Scientists build DNA from scratch to alter life’s blueprint

Scientists build DNA from scratch to alter life’s blueprint
This Tuesday, April 25, 2017 photo shows a a petri dish containing live yeast cultures at a New York University labe at the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences in New York, where researchers are attempting to create completely man-made, custom-built DNA. The work may reveal basic, hidden rules that govern the structure and functioning of genomes. But it also opens the door to life with new and useful characteristics. (AP)
Updated 26 July 2017

Scientists build DNA from scratch to alter life’s blueprint

Scientists build DNA from scratch to alter life’s blueprint

NEW YORK: At Jef Boeke’s lab, you can whiff an odor that seems out of place, as if they were baking bread here.
But he and his colleagues are cooking up something else altogether: yeast that works with chunks of man-made DNA.
Scientists have long been able to make specific changes in the DNA code. Now, they’re taking the more radical step of starting over, and building redesigned life forms from scratch. Boeke, a researcher at New York University, directs an international team of 11 labs on four continents working to “rewrite” the yeast genome, following a detailed plan they published in March.
Their work is part of a bold and controversial pursuit aimed at creating custom-made DNA codes to be inserted into living cells to change how they function, or even provide a treatment for diseases. It could also someday help give scientists the profound and unsettling ability to create entirely new organisms.
The genome is the entire genetic code of a living thing. Learning how to make one from scratch, Boeke said, means “you really can construct something that’s completely new.”
The research may reveal basic, hidden rules that govern the structure and functioning of genomes. But it also opens the door to life with new and useful characteristics, like microbes or mammal cells that are better than current ones at pumping out medications in pharmaceutical factories, or new vaccines. The right modifications might make yeast efficiently produce new biofuels, Boeke says.
Some scientists look further into the future and see things like trees that purify water supplies and plants that detect explosives at airports and shopping malls.
Also on the horizon is redesigning human DNA. That’s not to make genetically altered people, scientists stress. Instead, the synthetic DNA would be put into cells, to make them better at pumping out pharmaceutical proteins, for example, or perhaps to engineer stem cells as a safer source of lab-grown tissue and organs for transplanting into patients.
Some have found the idea of remaking human DNA disconcerting, and scientists plan to get guidance from ethicists and the public before they try it.
Still, redesigning DNA is alarming to some. Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern University, a bioethicist who’s been following the effort, is concerned about making organisms with “properties we cannot fully know.” And the work would disturb people who believe creating life from scratch would give humans unwarranted power, she said.
“It is not only a science project,” Zoloth said in an e-mail. “It is an ethical and moral and theological proposal of significant proportions.”
Rewritten DNA has already been put to work in viruses and bacteria. Australian scientists recently announced that they’d built the genome of the Zika virus in a lab, for example, to better understand it and get clues for new treatments.
At Harvard University, Jeffrey Way and Pamela Silver are working toward developing a harmless strain of salmonella to use as a vaccine against food poisoning from salmonella and E. coli, as well as the diarrhea-causing disease called shigella.
A key goal is to prevent the strain from turning harmful as a result of picking up DNA from other bacteria. That requires changing its genome in 30,000 places.
“The only practical way to do that,” Way says, “is to synthesize it from scratch.”
The cutting edge for redesigning a genome, though, is yeast. Its genome is bigger and more complex than the viral and bacterial codes altered so far. But it’s well-understood and yeast will readily swap man-made DNA for its own.
Still, rewriting the yeast genome is a huge job.
It’s like a chain with 12 million chemical links, known by the letters, A, C, G and T. That’s less than one-hundredth the size of the human genome, which has 3.2 billion links. But it’s still such a big job that Boeke’s lab and scientists in the United States, Australia, China, Singapore, and the United Kingdom are splitting up the work. By the time the new yeast genome is completed, researchers will have added, deleted or altered about a million DNA letters.
Boeke compares a genome to a book with many chapters, and researchers are coming out with a new edition, with chapters that allow the book to do something it couldn’t do before.
To redesign a particular stretch of yeast DNA, scientists begin with its sequence of code letters — nature’s own recipe. They load that sequence into a computer, then tell the computer to make specific kinds of changes. For example one change might let them rearrange the order of genes, which might reveal strategies to make yeast grow better, says NYU researcher Leslie Mitchell.
Once the changes are made, the new sequence used as a blueprint. It is sent to a company that builds chunks of DNA containing the new sequence. Then these short chunks are joined together in the lab to build ever longer strands.
The project has so far reported building about one-third of the yeast genome. Boeke hopes the rest of the construction will be done by the end of the year. But he says it will take longer to test the new DNA and fix problems, and to finally combine the various chunks into a complete synthetic genome.
Last year, Boeke and others announced a separate effort, what is now called Genome Project-write or GP-write . It is chiefly focused on cutting the cost of building and testing large genomes, including human ones, by more than 1,000-fold within 10 years. The project is still seeking funding.
In the meantime, leaders of GP-write have started discussions of ethical, legal and social issues. And they realize the idea of making a human genome is a sensitive one.
“The notion that we could actually write a human genome is simultaneously thrilling to some and not so thrilling to others,” Boeke said. “So we recognize this is going to take a lot of discussion.”


Latvian woman charged in US with role in cybercrime group Trickbot

Latvian woman charged in US with role in cybercrime group Trickbot
Updated 05 June 2021

Latvian woman charged in US with role in cybercrime group Trickbot

Latvian woman charged in US with role in cybercrime group Trickbot
  • Group accused of infecting millions of computers worldwide with malware that targeted hospitals, schools, governments, businesses and other entities

WASHINGTON: A Latvian woman has been charged with developing malicious software used by a cybercrime organization that infected computers worldwide and looted bank accounts of millions of dollars, the Justice Department said Friday.
Alla Witte is charged as part of a 47-count indictment with participating in an organization known as the Trickbot Group, which authorities say operated in Russia and several other countries. The group is accused of infecting millions of computers worldwide with malware that targeted hospitals, schools, governments, businesses and other entities.
Witte, who authorities say previously lived in Suriname, was arrested in Miami in February. She was arraigned Friday in federal court in Cleveland, according to the Justice Department.
The prosecution, which the Justice Department says is part of its newly developed ransomware task force, comes as the Biden administration confronts a growing scourge of ransomware attacks that have targeted crucial supply chains including meat and fuel. The White House, which has also been contending with cyberespionage campaigns aimed at US government agencies, issued a memo this week underscoring that the fight against ransomware is a top priority.
“These charges serve as a warning to would-be cybercriminals that the Department of Justice, through the Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force and alongside our partners, will use all the tools at our disposal to disrupt the cybercriminal ecosystem,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement.

Shutterstock illustration image

The indictment accuses Witte of participating in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from entities across the world by infecting computers with malware that captured personal information — such as credit card numbers and passwords — and gave TrickBot members access to the victims’ networks.
Among the targets identified in the indictment are real estate and law firms, country clubs, public school districts and other companies.
Prosecutors say Witte worked as a malware developer for the group, writing code related to ransomware that told victims that they’d need to acquire special software to decrypt their files. She’s also accused of providing code that monitored and tracked authorized users of the malware.
In October, weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Microsoft announced legal action to disrupt TrickBot in an operation aimed at knocking offline command-and-control servers.
The indictment, which includes multiple other defendants whose names have been blacked out, includes charges of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, aggravated identity theft and other crimes.
It was not immediately clear if Witte had a lawyer.


China to send 3 male astronauts to its space station in June

China to send 3 male astronauts to its space station in June
Updated 31 May 2021

China to send 3 male astronauts to its space station in June

China to send 3 male astronauts to its space station in June
  • The Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, is the third and largest space station launched by China’s increasingly ambitious space program
  • China has sent 11 astronauts, including two women, into space beginning with Yang’s flight in October 2003

BEIJING: A three-man crew of astronauts will blast off in June for a three-month mission on China’s new space station, according to a space official who was the country’s first astronaut in orbit.
The plans for the station’s first crew were confirmed to state television by Yang Liwei, the manned space program’s deputy chief designer, as an automated spacecraft was launched with fuel and supplies for the Tianhe station.
The Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, is the third and largest space station launched by China’s increasingly ambitious space program. Its core module was launched into orbit April 29.
The Shenzhou 12 capsule carrying the crew will be launched from the Jiuquan base in China’s northwest next month, Yang said in comments broadcast Saturday by China Central Television.
They will practice spacewalks and conduct repairs and maintenance as well as scientific operations.
Yang, who orbited Earth in 2003, gave no details of the astronauts’ identities or a flight date and said the crew will come from the program’s two earliest groups of astronauts.
Asked whether women would be in the crew, Yang said, “on Shenzhou 12 we don’t have them, but missions after that all will have them.”
The Tianzhou-2 spacecraft that docked with Tianhe on Sunday carried 6.8 tons of cargo including space suits, food and equipment for the astronauts and fuel for the station, according to the space program.
The space agency plans a total of 11 launches through the end of next year to deliver two more modules for the 70-ton station, supplies and the crew.
Beijing doesn’t participate in the International Space Station, largely due to US objections. Washington is wary of the Chinese program’s secrecy and its military connections.
China has sent 11 astronauts, including two women, into space beginning with Yang’s flight in October 2003. The first female astronaut was Liu Yang in 2012.
All of China’s astronauts to date have been pilots from the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army.
Astronauts on the Tianhe will practice making spacewalks with two people outside the hull at one time, according to Yang. China’s first spacewalk was made in 2008 by Zhai Zhigang outside the Shenzhou 7 capsule.
Also this month, the Chinese space program landed a probe, the Tianwen-1, on Mars carrying a rover, the Zhurong.


China says Martian rover takes first drive on surface of Red Planet

China says Martian rover takes first drive on surface of Red Planet
Updated 22 May 2021

China says Martian rover takes first drive on surface of Red Planet

China says Martian rover takes first drive on surface of Red Planet
  • Zhurong, named after a mythical Chinese god of fire, drove down to the surface of Mars at 10:40 a.m. Beijing time

BEIJING: A remote-controlled Chinese motorized rover drove down the ramp of a landing capsule on Saturday and onto the surface of the Red Planet, making China the first nation to orbit, land and deploy a land vehicle on its inaugural mission to Mars.
Zhurong, named after a mythical Chinese god of fire, drove down to the surface of Mars at 10:40 a.m. Beijing time (0240 GMT), according to a post on the rover’s official Chinese social media account.


Hackers targeted SolarWinds earlier than previously known

Hackers targeted SolarWinds earlier than previously known
Updated 20 May 2021

Hackers targeted SolarWinds earlier than previously known

Hackers targeted SolarWinds earlier than previously known
  • By seeding the company’s widely used software update with malicious code, hackers were able to penetrate the networks of multiple US government agencies and private sector corporations in an apparent act of cyberespionage

WASHINGTON: The hackers who carried out the massive SolarWinds intrusion were in the software company’s system as early as January 2019, months earlier than previously known, the company’s top official said Wednesday.
SolarWinds had previously traced the origins of the hack to the fall of 2019 but now believes that hackers were doing “very early recon activities” as far back as the prior January, according to Sudhakar Ramakrishna, the company’s president and CEO.
“The tradecraft that the attackers used was extremely well done and extremely sophisticated, where they did everything possible to hide in plain sight, so to speak,” Ramakrishna said during a discussion hosted by the RSA Conference.
The SolarWinds hack, which was first reported last December and which US officials have linked to the Russian government, is one in a series of major breaches that has prompted a major cybersecurity focus from the Biden administration. By seeding the company’s widely used software update with malicious code, hackers were able to penetrate the networks of multiple US government agencies and private sector corporations in an apparent act of cyberespionage. The US imposed sanctions against Russia last month.
Also Wednesday, Ramakrishna apologized for the way the company blamed an intern earlier this year during congressional testimony for poor password security protocols. That public statement, he said, was “not appropriate.”
“I have long held a belief system and an attitude that you never flog failure. You want your employees, including interns, to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes and together we become better,” he added. “Obviously you don’t want to make the same mistake over and over again. You want to improve.”


Chinese Mars rover beams back first photos

Chinese Mars rover beams back first photos
Updated 19 May 2021

Chinese Mars rover beams back first photos

Chinese Mars rover beams back first photos
  • China’s first probe on the Red Planet has beamed back its first “selfies” after its history-making landing last week
  • The Zhurong rover has been celebrated in China as a milestone in its ascent to space superpower status

BEIJING: Solar panels against an alien landscape, ramps and rods pointing at the Martian horizon — China’s first probe on the Red Planet has beamed back its first “selfies” after its history-making landing last week.
The Zhurong rover was carried into the Martian atmosphere in a lander on Saturday, in the first ever successful probe landing by any country on its first Mars mission.
Zhurong, named after a mythical Chinese fire god, arrived a few months behind the United States’ latest probe to Mars — Perseverance — and has been celebrated in China as a milestone in its ascent to space superpower status.
The China National Space Administration on Wednesday published the images taken by cameras attached to the rover, which showed the obstacle-avoidance equipment and solar panels on the vehicle, as well as the texture of the Martian surface.
“People of the Internet, the Mars images you’ve been longing for are here,” the space agency said in a social media post containing the images.
The rover’s landing was a nail-biter for Chinese space engineers, with state media describing the process of using a parachute to slow descent and buffer legs as “the most challenging part of the mission.”
It is expected to spend around three months there taking photos and harvesting geographical data.
China has come a long way in its race to catch up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.
It successfully launched the first module of its new space station last month with hopes of having it crewed by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon.