Science  21 Oct 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6054, pp. 296

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  1. CSI: Amphorae?

    What did amphorae, the ubiquitous ceramic jugs of the ancient Mediterranean maritime world, actually contain? To find out, maritime archaeologist Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and colleagues turned to a CSI-like method: swiping the insides of the amphorae with a swab. They swabbed nine 5th to 3rd century B.C.E. amphorae for DNA and compared it with snippets of DNA from various plants.

    They identified DNA from a range of commodities, including olive oil, olives, and wine, as well as traces of DNA from oregano, thyme, mint, and juniper, the team reports in a study published online this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Eight of the nine amphorae bore DNA from a complex mixture of foods, suggesting that amphorae were reused, Foley says.

    Not everyone is convinced that the technique works, however. It is “remarkable” that an amphora “should release endogenous DNA by simply swabbing the surface,” Oliver Craig of the University of York in the United Kingdom said via e-mail. Craig, who specializes in recovering DNA and other molecules from ancient artifacts, says he would need to see more control tests to be convinced.

  2. Cute TV Chimps May Harm Wild Brethren


    Some entertainment industry moguls claim that chimpanzees dressed in clothes and clowning around fosters sympathy for the species. But a study published 12 October in PLoS ONE suggests the opposite: People who watch such shows or ads decide chimpanzees are abundant in the wild and don't need further protection.

    Evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues asked 165 people to answer a questionnaire about the status of chimpanzees in the wild after watching television ads for products such as toothpaste and soft drinks. Mixed in with the ads was one of three short films about chimpanzees. One showed Jane Goodall urging for their protection; another showed footage of chimpanzees in the wild; and the third showed chimpanzees “acting” in ads.

    The results suggested absolutely “no support for the familiarity hypothesis,” Hare says. More than 35% of those who watched the humorous ads thought individuals should have the right to own a chimpanzee as a pet, compared with only 10% of those who watched the two other films. Those who watched the entertainment chimps were also least likely to donate to a conservation charity.

  3. Black Death Spawned Modern Plague


    These skeletons—excavated in the 1980s from a 14th century graveyard in London—belonged to six of the estimated 30 million people who died from the Black Death, the plague epidemic that swept Europe between 1347 and 1351. Researchers used teeth from the same graveyard—home to 2500 plague victims—to reconstruct 99% of the genome of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. An analysis of that microbial DNA published online 12 October in Nature suggests that Y. pestis strains currently circulating around the world are all descendents of the medieval strain believed to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population. The 14th century genome closely resembled those of modern strains and did not have any obvious unique mutations that might explain its unprecedented virulence. Other factors—such as the population's susceptibility or the ecology of rodents and fleas, which help spread the disease—were probably responsible for the medieval calamity, the team concludes.