Genetically tracking human migration — via mice

They may be small, but the information mice can convey about the movements of humans throughout history is mighty, according to a Cornell researcher.

Jeremy Searle, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, explores the global distribution of small mammals and has found that house mice (Mus musculus) are ideal biomarkers of human settlement as well. Where people go, so do mice, often stowing away in carts of hay or on ships. Despite a natural range of just 100 meters and an evolutionary base near Pakistan, the house mouse has managed to colonize every continent, which makes it a useful tool for researchers like Searle.

…Searle and co-author Eleanor Jones…showed how mice hitched a ride with the Vikings and set up colonies in areas where the Norwegians settled, such as the British Isles, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.

Previous research conducted by Searle at the University of York supported the theory that Australian mice originated in the British Isles and probably came over with convicts shipped there to colonize the continent in the late 18th and 19th centuries. He came to the conclusion by using evolutionary techniques to analyze mitochondrial DNA, comparing modern-day mouse populations from Australia with those from their likely regional source in Western Europe.

In the Viking study, he and his fellow researchers in Iceland, Denmark and Sweden took it a step further, using ancient mouse DNA collected from archaeological sites dating from the 10th to 12th centuries, as well as modern mice…

Using mice as a proxy for human movement can add to what is already known through archaeological data and answer important questions in areas where there is a lack of artifacts, Searle said…

Mice are living artifacts. They can tell us where people have moved in the same way a piece of pottery might tell us where an Etruscan merchant went. And because of the wealth of genetic data we can collect from mice, they might actually tell us much more than a piece of pottery,” Searle said.

I love this. His next study carries forward tracking mice from South Asia to East Africa. A study in genes, transportation and unintended consequences.

Visitors to U.S. face frustration, refusal under new system


Starting today, travelers visiting the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) risk being detained at airports and sent home if they don’t comply with new U.S. immigration rules.

The introduction of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) means visitors from 27 VWP countries — including most of Western Europe, New Zealand, Japan and Australia — must now register their details online at least three days before departure.

ESTA — which came into effect today — replaces the written green I-94 form and allows travelers under the VWP to enter the U.S. without a visa and stay for up to 90 days.

The measure is designed to tighten security and make it harder for terrorists who are citizens of the participating countries to easily obtain entry to the U.S…

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has assured travelers that the system can handle last-minute and emergency requests. Well, then we haven’t a thing to worry about. Right?

Travelers are advised that ESTA does not guarantee entry into the United States. The final decision rests with the immigration official at the port of entry.

I really like that last bit. You’re still in the hands of small-time individual pettifoggery.

Chunnel fire strands thousands

Truck driver arriving in a rescue shuttle at the French fire station

A major fire aboard a freight train damaged the undersea Channel Tunnel on Thursday, halting all rail traffic, including passenger services, between Britain and continental Europe, the tunnel operator said. Eurotunnel, the company which manages the tunnel, said there would be no freight or passenger travel on Friday and a spokesman said he could not say when services would resume.

The blaze turned one of the two main tunnel shafts into a smoking inferno. No one was killed, but six people fell ill after inhaling fumes and needed hospital treatment in Calais.

The French interior minister said emergency services had contained the fire some four hours after it was first detected and were starting to assess the situation.

It is probable that there is considerable damage because the firemen told me that the blaze got as hot as 1,000 degrees (Celsius),” Interior Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie said.

She said it might take “several weeks” to make the necessary repairs to the tunnel normally dedicated to freight transport, but a separate, parallel tunnel reserved for passenger trains was not touched by the flames, but Eurostar, which runs the passenger trains between London and the continent, was forced to shut down its service when the blaze took hold.

About 40,000 people a day travel through the Chunnel. Early start to the weekend, I guess.