Explainer: What is RNA?

By Merlin Crossley

Our genetic material is encoded in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

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DNA is famous. But you may also have also heard of RNA (ribonucleic acid). So, what is RNA, and what is it good for?

Quite a lot really. In fact, it is possible that early life used RNA as its genetic material and also used folded RNAs as chemical tools to survive. This is called the RNA world hypothesis.

RNA is similar to DNA in lots of ways. It is a long chain of sugars linked together by phosphate groups. There is a cyclic base attached to each sugar and the bases can pair with matching partners to make a double helix.

This resembles DNA but the helix is a bit contorted and often RNAs are folded into complex structures stabilised by short helices interspersed with long single-stranded loops.

The really important difference is that RNA has an extra oxygen molecule. This makes RNA less stable than DNA.

Ribose, on the left, has one extra oxygen molecule compared to deoxyribose, right. Wikimedia Commons

You might think that being unstable is a bad thing, but there are advantages. Organisms that need to change rapidly tend to use RNA as their genetic material. Viruses, such as influenza and HIV, choose RNA rather than the more stable alternative of DNA so they can change and keep one step ahead of the immune system of their hosts.

Many factors contribute to the high mutation rates in RNA viruses, including the instability of RNA and the poor proof reading activity in the enzymes that replicate RNA.

Messenger service

Like DNA, RNA is a long chain of sugars. Sponk

As well as serving as genetic material, RNA has another critical function in virtually all organisms: it acts as a messenger; a short-lived intermediate communicating the information contained in our genes to the rest of the cell.

Many genes need to be turned on in bursts. Think of a football fan shouting out at a key point in a game – we don’t want the message to last forever.

Genes do last a lifetime, so how do we provide short-lived messages?

We make RNA copies of our DNA genes. The messages, or mRNAs, reflect the sequence of bases in our DNA and travel out of the nucleus (where our DNA is stored) into the cytoplasm where they are translated into proteins. The proteins go on to do jobs in the cell and the unstable mRNAs simply decay or are degraded.

So RNA can act as a messenger in the process of ensuring genes are translated into proteins – the tools of the cell, things such as haemoglobin to carry oxygen round the body.

But how does this mysterious translation occur? Does it rely on chemical tools such as proteins?

It certainly does, but it seems that the proteins are not the key players. It is a remarkable fact that the really important players in triggering the chemical reactions to produce protein chains from the mRNA code are not other proteins, but specially folded RNA molecules – RNA enzymes or ribozymes.

The machinery for reading a protein from a messenger RNA is contained in a complex RNA enzyme and the functional parts are RNA molecules called ribosomal RNAs or rRNAs.

RNA enzymes or ribozymes trigger the mRNA translation process.

Securing information

How come RNA can trigger chemical reactions but DNA doesn’t seem to? It is partly the extra oxygen and partly the special ability RNA has to fold up into complex shapes to form tools that can do things, whereas the double helix is regular and stable. The DNA double helix holds information securely but doesn’t do much else.

In 1989 Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for demonstrating that RNAs could catalyze chemical reactions.

You might wonder how a chain of sugars and bases such as mRNA can even serve as a template for forming a protein chain. The answer is complicated but it involves some clever adaptors. Amazingly, those adaptors are also made of RNA, they’re called transfer RNAs or tRNAs. They use their cyclic bases to pair to their mirror images in the mRNA and line up the right amino acids to make the protein, while the rRNA triggers the reaction to do the joining.

Structure of a transfer RNA (tRNA) molecule Image from shutterstock.com

The finding that absolutely essential functions such as encoding information, having a short-lived messenger to express it, and converting it into a set of functional protein tools, all involve RNA has led people to hypothesise that early life was made up of RNA.

In the beginning RNA possibly did the lot. But then gradually DNA took over as a more stable genetic material and proteins took over as more stable chemical tools. And RNA was gradually forgotten by some researchers, at least until recently.

Future of RNA

In 1998, American biologists Andy Fire and Craig Mello discovered RNA inhibition – how RNA can switch off genes.

We now know that a new class of small inhibitory RNAs (siRNAs which are about 20 residues long), fine tune the output from messenger RNAs. As mentioned RNA can form double strands – this allows siRNAs to bind messenger RNAs and interfere with their function.

These interfering RNAs are essentially “digital” inhibitors that are base for base mirror images of the messenger RNA. So it possible to make artificial inhibitors now. Thus a new industry has been born as researchers strive to turn genes off for experimental purposes and medical researchers investigate whether this can be used for therapies, such as turning off viruses or other harmful genes.

There has also been another interesting discovery – researchers have found that although only a small part of our genome encodes protein, around 2%, a much larger proportion is still copied into RNA.

The function of many of these long non-protein coding RNAs, called lncRNAs, is still being investigated but it seems that some act to catalyse chemical reactions and that others are involved in turning genes on or off either by binding messenger RNAs or by binding directly to the DNA genes they match.

If the world began with RNA then it is not really surprising that echoes of that RNA world remain and that RNAs are still involved in key life processes and are fundamentally important in gene regulation.

New classes of RNA molecules will continue to be discovered and it is seems likely that further insights into fundamental biology will emerge from this fertile ground in the future.

Merlin Crossley receives funding from the University of New South Wales, the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.


Life on South Asia’s shifting river islands

Imagine going to sleep at the end of the day, with every possibility your home could be washed away overnight.

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It’s an everyday reality for the millions of people who reside on the sandbars of South Asia’s Bay of Bengal delta.

Known as char-dwellers, seasonal flooding and riverbank erosions mean these people play a lottery with nature – at any time homes and assets can be washed away.

Their lives are documented in a new book, Dancing with the River, by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt of the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, and Gopa Samanta from the University of Burdwan.

In their groundbreaking book, the authors explore the world of chars—the part land, part water, low lying sandy masses that exist within the riverbeds in the flood plains of lower Bengal.

In West Bengal, chars are used by the poorest and ‘most wretched of the earth’, including homeless Bihari and Bangladeshi Hindu migrants, the authors point out.

Often ideal for agricultural purposes, the chars are formed through rivers washing sandy, silty material down mountains and into the sea – much of which is stored temporarily in the form of river islands.

For the purpose of their research, Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta examined 11 chars across the former region of Bengal.

“In Bangladesh people have accepted the existence of chars,” says Lahiri-Dutt.

In India, however, those who lived on them were viewed as illegal citizens.

“There is no government record of the property existing,” says Lahiri-Dutt, “so chars are not legally owned.”

Abrupt falls in market prices for agricultural products, physical isolation, and illness are other realities. Additionally, boundaries are in constant flux, and the remoteness and lack of accessibility mean a total lack of health care, sanitation, water and electricity supplies.

On the upside, the book’s authors argue that some inhabitants might feel more secure living on chars than among hostile neighbours.

Several make plans for a long-term stay, others, fully aware of their vulnerability, use them as a temporary place of residence while making plans to live in mainland areas.

Lahiri-Dutt does not, by any means, perceive char-dwellers as victims, preferring to focus on their resilience, rather than calling on governments to lend support.

“The fact that poor people live on the most marginal of environments is well known,” she says.

“But, we live with risk every day. We live with worries and tension.

The day-by-day approach to life by char-dwellers offered “a profound experiential view of living with a highly changeable and non-benign nature,” Lahiri-Dutt emphasises.

Adaptation was the key to their survival.

“What is not well known is how poor people deal with the vulnerabilities and the risks that arise from living in these sorts of marginal environments,” says Lahiri-Dutt.

“Char-dwellers don’t plan for six months, or six years, they plan for today.”

While the thought of one’s home being washed away over night was not a happy one, the idea of everything being temporary and contingent was not necessarily bad either.

“We are hardwired to believe that permanent is good,” says Lahiri-Dutt.

Dancing with the River is published by Yale University Press.

This article is from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific


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Dead ducks removed from Chinese River

The ducks, which were found in around 50 plastic woven bags, were fished out of a section of the Nanhe River by authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, the official Xinhua news agency said.

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The animals were then buried in plastic bags three meters underground, but the report did not specify how the ducks had died.

The report has come after Shanghai officials said a cleanup was close to ending after an embarrassing pollution case which saw 16,000 dead pigs floating down the city’s main river.

“The city’s water territory has already basically finished the work of fishing out the floating dead pigs,” a Shanghai government statement released late on Sunday said.

China’s commercial hub recovered 98 pigs on Sunday from the Huangpu river and 93 on Saturday, the authorities said, the first time the daily toll had fallen below a hundred in days.

The total number Shanghai had removed from the river, which supplies 22 percent of the city’s drinking water, had reached 10,924 as of Sunday afternoon.

In addition, Jiaxing in neighbouring Zhejiang province, whose farmers are accused by Shanghai of dumping the dead pigs into the river upstream, had found 5,528 carcasses, state radio said last week.

Mystery remains over the exact origin of the dead hogs. Jiaxing has insisted it was not the sole source, while Shanghai said its farms have not reported an epidemic which would kill pigs in such large numbers.

The images of dead pigs in China’s commercial hub have proved a huge embarrassment for the city, which is seeking to grow as an international financial centre.

The scandal has highlighted China’s troubles with food safety, adding the country’s most popular meat to a growing list of food items rocked by controversy.

Animals that die from disease can end up in China’s food supply chain if improperly disposed of, despite laws against the practice.

Samples of the dead pigs have tested positive for porcine circovirus, a common swine disease that does not affect humans.


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Armstrong ‘humbled, ashamed’ by doping scandal

Fallen American cyclist Lance Armstrong said in an interview that he was “humbled” and “ashamed” by the years he spent lying about using performance-enhancing drugs.

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“I feel ashamed. Yeah, this is ugly stuff,” Armstrong told talkshow host Oprah Winfrey, adding that the “most humbling moment” was when he was asked to step down as chairman of his Livestrong cancer charity. “It hurt like hell.”

In part two of his interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong talks about the impact his years of lying about doping has had on his family, sponsors and fellow cancer survivors.

Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner before those victories were stripped from him after a mountain of evidence unveiled his cheating, confessed to doping in part one of the interview on Thursday.

Winfrey, chosen by Armstrong to conduct the exclusive interview, ensured a double ratings boost for her OWN cable channel by breaking the video into two parts, but the broadcast failed to win much sympathy for the fallen icon.

Clips showed Armstrong would in the second part talk about his future, how his family had to face the truth about his conduct, his reaction when sponsors dropped him and the most humbling moment of his epic fall from grace.

“I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people,” Armstrong said in part one of the interview, which was watched by an estimated 3.2 million television viewers in the United States.

Part one of the face to face confession — which was also streamed on Oprah.com — failed to win sympathy for Armstrong who previously withdrew from his role with Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded.

The patients he inspired with his rise from testicular cancer survivor to Tour de France winner from 1999-2005, meanwhile, are dealing with the admission that the cyclist’s fairy-tale story was built upon “one big lie”.

“They have every right to feel betrayed and it’s my fault,” he said, but offering few specifics on people involved in his doping program and apologizing in a matter-of-fact manner that his critics said showed no sign of remorse or regret at anything more than being caught.

“We were given a calculated public relations exercise with clearly rehearsed answers,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said.

World Anti-Doping Agency president John Fahey told Fox News Australia that Armstrong’s confession was a “controlled public relations” stunt that only confirmed the details a US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) probe had revealed.

Armstrong denied forcing teammates into doping, denied having paid off the International Cycling Union (UCI) to cover up a positive drug test and spoke supportively of Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor banned for life from cycling for doping links.

Such comments gave little hope that Armstrong would become the ultimate whistleblower and reveal details of others who might have aided his doping.

“If he is sincere in his desire to correct his past mistakes, he will testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities,” USADA chief Travis Tygart said.

Such a revelation might be the only way Armstrong can see a reduction in a life ban on sports that fall under WADA jurisdiction, including triathlon, which Armstrong turned to after cycling only to be banned after USADA’s doping investigation was made public.

“You can’t dope as he did over the years without help,” Prudhomme said. “We (the Tour de France) have long said that a rider shouldn’t be the only one to pay the price.”

Armstrong has not admitted doping beyond the 2005 Tour, potentially opening a door to having his ban trimmed to eight years to provide reinstatement in 2013. But that would likely require major revelations and Armstrong’s credibility as a witness would be far from strong given his years of lies.

The steep financial price that Armstrong has paid since being banned last years is likely to worsen further with his doping admission. He could be forced to return prize money and bonuses obtained from his victories.

He also faces a lawsuit from compatriot Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title after a positive doping test, and whose decision to speak out four years later ultimately triggered Armstrong’s downfall.

Landis claims Armstrong defrauded the American government when his cycling team took $30 million in sponsorship money from the US Postal Service because the team’s success was built upon cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

Landis was a member of the US Postal squad with Armstrong from 2002 through 2004.


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Port not ill-disciplined: coach Hinkley

Port Adelaide don’t have a discipline problem despite losing a third player in three weeks to AFL suspension, coach Ken Hinkley says.

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And Hinkley says he won’t carpet the latest player to be banned, backman Tom Jonas, who was suspended for three games for a bump on St Kilda’s Dylan Roberton last weekend.

Jonas follows Kane Cornes and Justin Westhoff in being suspended.

Cornes last week was outed one match for a behind-play blow on Hawthorn’s Sam Mitchell, while Westhoff was banned the week prior for striking Essendon’s Cale Hooker.

But Hinkley said he was only troubled by the Westhoff incident.

“The Westy (Westhoff) one was the disappointing one and I make no bones about that,” Hinkley told reporters on Thursday.

Jonas crossed a fine line between being aggressive and playing outside the laws, he said.

“Everyone knows the rules and the risks involved with the bump so we’re very mindful of that,” Hinkley said.

“But you have also got to be, as a coach, able to say he’s playing an aggressive style of football that you want him to play.

“At times, if you do go a little bit close to the edge, it (suspension) is probably going to happen.

“And we don’t want to have people suspended … we want everyone available to play. But it’s a contact game and there is going to be occasions where you can’t control some of it.

“It was a collision that was almost unavoidable to … I don’t think you can stop that – you have got to promote your players to play hard footy.”

Hinkley dismissed a suggestion that the three suspensions were evidence of discipline problems at Port, who host Brisbane on Sunday.

“I would have thought the opposite for us – certainly as a team, we totally understand what is expected of each other and they don’t want to let each other down,” he said.


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Supporters of ‘Kony 2012’ answer critics

The director of the viral video, ‘Kony 2012’ has defended a social media campaign which has sparked debate across the world.

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The video is also backed by a Ugandan minister who negotiated with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Director Jason Russell agreed on Friday with skeptics who have called the film oversimplified, saying it was deliberately made that way.

The 30-minute YouTube film called “Kony 2012,” which by Friday had been viewed on YouTube more than 58 million times, aims to wake up the world to atrocities committed by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, including kidnapping children and forcing them to fight.

Filmmaker Jason Russell’s nonprofit group, Invisible Children, tapped 12 influential policy makers and 20 celebrities with popular Twitter accounts, including Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie, to spread the video. Since then, the company owned by powerful producer Harvey Weinstein has contacted Russell to buy the film.

The phenomenal success of the video, including the savvy media campaign with tweets about Kony, has been hailed for inspiring young people to activism, but has suffered some criticism including that it oversimplified a long-standing human rights crisis.

Russell, who narrates the video with a personal story that juxtaposes shots of his young son in San Diego, California with the hopelessness of Ugandan children, told Reuters on Friday the video was only meant as a kick-starter to a complicated issue.

“It definitely oversimplifies the issue. This video is not the answer, it’s just the gateway into the conversation. And we made it quick and oversimplified on purpose,” he said. “We are proud that it is simple. We like that. And we want you to keep investigating, we want you to read the history.”

UGANDAN MINISTER VOICES SUPPORT

Ugandan minister Betty Bigombe, who twice tried to negotiate peace deals with Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, said the US group that made the video should be doing more to help in Uganda.

“Invisible Children has brought it into bedrooms, into sitting rooms and places, but we would like to see them do something tangible, on the ground, in Uganda,” Bigombe, Uganda’s minister for water resources, told AFP on the sidelines of a UN meeting.

“It has increased awareness in the world, with youth, with everybody.”

The hashtag “#stopkony,” about the fugitive LRA head has surged on Twitter since the release of the 30-minute video by Invisible Children, a California-based advocacy group. The video has been viewed by over 40 million people in just three days.

“I remember when I came to the US and the media said, ‘Well these kind of topics does not appeal to our kind of audience,'” Bigombe said.

As state minister for northern Uganda in the 1990s, Bigombe tried to negotiate a peace deal with Kony following the failure of army efforts to defeat the rebel group. She launched a new attempt in 2004-05. The LRA backed out of each effort.

The US presidency and a string of celebrities have backed the Invisible Children. But the group has been criticized for using funds raised — some 70 percent or more by some accounts — for salaries, travel expenses and filmmaking.

UN political affairs chief B. Lynn Pascoe said he had been “extraordinarily impressed” by the video campaign.

“One of our biggest problems with the LRA and dealing with the LRA has been getting attention to it so I think it has been very good,” Pascoe told a press conference.

REACTIONS IN UGANDA

Mixed reactions in Uganda include criticism that the attention has come too late, that much of the armed conflict in the area has subsided and the film leaves out that the Ugandan military is often accused of committing the same atrocities as Kony’s fighters. In addition, Kony is believed to have long since fled Uganda and now only commands a few hundred followers.

“Kony has been indicted, that’s what we are saying. It doesn’t matter if he has three fighters, 300 or 3,000. That’s not the issue,” Russell said. The group’s aim is to get Kony to surrender and be brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague where Kony is under indictment.

“He needs to face justice and we want to give him the choice to surrender,” Russell said.

Invisible Children also has faced questions about its governance in light of financial statements showing a large proportion of funds were used for travel and film production rather than charity work. The non-profit group published its financial statements this week amid rising scrutiny.

“They hear the word charity and they don’t understand why all of our money isn’t going to Central Africa,” Russell said. “We have found that putting money towards our media and our movie, changes lives. And in that life change, it has tangible results into a movement … that movement does galvanize the mission.”

Others have said the problem needed to be solved within Uganda rather than a viral campaign watched by viewers who may not understand the situation on the ground.

To that criticism, Russell said: “We don’t think Americans should be the world police, that is not what we are advocating. We want to continue to put pressure on the policy makers, on the (U.S.) President to keep really hyper-focused on this issue.”

The video begins with the slogan, “Nothing Is More Powerful Than An Idea” and references the strength of social media sites like Facebook that can help spur immediate action. The campaign has urged supporters of the movement to “blanket every street, every city” on April 20.

The success of the video has shocked the non-profit group even though they prepared for its launch on Tuesday with a five-day lead in campaign beforehand, said Russell.

Initially, he aimed for 500,000 YouTube viewers. Now, plans include a global dance party and other fundraising events.

“We were not prepared for this type of response because it has been a whirlwind,” he said. “To us, it is the world waking up … it is a global revolution.”


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Assange gets Aboriginal passport

His father, John Shipton, accepted the document at a Darlington celebration today.

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He says his son’s been jilted by the Australian government, and the passport ceremony – which follows Ecuador’s decision to grant Mr Assange diplomatic asylum – is a show of solidarity.

Indigenous Social Justice Association president Ray Jackson says the Australian government hasn’t given Mr Assange sufficient aid.

The passport will be sent to Mr Assange in London in the next few days.

John Shipton, Assange’s biological father, said he spoke frequently with the 41-year-old who won asylum from Ecuador to escape extradition from Britain to Sweden, where he faces sexual assault allegations.

“He’s in a small room… and in that he has a treadmill and a sunlamp,” he told AFP in Sydney’s Redfern where he had accepted an Aboriginal Nations passport, for use when travelling within Australia, on behalf of his son.

“But he faces his future with equanimity. He says he may have to spend 12 months in this situation. I think that he’s prepared himself for his long meditation.”

Shipton, 68, said his son was still pressing ahead with his plans to run for the Australian Senate in the national election due next year, and had asked his father to write the constitution for his yet-to-be founded political party.

Sydney-based Shipton said he felt Australians were “genuinely concerned and moved” by the plight of Assange and the work of WikiLeaks, which has published hundreds of thousands of documents online, including confidential United States State Department emails.

He said he had spoken to Assange about the Aboriginal Nationals passport — used for travel through Aboriginal lands in the country.

“This occasion is a further opportunity to generate support for Julian’s situation,” he said.

“The irony is it’s a great help to bring to notice to people that the situation is well, very questionable, morally very questionable.

“The (Australian) foreign minister could do a little more. Although he says he has done a lot, he won’t speak to me.”

Shipton, who said he had always kept in touch with Assange’s mother but had little contact with his son from when he was three until his twenties, spoke of his pride in Assange, a former computer hacker.

“I am astounded, absolutely astounded. And each day more impressed,” he said.

“He seems as though he handles himself at those rarefied atmospheres really quite well.

“It must have taken a great deal of suffering to have learned so quickly how to move amongst those people… and not display fear when the whole American empire wishes to crush you.”

But Shipton won’t be watching a new movie about Assange’s earlier life called “Underground: The Julian Assange Story” which is set to screen on Australian television early next month. He doesn’t have a television.


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Trio ejected after Aussie cyclist’s family abused

Three spectators were thrown out of the Olympic Velodrome, London police said Friday, after a stream of verbal abuse was directed at the family of Australian cyclist Kaarle McCulloch.

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The incident took place Thursday during the track cycling team sprint events. One of the ejected trio was arrested.

McCulloch, who has not commented on the matter, “shared a tear with her parents”, said a source close to the cyclist.

McCulloch and Anna Meares had been targeting a gold medal but had to settle for the bronze instead.

Cycling Australia confirmed that an incident took place and the police were involved.

The 24-year-old track star’s mother Karen McCulloch and her partner Ken Bates also declined to comment, regarding the incident as “an aberration”.

Witnesses said other spectators were appalled by the abuse and alerted security and the police.

“Three spectators were ejected — one of whom was arrested — for abusive behaviour at the Velodrome,” said a London 2012 spokeswoman.

“We won’t tolerate abusive behaviour in our venues.”

London’s Metropolitan Police said their officers helped staff eject three people from the Velodrome, “following a minor altercation with other spectators”.

The trio were two men aged 33 and 27 plus a 37-year-old woman. The police did not reveal their nationality.

The 33-year-old man was subsequently arrested under section five of the Public Order Act, which deals with words and conduct likely to cause fear of harassment, alarm or distress.

He was issued with a fixed penalty notice, meaning he must pay the stated amount or request a court hearing within a given time.

McCulloch has vowed to push on to the 2016 Games, believing she and Meares can take gold in Rio de Janiero.


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Largest hacking scam in US history uncovered

US authorities indicted five men on charges of running a global hacking operation that enabled them to steal the bank card numbers of more than 160 million people.

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Prosecutors in Newark, New Jersey described the scheme as the largest hacking and data breach case ever prosecuted in the United States.

According to the indictment, the men — four Russians and a Ukrainian — targeted major payment processors, retailers and financial institutions around the world over the course of seven years, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

The defendants were charged with attacks on, among others, NASDAQ, Visa Jordan, the Belgian bank Dexia, and Diners Singapore. Just three of the corporate victims have reported combined losses in excess of $300 million.

“This type of crime is the cutting edge,” New Jersey US Attorney Paul Fishman said.

“Those who have the expertise and the inclination to break into our computer networks threaten our economic well-being, our privacy and our national security.”

The defendants were named as Russians Vladimir Drinkman, Alexandr Kalinin, Roman Kotov and Dmitriy Smilianets, and Ukrainian Mikhail Rytikov.

Only Smilianets is currently in US custody. He was arrested in the Netherlands last year along with Drinkman and extradited. Drinkman is awaiting an extradition hearing in the Netherlands. The other three suspects are still at large.

US investigators have been on the trail of the hackers for at least four years with Kalinin and Drinkman having been identified as Hacker 1 and Hacker 2 in a 2009 indictment of Albert Gonzalez, who was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for accessing the confidential data of Heartland Payment Systems and other corporations in what was, until then, the biggest case of its kind.

The pair were described as specialists in penetrating network security and gaining access to the systems of major corporations. Moscow-based Kotov was said to be the expert in mining the networks his accomplices had opened up.

This involved installing malicious code, or malware, on compromised systems, enabling the harvesting of user names and passwords, means of identification and bank card numbers.

The US investigators regard the estimate of 160 million numbers obtained by the group as a conservative one.

The group was prepared to wait for months at a time for their efforts to break a particular company’s security.

Instant message chats between the defendants indicate they had malware implanted on some companies’ servers for over a year, according to investigators.

Rytikov, based in Odessa in the Ukraine, allegedly run the web-hosting services the hackers used to disguise their activities and Similianets, also a Muscovite, was said to be the person who sold on the information and shared the proceeds with the group.

A stolen American credit card number and the details needed to use it were said to be worth 10 dollars, a Canadian one $15 and a European one $50 to the identity theft wholesalers who bought the data.

They would then sell them on to individuals who could encode the data onto blank plastic cards and use them to buy goods or make cash withdrawals.

Kalinin was named Thursday in a separate indictment in New York which accuses him of hacking into computer servers used by the New York technology market NASDAQ.

He is also charged by the New York authorities with a scheme to steal bank account information from US financial institutions in partnership with another Russian hacker, Nikolay Nasenkov.


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Electric car boom an opportunity for lithium-rich Chile

Global demand for lithium is on the rise thanks to its use in electric car batteries.

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That could mean big business for Chile, which has near 23 per cent of the world’s reserves. A leftover dictatorship-era statute, however, threatens to stand in the way.

Traffic is still slow at the seven electric car charging stations that Chilectra, a local electricity provider, has set up around Santiago. But that will no doubt change, which is why the company is planning to install 20 more such stations – outside of hotels, office buildings and in residential developments.

“By 2020, at least 10% of the cars in major cities will be electric,” says Jean Paul Zalaquett, Chilectra’s innovation director.

What the owners of these cars don’t know is that the batteries used to store that electricity also contain a local product: lithium carbonate. According to studies carried out by the Chilean Copper Commission, a government agency, Chile has close to 23% of the world’s lithium reserves. Neighboring Argentina and Bolivia are also lithium-rich. Together the three countries boast more than half of the world’s reserves.

Right now, Chile produces close to 40% of the approximately 140,000 tons of lithium carbonate sold annually around the world. Overall, the global lithium industry is worth some $800 million. Thanks to an expected boom in electric cars, the industry is likely to grow rapidly in the coming years – with annual production tripling by 2030, according to projections by the consulting firm Signumbox.

“It has already grown by between 5% and 7% over the past decade, basically because of [electric] car batteries,” says Daniela Desormeaux, Signumbox’s general manager.

But Chile also faces a real risk of falling behind in an industry it has long led. In the late 1970s, the military government of Augusto Pinochet classified lithium as a “strategic material” because of its possible uses in nuclear fission. The classification has kept potential investors at arms length by prohibiting the state from negotiating lithium extraction concessions.

As a result, lithium mining has been limited in Chile to just one location – in the northern salt flats of the Atacama desert. Only two companies operate there: SQM, a Chilean firm that produces 24% of the world’s lithium; and Chemetall, a German company that accounts for 16% of global production. Both companies, whose concessions predate the restrictions, rent the desert land from the Chilean state.

Other countries with substantial lithium reserves are developing new mining projects at a much faster clip. Argentina has 15 such products in the works. Chile has fewer than five. And as the lithium industries develop in neighboring Argentina and Bolivia, Chile could also be eclipsed in terms of overall reserves.

“The Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia are much bigger than [the salt flats] in the Atacama. Plus the laws are better there,” says Roberto Mallea, an expert from the Center of Mining and Metallurgical Research (CIMM) in Santiago. “And in Argentina there are numerous unexplored salt flats.”

A backdoor approach

In order to strip lithium of its “strategic material” label, and thus authorise the state to issue extraction concessions, the Chilean government would have go through Congress, which could create major delays. To sidestep the problem, the government has instead floated the possibility of auctioning off so-called Special Operation Contracts, or CEOLs, which are usually associated with oil and gas extraction. CEOLs would be available only to companies that already possess mining rights, such as Li3 Energy, a Chile/U.S./South Korean firm with rights over part of Chile’s Maricunga salt flats.

This potential “back-door” approach is favored by the current Chilean government, led by billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera. “We have 1,500 years worth of lithium, but in order to participate in the world market, we need to be more competitive,” says Pablo Wagner, Chile’s undersecretary of mining. “Before, Chile had a 50% market share. Now we’re at about 41%. And if we don’t do anything, we’ll fall to 20%.”

Chile would also do well to develop on the technology end so that it can compete in the lucrative market for producing lithium derivatives. Value-added materials like lithium hydroxide and lithium cathodes, also in high demand for use in batteries, are much more sophisticated and thus fetch a far higher selling price than does simple lithium carbonate.

Some local firms are beginning to make headway in this direction. The Korean company POSCO, one of the owners of Li3 Energy, has the technology to produce these more expensive lithium derivatives. And SQM has teamed up with Japan’s Marubeni to set up an institution called the Center of Lithium Innovation (CIL), which operates within the University of Chile.

Jaime Alée, the CIL’s director, has an even bigger dream: develop an entire lithium battery industry in Chile. “One lithium battery for an electric car costs $20,000. Chile’s contribution to that right now is worth just $40,” he says. “By 2014, the global lithium industry will be worth roughly $1 billion. The [lithium] battery industry will be worth $25 billion.”


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Does the EU deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

The European Union has won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, but is it a worthy winner?

Kristina Kukolja reports for SBS World News Australia Radio.

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The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, made the announcement at a news conference in the Norwegian capital Oslo.

Mr Jagland says the Prize recognises the European Union’s work in advancing stability and reconciliation for the past six decades.

“The division between East and West has to a large extent been brought to an end. Democracy has been strengthened. Many ethnic-based national conflicts have been settled. The admission of Croatia as a member next year, the opening of membership negotiations with Montenegro, and the granting of candidate status to Serbia, all strengthen the process of reconciliation in the Balkans. In the past decade, the possibility of EU membership for Turkey has also advanced democracy and human rights in that country.”

First awarded in 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize was created by the 19th century Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel.

Today, it represents the culmination of a week of Nobel prize announcements — including in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry and literature.

The EU was one of 231 contenders for this year’s Peace award.

The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso says it’s a justified recognition of the work of the EU on behalf of the 500-million citizens of the continent, and the rest of the world.

“The European Union, then the European Community, has unified countries split by the Cold War and has made it around the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, justice, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Through its transformative power, the European Union was able, starting with six countries, to reunited almost all the European continent.”

Professor Jurgen Brohmer is a European Union expert at Perth’s Murdoch University.

He says this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recognises what he describes as possibly the most successful peace project in world history.

“I’m thinking back to the beginnings in the late 1940s and early 50s with great personalities like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, getting together and trying to put the continent, the little part of what western Europe is on a different footing – one away from confrontation, one away from nationalism and antagonism to joining together, collaborating together, providing institutions and fora in which they can handle their disputes in a better way than what the confrontation of the centuries before and all the wars that were part of it yielded.”

The European Union traces its origins to the European Coal and Steel Community, formed in the 1950s, and the European Economic Community.

From six original members it grew to 15 members in 2004 when it embraced the first of the former Soviet states.

Jan Egeland, from Human Rights Watch, has told the BBC it’s a controversial decision to give the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU.

“It will be very controversial, not the least in Norway, which has not joined the European Union and where the European Union is controversial as a membership project. In many ways what Jagland is saying is that it’s an ommission that the European Union and the Coal and Steel community didn’t get it in the 1950s or 60s or 70s so we have to give it today in 2012. I would say there are other and more worthy winners in 2012. And correcting something that yes is wrong, seen in an historic perspective, is perhaps a bit controversial.”

Questions remain about whether the Nobel Peace Prize itself is still a meaningful way recognising the promotion of peace in the world.

There have been accusations over the years about the intrusion of politics into the selection process.

United States President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008, only weeks after entering office.

Years later, increased US troop involvement in Afghanistan is among the reasons some have given to question whether he deserved the award.

And there have been other controversial winners.

One of last year’s three recipients — the Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is accused by human rights groups of supporting the former Liberian President Charles Taylor, a convicted war criminal.

Doctor Keith Finlayson from the Australian National University is an expert on the Nobel Peace Prize.

He says such criticisms are not surprising.

“Criticisms of Obama are justified… It was a very hopeful period, lots of promise, lots of hope, … Whether he has delivered some things and not some others, for example Guantanamo Bay is still open. The due process of law, the fundamental foundation of the way that America works is still being circumvented. Henry Kissinger, you go back into the 1970s and you just wonder how even then in the middle of the Vietnam War with the record there, how could Henry Kissinger be selected for the Nobel Peace Prize? And there are no doubt other recipients where you just ask yourself how could that have happened and was there something else happening in the decision-making process which skewed people’s decision for some other purpose besides identifying the right people to promote peace?”

Dr Finlayson says another issue is the process used to select the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, which differs from that used in the other Nobel prize categories.

“They’re selected by academies mostly based in Sweden where they’re composed of international experts and a range of Swedish scientists or literary critics and international scientists, so there’s quite a representative balance there and the people who are selected for those prizes are selected on the basis of a majority vote. I think that’s quite a robust system. Now you come to the Nobel Peace Prize and actually the people who make the decision at the end of the day are a small group of Norwegian politicians, just a handful, and they’re just drawn from the Norwegian political elite. I don’t think I would like to pay so much attention to what they think without a wider representation of the rest of the world.”

The Nobel Peace award carries prize money of just over a million dollars.

Some commentators have suggested the EU may have to put it into a bailout fund for one of its member countries being swamped by debt.


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Pakistani schoolgirl ‘doing well’: doctors

Malala is unable to talk due to the breathing tube inserted into her windpipe but she can communicate by writing, said Dave Rosser, the medical director at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, central England.

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The teenager escaped certain death by a matter of centimetres (inches), with the bullet grazing the edge of her brain, he said.

The hospital released a first picture of Malala, in her hospital bed, clutching a teddy bear.

“Malala is still showing some signs of infection… in the bullet track which is our key source of concern,” Rosser told reporters outside the hospital.

“It’s clear that she is not out of the woods yet.

“Having said that, she is doing very well. In fact, she was standing with some help for the first time this morning when I went in to see her.”

In an attack which outraged the world, Malala was shot on a school bus in the former Taliban stronghold of Pakistan’s Swat valley on October 9 as a punishment for campaigning for the right of girls to an education.

On Monday she was flown in an air ambulance from Pakistan to Birmingham in a medically-induced coma, and taken to the highly specialised hospital where staff have extensive experience of treating British soldiers seriously wounded in Afghanistan.

Rosser explained that Malala’s airway became swollen after the bullet passed through it, so doctors inserted a tracheotomy tube to protect it.

The tube means she cannot speak but there is no reason to believe she would be unable to talk once it is removed, which may happen in the coming days.

She has movement in her arms and legs and is “communicating very freely — she is writing,” Rosser said.

“Malala is keen that I thank people for their support,” he added, after thousands of people left messages for her on the hospital’s website.

‘BULLETS GRAZED HER BRAIN’

With the schoolgirl’s permission, the hospital gave a full breakdown of her injuries, condition and the slow path to her possible recovery.

Rosser explained how the bullet passed through the face of the girl, who the hospital now say is 15 although she has previously been described as 14.

“The bullet grazed the edge of her brain. Certainly if you’re talking a couple of inches more central, then it’s almost certainly an unsurvivable injury,” he said.

Shot at point blank range, the bullet hit her left brow, but instead of penetrating her skull it travelled beneath the skin down the left side of her head.

The shock wave shattered the thinnest bone of her skull and fragments were driven into her brain.

The bullet damaged soft tissues at the base of her jaw and in her neck, which the bullet travelled through before lodging in the tissues above her left shoulder blade.

The bullet was removed in Pakistan soon after the shooting, but specialists have found her left jawbone is injured at its joint, while a bone behind the ear and the base of her skull have been fractured.

Her brain is still swollen, meaning doctors have not been able to do a full brain injury evaluation.

Malala regained consciousness on Tuesday. She is aware of her surroundings but gets tired very easily.

“She seems to have understood why she is no longer in Pakistan and what has happened to her,” Rosser said.

It was clearly “very difficult” for her to suddenly wake up in a foreign country, he added.

It will take weeks to months for Malala to defeat the infection and recover her strength enough to face surgery.

“Then her skull will need reconstructing either by reinserting the piece of bone that was removed initially or with a titanium plate,” Rosser said.

“Her jaw joint may need further work down the line but that remains to be assessed in a couple of weeks’ time.”

In a separate statement, the hospital stressed that she is “still very ill”.

“This is a fluid situation and she sustained a very, very grave injury,” it said.

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who in his new role as a UN special envoy for global education will visit Pakistan to meet President Asif Ali Zardari next month, said he was “delighted”.

“I have been able to get a message through to her family that the whole world is with Malala as she fights for her health and wishes Malala the best of progress,” Brown said.


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South Africa probes death of man ‘dragged by police van’

South Africa has opened a murder investigation into the death of a Mozambican taxi driver who was filmed being dragged by a police van through the streets, in a case that has sparked widespread outrage.

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Video footage taken by a bystander shows 27-year-old Mido Macia tussling with half a dozen police officers before being handcuffed to the back of a police van and dragged to a local police station in Daveyton, east of Johannesburg, on Tuesday.

A large crowd of horrified bystanders looked on, some warning the uniformed officers they were being filmed. “Hey! Hey! Why are you hitting him?” one person in the crowd can be heard shouting in Zulu.

Kicking and struggling to avoid the tarmac, Macia was taken into custody at Daveyton police station and was found dead less than two hours and 25 minutes later, according to investigators.

A post mortem found the cause of death was head injuries with internal bleeding.

South African President Jacob Zuma condemned the killing as “horrific, disturbing and unacceptable”.

“No human being should be treated in that manner,” he said in a statement.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate said it had opened a murder investigation.

“We are investigating an incident involving the death of man, allegedly at the hands of the police. We are shocked by the footage which has been released,” said Independent Police Investigative Directorate spokesman Moses Dlamini.

“The circumstances surrounding his death are still allegations… let’s find out what really happened,” he said.

The police watchdog and witnesses said two officers initially confronted Macia for parking his Toyota Avanza taxi illegally.

Eyewitnesses said Macia had been trying to get his driving license back from the police when an altercation occurred. But witnesses denied police suggestions the victim had tried to disarm one of the officers.

“He was just pushing them, not trying to take the gun,” said George Nxumalo, a 57-year-old Daveyton resident.

Around half a dozen officers were at the scene soon after, some clad in stab vests and at least one brandishing a pistol.

The taxi driver was found dead in his cell at around 21:15 (1915 GMT).

Footage of the incident spread quickly online, sending shockwaves through the country.

Daveyton residents marched on the police station on Thursday after claiming they were dispersed with pepper spray the day before.

“They are criminals in uniform, we don’t want them, we want the law to take its course, otherwise we will take the law into our own hands,” said Bongani Hlela, a street trader based at the taxi rank were the incident occurred.

“Just because he was Mozambican does not mean that he should be treated badly. We are all African, we have rights,” he added.

The Mozambique government said it was “outraged by what happened”.

“It is very sad that a life was lost so stupidly,” Foreign Affairs Minister Oldemiro Baloi told reporters in the capital Maputo.

“I think that whatever perspective you want to attach to it — either human or the relations between the two countries — it is absolutely unacceptable.”

South African police commissioner Riah Phiyega expressed “deep concern” about the incident, saying it was being viewed “in a very serious light”.

The police department said no officers had been suspended yet in the case.

Macia’s death is the latest in a series of crises to hit the country’s beleaguered police service, which was pilloried for the shooting deaths of 34 miners last August and for its handling of the Oscar Pistorius case.

“This appalling incident involving excessive force is the latest in an increasingly disturbing pattern of brutal police conduct,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s southern Africa director.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate received 720 new cases for investigation of suspicious deaths in custody or in other policing contexts from April 2011 to March 2012, according to Amnesty.

The opposition Democratic Alliance party called for a full investigation by South Africa’s human rights commission and for the officers involved to be suspended.

“Macia paid for parking on the wrong side of the road with his life. Instead of issuing him with a ticket, the police killed him,” said shadow police minister Dianne Kohler Barnard.

“How much longer must South Africans live in fear of the very people who are supposed to protect them?”


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