Posted Feb. 17, 2017 at 7:21 a.m.

Tech wrap: AT&T unlimited plan; Samsung heir arrested; robots probe reactor mess; gene editing patent ruling

Published: 2017-02-17 07:21:30
Updated: 2017-02-17 07:21:30

Bulldog Bulletin

In today's Bulldog wrapup of technology and science news:

  • AT&T trumpets its own new unlimited plan
  • Samsung family succession hits snag with chief's arrest
  • Robot probes show Japan reactor cleanup worse than expected
  • Gene editing patent ruling sways fortune of biotech hopefuls

The details:

  • AT&T trumpets its own new unlimited plan

AT&T says any cellphone customer can sign up for unlimited data plans starting Friday. That option had been limited to customers of AT&T-owned DirecTV.

The change comes just days after Verizon announced an unlimited plan without such restrictions.

All four major cellphone providers now offer unlimited plans, a major reversal from a few years ago. AT&T's version costs the same as Verizon's — $180 — for a family of four but is pricier for an individual. Sprint and T-Mobile are cheaper.

Sprint also said Thursday that it's letting unlimited customers watch video in high definition rather than DVD quality. T-Mobile announced a similar change Monday after Verizon said HD video was included. AT&T's unlimited plan degrades video to DVD quality, but customers can turn HD video back on for free.

  • Samsung family succession hits snag with chief's arrest

South Korea was taken by surprise Friday with the arrest of the scion of the country's richest family and de-facto leader at Samsung over his alleged involvement in a massive corruption scandal that engulfed the president and riveted the nation.

Prosecutors believe Lee Jae-yong, 48, a vice chairman at Samsung Electronics and the only son of the ailing Samsung chairman, gave bribes worth $36 million to President Park Geun-hye and her close friend to help win government support for a smooth company leadership transition, including a contentious merger of two Samsung companies.

  • Robot probes show Japan reactor cleanup worse than expected

Robot probes sent to one of Japan's wrecked Fukushima nuclear reactors have suggested worse-than-anticipated challenges for the plant's ongoing cleanup.

The plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the remote-controlled "scorpion" robot was sent into the Unit 2 reactor's containment vessel Thursday to investigate the area around the core that had melted six years ago, but its crawling function failed while climbing over highly radioactive debris.

The robot, carrying a dosimeter, thermometer and two small cameras, transmitted some data and visuals but could not locate melted fuel — key information to determine how to remove debris out of the reactor. The robot was abandoned inside the vessel at a location where it won't block a future probe.

Preliminary examinations over the past few weeks have detected structural damage to planned robot routes and higher-than-expected radiation inside the Unit 2 containment chamber, suggesting the need to revise robot designs and probes.

  • Gene editing patent ruling sways fortune of biotech hopefuls

In a highly anticipated decision that could sway the fortunes of a handful of biotechnology companies, the federal patent office has turned back a challenge to patents covering a widely used method for editing genes.

The office's board of appeals ruled Wednesday that the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard can keep patents it had been awarded for a technique called CRISPR that lets scientists alter DNA within cells.

It turned back a challenge from the University of California, Berkeley. The school had filed its own CRISPR patent application in 2012 a few months before the Broad institute, but the Broad got its patents approved while Berkeley's application is pending.

The financial implications are huge, since CRISPR may lead to many lucrative products in medicine, agriculture and elsewhere. One company that has licensed Broad's technology, Editas Medicine Inc., saw its shares jump by 29 percent Wednesday.

In a statement, Berkeley said it respects the ruling, but that it will "carefully consider all options for possible next steps in this legal process, including the possibility of an appeal."

The patent dispute involved work led by Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier at Berkeley.

Lawyers for Berkeley maintained that Doudna and Charpentier were the first to invent CRISPR for use in all settings. They said the work at Broad, which showed how to use CRISPR in the relatively complex cells of plants, people and other animals, wasn't enough of an advance beyond the Berkeley work to warrant its own patents.

The appeals board, however, concluded that the Broad work was not simply an obvious extension of the research described in the Berkeley patent application. So Broad's patent coverage is different from Berkeley's, the board ruled.

Jacob Sherkow, who specializes in patent law for matters of biological sciences at the New York Law School, said he thinks it would be worthwhile for Berkeley to take the matter to a federal appeals court.

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