U.S. experts soften on DNA editing of human eggs, sperm, embryos

DNA Double Helix

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Powerful gene editing tools may one day be used on human embryos, eggs and sperm to remove genes that cause inherited diseases, according to a report by U.S. scientists and ethicists released on Tuesday.

The report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine said scientific advances make gene editing in human reproductive cells “a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration.”

The statement signals a softening in approach over the use of the technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 that has opened up new frontiers in genetic medicine because of its ability to modify genes quickly and efficiently.

In December 2015, scientists and ethicists at an international meeting held at the NAS in Washington said it would be “irresponsible” to use gene editing technology in human embryos for therapeutic purposes, such as to correct genetic diseases, until safety and efficacy issues are resolved.

Though the technology is still not ready, the latest NAS report says clinical trials for genome editing of the human germline could be permitted, “but only for serious conditions under stringent oversight.”

Such editing is not legal in the United States, and other countries have signed a convention prohibiting the practice on concerns it could be used to create so-called designer babies.

CRISPR-Cas9 works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.

Genome editing is already being planned for use in clinical trials of people to correct diseases caused by a single gene mutation, such as sickle cell disease. But these therapies affect only the patient.

The concern is over use of the technology in human reproductive cells or early embryos because the changes would be passed along to offspring.

Research using the powerful technique is plowing ahead even as researchers from the University of California and the Broad Institute battle for control over the CRISPR patent.

Although gene editing of human reproductive cells to correct inherited diseases “must be approached with caution, caution does not mean prohibition,” the committee said in a statement.

Sarah Norcross of the Progress Educational Trust, which advocates for people affected by genetic conditions, called the recommendations “sensible and prudent.”

But Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society said they were “unsettling and disappointing,” arguing that they “constitute a green light for proceeding with efforts to modify the human germline” – changes that can be passed to future generations.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Andrew Hay)

Meteor lights up the night sky over Illinois and Wisconsin

National Weather Service tweet about meteor

(Reuters) – (This February 6th story has been refiled to correct location of Lisle to west of Chicago in paragraph three.)

A meteor plummeted in a fireball over Lake Michigan early on Monday, lighting up the night sky in bright blue just before scattering over the lake in many pieces, according to a police video and an expert’s description.

Lisle, Illinois, police officer Jim Dexter recorded the meteor’s descent on the dash camera of his patrol car at 1:25 a.m.

Aside from Lisle, which is less than 30 miles (48 km) west of Chicago, and other parts of Illinois; witnesses reported seeing the meteor from Wisconsin, Michigan and as far away as New York state and the Canadian province of Ontario, according to a description on the website of the American Meteor Society.

The meteor’s fiery descent is likely to rank as one of the most spectacular events of its kind anywhere in the world this year, Mike Hankey, operations manager for the society, said by telephone.

The meteor broke apart into pieces of rock and metallic dust that descended in a cloud onto Lake Michigan, Hankey said. No one is reported to have been injured by debris, he said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Trump expected to sign cyber security executive order Tuesday: source

President Donald Trump signing executive orders

By Dustin Volz and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on cyber security on Tuesday, two sources familiar with the situation said, marking the first action to address what he has called a top priority of his administration.

The order is expected to commission several different reviews of the government’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, according to one of the sources and a third briefed on a draft of the order that circulated last week.

The move follows a presidential campaign that was dominated by running storylines related to cyber security, including the hacking and subsequent leaking of Democratic emails as part of what U.S. intelligence agencies determined was a wide-ranging influence operation intended to help Trump win the White House and denigrate his challenger, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

For months Trump refused to accept the conclusions of the agencies that Russia was responsible, before stating at a press conference on January 11 that, “as far as hacking I think it was Russia.”

In his answer, Trump, then the president-elect, pivoted to say that “we also get hacked by other countries, and other people” while vowing to launch a government-wide review of vulnerabilities to cyber attacks.

The order is expected to also initiate a audit of several federal agencies’ cyber capabilities, seek input on how to improve protections for critical infrastructure, and review government efforts to attract and train a technically sophisticated workforce, according to two of the sources briefed on the draft, which was first published by the Washington Post.

The draft order would also seek ways to give the private sector incentives to adopt strong security measures.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Dustin Volz; Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool)

Airbus CEO sees ‘flying car’ prototype ready by end of year

Chief executive discusses flying cars

MUNICH (Reuters) – Airbus Group plans to test a prototype for a self-piloted flying car as a way of avoiding gridlock on city roads by the end of the year, the aerospace group’s chief executive said on Monday.

Airbus last year formed a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring concepts such as a vehicle to transport individuals or a helicopter-style vehicle that can carry multiple riders. The aim would be for people to book the vehicle using an app, similar to car-sharing schemes.

“One hundred years ago, urban transport went underground, now we have the technological wherewithal to go above ground,” Airbus CEO Tom Enders told the DLD digital tech conference in Munich, adding he hoped the Airbus could fly a demonstration vehicle for single-person transport by the end of the year.

“We are in an experimentation phase, we take this development very seriously,” he said, adding that Airbus recognized such technologies would have to be clean to avoid further polluting congested cities.

He said using the skies could also reduce costs for city infrastructure planners. “With flying, you don’t need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads,” he said.

Enders said Airbus, as the world’s largest maker of commercial helicopters, wanted to invest to make the most of new technologies such as autonomous driving and artificial intelligence, to usher in what amounts to an era of flying cars.

“If we ignore these developments, we will be pushed out of important segments of the business,” he said.

A spokesman for Airbus declined to say how much the company was investing in urban mobility.

(Reporting by Eric Auchard; Writing by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

Snow, rain pummel parts of California, Nevada and Oregon

clearing snow from a driveway

(Reuters) – Heavy rain and snowfall hit parts of California, Nevada and Oregon early on Wednesday, causing roads to be closed, schools to cancel classes and widespread flooding along already swollen waterways.

A National Weather Service blizzard warning remained in effect until late on Wednesday morning for ski resort towns in the greater Lake Tahoe area, including Truckee and South Lake Tahoe, California, and neighboring Nevada enclaves of Stateline and Incline Village.

Snow accumulations of 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters) were forecast above elevations of 7,000 feet, with fierce wind gusts reaching 100 miles (160 km) per hour along the ridge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the National Weather Service reported.

An avalanche warning was issued for much of the same mountain regions.

“Those venturing outdoors may become lost or disoriented so persons in the warning area are advised to stay indoors,” the weather service said.

Roadways, including Interstate 80 near the border of California and Nevada, were closed on Wednesday morning.

Schools throughout the region canceled Wednesday classes, including the Portland Public Schools district in Oregon, attended by about 50,000 students.

Several flood warnings remained in effect until Wednesday morning for lower elevations in northern and central California and in western Nevada, where creeks and rivers were expected to overrun their banks.

Several communities in the region opened evacuation centers for people who heeded warnings from officials to move to higher ground to avoid flooding.

Heavy downpours sent a wall of mud down onto a house in Fairfax, California, trapping an elderly couple and their two granddaughters, according to local media. Firefighters rescued the couple and children and no one was injured, an ABC affiliate reported.

A series of floodgates on the Sacramento River, just upstream of California’s capital, were opened for the first time in 11 years on Tuesday to divert high water around the city and into a special drainage channel, said Lauren Hersh, a spokeswoman for the state Water Resources Department.

The cascade of rain and snow marked the fourth round of extreme precipitation unleashed during the past month by a weather pattern meteorologists call an “atmospheric river” – a dense plume of moisture flowing from the tropical Pacific into California.

The storms have brought some sorely needed replenishment to many reservoirs left low by five years of drought, while restoring California’s mountain snowpack to 135 percent of its average water-content level for this time of year as of Tuesday, state water officials said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Dominic Evans)

Artificial leaf copies nature to manufacture medicine

Artificial leaf to produce medicine

By Ben Hirschler

(Reuters) – Dutch scientists have developed an artificial leaf that can act as a mini-factory for producing drugs, an advance that could allow medicines to be produced anywhere there is sunlight.

The work taps into the ability of plants to use sunlight to feed themselves through photosynthesis, something industrial chemists have struggled to replicate because sunshine usually generates too little energy to fuel chemical reactions.

The leaf-inspired micro factory mimics nature’s efficiency at harvesting solar radiation by using new materials called luminescent solar concentrators with very thin channels through which liquid is pumped, exposing molecules to sunlight.

“Theoretically, you could use this device to make drug compounds with solar energy anywhere you want,” said lead researcher Timothy Noel at Eindhoven University of Technology.

By doing away with the need for a power grid, it may be possible one day to make malaria drugs in the jungle or even medicines on Mars in some future space colony, he believes.

The device, made from silicone rubber, can operate even when there is diffuse light, which means it will work under cloudy skies. However, there is still a way to go to scale up the process to make it commercially viable.

Noel and his colleagues, who published their research in the science journal Angewandte Chemie on Wednesday, are now trying to improve energy efficiency further and increase output.

Because the artificial leaf relies on micro-channels to bring chemicals into direct contact with sunlight, each unit needs to be small – but they could be easily linked together to increase production.

“You can make a whole tree with many, many different leaves placed in parallel,” Noel told Reuters. “These are very cheap things to make, so there is a lot of potential.”

He thinks the process could start to become broadly available to chemical engineers within five to 10 years.

It is not the first time that scientists have drawn inspiration from plants when considering novel ways to manufacture pharmaceuticals.

In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called Elelyso from Pfizer and Protalix Biotherapeutics for Gaucher disease, a rare genetic condition, made with genetically modified carrot cells.

Other researchers are also cultivating crops that have been specially bred to produce useful medicines and vaccines in their leaves.

Alert level raised for Alaska volcano after explosion detected

Cleveland Volcano in Alaska

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – Scientists raised the alert level for a remote Aleutian volcano on Monday after an explosion was detected on the mountain and heard by residents of a tiny village some 45 miles (72 km) away, a monitoring website said.

Cleveland Volcano, a 5,676-foot (1,730-metre) peak on the uninhabited Chuginadak Island, about 940 miles (1,504 km) southwest of Anchorage, was raised to orange from yellow by the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

The orange code, the second-highest on the scale, is issued when a volcano is “exhibiting heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption,” according to the observatory. A red code is issued when an eruption is imminent or under way.

The observatory said that an explosion was detected on Cleveland by both infrasound and seismic data and heard by residents of Nikolski, a settlement of less than 50 people on Umnak Island about 45 miles (72 km) to the east.

Infrasound instruments measure air pressure around the volcano.

Scientists said that cloudy weather obscured Cleveland’s peak in satellite images but that no evidence of an eruption cloud had been detected at a height of 28,000 feet (8,534.4 meters).

Previous explosions have spewed ash emissions, according to the observatory.

The volcano, named after U.S. President Grover Cleveland, is one of the most active of Alaska’s scores of volcanoes and its ash cloud could pose a threat to aircraft when it erupts.

It forms the western portion of Chuginadak Island and has been intermittently producing small lava flows and explosions since 2001, the observatory said.

Chuginadak Island is part of Alaska’s Aleutian archipelago, a geologically active chain of volcanic islands that is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and is very prone to earthquakes.

Earlier this year Mount Pavlof on the Alaska Peninsula erupted with little advanced warning, spewing an ash cloud up to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) high that prompted aviation warnings across the region.

Pavlof is currently at yellow on the alert scale, meaning that it is “exhibiting signs of elevated unrest” but not erupting, according to the observatory.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory is a joint program of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the State of Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Exclusive: Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for U.S. intelligence – sources

Yahoo billboard

By Joseph Menn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The company complied with a classified U.S. government demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events.

Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to an intelligence agency’s request by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.

It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified.

Reuters was unable to determine what data Yahoo may have handed over, if any, and if intelligence officials had approached other email providers besides Yahoo with this kind of request.

According to two of the former employees, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to obey the directive roiled some senior executives and led to the June 2015 departure of Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, who now holds the top security job at Facebook Inc.

“Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company said in a brief statement in response to Reuters questions about the demand. Yahoo declined any further comment.

Through a Facebook spokesman, Stamos declined a request for an interview.

The NSA referred questions to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which declined to comment.

The request to search Yahoo Mail accounts came in the form of a classified edict sent to the company’s legal team, according to the three people familiar with the matter.

U.S. phone and Internet companies are known to have handed over bulk customer data to intelligence agencies. But some former government officials and private surveillance experts said they had not previously seen either such a broad demand for real-time Web collection or one that required the creation of a new computer program.

“I’ve never seen that, a wiretap in real time on a ‘selector,'” said Albert Gidari, a lawyer who represented phone and Internet companies on surveillance issues for 20 years before moving to Stanford University this year. A selector refers to a type of search term used to zero in on specific information.

“It would be really difficult for a provider to do that,” he added.

Experts said it was likely that the NSA or FBI had approached other Internet companies with the same demand, since they evidently did not know what email accounts were being used by the target. The NSA usually makes requests for domestic surveillance through the FBI, so it is hard to know which agency is seeking the information.

Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, two major U.S. email service providers, separately said on Tuesday that they had not conducted such email searches.

“We’ve never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: ‘No way’,” a spokesman for Google said in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement, “We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo.” The company declined to comment on whether it had received such a request.

CHALLENGING THE NSA

Under laws including the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, intelligence agencies can ask U.S. phone and Internet companies to provide customer data to aid foreign intelligence-gathering efforts for a variety of reasons, including prevention of terrorist attacks.

Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and others have exposed the extent of electronic surveillance and led U.S. authorities to modestly scale back some of the programs, in part to protect privacy rights.

Companies including Yahoo have challenged some classified surveillance before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret tribunal.

Some FISA experts said Yahoo could have tried to fight last year’s demand on at least two grounds: the breadth of the directive and the necessity of writing a special program to search all customers’ emails in transit.

Apple Inc made a similar argument earlier this year when it refused to create a special program to break into an encrypted iPhone used in the 2015 San Bernardino massacre. The FBI dropped the case after it unlocked the phone with the help of a third party, so no precedent was set.

“It is deeply disappointing that Yahoo declined to challenge this sweeping surveillance order, because customers are counting on technology companies to stand up to novel spying demands in court,” Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Some FISA experts defended Yahoo’s decision to comply, saying nothing prohibited the surveillance court from ordering a search for a specific term instead of a specific account. So-called “upstream” bulk collection from phone carriers based on content was found to be legal, they said, and the same logic could apply to Web companies’ mail.

As tech companies become better at encrypting data, they are likely to face more such requests from spy agencies.

Former NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker said email providers “have the power to encrypt it all, and with that comes added responsibility to do some of the work that had been done by the intelligence agencies.”

SECRET SIPHONING PROGRAM

Mayer and other executives ultimately decided to comply with the directive last year rather than fight it, in part because they thought they would lose, said the people familiar with the matter.

Yahoo in 2007 had fought a FISA demand that it conduct searches on specific email accounts without a court-approved warrant. Details of the case remain sealed, but a partially redacted published opinion showed Yahoo’s challenge was unsuccessful.

Some Yahoo employees were upset about the decision not to contest the more recent edict and thought the company could have prevailed, the sources said.

They were also upset that Mayer and Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell did not involve the company’s security team in the process, instead asking Yahoo’s email engineers to write a program to siphon off messages containing the character string the spies sought and store them for remote retrieval, according to the sources.

The sources said the program was discovered by Yahoo’s security team in May 2015, within weeks of its installation. The security team initially thought hackers had broken in.

When Stamos found out that Mayer had authorized the program, he resigned as chief information security officer and told his subordinates that he had been left out of a decision that hurt users’ security, the sources said. Due to a programming flaw, he told them hackers could have accessed the stored emails.

Stamos’s announcement in June 2015 that he had joined Facebook did not mention any problems with Yahoo. (http://bit.ly/2dL003k)

In a separate incident, Yahoo last month said “state-sponsored” hackers had gained access to 500 million customer accounts in 2014. The revelations have brought new scrutiny to Yahoo’s security practices as the company tries to complete a deal to sell its core business to Verizon Communications Inc for $4.8 billion.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Tiffany Wu)

Tiny fitbits to keep tabs on the body from within

A dust-sized wireless sensor that makes it possible to wirelessly monitor neural activity in real time when implanted inside the body, is shown on a finger in this handout photo

By Ben Gruber

BERKELEY, Calif. (Reuters) – Scientists are developing dust-sized wireless sensors implanted inside the body to track neural activity in real-time, offering a potential new way to monitor or treat a range of conditions including epilepsy and control next-generation prosthetics.

The tiny devices have been demonstrated successfully in rats, and could be tested in people within two years, the researchers said.

“You can almost think of it as sort of an internal, deep-tissue Fitbit, where you would be collecting a lot of data that today we think of as hard to access,” said Michel Maharbiz, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Fitbit Inc sells wearable fitness devices that measure data including heart rate, quality of sleep, number of steps walked and stairs climbed, and more.

Current medical technologies employ a range of wired electrodes attached to different parts of the body to monitor and treat conditions ranging from heart arrhythmia to epilepsy. The idea here, according to Maharbiz, is to make those technologies wireless.

The new sensors have no need for wires or batteries. They use ultrasound waves both for power and to retrieve data from the nervous system.

The sensors, which the scientists called “motes,” are about the size of a grain of sand. The scientists used them to monitor in real time the rat peripheral nervous system – the part of the body’s nervous system that lies outside the brain and spinal cord, according to findings published last month in the journal Neuron.

The sensors consist of components called piezoelectric crystals that convert ultrasound waves into electricity that powers tiny transistors in contact with nerve cells in the body. The transistors record neural activity and, using the same ultrasound wave signal, send the data outside the body to a receiver.

The researchers said such wireless sensors potentially could give human amputees or quadriplegics a more efficient means of controlling future prosthetic devices.

“It’s a meaningful advancement in recording data from inside the body,” said Dr. Eric Leuthardt, a professor of neurosurgery at Washington University in St. Louis. “Demonstrations of capability are one thing, but making something for clinical use, to be used as a medical device, is still going to have to be worked out.”

Before implanting wireless sensors into the brain, the science of understanding how the brain processes and shares information needs to advance further, Leuthardt said.

To deliver motes, currently one millimeter in size, into the brain, the researchers would need to miniaturize the sensors further to about 50 microns, about the width of a human hair.

“It’s not impossible,” Maharbiz said. “The math is there.”

(Reporting by Ben Gruber; Editing by Will Dunham)

China says cyber rules no cause for foreign business concern

Computer mouse with China light

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s pending cyber security law will not create obstacles for foreign business, China’s Foreign Ministry said, responding to concerns by international business lobbies over the planned rules.

More than 40 global business groups last week petitioned Premier Li Keqiang, according to a copy of a letter seen by Reuters, urging China to revise draft cyber rules they believe are vague and discriminate against foreign enterprises.

The groups say the pending rules, including a cyber security law that could be passed this year, include provisions for invasive government security reviews and onerous requirements to keep data in China.

They say the regulations would impede China’s economic growth, create barriers to market entry and impair the country’s security by isolating it technologically.

The ministry, in a faxed statement to Reuters late on Tuesday night, said the law will not be used to “carry out differential treatment and will not create obstacles and barriers for international trade and foreign businesses investing in China.”

It said companies would be able to transfer data required for business purposes outside China’s borders after passing a security evaluation.

“These evaluations are for supervising and guaranteeing that the security of this data accords with China’s security standards,” the ministry said.

“As for the legal requirement for internet operators to provide relevant data in the course of enforcement agencies’ counter-terrorism and criminal investigations, this is necessary for safeguarding national security and investigating crimes. All countries do this,” the ministry said.

‘UNNECESSARY’ CONCERNS

“The concerns of foreign investors and businesses invested in China are unnecessary,” it said.

Some foreign businesses in China are becoming increasingly pessimistic, in part due to rules companies think could make it harder to operate there.

The cyber rules have added to tensions between China and its trade partners, who have been concerned about Beijing’s Made in China 2025 plan. The proposal calls for a progressive increase in domestic components in sectors such as advanced information technology and robotics.

Business lobbies also say requirements to hand over sensitive data or source code to the government could put business secrets at risk and boost the capabilities of domestic competitors.

How much technology firms should cooperate with governments has been a contentious issue in many countries, not just in China.

Apple Inc <AAPL.O> was asked by Chinese authorities within the past two years to hand over its source code but refused, the company’s top lawyer said this year, even as U.S. law enforcement tried to get the company to unlock encrypted data from an iPhone linked to a mass shooting.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Richard Borsuk)