Random Samples

Science  24 Feb 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5764, pp. 1081
  1. Lighting up in Vermont


    Some are trying to make Vermont smoke-free these days, but it wasn't always thus. An analysis of residues from a pipe unearthed at a site in northern Vermont has pushed dates of the earliest tobacco use in the eastern United States back at least 500 years.

    Archaeologists have been unsure about how and when tobacco spread northward from its origins in South America. Tobacco seeds from a New Mexico cave have been dated to 1040 B.C.E., but the earliest well-accepted traces in the east are some 1200 years later.

    Recently, Sean Rafferty, an archaeologist at the University of Albany in New York, obtained the residues from a pipe found buried with a young woman at the site. The burial was dated to about 300 B.C.E., and gas chromatography and mass spectrography tests revealed that the residue contained nicotine. Rafferty, whose report will appear in the April Journal of Archaeological Science, speculates that tobacco may have been used even longer because the place of burial, known as the Boucher site, was founded about 700 B.C.E.

    David Anthony, an archaeologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, says that the finding—along with others by Rafferty in West Virginia—“establishes that tobacco smoking was widespread” at the time. He agrees with Rafferty that the pipes were probably used in rituals. The Boucher site was in the Adena tradition, a culture “defined by an explosion of ritual ceremonialism,” he says, and the type of tobacco used—Nicotiana rustica—was much stronger than that smoked today.

  2. Originating Life


    An experiment at a Russian volcano has thrown cold water on the theory that life on Earth began with organic materials in a puddle of hot water.

    The notion that the first biochemical steps toward life occurred 4 billion years ago at high temperatures is supported by lab experiments, as well as some genetic evidence that life started with microbes like those found in hot springs and around hydrothermal vents.

    Biophysicist David Deamer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his colleagues decided to see if they could create a semblance of life in a pool of water heated by volcanic activity on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. They added a “primordial soup” of proteins, DNA, and cell membranes. “Darwin proposed that life started in ‘a warm little pond.’ … We are testing his theory in ‘a hot little puddle,’” Deamer related at a meeting of the Royal Society in London last week.

    The soup ingredients largely disappeared in a few hours. The molecules had stuck to the clay that lined the pool and couldn't assemble. “It is an interesting experiment,” says chemist James Ferris of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, but he suggests that the puddle was too hot and acidic. Deamer plans to repeat the study at a puddle on a Hawaiian volcano where clay may be less of a problem.

  3. Fit for a Queen


    Archaeologists this month announced the discovery of a hidden tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt, the first since King Tutankhamun's was unearthed in 1922. The tantalizing possibility is that the tomb is the long-sought resting place of Queen Nefertiti.

    During routine fieldwork, a team led by Otto Schaden, an Egyptologist at the University of Memphis, Tennessee, came upon a 4-meter-deep stone shaft leading to a chamber holding mummies of several adults and a child. The style of the brightly colored sarcophagi dates them to about 1330 B.C.E., says Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “What is most exciting,” adds Bryan, “is [the tomb] offers a glimpse at the strangest period in Egyptian history”: the late 18th Dynasty, when the heretical King Akhenaten brought a brief period of sun-worshipping monotheism to Egypt. His wife Nefertiti acted as king after his death. Because Akhenaten's religion considered death final, “one theory is that Nefertiti's body was buried in the Valley of the Kings to make sure she had an afterlife,” says Bryan.

    Identification of the mummies will be tough. If no writ-ten record is found, Bryan says it might be useful to reconstruct their faces and compare them to an existing bust of the queen. “The tomb is most likely that of an elite but nonroyal group,” says Stephen Buckley, an Egyptologist at the University of York, U.K. But even without the queen, he says, it is “an exciting discovery” that will keep researchers busy for years to come.

  4. Mac Discrimination

    Macintosh computer users have yet another reason to complain about Microsoft founder Bill Gates: They're shut out of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) new online grant submission system.

    As a first step to a paperless process, NIH in December began accepting submissions for small business grants through Grants.gov. But that site uses an electronic form developed by a company, PureEdge Solutions, that only works on a Microsoft Windows platform. A temporary fix for Mac users—Windows-emulating software—hasn't worked out well, according to frustrated university officials quoted in a 13 February story in The Washington Post. PureEdge says a Mac version of the forms will be ready by November.

    NIH, besieged by complaints about the Mac flaw and other problems, has already announced that it is delaying electronic submissions for R01 research grants from October 2006 to February 2007.

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