Date syrup shows promise for fighting bacterial infections

Date syrup -- a thick, sweet liquid derived from dates that is widely consumed across the Middle East -- shows antibacterial activity against a number of disease-causing bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli.

New research, presented today at the Society for General Microbiology's Annual Conference in Birmingham, showed that, in vitro, date syrup is able to inhibit the growth of bacteria faster than manuka honey, which has previously been shown to have antibacterial properties and is increasingly used in dressings to improve wound repair.

Hajer Taleb, a research student from Cardiff Metropolitan University, who undertook the work, identified that the date syrup contains a number of phenolic compounds that form naturally in the date fruit as it matures. These compounds have previously been shown to have antibacterial activity. Artificial syrup -- made of the constituent sugars found in natural syrup but lacking the phenolic compounds -- was not as effective at inhibiting bacterial growth.

In vitro results have shown that date syrup produced traditionally in Basra, Southern Iraq, has antibacterial activity comparable to manuka honey. The results revealed that when the syrup was mixed with a range of disease-causing bacteria -- including Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Enterococcus spp. and Pseudomonas aeruginosa -- it inhibited their growth. The date syrup was effective in similar amounts to manuka honey but worked more quickly, inhibiting bacterial growth after six hours of treatment, while the manuka honey required longer.

Date syrup is eaten in a large number of countries due to its perceived health benefits. However, this work is part of a comprehensive study that aims, for the first time, to identify and examine the mechanisms underlying any potential health benefits, in particular its antibacterial effects.

Dr Ara Kanekanian from Cardiff Metropolitan University, who leads on this research, said: "While this work is currently in vitro, it suggests that date syrup could exhibit health benefits through its antibacterial activities, similar, or in some cases, better than honey. At this stage, this has mainly been attributed to the presence of phenolic compounds. However, until further research is undertaken, we caution people against using the syrup to treat wounds."

While the research is still in the laboratory stage, the researchers anticipate that date syrup could have a clinical value similar to honey, which is utilised as a topical antibacterial treatment for wound infection.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Society for General Microbiology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Bacterial genetic pathway involved in body odor production discovered

For many, body odour is an unfortunate side effect of their daily lives. The smell is caused by bacteria on the skin breaking down naturally secreted molecules contained within sweat. Now, researchers from the University of York working with Unilever have studied the underarm microbiome and identified a unique set of enzymes in the bacterium Staphylococcus hominis that is effective at breaking down sweat molecules into compounds known as thioalcohols, an important component of the characteristic body odour smell.

In the work, presented today at the Society for General Microbiology's Annual Conference in Birmingham, the group assessed the ability of over 150 bacterial isolates from underarm skin samples to produce malodorants. They then identified the genes encoding the proteins responsible for producing the thioalchohols, which are pungent in tiny amounts -- as little as 1 part per trillion. One particular gene found in S. hominis was also found in two other species of Staphylococcus, which were also shown to be strong thioalcohol producers.

To confirm that these genes were necessary and sufficient for malodour production, the team moved them into the lab bacterium Escherichia coli, which was then able to produce the body odour smell when grown in the presence of human sweat molecules.

Dr Dan Bawdon from the University of York, who led the research, said: "This work has significantly advanced our understanding of the specific biochemical processes involved in body odour production. It was surprising that this particular body odour pathway is governed by only a small number of the many bacterial species residing in the underarm. We have opened up the possibility of inhibiting body odour formation using compounds designed to target the specific proteins controlling the release of malodorants."

While these thioalcohols were long known to be involved in body odour, little was known about the way they were produced by bacteria in the underarm. Traditional deodorants and antiperspirants act by non-selectively killing underarm bacteria or by blocking our sweat glands, respectively. The researchers hope that this new research can be used to produce compounds that specifically target thioalcohol production, leaving the underarm microbiota intact.

Dr Gavin Thomas, the group leader in the Department of Biology at the University of York, said: "This was a really successful project funded through the BBSRC iCASE PhD scheme with microbiologist Dr Gordon James in Unilever, where Dan's data are already having direct impact on the research being done in the company. The detailed molecular understanding of a process that is happening in our armpits every day and is completely dependent on bacteria is really exciting."

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The above story is based on materials provided by Society for General Microbiology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Plug and Play with DNA Constructs

DNA constructs can be used to optimize antibodies, like those shown here that recognize the flu virus. (Image: Flickr/Day Donaldson) DNA constructs can be used to optimize antibodies, like those shown here that recognize the flu virus. (Image: Flickr/Day Donaldson)

DNA production is becoming cheaper than ever, propelled down a Moore’s law curve by maturing technologies and cheaper reagents. This new biosynthetic industry allows researchers to order up a customized sequence for overnight delivery.

But many users don’t just want a chain of nucleotides, they want ready-to-use sequences that can be inserted into a cell to make a product of interest. Such DNA products, known as constructs, include two components – a vector that will be read by host machinery and initiate transcription, and an inserted gene that will generate the non-native biomolecule. Constructs can be thousands of bases in length, but once they’re uploaded to the cell, production should be good to go.

This niche is where Genscript is staking its claim. “We’re the world’s largest provider for construct based gene synthesis,” says Jeffrey Hung, a Genscript Vice President, “and a lot of our growth is coming from higher demand for biologics,” or medicinal biomolecules generated through a microbial host (as opposed to an exclusively chemical synthetic process). Most frequently, the company takes orders for non-native products to be expressed in a different organism, turning the unwitting target cell into a biofactory for recombinant proteins or antibodies. In many cases, biologics – the result of intentional expression of known biomolecules – are safer than uncharacterized but empirically promising small molecules taken from a cellular milieu. And using the cell as a production platform is an appealing prospect: organisms can tune behavior and metabolism to changing conditions, so small fluctuations in temperature or reactant concentration won’t doom a costly industrial process.

For example, in an effort to identify antibodies best suited to recognize potentially threatening pathogens, a range of recombinant antibodies can be produced in a host cell. Tracking how well the displayed pathogenic molecule is bound by different antibodies can identify promising new treatment options. “And once that lead is found,” explains Hung, “we can improve upon it by making the affinity better and better,” through iterative design modifications. This sort of approach is becoming increasingly prevalent in immunological fields, including immuno-oncology and autoimmune disease research.

Genscript has also generated a platform for yeast genetics that can quickly narrow the search for case-specific essential genetic components. It’s called SC 2.0, and it starts by creating mutations in each of the organism’s 6,000 genes. The resulting mutants are grown in isolated wells and monitored for growth. If nothing happens, then you’ve mutated an essential gene; if the media turns cloudy with cells, then you’ve identified a non-essential component. “We can ask the simple question,” says Hung, “of which genes are specifically more important for responding to certain environments given certain environmental stimuli.” This way, experimenters can separate housekeeping genes from those needed for higher temperature growth, or increased biofuel production. Understanding which aspects of the wild type yeast lifestyle are superfluous under industrial settings highlights opportunities to trim the fat and ensure that the biologically mediated process you’re after is as efficient as possible.

“We’ve found that about 25% of the yeast genome is essential,” says Hung, “and that 75% is where a lot of future discoveries remain to be found.”

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis and was previously published at SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry.

This Impossibly Light Electric Bike Is Gonna Set You Back

ProdecoTech Titanio 29er The brushed-titanium ProdecoTech Titanio 29er weighs less than 33 lbs. and has a battery disguised as a water bottle. ProdecoTech

Titanium bikes are really expensive, and many of them actually expect you to do all the pedaling yourself. The ProdecoTech Titanio 29er won’t save you any money, but this pedal-assist electric bike will save you some energy.

Most electric bikes are made explicitly for rolling on pavement, but this is a real trail-ready 29er, complete with a brushed-titanium frame, a traditional mountain bike drivetrain, and disc brakes.

Looking at the photo, you may be thinking, “OK, it’s an electric bike, so where the hell is the battery pack?” Well, you see that water bottle? That’s actually the a 33V/9.3Ah battery, which is rated for up to 30 miles per charge and kicks the bike up to a top speed of 18mph. The motor is a front-wheel 250W rig that offers five levels of motorized assist giddy-up. Max output is 420 watts—more than enough to get you up and over your local muur.

The rest of the specs: Mavic TN 319 29er rims are dressed with Continental Race King 29×2 tires, there’s a 10-speed SRAM XO drivetrain on the back, a RockShox SID AIR PushLoc fork on the front, and Avid Elixir XO disc brakes. A Gyes leather saddle is also standard.

At just under 33 pounds, it’s a little heavy for a bike with 29-inch rims, which are usually in the mid-20-pound range. But in the realm of electric bikes, it’s impossibly light—even fold-up electric bikes meant for easy carrying usually weigh 7 to 15 pounds more than this one. You can ride this thing around without anyone knowing that it’s an expensive titanium electric bike. They’ll just think it’s an expensive normal titanium bike.

It’s pricey: $5,000. But there are other options in the ProdecoTech lineup that will give you even more power for about half the price.

ProdecoTech Outlaw SS The cheaper Outlaw SS ramps up to 28mph. ProdecoTech

The speed demon of the lineup is the Outlaw SS, which sports 26-inch rims and gets up to 28mph from its 750W back-wheel motor. The battery is beefier too: A 51.2V/12Ah pack that sits above the back tire, providing about 35 miles per charge. Another fun spin is that this one isn’t a pedal-assist model. You give it juice with a thumb-operated throttle, making it more like a motorcycle than a pedal-assist push-bike.

If you can wait, ProdecoTech also has an off-roading beast in the works. The upcoming pedal-assist Rebel X has a top speed of 18mph just like the titanium model, but it gets there on top of a pair of super-fat 36H oversized tires. While it’ll be cheaper than the titanium model at $3,000, it’s also about twice the weight.

Cleaner Living Through Smarter Microbiology

Coal may prove less essential for industrial production if the biotech industry has its way (Image: Flickr/Alexander G). Coal may prove less essential for industrial production if the biotech industry has its way (Image: Flickr/Alexander G).

Petroleum-derived products undergo a complicated, energy intensive journey from the oil deposits deep underground to our homes, cars, and clothing. “Our lifestyle is very difficult on the environment,” explains Emily Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience. “It’s expensive and it’s harmful; there needs to be another way.”

Fortunately, it seems that there may in fact be an alternative, derived from the strategic manipulation of microbial metabolic pathways. Many organisms process sugars into various carbon-bearing compounds, and enzymatic reactions can be re-ordered to produce different compounds of interest – nylon, for example, rather than ethanol, from engineered autotrophic fermenters. “That way,” explains Leproust, “the carbon in the carpet you buy comes from the atmosphere, and air is free.”

At least, that’s the hope. Bioengineers predict that just half a percent of a yeast organism’s genome, or less, would need to be altered to rework carbon intermediates into useful chemicals. The two most promising approaches involve directed evolution, in which the adaptive playing field is tilted in favor of a desired outcome, and design, a computational approach in which biologists use enzyme mechanistic details to predict optimized modes of reactions. Both are difficult strategies that require a lot of fundamental research, but if this rosy view of the bio-industrial future is realized, a drastic lifestyle change may be obviated by technological progress. “We will still use all of the chemicals we use today,” predicts Leproust, “but they will be made by fermentation of sugar or cellulose in yeast.”

Such advances will be facilitated in large part by DNA synthesis technology: mixing and matching genetic elements requires custom-made sequences, which Twist provides in partnership with its clients. “Customers want to try one or ten or 100 genes,” says Leproust, “to fully test the options and see what’s best.” This approach effectively short-circuits evolution, drastically broadening the search space of biological capability.

Leproust also sees agriculture as an important sector in a future beset by unpredictable climate and food security challenges. She calculates that the planet will need 60% more food in the coming three decades to feed the human population, an equation that runs up against land scarcity and enormous energetic requirements for fertilizer production. Potential solutions include enhanced plants that can handle drought or variable water conditions, as well as bacterial symbionts engineered to fix nitrogen and live among the roots of wheat, rice, or corn plants. “It’s a huge evolution in thinking,” Leproust notes; “ten years ago, bacteria were thought to be the enemy.”

For Twist, the key to making customized DNA sequences to achieve these important bioengineering aims was scalability. 96-well plates, in which distinct chains are produced in half-mililiter compartments, was state-of-the-art technology in the mid-1990s, and the practice continued largely because mechanized instruments were built to accommodate such plates. With 96 different oligonucleotide chains, each plate could produce approximately one gene.

“We thought, ‘let’s shrink it, optimize the chemistry,’” recalls Leproust, “and to do that, we developed silicon-based technology.” The resulting DNA-synthesis platform reduced the volume from dozens of microliters to hundreds of nanoliters, minimizing the amount of required reagents and thereby lowering the overall cost. Silicon is also a better conductor of heat than the previous plastic-based approach, which allowed the chain-elongating reactions to happen faster. What’s more, the approach is “agnostic to chemistry,” as Leproust puts it, meaning Twist can just as easily product RNA, or exotic nucleotide chains with synthetic bases.

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis and was previously published at SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry.

The Week in Trailers: Tom Cruise Boards a Plane—In Midair

Any week with a new Mission Impossible trailer is a good one, and that’s exactly what we’ve got in this edition of the pre-movie roundup. It’s a beautiful era in action cinema when this looks like a more gritty, realistic version of the stunts and effects brought to us by Furious 7. We’ve also got a pair of Sundance 2015’s hottest commodities, an unexpected zombie tragedy, a boxer cutting a path to salvation using nothing but his fists and the love in his heart, and a quirky little British mystery series. Sure looks like they could use the unparalleled skills of Ethan Hunt to root out the psychological terrorist hiding amongst the Casual Vacancy community of Pagford, though the fact that no buildings seem to exceed three stories could be a problem. If Ethan’s not almost killing himself, is he even truly living?

The One Everyone Is Talking About: Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation (Above)

First we thought we were going to have to wait all the way until Christmas to open up our Mission Impossible presents, but, God bless America, the release date has been bumped all the way up to July! Tom Cruise has been wearing his Ethan Hunt shoes for 19 years now, and considering Cruise has unlocked the secrets of agelessness, we would happily watch him for 19 more. Ethan Hunt is Cruise’s Iron Man. The IMF is his S.H.I.E.L.D. One day he will surely have to turn over the keys to the most Impossible of franchises, but for now, it all belongs to him, and with the ability to add and subtract supporting characters (hello again, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, and welcome aboard, Alec Baldwin) it keeps the relationships familiar but fresh at the same time. No matter how you feel about him, Tom Cruise is a rare, bona fide movie star, and we are thrilled he’s chosen to accept this mission once again.

Pause at: 0:20, 0:43, 1:31, 1:54, 2:00, 2:08, and 2:20 for the impossible!

Song: The Fugees, “Ready or Not” (sorry, this awesome remix is unavailable) and Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., Mission: Impossible Theme”

Essential Quote: “The IMF is uniquely trained and highly motivated, specialists without equal immune to any countermeasures. But it is an agency of chaos. The time has come to dissolve the IMF.”—Not likely, government official Alec Baldwin!

The One You Wish Everyone Would Talk About: Dope

Dope isn’t exactly a summer tentpole kind of picture, but it will definitely be the feel-good event of the hot and sticky months. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa and produced by a team including Forest Whitaker, Sean Combs, and Pharrell Williams (who was also in charge of the outstanding soundtrack), Dope landed the biggest overall deal at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, running up a $7 million asking price with millions of dollars in extras thrown in. The movie’s lead, Shameik Moore, will surely be a breakout star, and Kiersey Clemons was one of our Sundance heroes. Honestly, it’s just an all-around outstanding experience, and a delightful break from the traditionally emo approach to coming-of-age yarns. If you want to have fun at the movies this summer by watching a trio of dorky, hip-hop obsessed teens survive high school, then go support Dope. You’ll be glad you did.

Pause at: 0:52 for an excellent realization of our hero.

Song: Naughty By Nature, “O.P.P.” Digital Underground, “Humpty Dance”

Essential Quote: “Dope, right?”—Malcolm (Moore)

The Zombie One: Maggie

This movie looks like it’s going to pull off a neat trick. It’s a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that doesn’t look like what you’d expect from either of those genres (which, let’s be honest, Arnold Schwarzenegger is basically a genre at this point). An undead epidemic is threatening humanity—isn’t there always?—and Schwarzenegger plays a small-town farmer and family man determined to protect and care for his daughter, Maggie (played by Abigail Breslin), despite the fact that she’s been stricken with the world-ending virus. In other words, Maggie is turning into zombie, but Schwarzenegger’s character, Wade, made a vow to his dearly departed wife that he would protect their family, no matter what the cost. It looks a lot more quiet and intimate than most movies featuring the Governator, and we’re happy to see a zombie-fatigue work-around that gives us both our undead fix and deeply developed emotional relationships. The script for Maggie was also part of the 2011 Black List, so that’s one more reason to move past cautiously optimistic into legitimately excited territory.

Pause at: 0:54, 1:01, 1:29, 1:59 and 2:03 for signs of infection.

Essential Quote: “I need you to follow the rules here. Quarantine is eight weeks in. She’s probably going to show signs of aggression and hunger. When that happens say your goodbyes and get her straight to quarantine.”—doctor

The Sundance Darling: Slow West

Slow West was a surprise delight at Sundance this year. Neither of our reporters on the ground got a chance to see it (apologies for the lack of first-hand insight), but the praise seemed nearly universal. Really, though, when you’ve got Michael Fassbender and about-to-get-huge Ben Mendelsohn on board, what’s not to love? Kodi Smit-McPhee plays a young man from Scotland journeying through the savage American West in search of his true love, Rose (played by Caren Pisorious). He’s rescued from peril by Silas (Fassbender), who subsequently becomes his guide and protector. It looks wonderfully witty and wry for an Old West drama, and the good people at Slashfilm declared, “This film is to the western as Hanna was to the espionage thriller.” If that is even close to true this movie is going to be amazing.

Pause at: 1:05 for The Hound! Ben Mendelsohn is looking pretty much perfect at 1:14. Roguish cowboy looks very good on Michael Fassbender at 1:37.

Song: Hanni El Khatib, “Come Alive”

Essential Quote: “Deep in the West, kick over any rock and desperado will crawl out and knife you right in the heart.”

The Entourage One: Entourage

Cameos cameos Ari cars boats Drama cameos Turtle cameos ANNNNNND SCENE!

Pause at: Any moment for Entourage nostalgia and/or a celebrity playing themselves.

Song: James Brown, “Get Up Offa That Thing” and Yogi feat. Pusha T, “Burial”

Essential Quote: “Whatever I do next, I also want to direct.”—Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), still the arrogant asshole he always was.

The Redemption Tale: Southpaw

Jake Gyllenhaal’s veer into full-tilt crazy continues with Southpaw. This boxing melodrama is directed by Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Shooter) so it’s that kind of drama. Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a championship boxer whose temper contributes heavily to his entire life falling apart, including losing his wife to an errant gunshot and his little girl to Family Services. Much like The Fighter, The Wrestler, and Warrior, it follows a gritty man in a gritty profession on a journey of redemption. Also, like those movies, it looks pretty good, but come on! We hardly ever get to see Rachel McAdams and now you’re just going to kill her off?! With luck, we’ll get to see her in a lot of flashbacks/grief-induced hallucinations.

Pause at: 0:15, 1:04, 1:40, 1:59, and 2:00 for Maximum Gyllenhaal.

Song: Untitled new song from Eminem

Essential Quote: “It’ll be a year before your suspension is up, which means no income.”—Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as the sage pragmatic lawyer (maybe?)

The Small Screen Standout: The Casual Vacancy

Now this looks exciting! The first post-Potter novel from J.K. Rowling is coming to HBO as a three-part miniseries. The story centers on the charming English village of Pagford, which, like all small towns, harbors a lot more internal strife than its idyllic façade would suggest. But when councilman Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies, the doors fly open on this twisted little town, and suddenly a whole lot of grievances are bursting from the darkness into the daylight for all to see. And amidst it all, who will fill the casual vacancy left on the council after Barry’s death? Intrigue! Witty British banter! Michael Gambon! Oh, and if you’re a fan of the book, you should know that the miniseries supposedly changes the ending, which could go either way in terms of making you happy or furious. But doesn’t it look like a good time?

Pause at: 0:17. Dumbledore forever. The ghost of Barry Fairbrother is watching you at 0:40.

Essential Quote: “Shit. That really spiraled.”—Kay Bawden (Michele Austin)

Setting a dinner table for wildlife can affect their risk of disease

Supplemental feeding of wildlife can increase the spread of some infectious diseases and decrease the spread of others. A new study by University of Georgia ecologists finds that the outcome depends on the type of pathogen and the source of food.

The findings, published in the journal Ecology Letters, have implications for human health and wildlife conservation, and contain practical suggestions for wildlife disease management and a roadmap for future study.

Supplemental feeding--when people provide food to wildlife--is growing more common. As people move into previously undeveloped areas and habitat is lost to development or agriculture, wildlife ecology changes. Natural sources of food often decrease, and new abundant sources, provided by people, appear. Sometimes these are intentional, like backyard bird feeders or winter feeding stations for an elk herd in a national park; sometimes they're accidental, like landfills or poorly secured garbage cans. The resulting changes in behavior and nutrition can affect how diseases impact wildlife.

"We knew of studies of supplemental feeding showing both increases and decreases in parasitism and disease, but no one had synthesized them," said Daniel Becker, a doctoral student in the Odum School of Ecology and the study's lead author. "We wanted to know if there was an overall net tendency, and we wanted to know what could explain the different responses."

The researchers pulled together over 20 published studies of supplemental wildlife feeding and infectious disease to understand trends in infection patterns and to create predictive models of pathogen transmission.

"We found that there are several different mechanisms at work," Becker said.

With pathogens like bacteria or viruses that are spread by close contact, food sources that attract large numbers of animals can encourage transmission, including transmission from one species to another--even to humans. This is suggested with the spread of Nipah virus in Malaysia, where infected fruit bats are attracted to fruit trees planted by farmers, bringing them into contact with livestock and people.

Even when the food provided is very nutritious--and therefore potentially able to improve an animal's immune function--in most cases that is not enough to overcome the exposure risk of being in the midst of a large group with frequent aggressive contacts over resources. In many cases, the food is not nutritious enough to help and can even impair animals' immune defenses.

An example of this is when tourists in the Bahamas feed rock iguanas grapes, which are not part of their natural diet. Their overall condition is impaired and levels of infection by hookworms are higher.

For diseases caused by parasites such as tapeworms and flukes that require multiple hosts to complete their life cycles, however, the results suggest a different process. Animals that glean food from a landfill or garbage can are less likely to be exposed to such parasites, reducing their levels of disease. When foxes, for instance, find their food at a landfill instead of hunting for small rodents, which are commonly infected with worms, they are less likely to become infected themselves.

Knowing what happens in different contexts could help wildlife enthusiasts and managers minimize the risk of disease if they choose to supplement wildlife diets.

"For intentional feeding sources like bird feeders, we expect parasites like bacteria and viruses to increase, so spacing these resources apart can help reduce the high contact rates driving transmission," Becker said. "And cleaning feeders periodically can help limit the buildup of infectious stages in the environment that occurs when lots of animals become more sedentary."

Improving the nutritional content of the food being provided is another strategy that could help boost wildlife immune function and allow them to better resist infection, and supplemental food sources could also be used to distribute vaccines or treatment, Becker said.

The authors also provided a roadmap for future research, including collaborating with existing citizen science networks to gather data.

"We need field experiments, we need long-term observational studies, and we need to develop models focusing on environmentally transmitted parasites like worms; those are areas where we're lacking information," Becker said. "This is an issue that's not going away, so we need to understand it."

"For a lot of people, feeding animals provides a crucial connection to nature, increases their appreciation of wildlife and presents opportunities for outreach and education," said study co-author Sonia Altizer, the UGA Athletic Association Professor of Ecology and Odum School associate dean. "We don't want to suggest that all feeding of wildlife should be avoided, but we do need to find ways to minimize the risks for human and wildlife health."

Compound from soil microbe inhibits biofilm formation

Researchers have shown that a known antibiotic and antifungal compound produced by a soil microbe can inhibit another species of microbe from forming biofilms--microbial mats that frequently are medically harmful--without killing that microbe. The findings may apply to other microbial species, and can herald a plethora of scientific and societal benefits. The research is published online ahead of print on March 30, 2015, in the Journal of Bacteriology, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology. The study will be printed in a special section of the journal that will comprise of papers from the 5th ASM Conference on Cell-Cell Communication in Bacteria.

Many microbes produce antibiotics and antifungals, presumably to compete with other microbes. "Our working hypothesis was that some of the compounds that bacteria secrete might act more subtly, as signals to alter the behavior of their neighboring microbes rather than to kill them," said corresponding author Elizabeth A. Shank, PhD, assistant professor of biology, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. They found that at low concentrations, the compound, DAPG (the acronym stands for 2,4-diacetylphloroglucinol), produced by the bacterium Pseudomonas protegens, did not kill the experimental target bacterium, Bacillus subtilis, but merely prevented it from forming biofilms. DAPG also blocked spore formation.

For the study, first author Matthew Powers, an undergraduate student in Shank's lab, used a strain of B. subtilis--a species commonly used in lab experiments--that fluoresces when genes for biofilm formation are being shut off. He grew this "reporter" strain on agar plates, adding a dilute solution of mixed bacterial cells, each of which sprouted a colony on the plate. When one of the B. subtilis colonies fluoresced, he picked a close-lying, non-fluorescing colony off of that plate, regrew it, and then sequenced those cells, determining that the species was P. protegens.

A biofilm is any group of microbes that stick together on a surface. Biofilms are notoriously resistant to antibiotics. They form the plaques that cause tooth decay and gum disease, and can frequently cause complications when they grow on medical implants, such as catheters, and indwelling devices such as joint prostheses. They are frequently implicated in urinary tract infections and middle ear infections, as well as in the rare but oft-permanently damaging heart condition, endocarditis. More than 65 percent of hospital-acquired infections manifest as biofilms.

Biofilms also interfere with industrial processes, for example, by clogging, or corroding pipes, and by instigating corrosion on ships' hulls.

The research may lead to a variety of potential benefits. Both of the bacteria from this study are associated with plant roots, and understanding their interactions using DAPG and other secreted compounds could be important for creating healthy microbial soil communities for plants to grow in, possibly boosting agricultural yields, said Shank. DAPG, or the DAPG-producing P. Protogens as a protobiotic, could be used to inhibit formation of harmful biofilms. Additionally, the experimental approach could be used to discover other, potentially medically important biofilm-inhibiting bacterial, said Shank.

While the more powerful signals produced by many bacteria are well-known, the territory of subtle signals remains poorly mapped, but the results of these early efforts suggest that the importance of such signals may be out of proportion to their relatively subtle modus operandi.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Society for Microbiology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Screw Justin Bieber. Watch These Roasts Instead

Tonight Comedy Central airs the Roast of Justin Bieber, and we’re just going to say it: this is the worst television decision since The Swan got greenlit. Look, we get why Comedy Central did it. Bieber’s a big star in “key demo” metrics like Twitter followers, Lamborghinis, and having absolutely zero ability to cope with having fame or money. Getting him to agree to be roasted is a huge coup for the network—or would be, if that’s what actually happened. Instead, Bieber’s management realized that being rightfully despised for one’s actions isn’t the best PR strategy, and trotted him out on a bullshit goodwill tour to make him seem like a human being.

So don’t watch this travesty. Don’t give CC the ratings. Don’t talk about it online while it’s airing. Do watch the videos after the fact, though, because it’s a stellar lineup of comics—especially Hannibal Buress, who cemented his status as Realest Motherfucker Alive when he incinerated Bieber thusly:

“They say that you roast the ones you love, but I don’t like you at all, man. I’m just here because it’s a real good opportunity for me. Actually, you should thank me for participating in this extremely transparent attempt to be more likable in the public eye. And I hope it doesn’t work.”

Boom. Roasted.

Don’t worry, though. Just because you’re boycotting this abomination of a comedy special doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the many high points of the modern roast era (which began in 1998, when Comedy Central began airing Friars Club roasts—later moving into producing its own affairs). To that end, we thought we’d pull together the best of the best. And if you need something to watch tonight, may we suggest Man of La Mancha on TCM.

Sarah Silverman Roasts Pamela Anderson (2005)

Remember those bygone days when Sarah Silverman and Jimmy Kimmel were dating? Take a time machine back to those salad (tossing) days with this Silverman roast of Pam Anderson, who really is only the butt of about one-third of Silverman’s jokes. The rest are about Kimmel’s balls and Courtney Love, who was in attendance and desperately trying to steal the show at every turn. (Side note: We love Love as Elle Dallas on Empire, but some days we still long for Love as “wrecking-est train” on literally anything. Talk about the bygone days.)

Bea Arthur Roasts Pamela Anderson (2005)

This one you just kind of have to watch. It’s Bea Arthur reading from Pamela Anderson’s book. It’s basically like your grandmother narrating Fifty Shades of Grey, but less traumatic.

George Takei Roasts William Shatner (2006)

There’s never really been any love lost between Bill Shatner and George Takei, so when good ol’ Sulu ends his monologue here with a “fuck you and the horse you rode in on” to his Captain Kirk it doesn’t really feel like a roast. It just feels like, well, the truth maybe? Shatner, to his credit, just takes it all. But then again, he also just looks so genuinely befuddled by the whole thing you half expect him to ask how they got “fuck” into a Priceline commercial scriptBeyond roasting his old Star Trek non-crony, Takei also gets in some great zingers, and considering how often roasts slide by on gay jokes, it’s nice to see a few of them delivered by an actual living, breathing homosexual.

Greg Girardo Roasts Flavor Flav (2007)

The late Girardo never won any points for his sensitivity, but he was in rare form on this particular night. After four minutes of taking out Katt Williams (“You’re like Afro Sheen—some white people have heard of you, but no one knows know what you do. What a teeny little pimp!”), Ice-T (“You’re so old, on your first album the N-word was ‘Negro'”), and everyone else on the stage, he turned to poor Flav. What followed was the best round of the dozens a white dude has ever pulled off: “I’ve never roasted an oily cadaver before. You’re like a skeleton wrapped in electrical tape. You look like Idi Amin after a three-year crack binge on the sun.” We’re still recovering from it.

Norm MacDonald Roasts Bob Saget (2008)

If you love Norm (hell, even if you hate him, though if that’s the case you shouldn’t be reading about comedy) you know that he’s a master of the deadpan troll. On this night, that meant six minutes of reading groaners that his father had written. Seriously. It’s anti-comedy at its finest. Bravo, Norm. Bravo.

Amy Schumer Roasts Charlie Sheen (2011)

This is classic Schumer: Acting nice and then hitting with a joke so virulent you immediately feel bad for laughing at it. Like many of these segments, the best jokes aren’t really directed at the roastee, so Charlie Sheen actually gets off pretty easy (don’t even say it…). Mike Tyson, however, gets the one line that to this day most people still can’t believe Schumer said with him in the room: “Hey Mike, here’s something you’ll never hear: Great tattoo! You have a slutty lower back tattoo on your face. Men don’t know whether to be scared of it, or finish on it.”

Andy Samberg Roasts…No One (2013)

In the world of improv and sketch comics, true meanness is in short supply, and Samberg played up the divide by going full reverse roast. No need to explain any more, just enjoy the display.

Feds Demand Reddit Identify Dark Web Drug Forum Users

Over the last year, Reddit’s “dark net markets” discussion forum has grown into one of the central fixtures of the online drug scene. At any given moment, hundreds of redditors are browsing, many brazenly discussing anonymous online sales on the open internet.

Now the feds have noticed. And they’re telling Reddit to cough up a few of those users’ real-world identities.

Earlier this month, a Baltimore Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent sent a subpoena to Reddit demanding that the site turn over a collection of personal data about five users of the r/darknetmarkets forum. The subpoena appears to be the first hint of a federal investigation of the recently defunct massive online market known as Evolution, which sold drugs, weapons, and stolen financial details. All five targets of the subpoena were involved, to varying degrees, in the Reddit discussion of that black market’s abrupt disappearance two weeks ago, in which two top administrators apparently absconded with millions of dollars worth of bitcoin belonging to Evolution’s buyers and sellers.

According to a copy of the subpoena shared with WIRED by one of the forum’s moderators who was named in the document, the DHS seeks information that includes the names, IP addresses, dates and times of site visits as well as other data that Reddit likely doesn’t possess, including the users’ phone numbers and financial data. (Reddit doesn’t even require an email address to sign up.)

The subpoena’s five targets are NSWGreat, a user who had claimed to be an Evolution staffer; three other users named z-l, Deepthroat and Evosmith who boasted on Reddit that they were tracking Evolution’s administrators or identifying details about them; and Gwern Branwen, a well-known security researcher, writer and moderator of the darknetmarkets forum. It’s Branwen who has now publicly revealed the subpoena’s existence to WIRED. He says the DHS’s interest in him may be in part because Z-l had recently publicly promised to send proof of findings about Evolution’s administrators to him, though Branwen says he never received any such information.

Reddit's r/darknetmarkets community has central become to the dark web's drug economy in recent months.

Branwen says he sees z-l, Deepthroat, Evosmith and himself as likely red herrings for law enforcement, but that NSWGreat might be an actually important target of the government’s investigation into Evolution. The apparently Australian NSWGreat went so far as to host an “ask me anything” session on Reddit as an internet drug trafficker and public relations staffer for Evolution’s black market. “Given the date and the affected accounts, it doesn’t take Holmes to deduce the reason for this subpoena,” writes Gwern in a statement he sent to WIRED. “Just one naked connection revealing [NSWGreat’s] home IP would be enough, and if he’s like past market employees, a raid will turn up all the damning evidence one could hope for.”

Branwen adds that he himself has never sold illegal products on a dark web market or worked for any such site. He’s nonetheless troubled by DHS’s probe into his personal data. “How can I continue as a [Reddit] moderator,” he writes, “knowing that all my non-[encrypted] communications have been laid bare, there may be followup subpoenas for my Gmail account, and I may be under further investigation myself?”

When WIRED reached out to Reddit, a spokesperson pointed to the site’s privacy policy, which states that Reddit does collect IP addresses and other potentially identifying data from users, which it deletes after 90 days. The policy adds that it may disclose that data to law enforcement—or hold it longer than 90 days—if legally required to do so. Reddit’s spokesperson wouldn’t comment on whether or when the company might comply with the DHS subpoena.

The DHS didn’t respond to WIRED’s request for comment, but it’s no surprise that Evolution has become the target of a federal investigation. The site, which was online for just over a year, was by some measures the largest-ever drug market on the dark web, with 34,000 total drug listings at its peak. A week before the site’s disappearance, German police arrested the leaders of one drug ring that operated on the site and seized 700 pounds of narcotics from that single bust alone. The two pseudonymous administrators of Evolution, Verto and Kimble, are believed to have taken as much as $12 million from the site’s users at the time of its shutdown, after a year of collecting commissions on every sale.

Evolution’s shutdown helped to highlight just how central Reddit’s r/darknetmarkets community has become to the dark web’s drug economy in recent months. After the Evolution incident—along with market disruptions like the takedown of several top sites by law enforcement last November—buyers and sellers have congregated on r/darknetmarkets to regroup and reconnect. The forum has nearly 50,000 subscribers. That’s less than other reddit drug forums like r/drugs and the marijuana-focused r/trees, but those larger groups don’t so explicitly discuss drug sales. Though r/darknetmarket’s rules ban any direct dealing on Reddit, the site maintains a directory of links to the most popular dark web drug markets and comprehensive tutorials on using them. Buyers frequently post reviews of dealers’ products, and weekly threads like What to Buy Wednesday and Sell Your Shit Sunday let vendors advertise their wares.

The DHS’s subpoena will no doubt serve as a jarring reminder to Reddit’s dark web drug forum that those discussions are nakedly public and potentially vulnerable to law enforcement. Though the drug sales themselves are generally hosted on sites that require users to run the anonymity software Tor to hide their identities, Reddit offers no such protection. Branwen says he expects his revelation of the subpoena to drive many of r/darknetmarket’s conversations to Tor-protected forums like the drug-market discussion site called the Hub. “Riskier discussions will move onto the Hub, and as long as the Reddit admins don’t get spooked and shut it down similar to /r/jailbait, [r/darknetmarkets] will remain a useful discussion place,” he says.

Branwen’s reference to r/jailbait, a forum banned in 2011 where users posted scantily clad pictures of underage girls, highlights that Reddit has, in fact, been cleaning up some of its more controversial underground communities. More recently Reddit shut down other groups like r/creepshots and r/thefappening, which hosted links to stolen or surreptitiously taken nudes or revealing images or women.

Drug-dealing discussions, for now, remain fair game for Redditors. But it’s apparent they’re fair game for law enforcement investigators, too.

The Brave New World of DNA Synthesis

The DNA double helix. (Image: Flickr/Victor Svensson) The DNA double helix. (Image: Flickr/Victor Svensson)

Over the last several decades, DNA – the genetic material of life as we know it – has completed a remarkable scientific cycle. In 1953, it was a mysterious blur on an X-ray diffractogram. By the 1970s, it was possible to determine the sequence of short nucleotide chains. And now, a scientist can produce her own genetic code of choice with the click of a mouse.

What happens after the mouse click, after an order for a chain of DNA is sent, is an impressive series of events that represents one of the most mature, yet dynamic, sectors of the biotech industry. DNA synthesis companies range from scrappy start-ups to Cambridge-area behemoths, each touting a distinct set of tools that carves out a slice of the ever increasing pie.

For many groups, the human genome project – the $3 billion effort funded by the U.S. government – was an important launching point that both advanced DNA sequencing and synthesis technology and prompted important questions worthy of further scientific investigation. “We are a direct beneficiary of all the sequencing information that came out of the Project,” says Kevin Munnelly, CEO of Gen9, “and it’s all going to impact synthetic biology and our ability to write DNA.” Jerry Steele, the Director of Marketing for IDT, recalls that “the thing that really helped us take off was synthesizing the oligos for the human genome project. 10 or 15 years ago, it cost a few dollars per base to make oligos,” he recalls, “and now we’re down to a few cents.”

Several different industries are reaping the benefits, from agriculture to clean-tech to pharmaceuticals. Emily Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience, thinks the biochemical arms race between pathogens and pharmaceutical companies is worse than most people realize. With increasing antibiotic resistance and a diminished rate of new antibiotic discovery, “we’re going back to an era of pre-penicillin,” Leproust maintains, “and it will be a shock to people.” With affordable methods to produce alternative genes, regulatory structures, or even entire metabolic pathways now available, the range of possible products has grown exponentially. “Now we can make new candidates and new antibiotics that will enable us to start fighting back.”

But just because scientists can make DNA doesn’t mean they always know precisely what those chains of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs are up to. That quest to understand the nature of life’s instructions is driving much of the DNA being produced for scientific research. After all, with a 3.5 billion year head-start, life has optimized its activities in ways that we’re still just beginning to appreciate, and changes to these finely tuned processes are much more likely to have a deleterious effect than a beneficial one.

Biotech has promised great things for years, since DNA sequencing went mainstream. And while many believe those promises have gone largely unfulfilled, a renewed sense of potential is growing based on DNA synthesis technologies. It’s a shift from a purely observational mode of interaction with the code of life (DNA sequencing) to active tinkering and experimentation (DNA synthesis). “For decades, we’ve just been getting a sense of the potential that sequencing can give us,” says Munnelly. “But the ability to write good, high-quality DNA constructs represents the future of medicine and the future of science.”

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis and was previously published at SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry.

Facebook Moves Into Its New Garden-Roofed Fantasyland

Lori Goler compares it to The High Line in New York City.

The roof of the new Facebook building, about 70-feet up, offers a winding walk through nine acres of greenery. This walkway sits over the marshlands of Menlo Park, California, not the big city. But, Goler says, it feels a lot like the elevated railroad line that now serves as a park on the West Side of Manhattan. “It’s a half mile loop,” she says. “It gives space to think.”

Goler, Facebook’s head of human resources and recruiting, is among the few who’ve walked the loop. The company’s new building, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, was only recently completed. But many others will walk it today. Over the weekend, Facebook officially moved into the building, known as MPK 20, shifting many employees from its existing campus on the other side of California’s Highway 84.

Spanning over 430,000 square feet in total, the new complex is just one of many rather conspicuous buildings that will house the giants of Silicon Valley in the years to come. Apple is planning a campus in Cupertino that resembles a giant alien spacecraft. Google is using miles of glass to create a “super-transparent” headquarters in Mountain View that can be regularly reshaped by cranes and robots (yes, robots). And Samsung is close to completing its own glass palace just down the road in San Jose. But the Facebook building is something different. It’s very, well, Facebook-y (see images above).

For one, it’s more subdued. Yes, the building is large enough to hold about 2,800 Facebook employees, including engineers as well as business staff. And, yes, it was designed by Frank Gehry, the man who fashioned the sail-like silver walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and floating battleship that is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. But Gehry held back for Facebook. “From the start, Mark wanted a space that was unassuming, matter-of-fact, and cost effective,” Gehry says in statement, referring to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “He did not want it overly designed.” Indeed, the building blends with the lowlands of Menlo Park, a bit like The High Line dovetails with the very urban landscape in Chelsea and the Manhattan Meatpacking District.

At the same time, the new complex evokes the rather unique spaces Facebook has inhabited in the past, from the tiny second floor office in downtown Palo Alto to the sweeping campus it will continue to use on the other side of the expressway. Facebook paints itself as a company of “builders,” engineers who use software to create new things, hackers who turn one piece of code into something else. And like previous Facebook offices, MPK 20 is meant to feed this attitude.

According to Goler and Tenanes, the interior is really just one giant space—a space designed to foster the free exchange of ideas. “It reinforces our open and transparent culture,” says John Tenanes, the company’s vp of global real estate,

using terms you so often hear from the Facebook braintrust. “It’s a place where people can collaborate.” Certainly, this is how many Silicon Valley companies view their spaces. The open floor plan has become a cliche. But Facebook helped set the cliche—and it takes the idea so much further than most. “You can pretty much see all the way down the building,” Tenanes says of the 430,000-square-foot interior.

What’s more, the building is adorned with the kind of sweeping murals and art installations that have helped define Facebook culture—and Silicon Valley culture—for so long. In exchange for some Facebook stock that eventually made him quite wealthy, graffiti artist David Choe spray-painted those Palo Alto walls during the company’s earliest years in California. As the company expanded, across Silicon Valley and into New York and Dublin, it called on Choe and other artists—so many other artists—to recreate the vibe in new surroundings. And now, the company is doing the same with its latest building. The work of about fifteen local artists, including sculpture-maker Evan Shivley, already adorns MPK 20, and more will follow. Artists building physical things, the thinking goes, feed the engineers who build software.

Though it stands on the other side of an expressway, the new building is meant as an extension of the company’s current headquarters. A tunnel runs between the two—under the highway—taking foot, bicycle, and tram traffic from one side to the other. And according to Goler, the new complex is meant to look and feel much like the old one.

The old campus is a renovation. It once housed Sun Microsystems, the tech giant that toppled in the wake of companies like Google and Amazon. But it feels so very new, thanks not only to the murals and the installations and the sculptures, but to the rather eclectic collection of posters, flags, furniture, and other gear that employees bring into each space. And this is what the company hopes to foster inside MPK 20 as well.

Tenanes says that although some employees have already moved in, the building isn’t really finished. It’s still rather “raw,” he says. At any other public company, that might seem odd. But at Facebook—a company that values “the hack” above all else—it’s the norm. “Our buildings are a kind of like an industrial canvas,” Tenanes says. “As teams move in, we encourage them to express themselves—whether that means art or furniture or posters. You start out unfinished, and then you add to it.”

Review: HTC One M9



As beautiful as the Ones before. Great screen, great battery life. HTC's onto something, letting you customize your phone so much. Uh Oh Protection will replace your phone, no questions asked.


The camera just still can't keep up. The One wants to be responsive and aware, but it's just not smart enough to be really useful yet.

How We Rate

1/10A complete failure in every way

2/10Barely functional; don’t buy it

3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution

4/10Downsides outweigh upsides

5/10Recommended with reservations

6/10A solid product with some issues

7/10Very good, but not quite great

8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch

9/10Nearly flawless, buy it now

10/10Metaphysical product perfection

Fashion is technology; technology is fashion. Over the last 12 months, that idea has gone from new and strange—“so, like, Chanel is going to make smartphones?”—to blindingly obvious. HTC, though, figured it out before almost anyone. All the way back in 2012—an eternity ago, in smartphone years—it was building beautiful phones while everyone else was still shipping boring black slabs. The One X, the One, and the One (M8) all stood as paragons of smartphone design.

HTC built a big lead in design chops a couple of years ago, but the rest of the market has caught up fast: Samsung, Motorola, and Apple all make beautiful, big, high-resolution phones now. Honestly, so do lower-end brands like Alcatel, Blu, and OnePlus. Lovely hardware design isn’t novel anymore. It’s table stakes. HTC needs a new edge.

The company had two options: try to level up its design game yet again, or make a phone with new or exceptional features. With the new One M9, which is available now on all four major US carriers for the same price as your average high-end smartphone, HTC took the latter approach. The new One looks the same as the last, but it has a new high-res camera, a homescreen that adapts to where you are and what you’re doing, and an incredible number of customization options. While it sounds promising, unfortunately once you use the M9, that all doesn’t add up to much. The One is still an excellent phone, but while its competition rushed ahead, HTC stayed too still.

Let’s start with the device itself, which is a gentle refinement of the two previous One models. The power button is now located on the right side of the phone instead of on top; it’s much more reachable, but it’s also really easy to confuse with the volume-down key, which is basically the same button positioned one inch higher. The sides of the phone have been dulled slightly, so it doesn’t curve as dramatically from the edge of the screen to the back. It makes the M9 feel a little thick, but also far less likely to slip out of your hand and shatter on the sidewalk. I call that an upgrade.

For the most part though, the M9 and its predecessor are physically One and the same. If you’ve seen One, you’ve seen ‘em all. (I could keep going.) And that’s a good thing! This slab of cold, clean aluminum feels as dense and impressive as ever. It’s gigantic next to the iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6, but I love how it feels in my hands. HTC’s not trying to build a super-thin phone that’s nothing but screen and camera lens; it’s trying to build something significant. Important. And especially in its new silver color with gold accents, it’s just unabashedly luxurious.

The One M9 is unabashedly luxurious

In between all that gold and silver (or gunmetal gray, if you’re not ready for a life of buying tigers and naming an armada of superyachts) is a 5-inch, 1080p screen. It’s essentially the same panel from last year’s model, but it still looks great. And above and below that display are the two front-facing BoomSound speakers that help make a One a One. This year, they’re tuned with Dolby to be wider and fuller than ever, and still blast the best sound you’ll find on a smartphone.

Oh, and I should mention: if you do break your phone, HTC’s got your back. Its new Uh Oh Protection plan (that’s really the name) will just straight-up replace your broken, cracked, or soaked phone once in the first 12 months, no questions asked. It’s amazing.

It makes sense that the M9 is mostly just tweaks and tune-ups, given how much HTC got right with last year’s M8. The new One upgrades to a brand-spankin’-new Snapdragon 810 processor and 3GB of RAM, which makes it super-fast. (It does have a tendency to get warm during particularly fervent République sessions, but not so much as to be a problem.) There’s still a micro-SD card slot for adding more storage, unlike the Galaxy S6. Its slightly-larger battery easily lasts a day, even a day and a half with some babying. There wasn’t much broken here, so there wasn’t much to fix.

1M9A6445 Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

But there’s one thing HTC hadn’t nailed yet: the camera. For this model, HTC scrapped all its wacky ideas about smartphone cameras—huge pixels! A second lens for changing depth!—for a straightforward, 20.7-megapixel sensor and a new sapphire lens that sticks slightly out of the phone’s back. (The old UltraPixel sensor is now on the front, and its bright-pictures-at-all-costs makeup is actually perfect for nightclub selfies.) The good news is that it’s a huge improvement—better pictures basically across the board, and it shoots 4K video now too. The bad news? Better still doesn’t make for a great camera. Shots are soft and mushy next to the iPhone 6 or the S6, with details coming out like watercolors. It’s a little slow to focus, too, and consistently shoots too bright or too dark. I never felt like I nailed focus or exposure, and never came away thinking I really got the shot.

HTC’s new built-in editing tools are a perfect microcosm of its camera: you can do all these crazy things to your photos, like overlaying one on another or warping your subject into oblivion, but there’s not much to just make your photos better. HTC gives you ways to mask the M9 camera’s faults, but I’d rather it just make a better camera to begin with. At least it’s not the travesty the M7 and M8 were, but that’s not saying much.

In better news, the One’s software keeps on improving. The One M9 runs Google’s latest version of Android, which itself comes with a total design overhaul and a huge set of new features. Once you start pinning apps, using Priority Mode, and living within the wild world of Material Design, you’ll never want to go back.

The One's software can look like whatever you want it to

As ever, HTC customizes the ever-living crap out of Android with its Sense skin. Every menu, every app is more colorful and cartoonish. The design is mostly just change for its own sake—skins used to be necessary bandages for the problems in Android, but the software is now excellent in its own right. Still, Sense has improved a lot over time, flattening out and simplifying to mesh much better with Google’s Material Design, and it does add some smart tweaks, like the multitasking grid that makes switching between apps much easier.

HTC’s embellishments don’t actually matter, though, because the most important thing it did to the new One was give you complete control over your software design. With the new Themes app, you can totally overhaul how your phone looks with just a few taps. Wallpapers, menus, icons, everything. HTC built a few themes to get you started, like putting Van Gogh paintings on your wallpaper, or switching your icons to origami art, but the real fun is in designing and uploading your own themes and checking out other people’s work. You can simply take a picture and let the app pull colors out of it to re-skin your phone, or you can go nuts, download the Photoshop template, and build something from scratch. People are uploading themes already, letting you transform your phone into a Lakers shrine, a terrifying steampunk horrorscape, and so much more. Theming is really fun, and I love changing the way my phone looks every couple of days. This isn’t unique to HTC, of course—it’s easier here, maybe, because there’s a dedicated app and community, but there’s nothing here you can’t do elsewhere.

Where there’s the most potential is in making that personalization pervasive, giving you a phone that doesn’t just look but works exactly the way you want. The M9 has some big ideas in that department as well. One is the BlinkFeed screen HTC’s been installing just to the side of your homescreen since the first One, which provides everything from personalized news to the local weather. HTC’s starting to push some of that info to your lock screen as well, starting with Yelp: when you’re out and about, and it’s almost meal-time, you’ll get recommendations for where to go. There’s lots more to come, too.

1M9A6417 Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

On your home screen, there’s a folder full of apps your phone thinks you might like based on what you’ve already downloaded. It’s actually really useful, even if it does seem to think that downloading a to-do list app means I must want to download several other to-do list apps. There’s also a widget on the home screen that will learn when you’re at home, at work, or elsewhere, and try to guess and show you the apps you’ll need in each context. So when I’m out, I have easy access to Maps, Instapaper, and the car-friendly interface; at home, apparently, YouTube is all I need. Thing is, though, I don’t have a car. And when I go from work to home, the apps in the widget don’t change so much as just rearrange. This Sense Home widget is a clever idea, but right now it’s still just faster to just open up the app drawer, where I don’t have to just hope apps will appear.

I love the idea that my phone will change based on where I am and what I’m doing. Show me different apps, different themes, different sounds—a phone that automatically acts appropriately in every situation is a hugely powerful thing. But much though HTC wants the M9 to be that phone, it doesn’t quite get there. And honestly, Google Now is so good at delivering timely and location-aware information that shuffling a bunch of apps in a widget isn’t all that useful anyway.

That’s the problem for HTC. Its last big idea was to build an incredibly beautiful phone, one you’d want to buy and hold and show to your friends. The original One was exactly that, and some of its flaws were easy to overlook in favor of this beautiful object in your hand. This time, yeah, the One is still beautiful—but so are lots of phones. If it was to stay ahead of the pack, HTC needed to do something else. The M9 doesn’t. The camera’s not good enough, and the software can’t quite live up to its aspirations.

The One M9 is a very good phone, and with the new camera HTC at least improved its most glaring flaw. Lots of people will be very happy with this phone. But the thing I used to love about the One was that it was special. It looked special, it felt special. It’s not special anymore.

Antibiotic resistance risk for coastal water users in UK

Recreational users of coastal waters such as swimmers and surfers are at risk of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria, according to new research published this week.

In the first study of its kind, scientists at the University of Exeter Medical School have assessed the amount of water ingested during different water sports and combined this with water sampling data to estimate people's exposure to bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Using data gathered across England and Wales in 2012, they estimated that over 6.3 million water sport sessions resulted in one type of resistant bacteria being swallowed.

The research, which is being presented today at the Society for General Microbiology's Annual Conference, focused on the prevalence of Escherichia coli and specifically considered those resistant to an important class of antibiotics known as third-generation cephalosporins -- or 3GCs.

The team considered surfers, sea swimmers, divers and kayakers and found that while only 0.12% of E. coli found in coastal waters and rivers running into beaches were resistant to 3GCs, this number was enough to present a potential risk of exposure to water users. Surfers and sea swimmers were among those at highest risk of exposure, due to their tendency to swallow more water.

The project was led by microbiologist Dr William Gaze, who believes these findings represent just part of the story:

"We know very little about how the natural environment can spread antibiotic resistant bacteria to humans, or how our exposure to these microbes can affect health. People are exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria in many ways, through person-to-person contact, via food and as a result of international travel. Our research establishes recreational use of coastal waters as an additional route of exposure. With millions of people visiting beaches in England and Wales each year, there is a risk of people ingesting 3GC resistant E. coli, and it looks like water-users' exposure to all resistant bacteria could be even higher."

The study also showed that people's risk of exposure to resistant bacteria is closely related to water quality at a given beach, demonstrating the importance of the EU Bathing Water Directive, which aims to ensure good water quality standards.

Antibiotic resistant bacterial infections pose a serious threat to human health and the study's authors are currently working to investigate the link between recreational exposure in the sea, colonisation in the body and infection. They hope that their findings will increase the understanding of the health risks that water users might face. Another of the study's authors, Anne Leonard, said:

"Although this research has established that coastal waters are a potential source of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria, we're not recommending that people stop visiting the beach. Exercise and enjoyment of the natural environment has many established benefits for health and wellbeing, and this kind of research will help us ensure people can still make the most our coastal resources."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Society for General Microbiology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Tim Cook Pens Op-Ed Opposing “Religious Freedom” Laws

Apple CEO Tim Cook is speaking out against a slew of laws being introduced in states across the country, which Cook says are designed to “enshrine discrimination in state law.”

Cook expressed these views in a lengthy op-ed in The Washington Post Sunday night, following the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana last week. The Indiana law makes it legal for businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples on the grounds of their religious beliefs. While Indiana’s law has drawn the most attention, it is but one of many similar bills that have been proposed recently, all of which seek to prioritize some people’s religious freedoms over other people’s civil liberties. Another proposed bill in Texas, which Cook points out in his op-ed, would prohibit government workers from issuing same-sex marriage licenses or risk losing their salaries, pensions, and other benefits. Cook, who is the first openly gay CEO on the Fortune 500 list, writes that these laws are not only discriminatory, they’re flat out “dangerous.”

“These bills rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear,” Cook writes. “They go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality.”

As one of the world’s most powerful business leaders, Cook argues that these laws threaten not just individual rights, but also the strength of the business community and the economy. “From North Carolina to Nevada, these bills under consideration truly will hurt jobs, growth and the economic vibrancy of parts of the country where a 21st-century economy was once welcomed with open arms,” he writes.

Cook isn’t the only prominent business executive speaking out on this subject. Last week, CEO Marc Benioff announced that the company was canceling all scheduled events in Indiana in protest of the new law. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman also condemned the laws in a blog post, and warned other states considering similar legislation that “Yelp will make every effort to expand its corporate presence only in states that do not have these laws allowing for discrimination on the books.”

Such strong opposition from the tech community doesn’t guarantee that states will back down from the wave of discriminatory legislation that’s washing over the country. Still, having some of the country’s leading companies threaten to abstain from doing business within those states is certainly a powerful bargaining chip. Already, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who signed the Religious Freedom Bill into law, says that he is working on ways to “clarify the intent of the law,” so it is less overtly discriminatory.

Cook, for his part, has not gone so far as to refuse to do business within states where these laws exist. Instead, he reaffirmed Apple’s commitment to openness, writing, “Apple is open. Open to everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship or who they love. Regardless of what the law might allow in Indiana or Arkansas, we will never tolerate discrimination.”

The Apple executive also drew from his childhood growing up in the South during the 1960s. “The days of segregation and discrimination marked by ‘Whites Only’ signs on shop doors, water fountains and restrooms must remain deep in our past,” he writes. “We must never return to any semblance of that time. America must be a land of opportunity for everyone.”

The Most Epic Demo in Computer History Is Now an Opera

If there’s such a thing as a Big Bang moment for modern computing, it happened on December 9, 1968. On that day, in an underground convention center in the heart of San Francisco, Doug Engelbart gave The Mother Of All Demos, introducing the world to an astonishing slew of technologies including word processing, video conferencing, windows, links, and the humble mouse. Over the course of the 90-minute demonstration, Engelbart laid the foundation for computing for decades to come.

Now, that vital moment is being reborn in suitably dramatic form: avant garde opera.

This week will see the world premiere of The Demo, a multimedia-heavy musical performance centering on Engelbart’s famous presentation, composed by Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill. The debut performances will happen April 1 and 2 at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, only a short walk away from the buildings where Engelbart and his colleagues developed their pioneering technologies as members of the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s.

In the show, Rouse plays Engelbart himself. The performance is anchored by the video of Engelbart’s original demonstration, which Rouse samples and splices with other footage using a similar computer setup to the one Engelbart introduced in ’68. Ben Neill, playing fellow computer trailblazer Bill English, performs the Mutantrumpet, a super-instrument of Neill’s own design that he also uses to control lights and other elements in the show. The music is a dense, continously-shifting tapestry of electronic beats. The libretto is drawn directly from the original video, echoing the scraps of code that occasionally appear on screen. The idea, as one contributor to the production evocatively put it, is to “dream Engelbart forwards and backwards.”

Rouse and Neill have been working on the show since 2012, when Neill first discovered Engelbart’s video while researching another project. At the time, though an avid technology user, Rouse never heard Engelbart’s name. “I knew it didn’t really start with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but at the same time, I didn’t know exactly where it came from,” he says. “I was like everybody else.”

Immediately, though, Rouse felt a connection to Engelbart’s visionary performance. The composer, whom the New York Times deemed among the best of his generation, is known for weaving visuals into his work in ambitious ways. His opera Dennis Cleveland was produced like a live TV program, with Rouse playing a talk show host. Four cameras captured him from various angles and broadcast his performance to a screen on stage (the audience played, well, the audience).

In Engelbart’s demo, Rouse saw as a sort of prototype of the form. “Even though he didn’t consider it a performance, it may have been one of the first times video had been used in a presentation of this kind.”

In addition to honoring Engelbart’s contribution, Rouse hopes the show will prod people to consider their relationship with technology today. Engelbart, who died in 2013, was in many ways ignored by the industry that emerged in the decades following his famous demo, and like other pioneers, he often voiced his frustration with the course it took.

“Our goal, by paying homage to the ’68 demo and showing these new technologies, is to get people to reflect,” Rouse says. “It would be really interesting if people walked out of the show and thought about how they use technology, and if they’re really reaping the benefits of what this amazing moment in time had to offer.”

The Virtual Reality Sim That Helps Teach Cops When to Shoot

Two police officers training with Virtra. Two police officers training with Virtra. Virtra

“I gotta get the guns,” Scott Digiralomo tells me over his shoulder as he leads me down the cinder block hallways of the Morris County Public Safety Training Academy in Morristown, New Jersey. Digiralmo, director of the county’s Department of Law and Public Safety, ducks into an empty room and, out of a large black safe, fetches an M4 rifle and a Glock.

At this point you should know that as a writer who works in Manhattan, lives in one of the yuppiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and gets panicky just passing by armed officers in the New York City subway, this is not how my days typically begin. And yet, no more than 30 minutes later, there I am, a Glock tucked into the holster on my right hip and a can of pepper spray in the left, cautiously approaching a woman in a white SUV who is blocking her ex-boyfriend’s driveway, refusing to let him and his new girlfriend leave.

“Get that crazy bitch out of here now!” yells the new girlfriend, standing in front of the house as I wander up the lawn. Before I can take another step, shots ring out from the SUV. I freeze, and a beat later, clumsily pull the weapon from my hip.

“Uh, put your hands up? And your weapon down? Please?” I say too politely, as if asking a waitress for another basket of bread. But it works. The shooter emerges from the car in a gray hoodie and jeans. She’s still screaming, but she drops the gun and falls to her knees, arms raised. In that instant, I’m pretty sure the situation’s under control, so I take a second to wonder what I’m supposed to do next.

And then she shoots me.

Behind me, Digiralomo is laughing, not because he’s some masochist who’s going to watch me bleed to death, but because the entire scenario, as you may have guessed, is a virtual reality simulation, and I—standing in the middle of the darkened room, surrounded by an array of screens, doing what has to be the world’s worst impersonation of a cop—look like a total tool.

But while this may have been little more than an exercise in embarrassment for me, Digiralomo assures me that this system, designed by a company called VirTra, is actually critical in helping police officers hone their skills as decision makers before they’re let out in the real world. Morris County installed the technology last November, smack dab in the middle of one of the most contentious periods in recent history between police and the public. And while Digiralomo says that wasn’t why the academy bought the roughly $300,000 system, it’s hard not to see the connection.

Not Can You Shoot But Should You

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer cracked open the scab on one of our country’s oldest wounds. It fueled new conversations about centuries-old issues and exposed gaping rifts across the entire country, not only on the subject of whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, but on whether or not minorities living in the United States are safe in the hands of the police officers that are hired to protect them. No amount of technology will ever solve these deeply rooted societal issues. Systems like VirTra’s—so-called cave automatic virtual environment, or CAVE, systems—have been around for a while. But amid as President Obama and others call for more robust police training, training technology that can simulate a world more like the real one takes on an added urgency.

Today, in states like New Jersey where Digiralomo works, officers are required to re-qualify for the police force twice a year by testing their shooting accuracy on a gun range. While that demonstrates that officers can use their weapons, it doesn’t necessarily help them understand whether they should.

“In a lot of cases like Ferguson, it’s not about whether or not the officer was accurate when they shot,” Digiralomo says. “The question comes down to the decision the officer made, and whether the officer should have used deadly force. A lot of that comes down to decision making.”

Systems like VirTra’s are designed with just that in mind. “We’re finding there’s a need for cities and national agencies to train at above minimum standards,” says Bob Ferris, CEO and founder of VirTra. “With this new technology, they can better prepare officers for use of force and the life and death situations that often make the headlines.”

Virtually Real Life

Ferris was early on the virtual reality bandwagon, launching VirTra in 1993 as an entertainment company that would run simulations at theme parks around the country. But after September 11, Ferris completely overhauled the business to focus on immersive police training, which required a total rethinking of the technology itself.

In the early days, VirTra started off making virtual reality goggles, not unlike the ones Oculus is now famous for, but when the company began working with law enforcement, Ferris realized this technology could do officers more harm than good.

VirTra V300 VirTra

“You want the officer to learn proper muscle memory, so in order to have the training apply at the highest level of effectiveness to real life encounters, you have to remove the head-mounted display, unless they’d use one in real life,” Ferris says. It’s also critical for officers to practice moving around space and interacting with one another, which would be severely inhibited if everyone were wearing goggles.

Instead, the system I tested out in Morris County, which is now being used at more than 200 training facilities around the world, consists of five large screens that surround a stage and five overhead projectors that cast lifesize videos onto the screens, giving the users the feeling that they’re standing in the center of a scene. The Glock on my hip was a real gun, but rather than being loaded with bullets, it’s loaded with carbon dioxide, causing the gun to recoil each time I pulled the trigger. At the end of the gun is a laser, which interacts with the cameras overhead to detect whether or not a shot is accurate. The system also comes with a wearable device that gives officers a small electrical shock to simulate they’ve been shot. “Oh yeah,” Digiralomo says. “It hurts.”

Exposing Bias

But the most important part of the system is the content. The video of the woman in her ex-boyfriend’s driveway was just one of dozens of different scenarios that VirTra creates, ranging from routine traffic stops to school shootings. And like a good choose-your-own-adventure novel, trainers can manipulate what happens next, escalating the tension or diffuse the situation on screen as it’s happening based on what the officer in training says and does. In my case, for instance, Digiralomo could have made the shooter calm down, ending the scene right there. But since, of course, I was being a bit of a self-conscious baby about it, he let her shoot me.

Trainers can make a dog bark or a gate close in the distance. They can change the weapon at the last second, so instead of pulling a gun out, the suspect might pull out a bottle or a bat or nothing at all. This, Digiralomo says is essential. “One of the concerns we had was we don’t want to run every officer through here so that every single scenario they got, it was justified to use deadly force,” he says. “So we’ll run a few with deadly force, a few where they use pepper spray, a few where the person just complies and gives up.”

Trainers can also create scenarios that challenge officers’ unconscious biases. For instance, in one video, a shooter is on the loose in a movie theater. As the officer surveys the scene, a black off-duty cop rushes through a door on the officer’s left with a gun in his hand. The trainer can run a scenario in which the officer’s badge is visible in his other hand or a scenario in which his badge is on his hip and not immediately apparent to the officer in training. According to Digiralomo, when the off-duty officer has the badge on his hip, the trainee kills him 80 percent of the time.

That’s why both Ferris and Digiralomo say having competent trainers operating this system and catching trainees’ mistakes is so important. “The instructor needs to go through what they did right and wrong, and it’s amazing how quickly officers are able to adapt and go from making decisions they regret to decisions they know are they best they’re able to make,” Ferris says.

A Better Place to Start

Of course, virtual reality can never be a true proxy for the real thing. For starters, officers know they’re not going to get shot and that the person on the other end of their trigger is just a projection. Another issue is that, because it’s all shot on video, the camera angle dictates how the officer moves through space, much like a video game does. And while the 300 degree view makes that experience immersive, it’s not completely realistic. As Eugene Fluri, a SWAT team commander, noted after running through one traffic stop scenario for me, “The angle of the video shows the officer right in front of the window, and I wouldn’t have done that. If he moved his hands, I would have moved, but where am I gonna go?”

You can’t call for backup, open doors, or handcuff someone. All that action is trapped on a screen. Still, watching Fluri navigate the movie theater scenario, knees bent, gun drawn, and basically putting me to shame, it’s easy to see the advantages to this method of training. As he moves through the space, Fluri interacts with the video, telling scared moviegoers, “Out this way, out this way!” and asking victims, “Where’s the person who shot you?” He’s rotating left to right and back again, rehearsing for the real thing. And when he stumbles upon the shooter in the parking lot outside, he repeatedly insists that he drop the gun, until finally, the shooter fires, and Fluri fires back, eventually killing him.

Afterward, if the demonstration hadn’t just been for my benefit, a trainer would have reviewed Fluri’s every move to decide whether he’d made the right call. “At what point do you shoot? How many times do you say put the gun down? Because he just killed a bunch of people and is refusing to go, are you justified?” Digiralomo says. “Those are all the questions we review afterward.”

Compare that to the gun range on the lower level of the Academy. It’s an expansive concrete void with little numbered corrals, at the end of which are faceless metal targets that have been pummeled with bullets over the years. There’s no space to run around, no judgement calls to be made, no nuance. Officers’ only job when they’re down here is to shoot and shoot and shoot, until they’ve proven they’re a good enough shot to keep their jobs. Given the complex web of historical and societal ills that have contributed to the current lack of faith between police and the public, it’d be unfair to say that this type of training alone is the problem. But it sure doesn’t seem like the solution.

US Used Zero-Day Exploits Before It Had Policies for Them

Around the same time the US and Israel were already developing and unleashing Stuxnet on computers in Iran, using five zero-day exploits to get the digital weapon onto machines there, the government realized it needed a policy for how it should handle zero-day vulnerabilities, according to a new document obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The document, found among a handful of heavily redacted pages released after the civil liberties group sued the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to obtain them, sheds light on the backstory behind the development of the government’s zero-day policy and offers some insight into the motivations for establishing it. What the documents don’t do, however, is provide support for the government’s assertions that it discloses the “vast majority” of zero-day vulnerabilities it discovers instead of keeping them secret and exploiting them.

“The level of transparency we have now is not enough,” says Andrew Crocker a legal fellow at EFF. “It doesn’t answer a lot of questions about how often the intelligence community is disclosing, whether they’re really following this process, and who is involved in making these decisions in the executive branch. More transparency is needed.”

The timeframe around the development of the policy does make clear, however, that the government was deploying zero-days to attack systems long before it had established a formal policy for their use.

Task Force Launched in 2008

Titled “Vulnerability Equities Process Highlights,” (.pdf) the document appears to have been created July 8, 2010, based on a date in its file name. Vulnerability equities process in the title refers to the process whereby the government assesses zero-day software security holes that it either finds or buys from contractors in order to determine whether they should be disclosed to the software vendor to be patched or kept secret so intelligence agencies can use them to hack into systems as they please. The government’s use of zero-day vulnerabilities is controversial, not least because when it withholds information about software vulnerabilities to exploit them in targeted systems, it leaves every other system that use the same software also vulnerable to being hacked, including U.S. government computers and critical infrastructure systems.

According to the document, the equities process grew out of a task force the government formed in 2008 to develop a plan for improving its ability “to use the full spectrum of offensive capabilities to better defend U.S. information systems.”

Making use of offensive capabilities likely refers to one of two things: either encouraging the intelligence community to share information about its stockpile of zero-day vulnerabilities so the holes can be patched on government and critical infrastructure systems; or using the NSA’s cyber espionage capabilities to spot and stop digital threats before they reach U.S. systems. This interpretation seems to be supported by a second document (.pdf) released to EFF, which describes how, in 2007, the government realized it could strengthen its cyber defenses “by providing insight from our own offensive capabilities” and “marshal our intelligence collection to prevent intrusions before they happen.”

One of the recommendations the task force made was to develop a vulnerabilities equities process. Some time in 2008 and 2009 another working group, led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was established to address this recommendation with representatives from the intelligence community, the U.S. attorney general, the FBI, DoD, State Department, DHS and, most notably, the Department of Energy.

The Department of Energy might seem the odd-man-out in this group, but the DoE’s Idaho National Lab conducts research on the security of the nation’s electric grid and, in conjunction with DHS, it also runs a control system security assessment program that involves working with the makers of industrial control systems to uncover vulnerabilities in their products. Industrial control systems are used to manage equipment at power and water plants, chemical facilities and other critical infrastructure.

Although there have long been suspicions that the DoE program is used by the government to uncover vulnerabilities that the intelligence community then uses to exploit in the critical infrastructure facilities of adversaries, DHS sources have insisted to WIRED on a number of occasions that the assessment program is aimed at getting vulnerabilities fixed and that any information uncovered is not shared with the intelligence community for purposes of exploiting vulnerabilities. When a significant vulnerability in an industrial control system is discovered by the Idaho lab, it’s discussed with members of an equities group—formed by representatives of the intelligence community and other agencies—to determine if any agency that might already be using the vulnerability as part of a critical mission would suffer harm if the vulnerability were disclosed. Of course, it should be noted that this also allows such agencies to learn about new vulnerabilities they might want to exploit, even if that’s not the intent.

Following the working group’s discussions with DoE and these other agencies throughout 2008 and 2009, the government produced a document titled “Commercial and Government Information Technology and Industrial Control Product or System Vulnerabilities Equities Policy and Process.” Note the words “Industrial Control” in the title, signaling the special importance of these types of vulnerabilities.

The end result of the working group’s meetings was the creation of an executive secretariat within the NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate, which is responsible for protecting and defending national security information and systems, as well as the creation of the vulnerabilities equities process for handling the decision-making, notification procedures and the appeals process around the government’s use and disclosure of zero-days.

We now know, however, that the equities process established by the task force was flawed, due to statements made last year by a government-convened intelligence reform board and by revelations that the process had to undergo a reboot or “reinvigoration” following suggestions that too many vulnerabilities were being withheld for exploitation rather than disclosed.

Equities Process Not Transparent

The equities process was not widely known outside the government until last year when the White House publicly acknowledged for the first time that it uses zero-day exploits to hack into computers. The announcement came only after the infamous Heartbleed vulnerability was discovered and Bloomberg erroneously reported that the NSA had known about the hole for two years and had remained silent about it in order to exploit it. The NSA and the White House disputed the story. The latter referenced the equities process, insisting that any time the NSA discovers a major flaw in software, it must disclose the vulnerability to vendors to be patched—that is, unless there is “a clear national security or law enforcement” interest in using it.

In a blog post at the time, Michael Daniel, special advisor on cybersecurity to President Obama, insisted that the government had a “disciplined, rigorous and high-level decision-making process for vulnerability disclosure” and suggested that more vulnerabilities are disclosed than not.

The assertion, however, raised a lot of questions about how long this equities process had existed and how many vulnerabilities the NSA had in fact disclosed or kept secret over the years.

Daniel, who is a member of Obama’s National Security Council, told WIRED in an interview last year that the equities process was formally established in 2010. That’s two years after the task force first recommended it in 2008. He also insisted that the “vast majority” of zero-days the government learns about are disclosed, though he wouldn’t say how many or whether this encompassed ones that were initially kept secret for exploitation purposes before the government disclosed them.

We know that Stuxnet, a digital weapon designed by the U.S. and Israel to sabotage centrifuges enriching uranium for Iran’s nuclear program, used five zero-day exploits to spread between 2009 and 2010—before the equities process was in place. One of these zero-days exploited a fundamental vulnerability in the Windows operating system that, during the time it remained unpatched, left millions of machines around the world vulnerable to attack. Since the equities process was established in 2010, the government has continued to purchase and use zero days supplied by contractors. We know, for example, from documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that in 2013 alone the government spent more than $25 million to buy “software vulnerabilities” from private vendors. Zero-days can sell for anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000 or more. It’s not clear if $25 million refers to the purchase price of individual zero-days or if it refers to subscription costs that can give the government access to hundreds of zero-days from a single vendor for an annual price.

It was following the Snowden revelations that an intelligence reform board first recommended changes to the equities process. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies was convened to provide recommendations on how to reform the government’s surveillance programs in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. In its December 2013 report, the board asserted that the government should not be exploiting zero-days but should instead be disclosing all vulnerabilities to software makers and other relevant parties by default, except where there is a clear national security need to retain an exploit. Even then, however, the board said the timeframe for using a secret exploit should be limited, after which these too should be disclosed.

Peter Swire, a member of the review board, told WIRED last year that their comments were prompted by the fact that disclosures weren’t happening to the degree they should. The government was apparently finding too many exceptions whereby it deemed it necessary to keep a zero-day secret instead of disclosing it, and the review board felt the percentage of vulnerabilities being kept secret should be much smaller.

Daniel himself acknowledged problems with the equities process when he spoke to WIRED last year and said the equities process had not been implemented “to the full degree it should have been” since it was established in 2010. The relevant agencies had not been sufficiently communicating information about vulnerabilities and “ensuring that everybody had the right level of visibility across the entire government” about vulnerabilities.

But this wasn’t the only problem the review board had found with the equities process. They also implied that the oversight process for monitoring the equities process was flawed. Although the board members didn’t say it, their comments suggested that until last year, the NSA and other self-interested parties in the intelligence community had been the sole arbiters of decisions about when a zero-day vulnerability should be disclosed or kept secret. The implication was that this was one of the reasons too many vulnerabilities were still being kept secret.

To help fix this, the review board recommended that the National Security Council have dominion over the zero-day decision process to take it out of the hands of the intelligence agencies. The White House did implement this recommendation, and Daniel’s office at the National Security Council now oversees the equities process—a process that we can see from the document obtained by EFF traces back to 2008. This means it took six years since the equities process was first proposed by the task force to figure out that leaving the decision-making process about zero-days in the hands of the intelligence community that wants to exploit them was probably not a wise idea.

EFF’s Crocker says that none of the documents his group has received so far from the government give them confidence that the equities process is currently being handled in any wiser manner.

“Based on the documents they’ve released and withheld there’s really not a lot of paper to back up [the government’s claims about] this being a rigorous process with lots of actual considerations in it,” he says. “There just isn’t support for that in what they’ve released. It continues to raise questions about how thorough this process is and how much is there when the rubber meets the road.”