Tagged: Australia

Ancient DNA unravels Europe’s genetic diversity

Ancient DNA recovered from a time series of skeletons in Germany spanning 4,000 years of prehistory has been used to reconstruct the first detailed genetic history of modern-day Europeans.

The study…reveals dramatic population changes with waves of prehistoric migration, not only from the accepted path via the Near East, but also from Western and Eastern Europe.

The research was a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA…researchers from the University of Mainz, the State Heritage Museum in Halle, Germany, and National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project. The teams used mitochondrial DNA extracted from bone and teeth samples from 364 prehistoric human skeletons ‒ ten times more than previous ancient DNA studies.

“This is the largest and most detailed genetic time series of Europe yet created, allowing us to establish a complete genetic chronology,” says joint-lead author Dr Wolfgang Haak of ACAD. “Focussing on this small but highly important geographic region meant we could generate a gapless record, and directly observe genetic changes in ‘real-time’ from 7,500 to 3,500 years ago, from the earliest farmers to the early Bronze Age.”

“Our study shows that a simple mix of indigenous hunter-gatherers and the incoming Near Eastern farmers cannot explain the modern-day diversity alone,” says joint-lead author Guido Brandt, PhD candidate at the University of Mainz. “The genetic results are much more complex than that. Instead, we found that two particular cultures at the brink of the Bronze Age 4,200 years ago had a marked role in the formation of Central Europe’s genetic makeup.”

Professor Kurt Alt (University of Mainz) says: “What is intriguing is that the genetic signals can be directly compared with the changes in material culture seen in the archaeological record. It is fascinating to see genetic changes when certain cultures expanded vastly, clearly revealing interactions across very large distances.” These included migrations from both Western and Eastern Europe towards the end of the Stone Age…

Dr Haak says: “None of the dynamic changes we observed could have been inferred from modern-day genetic data alone, highlighting the potential power of combining ancient DNA studies with archaeology to reconstruct human evolutionary history.”

Fascinating stuff. Work which wouldn’t have been at all practical a decade or so back in time.

My personal pleasure was taking part in an early National Geographic DNA track of my patriarchal DNA from Africa through the steppes of Central Asia to Scotland – perfectly in line with the research of Gerhard Herm and his anthropological history of “The Celts”.

Capabilities are advanced enough that I may try an updated go-round with NatGeo.

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Six myths about vaccination – and why they’re wrong


Same myths stateside as in Oz – same silly anti-science culture

Recently released government figures show levels of childhood vaccination have fallen to dangerously low levels in some areas of Australia, resulting in some corners of the media claiming re-ignition of “the vaccine debate”…

Well, scientifically, there’s no debate. In combination with clean water and sanitation, vaccines are one of the most effective public health measures ever introduced, saving millions of lives every year.

1. Vaccines cause autism

Thiomersal or ethyl-mercury was removed from all scheduled childhood vaccines in 2000, so if it were contributing to rising cases of autism, you would expect a dramatic drop following its removal. Instead, like the MMR in Japan, the opposite happened, and autism continues to rise.

Further evidence comes from a recently published exhaustive review examining 12,000 research articles covering eight different vaccines which also concluded there was no link between vaccines and autism.

Yet the myth persists and probably for several reasons, one being that the time of diagnosis for autism coincides with kids receiving several vaccinations and also, we currently don’t know what causes autism. But we do know what doesn’t, and that’s vaccines.

2. Smallpox and polio have disappeared so there’s no need to vaccinate anymore

It’s precisely because of vaccines that diseases such as smallpox have disappeared…

The impact of vaccine complacency can be observed in the current measles epidemic in Wales where there are now over 800 cases and one death, and many people presenting are of the age who missed out on MMR vaccination following the Wakefield scare.

In many ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success, leading us to forget just how debilitating preventable diseases can be – not seeing kids in calipers or hospital wards full of iron lungs means we forget just how serious these diseases can be.

3. More vaccinated people get the disease than the unvaccinated

Although this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s actually true, but it doesn’t mean that vaccines don’t work as anti-vaxers will conflate. Remember that no vaccine is 100% effective and vaccines are not a force field. So while it’s still possible to get the disease you’ve been vaccinated against, disease severity and duration will be reduced…

So since the majority of the population is vaccinated, it follows that most people who get a particular disease will be vaccinated, but critically, they will suffer fewer complications and long-term effects than those who are completely unprotected.

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Queensland researchers brew up a hydrating beer

Quenching a hard earned thirst with a big cold beer just got better for you – thanks to the work of some clever Queensland scientists.

Researchers from Griffith University’s health institute have discovered that it is possible to substantially improve the hydrating effects of the amber ale.

By adding electrolytes, an ingredient commonly found in sports drinks, and reducing the alcohol content researchers found that beer could become even more refreshing. And the best news for beer drinkers is that the taste of the modified brews didn’t change.

As part of the study, the researchers modified two commercial beers, one regular strength and one light beer. They then gave them to volunteers who had worked up a sweat after exercise to test fluid recovery.

Associate Professor Ben Desbrow said the light beer which had been combined with electrolytes provided the best level of hydration.

“Of the four different beers the subjects consumed, our augmented light beer was by far the most well retained by the body, meaning it was the most effective at re-hydrating the subjects,” he said.

Professor Desbrow said it was more effective to tell people how to minimise dehydration than telling them not to drink.

I believe it. Especially when it comes to beer drinking after exercise, whether it’s sport or straight-up physical labor.

Still, I wonder if our followers in Oz – or any other major beer drinking culture – would approve?

Panel calls for protecting world’s largest boreal forest


Click to enlarge

At least half of Canada’s 1.4 billion acre boreal forest, the largest remaining intact wilderness on Earth, must be protected to maintain the area’s current wildlife and ecological systems, according to a report by an international panel of 23 experts.

The report, published by the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel, was released July 22, the same day that panel members made recommendations to protect Canada’s vast wild lands at a symposium at the International Congress for Conservation Biology…

The goal is to protect these ecosystems before oil, gas, mining and lumber companies develop areas and extract natural resources, which often fragment and degrade previously pristine land, said Jeff Wells…associate scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and panel member.

“Elsewhere, [conservationists] are trying to stem the losses by protecting little pieces of land, or by restoring remnants to what they used to be,” by spending large amounts of money after development has already begun, said Wells, who is science adviser to Pew’s international boreal conservation campaign.

The new guidelines for conserving such large natural areas far exceed the previous science-based standard of protecting 10 percent to 12 percent of land to maintain wildlife. New science, including computer models that calculate the minimum amount of land necessary to support many species and their interactions, led to the revised guidelines, Wells said.

The report recommends that members of some 600 aboriginal communities in Canada should lead decisions and play major roles in planning where and how to conserve land. In this way, Canada can take their lead from Australia, where 58 Indigenous Protected Areas cover more than 120 million acres – an area larger than California – and employ close to 700 indigenous people in a ranger program. Such programs combine Western science while bringing in indigenous knowledge about hunting areas, sacred sites, key conservation areas and suggestions for economic development…

The hope is that conservation strategies in Canada and Australia’s outback will provide models for conservation in other parts of the world, said Wells. There have also been discussions of future conferences that might include strategies for conserving Siberian forests, the Amazon rainforest and the Congo basin, which account for other large pristine tracts of wilderness…

Bravo. I hadn’t realized that the Pew Foundation had established segments as specialized as the protection of boreal lands. Wow. Time for me to spend more time studying their mission in addition to the superb polling and research most political writers examine.

Bland Aussies want to link up with Dull and Boring

An Australian county called Bland hopes to link up with Dull in Perthshire and the tiny Scottish village’s official US twin, Boring in Oregon – in an attempt to create a triumvirate of tedium called Dull, Boring and Bland.

Even though residents of Bland in New South Wales are fed up with people ridiculing them, they want to cash in on humorous publicity by joining with the pair…

It was named after William Bland, whose life was anything but. The London-born son of an obstetrician was transported as a convict to Van Diemen’s Land in 1814 after killing a sailor in a duel in Bombay.

He was later pardoned, became a pillar of colonial life and founded the Australian Medical Association.

There must be a few extra jots of humor in a doctor’s association founded by someone convicted of manslaughter.

Scientists clone extinct frog


Artist’s impression of the gastric-brooding frogArtwork: Peter Schouten

Australian scientists have successfully revived and reactivated the genome of an extinct frog. The “Lazarus Project” team implanted cell nuclei from tissues collected in the 1970s and kept in a conventional deep freezer for 40 years into donor eggs from a distantly-related frog. Some of the eggs spontaneously began to divide and grow to early embryo stage with tests confirming the dividing cells contained genetic material from the extinct frog.

The extinct frog in question is the Rheobatrachus silus, one of only two species of gastric-brooding frogs, or Platypus frogs, native to Queensland, Australia. Both species became extinct in the mid-1980s and were unique amongst frog species for the way in which they incubated their offspring. After the eggs were fertilized by the male, the female would then swallow the eggs until they hatched. The tadpoles would then develop in the female’s stomach for at least six weeks – during which time the female would not eat – before being regurgitated and raised in shallow water.

With the aim of bringing the frog back from extinction, the Lazarus Project team took fresh donor eggs from the Great Barred Frog, another Australian ground-swelling frog that is distantly related to the gastric-brooding frog. The scientists inactivated the egg nuclei from the donor eggs and replaced them with dead nuclei from the extinct frog in a technique known as somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which was the basis for the cloning of Dolly the sheep and, more recently, 581 clones from one “donor” mouse.

Although none of the embryos survived longer than a few days, the work is encouraging for others looking to clone a variety of currently-extinct animals, such as the woolly mammoth, dodo, Cuban red macaw and New Zealand’s giant moa.

We are watching Lazarus arise from the dead, step by exciting step,” says the leader of the Lazarus Project team, Professor Mike Archer, of the University of New South Wales, Sydney…“We’re increasingly confident that the hurdles ahead are technological and not biological and that we will succeed. Importantly, we’ve demonstrated already the great promise this technology has as a conservation tool when hundreds of the world’s amphibian species are in catastrophic decline.”

Bravo! So far, the anti-science crowd haven’t latched onto this research to be focal point in any of their morality plays.Though, that’s less likely in Oz than our neck of the prairie, anyway.

I went after guns. Obama can, too. So says the former Conservative Prime Minister of Australia.

It is for Americans and their elected representatives to determine the right response to President Obama’s proposals on gun control. I wouldn’t presume to lecture Americans on the subject. I can, however, describe what I, as prime minister of Australia, did to curb gun violence following a horrific massacre 17 years ago in the hope that it will contribute constructively to the debate in the United States.

I was elected prime minister in early 1996, leading a center-right coalition. Virtually every nonurban electoral district in the country — where gun ownership was higher than elsewhere — sent a member of my coalition to Parliament.

Six weeks later, on April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant, a psychologically disturbed man, used a semiautomatic Armalite rifle and a semiautomatic SKS assault weapon to kill 35 people in a murderous rampage in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

After this wanton slaughter, I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people. I also knew it wouldn’t be easy…

Because Australia is a federation of states, the national government has no control over gun ownership, sale or use, beyond controlling imports. Given our decentralized system of government, I could reduce the number of dangerous firearms only by persuading the states to enact uniform laws totally prohibiting the ownership, possession and sale of all automatic and semiautomatic weapons while the national government banned the importation of such weapons.

To make this plan work, there had to be a federally financed gun buyback scheme. Ultimately, the cost of the buyback was met by a special one-off tax imposed on all Australians. This required new legislation and was widely accepted across the political spectrum. Almost 700,000 guns were bought back and destroyed — the equivalent of 40 million guns in the United States.

City dwellers supported our plan, but there was strong resistance by some in rural Australia. Many farmers resented being told to surrender weapons they had used safely all of their lives. Penalizing decent, law-abiding citizens because of the criminal behavior of others seemed unfair. Many of them had been lifelong supporters of my coalition and felt bewildered and betrayed by these new laws. I understood their misgivings. Yet I felt there was no alternative…

For a time, it seemed that certain states might refuse to enact the ban. But I made clear that my government was willing to hold a nationwide referendum to alter the Australian Constitution and give the federal government constitutional power over guns. Such a referendum would have been expensive and divisive, but it would have passed. And all state governments knew this.

In the end, we won the battle to change gun laws because there was majority support across Australia for banning certain weapons. And today, there is a wide consensus that our 1996 reforms not only reduced the gun-related homicide rate, but also the suicide rate.

In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996.

But, this is America. We haven’t a habit of letting facts get in the way of political ideology. It will take mass support in every state for any level of reform to gun law.

What passes for conservatism in many other nations still allows for educated opinions. Today’s generation of Republican misleaders got position and power on the basis of religious fundamentalism and bigotry. They may be a dying breed; but they couldn’t care less about how anyone else dies.

Amateur prospector finds massive 5.5 kg gold nugget

An amateur Australian prospector who hadn’t had much luck searching for gold has struck it rich, unearthing a nugget heavier than a newborn baby and worth more than $300,000.

The anonymous prospector discovered the 5.5 kg nugget near the country town of Ballarat and in an area known as the “Golden Triangle” due to its rich veins which sparked a gold rush in the 1850s.

The find came to light on Wednesday when the man walked into the Ballarat Mining Exchange Gold Shop and told owner Cordell Kent: “Mate, I found a good one”. He then revealed the nugget, adding that he had weighed it on the bathroom scales at home…

The Y-shaped nugget, 22 centimeters long and 14 centimeters wide, was found by the prospector using an Australian-made gold detector.

“The intrinsic gold value is about $301,100, but because it’s a natural raw specimen and they’re extremely rare it’s got a value far in excess of that,” Kent said…

Kent said the find was likely to create a new, mini gold rush. “It’s given a lot of prospectors great hope that there still are great pieces out there,” said Kent.

Let’s go!