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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    KARLA MURTHY: Loredana Quadro left Italy 19 years ago to pursue a career in science here in the U.S.

    LOREDANA QUADRO: The United States was always seen as the place to be a scientist because there were a lots of opportunities.

    KARLA MURTHY: So was it your dream to, you know, one day have your own lab?

    LOREDANA QUADRO: Of course. Of course.

    KARLA MURTHY: Quadro has now been running her own lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey for almost 10 years. And Quadro has now been running her own lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey for almost 10 years. And she’s built her career on answering a very specific question: How vitamin A is absorbed by embryos and understanding that basic function could ultimately help prevent birth defects.

    LOREDANA QUADRO: When you actually understand or think you might have understood a little tiny thing that is going on into a cell. It’s really rewarding.

    KARLA MURTHY: But now, all of her years of work is in jeopardy. Like many scientists working at a university, she depends on grants from the Federal Government to run her lab. They pay for everything from supplies to her team of researchers. If Quadro doesn’t get a new grant by July, she’ll be out of money.

    KARLA MURTHY: So you’re in danger of losing your lab.


    KARLA MURTHY: The National Institutes of Health, the NIH, is the single largest funder of biomedical research in the world. but over the last 13 years, the NIH budget has actually declined more than 22 percent in terms of purchasing power.

    And tighter budgets have meant that getting one of these coveted grants is even more difficult. In the past, a third of all grants submitted were funded. Today it’s about a sixth of all grants. And many say this hypercompetitive atmosphere is threatening not only the careers of promising scientists but the advancement of scientific breakthroughs.

    LOREDANA QUADRO: It’s very stressful

    KARLA MURTHY: Quadro says that she’s constantly worrying about money. She estimates that she spends about 80 percent of her time working on grants.

    KARLA MURTHY: How does having to focus on grant writing, how has that affected your work in the lab.

    LOREDANA QUADRO: I don’t work in the lab. I can’t because I have to work on grant writing most of the time.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: People who could be doing experiments are instead writing, rewriting, submitting, resubmitting, trying to get that grant. And what a terrible waste of talent

    KARLA MURTHY: Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the NIH and has been pushing for more research funding.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Whether it’s in cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, basic science, clinical applications, we’re at a remarkable moment scientifically. But paradoxically we’re at about the worst moment we’ve been to support that, at least in this country.

    KARLA MURTHY: One would think that when you’re in an environment that’s this competitive for dollars, that only the best of the best science is gonna get funded.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Turns out that’s not true. Cause we can look back now, can we actually say that the top sixth was better than the next sixth? Turns out we can’t. You can’t tell them apart. So what does that say? That says we’re leaving half of the great science on the table that’s coming to us now ’cause we can’t find the funds for it.

    KARLA MURTHY: Dr. Collins recently testified before a House Appropriations Committee, asking for a three percent increase to the NIH’s budget, enough money for 1,200 new grants. But Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole warned that while everyone supported biomedical research, a big increase to the NIH was not likely.

    TOM COLE (R-OK): Given the reality of funding allocations, we might not be able to do everything that the administration is proposing

    FRANCIS COLLINS: Science is not a 100-yard dash. It’s a marathon. And what that means is that the science we’re not doing today, because we don’t have the resources, is hurting our future 10, 15, 20 years from now in ways that we don’t even know.

    KARLA MURTHY: Why should it be, you know, the government’s responsibility to be the primary funder for biomedical research? Why not foundations or private industry?

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Private industry, frankly, is not going to do that. Their stockholders are expecting a return on that investment, and increasingly expecting that return to happen quickly in a matter of a couple of years.

    KARLA MURTHY: And Dr. Collins says that philanthropy funds only a tiny fraction of research compared to the NIH and often has a narrow focus on specific diseases.

    JUDITH STORCH: He left academia.

    KARLA MURTHY: Judith Storch is a colleague of Loredana Quadro’s at Rutgers. She’s been a scientist for more than three decades and has seen the dramatic change in the competition for science funding over the years. Her lab is just downstairs from Quadro’s, where she studies how lipids move around in cells. Although it hasn’t been easy, she’s been consistently funded during her career. She says having years of experience can give senior scientists like her a leg up.

    JUDITH STORCH: Part of the reason I think it’s easier for a senior investigator to get funded than a junior investigator is because we have a track record.

    KARLA MURTHY: And some in the next generation have decided to drop out altogether.

    JUDITH STORCH: We have graduate students that decide not to finish, we have graduate students who finish and then go and do something entirely different. But people are opting out like crazy.

    KARLA MURTHY: Including Lesley Wassef-Birosik. She was Quadro’s first postdoctoral fellow and came to the U.S. from Australia in 2006. But after seven and a half years in Quadro’s lab, she decided to switch careers. She’s now working as a medical writer.

    KARLA MURTHY: I mean, that’s a big decision, to change course like that?

    LESLEY WASSEF-BIROSIK: Yeah. It was a tough decision. I thought I could do it. But I was very naive. I didn’t see how hard it was to get a grant. And no matter who you spoke to, no matter which lab you spoke to, everyone would say, “It was tough.”

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: What wakes me up at night is this next generation and what’s happening to them. And they’re invariably excited about the science that they’re doing, but invariably anxious about where there’s a future

    KARLA MURTHY: The environment for science funding has left some questioning whether the United States will remain the same worldwide leader in science research that attracted Loredana Quadro and so many others here.

    A recent survey of scientists in the U.S. by advocates for more funding found that 18 percent were considering leaving the country to pursue their careers.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: We are still the leader, but not by a lot. And I can’t help but point to China in particular. In another four or five years, they will be spending more in absolute dollars than we are. And the consequences are already apparent. China filed more patents in biomedical research last year than the United States did.

    KARLA MURTHY: I mean, if there is a biomedical breakthrough in China, won’t I still, as a citizen here, benefit?

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: But it’s the country that is in the lead that is gonna have lots of the most immediate consequences. Research that goes on in the U.S. has the highest likelihood of influencing our medical care in the short run. It also is the country that’s gonna have the greatest economic benefit.

    KARLA MURTHY: Dr. Collins points to the Human Genome Project, which he led before becoming direcro of the NIH. A study estimated that each dollar invested led to $178 in economic benefit for the U.S., including jobs, tax revenues, and additional funding for genome research.

    To help scientists with funding, the NIH is experimenting with different models of funding, grants specifically geared towards younger scientists and allowing investigators to re-submit grants multiple times.

    But for Loredana Quadro, time is running out.

    She has received some bridge funding from her university and continues to work on grants, including to the NIH.

    KARLA MURTHY: Would you ever consider leaving this field?

    LOREDANA QUADRO: It’s a very difficult question. If somebody doesn’t get funded for five years, you are automatically out of the picture. It would be very tough to go back in. And if this happens, I will have to make a decision.

    The post Will declining funding stunt scientific discovery in the U.S.? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A tourist swims on the Great Barrier Reef in this undated file picture. Amid pressure of losing its World Heritage status, the government has decided to expand areas subject to curbs on shipping. Photo by HO/Great Barrier Reef National Park Authority/Reuters.

    A tourist swims on the Great Barrier Reef in this undated file picture. Amid pressure of losing its World Heritage status, the government has decided to expand areas subject to curbs on shipping. Photo by HO/Great Barrier Reef National Park Authority/Reuters.

    Australia will widen curbs on shipping around the Great Barrier Reef in an effort to protect the endangered coral system, the government said Saturday.

    The new plan designates an additional 565,000 square kilometers (218,000 square miles) of the Coral Sea to curbs on shipping, a 140 percent increase, Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss said in a statement.

    The decision comes as the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral system in the world — which stretches more than 1,400 miles along the Queensland coast of Australia and is home to thousands of marine species — may lose its World Heritage Site status.

    Amid growing international concern over the reef’s future, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also said it may add the coral reef to its list of World Heritage sites that are in danger.

    The Great Barrier Reef has already lost 50 percent of its coral cover over the past 30 years and continues to face environmental risks from oil and gas mining, pollution, coastal development, climate change and commercial fishing, the Guardian reported.

    The reef also faces threats from coal, particularly the coal mining in Queensland, the country’s largest coal-producing state.

    “Our new measures enhance protection for the Coral Sea-as well as the adjacent Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area- by helping ships traverse the region safely and avoid potentially hazardous areas,” Truss said.

    UNESCO will make its final decision on whether to list the reef as in danger next month.

    The post Australia to expand shipping curbs around Great Barrier Reef appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Synthetic biologist at the University of California, Berkeley show off their brewer's yeast for opiates. The beaker on the left contains a yeast strain that changes color when a key ingredient for opiates is ready. This color-coded biosensor allowed the researchers to make (S)-reticuline (right beaker; white liquid), an important chemical predecessor of opiates like codeine and morphine.

    Synthetic biologist at the University of California, Berkeley show off their brewer’s yeast for opiates. The beaker on the left contains a yeast strain that changes color when a key ingredient for opiates is ready. This color-coded biosensor allowed the researchers to make (S)-reticuline (right beaker; white liquid), an important chemical predecessor of opiates like codeine and morphine.

    Step aside, poppy. Biologists in California and Canada have created strains of yeast that can feast on sugar and make opiates – the key ingredients in pain relievers like morphine.

    The new study, published today in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, represents a coup for scientists and drug companies that currently rely on extracting drugs like morphine and codeine directly from poppies and other plants, a process that’s expensive and can yield impurities that cause harmful side-effects. The discovery could mean cheaper medications — where biochemists brew large batches of pure opiates overnight rather than waiting months for poppy fields to grow. It could also have dangerous consequences if it falls into the wrong hands.

    “This work is going to enable the production of novel [pain-relieving] analgesics that are safer and less addictive,” said MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye, who co-wrote an accompanying commentary for Nature Chemical Biology about possible regulations and was not involved with the research. “The other part of the equation is if those yeast strains work their way into broad circulation, then you’re talking about fundamental changes in illicit drug production and distribution.”

    Yeast could streamline the drug-making process by bypassing plants, which grow slowly and produce only small amounts of chemicals, and move the process instead to a beaker, where scientists could brew larger quantities of the drug.

    To envision how researchers moved the opiate-making process from plants to yeast, picture a staircase with 15 steps. Glucose, a sugar compound, sits at the bottom, while the top level is filled with morphine, codeine and other members of a drug family known as benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIAs). At each step up, a different enzyme transforms sugar into a new compound, adding to the complexity of the chemical structure.

    In the past, scientists relied on yeast for only the final steps, fabricating the opiates from the compounds created at the intermediate steps.

    Scientists have known that yeast could also make the early stages of the process more efficient, but they’ve never isolated the right enzyme to make it work. At that stage, a compound is required called L-dopa, which is made by the enzyme tyrosine hydroxlase. Despite years of searching, scientists had never found a version of the tyrosine hydroxylase enzyme in plants, animals or bacteria that could work in yeast. And using yeast in both the early and late stages of the process would simplify the process.

    Then in January 2014, William DeLoache — a biologist and graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and lead author of the study – devised a way to fill the L-dopa void. At the time, DeLoache was working with the plant Mirabalis jalapa – the four o’clock flower, whose petals contain a protein that converts L-dopa into a highly fluorescent and colorful pigment, ostensibly to attract insect pollinators.

    “William saw that this protein could serve as a means for detecting when L-dopa is present in yeast cells,” said John Dueber, a synthetic biologist and DeLoache’s thesis mentor at UC Berkeley.

    For today’s study, DeLoache took the four o’clock flower protein and genetically added it to a yeast strain, creating a biosensor for L-dopa, a way for scientists to identify its presence.

    “To me, the heart of the study is the sensor that they developed,” said biochemist Pamela Peralta-Yahya of the Georgia Institute of Technology. And that sensor, she explained, allowed them to identify the enzyme they needed to fill the gap in opiate synthesis. On a hunch, they spotted the enzyme in sugar beets.

    “It’s known that L-dopa is an intermediate in the pathway that produces the pigment responsible for the beet’s violet color,” Dueber said. “So [DeLoache] took a guess at the beet’s gene [for tyrosine hydroxylase], inserted it into the biosensor yeast strain, and the cells glowed.”

    Yeast cells producing the yellow beet pigment betaxanthin, which UC Berkeley researchers used to quickly identify key enzymes in the production of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIAs), the metabolites in the poppy plant that could lead to morphine, antibiotics and other pharmaceutical agents. (Photo by William DeLoache)

    Yeast cells producing the yellow beet pigment betaxanthin, which UC Berkeley researchers used to quickly identify key enzymes in the production of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIAs), the metabolites in the poppy plant that could lead to morphine, antibiotics and other pharmaceutical agents. (Photo by William DeLoache)

    Colorful yeast cells were a neat trick, but their real mission was alkaloid production. So they took the glowing yeast and removed the protein that turned L-dopa into a bright dye. They tried replacing this pigment with a string of enzymes that could yield opiates.

    At first, they struggled, so they reached out to co-author and microbial engineer Vincent Martin of Concordia University in Montréal.

    “Vincent’s lab had demonstrated that they could execute these [first steps] in yeast to synthesize an anti-cancer drug,” Dueber said.

    In the end, by collaborating with Martin’s team, the researchers built a yeast strain that could take glucose and pump out (S)-reticuline, the chemical predecessor for the entire family of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids – whose 2,500 members includes the painkillers morphine and codeine, the antibiotics sanguinarine and berberine, the muscle relaxant papaverine and the cough suppressant noscapine.

    The final brewer’s yeast produces very low amounts of alkaloid, and right now, it is highly unlikely that a drug trafficker possesses the technology or scientists to recreate this study, Dueber said. Even if they did, they would get nearly undetectable amounts of opium.

    But more potent strains are inevitable, he added.

    “Whereas a year ago, I thought that putting all of these enzymes together into a single yeast cell might take a decade, now we’re thinking that high-producing opiate strains might be completed in two to three years,” Dueber said. “The regulations need to be reconsidered because they’re not currently written for microbial factories that produce a controlled substance.”

    Worried by this accelerated timeline, the team took the initiative to contact Oye and other policy experts, so the latter could start an independent discussion on how to regulate illicit use, while still maintaining the ability to make alkaloids that could lower the cost of medicines or even create new, safer opiate drugs.

    The fact that these scientists were even willing to talk about the risks at such an early stage was something that I hadn’t seen before, Oye said. Stricter regulatory policy might stifle the researcher’s ability to do future work.

    Oye’s op-ed calls for licenses for producers and security systems to prevent misuse or theft. In addition, they recommend that DNA tags be added to opiate yeast, so if law enforcement confiscates a stolen strain, then they can trace the original source.

    “You want to make these strains less appealing for illicit use, and at the same time, you want to make release of the strains into the general public far less likely,” Oye said. “We’ve taken an unusual step by contacting two regulatory authorities — the International Narcotics Control Board and International Experts Group on Biosafety and Biosecurity Regulation — to get this on the agenda as soon as possible.”

    “The debate and discussion needs to take place before people fully realize the concept,” he said.

    The post This genetically modified yeast can now brew morphine appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo by Flickr user Texas Eagles.

    Can the federal government save the honeybee population? Photo by Flickr user Texas Eagles.

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal government hopes to reverse America’s declining honeybee and monarch butterfly populations by making more federal land bee-friendly, spending more money on research and considering the use of less pesticides.

    Scientists say bees — crucial to pollinate many crops — have been hurt by a combination of declining nutrition, mites, disease, and pesticides. The federal plan is an “all hands on deck” strategy that calls on everyone from federal bureaucrats to citizens to do what they can to save bees, which provide more than $15 billion in value to the U.S. economy, according to White House science adviser John Holdren.

    “Pollinators are struggling,” Holdren said in a blog post, citing a new federal survey that found beekeepers lost more than 40 percent of their colonies last year, although they later recovered by dividing surviving hives. He also said the number of monarch butterflies that spend the winter in Mexico’s forests is down by 90 percent or more over the past two decades, so the U.S. government is working with Mexico to expand monarch habitat in the southern part of that country.

    The plan calls for restoring 7 million acres of bee habitat in the next five years. Numerous federal agencies will have to find ways to grow plants on federal lands that are more varied and better for bees to eat because scientists have worried that large land tracts that grow only one crop have hurt bee nutrition.

    The plan is not just for the Department of Interior, which has vast areas of land under its control. Agencies that wouldn’t normally be thought of, such as Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation, will have to include bee-friendly landscaping on their properties and in grant-making.

    That part of the bee plan got praise from scientists who study bees.

    “Here, we can do a lot for bees, and other pollinators,” University of Maryland entomology professor Dennis vanEnglesdorp, who led the federal bee study that found last year’s large loss. “This I think is something to get excited and hopeful about. There is really only one hope for bees and it’s to make sure they spend a good part of the year in safe healthy environments. The apparent scarcity of these areas is what’s worrying. This could change that.”

    University of Montana bee expert Jerry Bromenshenk said the effort shows the federal government finally recognizes that land use is key with bees.

    “From my perspective, it’s a wake-up call,” Bromenshenk wrote in an email. “Pollinators need safe havens, with adequate quantities of high-quality resources for food and habitat, relatively free from toxic chemicals, and that includes pollutants as well as pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.”

    The administration proposes spending $82.5 million on honeybee research in the upcoming budget year, up $34 million from now.

    The Environmental Protection Agency will step up studies into the safety of widely used neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been temporarily banned in Europe. It will not approve new types of uses of the pesticides until more study is done, if then, the report said.

    “They are not taking bold enough action; there’s a recognition that there is a crisis,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. She said the bees cannot wait, comparing more studies on neonicotinoids to going to a second and third mechanic when you’ve been told the brakes are shot.

    The report talks of a fine line between the need for pesticides to help agriculture and the harm they can do to bees and other pollinators.

    Lessening “the effects of pesticides on bees is a priority for the federal government, as both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of agriculture,” the report said.

    The post Feds propose plan to bolster decline in bees appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A male astronomer’s offhand comment during an interview prompted a social media outcry over the weekend when female scientists around the world took to Twitter using the hashtag #GirlsWithToys.

    “Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys’,” Shrinivas Kulkarni, a Caltech professor of astronomy and planetary science, said in a profile that aired on Saturday’s episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition.

    Although Kulkarni did not intend to undermine women’s contributions to the sciences, it came at a time when multiple organizations and initiatives are promoting the engagement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — also known as STEM — and encourage more girls to pursue careers in science and math.

    A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that men outnumber women in nearly every STEM field, with women earning as few as 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in fields like physics, engineering and computer science.

    As part of its Educate to Innovate initiative launched in 2009, the Obama Administration committed to expose more young women to STEM through partnerships with national organizations, government agencies and professional mentors.

    While recent decades have seen some progress, supporters of women in STEM say more needs to be done.

    “Creating STEM programming that engages girls earlier in their elementary and secondary-school education will help shift the classroom dynamic away from one that is majority boys and thus more welcoming to girls,” said Christina Wallace, founding director of BridgeUp: STEM at the American Museum of Natural History, and Nathalie Molina Nino, chief revenue officer of PowerToFly, in a TIME op-ed earlier this month.

    #GirlsWithToys continued to trend Tuesday, with women sharing photos taken of them posing with telescopes, peering into microscopes, controlling mars rovers or climbing into ice caverns to show off their research and the growing role they play in scientific discovery.

    There should be an embedded item here. Please visit the original post to view it.

    For more about young women in STEM, check out this Student Reporting Labs profile of a student defying stereotypes in her high school engineering course:

    Defying stereotypes, one robot at a time from Student Reporting Labs on Vimeo.

    Fourteen-year-old Keely Slade of John Hardin High School in Radcliff, Kentucky, is already an avid competitor in robotics competitions and excels in her school’s male-dominated engineering class.

    “Being a female and also being a freshmen is kind of difficult,” Slade said. “You have guys look at you like you’re weak and you’re timid. They don’t really expect someone who’s loud, outgoing and independent.”

    Keely has inspired other girls to join the class and said she hopes to pursue a career in engineering.

    “I know that I can see myself, 20 years from now, building bridges in civil engineering or helping with road construction designs,” she said.

    The post Astronomer’s ‘boys with toys’ remark inspires #GirlsWithToys response appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    “It’s all about the water.”

    New Yorkers love to claim that the secret behind their delicious bagels flows from the faucet.

    A new 3-minute explainer from the American Chemical Society (ACS) begs to differ.

    The video blog admits that bagel quality is influenced by water’s “softness” — a textural feature dictated by levels of two benign minerals: calcium and magnesium. The mineral content in water can toughen the dough by interacting with gluten, but this facet plays a minor role in defining the character of a New York Bagel, according to the video.

    The NYC best bagels, they say, rely on some extra love and care given prior to baking. The first key is letting the bagels sit in a cooler for a couple of days, which offers enough time for the yeast to ferment and release extra flavors. The second is boiling the bagels, which changes the chemical makeup of the dough’s starch, locking liquid water inside. The result is the shiny, crunchy exterior people seem to love.

    The post The secret to New York City bagels isn’t (just) in the water appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A new NOAA study provides a final link between the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and a flourish of dolphins deaths along the Gulf coast. This is one of the stranded dead dolphins that came ashore in 2012 along the Louisiana coast being photographed for study. Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

    A new NOAA study shows a link between the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and a flourish of dolphins deaths along the Gulf coast. This is one of the stranded dead dolphins that came ashore in 2012 along the Louisiana coast. Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

    The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster caused a fatal disease never seen before in dolphins living the in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new report from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The study finally gives verdict to whether or not petroleum exposure caused the biggest dolphin die-off ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.


    “No feasible alternatives remain that can reasonably explain the timing, location and nature of this increase in death,” co-author Stephanie Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego said in a press conference announcing the study. This forensic investigation is part of NOAA’s long-term ecological analysis of the Deepwater incident that was started in 2013, known as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

    BP* has always challenged the link between the current slate of dolphin deaths — more than 1,300 in five years — and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico between April and September 2010.

    Unusual mortality events (UMEs) — where large numbers of dolphins and other members of cetacean family perish in a short timeframe — are common in nature. Between 1991 and 2010, at least 10 of these mortality events had happened in the Gulf, primarily due to marine outbreaks of dolphin-related viruses and bacteria. Plus in the three months immediately prior to the Deepwater accident, 25 dead dolphins washed up near the Louisiana and Mississippi border.

    “It’s important to note that unfortunately these large die-offs of dolphins aren’t unusual,” BP wrote in a February statement in response to a NOAA study on the demographics of the die-off. “Over the past years there have been dolphin UMEs relating to dolphins all over the world, with no connection to oil spills.”

    However, today’s study announces a firm connection between the petroleum exposure caused by the Deepwater accident and the ongoing UME — the biggest in the recorded history of the Gulf. Prior to the Deepwater incident, the longest recorded UME had lasted 17 months from 2005 to 2006, while the most fatal occurred in 1990 — claiming 344 bottlenose dolphins.

    The ongoing die-off has claimed three times as many animals and lasted 60 months.

    In the study published in PLOS ONE, NOAA examined the major organs of 46 dolphins that died along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during June 2010 to December 2012. The researchers then compared these specimens to a control group of 106 dolphins that washed up either off the coastal Carolinas between 1996 to 2012 or off the Gulf Coast of Florida and Texas prior to the Deepwater oil spill.

    Oil floats on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico around a work boat at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico June 2, 2010. As the desperate effort to contain the gusher proceeded, the slick stretched farther. Tar balls and other oil debris from the giant, fragmented slick reached Alabama's Dauphin Island, parts of Mississippi and were less than 16 km (10 miles) from Florida's northwest Panhandle coast. Photo by Sean Gardner/Reuters

    Oil floats on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico around a work boat at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico June 2, 2010. The Deepwater leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico between April and September 2010. Photo by Sean Gardner/Reuters

    The researchers argue that when the dolphins swam to the surface for air, oil fumes and liquid petroleum leaked through their blowhole into the lungs and caused disease. The mortal blow for most of these marine mammals came in the form of shrunken, thinner adrenal glands, which had never been previously observed in Gulf dolphins.

    “Animals with untreated adrenal dysfunction can essentially be balancing precariously on a ledge, waiting for the right stressor to push them into an adrenal crisis,” Venn-Watson said.

    Much like in humans, adrenal glands produce hormones that help the body cope with physical stress. For dolphins, this stress usually comes in the form of dealing with the cold ocean water, pregnancy and naturally occurring bacteria that float around them.

    Without normal adrenal glands, the findings argue that the dolphins became susceptible to bacterial pneumonia — a condition that can damage the lungs to the point of suffocation or can completely impair the mammal’s immune system through septic shock.

    “These dolphins had some of the most severe lung lesions that I had ever seen in wild dolphins from throughout the U.S.,” said University of Illinois’s Kathleen Colegrove, who is the lead veterinary pathologist on the study. “More than 1 in 5 had pneumonia that was severe and caused or contributed to death in those dolphins.”

    In contrast, only one in 50 of the control animals from other parts of the Gulf had evidence of bacterial pneumonia.

    “Aside from chemical exposure, conditions that can cause adrenal dysfunction are cancer, autoimmune disease and tuberculosis. We didn’t find any of these additional causes,” Colegrove said. Red tide toxins and infectious causes of past dolphin die-offs — morbillivirus and Brucella bacteria — were ruled out for the majority of these cases too.

    The worst injuries were spotted in Barataria Bay, Louisiana — 40 miles due south of New Orleans. This location was hit hardest by the spill — with oil coating close to 25 miles of shoreline. NOAA previously found that sea turtles have died or have been displaced due to the oil spill.

    In January, a federal judge lowered the maximum cap on BP’s fine to $13.7 billion from $18 billion. A Congressional report from April says that BP has volunteered another $14 billion for cleanup operations and proposed another $1 billion on early restoration projects.

    “The results from our study paired with what’s been previously published indicate that dolphins were negatively impacted by exposure to petroleum compounds following the Deepwater oil spill. Exposure to these compounds has contributed to the increase in dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico,” Venn-Watson concluded.

    *Editor’s Note: Following publication, Geoff Morrell — a senior vice president at BP America — contacted PBS NewsHour with the following statement: “This new paper fails to show that the illnesses observed in some dolphins were caused by exposure to Macondo oil…Even though the UME may have overlapped in some areas with the oil spill, correlation is not evidence of causation.”

    The post NOAA Report: Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused biggest dolphin die-off in Gulf’s history appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    GWEN IFILL: Have you ever worried you might lose your job to a robot? I have.

    Hari Sreenivasan finds it could well happen with advances in artificial intelligence, or A.I., transforming the work force.

    That’s the latest report in our series on invention and innovation, Breakthroughs.

    MAN: Oh, all in?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: In a closely watched brains vs. artificial intelligence poker match held in Pittsburgh earlier this month, humans pulled off a slim win over a computer program called Claudico.

    MAN: All right. Good job.

    MAN: Good game, guys. Good game.

    MAN: Good game.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Tuomas Sandholm, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, created the algorithms that run Claudico’s A.I.

    TUOMAS SANDHOLM, Carnegie Mellon University: Those algorithms figure out how you should act strategically, how do you avoid or deal with humans trying to deceive you, and how do you deceive humans?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Sandholm predicts Claudico will be able to beat its human opponents within one to five years, much to the chagrin of Bjorn Li, the leading poker player in this tournament.

    BJORN LI: When that happens, poker will pretty much be dead.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But putting pro poker players out of work is not what Sandholm focuses all his time on. There are other things that Claudico can already do better than humans.

    TUOMAS SANDHOLM: In my lab, we have developed an algorithm for solving the matching problem for the nationwide kidney exchange for 60 percent of the transplant centers in the U.S. And there, twice a week, our algorithms make the transplantation plan for the whole country without any manual intervention. When there is scarcity of organs, the A.I. is making those decisions in an optimal way.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Matching the right kidney to the right patient is one example of an algorithmic artificial intelligence. But there are much larger demonstrations hitting the road, quite literally.

    Daimler has developed a prototype dubbed the Freightliner Inspiration Truck that’s being test-driven across Nevada. The hope is that computer-driven trucks can reduce the number of accidents. There are currently 5,000 fatalities a year involving trucks. Drivers would function more like pilots, overseeing computerized systems.

    But it begs the question: What jobs will survive in a new economy driven by automation?

    Remember Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy” game show champion who lost to IBM’s Watson in 2011? He says the writing is on the wall. Here he is in a TEDx talk.

    KEN JENNINGS: And I remember standing there behind the podium, as I could hear that little insectoid thumb. And you could hear that little tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.


    KEN JENNINGS: And I remember thinking, you know, this is it. I felt obsolete. I felt like a Detroit factory worker of the ’80s seeing a robot that could now do his job on the assembly line. And it was frigging demoralizing.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s not just quiz show contestants that are at risk. As more and more jobs are automated, Jennings’ experience could be a harbinger of things to come for American workers.

    That’s the argument made in a new book, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” by Martin Ford.

    MARTIN FORD, Author, “Rise of the Robots”: Going forward, we may see automation kind of unfold in a top-heavy pattern, where a lot of the best jobs are the ones to get impacted. Lawyers, pharmacists, certain areas of medicine like pathology and radiology, any kind of white-collar job where you are sitting at a computer at a desk, well, the people who you might call office drones, those are going to be very susceptible to this.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And there could be major disruptions to the U.S. economy, says Daphne Koller. She’s an A.I. scientist, and also president of the massive online learning company Coursera.

    DAPHNE KOLLER, Coursera: We are already starting to see jobs that were thought of as intelligent being outsourced to computers.

    So, for example, a large part of a paralegal’s job, which is hunting down the relevant references for a particular problem, is something that you would have thought requires intelligence. And now there are pretty good software systems that do not 100 percent of a paralegal’s job, but 80 to 90 percent.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Will artificial intelligence software do to the paralegal what the tractor did to the farmer?

    DAPHNE KOLLER: It is quite likely that that will happen. And I think that there will be entire job categories that will go away.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: We humans have always been resilient. With each industrial revolution, we have adapted, creating new jobs with new technologies.

    DAPHNE KOLLER: The optimistic perspective is that this will happen here, and that the jobs that will be created will by nature be higher and more cognitively interesting jobs that are beyond the spectrum of what an artificial intelligence program can do.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Leaving the less interesting jobs to robotic helpers like Botlr, an automated bellhop who cruises the halls of this Aloft Hotel. Is that such a bad thing?

    Stuart Russell, who directs the A.I. lab at the University of California at Berkeley, doesn’t think so.

    STUART RUSSELL, University of California, Berkeley: Some people think that, inevitably, every robot that does any task is a bad thing for the human race, because it could be taking a job away.

    But that isn’t necessarily true. You can also think of the robot as making a person more productive and enabling people to do things that are currently economically infeasible. But a person plus a robot or a fleet of robots could do things that would be really useful.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: A perhaps simple example, cleaning up graffiti.

    STUART RUSSELL: In many, many cities, the graffiti is just left because it’s too expensive. But if I had a team of robots that I could take around the city with me and point them to what needed to be cleaned up, I could get 10 times as much done. And there will be positions for graffiti-cleaning supervisors, which didn’t exist before.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Graffiti-cleaning supervising robots might exist in the future, but our economy is already evolving. There are plenty of jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago that are now in high demand in fields like digital marketing and data analysis.

    In fact, according to McKinsey & Company, the United States faces a shortage of data analysts. Almost 190,000 people are needed to analyze and understand big data. But will those jobs ultimately be filled by people or by deep learning machines?

    Deep learning is a new type of A.I. that relies on neural networks. They’re computer programs modeled after the human brain and nervous system.

    MAN: Hey, guys. How’s the training page looking?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: At the Palo Alto office of MetaMind, engineers are using the technology to help computers see by quickly identifying images and placing them in categories.

    The software can also understand nuance in the written word.

    Richard Socher is co-founder and CTO. He says the technology will aid humans, not replace them.

    RICHARD SOCHER, MetaMind: If you can bring the intelligence of the smartest people in a field, instill it in an algorithm with deep learning, you could really help a lot of people.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: One example, he says, is in the field of medicine.

    RICHARD SOCHER: If the best doctors in the world train an algorithm to find various different problems in C.T. scans or in X-rays, mammograms, for instance, you could build an algorithm that is almost as good as the best doctors in the world.

    A human can only look at so many mammograms in their lifetime. An algorithm could look at millions and millions, and eventually find subtle things that may have not even been that obvious to the human eye.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how will society adapt to a computer intelligence that can do work which, until now, only humans could?

    DAPHNE KOLLER: What people have going for them that computers as of yet don’t is the incredible adaptability of the human mind, the ability to learn new skills, the ability to really adapt to unexpected situations.

    And so what we really need to do is to help people become even better at that.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Just like in a poker game, we don’t know what the outcome will be. We humans are raising the stakes as we continue to drive advances in A.I. technology. So, it will be up to us to stay at the table.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch more stories from our Thinking Machines series on our Web site,

    The post Will your job get outsourced to a robot? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    OIL & WATER_Monitor dophin

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the lasting impact of America’s biggest offshore oil spill.

    It comes as officials are grappling with a new spill along the coast of Southern California near Santa Barbara. It began yesterday when an onshore pipeline ruptured. Slicks are now spanning a total of nine miles and the line was operating at full capacity when it broke.

    Today, a new study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at why dolphins died in such large numbers after the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010. It was the strongest link yet to the spill and to the deaths of bottlenose dolphins. More than 1,000 dolphins have died in the Gulf since 2010.

    The spill lasted nearly three months, spewing millions of gallons of oil and chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico.

    We get the latest from William Brangham, who weekend viewers will recognize, and he is now here with us as our newest NewsHour correspondent.

    And we welcome you to the team, William.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thanks, Judy. Great to be here.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s talk about this, what researchers are saying. What do they say these new studies show?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What they’re saying is that this has been the first definitive link where they can directly connect the death, this massive die-off of dolphins — as you mentioned, over 1,300 — I think it’s 1,200, 1,300 dolphins — linking those deaths directly with the oil spill.

    I mean, scientists have been studying these dolphins for several years, ever since the spill occurred. This is the first time they have said, we now know why they died and in such large numbers, and it’s because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, BP is pushing back, of course. They are saying there’s no proof that there’s a connection to the oil that came out of the Deepwater Horizon rig. What do scientists say about that?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s true.

    This has been BP’s argument all along, and in fact they have also pointed out that there were die-offs of dolphins that happened all the time on the Gulf, and that actually some of these dolphins had died off before the spill even occurred.

    But scientists went to great lengths today to say that they looked at all the other factors that have caused die-offs in the past, and that this particular spill, the impact the oil has had on marine mammals, they can directly connect it to the dolphins that they have seen. And, in fact, the research that they did showed in the areas where there was more oil in the water, more dolphins died, areas where there was less oil, less dolphins died.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, are the bottlenose dolphins still dying off, or was this a one-time phenomenon?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The deaths have occurred ever since the spill began all the way to the present day. The current study only looked at a couple of years after the spill.

    And what they did is, they examined 46 particular dolphins that died, and they were quickly able to catch them on the beaches of the Gulf. And they analyzed their tissues and found lung and adrenal gland problems. So this is — they think this may be an ongoing problem, but this study just looked at this particular period.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And do they offer an explanation for why they’re seeing this with the bottlenose dolphins, but not with other animal species, crab, fish, shrimp, and so forth?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The impact on those other species may occur. They just haven’t found the data on them yet.

    The reason that dolphins, the scientist says, are the — are particularly acute sort of ways to understand this is that, if you think about how a dolphin lives, they’re mammals. They breathe air. So during the spill, they come to the surface to breathe the — to breathe. They enter the area of the water where the oil is sitting, and so they take a huge, deep breath with their blowhole, suck oil and chemicals into that.

    Then they take a deep dive and hold that breath for a very long period of time. So, they’re particularly able to, in essence, suck in the oil and cause great deals of problems. Also, the scientists were able, to all throughout the spill, find these dolphins. They were able to go out and find them. They’re very large mammals swimming around in the water.

    So, they can observe them, they can capture them, they can do tests on them while they’re alive. And when the dolphins die, they wash up on the beaches, unlike a lot of other animals, that just might die and fall to the ocean floor. A dolphin washes up on a beach, people pay attention. They call local officials, and scientists can quickly go in and examine them before the tissue deteriorates.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know people are going to listen to this, and one of the things they’re going to ask is, what about other — what about those other animals? Are they saying that nothing is going to happen down the line to them, and particularly what about the potential seafood in the Gulf?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That, of course, is always a concern of consumers all over the country.

    There are current research projects going on under sea turtles to see the impacts on them and several other Gulf species. As far as the food that we eat, the shrimp and the crab that we’re used to, the FDA and all of the national government scientists that look at this have declared that those animals, at least the impacts that we would experience by eating them, those seem to be fine and we have been given the green light to eat Gulf seafood again.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But their research is ongoing, meantime.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: William Brangham, thank you.

    And, again, welcome to the NewsHour team.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have a note to add.

    Late today, a $211 million settlement was announced between Transocean, which is the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and businesses and individuals claiming damages from that 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

    The post New science shows Gulf spill is still killing dolphins appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Robot couple Xiaolan (L) and Xiaotao carry trays of food at a restaurant in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China, May 18, 2015. The restaurant, which opened on Monday has two robots delivering food for customers. The robots were designed as a couple, Xiaolan and Xiaotao, according to local media. Photo by Reuters

    Automation has long been a part of the service industry, but how much will robots contribute the white collar world? Photo by Reuters

    Martin Ford bookOver the past 20 years, we’ve seen plenty of blue collar jobs outsourced to machines — from auto assembly to customer service. Now, as computers, equipped with artificial intelligence, increasingly take over “information jobs,” tasks that were once reserved for skilled, college-educated white collar professionals are vulnerable. That’s the argument made by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford in a new book, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.”

    He spoke with us for a story that aired on Wednesday on the PBS NewsHour about the economic impact of artificial intelligence. It’s part of a series about the rapid advance of AI and how it’s affecting society.

    We asked Ford to give us three examples of white collar jobs that are ripe for automation. Pharmacists, attorneys and one close to our hearts — journalists. All three of these professions have already been transformed in profound ways most of us may not even realize.


    A pharmacist selects drugs for chemotherapy treatment in the pharmacy at Antoine-Lacassagne Cancer Centre in Nice October 18, 2012. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

    A pharmacist selects drugs for chemotherapy treatment. Automation likely would make this task more efficient. Photo by Eric Gaillard/Reuters

    “There is already a big impact on pharmacies. You have massive machines in hospitals that automate the whole process internally — and you’ve also got smaller machines about the size of a vending machine that are being deployed in pharmacies, so it’s already having a big impact,” Ford says.

    In a promotional video, Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy, explains how the technology allows her staff to focus more of their expertise on direct patient care: “Automated medication dispensing frees pharmacists from the mechanical aspects of the practice.”

    But Ford says that will change. “Right now, it may be true that a lot of pharmacists still have their jobs because we have laws and regulations that require them to be there. It takes a great deal of training and education to be a pharmacist, but what they do is fundamentally routine and it’s really geared toward producing a very consistent reliable result and that’s the kind of work that’s ideally suited to automation.”

    UCSF says another major goal of an automated pharmacy is patient safety — pointing to “studies that have shown that technology can help reduce errors.”

    You might remember Bob Wachter from part 2 of our series on AI. He is associate chair of UCSF’s medical school and author of “The Digital Doctor.” He warns of fatal implications that can result from an over-reliance on computers, citing the example of Pablo Garcia, a teenage patient at UCSF who survived after he was given 39 times the amount of antibiotics he should have received.

    “In two different cases, the computers threw up alerts on the computer screen that said, ‘this is an overdose.’ But the alert for a 39-fold overdose and the alert for a 1 percent overdose looked exactly the same. And the doctors clicked out of it. The pharmacists clicked out of it. Why? Because they get thousands of alerts a day, and they have learned to just pay no attention to the alerts.”

    So, was the error the fault of the humans or the machines — or is it a combination of the two?

    Wachter says that when “people are relegated to being monitors of a computer system that’s right most of the time, the problem is, periodically, the computer system will be wrong. And the question is, are the people still engaged or are they now asleep at the switch because the computers are so good?”


    Attorney Charles Cooper argues for supporting California's Proposition 8 in the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013.  Two members of the U.S. Supreme Court, both viewed as potential swing votes on the right of gay couples to marry, raised doubts about California's gay marriage ban on Tuesday as they questioned the lawyer defending the ban. Photo by Art Lien/Reuters

    It’s unlikely the Justices would respond to a robot. Here, attorney Charles Cooper argues before the Supreme Court in this 2013 drawing. Photo by Art Lien/Reuters

    “We are already seeing an impact in fields like law, with entry level and paralegal jobs which involve document review. It used to be a manual process. They had to read through documents. Now that’s done algorithmically using artificial intelligence.”

    Though it’s unlikely we’ll see robots litigating in courtrooms any time soon, Ford says that some highly billable work normally reserved for seasoned attorneys is in the process of being automated.

    “There’s a new emerging technology called quantitative legal prediction. It turns out that experienced lawyers often add a lot of value by making predictions. They’ll do things like tell you what is the likelihood you’re going to win a case, or that the case will be overturned on appeal, for example. It generally takes a lot of judgement and experience to make those kinds of predictions, but these algorithms can actually out-perform even the most experienced lawyers by just looking at lots and lots of data.”


    A foreign journalist raises her hand to ask a question during a news conference with Jiang Weixin, minister and secretary of the CPC Leadership Group of the Ministry of Housing And Urban-Rural Development, during the 18th National Party Congress (NPC) in Beijing November 12, 2012. At the last congress in 2007, top officials took one-on-one interviews, overseas reporters were encouraged to ask questions on whatever subject they wished and government media handlers went out of their way to be helpful, hoping to burnish China's global image ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games. This year, while economic officials and business leaders have generally been willing to talk, provincial leaders and rising political stars have largely shunned international media, and in some cases tried to avoid talking in public at all. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

    But would a robot ask the tough questions? Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

    We journalists are not immune from displacement by automation either. Using computer algorithms, companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already generating journalistic stories for clients like Forbes, covering topics that include business, sports and politics.

    In his book, Ford writes, “The company’s software generates a news story approximately every 30 seconds, and many of these are published on widely known websites that prefer not to acknowledge their use of the service.”

    He explained to us, “Essentially what they do is they tap into some sort of data stream and they are able to analyze that data and tease out what’s most interesting and create a compelling narrative based on that and actually write a story. They’re getting more and more sophisticated; it’s not something that’s just purely formulaic where you just plug numbers into a set template; it’s already gone beyond that and it’s getting better and better.”

    It’s unlikely machines will ever be able to replace the type of analysis we get from Mark Shields and David Brooks, but it might be possible that our news summary could one day be an automatically collated compendium of geo-located video shot by viewers like you.

    How to learn to stop worrying and embrace the robot

    If all of this seems a little frightening, you might take heart listening to Ray Kurzweil. He’s director of engineering at Google, and inventor of technologies like the flatbed scanner. He says we shouldn’t feel threatened by AI.

    “You can point to jobs that are going to go away from automation, but don’t worry, we’re going to invent new jobs. People say, ‘What new jobs?’ I don’t know. They haven’t been invented yet. Sixty-five percent of Americans today work at information jobs that didn’t exist 25 years ago, two-thirds of the population in 1900 worked either on farms or on factories. Today that’s 2 percent and 2 percent. If I had said a century ago, ‘Well, don’t worry you can get jobs developing websites and apps and doing information jobs of various kind,’ people wouldn’t know what I was talking about. We’re constantly inventing new things to do with our time, but you can’t really define that because the future hasn’t been invented yet.”

    Kurzweil, who was awarded a technical Grammy this year for his invention of the first computer-based instrument that could realistically re-create the musical response of a grand piano, says humans have other unique advantages over machines.

    “At the very highest level, we have things like language and art and creativity, being funny, being able to create new types of knowledge, music. No other animal actually creates music or humor. That’s what we value about human beings.”

    By combining human and machine intelligence, we will reach new heights. “I think we have the opportunity to actually be more emotional in the better sense of the word by enhancing our intelligence, and we already have AIs that can relieve us of doing tedious kinds of thinking and can focus more on creativity. We’ll be funnier. We’ll be better at expressing loving sentiments. I think it will enhance the better values of humanity.”

    So, we might be out of work, but at least we’ll have a good sense of humor about it.

    Watch all the videos in our series, “Thinking Machines,” in the playlist below:

    The post 3 white collar jobs that robots are already mastering appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A sea lion swims in oil-contaminated water near Refugio State Beach on the Californian coast in Goleta, California, United States, May 21, 2015. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

    A sea lion swims in oil-contaminated water near Refugio State Beach on the Californian coast in Goleta on May 21. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

    For most of the week, hundreds of clean-up workers have collected globs of black goo and scrubbed rocks coated with the sticky substance to restore a California beach that was contaminated with oil.

    On Tuesday, a 24-inch pipeline ruptured, releasing more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil that seeped into the sands of the Refugio State Beach, 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, California. A fifth of the escaped oil reached the sea, resulting in an oil slick nine miles wide along the coastline.

    Cleanup crews have recovered more than 9,000 gallons of oil, but officials warned that a full restoration of the beach is a long, labored process. U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams, who is leading the clean-up effort, said it could take months.

    “I do want to manage expectations — cleanup doesn’t happen overnight,” Williams said in a Thursday news conference. “It’s a moving target when you’re talking about oil on the water. It’s a difficult process.”

    A widespread oil slick covers the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 19, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    An oil slick covers the coast of Refugio State Beach in California on May 19. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    A lobster is covered in oil along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 20, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    A lobster is covered in oil. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    Volunteer William McConnaughey, 56, who drove from San Diego to help shovel oil off the beach, stands in an oil slick in bare feet along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 20, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    Volunteer William McConnaughey, 56, who drove from San Diego to help shovel oil off the beach, stands in an oil slick in bare feet along the coast of Refugio State Beach. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    Volunteer William McConnaughey, 56, who drove from San Diego to help shovel oil off the beach, stretches out his hands after carrying buckets of oil from an oil slick along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 20, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    Volunteer William McConnaughey stretches out his hands after carrying buckets of oil. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    Buckets of oil volunteers carried from an oil slick along the coast of Refugio State Beach are seen in Goleta, California, United States, May 20, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    Buckets of oil collected from the oil slick. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    An oil spill makes patterns in a marine algae in the waters off Refugio State Beach after a massive oil spill on the California coast in Goleta, California, May 21, 2015. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

    An oil spill makes patterns in marine algae in the waters off Refugio State Beach. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters


    A bird covered in oil flies over an oil slick along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 20, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    A bird covered in oil flies along the California coast. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    A clean up worker holds a box of sea creatures killed by an oil slick along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, May 21, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    A box of sea creatures killed by the oil slick. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    A pelican covered in oil is seen on the Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, May 20, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    A pelican is covered in oil. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    An octopus spattered in oil is washed up on the Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 20, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    An octopus spattered in oil washed ashore the Refugio State Beach. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    An oil slick covers the Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 19, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    An oil slick covers the Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California on May 19. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    This is the source of the oil spill near Refugio State Beach after a massive spill on the California coast in Goleta, California, May 21, 2015. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

    Source of the oil spill near Refugio State Beach, California. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters


    Workers clean up an oil slick along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 21, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    Workers clean up the oil slick. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    Protesters call for a ban on fracking and a phasing out of oil development in California, in Santa Barbara, California, May 21, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    Protesters call for a ban on fracking and a phasing out of oil development in California on May 21 following the oil spill. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    An oil slick is seen along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 19, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    Working into the night to clean up the oil. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


    An oil slick is seen along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 19, 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    The sun sets over Refugio State Beach. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    The post Photos: Capturing the slick from California’s oil spill appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    (JS) ROBOTICS27-- Angel Cruz, 16, of Lincoln High School works on his team robot during the FIRST Robotics competition at the University of Denver. The high school teams are guided by coaches and professional mentors who volunteer their expertise in accor

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    LYNN SHERR: Science and SciFi have always attracted Freya Wilhelm, whose favorite TV show as a child was this animated series set in the fantastic future.

    LYNN SHERR: But Freya’s life went off track her freshman year of high school, when, as a struggling art student in Manhattan, she descended into a cycle of marijuana, party drugs, psychedelics…

    FREYA WILHELM: I was feeling very experimental.

    LYNN SHERR: By her junior year, she had added cocaine.  And was failing out of school.

    LYNN SHERR: What did you see as your future, at that point? Did you look at yourself and say, “What am I doing?

    FREYA WILHELM: I kind of just thought maybe I would grow out of it or things would work itself out.

    LYNN SHERR: Luckily, school officials transferred her to New York’s Lower East Side Prep, a second-chance school with experience turning around lost kids. One day, she was invited to join the robotics team, coached by Dr. Henry Ruan.

    HENRY RUAN: I really saw the difference that made. When we started she was kinda shy and silent member of the team. I didn’t see her very often in the school. It’s not easy to have this kind of change. The person has to put a lot of commitment, a lot of determination, this program is playing some role in that change.

    LYNN SHERR: This program challenges students to design, build and program robots for an international competition. It also hooks them on the wonders of — well, look at its name: FIRST, For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

    LYNN SHERR: FIRST was created 26 years ago by entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway among other high-tech devices.

    DEAN KAMEN: I thought, if we could create a cultural shift that made tech cool to a generation of kids, we might start narrowing the gap between the number of scientists and engineers that we’re producing in this country on a percentage basis to other countries around the world.

    LYNN SHERR: What, specifically, is the problem?

    DEAN KAMEN: We have a smaller percentage of our kids becoming scientists and engineers than many countries in the developing world. And when you look at the data and see that China’s producing five or 600,000 engineers this year and we’ll produce one-tenth of that, it says, “How’re we gonna compete?”

    LYNN SHERR: The gap is even greater when it comes to gender.  Women comprise only 13 percent of all professional engineers in the U.S., and only one-quarter of the computer and mathematical sciences workforce.

    Getting girls (and boys) interested early is where this competition is a game-changer.

    When I first met Kamen back in 1993, 20-some teams competed in a high school gymnasium in New Hampshire.

    Today, youngsters from 41,000 schools in 80 countries do battle in venues like New York’s Javits Center, where we watched New York’s regional competition back in March.  And participants – particularly girls – report significantly more interest in science, tech and math fields.

    LYNN SHERR: Kamen is their rock star. Freya also gets her moment, but as team captain, quickly turns to the competition. The goal is to load up the robot with the most boxes –and a garbage can.

    LYNN SHERRThe first match goes badly, but as the team regroups, the real genius behind the program becomes clear.

    DEAN KAMEN: Whether or not they built a good robot, I don’t care. What they built was a bit of self-confidence about what’s possible, a new perspective.

    LYNN SHERR: For Freya, it all comes together in the final round.

    FREYA WILHELM: Yes! We beat one of the really good teams!”

    LYNN SHERR: Next year, Freya Wilhelm wants to go to college and study engineering, a childhood fantasy that finally seems possible.

    LYNN SHERR: Fair to say that FIRST turned your life around?

    FREYA WILHELM: Yes. Absolutely. I think it’s given me– a big 180 degree in my life.

    LYNN SHERR: All because she took that FIRST step with Dean Kamen.

    DEAN KAMEN: Stay with it!

    FREYA WILHELM: I will, I will. Thank you so much. I’m so happy.

    The post How to hook young people on math and science? Robots. appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    This artist's concept depicts the current record holder for the most luminous galaxy in the universe. The galaxy, WISE J224607.57-052635.0, is erupting with light equal to more than 300 trillion suns. It was discovered using data from NASA's WISE mission. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    An artist’s rendering shows the current record holder for the most luminous galaxy in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

    In a galaxy far, far away — specifically 12.5 billion years from Earth — shines the light of more than 300 trillion suns. NASA’s space telescope Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, WISE, recently discovered the galaxy — the brightest one ever found.

    NASA said the galaxy belongs to a new class of objects called ELIRGs, or extremely luminous infrared galaxies, and scientists believe that a black hole inside the galaxy could be the cause of the bright light. Here’s how NASA explained it:

    Supermassive black holes draw gas and matter into a disk around them, heating the disk to roaring temperatures of millions of degrees and blasting out high-energy, visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray light. The light is blocked by surrounding cocoons of dust. As the dust heats up, it radiates infrared light.

    Scientists have a few theories for the reasoning behind the black hole’s size. One is that it was born that way. Two others center around the idea of bending or breaking the theoretical limit of black hole feeding.

    “The massive black holes in ELIRGs could be gorging themselves on more matter for a longer period of time,” said Andrew Blain of University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, a co-author of this report. “It’s like winning a hot-dog-eating contest lasting hundreds of millions of years.”

    More research is needed to fully understand what’s causing the galaxy to glow. But NASA said that determining the true mass of this black hole and others could help reveal the history of “this very crucial and frenzied chapter of our cosmos”.

    The post What’s making this galaxy shine with the light of 300 trillion suns? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The maze-like roots of the Blonde Bombshell (Plectranthus scutellarioides) are among those on display at the U.S. Botanic Garden's newest exhibit on roots. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    The maze-like roots of the Blonde Bombshell (Plectranthus scutellarioides) are among those on display at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s newest exhibit on roots. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    When you’re facing a tough problem, it’s always best to start with the roots. Such was the takeaway lesson from our second installment of ScienceScope, where the NewsHour team leaves our broadcast center to explore the world of science that surrounds us (with an assist from the Twitter-based livestreaming service Periscope).

    Today, we ventured to the U.S. Botanic Garden in downtown Washington, D.C. for an off-hours tour of their newest exhibit:

    Exposed Logo B

    Without roots, most life outside of the ocean would struggle to survive.

    Plants provide virtually all the food for organisms living on land, from microbes to humans, says U.S. Botanic Garden executive director and botanist Ari Novy, who guided us through the exhibit. Plants would be nothing without their roots, which do much more than provide a stable foundation, absorb water and store nutrients like sugar. Here are a few things that we learned and saw on today’s field trip:

    A. Prairie plants look way cooler underground

    A bevy of prairie plants and their roots hang at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    A bevy of prairie plants and their roots hang at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    Up-close and personal with a sorghum root.  Photo by Nsikan Akpan.

    Up-close and personal with a sorghum root. Photo by Nsikan Akpan.

    Wheat, sorghum and other prairie plants may not inspire “wows!” when viewed aboveground, but their undercarriage boasts a stunning sight. Their roots grow like stringy spaghetti up to 15 feet deep, with the ostensible mission of sapping water from hard-to-reach underground reservoirs.

    It’d typically be impossible to pull these roots from the ground without ripping them to pieces, but scientists at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas have devised a solution.

    “They take 12-inch diameter PVC piping and then fill it with soil media — ceramic chunks similar to kitty litter — and then let the roots grow down over the course of years,” says Novy. Afterwards, they pull the pipes from the ground and cut through the plastic. The researchers then clean away the soil, leaving behind the giant intact roots. The Land Institute donated a preserved set of these prairies plants to hang in the garden’s exhibit.

    B. WiliWili likes bacteria bumps

    WiliWili (Erythrina sandwicensis) root at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    WiliWili (Erythrina sandwicensis) root at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    WiliWili (Erythrina sandwicensis) root at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    WiliWili (Erythrina sandwicensis) root at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    WiliWili plants — pronounced “Willy Willy” — are Hawaiian trees (Erythrina sandwicensis) that grow braided roots with tiny bumps called nodules (not shown). These little pods lack oxygen and are filled with microbes that prefer living without it. Instead, these germs consume nitrogen gas in the air and turn it into ammonia, which serves as fertilizer for the tree.

    C. Bamboo versus Concrete.

    Many of the underground parts of plants that we often think of as roots are actually rhizomes, says Novy. Rhizomes are buried stems that, rather than shoot out the ground, grow horizontally through the earth like vegetative pipes. Occasionally, these offshoots will sprout upward, creating picturesque forests of bamboo.

    Bamboo rhizomes (underground stems). Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    Bamboo rhizomes (underground stems). Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    Bamboo rhizomes can grow several feet in a single year and provide the means to become an aggressive invader. Golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), for example, was introduced to Alabama in 1882 as a natural noise barrier, but the invasive plant has now spread across the Southeast U.S. and mid- Atlantic states. Still, gardeners enjoy planting bamboo, so what’s the best way to control it?

    “If it’s listed as invasive by your local species council, then don’t plant it. But if you absolutely must plant a colonizing bamboo, then you must build an underground mechanical barrier, in the form of a metal or concrete wall, says Novy. “The wall needs to extend at least 2 feet below and up to 6 inches above the soil because these [rhizome] runners sometimes jump onto the surface of the soil to colonize.”

    D. Root inspired sculptures by Steve Tobin

    "Cathedral Root" -- a sculpture by Steve Tobin. Photo by Devin Dotson

    “Cathedral Root” — a sculpture by Steve Tobin. Photo by Devin Dotson

    Close-up of "Romeo and Juliet" -- a sculpture by Steve Tobin. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    Close-up of “Romeo and Juliet” — a sculpture by Steve Tobin. Photo by Nsikan Akpan

    E. Ginger: Root or Imposter?

    Roots are delicious, but are you sure that veggie in your salad counts as one? See if you can guess which of the following is a true root and which is a faker:



    1. Turmeric
    2. Sugar Beet
    3. Taro
    4. Ginger
    5. Garlic
    6. Ginseng
    7. Carrot
    8. Potato
    9. Wasabi




    1. Imposter, rhizome (underground stem)
    2. True root.
    3. Imposter, corm (swollen underground stem).
    4. Imposter, rhizome (underground stem)
    5. Imposter, garlic bulb is a collection of energy-storing leaves.
    6. True root
    7. True root
    8. Imposter, tuber (underground stem).
    9. Imposter, rhizome (underground stem)


    Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots runs until October 13, 2015

    The post How to stop a bamboo invasion and other surprising facts about roots appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WOLFRATSHAUSEN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 15:  Two female inhabitants of a residential care home for Alzheimer's disease and dementia patients walk hand-in-hand in the corridor of the residential home on November 15, 2011 in Wolfratshausen, Germany.  (Photo by Alexandra Beier/Getty Images)

    WOLFRATSHAUSEN, GERMANY – NOVEMBER 15: Two female inhabitants of a residential care home for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients walk hand-in-hand in the corridor of the residential home on November 15, 2011 in Wolfratshausen, Germany. (Photo by Alexandra Beier/Getty Images)

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Sticky plaque gets the most attention, but now healthy seniors at risk of Alzheimer’s are letting scientists peek into their brains to see if another culprit is lurking.

    No one knows what actually causes Alzheimer’s, but the suspects are its two hallmarks — the gunky amyloid in those brain plaques or tangles of a protein named tau that clog dying brain cells. New imaging can spot those tangles in living brains, providing a chance to finally better understand what triggers dementia.

    Now researchers are adding tau brain scans to an ambitious study that’s testing if an experimental drug might help healthy but at-risk people stave off Alzheimer’s. Whether that medication works or not, it’s the first drug study where scientists can track how both of Alzheimer’s signature markers begin building up in older adults before memory ever slips.

    “The combination of amyloid and tau is really the toxic duo,” predicted Dr. Reisa Sperling of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who is leading the so-called A4 study. “To see it in life is really striking.”

    The A4 study — it stands for Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s — aims to enroll 1,000 healthy seniors like Judith Chase Gilbert, 77, of Arlington, Virginia. The recently retired government worker is mentally sharp but learned through the study that her brain harbors amyloid buildup that might increase her risk. Last week, researchers slid Gilbert into a doughnut-shaped PET scanner as she became one of the first study participants to also have their brains scanned for tau.

    “We know that tau starts entering the picture at some point, and we do not know when. We do not know how that interaction happens. We should know,” said chief science officer Maria Carrillo of the Alzheimer’s Association, which is pushing to add tau scans to other dementia research, too.

    More than 35 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s or similar dementias, including about 5 million in the U.S. Those numbers are expected to rise rapidly as the baby boomers get older. There is no good treatment. Today’s medications only temporarily ease symptoms and attempts at new drugs, mostly targeted at sticky amyloid, have failed in recent years.

    Maybe that’s because treatment didn’t start early enough. Scientists now think Alzheimer’s begins quietly ravaging the brain more than a decade before symptoms appear, much like heart disease is triggered by gradual cholesterol buildup. Brain scans show many healthy older adults quietly harbor those sticky amyloid plaques, not a guarantee that they’ll eventually get Alzheimer’s but an increased risk.

    Yet more recent research, including a large autopsy study from the Mayo Clinic, suggests that Alzheimer’s other bad actor — that tangle-forming tau protein — also plays a big role. The newest theory: Amyloid sparks a smoldering risk, but later spread of toxic tau speeds the brain destruction.

    Normal tau acts sort of like railroad tracks to help nerve cells transport food and other molecules. But in Alzheimer’s, the protein’s strands collapse into tangles and eventually the cell dies. Most healthy people have a small amount of dysfunctional tau in one part of the brain by their 70s, Sperling said. But amyloid plaques somehow encourage this bad tau to spread toward the brain’s memory center, she explained.

    The A4 study, which is enrolling participants in the U.S., Australia and Canada, may give some clues.

    The goal is to check up to 500 people for tau three times over the three-year study, as researchers tease out when and how it forms in those who are still healthy. They won’t be told the results — scientists don’t know enough yet about what the scans portend.

    At the same time, study participants will receive either an experimental anti-amyloid drug — Eli Lilly & Co.’s solanezumab — or a placebo as researchers track their memory. The $140 million study is funded by the National Institutes of Health, Lilly and others; the Alzheimer’s Association helped fund the addition of the tau scans.

    The idea: If the drug proves to be helpful, it might be tamping down amyloid formation that in turn reins in toxic tau. In previous studies, solanezumab failed to help full-blown Alzheimer’s but appeared to slow mental decline in patients with mild disease, raising interest in testing the still healthy.

    “We’re trying to remove amyloid’s downstream effects on tau formation,” said Dr. R. Scott Turner of Georgetown University Medical Center, where Gilbert enrolled in the study.

    Seeing how amyloid and tau interact in living brains “is opening a whole new chapter into possible therapies,” Turner added.

    For Gilbert, learning she had amyloid buildup “was distressing,” but it has prompted her to take extra steps, in addition to the study, to protect her brain. On her doctor’s advice, she’s exercising more, and exercising her brain in a new way by buying a keyboard to start piano lessons.

    “It’s exciting to be part of something that’s cutting edge,” said Gilbert, who had never heard of tau before.

    And she has a spot-on question: “So what’s the medication for the tau?”

    Stay tuned: A handful of drugs to target tau also are in development but testing will take several years.

    The post Researchers use brain scans to hunt for Alzheimer’s cause appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Researchers find that methadone and wastewater disinfectants create the carcinogen NDMA, which can filter into drinking water supplies.   Photo by Adam Lister/Getty Images

    Researchers find that methadone and wastewater disinfectants create the carcinogen NDMA, which can filter into drinking water supplies. Photo by Adam Lister/Getty Images

    Like death and taxes, at some point in life, drinking someone else’s human waste becomes inevitable.

    When water flows from the many pipes of our homes, the first stop is a wastewater treatment factory, where most hazardous chemicals and microbes are removed. In an ideal scenario, city planners have geographically positioned wastewater facilities so that none of the drainage flows into another’s city’s drinking water supply. But if you live downstream from any population, then you’re likely drinking someone’s wastewater, says Arizona State University environmental engineer Paul Westerhoff.

    Enter methadone. Methadone is the latest member of an infamous club. Like birth control hormones and the antibacterial ingredient triclosan, methadone leaks into waterways and poses a health risk when it filters into our drinking water, according to a new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

    But unlike some forms of pharmaceutical pollution, the danger of methadone waste doesn’t come from the drug itself, but from a chemical reaction with a common wastewater disinfectant. The product of this reaction is the carcinogen N-nitrosodimethylamine or “NDMA” for short. The World Health Organization describes NDMA as “clearly carcinogenic” due to its ability to cause stomach and colon cancer after ingestion.

    “It’s a very important paper, as NDMA is a very potent carcinogen,” said environmental chemist Susan Richardson of the University of South Carolina, who wasn’t involved with the study. “It’s being commonly found in drinking water well above the health reference level for cancer, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently deciding whether to regulate it.”


    About 4 million methadone prescriptions are issued annually to treat conditions like heroin addiction or chronic pain disorders. A little known fact about methadone is that approximately 28 percent of the drug does not get absorbed by the human body after ingestion, but instead, it gets excreted in urine.

    Which brings us back to wastewater. On average, a small fraction of wastewater gets into the drinking supply, Westerhoff said. It’s less than 1 to 2 percent of streamwater — but during a modest drought up to 30 percent of an urban water supply can be of wastewater origin.”

    In an earlier study, Paul Westerhoff and Jacelyn Rice measured the magnitude of de facto wastewater reuse at 1210 of the 1292  drinking water plants in the U.S. that primarily use surface waters and serve greater than 10, 000 people. Credit: Rice and Westerhoff, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (2), pp 982–989

    In an earlier study, Paul Westerhoff and Jacelyn Rice measured the magnitude of de facto wastewater reuse at 1210 of the 1292 drinking water plants in the U.S. that primarily use surface waters and serve greater than 10, 000 people. Credit: Rice and Westerhoff, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (2), pp 982–989

    Westerhoff’s team specializes in finding what gets left behind in that wastewater. For instance in January, they reported that urban sewage might harbor millions of dollars in gold.

    For their new study, Westerhoff’s team plus colleagues in Colorado and Toronto went hunting for potential sources of NDMA in runoff from a nearby wastewater plant in Arizona. They focused on water treatment plants that use a disinfectant called chloramine (not to be confused with chlorine). In 2010, nearly a quarter of the U.S. drank water treated with chloramine disinfectants. It’s known that some industrial compounds, agricultural herbicides or over-the-counter drugs like antihistamines can react with chloramine to create NDMA. But the environmental levels of these chemicals in most places are too low to account for the abundance of NDMA found in wastewater supplies.

    To find new sources, Westerhoff’s team treated wastewater like the scene of a car accident. When two vehicles hit each other, their wreckage sprays in a pattern that detectives can later use to reconstruct the incident: the speed of the cars on impact, the angle of the collision.

    The same applies to chemicals.

    “If you smash one molecule hard enough, it will break into a fragment,” said lead author and ASU environmental engineer David Hanigan. In this case, he was looking for a special piece of wreckage — a compound named dimethylamine that forms the backbone of NDMA.

    They passed the wastewater samples through a device — a QTOF mass spectrometer — that could identify a dimethylamine “fragment” in order to trace its origins. After scanning 800 likely compounds, the search landed on methadone. They found that methadone likely accounted for up to 62 percent of the NDMA in the wastewater samples.

    Next, they examined whether methadone could pass from wastewater to potable reservoirs, by testing 10 drinking water sources spread across the U.S. and Canada. (The locations weren’t disclosed, given the sensitivity of the research).

    “These weren’t rivers or streams in the middle of nowhere. People are drinking this water,” Westerhoff said.

    Half of the drinking water samples carried detectable amounts of methadone — in the range of tens to hundreds of nanograms. This methadone content would be too low to get a person high, but more than enough to spawn a risky level of NDMA, the researchers found. They calculated that the consequent levels of NDMA would be enough to be banned in places like Canada, Massachusetts and California, where the carcinogen is regulated.

    Human-generated chemicals are increasing in the environment and in wastewater at treatment facilities (pictured), researchers say. Photo by Jupiterimages/Getty Images

    Human-generated chemicals are increasing in the environment and in wastewater at treatment facilities (pictured), researchers say. Photo by Jupiterimages/Getty Images

    So what’s the remedy?

    It’s unlikely that doctors will stop prescribing methadone, since its use is so vital in the treatment of chronic pain and heroin recovery. Chloramine disinfectant is increasingly used in waste management, given that it produces fewer negative chemical byproducts than chlorine.

    One possible option involves attacking pharmaceutical pollution before it reaches your lips, Richardson said. She calls for the broader the use of activated charcoal — known as granular activated carbon — which soak up methadone, organic matter and other pharmaceuticals without adding chemicals to the water.

    The bigger question is who should be responsible for treatment, said Westerhoff, the downstream drinking water utility or the upstream wastewater plant that is collecting the methadone? Using activated charcoal at treatment plants requires an expensive upgrade in technology, which may explain why only 10 percent of U.S. drinking water is handled this way. In 1992, Cincinnati reportedly spent $63.9 million to add activated carbon to their water treatment, though the final cost to consumer averaged about $1 per month. (Local utility companies issue “water quality reports” on an annual basis that describe how your water is treated)

    “In the end, everyone is responsible for these chemicals, whether they’re accumulating in a whale in the Arctic or showing up in your drinking water,” said Westerhoff, “We can do real damage to our river systems. That’s the takeaway.”

    The post Scientists trace cancer-causing chemical in drinking water back to methadone appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Spring Fever class discussion

    Teacher Janneke van den Heuvel leads her 8-year old students in a group discussion during Spring Fever week in the Netherlands. NewsHour photo by Saskia de Melker

    “Who here has been in love?” Anniek Pheifer asks a crowd of Dutch elementary school students.

    It’s a Spring morning in Utrecht, and the St. Jan de Doper elementary school gym is decked in heart-shaped balloons and streamers. Pheifer and Pepijn Gunneweg are hosts of a kids television program in the Netherlands, and they’re performing a song about having a crush.

    Kids giggle at the question. Hands — little and bigger — shoot up.

    Welcome to “Spring Fever” week in Dutch primary schools, the week of focused sexuality classes… for 4-year olds.

    Of course, it’s not just for 4-year-olds. Eight-year-olds learn about self-image and gender stereotypes. 11-year-olds discuss sexual orientation and contraceptive options. But in the Netherlands, the approach, known as “comprehensive sex education,” starts as early as age 4.


    Kindergarteners attend the opening assembly for Spring Fever week at the St Jan de Doperschool in Utrecht, the Netherlands. NewsHour photo by Saskia de Melker

    You’ll never hear an explicit reference to sex in a kindergarten class.In fact, the term for what’s being taught here is sexuality education rather than sex education. That’s because the goal is bigger than that, says Ineke van der Vlugt, an expert on youth sexual development for Rutgers WPF, the Dutch sexuality research institute behind the curriculum. It’s about having open, honest conversations about love and relationships.

    By law, all primary school students in the Netherlands must receive some form of sexuality education. The system allows for flexibility in how it’s taught. But it must address certain core principles — among them, sexual diversity and sexual assertiveness. That means encouraging respect for all sexual preferences and helping students develop skills to protect against sexual coercion, intimidation and abuse. The underlying principle is straightforward: Sexual development is a normal process that all young people experience, and they have the right to frank, trustworthy information on the subject.

    “There were societal concerns that sexualization in the media could be having a negative impact on kids,” van der Vlugt said. “We wanted to show that sexuality also has to do with respect, intimacy, and safety.”

    Beyond risk prevention

    The Dutch approach to sex ed has garnered international attention, largely because the Netherlands boasts some of the best outcomes when it comes to teen sexual health. On average, teens in the Netherlands do not have sex at an earlier age than those in other European countries or in the United States. Researchers found that among 12 to 25 year olds in the Netherlands, most say they had  “wanted and fun” first sexual experiences. By comparison, 66 percent of sexually active American teens surveyed said they wished that they had waited longer to have sex for the first time. When they do have sex, a Rutgers WPF study found that nine out of ten Dutch adolescents used contraceptives the first time, and  World Health Organization data shows that Dutch teens are among the top users of the birth control pill. According to the World Bank, the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in the world, five times lower than the U.S. Rates of HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases are also low.

    “We have to help young people navigate all the choices they face and stand up for themselves in all situations, sexual and otherwise,”

    There are multiple factors that likely contribute to these numbers. Easy access to contraception is one. Condoms, for example, are available in vending machines, and the birth control pill is free for anyone under age 21. But there’s also a growing body of research that specifically credits comprehensive sexuality education. A recent study from Georgetown University shows that starting sex ed in primary school helps avoid unintended pregnancies, maternal deaths, unsafe abortions and STDs.

    Courtesy of Rutgers WPF

    Courtesy of Rutgers WPF

    Proponents of the Dutch model argue that their approach extends beyond those risks. Their brand of sex ed reflects a broader emphasis on young people’s rights, responsibility and respect that many public health experts say is the foundation of sexual health.

    A 2008 United Nations report found that comprehensive sex ed, when taught effectively, allows young people to “explore their attitudes and values, and to practice the decision-making and other life skills they will need to be able to make informed choices about their sexual lives.” Students who had completed comprehensive sex education in the Netherlands were also found to be more assertive and better communicators, according to an independent health research agency that conducted a study of the Dutch programs.

    “We have to help young people navigate all the choices they face and stand up for themselves in all situations, sexual and otherwise,” said Robert van der Gaag, a health promotion official at Central Holland’s regional public health center.

    ‘Little butterflies in my stomach’

    At the St. Jan de Doper school, a group of kindergartners sit in a circle, as their teacher, Marian Jochems, flips through a picture book. The pages contain animals like bears and alligators hugging.

    “Why are they hugging?” she asks the class.

    “Because they like each other,” one girl answers.

    Jochems asks them to think about who they like the most. Several kids say their mom or dad. One girl names her little sister. A few name other children at school.

    “How does it feel when that person hugs you?” Jochems asks.

    “I feel warm from the inside,” one boy replies. “It’s like there are little butterflies in my stomach.”

    Lessons like this are designed to get kids thinking and talking about the kind of intimacy that feels good and the kind that doesn’t. Other early lessons focus on body awareness. For example, students draw boys’ and girls’ bodies, tell stories about friends taking a bath together, and discuss who likes doing that and who doesn’t. By the end of kindergarten, students are expected to be able to properly name body parts including genitals. They also learn about different types of families, what it means to be a good friend, and that a baby grows in a mother’s womb.


    CLICK HERE TO READ A LESSON PLAN taught to Dutch kindergarten and first graders. Courtesy of Rutgers WPF

    “People often think we are starting right away to talk about sexual intercourse [with kindergartners],” van der Vlugt says. “Sexuality is so much more than that. It’s also about self image, developing your own identity, gender roles, and it’s about learning to express yourself, your wishes and your boundaries.”

    That means the kindergartners are also learning how to communicate when they don’t want to be touched. The goal is that by age 11, students are comfortable enough to navigate pointed discussions about reproduction, safe sex, and sexual abuse.


    Let’s not talk about sex

    In the United States, sexual education varies widely from state to state. Fewer than half of U.S. states require schools to teach sex ed, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a global nonprofit that researches sexual and reproductive health. And Deb Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to sexuality education, says that sex ed in the U.S. still overwhelmingly focuses on minimizing the risk of pregnancy and STDs from heterosexual intercourse.

    And nearly four in 10 millennials report that the sex education they received was not helpful, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

    “We have failed to see that sexual health is far more than simply the prevention of disease or unplanned pregnancy,” says Hauser. That narrow focus, she says, leaves young people with few skills to cope with their feelings and make decisions in sexual encounters.

    Not everyone agrees.  In fact, comprehensive sex ed has yet to take hold in most parts of the country. Utah, for example, requires that abstinence be the dominant message given to students. It bans discussing details of sexual intercourse and advocating for homosexuality, the use of contraceptives or sexual activity outside of marriage.

    Utah state representative Bill Wright has further tried to restrict sex ed. In 2012, he proposed a bill requiring that abstinence only be taught and that it be an optional subject. It passed but was vetoed by the governor.

    Sex ed is “not an important part of our curriculum,” Wright said. “ It is just basically something out there that takes away from the character in our schools and takes away from the character of our students.”

    Utah is far from alone. Half of U.S. states require that abstinence be stressed. “We have created generations of people who are not comfortable with their own sexuality,” says Dr. David Satcher, the former U.S. Surgeon General. That extends to parents and teachers, he says.

    In other areas, the tide is shifting toward an approach closer to that of the Dutch. Two of the largest school districts in the country — Chicago Public Schools and Florida’s Broward County — have recently mandated sex education for elementary school students. Chicago Public Schools requires at least 300 minutes a year of sex education for kindergarten through fourth grade students and twice as much time for fifth through twelfth graders. In the fall of 2015,  schools in Broward County will teach sex education at least once a year in every grade, and the curriculum will include information about topics like body image, sexting and social media.

    Courtesy of Rutgers WPF

    Courtesy of Rutgers WP

    In the Netherlands, schools aim to educate parents too. Parents nights are held to give parents tools to talk to their kids about sex. Public health experts recommend that parents take cues from their kids and make it an ongoing conversation, rather than one awkward, all-encompassing “birds and the bees” talk. For example, they advise, if you walk in on your child masturbating, don’t react shocked; don’t punish or scold them. Have a talk about where it is appropriate for such behavior to occur.

    “We talk about [sex] over dinner,” said one father at a Spring Fever Parents Night. Another said he recently answered questions about homosexuality posed by his twin 6-year-olds during bath time.

    Lessons in love

    Sabine Hasselaar teaches 11-year-olds. In a recent class, Hasselaar posed a series of hypothetical situations to her students: you’re kissing someone and they start using their tongue which you don’t want. A girl starts dancing close to a guy at a party causing him to get an erection. Your friend is showing off pornographic photos that make you feel uncomfortable.

    The class discusses each scenario. “Everyone has the right to set their own limits and no one should ever cross those limits,” Hasselaar says.

    There is an anonymous ‘Question Box.’ in her class during “Spring Fever” week. Students submit questions that teachers later address in class. “Nothing is taboo,” Hasselaar says. One of her students, for example, wrote: “I think I am lesbian. What should I do?”
    Hasselaar addressed the issue in class: “It’s not strange for some girls to like other girls more than boys. It’s a feeling that you can’t change, just like being in love. The only difference is that it’s with someone that is the same sex as you.”

    And in fact, most of the questions from her students aren’t about sex at all. “Mostly they are curious about love. I get a lot of questions like, “What do I do if I like someone?” or ‘How do I ask someone to go out with me?’”

    Questions like these are taken just as seriously as the ones about sex.

    “Of course we want kids to be safe and to understand the risks involved with sex, but we also want them to know about the positive and fun side of caring for someone and being in a healthy relationship,” van der Vlugt says.

    That’s why you’ll find teachers discussing the difference between liking someone (as a friend) and liking someone. There’s even a lesson on dating during which a teacher talked about how to break up with someone in a decent way: “Please, do not do it via text message,” the teacher said.

    “In the Netherlands, there’s a strong belief that young people can be in love and in relationships,”

    After elementary school, these students will likely go on to receive lessons from a widely-used curriculum called Long Live Love.

    “In the U.S., adults tend to view young people as these bundles of exploding hormones. In the Netherlands, there’s a strong belief that young people can be in love and in relationships,” says Amy Schalet, an American sociologist who was raised in the Netherlands and now studies cultural attitudes towards adolescent sexuality, with a focus on these two countries.

    “If you see love and relationships as the anchor for sex, then it’s much easier to talk about it with a child,” Schalet says. “Even a young one.”

    The post The case for starting sex education in kindergarten appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    HOUSTON, TX - MAY 27: The Brays Bayou flows after massive flooding May 27, 2015 in Houston, Texas. At least 19 people have been killed across Texas and Oklahoma after severe weather, including catastrophic flooding and tornadoes, struck over the past several days, with more rain expected. Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images.

    The Brays Bayou flows after massive flooding in Houston. Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images.

    Texas and Oklahoma aren’t alone when it comes to recent catastrophic rainfall. According to a new report from Climate Central, heavy downpours have steadily increased across the U.S. for more than half a century.

    The analysis skimmed rain observations from 2,962 climate stations across the contiguous 48 states. The researchers marked down the heaviest downpours from each station — those inthe top one percent — that happened between 1950 and 2014.

    They report that “40 of the lower 48 states have seen an overall increase in heavy downpours since 1950.” The Northeast and Midwest have been hit the hardest, which parallels the findings issued last year by the National Climate Assessment.

    Houston — where six of 19 flood fatalities occurred this week — ranked 8th on the list of cities with the biggest increase of heavy downpours since 1950.

    “Climate models predict that if carbon emissions continue to increase as they have in recent decades, the types of downpours that used to happen once every 20 years could occur every 4 to 15 years by 2100,” the report says. “As the number of days with extreme precipitation increases, the risk for intense and damaging floods is also expected to increase throughout much of the country.”

    Courtesy of Climate Central

    Courtesy of Climate Central

    The post Watch: Which U.S. cities face the heaviest downpours? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    “Lucy,” arguably the world’s most famous human ancestor, had a crosstown rival, according to a new batch of fossils reported Thursday in the journal Nature.

    Archaeologists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History discovered the bones in March 2011 — approximately 20 miles from the excavation site in Hadar, Ethiopia, where Lucy was unearthed four decades ago. The ancient bones comprise two upper jaw and two lower jaw fragments and now dictate a new species of hominid, or great ape, called Australopithecus deyiremeda.

    Upper jaw of Australopithecus deyiremeda, new species of Hominidae, found on March 4, 2011 in Ethiopia. Photo by Yohannes Haile-Selassie/Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

    Upper jaw of Australopithecus deyiremeda, a new species of hominid, found on March 4, 2011, in Ethiopia. Photo by Yohannes Haile-Selassie/Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

    The team believes that these primates roamed eastern Africa between 3.3 and 3.5 million years ago around the same time as Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis, and her relatives. However, the scientific jury is still deliberating on whether or not this new species is a direct ancestor of you, me and other Homo sapiens.

    The post Video: Human ancestor ‘Lucy’ may have had a neighbor, new fossils suggest appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo by Yuri Alexandre/Getty Images

    Photo by Yuri Alexandre/Getty Images

    Science Magazine has officially retracted a study that argued a single conversation could change a person’s opinion on a divisive issues, namely gay marriage.

    The December 2014 study showed that people who opposed same-sex marriage were more likely to switch their opinion if they had a 20-minute chat with a gay canvasser versus a straight one.

    This American Life, BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post were among a plethora of news outlets that covered the original report.

    Last week, scientists raised several questions over statistical irregularities in the report. As described by Virginia Hughes of BuzzFeed:

    “The problems came to light after three other researchers tried, and failed, to replicate the study. David Broockman, of Stanford, Joshua Kalla, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Peter Aronow of Yale found eight statistical irregularities in the data set. No one of these would by itself be proof of wrongdoing, they wrote, but all of them collectively suggest that “the data were not collected as described.”

    This team initially presented their findings to the study’s senior author, political scientist Donald Green of Columbia University, who subsequently confronted his co-author: UCLA graduate student Michael LaCour. Green said that LaCour confessed to falsifying the data, and the Columbia professor requested that Science Magazine pull the article.

    LaCour had performed the majority of the field work on the report, ostensibly collecting thousands of surveys from canvassers in Southern California and raising funds from the Williams Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Along with citing the report’s statistical dilemmas, Science Magazine’s retraction confirmed early suggestions that LaCour falsified his sponsorships as well.

    Retraction Watch was the first group to report on the study’s irregularities. Details of how they discovered the scoop are available here.

    The post Science Magazine officially retracts study on gay equality canvassing appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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