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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Two engineers at the University of California, Riverside are part of a binational team

Shewanella bacteria (shown in blue) forming nanotubes

Nanotube-producing Bacteria Show Manufacturing Promise

Two engineers at the University of California, Riverside are part of a binational team that has found semiconducting nanotubes produced by living bacteria -- a discovery that could help in the creation of a new generation of nanoelectronic devices.

The research team believes this is the first time nanotubes have been shown to be produced by biological rather than chemical means. It opens the door to the possibility of cheaper and more environmentally friendly manufacture of electronic materials.

The team, including Nosang V. Myung, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering in the Bourns College of Engineering, and his postdoctoral researcher Bongyoung Yoo, found the bacterium Shewanella facilitates the formation of arsenic-sulfide nanotubes that have unique physical and chemical properties not produced by chemical agents.

"We have shown that a jar with a bug in it can create potentially useful nanostructures," Myung said. "Nanotubes are of particular interest in materials science because the useful properties of a substance can be finely tuned according to the diameter and the thickness of the tubes."

The whole realm of electronic devices which power our world, from computers to solar cells, today depend on chemical manufacturing processes which use tremendous energy, and leave behind toxic metals and chemicals. Myung said a growing movement in science and engineering is looking for ways to produce semiconductors in more ecologically friendly ways.

Two members of the research team, Hor Gil Hur and Ji-Hoon Lee from Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST), Korea, first discovered something unexpected happening when they attempted to remediate arsenic contamination using the metal-reducing bacterium Shewanella. Myung, who specializes in electro-chemical material synthesis and device fabrication, was able to characterize the resulting nano-material.

The photoactive arsenic-sulfide nanotubes produced by the bacteria behave as metals with electrical and photoconductive properties. The researchers report that these properties may also provide novel functionality for the next generation of semiconductors in nano- and opto-electronic devices.

In a process that is not yet fully understood, the Shewanella bacterium secretes polysacarides that seem to produce the template for the arsenic sulfide nanotubes, Myung explained. The practical significance of this technique would be much greater if a bacterial species were identified that could produce nanotubes of cadmium sulfide or other superior semiconductor materials, he added.

"This is just a first step that points the way to future investigation," he said. "Each species of Shewanella might have individual implications for manufacturing properties."

Study results appear in the December 7 issue of the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Myung, Yoo, Hur and Lee were joined in the research by Min-Gyu Kim, Pohang Accelerator Laboratory, Pohang, Korea; Jongsun Maeng and Takhee Lee, GIST; Alice C. Dohnalkova and James K. Fredrickson, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash.; and Michael J. Sadowsky, University of Minnesota.

The Center for Nanoscale Innovation for Defense provided funding for Myung's contribution to the study.

cancer-fighting therapeutic could be growing in your garden

Black raspberries. The next cancer-fighting therapeutic could be growing in your garden. For example, a black raspberry-based gel might offer a means of stopping oral lesions from turning into a particularly dangerous and disfiguring form of cancer.

Chemoprevention, Naturally: Findings On Plant-derived Cancer Medicines

The next cancer-fighting therapeutic could be growing in your garden. For example, a black raspberry-based gel might offer a means of stopping oral lesions from turning into a particularly dangerous and disfiguring form of cancer. And new studies show that cancer prevention might come in drinkable form: green tea extract, a powerful antioxidant, shows efficacy against colorectal cancer; and a new berry-rich beverage, made from a combination of known plant-based antioxidants, could prevent or slow the growth of prostate cancer.

That is, according to research presented December 6, at the American Association for Cancer Research's Sixth Annual International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research, being held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Topically applied black raspberry gel applied on oral premalignant tumors

Oral squamous cell carcinoma is a deadly cancer that, even when treated successfully, often leaves patients permanently disfigured. Other than radical surgery, there are few known treatments. Researchers at Ohio State University, however, report a Phase I/II trial demonstrating that a gel made from black raspberries shows promise in preventing or slowing the malignant transformation of precancerous oral lesions.

"Black raspberries are full of anthocyanins, potent antioxidants that give the berries their rich, dark color, and our findings show these compounds have a role in silencing cancerous cells," said Susan Mallery, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Oral Maxillofacial Surgery and Pathology at Ohio State University's College of Dentistry. "This gel appears to be a valid means of delivering anthocyanins and other cancer-preventing compounds directly to precancerous cells, since it slowed or reduced lesion progression in about two-thirds of study participants."

According to American Cancer Society statistics, oral cancer is one of the deadliest of all cancers, with about 35,000 new cases each year in the United States and 7,500 deaths annually. These cancers generally begin as small, often unnoticed, lesions inside the mouth. "More than a third of untreated precancerous oral lesions will undergo malignant transformation into squamous cell cancer, but we do not have the capability to predict which lesions will progress," Mallery said.

The National Cancer Institute-funded trial included 30 participants, 20 of whom had identifiable precancerous lesions, and 10 normal controls. Each of the participants was instructed to gently dry the lesion sites (or a pre-selected control site for the normal participants) and rub the gel into the area four times a day, once after each meal and at bedtime.

After six weeks, about 35 percent of the trial participants' lesions showed an improvement in their microscopic diagnosis, while another 45 percent showed that their lesions had stabilized. About 20 percent showed an increase in their lesional microscopic diagnoses. Importantly, none of the participants experienced any side effects from the gel.

"The trial was designed to test the safety of the gel and detect any possible toxicity, but the next obvious step is a multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase II study," Mallery said. "Such a study would enable us to determine that the black raspberries are the active factor and not just the gel base or the act of drying and rubbing the lesions."

The researchers also collected cell samples from the lesion sites of each participant before and after treatment in order to study the genetics and biology of the lesions. The majority of patients with precancerous lesions at the start of the trial showed elevated levels of COX-2 and iNOS, two proteins closely correlated with inflammation and malignant progression. Following treatment, Mallery says, levels of those proteins in the treated lesional epithelial cells decreased dramatically.

Mallery and her colleagues also examined samples for three tumor suppressor genes in order to determine what researchers call "loss of heterozygosity," whether or not a cancer cell has lost one of its two copies of the gene. Such loss greatly increases a cell's chances of losing the benefit of the tumor suppressor genes due to a second mutation or gene silencing event. Following the trial, the researchers noted that many lesions returned to normal, retaining both copies of each tumor suppressor gene. "We speculate that the chemopreventive compounds in black raspberries assist in modulating cell growth by promoting programmed cell death or terminal differentiation, two mechanisms that help "reeducate" precancerous cells," Mallery said.

"Oral cancer is a debilitating disease and there is a desperate need for early detection and management of precancerous lesions," Mallery said. "While screening can help detect the disease early -- and survival rates are definitely improved the earlier the disease is caught -- many of these precancerous lesions recur despite complete surgical removal. There are currently no effective chemopreventive treatments which could conceivably serve as either adjunctive or alternative approaches to surgery."

According to Mallery, the development of black raspberries as potential cancer-fighters is the result of decades of research into identification of naturally derived chemopreventive compounds by Ohio State researcher Gary D. Stoner, Ph.D., an emeritus professor at Ohio State University's College of Medicine and Public Health. Clinical studies stemming from his research are currently underway for oral, esophageal and colorectal cancer.

The gel looks deceptively like black raspberry jam, but it certainly does not taste like something you would want to spread on toast, Mallery says. The bioadhesive gel, which contains 10 percent freeze dried black raspberries, is devoid of many of the tasty sugars found in native berries.

The black raspberry gel was manufactured by the University of Kentucky's Good Manufacturing Production (GMP) facility. NanoMed Pharmaceuticals is partnering with OSU investigators Mallery, Stoner and Peter E. Larsen D.D.S. and Russell J. Mumper, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, in product development.

Suppressive effects of a phytochemical cocktail on prostate cancer growth in vitro and in vivo

A commercially available nutrition drink reduces the growth of tumors in a mouse model of human prostate cancer by 25 percent in two weeks, according to researchers from the University of Sydney. The drink, Blueberry Punch, is a mixture of plant-based chemicals -- phytochemicals -- known to have anti-cancer properties.

In particular, Blueberry Punch consists of a combination of fruit concentrates (blueberry, red grape, raspberry and elderberry), grape seed and skin extract, citrus skin extracts, green tea extract (EGCG), olive leaf and olive pulp extracts, tarragon, turmeric and ginger.

"We have undertaken efficacy studies on individual components of Blueberry Punch, such as curcumin, resveratrol and EGCG, in the same laboratory setting and found these effective in suppressing cell growth in culture," said Jas Singh, Ph.D., research fellow at the University of Sydney.

"While individual phytochemicals are successful in killing cancer cells, we reasoned that synergistic or additive effects are likely to be achieved when they are combined."

Singh and her colleagues studied the effect of the beverage on both cancer cell cultures and in mouse models that mimic human prostate cancer. After 72 hours of exposure to increasing concentrations of Blueberry Punch, prostate cancer cells showed a dose-dependent reduction in size and viability when compared with untreated cells, Singh says. After feeding mice a 10 percent solution of the punch for two weeks, the tumors in the test mice were 25 percent smaller than those found in mice that drank only tap water.

Because Blueberry Punch is a combination of several ingredients, it could have multiple mechanisms of action, Singh says. "Based on our initial findings, the mechanisms include, at least, the inhibition of the inflammation-related pathways, which is similar to the action of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; and inhibition of cyclin D1, which is similar to green tea action."

Based on these results, the researchers believe Blueberry Punch is now ready for human prostate cancer trials. Because Blueberry Punch is a food product rather than a drug, it is unlikely to have adverse reactions or side effects assuming that the individual is tolerant to all ingredients, Singh says. "The evidence we have provided suggests that this product could be therapeutic, although it requires clinical validation," Singh said.

The study was partially funded by the makers of Blueberry Punch, Dr. Red Nutraceuticals, a firm located near Brisbane, Australia, but the experiments were designed and conducted independently in the University of Sydney.

Inhibition of colorectal tumorigenesis in azoxymethane (AOM)-treated rats by green tea polyphenols

Elucidating a decade's worth of conflicting studies of the cancer-fighting benefits of green tea, researchers at Rutgers University have conclusively demonstrated that a standardized green tea polyphenol preparation can prevent the growth of colorectal tumors in a rat model of human colorectal cancer.

Results from previous studies using different tea constituents in this particular rat cancer model, which is thought to closely mimic human cancer, had been inconsistent. The researchers believe their findings will pave the way for clinical trials with green tea polyphenols in humans.

"Our findings show that rats fed a diet containing Polyphenon E, a standardized green tea polyphenol preparation, are less than half as likely to develop colon cancer," said Hang Xiao, Ph.D., research associate at the Department of Chemical Biology in Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy of Rutgers University.

According to Xiao, these results are consistent with previously published results by the project's primary investigator, C.S. Yang, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Biology at Rutgers, which showed that green tea consumption was associated with lower colon cancer rates in Shanghai, China.

Xiao and his colleagues treated two groups of mice with azoxymethane (AOM), a widely used agent that has been shown to generate in rats colorectal tumors that share many characteristics with colorectal cancer in humans, Xiao says. They then split the rats into two groups that were each fed a high fat diet, which the researchers believe closely resembles a Western diet; half received a 0.24 percent solution of Polyphenon E. According to Xiao, the green tea extract contains four major polyphenols, the majority of which (about 65 percent) is EGCG, thought to be the main active ingredient.

"When you account for caloric consumption, 0.24 percent Polyphenon E in diet gave the experimental rats the equivalent of about four to six cups of tea a day," Xiao said. "While I can't make any recommendations for how much green tea people should drink each day, it isn't uncommon for some to drink that much tea."

After 34 weeks, rats that received Polyphenon E developed 55 percent fewer tumors compared to the control rats that did not receive Polyphenon E. Moreover, the tumors were 45 percent smaller in rats treated with green tea extract. Histopathological analysis by his colleague, Xinpei Hao, Ph.D., also showed that the treatment group had significantly lower incidence and number of malignant colon tumors. The researchers could also detect green tea polyphenols in the blood plasma as well as the colorectal mucosa of the rats who received the extract.

Meanwhile, the test rats weighed about five percent less than their control group counterparts, a result Xiao attributes to the ability of the green tea polyphenols to block lipid absorption in the body, which the researchers had previously demonstrated in a mouse model of obesity.

The industry hasn't changed enough to release Microsoft from being monitored for antitrust violations

Even Google Can't Stop Microsoft, Some States Warn.

In a brief submitted to federal court, state antitrust regulators dismissed companies such as Google Inc. and Mozilla Corp. and technologies such as AJAX and software as a service as piddling players that pose no threat to Microsoft Corp.'s monopoly in the operating system and browser markets.

Ten states and the District of Columbia made the unusual claim to try to show that the operating system and browser spaces had changed much more slowly than expected in 2002, when state regulators and the U.S. Department of Justice brokered a deal with Microsoft in a long-running antitrust case against the company. The lack of change, they said, means that potential competitors need more time -- and judicial protection -- if they are to develop into real rivals to Microsoft.

"The relevant markets -- those for Intel-compatible PC operating systems and Web browsers -- have not experienced the rapid development that the court had anticipated they might when it limited the initial term of the Final Judgments to five years," the states argued in a November 16 filing to U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. "This is a 'changed circumstance' that has an important bearing on whether the Final Judgments have had sufficient time to achieve the pro-competitive benefits that the court expected they would -- and that the public itself is entitled to receive."

Lead by California and New York, the states have asked Kollar-Kotelly to extend her monitoring of Microsoft's business practices another five years, until November 2012. In a series of legal filings since August, Microsoft and the DOJ have argued that an extension is unwarranted while the states have pressed for the longer oversight.

In their most recent brief, the states countered Microsoft's contention that Web-based companies -- Google, Inc., Yahoo Inc., eBay Inc. and others -- and new Web-centric technologies constitute what Microsoft dubbed a "competitive alternative to Windows."

Not even close, said the states. "While these companies' products provide some functionality for users, they still depend upon a PC operating system and browser -- the two spaces where Microsoft dominates -- and thus they are not yet able to reduce the applications barrier to entry."

A pair of experts that the states hired to write rebuttals to Microsoft's position were even more damning. For all the talk about "OS agnostic" applications, Web. 2.0, Google's dominance in search and Firefox's inroads against Internet Explorer, the collective cannot compete with Microsoft where it counts, said Ronald Alepin and John Kwoka in separate reports filed along with the states' brief.

"The 'Internet Platform' ... does not even exist, much less constitute for the foreseeable future a practical or viable alternative to the desktop platform," said Alepin, a technical adviser at law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP, and a frequent expert witness for parties facing Microsoft in court. "Firefox has yet to reach a level of penetration and use that Microsoft's own internal measures indicate is necessary for survival and for the all-important ability to influence developer choices," Alepin added later in his rebuttal. "With a market share of less than 20%, Firefox does not have the influence to promote the adoption of alternatives to standards or extensions advanced by Microsoft."

He even badmouthed Apple Inc., which has been lauded for its hardware market share gains and the design of its operating systems, as too weak to capitalize on its successes, and ultimately no threat to Microsoft. "In spite of the advantages of arguably superior products and missteps by Microsoft, Apple has been unable to raise its share of the worldwide installed base of PCs, hovering near 3%," Alepin said.

Kwoka, a professor of economics at Northeastern University, was even blunter in his assessment of Microsoft's rivals. "I analyzed the economic evidence and concluded that there was no indication in the relevant market that these technologies have yet had a restorative effect on competition," he stated flatly.

"Competition in the market for Intel-based PC operating systems has not been restored by the five-year term of the Final Judgment," he concluded.

Under the temporary extension agreed to late last month, Kollar-Kotelly has until the end of January to decide whether to extend the settlement's oversight terms.

New features in the Firefox and Opera browsers could make it less complex and cheaper for people to incorporate video into their Web sites.

Mozilla, Opera Want to Make Video on the Web Easier

New features in the Firefox and Opera browsers could make it less complex and cheaper for people to incorporate video into their Web sites, representatives of Mozilla and Opera say.

Firefox and Opera will support a new HTML tag specifically for embedding video in Web pages. As long as the browsers support a video's specific codec, or encoding method, the browsers will then be able to play the video without launching third-party enabling software, said Chris Double, a Mozilla engineer. Mozilla and Opera are also working to support the royalty-free video codec Ogg Theora.

Video on the Web is a fractured mix of proprietary formats, encoded using systems from four main vendors. Apple offers QuickTime, Microsoft offers Windows Media, Adobe offers Flash and RealNetworks has RealPlayer. A user must have a plug-in from each of those vendors if they want to play video in that vendor's format.

The plug-ins that play video are free to download and use: The software companies make their money selling encoders to create the video, and server software to host and stream video.

What's Easier in the Plan?
Opera and Mozilla officials say the changes to their browsers will offer a new level of ease for Web developers using open-source tools to embed and stream their video. If video encoded in Ogg Theora plays directly in the browser, everyday Internet surfers would not have the burden of downloading extra plug-ins for their browser to play the video.

Developers would not have to pay royalties to use the Ogg Theora codec, and open-source streaming media servers such as VLC or Icecast are free.

"With a baseline, royalty-free codec, end-users can produce and embed their own videos without having to pay any fees for the production of the video itself or the rights to stream it," Double said.

That could prove challenging to big vendors such as Adobe and Microsoft, who are betting big on demand for their own video and multimedia tools to feed the Internet's video boom.

Adobe recently rolled out an upgrade to its software, Flash 9, used by sites such as Google's YouTube. Microsoft also recently released its Silverlight multimedia technology, designed to build dynamic videos and graphics.

Supporters of the video tag and royalty-free codec contend it's vexing to have private software companies control video formats. Those vendors, for example, could suddenly change their long-term support plans depending on changes in their business or simply halt support for certain operating systems, such as Linux.

A Video HTML Tag
The challenge, however, will be getting all browser makers to support a video HTML tag and one or a set of the same encoding codecs. On the photo side, this already works: All browsers support the "img" HTML tag and JPEG and PNG file formats, which don't require extra software to view.

"You don't require a plug-in to view images," said Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering for Mozilla. "I think video is the next natural evolution of that."

HTML, the Web's mother tongue, never included a video tag in its original specifications. Videos encoded in Flash, for example, are often launched via JavaScript code, which Double argues can be difficult for people to manipulate on their own Web pages.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the caretaker of HTML, is working on a long-term project to update and add new features to the HTML specifications used by Web browsers. A video HTML tag is under consideration.

However, a final specification for HTML 5 could be a decade away, the editor of the committee developing it said. The success of the video tag will largely depend on if browser makers start supporting it and Web developers embrace it.

"It's not only about specifications," said Karl Dubost, conformance manager for the W3C. "It [the video HTML tag] requires deployment in enough browsers so that the market forces make it ubiquitous across platforms."

Mozilla and Opera are pressing ahead without waiting for an update to the HTML standard. The video tag feature won't make it in the initial Firefox 3.0 release, scheduled for next year, but will be delivered in future updates, Double said. Early last month, Opera released an experimental build of its browser with support for a video tag as well as support for Ogg Theora.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer holds about 80 percent of the browser market, and it remains to be seen how it views Opera's and Mozilla's plans. Microsoft did not response to requests for comment.

Microsoft tends to not go along with other vendors' standardization efforts, said Dimitris Dimitriadis, who consults companies on standards implementation and formerly worked with the W3C. But if a technology or specification starts to be widely used, Microsoft has been known to change course.

"I think they are very sensitive to market changes," Dimitriadis said. "If they see that people want to use embedded video they will certainly provide an alternative."

But other problems could arise if Opera's and Mozilla's implementations of a video HTML tag don't match a future W3C specification, Dimitriadis said. The process of creating a standard is very slow, and it's inevitable that companies' technology will move much faster than the administrative process, he said.

"There's a risk of having brilliant people spending time on something that does not get implemented," Dimitriadis said.

Mozilla Updates Firefox to Patch 'Canvas' Bug

Just four days after releasing version of Firefox 2.0 to fix six known bugs, browser developers at Mozilla Corp. had to scramble push out another update.
Just four days after releasing version of Firefox 2.0 to fix six known bugs, browser developers at Mozilla Corp. had to scramble push out another update -- version -- to fix a new bug that caused problems when the browser was rendering "canvas" HTML elements. The latest version was released on Friday, marking the first time Mozilla has issued to updates to the popular open-source browser in one week.

Version was released last Monday.

The most recent canvas problems were detailed last week by Mozilla, which said at the time it expected to have an updated version out by last Friday.

Canvas elements, which were first used by Apple Inc. in its Safari browser, allow Web site designers to dynamically render bitmap images in HTML. Firefox, Safari and Opera support Canvas natively; Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer does so with a plug-in.

All editions of Firefox -- for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux -- break pages that include the Canvas element, and cripple at least two Firefox extensions, FoxSaver and Fotofox.

The new version of Firefox is available for free download on the Mozilla Web site.

CompUSA Closing Up Shop

Computer and electronics retailer CompUSA announces that it will start winding down its retail operations after being acquired by an investment firm.
Computer and electronics retailer CompUSA announced on Friday that it would start winding down its retail operations after being acquired by an investment firm, which is looking to sell the company's business and assets.

Gordon Brothers Group is discussing with different parties the sale of stores in key retail markets and CompUSA's other assets, including the Internet retail unit and technical-support-services business CompUSA TechPro.

The retail stores that don't sell will be shut down, CompUSA said in a statement. The 103 stores will remain open during the holiday shopping season and provide heavy discounts on products.

The sale comes amid the financial struggles of CompUSA's parent company, Mexico-based holding company US Commercial Corp. SA de CV.

During the third quarter of 2007, the company reported a loss of 494.8 million Mexican pesos ($45.7 million) on revenue of 4.6 billion Mexican pesos. The company also reported losses the previous two fiscal years.

In February, CompUSA said it would shut 126 stores as part of a massive restructuring effort in which it received a $400 million cash infusion from an unnamed investor.

Carlos Slim Helu, the chairman of Grupo Carso, which holds a majority stake in US Commercial Corp. SA de CV, was looking to sell his share in CompUSA with the retailer struggling, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company approached rivals Circuit City Stores, Micro Electronics and Systemax to take over the store and its operations, but no deal was struck, the Journal said.

Slim Helu, who also operates retail businesses in Latin America, poured about $2 billion into CompUSA since 1999, the Journal said. Slim Helu also held a 9.2 percent stake in Circuit City, but sold off his share after an unsolicited bid to acquire the company was rejected by a Circuit City board.

Suspicion of Israeli Interference Leads Syria to Block Its Residents' Access to Facebook

Syria Blocks Access to Facebook.
Syrian authorities have blocked Facebook, the popular Internet hangout, over what seems to be fears of Israeli "infiltration" of Syrian social networks on the Net, according to residents and media reports.

Residents of Damascus said that they have not been able to enter Facebook for more than two weeks. An Associated Press reporter got a blank page when he tried to open Facebook's home page Friday from the Syrian capital.

Syrian officials were not available for comment Friday because of the Muslim weekend, but some reports have suggested that the ban was intended to prevent Israeli users from infiltrating Syrian social networks.

Lebanon's daily As-Safir reported that Facebook was blocked on Nov. 18. It said the authorities took the step because Israelis have been entering Syria-based groups.

Human rights groups have regularly criticized Syrian authorities for blocking opposition sites and Internet sites critical of President Bashar Assad's government.

Former President Hafez Assad's death in 2000 after three decades of authoritarian rule raised hopes of a freer society under his British-educated son and successor.

But the younger Assad cracked down on political opponents and human rights activists, putting many of them in jail.

Hackers Launch Major Attack on US Military Labs

"sophisticated cyberattack" has been detected at Oak Ridge National Laboratory over the last several weeks, and authorities suspect the hackers are based in China.

The breach might have compromised the personal information of thousands of visitors to the lab, according to a communiqué sent to employees.

Hackers have succeeded in breaking into the computer systems of two of the U.S.' most important science labs, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Hackers have succeeded in breaking into the computer systems of two of the U.S.' most important science labs, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

In what a spokesperson for the Oak Ridge facility described as a "sophisticated cyber attack," it appears that intruders accessed a database of visitors to the Tennessee lab between 1990 and 2004, which included their social security numbers and dates of birth. Three thousand researchers reportedly visit the lab each year, a who's who of the science establishment in the U.S.

The attack was described as being conducted through several waves of phishing emails with malicious attachments, starting on Oct. 29. Although not stated, these would presumably have launched Trojans if opened, designed to bypass security systems from within, which raises the likelihood that the attacks were targeted specifically at the lab.

ORNL director, Thom Mason, described the attacks in an email to staff earlier this week as being a "coordinated attempt to gain access to computer networks at numerous laboratories and other institutions across the country."

"Because of the sensitive nature of this event, the laboratory will be unable for some period to discuss further details until we better understand the full nature of this attack," he added.

The ORNL has set up a web page giving an official statement on the attacks, with advice to employees and visitors that they should inform credit agencies so as to minimize the possibility of identity theft.

Less is known about the attacks said to have been launched against the ORNL's sister-institution at Los Alamos, but the two are said to be linked. It has not been confirmed that the latter facility was penetrated successfully, though given that a Los Alamos spokesman said that staff had been notified of an attack on Nov. 9 - days after the earliest attack wave on the ORNL - the assumption has to be that something untoward happened there as well, and probably at other science labs across the U.S.

The ORNL is a multipurpose science lab, a site of technological expertise used in homeland security and military research, and also the site of one of the world's fastest supercomputers. Los Alamos operates a similar multi-disciplinary approach, but specializes in nuclear weapons research, one of only two such sites doing such top-secret work in the U.S.

Los Alamos has a checkered security history, having suffered a sequence of embarrassing breaches in recent years. In August of this year, it was revealed that the lab had released sensitive nuclear research data by email, while in 2006 a drug dealer was allegedly found with a USB stick containing data on nuclear weapons tests.

"This appears to be a new low, even drug dealers can get classified information out of Los Alamos," Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), said at the time. Two years earlier, the lab was accused of having lost hard disks

The possibility that the latest attacks were the work of fraudsters will be seen by some as optimistic - less positive would be the possibility of a rival government having been involved. Given the apparently coordinated nature of events, speculation will inevitably point to this scenario, with the data theft a cover motivation for more serious incursions.

The intrusion is under active investigation by multiple agencies. FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials tell ABC News they believe the attacks originated in China with Chinese entities probing U.S. systems.

Investigators have not been able to determine whether the attacks came from government or private entities in China.

The statement, from Laboratory Director Thom Mason, said the attack "appears to be part of a coordinated attempt to gain access to computer networks at numerous laboratories and other institutions across the country."

Other federal labs, including Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have also been targeted in the scheme.

Livermore lab spokesman Stephen Wampler tells ABC News that the facilities employees received "approximately 1,000 spam-type e-mails with attachments" in October and November, but said the lab's cybersecurity systems thwarted the attempted attack.

"As a result, there was no compromise of data at our laboratory," he said.

A Los Alamos spokesman said the lab notified employees on Nov. 9 that a "malicious, sophisticated hacking event" affected a small number of computers on the facility's unclassified network.

"A significant amount of data was removed," the spokesman said. "The exact nature of the information is currently under computer forensic investigation."

As for the Oak Ridge breach, the message went on to explain that "hackers potentially succeeded in gaining access to one of the laboratory's nonclassified databases that contained personal information of visitors to the laboratory between 1990 and 2004."

The personal information at risk includes names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of the visitors.

"You would be amazed at the number of attempts we experience every week, both coordinated and uncoordinated, to penetrate networks," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday, "whether it is government agencies or private sector agencies."

Chertoff said that the department has been increasing its anti-hacking efforts over the past months. He said cyber security protection requires a multi-pronged approach, including building firewalls to prevent outside intrusion and increasing the funding of cyber security efforts, but that computer users also need to be mindful about opening suspicious emails.

As part of the hit on Oak Ridge, "thieves made approximately 1,100 attempts to steal data with a very sophisticated strategy that involved sending staff a total of seven 'phishing' e-mails, all of which at first glance appeared legitimate."

One of the fake e-mails appeared to be an announcement for a scientific conference; the other claimed it was a notice of a complaint on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission.

The lab's investigation found that approximately 11 employees took the bait and opened the e-mail attachments, "which enabled the hackers to infiltrate the system and remove data."

The sensitive Tennessee nuclear research facility has a staff of more than 4,200 and hosts approximately 3,000 guest researchers each year.

Mason said in the communiqué that the lab would attempt to contact the possible victims of the breach, but acknowledges that "the large number of out-of-date addresses will complicate this effort."

On a Web site the lab created to provide information to those at risk, a message recommends visitors place a fraud alert on their credit file, though Mason's message states that there is currently no evidence that any of the hacked information has been used.

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