Random Samples

Science  19 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6007, pp. 1027
  1. Mummies for Medicine

      CREDIT: P. PFISTER

      Most med students dissect cadavers, not mummies. Now Swiss researchers plan to use ancient DNA to attack some of the modern world's most pressing medical problems. They're part of a small but growing movement to unravel the mysteries of disease from a surprising new angle: evolution.

      Officially launched in late October, the University of Zurich's new Centre for Evolutionary Medicine will investigate both how diseases evolve and how humans become vulnerable to them. Some of their biggest questions involve changes in human anatomy, says the center's director, Frank Rühli, such as whether an increasingly sedentary lifestyle may have weakened spinal columns, causing back pain. They'll also take DNA from ancient remains, such as Egyptian mummies (see photo), to compare genomes of ancient pathogens with those of modern ones—a valuable tool for detecting how fast diseases evolve and how environmental changes can affect them. Knowing how maladies flourish, says Rühli, will give scientists a much better idea of how to combat them.

      With 11 researchers in Zurich and some 20 local and international collaborators, Rühli says the center will be larger than any other institute in the burgeoning field. He hopes its clinical—rather than theoretical—approach will help convince skeptics that an evolutionary perspective could have practical value. “We all think that biological evolution has stopped,” he says. But when anatomy can change in just a few decades, “that's not true.”

    1. High-Grade Hog

        CREDIT: DEPARTMENT OF BIORESOURCE ENGINEERING/MCGILL UNIVERSITY; INSET: THINKSTOCKPHOTOS.COM

        It may be “the other white meat,” but to find out which cuts of pork are the juiciest, food scientists are looking at all the colors in the spectrum.

        Last week, researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, announced their invention of a machine that uses spectroscopy—the same technique used to examine the molecular makeup of faraway stars and planets—to assess pork quality. The meat's texture, color, and moisture content all affect the wavelengths of light reflecting off its surface. Now the scientists have discovered how to parse that data to quickly assess whether the meat is tender or tough, fatty or lean.

        That allows pork producers to market their meat more accurately to the right customers, says lead researcher and bioengineer Michael Ngadi. For instance, Japan likes pigging out on more marbled, fattier meat, whereas Americans usually want leaner meat. Pork spectroscopy can also help regulatory agencies monitor whether pork producers keep their meat as lean as they claim, Ngadi says.

        Steve Larsen, director of pork safety at the National Pork Board in Des Moines, says the technique's value lies in its ability to quickly analyze color, texture, and moisture content with only one device. “We don't yet have one machine that does all three,” he says.

        The researchers are negotiating with several pork producers to develop their technique for industrial use. The technology can be used to analyze other meats, as well as eggs, says Ngadi. “We will be seeing more and more of this technology,” he says. “We just happen to be one of its early users.”

      1. They Said It

          "Given the swimming pools of booze I've guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol … you name it—there's really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why."

          —Rock star Ozzy Osbourne, explaining in a column in The Sunday Times why he let a company sequence his genome.

        1. Europe's First Farmers

            CREDIT: LDA SACHSEN-ANHALT

            Skilled migrants—or perhaps invaders—from what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and surrounding countries ignited the agricultural revolution in Europe some 10,000 years ago, according to a new analysis of DNA from German skeletons up to 7300 years old.

            Some scholars previously thought European hunter-gatherers could have learned farming from neighbors in the Near East, where agriculture originated. But 22 skeletons from a graveyard in central Germany tell a different story. Researchers led by Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide in Australia compared DNA sequences of the 22 ancient farmers with those of 55 different modern populations from Europe and countries in the Near East. Their results, published online in PLoS Biology on 9 November, suggest not mere technology transfer, but migration. “The lineage of the European farmers stretched back to the Near East,” says Haak.

            Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University in Canberra, an archaeologist not part of the research team, says the conclusions mirror much of what many archaeologists and linguists already suspect about migrations in the European Neolithic period. And powered by a larger food supply, early agricultural societies worldwide would have experienced population booms that could have fueled expansion. Such rapid growth “was clearly of tremendous significance in underpinning these migrations.”