How will the universe end, and could anything survive?

Don’t panic, but our planet is doomed. It’s just going to take a while. Roughly 6 billion years from now, the Earth will probably be vaporized when the dying Sun expands into a red giant and engulfs our planet.

The Big Rip would begin by tearing galaxies apart (Credit: Detlev van Ravenswaay/SPL)

But the Earth is just one planet in the solar system, the Sun is just one of hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. What’s in store for all of that? How does the universe end?

The science is much less settled on how that will happen. We’re not even sure if the universe will come to a firm, defined end, or just slowly tail off. Our best understanding of physics suggests there are several options for the universal apocalypse. It also offers some hints on how we might, just maybe, survive it.

 Our first clue to the end of the universe comes from thermodynamics, the study of heat. Thermodynamics is the wild-eyed street preacher of physics, bearing a cardboard placard with a simple warning: “THE HEAT DEATH IS COMING”.

The heat death is far worse than being burnt to a crisp

Despite the name, the heat death of the universe isn’t a fiery inferno. Instead, it’s the death of all differences in heat.

This may not sound scary, but the heat death is far worse than being burnt to a crisp. That’s because nearly everything in everyday life requires some kind of temperature difference, either directly or indirectly.

For instance, your car runs because it’s hotter inside its engine than outside. Your computer runs on electricity from the local power plant, which probably works by heating water and using that to power a turbine. And you run on food, which exists thanks to the enormous temperature difference between the Sun and the rest of the universe.

 However, once the universe reaches heat death, everything everywhere will be the same temperature. That means nothing interesting will ever happen again.

Heat death looked like the only possible way the universe could end

Every star will die, nearly all matter will decay, and eventually all that will be left is a sparse soup of particles and radiation. Even the energy of that soup will be sapped away over time by the expansion of the universe, leaving everything just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.

In this “Big Freeze”, the universe ends up uniformly cold, dead and empty.

After the development of thermodynamics in the early 1800s, heat death looked like the only possible way the universe could end. But 100 years ago, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity suggested that the universe had a far more dramatic fate.

 General relativity says that matter and energy warp space and time. This relationship between space-time and matter-energy (stuff) — between the stage and the actors on it — extends to the entire universe. The stuff in the universe, according to Einstein, determines the ultimate fate of the universe itself.

The universe began as something incredibly small, and then expanded incredibly quickly

The theory predicted that the universe as a whole must either be expanding or contracting. It could not stay the same size. Einstein realized this in 1917, and was so reluctant to believe it that he fudged his own theory.

Then in 1929, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble found hard evidence that the universe was expanding. Einstein changed his mind, calling his previous insistence on a static universe the “greatest blunder” of his career.

If the universe is expanding, it must once have been much smaller than it is now. This realization led to the Big Bang theory: the idea that the universe began as something incredibly small, and then expanded incredibly quickly. We can see the “afterglow” of the Big Bang even today, in the cosmic microwave background radiation – a constant stream of radio waves, coming from all directions in the sky.

 The fate of the universe, then, hinges on a very simple question: will the universe continue to expand, and how quickly?

If there’s too much stuff, the expansion of the universe will slow down and stop

For a universe containing normal “stuff”, such as matter and light, the answer to this question depends on how much stuff there is. More stuff means more gravity, which pulls everything back together and slows the expansion.

As long as the amount of stuff doesn’t go over a critical threshold, the universe will continue to expand forever, and eventually suffer heat death, freezing out.

But if there’s too much stuff, the expansion of the universe will slow down and stop. Then the universe will begin to contract. A contracting universe will shrink smaller and smaller, getting hotter and denser, eventually ending in a fabulously compact inferno, a sort of reverse Big Bang known as the Big Crunch.

For most of the 20th century, astrophysicists weren’t sure which of these scenarios would play out. Would it be the Big Freeze or the Big Crunch? Ice or fire?

Dark energy pulls the universe apart

They tried to perform a cosmic census, adding up how much stuff there is in our universe. It turned out that we’re strangely close to the critical threshold, leaving our fate uncertain.

That all changed at the end of the 20th century. In 1998, two competing teams of astrophysicists made an astonishing announcement: the expansion of the universe is speeding up.

Normal matter and energy can’t make the universe behave this way. This was the first evidence of a fundamentally new kind of energy, dubbed “dark energy”, which didn’t behave like anything else in the cosmos.

Dark energy pulls the universe apart. We still don’t understand what it is, but roughly 70% of the energy in the universe is dark energy, and that number is growing every day.

The existence of dark energy means that the amount of stuff in the universe doesn’t get to determine its ultimate fate.

Instead, dark energy controls the cosmos, accelerating the expansion of the universe for all time. This makes the Big Crunch much less likely.

But that doesn’t mean that the Big Freeze is inevitable. There are other possibilities.

One of them originated, not in the study of the cosmos, but in the world of subatomic particles. This is perhaps the strangest fate for the universe. It sounds like something out of science fiction, and in a way, it is.

 In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic sci-fi novel Cat’s Cradle, ice-nine is a new form of water ice with a remarkable property: it freezes at 46 °C, not at 0 °C. When a crystal of ice-nine is dropped into a glass of water, all the water around it immediately patterns itself after the crystal, since it has lower energy than liquid water.

There’s nowhere for the ice to start forming

The new crystals of ice-nine do the same thing to the water around them, and in the blink of an eye, the chain reaction turns all the water in the glass — or (spoiler alert!) all of Earth’s oceans — into solid ice-nine.

The same thing can happen in real life with normal ice and normal water. If you put very pure water into a very clean glass, and cool it just below 0°C, the water will become supercooled: it stays liquid below its natural freezing point. There are no impurities in the water and no rough patches on the glass, so there’s nowhere for the ice to start forming. But if you drop a crystal of ice into the glass, the water will freeze rapidly, just like ice-nine.

Ice-nine and supercooled water may not seem relevant to the fate of the universe. But something similar could happen to space itself.

 Quantum physics dictates that even in a totally empty vacuum, there is a small amount of energy. But there might also be some other kind of vacuum, which holds less energy.

The new vacuum will “convert” the old vacuum around it

If that’s true, then the entire universe is like a glass of supercooled water. It will only last until a “bubble” of lower-energy vacuum shows up.

Fortunately, there are no such bubbles that we’re aware of. Unfortunately, quantum physics also dictates that if a lower-energy vacuum is possible, then a bubble of that vacuum will inevitably dart into existence somewhere in the universe.

When that happens, just like ice-nine, the new vacuum will “convert” the old vacuum around it. The bubble would expand at nearly the speed of light, so we’d never see it coming.

 Inside the bubble, things would be radically different, and not terribly hospitable.

Humans, planets and even the stars themselves would be destroyed

The properties of fundamental particles like electrons and quarks could be entirely different, radically rewriting the rules of chemistry and perhaps preventing atoms from forming.

Humans, planets and even the stars themselves would be destroyed in this Big Change. In a 1980 paper, Physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank de Luccia called it “the ultimate ecological catastrophe“.

Adding insult to injury, dark energy would probably behave differently after the Big Change. Rather than driving the universe to expand faster, dark energy might instead pull the universe in on itself, collapsing into a Big Crunch.

 There is a fourth possibility, and once again dark energy is at centre stage. This idea is very speculative and unlikely, but it can’t yet be ruled out. Dark energy might be even more powerful than we thought, and might be enough to end the universe on its own, without any intervening Big Change, Freeze, or Crunch.

Dark energy has a peculiar property. As the universe expands, its density remains constant. That means more of it pops into existence over time, to keep pace with the increasing volume of the universe. This is unusual, but doesn’t break any laws of physics.

However, it could get weirder. What if the density of dark energy increases as the universe expands? In other words, what if the amount of dark energy in the universe increases more quickly than the expansion of the universe itself?

This idea was put forward by Robert Caldwell of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He calls it “phantom dark energy”. It leads to a remarkably strange fate for the universe.

 If phantom dark energy exists, then the dark side is our ultimate downfall, just like Star Wars warned us it would be.

Atoms themselves would shatter, a fraction of a second before the universe itself ripped apart

Right now, the density of dark energy is very low, far less than the density of matter here on Earth, or even the density of the Milky Way galaxy, which is much less dense than Earth. But as time goes on, the density of phantom dark energy would build up, and tear the universe apart.

In a 2003 paper, Caldwell and his colleagues outlined a scenario they called “cosmic doomsday“. Once the phantom dark energy becomes more dense than a particular object, that object gets torn to shreds.

First, phantom dark energy would pull the Milky Way apart, sending its constituent stars flying. Then the solar system would be unbound, because the pull of dark energy would be stronger than the pull of the Sun on the Earth.

Finally, in a few frantic minutes the Earth would explode. Then atoms themselves would shatter, a fraction of a second before the universe itself ripped apart. Caldwell calls this the Big Rip.

The Big Rip is, by Caldwell’s own admission, “very outlandish” – and not just because it sounds like something out of an over-the-top superhero comic.

This is a remarkably grim portrait of the future

Phantom dark energy flies in the face of some fairly basic ideas about the universe, like the assumption that matter and energy can’t go faster than the speed of light. There are good reasons not to believe in it.

Based on our observations of the expansion of the universe, and particle physics experiments, it seems much more likely that the ultimate fate of our universe is a Big Freeze, possibly followed by a Big Change and a final Big Crunch.

But this is a remarkably grim portrait of the future — aeons of cold emptiness, finally terminated by a vacuum decay and a final implosion into nothingness. Is there any escape? Or are we doomed to book a table at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe?

 There’s certainly no reason for us, individually, to worry about the end of the universe. All of these events are trillions of years into the future, with the possible exception of the Big Change, so they’re not exactly an imminent problem.

Also, there’s no reason to worry about humanity. If nothing else, genetic drift will have rendered our descendants unrecognizable long before then. But could intelligent feeling creatures of any kind, human or not, survive?

If the universe is accelerating, that’s really bad news

Physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey considered this question in a classic paper published in 1979. At the time, he concluded that life could modify itself to survive the Big Freeze, which he thought was less challenging than the inferno of the Big Crunch.

But these days, he’s much less optimistic, thanks to the discovery of dark energy.

“If the universe is accelerating, that’s really bad news,” says Dyson. Accelerating expansion means we’ll eventually lose contact with all but a handful of galaxies, dramatically limiting the amount of energy available to us. “It’s a rather dismal situation in the long run.”

The situation could still change. “We really don’t know whether the expansion is going to continue since we don’t understand why it’s accelerating,” says Dyson. “The optimistic view is that the acceleration will slow down as the universe gets bigger.” If that happens, “the future is much more promising.”

But what if the expansion doesn’t slow down, or if it becomes clear that the Big Change is coming? Some physicists have proposed a solution that is solidly in mad-scientist territory. To escape the end of the universe, we should build our own universe in a laboratory, and jump in.

 One physicist who has worked on this idea is Alan Guth of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is known for his work on the very early universe.

You would jump-start the creation of an entirely new universe

“I can’t say that the laws of physics absolutely imply that it’s possible,” says Guth. “If it is possible, it would require technology vastly beyond anything that we can foresee. It would require huge amounts of energy that one would need to be able to obtain and control.”

The first step, according to Guth, would be creating an incredibly dense form of matter — so dense that it was on the verge of collapsing into a black hole. By doing that in the right way, and then quickly clearing the matter out of the area, you might be able to force that region of space to start expanding rapidly.

In effect, you would jump-start the creation of an entirely new universe. As the space in the region expanded, the boundary would shrink, creating a bubble of warped space where the inside was bigger than the outside.

 That may sound familiar to Doctor Who fans, and according to Guth, the TARDIS is “probably a very accurate analogy” for the kind of warping of space he’s talking about.

We don’t really know if it’s possible or not

Eventually, the outside would shrink to nothingness, and the new baby universe would pinch off from our own, spared from whatever fate our universe may meet.

It’s far from certain that this scheme would actually work. “I would have to say that it’s unclear,” says Guth. “We don’t really know if it’s possible or not.”

However, Guth also points out that there is another source of hope beyond the end of the universe – well, hope of a sort.

 Guth was the first to propose that the very early universe expanded astonishingly fast for a tiny fraction of a second, an idea known as “inflation”. Many cosmologists now believe inflation is the most promising approach for explaining the early universe, and Guth’s plan for creating a new universe relies on recreating this rapid expansion.

The multiverse as a whole is genuinely eternal

Inflation has an intriguing consequence for the ultimate fate of the universe. The theory dictates that the universe we inhabit is just one small part of a multiverse, with an eternally inflating background continually spawning “pocket universes” like our own.

“If that’s the case, even if we’re convinced that an individual pocket universe will ultimately die through refrigeration, the multiverse as a whole will go on living forever, with new life being created in each pocket universe as it’s created,” says Guth. “In this picture, the multiverse as a whole is genuinely eternal, at least eternal into the future, even as individual pocket universes live and die.”

In other words, Franz Kafka may have been right on the money when he said that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”

This is a bit of a bleak thought. If it upsets you, here is a picture of a cute kitten.

Scientists say the ‘R’ in RNA may be abundant in space

Scientists say the 'R' in RNA may be abundant in space
Ribose and a diversity of structurally related sugar molecules are formed by a formose-type reaction in evolved pre-cometary ice analogues and detected by multidimensional gas chromatography. Ribose sugars make up the backbone of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is what scientists think coded the genetic instructions for living things before the emergence of DNA.

New research suggests that the sugar ribose – the “R” in RNA – is probably found in comets and asteroids that zip through the solar system and may be more abundant throughout the universe than was previously thought.

The finding has implications not just for the study of the origins of life on Earth, but also for understanding how much life there might be beyond our planet.

Scientists already knew that several of the molecules necessary for life including , nucleobases and others can be made from the interaction of cometary ices and space radiation. But ribose, which makes up the backbone of the RNA molecule, had been elusive – until now.

The new work, published Thursday in Science, fills in another piece of the puzzle, said Andrew Mattioda, an astrochemist at NASA Ames Research Center, who was not involved with the study.

“If all these molecules that are necessary for life are everywhere out in space, the case gets a lot better that you’ll find life outside of Earth,” he said.

RNA, which stands for ribonucleic acid, is one of the three macromolecules that are necessary for all life on Earth – the other two are DNA and proteins.

Many scientists believe that RNA is a more ancient molecule than DNA and that before DNA came on the scene, an “RNA world” existed on Earth. However, ribose, a key component in RNA, only forms under specific conditions, and scientists say those conditions were not present on our planet before life evolved. So, where did the ribose in the first RNA strands come from?

Scientists say the 'R' in RNA may be abundant in space
Ribose – a key molecule for the origin of life – detected in an interstellar ice analogue using multidimensional gas chromatography. Ribose sugars make up the backbone of ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule, which is involved in protein synthesis in living cells. Credit: C. Meinert, CNRS

To see if these molecules could have been delivered to Earth by asteroids and comets, a team of researchers re-created the conditions of the early solar system in a French lab to see whether ribose could easily be made in space.

They started with water, methanol and ammonia because these molecules were abundant in the protoplanetary disk that formed around the sun at the dawn of the solar system, and are also abundant in gas clouds throughout the universe. They were put in a vacuum and then cooled to a cryogenic temperature of 80 degrees kelvin (minus-328 degrees Fahrenheit).

The resulting ices were then heated to room temperature, which caused the volatile molecules to sublimate, leaving a thin film of material.

“The simulation is of cometary ices only, not cometary dust grains,” said Uwe Meierhenrich, a chemist at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France and one of the authors of the study.

The experiment took about six days to complete and yielded just 100 micrograms of the artificial cometary ice residue in the lab.

Artificial cometary ices have been created hundreds of times before in labs around the world, but until now researchers have not had the tools to detect sugars such as ribose in the samples.

Cornelia Meinert, also of the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, explained that it’s not just sugar and sugar-related molecules that are created in these experiments, but also amino acids, carboxylic acids and alcohols.

“We are confronted with a very complex sample containing a huge diversity of molecules,” she said. “The identification of individual compounds is therefore very difficult.”

Meinert said it wasn’t until the group was able to use a new technique called multidimensional gas chromatography that they were able to detect ribose in these samples at all.

The researchers say that the ice samples they made in the lab could easily be made in other parts of the .

“Our ice simulation is a very general process that can occur in molecular clouds as well as in protoplanetary disks,” Meinert said. “It shows that the of the potentially first genetic material are abundant in interstellar environments.”

Scott Sandford, an astrochemist who has done similar work with cometary ices at NASA Ames Research Center, said adding sugars to the list of that can be forged in space is an important step in understanding what building blocks of life may be available to foster life in other worlds.

“Insofar as these materials play a role in getting started on planets, the odds are good that they’ll be present to help,” he said.


The Power Of Our Thoughts On Water

The hypothesis that water “treated” with intention can affect ice crystals formed from that water was pilot tested under double-blind conditions. A group of approximately 2,000 people in Tokyo focused positive intentions toward water samples located inside an electromagnetically shielded room in California. That group was unaware of similar water samples set aside in a different location as controls. Ice crystals formed from both sets of water samples were blindly identified and photographed by an analyst, and the resulting images were blindly assessed for aesthetic appeal by 100 independent judges. In conclusion, the present pilot results are consistent with a number of previous studies suggesting thatintention may be able to influence the structure of water. Here is a photo of the effects direct states of conscious intention has on the structure of water.

Consciousness has measurable effects on the geometric structure of water crystals. What does this tell us about the nature of consciousness? Is it possible that water is comprised of the same underlying “thing” as our thoughts are? Maybe this is an incentive to give good “vibes” to our food before we eat it.

Masaru Emoto on water crystals and consciousness:

Masaru Emoto was born in Yokohama, Japan in July 1943 and a graduate of the Yokohama Municipal University’s department of humanities and sciences with a focus on International Relations. In 1986 he established the IHM Corporation in Tokyo. In October of 1992 he received certification from the Open International University as a Doctor of Alternative Medicine. Subsequently he was introduced to the concept of micro cluster water in the US and Magnetic Resonance Analysis technology. The quest thus began to discover the mystery of water.

He undertook extensive research of water around the planet not so much as a scientific researcher, but more from the perspective of an original thinker. At length he realized that it was in the frozen crystal form that water showed us its true nature through. He has gained worldwide acclaim through his groundbreaking research and discovery that water is deeply connected to our individual and collective consciousness.

He is the author of the best-selling books Messages from Water, The Hidden Messages in Water, and The True Power of Water. He is a long-time advocate for peace in relation to water. He is currently the head of the I.H.M.General Research Institute and President Emeritus of the International Water for Life Foundation, a Not for Profit Organization.

Mr. Emoto has been visually documenting these molecular changes in water by means of his photographic techniques. He freezes droplets of water and then examines them under a dark field microscope that has photographic capabilities.

Some examples from his works include:

Water from clear mountain springs and streams had beautifully formed crystalline structures, while the crystals of polluted or stagnant water were deformed and distorted. Distilled water exposed to classical music took delicate, symmetrical crystalline shapes.


When the words “thank you” were taped to a bottle of distilled water, the frozen crystals had a similar shape to the crystals formed by water that had been exposed to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”- music composed out of gratitude to the man it was named for.

When water samples were bombarded with heavy metal music or labeled with negative words, or when negative thoughts and emotions were focused intentionally upon them, such as “Adolf Hitler”, the water did not form crystals at all and displayed chaotic, fragmented structures.

When water was treated with aromatic floral oils, the water crystals tended to mimic the shape of the original flower.

Sometimes, when we cannot see the immediate results of our affirmations and or prayers, we think we have failed. But, as we learn through Masaru Emoto’s photographs, that thought of failure itself becomes represented in the physical objects that surround us. Now that we have seen this, perhaps we can begin to realize that even when immediate results are invisible to the unaided human eye, they are still there. When we love our own bodies, they respond. When we send our love to the Earth, she responds.

For our own bodies at birth are more than 60 percent water, and the percentage of water in our bodies remains high throughout life (depending upon weight and body type). The earth’s surface is more than 60 percent water as well. And now we have seen before our eyes that water is far from inanimate, but is actually alive and responsive to our every thought and emotion. Perhaps, having seen this, we can begin to really understand the awesome power that we possess, through choosing our thoughts and intentions, to heal ourselves and the earth. If only we believe.

Whether you participate in global meditations, or simply do this inner work in the quiet of your own loving mind and heart, we can heal the body of our earth and recreate a clear, pristine world to hand down to our children for generations.


Beans, millets, cinnamon and more; these 7 superfoods will help you fight diabetes

On World Health Day, we tell you what to eat to maintain a safe distance from diabetes.

Picture courtesy:,

With diabetes being the theme for World Health Day this year, an expert says one should include millets, beans and fish in regular diet to keep diabetes away. Neha Sewani, Dietician, Truweight, has shared what should be included to keep diabetes under control.


  1. Millets: These are very good source of protein, resistant starch, vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. They are rich in anti-oxidants.
  2. Beans: They are rich in fibre and protein, and also provide satiety and help control hunger pangs.
  3. Fish: They are a good source of omega-3 fatty acid which helps keep cholesterol and triglycerides in check. The omega-3 also helps the body fight against oxidative damage caused due to free radicals.
  4. Cinnamon: It helps in controlling the blood sugar levels, the active ingredient being the Coumarin. It should be taken early in the morning.
  5. Spirulina: It contains vitamins such as Vitamin A, B-complex, Vitamin E, minerals like iron, zinc, copper and selenium. It fulfills the micro-nutrient deficiencies which are usually present in diabetics due to improper food intake.
  6. Sweet potato: It is a good source of fibre. It also contains vitamin A and C which helps in enhancing the body’s immunity.
  7. Alfalfa: It is a very good source of chlorophyll, vitamin A, B-complex, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and Vitamin K. It contains minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc along with phytoestrogens which help enhance the body’s immunity to fight against bacterial infection, fungal infection and also helps in lowering blood glucose.

Onion Juice For Hair Growth: Boost Hair Growth

Yes, it’s true the humble everyday vegetable, onion really helps boost hair health. Onion juice has been used in ancient medicine as a natural remedy of thinning, falling and graying of hair.

Latest research into this wonder veggie has thrown multiple possibilities into its importance in hair care. Most of it has to do with its anti bacterial, anti fungal and anti parasitic properties that keep the scalp clean of dandruff and hair roots unclogged. Genetic sensitivity to Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is a major cause for genetic male pattern baldness. Onions has proved to provide the hair follicles with nourishment that has been blocked by DHT sensitivity or due to lack of nutrients from an unhealthy diet.

 Sulphur ( also called the “beauty mineral”) which is present in every cell of the human body especially the skin, nails and hair, is another important nutrient in onions that decreases inflammation, reinvigorates and regenerates hair follicles growth.

Greying and thinning of hair is also caused by oxidative stress through a buildup of hydrogen peroxide and a decrease in the natural antioxidant, catalase. Onion juice, when applied to the scalp increases catalase levels on the skins surface, reducing the buildup of hydrogen peroxide and boosting hair health.


Few research results found that just after four weeks of using onion juice, 74% of individuals with alopecia areata (extreme medical case where the immune system forces hair fall) experienced significant hair regrowth. Within six weeks of using onion juice, 84% of the individuals were reported to have hair regrowth.

This simple household remedy is a boon especially for those undergoing hair loss as a result of hormonal changes or the aging process. While further studies are necessary to reach a full conclusion, this is a great start for the fight against hair loss.



HIV defies attempt to edit virus out of human cells with CRISPR

Vanquishing HIV just got that little bit harder. A promising technique to weaken the virus has in some cases made it stronger.

HIV’s ability to evolve resistance to antiretroviral drugs has become legendary. It had been thought that a new precision gene-editing tool called CRISPR would have more success, enabling the viral genome to be “cut” from all infected cells. Now it seems that hope may be in vain – at least for now.

Curing people with HIV has proved impossible so far. Several prominent reports of cures three years ago turned out to provide false hope, after the virus bounced back.

The problem begins with the fact that HIV integrates its genome into the host cell’s DNA. While antiretroviral drugs keep people free of active infection, this viral DNA hides out in parts of the body they can’t reach, ready to revive active infection if the drug treatment is stopped.


Using CRISPR to cut up the HIV genome in all cells – including those where it’s hiding out – is one of several promising strategies to clear the infection.

But it has been hit with a serious setback. Research shows that the use of CRISPR to destroy the virus in white blood cells by messing up its DNA is a double-edged sword.

Chen Liang of McGill University AIDS Center in Montreal, Canada, and his team used CRISPR to cut up the viral DNA that had been incorporated into the host cell. The idea was that when the cell’s natural repair mechanisms patched up the broken genetic sequence it would introduce genetic “scar tissue” that would prevent the viral DNA from functioning.

Sometimes this did, indeed, happen – the gene alterations “killed” the virus. But to the surprise of the researchers, in other cases the scar tissue made the virus stronger – sometimes it was able to replicate faster, for example.

What’s more, because the patched up DNA looks different, the CRISPR cutting system couldn’t recognise and attack it again. HIV had become resistant to the gene-editing technique.

Double-edged sword

“On the one hand, CRISPR inhibits HIV, but on the other, it helps the virus to escape and survive,” says Liang. “The surprise is that the resistance mutations are not the products of error-prone viral DNA copying, but rather are created by the cell’s own repair machinery.”

But all is not yet lost.

“The bright side is that when you know what the problem is, you can come up with the means to overcome it,” says Liang. “Just as HIV is able to escape all antiretroviral drugs, understanding how HIV escapes only helps you discover better drugs or treatments.”

One possibility is to “carpet-bomb” HIV with CRISPR at many sites within its DNA instead of just the one targeted in the experiment. This, says, Liang, would make it much more difficult for the virus to evolve resistance.

HIV neutralised

Another potential ploy is to attack the virus with CRISPR-like techniques that rely on different DNA repair machinery, making it less likely that the repair process itself would help the virus become resistant to editing.

Another team reporting early success against HIV using CRISPR isn’t discouraged by the setback, echoing the possibility that the “carpet-bombing” solution could be the answer.

“The key could be using multiple viral sites for editing,” says Kamel Khalili of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “This would reduce any chance for virus escape or the emergence of virus resistant to the initial treatment,” he says.

Earlier this year Khalili’s team showed that CRISPR neutralises HIV in cells that are latently as well as actively infected, suggesting that a cure could one day be possible.

New Fish Virus Discovered

Researchers identify a virus that may already have caused mass tilapia die-offs in Ecuador and Israel in recent years.

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In 2009, an unknown disease began killing tilapia in the Sea of Galilee and in commercial ponds in Israel, with a mortality rate of up to 70 percent. Just a couple of years later, the same happened in commercial ponds in Ecuador. Now, researchers have identified a new virus that likely caused both of these die-offs, and in doing so have provided the first step toward developing a vaccine, according to a study published yesterday (April 5) in mBio.

“Our research provides the first means of detection,” study coauthor Eran Bacharach of Tel Aviv University said in a statement, adding that “knowing the genetic sequence of the virus is the first step to designing diagnostic and screening assays.”

Researchers discovered the virus while analyzing fish samples from scientists working on both the Israel and Ecuador outbreaks. “This was an atypical viral discovery project,” study coauthor W. Ian Lipkin of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University said in the statement. Normally, his work consists of matching viral samples to known sequences in a database. “In this instance, what my colleague Nischay Mishra found didn’t look like any previously entered sequences,” Lipkin added. “The more we studied them, the more convinced we became that what we had represented an entirely new virus.”

The researchers found 10 short RNA gene sequences, nine of which showed no similarities to any other known viral genes. The remaining segment showed some resemblance to an influenza C virus sequence, leading the team to classify the new find as an influenza-related orthomyxo-like virus called tilapia lake virus (TiLV). The team next plans to use the sequences to begin developing a vaccine, which could “save billions of dollars and preserve an industry that ensures employment in the developing world and food security,” Lipkin said in the statement.

Study finds sirtuin protein essential for healthy heart function

The human heart is a remarkable muscle, beating more than 2 billion times over the average life span.


But the ‘s efficiency can decrease over time. One major contributor to this decreased function is cardiac hypertrophy – a thickening of the heart muscle, resulting in a decrease in the size of the left and right ventricles. This makes the heart work harder and pump less blood per cycle than a healthy heart.

Cornell researchers, working in collaboration with scientists in Switzerland, have identified a strong connection between a protein, SIRT5, and healthy . SIRT5 has the ability to remove a harmful protein modification known as lysine succinylation, which robs the heart of its ability to burn fatty acids efficiently to generate the energy needed for pumping.

“Our research suggests that perhaps one way to improve heart function is to find a way to improve SIRT5 activity,” said Hening Lin, professor of chemistry and chemical biology, who co-wrote the article published online April 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sushabhan Sadhukhan, a postdoctoral fellow in Lin’s lab, was lead author of the paper.

SIRT5 is one of a class of seven proteins called sirtuins that have been shown to influence a range of cellular processes. According to Sadhukhan, most research on laboratory mice into sirtuin activity has focused on the liver, as opposed to the heart, due to the size of the liver and ease of obtaining tissue.

Lin’s lab tested mouse tissue from five locations (heart, liver, kidney, brain, muscle) and found that protein lysine succinylation occurs to the greatest extent in the heart. The testing involved mice that had SIRT5 deleted.

The removal of SIRT5 resulted in reduced activity of ECHA, a protein involved in fatty acid oxidation, and decreased levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which stores and transfers chemical energy within cells.

The effect of SIRT5 removal on heart function was even more pronounced as the mice aged. The researchers performed echocardiography on 8-week-old mice, with some reduced cardiac function observed. The mice were tested again at 39 weeks, and they showed hallmarks of – increased heart weight and left ventricular mass, along with reductions in both the shortening and ejection fractions of the heart.

The group’s findings could spawn new methods for the preservation of heart health and extension of healthy life, which could have significant implications for human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause death among both men and women, with more than 600,000 people in the U.S. dying from it annually.

Lin said that vitamin B3, also known as niacin, boosts the production of the small molecule nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), a coenzyme found in all living cells. SIRT5, like all sirtuins, is NAD-dependent.

“If you can have a way to promote sirtuin activity, like by taking a vitamin supplement, or somehow boosting sirtuin levels, you might have healthier tissue and organs and extend your healthy life,” Lin said.

His Swiss collaborator concurred.

“The identification of this new role of SIRT5 in cardiomyopathy assigns an important role of this ‘druggable’ enzyme in one of the major cardiac diseases,” said Johan Auwerx of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. “It can be expected that pharmacological interference with these pathways will lead to new therapies for cardiomyopathy that, as such, can extend span.”

12 Wi-Fi enabled driverless lorries complete week-long journey across Europe

Driverless trucks across Europe
The rear truck was led by a connection to the front vehicle

Six convoys of semi-automated “smart” trucks arrived in Rotterdam’s harbour on Wednesday after an experiment its organisers say will revolutionise future road transport on Europe’s busy highways.

More than a dozen self-driving trucks made by six of Europe’s largest manufacturers arrived in the port in so-called “truck platoons” around midday, said the umbrella body representing DAF, Daimler, IVECO, MAN, Scania and Volvo.

“Truck platooning”, similar to concepts with self-driving cars, involves two or three trucks that autonomously drive in convoy and are connected via wireless with the leading truck determining route and speed.

Wednesday’s arrival concludes the first-ever cross-border experiment of its kind with self-driving trucks which left home factories from as far away as Sweden and southern Germany.

“Truck platooning will ensure cleaner and more efficient transport. Self-driving vehicles also contribute to road safety because most accidents are caused by human failure,” said Dutch Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen.

For instance, because the trucks are connected via wireless they brake at the same time to always maintain the same distances between them, added the Dutch infrastructure and environment ministry.

“The advantage of truck platooning is that you have trucks driving at a consistent speed,” said Jonnaert, saying the concept will greatly aid traffic flow on Europe’s heavily congested roads.

Driverless lorries travelling through Belgium
The lorries travelling through Belgium

The trucks used in Wednesday’s test however are still semi-automated and despite computers allowing them to drive by themselves, human drivers were still required on board.

The proponents of truck platooning say several hurdles still need to be ironed out and road users will not see self-driving trucks just yet.

Difficulties include standardising regulations across the continent to enable self-driving convoys and designing systems that will enable communication between different trucks from different manufacturers, Jonnaert said.

“This is all part of a journey, which we are on as the automotive industry, towards highly-automated vehicles,” said Jonnaert.

The Netherlands, which currently holds the revolving EU presidency, will hold an informal summit mid-April to discuss changes to regulations needed to “make self-driving transport a reality,” Dutch officials said.

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