Dormant desert life hints at possibilities on Mars

Updated 27 February 2018
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Dormant desert life hints at possibilities on Mars

MIAMI: It may rain once a decade or less in South America’s Atacama Desert, but tiny bacteria and microorganisms survive there, hinting at the possibility of similar life on Mars, researchers said Monday.
The desert, which spans parts of Chile and Peru, is the driest non-polar desert on Earth and may contain the environment most like that of the Red Planet, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Lead researcher Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor and planetary scientist at the Technical University of Berlin, and colleagues took a trip to the desert in 2015 to learn more about what kind of life might exist there. Then, unexpectedly, it rained.
Scientists detected an explosion of biological activity in the soil, and quickly began using sterile spoons to scoop up samples.
Genomic analyzes helped identify the several apparently indigenous species of microbial life — mostly bacteria — that had somehow adapted to live in the harsh environment by lying dormant for years, then re-animating and reproducing once it rained.
“In the past, researchers have found dying organisms near the surface and remnants of DNA, but this is really the first time that anyone has been able to identify a persistent form of life living in the soil of the Atacama Desert,” Schulze-Makuch said.
“We believe these microbial communities can lay dormant for hundreds or even thousands of years in conditions very similar to what you would find on a planet like Mars and then come back to life when it rains.”
Scientists returned to the Atacama in 2016 and 2017 for follow-up visits and discovered that the same microbial communities in the soil were gradually reverting to their dormant state.
But they did not completely die off. Single-celled organisms, found mainly in the deeper layers of the desert, “have formed active communities for millions of years and have evolved to cope with the harsh conditions,” said the PNAS report.
Since Mars had oceans and lakes billions of years ago, researchers say early life forms may have thrived there, too.
The world’s space agencies are sending robotic vehicles to Mars in a bid to uncover signs of life, but any attempt to return samples to Earth will be costly and complicated.
Schulze-Makuch said the research may help scientists home in on ways to study Martian microbes, which might have evolved to the planet’s colder, drier climate over time, much like the Atacama microbes.
“We know there is water frozen in the Martian soil and recent research strongly suggests nightly snowfalls and other increased moisture events near the surface,” he said.
“If life ever evolved on Mars, our research suggests it could have found a subsurface niche beneath today’s severely hyper-arid surface.”


China suspected in huge Marriott data breach, official says

This May 19, 2014, file photo shows the master bedroom in the Abu Dhabi Suite at the St. Regis in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP)
Updated 13 December 2018
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China suspected in huge Marriott data breach, official says

  • Officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that China is working to steal trade secrets

WASHINGTON: Investigators believe hackers working on behalf of China’s main intelligence agency are responsible for a massive data breach involving the theft of personal information from as many as 500 million guests of the Marriott hotel chain, a US official said Tuesday.
Investigators suspect the hackers were working on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, said investigators were particularly concerned about the data breach in part because Marriott is frequently used by the military and government agencies.
Marriott, which announced the data breach on Nov. 30, has not disclosed what it knows about the source of the hack, which included the theft of credit card and passport numbers over four years from guests who stayed at hotels previously operated by Starwood.
Marriott acquired Starwood, which includes such brands as Sheraton, W Hotels and St. Regis, in 2016.
“Our primary objectives in this investigation are figuring out what occurred and how we can best help our guests,” Marriott spokeswoman Connie Kim said. “We have no information about the cause of this incident, and we have not speculated about the identity of the attacker.”
The revelation of suspected involvement by China comes amid heightened tension with the US over trade; the arrest in Canada on an American warrant of a top executive of Chinese electronics giant Huawei; and alarm among law enforcement officials about Chinese efforts to steal technology to bolster its growing economy.
President Donald Trump said he would get involved in the Huawei case if it would help produce a trade agreement with China, telling Reuters in an interview Tuesday that he would “intervene if I thought it was necessary.”
Officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that China is working to steal trade secrets and intellectual property from US companies in order to harm America’s economy and further its own development.
Chinese espionage efforts have become “the most severe counterintelligence threat facing our country today,” Bill Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, told the committee. “Every rock we turn over, every time we looked for it, it’s not only there, it’s worse than we anticipated.”
Priestap said federal officials have been trying to convey the extent of the threat to business leaders and others in government. “The bottom line is they will do anything they can to achieve their aims,” he said.
Cyber-security expert Jesse Varsalone, of University of Maryland University College, said the Marriott hack does have signs of a foreign intelligence agency involvement. They included its duration and the fact that the information stolen, including details about travel by individuals, would be valuable to foreign spies.
“It’s about intelligence, human intelligence,” he said. “To me, it seems focused on tracking certain people.”
Priscilla Moriuchi of Recorded Future, an East Asia specialist who left the National Security Agency last year after a 12-year career, cautioned that no one has put out any actual data or indicators showing Chinese state actor involvement in the Marriott intrusion.
In the last few months, the Justice Department has filed several charges against Chinese hackers and intelligence officials. A case filed in October marked the first time that a Chinese Ministry of State Security intelligence officer was extradited to the United States for trial.
Prosecutors allege the operative, Yanjun Xu, recruited employees of major aerospace companies, including GE Aviation, and attempted to persuade them to travel to China under the guise of giving a presentation at a university. He was charged with attempting to steal trade secrets from several American aviation and aerospace companies.
Such investigations can be time-consuming and difficult. The Justice Department is training prosecutors across the country to bring more of these cases, Assistant Attorney General John Demers told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We cannot tolerate a nation that steals the fruit of our brainpower,” he said.