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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NKorea on strike standby after US drill

The order came as US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, with tensions soaring on the Korean peninsula, said Washington would not be cowed by Pyongyang’s bellicose threats and stood ready to respond to “any eventuality”.

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Kim directed his rocket units on standby at an overnight emergency meeting with top army commanders, hours after nuclear-capable US B-2 stealth bombers were deployed in ongoing US joint military drills with South Korea.

In the event of any “reckless” US provocation, North Korean forces should “mercilessly strike the US mainland… military bases in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea”, he was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

While North Korea has no proven ability to conduct such strikes, Kim said: “The time has come to settle accounts with the US imperialists.”

The youthful leader argued that the stealth bomber flights went beyond a simple demonstration of force and amounted to a US “ultimatum that they will ignite a nuclear war at any cost”.

An unidentified South Korean military official quoted by Yonhap news agency said a “sharp increase” in personnel and vehicle movement had been detected at the North’s mid- and long-range missile sites.

The United States rarely acknowledges B-2 flights to the Korean peninsula, which remains technically at war. The aircraft, which dodge anti-aircraft defences, bombed targets in conflicts in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

The flights came as part of annual drills between the United States and South Korea, which North Korea each year denounces as rehearsals for war.

Pyongyang has been particularly vocal this time, angered by UN sanctions imposed after its long-range rocket launch in December and the third nuclear test it carried out last month.

Kim’s order formalised steps already taken by the Korean People’s Army (KPA), which put its strategic rocket units at combat-ready status on Tuesday. The following day it cut the last remaining military hotline with South Korea.

The bulk of the threats emanating from Pyongyang have been dismissed as bluster, and North Korea has no confirmed missile capability to reach the US mainland — or indeed Guam or Hawaii in the Pacific.

But Washington has opted to match the threats with its own muscle-flexing.

“We will be prepared — we have to be prepared — to deal with any eventuality,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

“We must make clear that these provocations by the North are taken by us very seriously and we’ll respond to that,” Hagel said, defending the B-2 deployment.

US military intelligence has noted that the North’s warlike rhetoric has not, so far, been matched by any overtly provocative troop build-up.

Pyongyang has also been careful not to allow tensions to affect the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint South-North venture that provides the regime with crucial hard currency.

Present at the emergency meeting convened by Kim in Pyongyang were the KPA chief of general staff, director of operations and commander of strategic rocket operations.

KCNA provided an unusually precise timing for the meeting of 00:30 am (1530 GMT Thursday) in an apparent effort to underline the urgency and import of Kim’s order.

But analysts warned against reading too much into what is the latest in a long series of incremental rhetorical upgrades.

“It shouldn’t be taken to mean war is imminent,” said Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.

“It’s an inevitable and calibrated reaction to the B-2 deployment, and this who-blinks-first game with the United States will continue for a while yet,” he said.

On the assumption that the North would never invite a full-scale conflict it would surely lose, experts believe it may opt for a limited provocation, similar to its 2010 shelling of a South Korean island that killed four people.


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Three Afghans killed in attack on US base

A Taliban suicide car bombing has hit a US-run base in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least three Afghans and wounding seven others.

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Afghan interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the attack on Wednesday was a suicide car bombing and happened near the entrance of Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, a Taliban flashpoint that borders Pakistan.

“Three Afghan nationals are killed and seven Afghan nationals are wounded. We have no report of coalition casualties right now,” said Major Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The blast was so powerful that it rattled the windows of buildings in the city, some four kilometres away, an AFP journalist said.

In December 2009 an al-Qaeda triple agent blew himself up at FOB Chapman, killing seven CIA agents and his Jordanian handler, the deadliest attack on the US intelligence agency since 1983.

The Taliban, which has waged a bloody insurgency against foreign and Afghan government forces for the past 11 years since being ousted from power in an invasion led by the US, claimed Wednesday’s attack.

“The attack was carried out by a mujahid named Omar from Khost who knew the area very well,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told AFP by email.

He said the attacker “detonated a car bomb while American invading forces were searching visitors going to the base”. In August 2010, 24 Taliban militants, some wearing US uniforms, were killed when they tried to storm Camp Chapman and another nearby US base, Camp Salerno, which was also the target of a suicide truck bombing in June this year.

Khost is one of the most volatile parts of Afghanistan, sharing a porous border with Pakistan’s tribal belt, which lies outside government control, and where US officials say the Taliban and al-Qaeda have carved out rear bases for operations in Afghanistan.


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Melbourne boy rallies funds for Yemen shooting victim

Saleem al-Harazi was on a mission to buy eggs and milk for his family in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, when his life was changed forever.

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As he walked through Change Square, the 11-year-old was shot in the face by a sniper during the bloodiest day in Yemen’s recent history.

VISIT Saleem’s fundraiser page, set up by Jylon and Iona

It was March 18 2011 and the Arab Spring had just begun to ripple through the region.

Saleem al-Harazi recovers in hospital after after being shot in the face in Yemen’s Change Square during a day of protest. (Image: Iona Craig)

More than a year later, and after losing both his eyes, Saleem’s life is starting to return to normal, but his story has become one of the tragic symbols of the human impact of Yemen’s Revolution.

It was through a haunting image in National Geographic magazine that Jylon Grandy, a 10-year-old schoolboy from suburban Melbourne, first stumbled across Saleem’s story.

“I came across this page and Saleem al-Harazi was sitting on a couch with his mum. I looked at his eyes and thought ‘where did they go?’” he explains.

Jylon’s mother Sharon says reading about Saleem’s shooting “deeply upset” her son. “We couldn’t console him. It was a very emotional evening.”

Unable to shake the idea that a child on the other side of the world had experienced such a horrific incident, Jylon — largely unprompted by his parents — came up with a plan to raise money to help the young Yemeni boy.

“I was brainstorming what I could do for him, and I came up with the best idea: a walk-a-thon.”

Supported by his parents and his school, Jylon’s plan started ticking into action.

The family contacted Iona Craig, a freelance journalist currently based in Yemen, who was in Change Square with tens of thousands of others the day Saleem was shot.

LISTEN: Iona Craig talks about the shootings in Change Square on March 18


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Scientists track whales by following their songs

An Australian-led group of scientists has for the first time tracked down and tagged Antarctic blue whales by using acoustic technology to follow their songs, the government said today.

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The blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, is rarely spotted in the Southern Ocean but a group of intrepid researchers were able to locate and tag some of the mammals after picking up on their deep and complex vocals.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said the researchers, who spent seven weeks working from small boats in freezing Antarctic conditions, were captivated by the remarkable behaviour of the whales they saw.

“The Antarctic blue whale can grow to over 30 metres in length and weigh up to 180 tonnes, its tongue alone is heavier than an elephant and its heart is as big as a small car,” Burke said.

“Even the largest dinosaur was smaller than the blue whale.”

The scientists collected 23 biopsy samples and attached satellite tags to two of the whales.

“The tags transmitted never-before obtained data on rapid longitudinal movements during their summer feeding season and their foraging behaviour in relation to the edge of the Antarctic ice,” tagger Virginia Andrews-Goff said.

“This method of studying Antarctic blue whales has been so successful it will now become the blueprint for other whale researchers across the world.”

The inaugural Southern Ocean trip of the Antarctic Blue Whale Project involved deploying acoustic buoys west of the Ross Sea to pick up blue whale songs, which can be detected from hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.

They recorded 626 hours of songs, with 26,545 calls of Antarctic blue whale analysed in real time, said lead acoustician Brian Miller.

“The researchers were then able to triangulate the position of the whales from their vocalisations and direct the ship to the target area,” he said.

Burke said the study proved it was not necessary to kill whales to conduct scientific research, a reference to Japan’s annual whale hunt in the Antarctic, which is conducted in the name of scientific research.

“The Antarctic blue whale barely escaped extinction during the industrial whaling era in the 1900’s when around 340,000 whales were slaughtered,” Burke said in a statement.

“This research reinforces Australia’s commitment to non-lethal research of whales.”


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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.