other kidney and liver diseases. The hazard is recognised, but few countries undertake the laborious task of testing each well.

    Luis Rodriguez-Lado of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dbendorf, and Chinese colleagues, developed a system using geological warning signs that revealed the two most susceptible landscape alkaline inland drainage basins and delta regions with new river sediments. Globally, the latter includes Bangladesh, the scene of what the World Health Organization called the largest poisoning of a population in history.

    The team tested their model in China, and identified two previously unsuspected areas likely to be at risk: parts of the north China basin and Sichuan province (Science,

    The system should help ensure any plans to tap dangerous groundwater are scrapped.

    Acid still reignsDESPITE the decline of acid rain, its legacy still taints the rivers of the eastern US, but in an unexpected way. Following stringent air pollution controls, the acid rain that devastated forests, ponds and small streams in the eastern US has been diminishing since its peak in the 1970s.

    Now the opposite problem, excessive alkalinity, has emerged in the same area. New research has found that 62 of 97 large rivers, from New Hampshire to Florida, have become increasingly alkaline since the mid 20th century.

    Alkalinity is typically thought of as a good thing, says Sujay Kaushal at the University of Maryland in College Park, but it can stimulate the overgrowth of algae and wreak havoc with public water supplies (Environmental Science &

    Technology looks like alkaline by-products

    of acid-neutralising processes had built up in the rocks and soil, and are now leaching into the rivers.

    The legacy of acid rain still taints the rivers of the eastern US, but in an unexpected way

    SAN FRANCISCO is in a state of emergency, its power and water supplies threatened by one of the largest Californian wildfires on record - just 250 kilometres to the east of the city, on the fringes of Yosemite National Park. It is a grim warning of profound changes that may lie ahead.

    Wildfires have always been a part of life in the US west, but activity is on the rise as climate change takes hold. In Californias Sierra Nevada mountains, the main problem is the earlier onset of spring. The snow melts earlier, especially at lower elevations, says Michael Wehner of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That gives forests longer to dry out, producing tinderbox conditions by late August.

    As New Scientist went to press, the Rim Fire had torched over 700 square kilometres and was approaching the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides San Francisco with most of its water and generates hydroelectric power for the citys General Hospital, transit system and airport. It serves as a warning that wildfires can have effects far beyond the area they burn.

    Another concern is that scorched forest may not recover at least not to its former state. Mixed conifer forest, like the area now ablaze, is slowly being replaced at lower elevations by shrubland, which is better adapted to drier conditions. This, in turn, will reduce the ability of wildlands to mitigate global warming by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

    California Rim Fire rages

    Up in flames






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    Badger cull beginsUK farmers began shooting badgers this week in a controversial pilot project intended to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis. In June, the government licensed two culls, in Gloucestershire and Somerset. The aim is to kill 70 per cent of badgers in six weeks. But it could take years to find out if culling actually works.

    Squid allureSome squid catch their prey with a rod and bait. The first sightings of deep-sea Grimalditeuthis bonplandi in their natural habitat show that the squid use their strange sucker-free tentacles to lure in prey. They wiggle the tentacle tips to mimic small fish and draw in the bigger ones (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1463).

    Japan rocket no-goA Japanese space telescope that was to spy on the atmospheres of Venus and Mars has been grounded because of an abnormality, just 19 seconds before lift-off on 27 August. The launch would have been the maiden voyage for the Epsilon rocket, designed as a cheaper way to get science satellites into space.

    Hubble bags a slinkyPictures shot by the Hubble Space Telescope more than 13 years have been pieced together to reveal the spiral, slinky-like motion of a jet of gas shooting from the black hole at the centre of the nearby M87 galaxy. Such jets are thought to play a role in galaxy evolution (The Astrophysical Journal Letters,

    Element 115 at last?A new chemical element may soon make its debut in the periodic table if the international unions of pure and applied physics and chemistry agree that there is, at last, enough evidence for its existence. A team at Lund University in Sweden say they have made element 115 as yet unnamed building on a claim by a Russian group in 2004.

    For daily news stories, visit

    130831_N_Upfront.indd 7 27/8/13 18:07:32