Update September 30, 2017
DNA lab techniques now under fire
April 15, 2014 file photo, a criminalist trainee prepares sample bone
fragments for DNA testing at the training lab in the Office of Chief
Medical Examiner in New York. A technique for analyzing DNA evidence
developed by the laboratory has come under fire amid questions about its
reliability. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
New York (AP) -
Two techniques for analyzing DNA evidence that were once considered
cutting edge are now under fire amid questions about their reliability,
and criminal defense attorneys in New York have asked a state agency to
investigate the renowned lab that once used both methods.
The New York City
medical examiner’s lab developed one of the techniques and became a
leader in sophisticated DNA examinations partly because of its work
identifying the remains of 9/11 victims.
have been phased out in favor of new technology. But the lab says it’s
used its forensic statistical tool developed in-house in 1,350 cases
over the past six years and used what’s called low copy number analysis
in about 3,450 cases over the past 11 years. Once New York was the only
lab in the country that used the latter method.
Attorneys for the
Legal Aid Society and Federal Defenders of New York asked the New York
State inspector general’s office to investigate in a Sept. 1 letter.
Legal Aid Society
attorney Julie Fry said low copy number analysis is “like making a copy
of a copy of a copy. Eventually it’s going to be faded.”
“And with FST, it’s
a computer program. We don’t have access to the code - and we can’t tell
if it’s accurate or not. We don’t know what’s in the black box,” she
The groups say the
medical examiner’s office recognized there were problems and quietly
corrected them without notifying anyone of potential wrong matches. The
lawyers also say they believe the lab manipulated data while testing the
low copy number technique, and made false statements on methodology to
the Commission on Forensic Sciences, which oversees labs in the state.
of dishonest work are severe, innocent people may be wrongly convicted,
and people guilty of serious crimes may go free,” the attorneys wrote.
The letter was
first reported by The New York Times and ProPublica.
Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson wrote in a post published Wednesday on the
website Medium that the two methods were discarded to meet changing FBI
requirements and to reflect new, better science, and were not phased out
because of inaccurate results.
“Each technique has
been intensively reviewed and approved for use in casework by the
state-established oversight agency, including a panel of distinguished
scientific experts, the DNA subcommittee of the New York State
Commission on Forensic Science,” she wrote.
examiner’s office operates independently from prosecutors or defense
attorneys and the forensic lab does work for both sides. The lab is the
largest DNA crime lab in North America. It tests about 40,000 items a
year in criminal cases including murder, rape, assault and weapons
statistical tool, or FST, relies on computer software and calculates the
likelihood that a suspect’s DNA is present in a mixture of substances
found at a crime scene.
Low copy number
analysis tests for trace DNA amounts by amplifying the sample.
and forensic experts hail the two techniques as powerful tools that can
help close cases. But critics, including the FBI, argue they are
inconclusive and unreliable. There is no clear case law on the merits of
In 2015, Brooklyn
state Supreme Court judge Mark Dwyer tossed a sample collected through
the low copy number method.
“If the experts in
the DNA field cannot agree on the weight to be given to evidence
produced by high sensitivity analysis, it would make no sense to throw
such evidence before a lay jury,” he said.
But earlier, a
judge in Queens found the method scientifically sound. Some defendants
argue they were wrongly convicted because the DNA analysis was flawed.
In other cases, the DNA analysis has helped exonerate defendants.
Both methods were
approved by the state’s Commission on Forensic Sciences and the DNA
Subcommittee, made up of geneticists and scientists who review
protocols. A spokesman for the commission said the agency has received
the letter from the defense attorneys, but could not comment yet on
whether an investigation would be launched.
Update September 23, 2017
Seeding the future? ‘Ark’ preserves rare, threatened plants
In this Aug. 31, 2017 photo, Bill Brumback,
director of conservation at the New England Wild Flower Society, opens
the “seed ark,” a freezer filled with seeds collected for safekeeping
from rare and endangered plants in the region. (AP Photo/Bob Salsberg)
Mass. (AP) - An ordinary-looking freezer in a
sturdy cinderblock shed at a suburban Boston botanical garden holds what
might be New England’s most important seed catalog.
Inside the freezer
in Framingham are tightly sealed packages containing an estimated 6
million seeds from hundreds of plant species, bearing obscure or
hard-to-pronounce names like potentilla robbinsiana. They are rare
varieties of plant life native to the region - in some cases found
nowhere else in the world - and are in grave danger of vanishing from
The “seed ark,” as
it’s playfully dubbed by the New England Wild Flower Society, is not
unlike Noah’s biblical vessel in its quest to preserve from calamity a
rich diversity of life. In this case it’s not animals marching two by
two but vegetation threatened by any number of things, including natural
disasters, climate change, unchecked development or simply being
trampled afoot by unsuspecting hikers.
The society’s 2015
survey of more than 3,500 known plant species determined that 22 percent
were rare, in decline, endangered or perhaps already extinct.
“Plants have always
been second-class citizens when it comes to conservation,” said Bill
Brumback, the organization’s conservation director who for three decades
has supervised the collection and storage of rare seeds in New England.
“Animals are much more, shall we say, charismatic. Plants don’t get the
same protections under the federal endangered species act.”
Teams of staffers
and volunteers scour some of the region’s most remote areas in search of
plants like Jesup’s milk-vetch, a species so rare it grows in just three
tiny clusters along the Connecticut River.
seeds are first brought to a facility in western Massachusetts and dried
to 20 to 30 percent of relative humidity, said Brumback, explaining that
the drying process assures that liquid inside cells won’t expand and
crack when exposed to low temperatures.
The seeds are then
brought to Framingham, sealed in foil envelopes and frozen at -20
degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), keeping them viable for decades
or even centuries, depending on the individual species.
“If we have the
seed bank we have the genetic material to restore (the plants) and put
them back on the landscape,” as a hedge against extinction, said Debbi
Edelstein, the society’s executive director.
The “ark” is housed
in a structure built to withstand many ravages of time. But already some
seeds have been pulled from cold storage to help repopulate dying
example is potentilla robbinsiana, also known as Robbins’ cinquefoil, a
small yellow-flowered plant found only near the top of New Hampshire’s
Mount Washington, New England’s highest peak. When hiking trails
threatened to destroy the plant, the society worked with Appalachian
Mountain Club and other groups on a plan that restored Robbins’
cinquefoil to the point it no longer was considered an endangered
Rare seed programs
aren’t unique to New England. Similar seed banks exist in several other
U.S. locations, including the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Rancho
Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California.
efforts have assumed new urgency as scientists worry about the uncertain
impacts of global climate change, Edelstein said. The United Nations
Convention on Biological Diversity, she said, has established an
ambitious goal of banking 75 percent of the world’s rare seeds by 2020.
In the U.S.,
private conservation groups are shouldering the burden in part because
the U.S. is the only major nation that never ratified the little-known
1992 treaty, though American officials over the years have voiced
support for its objectives.
life is a worthy undertaking on many levels, Brumback said. Even the
rarest of plants can be vital to ecosystems. Some could yet yield
medicines or other products useful to mankind.
“These are species
on Earth that deserve to live as much as we do,” Brumback said.
He added: “If you
lost one plant species is the world going to stop? No it’s not. But if
you lose enough plant species and enough biological diversity, we don’t
know what the effects are going to be.”
Update September 16, 2017
Scientists say warming makes storms, like Harvey, wetter
Volunteer rescue boats make their way into a flooded subdivision to
rescue stranded residents as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise
Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Washington (AP) - By the
time the rain stops, Harvey will have dumped about 1 million gallons of
water for every man, woman and child in southeastern Texas - a soggy,
record-breaking glimpse of the wet and wild future global warming could
bring, scientists say.
While scientists are quick to say
climate change didn’t cause Harvey and that they haven’t determined yet
whether the storm was made worse by global warming, they do note that
warmer air and water mean wetter and possibly more intense hurricanes in
“This is the kind of thing we are
going to get more of,” said Princeton University climate scientist
Michael Oppenheimer. “This storm should serve as warning.”
There’s a scientifically accepted
method for determining if some wild weather event has the fingerprints
of man-made climate change, and it involves intricate calculations.
Those could take weeks or months to complete, and then even longer to be
checked by other scientists.
In general, though, climate
scientists agree that future storms will dump much more rain than the
same size storms did in the past.
That’s because warmer air holds
more water. With every degree Fahrenheit, the atmosphere can hold and
then dump an additional 4 percent of water (7 percent for every degree
Celsius), several scientists say.
Global warming also means warmer
seas, and warm water is what fuels hurricanes.
When Harvey moved toward Texas,
water in the Gulf of Mexico was nearly 2 degrees (1 degree Celsius)
warmer than normal, said Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff
Masters. Hurricanes need at least 79 degrees F (26 C) as fuel, and water
at least that warm ran more than 300 feet (100 meters) deep in the Gulf,
according to University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
Several studies show that the top 1
percent of the strongest downpours are already happening much more
frequently. Also, calculations done Monday by MIT meteorology professor
Kerry Emanuel show that the drenching received by Rockport, Texas, used
to be maybe a once-in-1,800-years event for that city, but with warmer
air holding more water and changes in storm steering currents since
2010, it is now a once-every-300-years event.
There’s a lot of debate among
climate scientists over what role, if any, global warming may have
played in causing Harvey to stall over Texas, which was a huge factor in
the catastrophic flooding. If the hurricane had moved on like a normal
storm, it wouldn’t have dumped as much rain in any one spot.
Harvey stalled because it was
sandwiched between two high-pressure fronts that pushed it in opposite
directions, and those fronts were stuck.
Oppenheimer and some others
theorize that there’s a connection between melting sea ice in the Arctic
and changes in the jet stream and the weather patterns that make these
“blocking fronts” more common. Others, like Masters, contend it’s too
early to say.
University of Washington
atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass said climate change is simply not
powerful enough to create off-the-chart events like Harvey’s rainfall.
“You really can’t pin global
warming on something this extreme. It has to be natural variability,”
Mass said. “It may juice it up slightly but not create this phenomenal
“We’re breaking one record after
another with this thing,” Mass said.
Parts of the Houston region have
broken the nearly 40-year-old U.S. record for the heaviest rainfall from
a tropical system - 48 inches (120 centimeters), set by Tropical Storm
Amelia in 1978 in Texas, several meteorologists say.
Already 15 trillion gallons (57
trillion liters) of rain have fallen on a large area, and an additional
5 trillion or 6 trillion gallons were forecast, meteorologist Ryan Maue
of WeatherBell Analytics calculates. That’s enough water to fill all the
NFL and Division 1 college football stadiums more than 100 times over.
Vanishing kelp: Warm ocean takes toll on undersea forests
In this June 15, 2017, photo, a string of
ducks paddle past a warning flag over research divers, out to collecting
samples of a red shrub-like seaweed, in the waters off Appledore Island,
Maine. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Appledore Island, Maine (AP) -
When diving in the Gulf of Maine a few years back, Jennifer Dijkstra
expected to be swimming through a flowing kelp forest that had long
served as a nursery and food for juvenile fish and lobster.
But Dijkstra, a University of New
Hampshire marine biologist, saw only a patchy seafloor before her. The
sugar kelp had declined dramatically and been replaced by invasive,
shrub-like seaweed that looked like a giant shag rug.
“I remember going to some dive
sites and honestly being shocked at how few kelp blades we saw,” she
The Gulf of Maine, stretching from
Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, is the latest in a growing list of global
hotspots losing their kelp, including hundreds of miles in the
Mediterranean Sea, off southern Japan and Australia, and parts of the
Among the world’s most diverse
marine ecosystems, kelp forests are found on all continental coastlines
except for Antarctica and provide critical food and shelter to myriad
fish and other creatures. Kelp also is critical to coastal economies,
providing billions of dollars in tourism and fishing.
The likely culprit, according to
several scientific studies, is warming oceans from climate change,
coupled with the arrival of invasive species. In Maine, the invaders are
other seaweeds. In Australia, the Mediterranean and Japan, tropical fish
are feasting on the kelp.
Most kelp are replaced by small,
tightly packed, bushy seaweeds that collect sediment and prevent kelp
from growing back, said the University of Western Australia’s Thomas
“Collectively these changes are
part of a recent and increasing global trend of flattening of the
world’s kelp forests,” said Wernberg, co-author of a 2016 study in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that 38
percent of kelp forest declined over the past 50 years in regions that
Kelp losses on Australia’s Great
Southern Reef threaten tourism and fishing industries worth $10 billion.
Die-offs contributed to a 60 percent drop in species richness in the
Mediterranean and were blamed for the collapse of the abalone fishery in
“You are losing habitat. You are
losing food. You are losing shoreline protection,” said University of
Massachusetts Boston’s Jarrett Byrnes, who leads a working group on kelp
and climate change. “They provide real value to humans.”
The Pacific Coast from northern
California to the Oregon border is one place that suffered dramatic kelp
loss, according to Cynthia Catton, a research associate at the Bodega
Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. Since 2014,
aerial surveys have shown that bull kelp declined by over 90 percent,
something Catton blamed on a marine heat wave along with a rapid
increase in kelp-eating sea urchins.
Without the kelp to eat, Northern
California’s abalone fishery has been harmed.
“It’s pretty devastating to the
ecosystem as a whole,” Catton said. “It’s like a redwood forest that has
been completely clear-cut. If you lose the trees, you don’t have a
Kelp is incredibly resilient and
has been known to bounce back from storms and heat waves.
But in Maine, it has struggled to
recover following an explosion of voracious sea urchins in the 1980s
that wiped out many kelp beds. Now, it must survive in waters that are
warming faster than the vast majority of the world’s oceans - most
likely forcing kelp to migrate northward or into deeper waters.
“What the future holds is more
complicated,” Byrnes said. “If the Gulf of Maine warms sufficiently, we
know kelp will have a hard time holding on.”
On their dives around Maine’s
Appledore Island, a craggy island off New Hampshire that’s home to
nesting seagulls, Dijkstra and colleague Larry Harris have witnessed
Their study, published by the
Journal of Ecology in April, examined photos of seaweed populations
and dive logs going back 30 years in the Gulf of Maine. They found
introduced species from as far away as Asia, such as the filamentous red
seaweed, had increased by as much 90 percent and were covering 50 to 90
percent of the gulf’s seafloor.
They are seeing far fewer ocean
pout, wolf eel and pollock that once were commonplace in these kelp
beds. But they also are finding that the half-dozen invasive seaweeds
replacing kelp are harboring up to three times more tiny shrimp, snails
and other invertebrates.
“We’re not really sure how this new
seascape will affect higher species in the food web, especially
commercially important ones like fish, crabs and lobster,” said
Dijkstra, following a dive in which bags of invasive seaweed were
collected and the invertebrates painstakingly counted. “What we do think
is that fish are using these seascapes differently.”
SpaceX unveils sleek, white spacesuit for astronaut travel
This undated image made available by Elon
Musk on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017 shows a new spacesuit from his company
SpaceX. It’s designed for its crewed flights planned for 2018. (SpaceX
Fla. (AP) - SpaceX has unveiled a sleek white
spacesuit for astronauts on its crewed flights coming up next year.
Elon Musk made the big reveal via Instagram on Wednesday. He says it’s
not him in the new suit, rather a SpaceX engineer.
developing a crew version of its Dragon cargo capsule for NASA
astronauts. Boeing is also working to get U.S. astronauts flying again
from home soil. Boeing is going blue for spacesuits for its Starliner
last rocketed away from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2011. They’ve since
been riding Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station.
Musk says the new
SpaceX suit has been tested on Earth - and works. He says it was
incredibly hard to balance aesthetics and function.
2016 weather report: Extreme and anything but normal
fisherman drives a boat during then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s tour
of the Jakobshavn Glacier and the Ilulissat Icefjord, located near the
Arctic Circle in Ilulissat, Greenland. A new U.S. report says last
year’s weather was far more extreme or record breaking than anything
approaching normal. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool, File)
- Last year’s global weather was far more
extreme or record-breaking than anything approaching normal, according
to a new report.
The U.S. National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday released its annual
checkup of the Earth, highlighting numerous records including hottest
year, highest sea level, and lowest sea ice in the Arctic and
report, written by scientists around the world and published in the
Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, shows that 2016 was
“very extreme and it is a cause for concern,” said co-editor Jessica
Blunden, a NOAA climate scientist.
it a clear signal of human-caused climate change. A record large El
Nino, the warming of the central Pacific that changes weather worldwide,
was also a big factor in last year’s wild weather.
“2016 will be
forever etched in my brain as the year we crossed a new threshold of
climate change - one that gave us a grim glimpse into our future,” said
Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb, who had no role in the report.
dozens of key climate measures and found:
- At any given
time, nearly one-eighth of the world’s land mass was in severe drought.
That’s far higher than normal and “one of the worst years for drought,”
said report co-author Robert Dunn of the United Kingdom Met Office.
- Extreme weather
was everywhere. Giant downpours were up. Heat waves struck all over the
globe, including a nasty one in India. Extreme weather contributed to a
gigantic wildfire in Canada.
- Global sea level
rose another quarter of an inch (3.4 millimeters) for the sixth straight
year of record high sea levels.
- There were 93
tropical cyclones across the globe, 13 percent more than normal. That
included Hurricane Matthew that killed about 1,000 people in Haiti.
- The world’s
glaciers shrank - for the 37th year in a row - by an average of about 3
feet (1 meter).
- Greenland’s ice
sheet in 2016 lost 341 billion tons of ice (310 billion metric tons). It
has lost 4400 billion tons (4000 billion metric tons of ice since 2002.
“2016 was a year in
the Arctic like we’ve never seen before,” said NOAA Arctic research
chief Jeremy Mathis, who called it “a clear and more pronounced signal
of warming than in any other year on record.”
Many of the
findings have been previously released, including that 2016 was the
hottest year on record for the third consecutive year. A separate study
based on modeling and weather patterns shows three hot years in a row is
close to impossible to be a natural coincidence.
The odds of three
years in a row setting heat records without man-made global warming is
only 0.7 percent, compared to 30 to 50 percent with greenhouse gases
according to a separate study published Thursday in the Geophysical
co-editor Deke Arndt said the only notable normal global measure in 2016
was snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere.
Researchers in Cambodia find nest of rare riverine bird
undated photo provided by Wildlife Conservation Society, a Masked Finfoot
sits on a nest in Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia. (Wildlife Conservation
Society via AP)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
(AP) - Wildlife researchers in Cambodia have
found a breeding location for the masked finfoot, one of the world’s most
endangered birds, raising hopes of its continuing survival.
The New York-based
Wildlife Conservation Society said Thursday its scientists, along with
conservationists from Cambodia’s Environment Ministry and residents along
the Memay River in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, discovered the only
confirmed breeding location in Cambodia for the very rare species.
The International Union
for Conservation of Nature has placed the bird on its red list of globally
endangered species because its worldwide population of less than 1,000 is
declining at an alarming rate. It is found only in Bangladesh, Cambodia,
India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Poaching and cutting
down the trees where the bird lives are causing the population decline, said
Eng Mengey, a communications officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The Kulen Promtep
Wildlife Sanctuary is one of several in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province
that are home to many endangered bird species, including the critically
endangered giant ibis and white-shouldered ibis, the Wildlife Conservation
“This finding provides
further evidence that the Northern Plains of Cambodia is an important
biodiversity hotspot and critical area for conserving breeding habitat for
globally threatened water birds,” Alistair Mould, a technical adviser for
the society, said in a statement.