Fossil finger points to a previously unknown human relative

East Gallery of the Denisova Cave

A 30,000-year-old finger bone found in a cave in southern Siberia came from a young girl who was neither an early modern human nor a Neanderthal, but belonged to a previously unknown group of human relatives who may have lived throughout much of Asia during the late Pleistocene epoch. Although the fossil evidence consists of just a bone fragment and one tooth, DNA extracted from the bone has yielded a draft genome sequence, enabling scientists to reach some startling conclusions about this extinct branch of the human family tree, called “Denisovans” after the cave where the fossils were found…

By comparing the Denisovan genome sequence with the genomes of Neanderthals and modern humans, the researchers determined that the Denisovans were a sister group to the Neanderthals, descended from the same ancestral population that had separated earlier from the ancestors of present-day humans. The study also found surprising evidence of Denisovan gene sequences in modern-day Melanesians, suggesting that there was interbreeding between Denisovans and the ancestors of Melanesians, just as Neanderthals appear to have interbred with the ancestors of all modern-day non-Africans.

The story now gets a bit more complicated,” said Richard Green, an assistant professor of biomolecular engineering in the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. “Instead of the clean story we used to have of modern humans migrating out of Africa and replacing Neanderthals, we now see these very intertwined story lines with more players and more interactions than we knew of before.”

The Denisovans appear to have been quite different both genetically and morphologically from Neanderthals and modern humans. The tooth found in the same cave as the finger bone shows a morphology that is distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans and resembles much older human ancestors, such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus. DNA analysis showed that the tooth and the finger bone came from different individuals in the same population.

It is not clear why fossil evidence had not already revealed the existence of this group of ancient human relatives. But Green noted that the finger bone was originally thought to be from an early modern human, and the tooth resembles those of other ancient human ancestors. “It could be that other samples are misclassified,” he said. “But now, by analyzing DNA, we can say more definitively what they are. It’s getting easier technically to do this, and it’s a great new way to extract information from fossil remains.”

Fascinating work. Think about this sort of research as a career or at least an avocation. Do your species some good with your spare time.

Placebos work — even without deception. WTF?

For most of us, the “placebo effect” is synonymous with the power of positive thinking; it works because you believe you’re taking a real drug. But a new study rattles this assumption.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have found that placebos work even when administered without the seemingly requisite deception…

Placebos—or dummy pills—are typically used in clinical trials as controls for potential new medications. Even though they contain no active ingredients, patients often respond to them. In fact, data on placebos is so compelling that many American physicians (one study estimates 50 percent) secretly give placebos to unsuspecting patients.

Because such “deception” is ethically questionable, HMS associate professor of medicine Ted Kaptchuk teamed up with colleagues at BIDMC to explore whether or not the power of placebos can be harnessed honestly and respectfully.

To do this, 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were divided into two groups: one group, the controls, received no treatment, while the other group received a regimen of placebos—honestly described as “like sugar pills”—which they were instructed to take twice daily.

“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” says Kaptchuk. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.”

For a three-week period, the patients were monitored. By the end of the trial, nearly twice as many patients treated with the placebo reported adequate symptom relief as compared to the control group (59 percent vs. 35 percent). Also, on other outcome measures, patients taking the placebo doubled their rates of improvement to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications…

The authors caution that this study is small and limited in scope and simply opens the door to the notion that placebos are effective even for the fully informed patient—a hypothesis that will need to be confirmed in larger trials.


I may take up the practice of psychosomatic medicine after all.

Babbo Natale arrests Italian mafioso thug

Father Christmas had a bad surprise in store on Thursday for a suspected Sicilian mafia member – an arrest for racketeering.

A policeman dressed as Father Christmas arrested the man in a sting operation as he was coming out of a shop where he had extracted some protection money.

“Father Christmas” dropped the bag of sweets that he was giving out and arrested 37-year-old Salvatore Politini, alleged to be a member of the Santapaola mafia clan in police footage shown on Italian television…

The shopkeeper had been allegedly forced to pay the mafia a protection racket of around 260 euros every month for 10 years.

The man arrested was carrying a ceramic plate and a panettone cake – believed to be payment in kind from other extortion victims.

I hope the shop owner was giving him the stale panettone.

Eating fish part of a healthy diet. Including fried?

Don’t forget a little grits and grease on the side!

Umm, no, at least not according to the latest results of a study on fish consumption and stroke. The survey found that people who live in the so-called “stroke belt” of the United States, which stretches from the Carolinas to Arkansas and Louisiana and where stroke rates are among the highest in the country, are less likely to eat the recommended two servings of fish per week. And when residents in these states do eat fish, they are more likely to have it in fried form.

That’s not a surprise, says the study’s lead author, Dr. Fadi Nahab, director of the stroke program at Emory University Hospital, given the popularity of fried foods in the South. But the results highlight one of the major contributors to the higher rates of stroke in the region, and that involves diet…

It turns out that most of the fish being consumed was fried, which negated its potential stroke-preventing benefits on several levels. First, as studies by researchers in Spain have found, the act of frying fish can cause fatty fish such as salmon, which is rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, to lose its beneficial oils; those oils get replaced with the often unhealthier oil in which the fish is fried. In addition, the types of fish that are normally fried, such as cod and other white fish, tend to be less dense in omega-3 fats.

“What we hope to highlight with our study is that it’s not just about having fish, but about how you prepare that fish,” says Nahab. “And it’s not about any kind of fish whatsoever, but having certain fish species that have more omega-3 fats, so if you’re going to have fish, it’s better to have fish like salmon, herring and mackerel that are much higher in omega-3 fats…”

Until then, the current study suggests that it’s not enough to simply eat fish, but to make sure that it’s cooked any way but fried. That may not be so easy to do in the South, but it could potentially shrink the girth of the stroke belt.

Shrinking any part of the average American girth is praiseworthy. Yes, including my own.

I suppose we will now be treated to Palin and her Teabagger copycats whining about Tradition being shunted aside by Those Intellectual Foodies. It’s always easier to create a straw man to rail against than to actually read what someone said.

There are better – and worse – methods for deep-frying than are usually practiced at retail. But, the point made in general about just using healthier techniques makes the most sense.

Renewable power in Scotland rises by a fifth

Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

More than a quarter of the electricity generated in Scotland last year was produced from wind, hydro and other renewable sources.

Official figures showed the amount of renewable power increased by a fifth, while the total power generated in Scotland went up by 3%.

Scotland exported nearly a quarter of the total power produced

Roseanna Cunningham, the environment and climate change minister, commented: “As Scotland faces a white Christmas, we are greening up our energy supply.

“Scotland is blessed with abundant natural energy sources, particularly in our seas, and today’s figures follow a steady trend towards Scotland’s energy becoming greener and cleaner”. She said 2010 had also been a “tremendous year” for the renewable power sector, with more wind power developments in the planning and construction pipeline.

She said Scotland was on course to meet its 2011 target of sourcing 31% of its electricity from renewable sources. The Scottish government recently uprated its targets to hit 80% by 2020.

Hand out a little credit where due. Brian Wilson got all this rolling when he was Cabinet Minister for Energy.

Whatever you may think of Brian’s dedication to Blair and Blairite politics, he got the Green direction in UK power production off the ground. Something that Blair probably wouldn’t have pressed for on his own.

IBM creating cloud-computing system for NATO

IBM has been tapped by NATO to build a new cloud-based computing system designed to help the 28 member nations better use and share data.

Selected for the project by NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT), Big Blue will be called upon to design and demonstrate a cloud-computing environment that would help the North Atlantic Treaty Organization plan and implement critical tasks, such as intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The goal is to see if NATO members can use a collaborative cloud to access data faster and make decisions more quickly…

The system will also need to be more secure, more scalable, and more cost-effective than the hodgepodge of systems used in the past…

That’s the bit that makes me chuckle over pundits who are heartsick and offended to death over cloud computing – because it may break down or be insecure. You mean like every other system already in use?

IBM will design and manage the system at NATO’s ACT command headquarters in Norfolk, Va. The project is part of NATO’s goal to modernize its technologies for the 21st century…

Wedding declared “worst day of their lives”

A couple are suing a hotel after a disastrous wedding that resulted in a catalogue of complaints.

Garry and Lorraine McKay are demanding their money back, plus £10,000 each in damages, claiming that their big day was the “worst day of their lives”, ruined by hotel staff who failed to live up to the standard promised in their brochures and letters.

An Edinburgh court heard that after the wedding, at the Hilton Coylumbridge, near Aviemore, several guests were struck down with food poisoning.

It was claimed that during the reception, sparkling wine ordered for the wedding party was given to other hotel guests by mistake, that cleaners tried to eject the bride from her room while she was getting ready and that guests were unable to taste the cake because the chef took it away.

The McKays said that the wedding ceremony was delayed because there was no blotter on the table to sign the register, that the reception started late, there were only five waiting staff to serve 15 tables and that some of the meals were cold.

They said that guests had been promised sticky toffee pudding but got spotted dick, there were no mints served with the coffee and there was a mix-up about whether drinks should be served inside or in the hotel grounds.

The court heard that when the bridal party complained about the service, a brandy and coke was sent up to the room for the bride’s 20-month-old daughter as an apology.

Mrs McKay, 46, told her local newspaper: “It was supposed to be the most important day of my life, but instead it turned out to be the worst. We saved up for ages to pay for it. This will haunt me forever.”

Har! Stand up for your rights as consumers, folks. We all get screwed often enough as it is.