Explainer: What is RNA?

By Merlin Crossley

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


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.


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.


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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Comment: Unpacking the ‘no advantage’ myth

By Kerry Murphy, Australian National University

In August 2012, the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers created a new myth in the language of asylum seekers and refugees.


That was the idea of “the no advantage principle”. It is a variation on the “refugee queue’ myth and is taking on a life of its own. This is because the Government is struggling to explain the fiction of “no advantage” as a fact.

In the Panel Report at 3.49- 3.50 it states:

3.49 Other IMAs not in need of moving to Australia would remain in Nauru until their refugee status is determined and resettlement options are finalised.

3.50 Irrespective of whether IMAs stay in Nauru for the period of their status determination or are moved to Australia, the same principle would apply to all. Their position in relation to refugee status and resettlement would not be advantaged over what it would have been had they availed themselves of assessment by UNHCR within the regional processing arrangement.

Thus the myth begins. The problem is there is no processing time for refugee cases anywhere on the planet. The case takes the time it takes. The reason why some wait years for resettlement is not due to any “queue” or “no advantage test” but simply about quotas. Australia has now increased the total program to 20,000 places, onshore and offshore together. So when the number of visas to be issued is reached in a certain year, other cases are left in an administrative storage until the next visa year begins.

The number of visas and the allocation to various regions can vary from year to year. Some years the priority has been on African cases, sometimes on the Middle East. It is not as if you receive a number and wait for your number to be called. Refugee A’s case may be identified to be in urgent need of resettlement due to the facts of the case, so A may be resettled more quickly than B who arrived at the UNHCR office the same day. Then the next year, C is resettled before B because C is from a minority at high risk due to the new circumstances in the country.

Whatever happens, there is a certain arbitrariness in the process which is why some people come on a boat because they believed that at least their case would be looked at sooner. Hence the “no advantage myth” was created to punish such people. The Minister is unable to say how long the waiting time will be, simply because there are no criteria for working that out.

The “no advantage myth” is now part of the deterrence strategy. It characterises the refugee who comes by boat as bad and makes them wait for an unknown period. You will wait in a tortuous limbo in Nauru or on Manus Island – Australia’s neo colonial centres for refugee warehousing. Or maybe you will wait in Australia on a restrictive bridging visa with no permission to work, wondering when the knock on the door will come and you will be shunted off to Nauru. At least the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV), for all its faults, allowed people to work and look after themselves.

Meanwhile the Opposition is working itself up into a lather over the numbers arriving. The main difference between the Government and Opposition policies is the TPV, everything else – Nauru, offshore processing, Manus Island, is the same. The TPV was introduced in October 1999 and after it was introduced, there was a spike in arrivals, not a decline. There is no objective evidence to support the view that the TPV had any impact on “stopping the boats”.

All the reports on it refer to the serious mental health deterioration it caused while refugees awaited their fate and a chance to reunite with families from whom they had been separated for years.

A flaw in the debate is the focus on ‘stopping the boats’ a main plank in the political debate and also the Panel Report. This is a complex area for policy, and simplistic solutions that fit into 30 second news bytes fail to respect the human rights issues or dignity of all the people involved in this area.

Good policy requires a balance to be struck between competing demands. Good policy does not cave into the populist chant which will only require Governments to become crueller in their treatment of people.

One other aspect of the Panel Report that is more realistic but harder to implement is the call for a regional solution. This is longer term and involves good political will from countries in the region, few of whom have signed the Refugee Convention or other Human Rights Conventions. This process will take a long time, which makes it unattractive to the 24hour news and 3 year election cycles.

Policy development will take longer, and not be the instant reactive policies we have seen in this area since 1989. Meanwhile the conditions for the refugees predictably deteriorate and become more complex and uncertain.

Kerry Murphy is in private practice as a solicitor doing migration cases.

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Australia 0-132 at lunch against Sussex

Phil Hughes made the most of an early life to scratch his way to a valuable half century in Australia’s tour match against Sussex at Hove.


Ed Cowan also has 50, with the opening pair batting through the first session to get Australia to 0-132 at lunch on day one of the three-day fixture.

With David Warner smashing 193 for Australia A this week, there is plenty of pressure on Hughes (70no) and the other batsmen to perform and cement their spot for the third Test at Old Trafford starting next week.

Cowan (57no), who is captaining the side in the absence of Michael Clarke, is fighting to win his place back for Manchester after being dropped for the second Test at Lord’s.

Coach Darren Lehmann wants batsmen scoring big hundreds, and there are no excuses for the Australians against an attack that’s not throwing a lot at them, and on a tiny field with a lightning-fast outfield.

After Australia won the toss, it wasn’t convincing from Hughes early on, but importantly he survived.

He was dropped at second slip in the seventh over off the bowling of Chris Jordan when he was on 22.

Sussex fast bowler Jordan (0-39) had his measure for much of the first 10 overs.

Hughes edged past the slips on a number of occasions and was lucky to miss a few pokes outside his off stump.

But before lunch he started to find his groove, and has 11 boundaries.

So far this Ashes tour, Hughes has batted in every position in the top six.

Versatility-wise it’s good for the 24-year-old that he’ll be considered anywhere in the line-up, but it also reflects his vulnerability.

Hughes made a mature 81 not out in the first innings at Trent Bridge, playing an assist role to Ashton Agar.

But since then he’s looked ordinary in making 0, 1 and 1.

Cowan had a few sketchy moments early, but settled in nicely to find the fence eight times.

The 31-year-old looked more content to bat time, unlike his rash moments at Trent Bridge.

Pressure will be on Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith who are due in at No.3 and 4.

Both have a half century each from the first two Tests, but their positions are far from sewn up.

Former England spinner Monty Panesar had figures of 0-35 from nine overs and holds out hope of playing Ashes cricket if Graeme Swann gets injured or the home side decide to play two spinners at any stage.

Australia selected 20-year-old Ashton Turner to make his first-class debut.

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North Korea dismisses talk of reform

Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, took the reins of power in December following the death of his father, longtime ruler Kim Jong-Il.


Speculation of impending change was fuelled earlier this month when the communist regime sacked prominent military chief Ri Yong-ho and replaced him with a little known general and promoted Jong-Un to the top military post of Marshal.

The secretive nation also made a rare announcement last week that the young ruler is married, in a major departure from the past when the private lives of his predecessors were kept under wraps.

Seoul commentators claimed the changes may have been implemented to set the stage for possible efforts by Swiss-educated Kim to open up the country to political or economic reforms.

But a spokesman for the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which is in charge of cross-border affairs, blasted such hopes as “ridiculous” and “ignorant” in an interview with state-run KCNA on Sunday.

“The puppet group (the South)… tried to give (the) impression that the present leadership of the DPRK (North Korea) broke with the past. This is the height of ignorance,” he said.

“To expect policy change and reform and opening from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”

He also accused Seoul of trying to impose its capitalist system upon the North by “trumpeting reform and opening”, adding, “there cannot be any slightest change in all policies” of the communist state.

Kim inherited from his father an economy in ruins after decades of mismanagement, and a malnourished population dependent on foreign food aid.

Educated in the West, he has been seen as potentially more receptive than his father to undertaking sweeping reforms which would open up the nation’s crumbling economy.

However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) thinktank said last week that there was nothing to suggest that Kim would take measures to improve the lot of his impoverished people in the isolated state.

The Brussels-based ICG said that economic reform — however necessary to the country’s wellbeing — would contradict the centrally-planned system espoused by Kim’s father and grandfather.

Inter-Korea ties have been particularly icy since the South’s conservative leader Lee Myung-Bak took office in 2008, repeatedly urging the North to reform and saying reunification was imminent, despite complaints from Pyongyang.

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Afghans ‘met Taliban leader in Pakistan jail’

The representatives visited Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a powerful Taliban military chief who has been described as the insurgents’ second in command, and discussed peace negotiations with him, the official said.


Baradar, whose 2010 arrest in Pakistan was blamed for sabotaging peace initiatives, is the most important Taliban leader held in prison and was known as a trusted aide to the militants’ elusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

“Afghan government officials and members of Afghan embassy in Pakistan held secret talks with him (Baradar) in prison two months ago in Pakistan,” Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council told AFP.

“They talked to him about peace negotiations.

“The Afghan government has also asked the Pakistani authorities to release him because he has shown interest in peace talks with the government of Afghanistan,” Qasimyar said.

At the time of his arrest the Afghan government and the former UN envoy to Afghanistan said his detention had adversely affected efforts to talk to the insurgents in a bid to end the decade-long war.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry confirmed Friday that it was in talks with Afghanistan on Baradar’s release, but a senior security official told AFP that no decision had been reached to free him.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long sought to negotiate with the Taliban but the Islamist militia has in public refused to deal with his administration, branding it an American puppet.

Earlier this year the Taliban also announced they had abandoned contact with US officials aimed at securing a prisoner swap as a first step towards peace talks in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Pakistan has said it will do anything required by Kabul to support an Afghan-led peace process, but there is a wide degree of scepticism in Afghanistan and the United States about the sincerity of the former Taliban ally.

The United States leads a 130,000-strong NATO force against the Taliban, who were toppled from power in a 2001 invasion for harbouring Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

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Soward to stay in London

Playmaker Jamie Soward has promised to stay on and help London Broncos restore some pride in the remaining weeks of the Super League season.


The struggling Broncos signed the Australian on a short-term contract in June with a hope he could propel them into the Challenge Cup final.

Those dreams were ruthlessly shattered by Wigan as the Londoners, who have endured a torrid league campaign, were thrashed 70-0 in their semi-final at Leigh Sports Village.

That led some cynics to suggest Soward, who is joining Penrith Panthers next season after being released by St George-Illawarra Dragons earlier this year, may not see out the season in the capital.

The 28-year-old insists that will not be the case.

He told Press Association Sport: “No, I’m not that kind of person.

“We were pretty embarrassing, I’m embarrassed – we had prepared good all week.

“But we’ll go home and prepare for Leeds on Thursday.

“It’s about respect now, trying to get some respect and pride back in the jumper.

“For all the people here, the owner David (Hughes), trying to show them some pride for the next couple of weeks.

“It’s not even about getting off the bottom of the table, just playing for pride.”

London have won just three of their 22 Super League fixtures this season and are three points off Salford at the bottom of the competition.

Problems surfaced in June when captain Craig Gower quit the club and his replacement as skipper, homegrown product Tony Clubb, recently said he also wanted to leave because he was “sick of losing”.

This has come against a backdrop of poor attendances at the Twickenham Stoop and uncertainty over where the club will be located next season.

Once again, there have also been questions over whether the whole concept of a Super League team in London is viable, particularly with the competition considering a restructure.

Soward, even though he will not be there next season, feels that attitude is much too defeatist.

He said: “For England to compete against Australia consistently you have got to grow the game.

“There is no point having it all up north, you have to have it everywhere.

“It is easy to say London finished last (get rid of them), but how are you going to beat Australia and be competitive?

“There are some good youngsters here, and this is part of the experience.

“Wigan are a well established club with lots of depth and they showed how to play for 80 minutes.”

Aside from some good possession early on, the error-prone Broncos were never in the contest against the Warriors, conceding 12 tries to suffer defeat by a record margin in a Challenge Cup semi-final.

Pat Richards set an individual record by scoring 30 points with 11 goals and two tries.

Soward said: “The first 15 was how we wanted to start but when you play against a good side like that you can’t play like that – penalties, missed tackles. We’re all guilty of it.

“It snowballed after that.

Syria army engaged in crucial battle: Assad

The Syrian army is engaged in a “crucial and heroic battle,” President Bashar al-Assad said in a speech published by official media agency SANA on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the army.


“The army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle… on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests. The enemy is among us today, using agents to destabilise the country, the security of its citizens… and continues to exhaust our economic and scientific resources,” he said.

“They (the enemy) wanted to deprive the people of their national decision… but they were astonished to see these proud people, who confronted their plans and defeated them,” said Assad.

“You men of the country… you have demonstrated, in dealing with the war waged against our country by the terrorist gangs, that you possess an iron will and a keen awareness.”

“Our military remains the backbone of the motherland,” Assad said.

Damascus does not recognise the popular revolt that erupted in March 2011, describing opposition activists and rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) alike as “armed terrorist groups” financed by foreign powers and sent to sow chaos.

Assad’s speech comes as clashes escalate in a number of areas including Aleppo, where the FSA on Tuesday announced that it had captured three police stations in the heart of the country’s commercial capital.

A Damascus security source said the offensive, which the army launched on Saturday to recapture rebel-held areas, looked likely to last for “several weeks.”

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What to do with Ground Zero?

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, their building was shut down, smothered in debris and dust.


Today, from their 17th floor lounge-room window, you can look straight down into the heart of Ground Zero, the desolate hole in the ground barren for many years but more recently a construction zone as new buildings rise up to replace those that fell.

For New Yorkers, 9-11 has never really gone away and remains an emotional touch paper for many. It’s also an easy button to press for politicians looking to establish apparent patriotic credentials.

So it comes as no surprise that a plan to build “a mosque at Ground Zero” has become a flashpoint and one of the hottest national topics in the middle of this American summer.

Critics claim such a building on such a site (“on hallowed ground”, according to several descriptions) is an insult to those who died in 2001.

“I don’t want to be lectured by them about religious liberty at a time when there is not a single church or single synagogue in Saudi Arabia,” claimed Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, maybe forgetting one of the key differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia is religious freedom.

“Where does the funding come from for a $100-million mosque?” asked inquisitive Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York State Governor (probably the same place as most other new constructions).

Crackpots have populated Internet posts (some suggesting this is part of an Obama plan to introduce Sharia law to the US) but most have missed some key points.

Importantly, visions of minarets, golden domes and stars and crescents overlooking the World Trade Center Site are not part of the plan.

In fact, this “Ground Zero Mosque” is not actually a mosque but a cultural centre based on the YMCA (this prompted one witty critic to suggest outrage should be directed at the construction of a swimming poll on the site, which was possibly more inappropriate).

The original building, actually located several blocks north of Ground Zero, and nearby another existing mosque, is the former site of a discount clothing retailer damaged by landing gear from one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers nine years ago.

Ironically, the group planning the centre claims to want to foster “inter faith understanding”.

That idea is not working out too well at first look but the issue has brought to the forefront just where Islam in a post-9/11 world fit.

It also shows how New York, especially Manhattan, is a complex city of many, many, layers.

There are many critics from outside New York (including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin) but NY Governor David Patterson offered to find an alternative location for the proposed centre as compromise.

Manhattan borough President Scott Stringer supports the construction of the centre while New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made an impassioned speech on religious freedoms.

“We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else,” Bloomberg said.

Last weekend, President Obama too claimed the issue was not about 9/11 but the US Constitution.

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said at a dinner celebrating Ramadan (triggering more radical Christian outrage).

“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

It was, however, a Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat, who made a somewhat overlooked but important point.

“I recently got back from Afghanistan and, you know, we’re sending young majors in Army, Marines, Special Forces people, into villages to try to find common ground with Muslims to try to put aside the obvious differences that might superficially appear,” he said.

“And if we can’t do that here in the United States, then we’re going to have a very difficult time over there.”

‘Don’t cry for me’, says defiant Armstrong

In his first public appearance since announcing he would no longer fight doping charges brought by USADA, Armstrong finished second in a 36-mile mountain bike race in Aspen, Colorado, five minutes behind a 16-year-old rider, Keegan Swirbul.


Wearing sunglasses and black and gold riding gear adorned with sponsors’ logos, Armstrong appeared unfussed by the media throng that had travelled to the mountain resort amid concerns his legacy has been irrevocably tarnished.

“Nobody needs to cry for me. I’m going to be great,” Armstrong told reporters.

“I have five great kids and a wonderful lady in my life. My foundation is unaffected by all the noise out there.

“I think people understand that we’ve got a lot of stuff to do going forward. That’s what I’m focused on and I think people are supportive of that. It’s great to be out here,” he said.

Despite giving up the fight against the charges, Armstrong has maintained his innocence and railed against what he says is an unfair witch-hunt.

The Texas-born cyclist, who famously beat cancer and whose foundation Livestrong has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the fight against the disease, has retained major sponsors and enjoyed the backing of many key cycling figures.

Others, including WADA chief John Fahey, say his failure to contest his charges can only mean he is a drug cheat who has defrauded the cycling tour, his rivals and millions of sports fans for over a decade.

The Armstrong case has yet to rest, with cycling’s global governing body, the International Cycling Union, demanding USADA hand over its evidence. The Court of Arbitration for Sport could ultimately have a final say on his guilt or innocence.

The retired Armstrong said he was no longer concerned about racing.

“It’s more about staying fit and coming out here and enjoying one of the most beautiful parts of the world, on a beautiful day, on a very hard course,” said the 40-year-old.

“Some may say you’re a little sick to spend your free time doing stuff like this. I had a good time.”

Armstrong remained the ‘seven-time Tour champ’ to teenager Swirbul. “I’m so psyched right now,” he said. “I wanted to win this race so bad.”

Donations to his foundation on Friday were up more than 20 times their daily average, Livestrong staff said, and Armstrong received positive crowd support in Colorado.

“The people like the people who are standing around here or on the course, they voiced their opinion in the last 48 hours and are going to support us,” Armstrong said, adding that the future of cycling was in good shape.

“It’s cool to get your butt kicked by a 16-year-old when you know he has a bright future,” he said.

“There are a lot of good young guys. Cycling is going to be fine.”

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Concern as Aussie cannabis gains potency

Cannabis in Australia has become more potent over the years and contains high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), according to a study of samples confiscated from recreational users and growers.


The drug has an average THC content of just under 15 per cent, according to the study by University of New South Wales (UNSW) and University of Sydney researchers.

There is widespread international concern that cannabis containing high levels of THC could be associated with increased mental health risks, says study leader Dr Wendy Swift of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW.

There is a strong lobby in the Netherlands to classify cannabis with 15 per cent or higher THC as a hard drug.

Dr Swift’s team examined the content of 206 cannabis samples confiscated under the NSW cautioning scheme for recreational users found with 15g or less. They also examined 26 samples seized from large indoor and outdoor cultivation sites.

Both sets of samples had similar potency, according to the study, which is published in the international science journal PLOS ONE.

More than 40 per cent of the samples seized on the street and more than half seized from cultivation sites contained more than 15 per cent THC.

More than 85 per cent overall contained less than 0.1 per cent cannabidiol (CBD).

CBD does not get users high and is thought to counteract some of the negative effects of THC.

Dr Swift says the study is the first to demonstrate that, on average, cannabis in Australia is as powerful as samples measured in other countries.

“It also shows levels of CBD, which may ameliorate some of the harmful effects of THC, are extremely low.

“These results suggest the profile of cannabis currently used in Australia may make some users vulnerable to mental health problems.”

More research is needed, however, to understand the full relevance of potency.

“We need to know more about the factors that affect how people respond to the drug,” Dr Swift said.

“It is important that we have a national routine monitoring system to assess trends in the profile of cannabis and to better understand its relationship with health outcomes.”

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Syrian regime ‘ready to talk’

The Syrian regime is ready to talk with all parties, including armed rebels, who want dialogue to end the conflict, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said on Monday at talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.


“We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms,” Muallem said at the Moscow talks with Lavrov, in an apparent reference to the rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem,” said Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the “external and internal opposition.”

Lavrov said alongside Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks.

“There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition,” said Lavrov.

“We are for Syria to be independent, united, and for all Syrian citizens, regardless of their religion, to live freely in peace and democracy.

“The Syrian people should decide their fate without external intervention,” said Lavrov.

Lavrov added that the situation in Syria was “at the crossroads” but expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.

“There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society,” Lavrov said.

“But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement.

“The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing,” said Lavrov.

Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on the regime of Assad to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.

The fighting — which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 — has further intensified in the last days as both sides press for the military advantage.

Russia has also been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

However the rebels have now pulled out of talks with foreign powers in protest at the international community’s inability to halt the bloodshed.

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