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Science news digest – 18th February 2013

In the science news this week, gene patenting takes another step forward, Chernobyl roof collapse raises concerns over site’s safety, meteor lights up the sky in Russia, and finally… guppies hang out with drab counterparts to attract a mate.

Gene patenting approved in Australian court

Australia’s Federal Court have ruled that the act of removing genes from the body make them a patentable invention, despite being the same as what is found with human cells.

By isolating a human gene, even if it has “precisely the same chemical composition and structure as that found in the cells of some human beings", Justice John Nicholas said an "artificial state of affairs” had been created, making the gene a patentable material, reported New Scientist.

The decision relates to a patent made for a series of mutations in the BRCA1 genes, which are associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Testing for these mutations in a person’s genes can help predict the chance of someone developing these cancers in the future.

The patent was originally filed in 1994 by the company, Myriad Genetics. In principle, this ruling now gives the company exclusive rights to perform these tests in Australia. The firm’s patent was contested by Cancer Voices Australia, a patient group, and Yvonne D’Arcy, who has had breast cancer.

This decision could have a number of repercussions in genetic patenting legislation across the globe. "It is difficult to think of the circumstances where an artificially created state of affairs would not exist whenever there is some form of human intervention," says Dianne Nicol at the University of Tasmania, Australia, who specialises in law and human genetics.

She argued that the situation is comparable to snapping a leaf from a tree – the process is so commonly done, it doesn’t create a state of affairs that is substantially artificial.

This ruling comes just two months before the appeal of a similar case will be heard at the US Supreme Court between Myriad and the American Civil Liberties Union, which was originally awarded to Myriad in a lower court.

“Since patent criteria are similar, a decision in one jurisdiction can indicate what might happen in another," says Robert Cook-Deegan from the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy in Durham, North Carolina.

In the US, BRCA1 tests can cost $3000 and are all carried out solely by Myriad because of their patent on the process.


Section of roof collapses at Chernobyl

A section of the roof has collapsed due to heavy snow at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine. However, authorities have said that there has been no increase in radiation at the site and that no one was injured from this latest collapse.

The plant has been abandoned since the reactor explosion and meltdown in 1986.

The ‘sarcophagus’, which was used to seal off the failed reactor, was not affected by the collapse, reported the BBC, but it is likely that this incident will once again raise concerns about the condition of the site.

Currently, a new containment structure is being built to slide over the reactor, after issues were raised regarding the long-term viability of the existing encasement.

The concrete structure is being built by French construction companies and is funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as other donors.

In 1986, reactor number four exploded at Chernobyl, killing a number of people and leaving many more dangerously exposed to high levels of radiation. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes in Ukraine, western Russia and Belarus, and the area around the site is still heavily contaminated.


Meteorite causes devastation and panic in Russia

Hundreds of people were hurt last week when a meteor fell to Earth over an area of Russia. The meteor passing overhead was followed by a massive shockwave that blew out the windows of buildings, showering glass over bystanders.

It is believed that the meteor weighed in at 10 tonnes and it was seen over the skies of Chelyabinsk just south of the Ural mountains in Russia, reported the Guardian.

Officials have said that almost 1,200 people were injured, mostly by the shattered glass, and that 40 of those had to be taken to hospital for further treatment.

The city of Chelyabinsk has more than one million inhabitants and almost immediately after the event mobile phone networks became jammed due to the high number of calls.

The amateur video footage captured the meteor as it streaked across the sky and the subsequent explosions from the sonic boom. At least three craters have been found so far, but none are showing higher than normal radiation levels.


And finally…

Guppies use ugly friends to seem more attractive

Male guppies prefer to hang around with their drab counterparts in order to better their chances in attracting a female mate, reported the Telegraph.

The study was done at the University of Padua in Italy by carrying out a kind of guppy dating game. Lead author, Clelia Gasparini , explained: "If you are surrounded by ugly friends, you look better."

Gasparini and colleagues set up an aquarium so that two female guppies were partitioned off – one at either end of the tank. One of the female guppies had two brightly-coloured males placed on either side of her, the other was given two drabber looking fish.

When a male guppy was placed in the middle of the tank, he spent 62 percent of his time down at the end of the tank with the female surrounded by the drab coloured fish.

The amount of time spent with the female also correlated with the attractiveness of the male. If he was a less brightly coloured fish, then he was less likely to spend a lot of time with the female accompanied by the more attractive males.


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