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The EcoIsland

The UK’s energy prices are soaring. As gas and oil reserves run dry, the cost of energy will continue to climb. But what if we could wean ourselves off fossil fuels and make the jump to clean, renewable energy?

This is exactly what a small island off the coast of Africa plans to do. With a population of 11,000 people, El Hierro is building a solution to its mounting energy costs. As the most remote Canary Island, it struggles to meet the high price of shipping oil from the mainland. But what the island lacks in fossil fuels it makes up for in wind – over 3,000 hours a year of gusts blowing fast enough to propel windmills and generate

And on the rare windless day, El Hierro hopes to bridge the gaps in its electricity supply with the ultimate energy cache: a 500,000m cubed reservoir some 700m up inside the island’s dormant volcano. When the power supply dwindles, the reservoir
can be drained downhill through turbines to generate electricity.

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Loosing the Louse on Europe’s Largest Invasive Pest


Don’t be duped by its delicate pale flowers; Japanese knotweed can be a sinister plant. Native to eastern Asia, Fallopia japonica was intentionally introduced into gardens in Europe 200 years ago by fans of its attractive blooms; from there it spread to North America. What makes this invasive weed so menacing is its ability to grow through solid concrete foundations, forcing contractors to abandon infested building sites. In England alone, about a half-million homes are uninsurable, and in the United Kingdom, damages and removal cost $288 million a year.

Now the British government has taken a bold step to solve this knotty problem, and North American researchers might not be far behind. Last week, after more than 5 years of research into the matter and an initial pilot trial, the United Kingdom approved the widespread release of one of the plant’s natural enemies. While there are dozens of biological controls already in use against insect pests, this is the fi rst offi cially sanctioned release of one against a weed in the European Union. “This is an extremely important step. … If this is successful, it will really open the doors and open the minds of people for this control method in Europe,” says weed biocontrol specialist Hariet Hinz of CABI Europe in Delemont, Switzerland, a nonprofi t agricultural research organization.

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May the Best Analyst Win

LAST MAY, JURE ŽBONTAR, A 25-YEAR-OLD computer scientist at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, was among the 125 million people around the world paying close attention to the televised finale of the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Started in 1956 as a modest battle between bands or singers representing European nations, the contest has become an often-bizarre affair in which some acts seem deliberately bad—France’s 2008 entry involved a chorus of women wearing fake beards and a lead singer altering his vocals by sucking helium—and the outcome, determined by a tally of points awarded by each country following telephone voting, has become increasingly politicized.

Žbontar and his friends gather annually and bet on which of the acts will win. But this year he had an edge because he had spent hours analyzing the competition’s past voting patterns. That’s because he was among the 22 entries in, and the eventual winner of, an online competition to predict the song contest’s results.

The competition was run by Kaggle, a small Australian start-up company that seeks to exploit the concept of “crowdsourcing” in a novel way. Kaggle’s core idea is to facilitate the analysis of data, whether it belongs to a scientist, a company, or an organization, by allowing outsiders to model it. To do that, the company organizes competitions in which anyone with a passion for data analysis can battle it out. The contests offered so far have ranged widely, encompassing everything from ranking international chess players to evaluating whether a person will respond to HIV treatments to forecasting if a researcher’s grant application will be approved. Despite often modest prizes—Žbontar won just $1000—the competitions have so far attracted more than 3000 statisticians, computer scientists, econometrists, mathematicians, and physicists from approximately 200 universities in 100 countries, Kaggle founder Anthony Goldbloom boasts.

And the wisdom of the crowds can sometimes outsmart those offering up their data. In the HIV contest, entrants significantly improved on the efforts of the research team that posed the challenge. Citing Žbontar’s success as another example, Goldbloom argues that Kaggle can help bring fresh ideas to data analysis. “This is the beauty of competitions. He won not because he is perhaps the best statistician out there but because his model was the best for that particular problem. … It was a true meritocracy,” he says.

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Ancient Tweaking

Twenty years ago, scientists knew nothing of the scraps of RNA that are now known to influence just about every process in our bodies. Back then, the textbooks were simpler: genes code for proteins via the intermediate of RNA, and proteins called transcription factors regulate other proteins. This recipe was so entrenched in the basic orthodoxy of molecular biology that it was even given the name ‘the central dogma’ by the co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick.

Scientists now know, however, that this classic view of protein regulation is far too blunderingly inefficient for evolution to settle for. At some point hundreds of millions of years ago, the generation of a small stretch of RNA that could tweak this process gave an individual the edge over everyone else. And so regulatory RNA was born. These scraps of RNA – on average only 22 nucleotides long and now dubbed microRNAs, or miRNAs for short – bind to some messenger RNAs and label them for inactivation or destruction.

So far thousands of miRNAs have been identified in animals. These superintendents of protein regulation are involved in the earliest stages of an animal’s development, determining which cell types grow where and when, and how these cells differentiate into the different body parts. However, since the discovery of miRNAs, many scientists have wondered whether the same miRNAs govern specific tissues in different animals. Knowing this would not only give clues to the age of these different miRNAs, but
also to the age of the cells in which they are found.

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Shaping up HIV

In the 1960s, a Danish company, seeking to improve on the traditional football made from the bladder and stomach of animals, invented the modern football. The designers realised that to form a perfect ball they needed to combine 20 leather hexagons with 12 pentagons, and in so doing demonstrated one of the basic laws of shape – that you cannot wrap a sheet of six-sided hexagons around a sphere. To induce the sheet to bend, the company had to introduce five-sided pentagons alongside the hexagons.

On the micro scale, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, faces a similar challenge during the assembly of new viral particles: how to coerce its hexagonshaped building blocks to form the spherical envelope that
surrounds its viral innards. Lifting a page from the football manual, structural biologist John Briggs, group leader at EMBL Heidelberg, wondered if HIV likewise solved this shape conundrum by introducing pentagons between the hexagons.

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Cue factors

Our genes were once thought to be responsible for shaping who we are. But now scientists are having a rethink. Thanks to a glut of data from new sequencing projects, researchers are beginning to recognise that the regions of the human genome that encode proteins are unlikely to be behind the millions of differences between people.

So the question remains: what accounts for these differences? Searching for an answer, biologists have pored over the few individual genome sequences that have been completed so far. And these researchers have asked: if the rare stretches of DNA that code for proteins are not responsible for many of the differences found between humans, then what about the remaining 98% of the genome that does not encode proteins – the so-called non-coding DNA?

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