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Science news digest – 28th February 2014

In the science news this week, Kepler’s planet haul skyrockets, mitochondria transfer consultation launched, and finally…German mummy is from South America.

Kepler space telescope identifies hundreds of new exoplanets

NASA scientists analysing the data from the Kepler space telescope have identified 715 new exoplanets – planets outside of our Solar System – reported the BBC.

This brings the total number of exoplanets found by the telescope up to 961 – a hugely impressive number considering that the total number of known exoplanets is just over 1,000.

The latest batch from Kepler were all part of multi-planet systems – they orbit just 305 stars.

Nearly all of the planets are smaller than Neptune, which is four times the radius of the Earth. Four of these planets are less than 2.5 times the radius of the Earth and are also in the “habitable zone” – the region around a star where water would be able to be in a liquid state if present.

These make them potential candidates for life outside of our Solar System, but there is no way to confirm this with the current observing technology because they are all just too far away.

The Kepler space telescope was launched in 2009 but sadly had to be decommissioned last year after the manoeuvring mechanisms failed on the craft.

However, before this point it had managed to identify thousands of candidate planets that needed to be analysed.

"This is the largest windfall of planets that's ever been announced at one time," said Douglas Hudgins from NASA's astrophysics division.

"Second, these results establish that planetary systems with multiple planets around one star, like our own Solar System, are in fact common.

"Third, we know that small planets - planets ranging from the size of Neptune down to the size of the Earth - make up the majority of planets in our galaxy."


Mitochondria transfer consultation to be launched in the UK

The Department of Health has launched a three-month consultation on the draft regulations for the mitochondria transfer procedures that would prevent some children from inheriting serious genetic disorders from their mothers, reported the Guardian.

The procedures have never been tested in humans before as they are prohibited in the UK under the laws that ban placing an egg or embryo into a woman if the DNA has been altered.

There are two different procedures that will be included in the consultation – one involves removing the nucleus of a woman’s egg cell, placing it into a donor egg that has had the nucleus removed, and then fertilising the egg with the man’s sperm.

The other method involves removing the nucleus of a fertilised egg and placing that into a donor egg that has had its nucleus removed. Both would result in embryos that contain the genetic material of the mother and father in the nucleus, but with another woman’s mitochondria around that nucleus.

Around one in 200 children in the UK are affected by disorders caused by faulty DNA in their mitochondria. The most serious affect the heart, brain, liver and muscles.

Launching the consultation, Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, said: "Allowing mitochondrial donation would give women who carry severe mitochondrial disease the opportunity to have children without passing on devastating genetic disorders. It would also keep the UK at the forefront of scientific development in this area.

"I want to encourage contributions to this consultation so that we have as many views as possible before introducing our final regulations."


And finally…

German mummy is from South America

New research has found that a previously unidentified mummy was killed in a ritual sacrifice in South America, reported the BBC.

The mummy was previously thought to have been a well-preserved body that had died in a boggy area in Germany, but after stable isotope analysis of her hair and bones, researchers have found that the woman is most likely to be from the Peruvian or Northern Chilean coast line.

Scientists found evidence of a blunt trauma to the head, suggesting she died very quickly from the blow, potentially in a ritual sacrifice. However, DNA analysis also revealed she was suffering from a parasitic infection, called Chagas disease, when she died, and it was unlikely she would have survived much longer even without the blow to the head.

Chagas is still endemic in South America, especially in those who live in poverty, and it can be deadly if not treated quickly.

The researchers from Munich University believe that the mummy may have arrived in Germany after a Bavarian princess brought her back from an expedition to South America in 1898.

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