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Scientists Finally Finish Decoding Entire Human Genome 

Scientists say they have finally assembled the full genetic blueprint for human life, adding the missing pieces to a puzzle nearly completed two decades ago.

An international team described the first-ever sequencing of a complete human genome – the set of instructions to build and sustain a human being – in research published Thursday in the journal Science. The previous effort, celebrated across the world, was incomplete because DNA sequencing technologies of the day weren’t able to read certain parts of it. Even after updates, it was missing about 8% of the genome.

“Some of the genes that make us uniquely human were actually in this ‘dark matter of the genome’ and they were totally missed,” said Evan Eichler, a University of Washington researcher who participated in the current effort and the original Human Genome Project. “It took 20-plus years, but we finally got it done.”

Many — including Eichler’s own students — thought it had been finished already.

“I was teaching them, and they said, ‘Wait a minute. Isn’t this like the sixth time you guys have declared victory? I said, ‘No, this time we really, really did it!” Eichler said.

Scientists said this full picture of the genome will give humanity a greater understanding of our evolution and biology while also opening the door to medical discoveries in areas like aging, neurodegenerative conditions, cancer and heart disease.

“We’re just broadening our opportunities to understand human disease,” said Karen Miga, an author of one of the six studies published Thursday.

The research caps off decades of work. The first draft of the human genome was announced in a White House ceremony in 2000 by leaders of two competing entities: an international publicly funded project led by an agency of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and a private company, Maryland-based Celera Genomics.

The human genome is made up of about 3.1 billion DNA subunits, pairs of chemical bases known by the letters A, C, G and T. Genes are strings of these lettered pairs that contain instructions for making proteins, the building blocks of life. Humans have about 30,000 genes, organized in 23 groups called chromosomes that are found in the nucleus of every cell.

Before now, there were “large and persistent gaps that have been in our map, and these gaps fall in pretty important regions,” Miga said.

Miga, a genomics researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz, worked with Adam Phillippy of the National Human Genome Research Institute to organize the team of scientists to start from scratch with a new genome with the aim of sequencing all of it, including previously missing pieces. The group, named after the sections at the very ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, is known as the Telomere-to-Telomere, or T2T, consortium.

Their work adds new genetic information to the human genome, corrects previous errors and reveals long stretches of DNA known to play important roles in both evolution and disease. A version of the research was published last year before being reviewed by scientific peers.

“This is a major improvement, I would say, of the Human Genome Project,” doubling its impact, said geneticist Ting Wang of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who was not involved in the research.

Eichler said some scientists used to think unknown areas contained “junk.”

“Some of us always believed there was gold in those hills,” he said. Eichler is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’s health and science department.

Turns out that the gold Eichler believed in includes many important genes, he said, such as some integral to making a person’s brain bigger than a chimp’s, with more neurons and connections.

To find such genes, scientists needed new ways to read life’s cryptic genetic language.

Reading genes requires cutting the strands of DNA into pieces hundreds to thousands of letters long. Sequencing machines read the letters in each piece and scientists try to put the pieces in the right order. That’s especially tough in areas where letters repeat.

Scientists said some areas were illegible before improvements in gene sequencing machines that now allow them to, for example, accurately read a million letters of DNA at a time. That allows scientists to see genes with repeated areas as longer strings instead of snippets that they had to later piece together.

Researchers also had to overcome another challenge: Most cells contain genomes from both mother and father, confusing attempts to assemble the pieces correctly. T2T researchers got around this by using a cell line from one “complete hydatidiform mole,” an abnormal fertilized egg containing no fetal tissue that has two copies of the father’s DNA and none of the mother’s.

The next step? Mapping more genomes, including ones that include collections of genes from both parents. This effort did not map one of the 23 chromosomes that is found in males, called the Y chromosome, because the mole contained only an X.

Wang said he’s working with the T2T group on the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium, which is trying to generate reference, or template, genomes for 350 people representing the breadth of human diversity.

“Now we’ve gotten one genome right and we have to do many, many more,” Eichler said. “This is the beginning of something really fantastic for the field of human genetics.”

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Changing of the Guard Aboard International Space Station

A microgravity ceremony ushers in a new commander of the International Space Station. An old space telescope finds something new in the cosmos. And a futuristic helmet to study astronauts’ brain waves. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

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Bruce Willis, Diagnosed With Aphasia, Steps Away From Acting

Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting after a diagnosis of aphasia, a condition that causes loss of the ability to understand or express speech, his family said Wednesday.

In a statement posted on Willis’ Instagram page, the 67-year-old actor’s family announced that Willis was recently diagnosed with aphasia and that it is impacting his cognitive abilities.

“As a result of this and with much consideration, Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him,” read the statement signed by Willis’ wife, Emma Heming Willis, his ex-wife Demi Moore, and his five children, Rumer, Scout, Tallulah, Mabel and Evelyn.

“We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him,” they said. “As Bruce always says, ‘Live it up’ and together we plan to do just that.”

There are many potential causes of aphasia. It often occurs after a stroke or head injury, but can also develop gradually due to a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease that causes degenerative damage, like Alzheimer’s disease. It’s treated primarily with speech therapy and learning non-verbal means of communication.

Willis’ family didn’t divulge what caused his aphasia. Representatives for the actor declined to comment.

The news about Willis, one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, immediately spread online as fans reacted. His four-decade career has amassed more than $5 billion in box office worldwide.

Willis had been working steadily and frequently. Renowned for films like “Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Sixth Sense,” Willis has in recent years churned out straight-to-video thrillers. Last year, he starred in a staggering eight films. Most came and went quietly, including titles like “Cosmic Sin,” “Out of Death” and “Deadlock.”

Most recently, Willis starred in February’s “Gasoline Alley” and “A Day to Die,” released in early March. Willis has already shot at least six more films due out in 2022 and 2023, including “Die Like Lovers,” “Corrective Measures” and “The Wrong Place.”

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South Koreans Flock Overseas for ‘Revenge Travel’ as COVID Rules Ease

After spending two years being socially distanced in his home country of South Korea, Kim Hoe-jun booked a last-minute flight to Hawaii, where he had enjoyed his honeymoon six years ago, giving in to his craving for overseas travel.

“I bought the ticket just a week ago, but it was rather a no-brainer. It felt like I was making up for those two years not being able to go abroad often as I used to before COVID,” he said, before boarding the plane from Incheon International Airport on Friday.

Vaccinated and boosted, Kim and his wife are among South Koreans joining in a rush for “revenge travel” — a term that has been trending on social media as people scramble to book overseas trips that were delayed by coronavirus restrictions.

The boom started after March 21 when South Korea lifted a seven-day mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers arriving from most countries. The restriction had been eased last year but was reimposed in December as the highly infectious Omicron variant spread.

The country has largely scrapped its once-aggressive tracing and containment efforts despite a record COVID-19 wave, joining a growing list of Asian countries that have eased quarantine rules, including Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Koreans now appear more ready to travel. Polls showed people are less worried about the implications of catching the virus, and increasingly see its prevention as out of their hands.

Sales of overseas flight tickets on 11st, an e-commerce unit of SK Telecom, South Korea’s top mobile carrier, rose more than eight-fold compared with a year before between March 11, when the lifting of quarantine was announced, and March 27, the company said.

Kim Na-yeon, 27, was excited to return to Hawaii, where she used to live.

“I couldn’t dare to travel even in Korea because of COVID,” she said. “But now I feel a bit freer with the exemption, so I’ve decided to go meet old friends and do some sightseeing.”

Exploding demand

Airlines and travel agencies have reported exploding demand for routes to Hawaii, Saipan and Guam, as well as some destinations in Europe and Southeast Asia where tourists submitting a vaccination certificate or negative test result are exempted from quarantine.

Saipan and Guam, both of which have travel bubble pacts with South Korea, also offer free COVID testing and pay for quarantine expenses if a traveler tests positive. Each South Korean national visiting Saipan receives $100 in “travel bucks” to spend at businesses there.

The tour arm of online retail giant Interpark reported a 324% growth in flight bookings for Oceania between March 11-22 from the same period of 2021, a 268% increase for Southeast Asia and 262% more bookings for Europe.

On Sunday, the company sold a record 5,200 Hawaii tour packages within 70 minutes. CJ Corp’s home shopping unit said it received about 2,800 orders for a Spain and Italy trip in one hour on Sunday, totaling 15 billion won ($12.41 million), days after garnering 9 billion won ($7.4 million) from its sales of a Hawaii package.

“The surge reflects growing customer sentiment that an end of COVID travel curbs might be in the offing after the mandatory quarantine was lifted,” said Lee Jeong-pil, general manager of CJ’s home shopping unit.

Lee Tae-woo, a 36-year-old frequent traveler to Japan, said he has changed some money into yen, taking advantage of the currency’s sharp decline and hoping to jump on the revenge travel bandwagon soon.

Though Japan has yet to allow tourists back in, it has reduced the quarantine period for arrivals for business and other purposes to three days from seven this month and signaled further easing of travel curbs.

“It’s been a long wait, and I’m ready to go back as soon as they finally open up again and visit my favorite coffee roastery and enjoy the night view from Shibuya station,” Lee said, referring to Tokyo’s bustling central district.

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CDC Drops COVID-19 Health Warning for Cruise Ship Travelers

Federal health officials are dropping the warning they have attached to cruising since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving it up to vacationers to decide whether they feel safe getting on a ship.

Cruise-ship operators welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, which came as many people thought about summer vacation plans.

An industry trade group said the move by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention validated measures that ship owners have taken, including requiring crew members and most passengers to be vaccinated against the virus.

The CDC removed the COVID-19 “cruise ship travel health notice” that was first imposed in March 2020, after virus outbreaks on several ships around the world.

However, the agency expressed reservations about cruising.

“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” CDC spokesperson Dave Daigle said in an email.

Daigle said the CDC’s decision was based on “the current state of the pandemic and decreases in COVID-19 cases onboard cruise ships over the past several weeks.”

COVID-19 cases in the United States have been falling since mid-January, although the decline has slowed in recent weeks, and the current seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. is roughly unchanged from two weeks ago, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. States have rolled back mask mandates, putting pressure on federal officials to ease virus-related restrictions.

Outbreaks continue to be reported on cruise ships, which conduct random testing before the end of voyages.

On Sunday, a Princess Cruises ship returning from the Panama Canal had “multiple” passengers who had tested positive for the virus. Princess Cruises said all the affected passengers showed mild symptoms or none at all, and that all crew members and passengers had been vaccinated. About a dozen passengers tested positive before the same boat docked in San Francisco in January.

Operators are required to tell the CDC about virus cases on board ships. The agency has a colored-coded system to classify ships based on the percentage of passengers who test positive. The CDC said that system remains in place.

Cruise-ship operators have complained since the start of the pandemic that their industry has been singled out for a shutdown and then tighter COVID-19 restrictions than others, including airlines.

The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that the CDC’s decision to remove its health warning “recognizes the effective public health measures in place on cruise ships and begins to level the playing field between cruise and similarly situated venues on land.”

Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a site that publishes review of trips, called the CDC decision big news.

“Symbolically it’s a notice of winds of change when it comes to cruising,” she said. “I do think it can convince some of the doubters. What the CDC says does matter to cruisers.”

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Academy: Smith Refused to Leave Oscars After Slapping Rock 

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on Wednesday said that Will Smith was asked to leave Sunday’s Oscar ceremony after hitting Chris Rock but refused to do so. 

The academy’s board of governors met Wednesday to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Smith for violations against the group’s standards of conduct. The academy said disciplinary action for Smith could include suspension, expulsion or other sanctions. 

Many have focused on why Smith was allowed to remain seated in the front row at the Dolby Theatre after the incident. On Wednesday, the academy suggested that it attempted to remove the actor from the audience. 

“Things unfolded in a way we could not have anticipated,” the academy said. “While we would like to clarify that Mr. Smith was asked to leave the ceremony and refused, we also recognize we could have handled the situation differently.” 

A representative for the academy declined to give specifics on how it tried to remove Smith. After Smith struck Rock in response to a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, several stars including Denzel Washington, Bradley Cooper and Tyler Perry spoke with Smith, 53. 

Stronger language

The academy said Smith has the opportunity to defend himself in a written response before the board meets again on April 18. The film academy earlier condemned Smith’s onstage assault of Rock, but it used stronger language Wednesday. 

“Mr. Smith’s actions at the 94th Oscars were a deeply shocking, traumatic event to witness in person and on television,” the academy said. “Mr. Rock, we apologize to you for what you experienced on our stage and thank you for your resilience in that moment. We also apologize to our nominees, guests and viewers for what transpired during what should have been a celebratory event.” 

On Monday, Smith issued an apology to Rock, the academy and to viewers, saying “I was out of line and I was wrong.” 

Rock, who had yet to respond publicly to the incident, performed stand-up Wednesday night in Boston. He was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation. 

“How was your weekend?” began Rock, who then cautioned the crowd that he didn’t have a lot to say yet about the Oscars, according to audio posted by the Hollywood trade outlet Variety. “I’m still kind of processing what happened.” 

A representative for Smith didn’t immediately respond to messages Wednesday regarding the academy’s latest moves. 

Few expulsions

Only a very small number of academy members have ever been expelled, including Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby and the actor Carmine Caridi, who was kicked out for sharing awards screeners. 

Whoopi Goldberg, a member of the academy’s board of governors, said Monday on The View, “We’re not going to take that Oscar from him.” (Even Oscars won by expelled members haven’t previously been ordered to be returned.) Goldberg added that “nobody is OK with what happened.” 

Others from Sunday’s telecast also began speaking out. Co-host Wanda Sykes told Ellen DeGeneres in an interview to air April 7 that she felt physically ill after Smith slapped Rock. When he returned to his seat, Smith twice shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth.” 

“I’m still a little traumatized by it,” said Sykes in a clip released Wednesday. 

Within an hour, Smith was back on stage accepting the award for best actor for his performance in King Richard. Many in the Dolby Theatre gave him a standing ovation. 

“I was like, how gross is this? This is the wrong message. You assault somebody and you get escorted out the building and that’s it. But for them to let him continue, I thought it was gross,” Sykes said. “I wanted to be able to run out [on stage] after he won and say, ‘Uh, unfortunately, Will couldn’t be here tonight.’ ”

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Towering Ice Volcanoes Identified on Surprisingly Vibrant Pluto

A batch of dome-shaped ice volcanoes that look unlike anything else known in our solar system and may still be active have been identified on Pluto using data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, showing that this remote frigid world is more dynamic than previously known.

Scientists said that these cryovolcanoes — numbering perhaps 10 or more — stand anywhere from 1 kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) to 7 kilometers (4-1/2 miles) tall. Unlike Earth volcanoes that spew gases and molten rock, this dwarf planet’s cryovolcanoes extrude large amounts of ice — apparently frozen water rather than some other frozen material — that may have the consistency of toothpaste, they said.

Features on the asteroid belt dwarf planet Ceres, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Neptune’s moon Triton also have been pegged as cryovolcanoes. But those all differ from Pluto’s, the researchers said, owing to different surface conditions such as temperature and atmospheric pressure, as well as different mixes of icy materials.

“Finding these features does indicate that Pluto is more active, or geologically alive, than we previously thought it would be,” said planetary scientist Kelsi Singer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“The combination of these features being geologically recent, covering a vast area and most likely being made of water ice is surprising because it requires more internal heat than we thought Pluto would have at this stage of its history,” Singer added.

Pluto, which is smaller than Earth’s moon and has a diameter of about 2,380 kilometers (1,400 miles), orbits about 5.8 billion kilometers (3.6 billion miles) away from the sun, roughly 40 times farther than Earth’s orbit. Its surface features plains, mountains, craters and valleys.

Images and data analyzed in the new study, obtained in 2015 by New Horizons, validated previous hypotheses about cryovolcanism on Pluto.

The study found not only extensive evidence for cryovolcanism but also that it has been long-lived, not a single episode, said Southwest Research Institute planetary scientist Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator and study co-author.

“What’s most fascinating about Pluto is that it’s so complex – as complex as the Earth or Mars despite its smaller size and high distance from the sun,” Stern said. “This was a real surprise from the New Horizons flyby, and the new result about cryovolcanism re-emphasizes this in a dramatic way.”

The researchers analyzed an area southwest of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto’s large heart-shaped basin filled with nitrogen ice. They found large domes 30-100 kilometers (18-60 miles) across, sometimes combining to form more complexly shaped structures.

An elevation called Wright Mons, one of the tallest, may have formed from several volcanic domes merging, yielding a shape unlike any Earth volcanoes. Although shaped differently, it is similar in size to Hawaii’s large volcano Mauna Loa.

Like Earth and our solar system’s other planets, Pluto formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Based on an absence of impact craters that normally would accumulate over time, it appears its cryovolcanoes are relatively recent — formed in the past few hundred million years.

“That is young on a geologic timescale. Because there are almost no impact craters, it is possible these processes are ongoing even in the present day,” Singer said.

Pluto has lots of active geology, including flowing nitrogen ice glaciers and a cycle in which nitrogen ice vaporizes during the day and condenses back to ice at night — a process constantly changing the planetary surface.

“Pluto is a geological wonderland,” Singer said. “Many areas of Pluto are completely different from each other. If you just had a few pieces of a puzzle of Pluto you would have no idea what the other areas looked like.” 

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Solar Panel Technology Boosts Yields for Farmers in Kenya

Scientists in Kenya are testing a project using solar panels to shade crops while generating clean energy. It’s called agrivoltaics. Successful trials have shown that this technology reduces water loss and results in higher yields. Juma Majanga reports from Kajiado, Kenya.

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