Random Samples

Science  07 Jan 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6013, pp. 13

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  1. Cavemen Craved Carbs, Too


      Thank goodness they didn't brush. Plaque stuck to the teeth of three Neandertals who died more than 35,000 years ago has yielded evidence that the hominids ate plant food, including cooked plants, and not exclusively meat, as some scientists have suggested.

      No one knows why Neandertals disappeared about 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, as modern humans spread across Europe. Some data have suggested that they ate almost exclusively big game, which led to a hypothesis that they couldn't get enough calories to compete with modern humans.

      But Amanda Henry, a graduate student of physical anthropology at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C., thought their teeth might tell a different tale. Like a dental hygienist to the Paleolithic, Henry used dental tools to scrape tiny patches of calculus, or hardened plaque deposits, off Neandertal teeth from museum collections. Through a microscope, she saw grains of starch from seeds of cereal-like grasses; grains of cooked starch; legumelike starches; and hard structures, known as phytoliths, from date palms. Henry, along with anthropologist Alison Brooks of GWU and archaeobotanist Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, reported the results online 27 December 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

      “Here you have good research putting nails in the coffin of the ‘meat-eating Neandertals,’” says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who did not work on the project. He says this shows that, like modern humans, Neandertals ate what was available. “So the question, what caused the demise of the Neandertals and the success of the modern humans—I'm afraid we are not going to find this in the kitchen,” Bar-Yosef says.

    1. Chubby Little Guys


        Baby fat may be cute, but in extreme cases it could doom young children to a lifetime of dangerous weight troubles, according to a study published in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

        Obesity researchers Brian Moss of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and William Yeaton of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, studied data from 16,400 children in the United States born in 2001. At 9 months, 31.9% of the children were either obese or at risk for becoming obese by the standards of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By age 2, the proportion of at-risk or obese children jumped to 34.3%; 44% of the obese babies were still obese, and 20% of the at-risk babies had grown into obese toddlers. “We were surprised that kids seemed pretty disposed for obesity at such a young age,” Moss says.

        Hakon Hakonarson, a geneticist and obesity researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, says the study highlights the importance of early intervention in preventing obesity. “It's pretty much what people envisioned to be the case, but now there's data to back it up,” he says.

      1. Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose


          A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but duplicate scientific names—and for the rose genus, there are at least 191—are pitfalls for botanists. Now there's a solution. On 29 December 2010, a team from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom announced the completion of The Plant List (www.theplantlist.org), a searchable online compendium of all 1,040,426 species names ever recorded.

          Before computers, it was nearly impossible to exhaustively search the literature before naming a new species, so duplicates started to pile up. For about 3 decades, both botanical gardens have been working on electronic databases. In 2008, they joined forces and set computers to the task of sorting out synonyms (Science, 10 September 2010, p. 1274). The result: Only 298,900 of the million or so names describe unique species; 477,601 are synonyms.

          Another 263,925 names remain unresolved. The team hopes botanists worldwide will help edit the list as they use it. “This is just the start,” says botanist Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “But it's a big start.”

        1. They Said It

            “When the idea first arose of a miniseries on materials science, my first thought was, ‘Who will watch this?’ Unlike chemistry, physics, biology, who has even heard of materials science? But as I came to see, … there's a reason, after all, why great historical ages are all named for stuff, the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. Learning that was my personal ‘duh’ moment.”

            —Paula Apsell, executive producer of NOVA's Making Stuff, a four-part television series on materials science. The first episode airs on the U.S. PBS network on 19 January.