Synthetic DNA — called XNA — created, evolves on its own

The real deal – in a computer simulation

Step aside, DNA—new synthetic compounds called XNAs can also store and copy genetic information, a new study says. And, in a “big advancement,” these artificial compounds can also be made to evolve in the lab, according to study co-author John Chaput of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.

Nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA are composed of four bases—A, G, C, and T. Attached to the bases are sugars and phosphates.

First, researchers made XNA building blocks to six different genetic systems by replacing the natural sugar component of DNA with one of six different polymers, synthetic chemical compounds…The team—led by Vitor Pinheiro…then evolved enzymes, called polymerases, that can make XNA from DNA, and others that can change XNA back into DNA.

This copying and translating ability allowed for genetic sequences to be copied and passed down again and again—artificial heredity.

Last, the team determined that HNA, one of the six XNA polymers, could respond to selective pressure in a test tube…As would be expected for DNA, the stressed HNA evolved into different forms.

This shows that “beyond heredity, specific XNAs have the capacity for Darwinian evolution,” according to the study…

All of XNA’S actions are “completely controlled by experimentalists—it’s 100 percent unnatural,” study co-author Chaput noted…But such control means that scientists can “use [XNA] to ask very basic questions in biology,” such as about the origins of life, Chaput said.

For instance, “it’s possible that life didn’t begin with DNA and proteins like we see today—it may have begun with something much, much simpler,” he said.

A scientist could potentially evolve XNA to discover various functions that would have been important for early life.

I love it. Opening biochemistry to the inventiveness of humankind. Practical and experimental modeling beyond computer models.

Archaeologists unearth 3,000 Buddhas in Handan, China

The head of a Buddha statue peeks above the dirt in Handan, China, where archaeologists have reportedly unearthed nearly 3,000 Buddha statues, which could be up to 1,500 years old.

The discovery is believed to be the largest of its kind since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, an archaeologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told reporters…

The Buddha statues—most of which are made of white marble and limestone and many of which are broken—could date back to the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi dynasties (A.D. 534 to 577), experts say.

The statues—discovered during a dig outside of Ye, the ancient capital of the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi dynasties—may have been rounded up and buried after the fall of the Northern Qi dynasty by later emperors in an attempt to purge the country of Buddhism.

“It may have been that some of the ruins and broken sculptures from the past were gathered from old temple sites and buried in a pit,” said Katherine Tsiang, director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago.

In some cases, the Buddhist statues may have been buried by the faithful themselves in times of danger.

Lovely discovery. In a nation that reveres history in more than a cultural way.

You know – I’ve been thinking of a new couch for the living room?

Salone Internazionale del Mobile has been showcasing the latest in home-furnishing design from Italy and around the globe since 1961. This week we were lucky enough to be in Milan to preview the best the show has to offer and also meet with talented graduates at the Salone Satellite – a parallel exhibition which brings together the brightest young designers under 35. Stay tuned for more details on some of the exciting new projects we encountered, but in the meantime we hope this photo journal will give you a taste of the fascinating designs gracing the Milan Fairgrounds this week.

The couch seems kind of sexy.

Click on the photo and look through the rest of the furnishings on display. May be something you like.

This woman will be heard from — She climbs on top of Iran President Ahmadinejad’s car!

Jumps onto Ahmadinejad’s car just over 2 minutes into the video – iPad users click url upper LH corner

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has always made a point of his approachability. He once gave out the private contact details of his presidential office (which caused lines to jam almost immediately). He appears to enjoy the chaos of lively crowds.

But even he may have been surprised by one woman’s determination to meet him.

A video posted online shows a crowd surrounding Mr Ahmadinejad’s open-topped car on recent tour of the southern city of Bandar Abbas.

“I’m hungry, I’m hungry,” shouts one man, as he reaches for the president’s hand. Others try to give him envelopes – often these contain appeals for help…

The crowd manages to stop the motorcade. One woman standing in front of the president’s car decides to take her chance.

Wait a second, this is the moment,” one woman shouts to the president’s bodyguards – who appear to be twice her size.

She clambers onto the bonnet of the car, shakes off one bulky officer who makes a half-hearted attempt to grab her ankle, and goes straight up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the open roof-top.

She gestures to the president with tremendous animation – the video doesn’t pick up whether she’s criticising him or asking for his help. Mr Ahmadinejad listens with calm. And the woman then climbs back down from the car.

The article then gives you two ways to interpret this. Of course. No one will sit more in the middle of the road than the BBC.

What makes me chuckle is that while Western talking heads will prattle about this “obvious” dissatisfaction of the Iranian people – step back for a second and imagine what would have happened if she tried this, say, on Pennsylvania Avenue?

She’d be lying in the street riddled with bullets.

Pope pissed off at uppity American nuns — orders Inquisition!

You’re toast!

The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Vatican’s assessment…said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care…

Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Annmarie Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage…

The verdict on the nuns group was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is now led by an American, Cardinal William Levada… He appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead the process of reforming the sisters’ conference, with assistance from Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki and Bishop Leonard Blair, who was in charge of the investigation of the group.

They have been given up to five years to revise the group’s statutes, approve of every speaker at the group’s public programs and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. They are also supposed to review the Leadership Conference’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Life.

Doctrinal issues have been in the forefront during the papacy of Benedict XVI, who was in charge of the Vatican’s doctrinal office before he became pope. American nuns have come under particular scrutiny. Last year, American bishops announced that a book by a popular theologian at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, should be removed from all Catholic schools and universities.

And while the Vatican was investigating the Leadership Conference, the Vatican was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public.

Just in case anyone wondered about transparency or democracy under a theocracy. The Pope and his henchmen bishops are making it clear that modern thought is anathema; equal civil rights for women are forbidden; any attempts to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the 20th or 21st Centuries will be met with an Inquisition and whatever penalties the men in charge deem necessary.

While you’re at it – if you’re a True Believer who dares to disagree with this Inquisition – then reconsider why you should be obeying Holy Monarchs in the first place. If you’re wandering the Web, reading and examining independent thought without following the rules of the official catechism – maybe you might find yourself capable of many more decisions on your own.

Low-carbon alkali cement paves the way to energy savings

Happy Drexel researchers at manual labor

The source of 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions is hiding in plain sight, in the sidewalk beneath our feet. It is cement, a key ingredient of concrete, the most widely used building material on the planet. And manufacturing conventional “Portland” cement releases nearly a ton of the greenhouse gas for every ton produced – some 3 billion tons in 2010…

Enter Drexel University materials scientists Alexander Moseson and Michel Barsoum. They’ve created a low-tech, low-energy, low-cost cement that they hope to move out of the lab and into the real world.

But they face huge hurdles: Entrenched industry, tough building codes, a mindset that says there’s only one way to lay a foundation or build a bridge – with Portland cement…

The problem with any bid to replace it…is that Portland cement enjoys economies of scale, which keep prices down. Introduced in the 19th century, it’s also familiar: Governments and builders have many decades of “use and comfort” with the product, he said. It is the benchmark for industry codes. “Officials have a duty to give taxpayers the best, most-durable road or bridge or whatever possible,” Steve Kosmatka of the Portland Cement Association said. “There’s risk to trying new things…”

Moseson and Barsoum are…mixing recycled iron slag or fly ash with readily available limestone. “We literally used a bag of garden lime from Home Depot,” Moseson said. Instead of a coal-fired kiln, they use a bucket with a spoon at room temperature…

Tests showed that the Drexel duo’s cement is as durable as Portland but emits 95 percent less CO2. “You’ve found a way to bake bread without the oven,” Moseson said one impressed investor remarked. That energy-saving trick means this cement could cost about 50 percent less to produce, according to their calculations…

But market issues, lack of environmental awareness, inconsistent ingredients, and limited knowledge of cement chemistry have restricted alkali cement to a niche market. The cement industry came up with viable alkali cements 20 years ago but found few customers, Kosmatka said. “It was a product ahead of its time.”

Now, proponents say, the time for more widespread application of alternatives may be right.

Governments in Asia and elsewhere are kick-starting green building industries, opening doors for alkali-activated and other green cements. China’s newest cement standards, for instance, require a 15 percent reduction in energy use. India’s green-building standard takes a life-cycle approach and emphasizes recycling and pollution reduction.

And in the United States…?