These are the last images ever taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft

Published: Friday, September 15, 2017 @ 11:48 AM

With this view, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance on Sept. 11, 2017. The Saturn system was Cassini's home for 13 years.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
With this view, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance on Sept. 11, 2017. The Saturn system was Cassini's home for 13 years.(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

After a remarkable 20-year voyage in space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made its grand exit Friday as it disintegrated into Saturn’s atmosphere.

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According to scientists at NASA’s Deep Space Network in Canberra, Australia, Earth received Cassini’s final signal at 7:55 a.m. ET.

One minute earlier, the spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere from about 1,190 miles above the planet’s cloud tops at a speed of approximately 70,000 miles per hour.

At that point, the beloved NASA spacecraft burned up and shortly came apart, officially becoming a part of Saturn itself.

>> Related: NASA responds to 9-year-old’s application for planetary protection job

Scientists chose this dramatic, fiery send-off because they didn’t want to risk Cassini colliding with any of Saturn’s moons.

But it was a bittersweet goodbye for Cassini.

Launched in October 1997, the $3.2 billion collaborative mission between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency led to a number of monumental discoveries, especially during the Cassini spacecraft’s 13-plus years on Saturn.

>> Related: NASA says it’s not running a child slave colony on Mars

On Thursday, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took its final images before plunging to its death Friday morning.

Cassini Spacecraft Set To Crash Into Saturn on Sept. 15

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Scientists accidentally discover enzyme that could 'eat' plastic pollution

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 11:07 AM

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Pollution has negative effects on our health, but scientists may be able to better combat the issue with a plastic-eating enzyme they discovered accidentally

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Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently conducted a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to examine the natural molecules and chemicals found at a waste recycling center in Japan. 

During their assessment, they discovered that the enzyme, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, can “eat” polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used to make plastic bottles. 

While they intended to better understand the structure of it, they actually engineered an enzyme that breaks down PET products

>> Related: Soaps and paint pollute air as much as car emissions, study shows

“This unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics,” co-author John McGeehan said in a statement

The scientists said PET can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. The chemicals can seep into the soil, affecting the groundwater and infecting drinking water.

>> On AJC.com: Climate change will internally displace 143 million people by 2050, scientists warn

While the analysts called their discovery a “modest” improvement, they hope to continue their investigations to improve the enzyme with the help of protein tools. They said they believe their work will be used to industrially break down plastics in a fraction of the time. 

“We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem,” McGeehan said, “but the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’ must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.” 

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11,000 years ago our ancestors survived major climate change

Published: Friday, April 13, 2018 @ 6:37 AM

In one scenario in a recent study, sea levels could rise over 10 feet near the Golden State by century's end.

As humanity faces the reality of a changing climate, we may be able to look to our ancient ancestors for insights on how to adapt. 

»RELATED: Antarctica's ice retreating 5 times faster than normal, study reveals

Some 11,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in what is now the United Kingdom found ways to survive a cold front that lasted a century. Researchers studying a Middle Stone Age site named Star Carr in North Yorkshire, England published their findings in Nature Ecology & Evolution  last month, revealing how these ancient humans adapted to the major environmental change.

"The population at Star Carr, some of the earliest people to recolonize Britain after the last ice age, must have been highly resilient to climate instability, capable of persevering and maintaining a stable society in spite of these environmental stresses," Ian Candy, study author and professor of geography at the Royal Holloway University of London's Centre for Quaternary Research, told CNN.

Our ancient ancestors were forced to survive a harsher and less stable climate than we generally experience today, according to paleoclimatologists who study climates of the past. Such dramatic changes often forced communities to either move or die.

During the cold spells discussed in this newly published research, average temperatures dropped by as much as 10 degrees. Despite this significant dip, the inhabitants of Star Carr were able to survive and continue to thrive.

"It has been argued that abrupt climatic events may have caused a crash in Mesolithic populations in Northern Britain, but our study reveals, that at least in the case of the pioneering colonizers at Star Carr, early communities were able to cope with extreme and persistent climate events," Simon Blockley, Professor of Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway said in a media release.

Within the U.K., Star Carr is one of the most important archaeological sites, according to Science Alert. It was first discovered in the 1940s and is home Britain's earliest house as well as some of the oldest carpentry ever discovered in Europe.

»RELATED: Worst global warming predictions likely the most accurate, study finds

When digging at the site, researchers expected to find evidence that the community had struggled significantly during cooling periods 9,300 and 11,100 years ago. However, what they discovered was precisely the opposite.

Although the community's activity appears to have decreased somewhat during the first cold front, it pulled through without major problems. During the second period, it appears the ancient humans were able to carry on with minimal impact on their habits.

Putting the conclusions into perspective, Candy said they "really change the way that we think about the interaction between prehistoric societies and climate change."

"These hunter-gatherers had a lot of skills and knowledge of how to use the natural resources. They could make shelters and houses and hunt, fish and collect plant materials. It must have been a lot colder and harsher conditions to live in but they had structures and used fires to keep warm." 

Some experts suggest that looking to our ancient ancestors adaptability can provide insights to us today, as we face other severe changes to the climate.

"Such analyses of past climate-society dynamics can illuminate where and why problems emerged or successes occurred in response to abrupt climatic changes, such as this case at Star Carr," Mark Carey, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the new research, told CNN.

"The depth of archaeological and climatic evidence presented in this study takes us in a positive step to show how societies adjust in the face of abrupt climatic change. It also sets up the next level of research to probe decision-making and cause-effect dynamics, allowing researchers to go beyond the correlation of events (climate change and societal change) and toward causal explanations for how and why societies persevere in the face of climate change."

At the same time, researchers caution that there are major differences between society then and now.

"Studies of this kind show correlation much better than they reveal causation, so it's difficult to know how exactly the people of Star Carr successfully endured even the most extreme climate changes," Dagomar Degroot, professor of environmental history at Georgetown University and co-founder of the Climate History Network, who was not involved in the study, said.

"Still, these dramatic results suggest that, in the wake of the great Ice Ages, past climate changes rarely determined the course of human history in a straightforward way. In my opinion, this article has great significance for our understanding of anthropogenic global warming."

Observing how our ancestors survived these ancient environmental shifts can also provide a bit of hope as the scientific community warns of the impending problems due to modern-day climate change.

A recent study by the World Bank predicted that more than 143 million people will be displaced by 2050 in just three developing regions of the world, forced to move within their countries to escape climate-related issues. In December, a major scientific study suggested that the worst-case predictions regarding the effects of global warming are the most likely to be true.

Similar dire predictions led more than 15,000 scientists from around the world to sign an open letter warning that quick and drastic actions should be undertaken by society to address the threat of climate change. The open letter, which was released last year, argued that "soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory." Scientists warned that "time is running out" for humanity to address the crisis.

Read the full study at Nature.com.

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People with ‘sweet tooth’ gene may have less body fat, study says

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2018 @ 3:26 PM

Research from a U.K. medical school says having a sweet tooth may be linked with lower body fat. (Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Research from a U.K. medical school says having a sweet tooth may be linked with lower body fat. (Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

According to research from a U.K. medical school, having a sweet tooth may be linked with lower body fat.

Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School in Exeter, England, recently conducted a study, published in Cell Press, to explore the hormones that might be associated with fat loss. 

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To do so, they examined the health records of more than 450,000 individuals who allowed their data to be included in a biobank in the U.K. The documents contained blood samples, questionnaires on diet and genetic information. 

Related: 9 healthy-sounding foods that have more sugar than a Krispy Kreme doughnut

After analyzing the results, they found that people with a gene variation of FGF21 have less body fat than others. Previous studies suggest that people with this particular gene variation crave and eat more sugary foods than others. 

“It sort of contradicts common intuition that people who eat more sugar should have less body fat,” coauthor Niels Grarup said in a statement. “But it is important to remember that we are only studying this specific genetic variation and trying to find connections to the rest of the body. This is just a small piece of the puzzle describing the connection between diet and sugar intake and the risk of obesity and diabetes.”

Related: Sugar can fuel cancerous cells, study says

They also noted that those with a “genetic sweet tooth” have a slightly higher hypertension risk and also more fat around the waist than hips. This body type, known as the apple shape, can increase heart attack risk, especially among women. 

“Now that so many people are involved in the study, it gives our conclusions a certain robustness. Even though the difference in the amount of body fat or blood pressure level is only minor depending on whether or not the person has this genetic variation or not, we are very confident that the results are accurate,” Grarup said.

Scientists now hope to use their newfound knowledge for future investigations. They want to develop treatment for obesity and diabetes that will specifically target FGF21.

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Ancestry.com DNA test shows woman's biological father is parents' fertility doctor, lawsuit says

Published: Thursday, April 05, 2018 @ 4:53 AM

Woman Claims Ancestry.com DNA Test Show’s Her Biological Father is Parents’ Fertility Doctor

A woman from Washington state claims that an Ancestry.com DNA test identified her parents' fertility doctor as her biological father.

>> RELATED STORY: Can police legally obtain your DNA from 23andMe, Ancestry?

USA Today reported that Kelli Rowlette, 36, of Benton County, initially believed that Ancestry had botched her DNA test last July when Gerald Mortimer, someone she had never met, was identified as her father, according to a lawsuit she filed last week in Idaho. 

>> Parents find long-lost daughter after 24-year search

According to the lawsuit, Rowlette's now-divorced parents, Sally Ashby and Howard Fowler, lived in Idaho when they started seeing Mortimer, then a doctor with the Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Idaho Falls, in 1979, USA Today reported. Mortimer suggested the couple, who faced fertility struggles while trying to conceive, try artificial insemination using an "85 percent mixture of [Fowler's] genetic material, and 15 percent of the mixture would be from anonymous donor," the lawsuit says, according to CBS News

According to the Washington Post, although "the couple requested a donor who was in college and taller than 6 feet with brown hair and blue eyes," the lawsuit alleges that Mortimer, who didn't fit that description, used his own "genetic material" instead without telling them.

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After Rowlette got her test results, she said she complained to her mother, who later examined the results and recognized the name of her former fertility doctor. Ashby told Fowler the news, and the pair grappled with whether to tell Rowlette who Mortimer was, the lawsuit says. Three months later, Rowlette found Mortimer named as her delivery doctor on her birth certificate, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit accuses Mortimer and his former practice of "medical negligence, fraud, battery, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract," the Washington Post reported.

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