PARIS

France now providing aid to five rebel-held Syrian cities

A diplomatic source says France has started providing direct aid to five rebel-held Syrian cities in the first such move by a Western power.

France is also stepping up contacts with armed opposition groups as it pushes to secure “liberated zones” in Syria, the official said.

The aid is notably helping restore water supplies, bakeries and schools affected by Syria’s civil war, the source said Wednesday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the French actions amid Syria’s violence.

He would not name the cities or explain how the aid is being provided, citing security reasons. He said the cities house a total of 700,000 residents and are securely outside control of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

NEW YORK

Massive DNA study reveals complex gene networks

A colossal international effort has yielded the first comprehensive look at how our DNA works, an encyclopedia of information that will rewrite the textbooks and offer new insights into the biology of disease.

For one thing, it may help explain why some people are more prone to common ailments such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

The findings, reported Wednesday by more than 500 scientists, reveal extraordinarily complex networks that tell our genes what to do and when, with millions of on-off switches.

“It’s this incredible choreography going on, of a modest number of genes and an immense number of … switches that are choreographing how those genes are used,” said Dr. Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which organized the project.

The work also shows that at least 80 percent of the human genetic code, or genome, is active. That’s surprisingly high and a sharp contrast to the idea that the vast majority of our DNA is junk.

LOS ANGELES

NASA’s Dawn moving on to a bigger asteroid target

Next and final stop: The biggest object in the asteroid belt.

After spending a year gazing at a giant asteroid, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Wednesday began the cruise toward an even bigger target – a voyage that will take nearly three years.

Ground controllers received a signal from Dawn that it successfully spiraled away from the asteroid Vesta and was headed toward the dwarf planet Ceres.

The departure was considered ho-hum compared with other recent missions – think Curiosity’s white-knuckle “seven minutes of terror” dive into Mars’ atmosphere. Firing its ion propulsion thrusters, Dawn gently freed itself from Vesta’s gravitational hold Tuesday night. Since its antenna was pointed away from Earth during the maneuver, NASA did not get confirmation until the next day.

It was “smooth and elegant and graceful,” said chief engineer Marc Rayman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $466 million mission.

Launched in 2007, Dawn is on track to become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with two celestial bodies in a bid to learn about the solar system’s evolution.

Dawn slipped into orbit last year around Vesta – about the size of Arizona – and beamed back stunning close-ups of the lumpy surface. Its next destination is the Texas-size Ceres. Vesta and Ceres are the largest bodies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that’s littered with space rocks that never quite bloomed into full-fledged planets.