Humans: You Have a New Cousin

archaeological conference participants inside Denisova caveGenetic material pulled from a pinky finger bone found in a Siberian cave shows that a formerly unknown type of pre-human lived alongside modern humans and Neanderthals.

The creature, temporarily nicknamed “Woman X”, could have lived as recently as 30,000 years ago and seems only distantly related to modern humans or Neanderthals.

Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said, “It really just looked like something we had never seen before… It was a sequence that looked something like humans but really quite different.”

Krause and colleagues said that they sequenced DNA from the mitochondria, a part of the cell, which is passed down virtually intact from woman to offspring. They compared it to the DNA of humans, Neanderthals and apes.

The sequence indicates the hominid’s line diverged about a million years ago from the line that gave rise to both humans and Neanderthals and that split about 500,000 years ago.

This makes it younger than Homo erectus, the pre-human that spread out of Africa to much of the world roughly 1.9 million years ago.

“It is some new creature that has not been on our radar screen so far,” said Svaante Paabo, Krause’s colleague who specializes in analyzing ancient DNA. “There were at least three …different forms of humans in this area 40,000 years ago.”

Krause and Paabo are not naming the creature as a new species just yet. They are currently working to sequence nuclear DNA – the DNA which makes up most of the genetic code. This will tell a great deal more about “Woman X”.

The genetic sequence tells scientists little about what the creature would have looked like or whether it interacted with humans living in the Altai Mountains of Siberia.

The work, performed using a DNA sequencer made by Illumina Ltd, suggests a new path is opening in the identification of ancestors of humanity. Krause and Paabo had only a small fragment of bone to work with and cannot reconstruct a skeleton in the time-honored manner of most paleontologists.

But there could possibly be more there. The cold, dry conditions of the Altai Mountains preserve the DNA well. Stone tools have also been found in the area, as well as the bones of woolly mammoths but only tantalizing fragments of human bones and teeth.

Scientists have sequenced DNA from mammoths frozen in Siberia and have sequenced DNA from Neanderthals.

Paabo and Krause said that it’s theoretically possible that the creature is related to another potential third species of human – Homo floresiensis, nicknamed “hobbit”— which lived on an island in what is now Indonesia about 17,000 years ago.

The team has attempted, though to no avail, to get DNA from the bones of “hobbits”. Most pre-human skeletons have been found in warm places such as Africa, however hot, wet conditions break down DNA.

Is Swine Flu Spreading Faster than Announced?

Shades of Steven King – is this new Swine Flu epidemic something out of a horror novel that the Maine based fiction novelist is known to crank out for his adoring readers? Well, not exactly. Mr. King’s best seller, The Stand, which came out about 10 years ago, told a horror tale about the effects of a “super flu” which killed off more than 99% of the human race, leaving a handful of survivors to face off against a devil-like man (or was he really Satan himself) named Randal Flag, who wanted to take over the world.

swine on a spittThe present flu epidemic, is (so far) not nearly as potent as Kings “Captain Tripps”, and most likely will wind up being less deadly that either the Avian (bird) flu or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Otherwise known as SARS this deadly thing began in China and eventually spread to 37 countries, killing 774 people and infecting more than 8,000. Swine flu has so far killed at least 120 people in its “country of origin”, i.e. Mexico, and has spread to neighboring USA, Canada, France, the UK, and as far away as New Zealand.

What many people may not realize is that a pig has almost the same physical organ and respiratory makeup as a human or other higher primate, and only lacks a vermiform appendix to be almost an exact duplicate. Perhaps this is why pig organs have been used in organ transplants in a last ditched effort to save someone’s life when a suitable human organ could not be found (with unsuccessful results, unfortunately). This might be the reason that this form of influenza has spread so quickly to humans.

In any case, some are saying that the disease is spreading faster than is being announced and this may be why the Obama Administration has decided to give it a higher profile, in order not to be accused later on of not doing enough to prevent its spread. Being both airborne (spread by coughing and other discharges from the nose and mouth) and by affected persons touching doorknobs, computer keyboards, glassware and other utensils, and Lord knows what else, the speed in which this disease is spreading is almost like something out of a fiction drama which Hollywood likes to throw at us from time to time.

The scientific term for this scourge is H1N1, and with unrestricted travel between Mexico and other countries, especially the US, the disease will be able to spread even faster, despite vaccines like “TamiFlu”, gauze face masks, and frequent hand washing.
Now, many people can understand why a lot of folk, including TV personality Howie Mandel, have a condition known as mysophobia (fear of germs), and will not shake hands with anyone; and wash their hands as much as 50 times a day (the legendary Howard Hughes carried his phobias about germs even further a-field).

Whatever the reasons, there are concerns, as health officials still recall the post World War I Spanish Influenza pandemic which spread world-wide and killed millions in a relatively short period of time.

In any case, it’s better to be safe than sorry; and it might be a good idea to postpone that second honeymoon trip to Cancun or Acapulco. As for the beleaguered Mexican authorities, this latest “hit” on top of the drug cartel wars couldn’t have come at a worse time. But as they say south of the border: Asi es la vida!

Nature in Slow Motion

Nature is more amazing than the most advanced machines humans ever made. This next video shows a slow-motion lightning striking the earth at night.

Even though it seems as if lightning is a bolt of energy descending from the sky downwards, this conception is actually an illusion resulting from the speed of the whole process. In fact, as you can see in the video, a lightning starts with several “tentacles” that scout their way in the sky, in search of an electrical opponent. They are drawn to electrical fields on the ground, such as the electrical grid or mp3 players. When one of these tentacles touches the ground, the actual lightning forms, sending the current upwards, as a way to balance the unstable charge within the clouds.

Take a look…

[Today’s Big Thing]

Intelligence in Apes

Watch this. These beautiful creatures certainly deserve the right not to be tortured. It’s the very least. So I applaud Spain for their recent move.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight – Part B

Last week I described how the patterns of our brain waves control different states of consciousness. By altering these patters, we can induce many mental and emotional states, such as sleep, anxiety, calmness, and concentration. Several technological applications already try to take advantage of this mechanism for the treatment of humans.

As of today, we are able to transmit magnetic waves over a short distance that can manipulate a person’s state of consciousness. But as technology advances, we could one day broadcast a certain frequency over a broad area of space. When this becomes finally practical, it will certainly have many uses in the animal kingdom…

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First of all, farmers could use this technique to ward off pesticides off their fields. Imagine a grasshopper that falls asleep when he’s nearing the edge of the broadcast-protected zone, or a bird that becomes anxious in the vicinity of her favourite fruit garden and therefore flies away.

Another possible application would be the improvement of dairy production. Cows could be excited during a certain time of day to make more milk, while enjoying a “good night sleep” at other times due to relaxing patterns, thus recuperating faster and better in time for the next milking.

Domestic Uses

Flies in the summer pose a major annoyance. But what if we could make them fall asleep when zooming past the garden fence. We will feel confident to sleep with the window wide open! Same thing goes for dogs that tend to bark excessively during the night.

Jay Torborg photographing a sleeping lion
Photo by Jay Torborg

Entertainment and Recreation

Have you ever fantasized about entering the tigers’ cage in the zoo and petting their beautiful fur? Doing it nowadays would mean becoming a tiger’s lunchtime dessert. But in the future, we could neutralize their aggressive behavior and killer instincts without putting them to sleep. They’d be awake and gentle at the same time.

And what about the monkey in the cage next door? He knows a few tricks, but it takes weeks and months to teach him those tricks. However, beta waves are known to be activated in humans when we concentrate. If we can induce beta waves (or their equivalent) in monkeys, elephants and dolphins — their training will progress much more easily and much faster.

In the jungle of science, the lion may very well sleep tonight.

Recycled Furniture

Artists for Humanity is a unique center in Boston which hires teen artists to produce Eco-friendly art and furniture. These young people undergo an apprenticeship program in the summer or an after school program during the school year, and eventually get paid to create sustainable products for private and commercial clients.

It seem like a marvelous enterprise, and I want to feature a line of products made by these teens, titled “ReVision furniture“.

ReVision Signature Table

This table is actually made of reclaimed magazines, and aside from being a fully functional piece of furniture, it’s extremely beautiful… and I can just imagine some indie band players sitting at the local coffee shop on old-style sofas, on both sides of this hip-and-green signature table.
No sugar please.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight – Part A

Future Nature

— Prologue —

Life is circular. There is always a start — Birth, and there is always an end — Death. In between there are other circular activities, such as breathing for example, which is common to all life forms, from bacteria to palm trees, and from tiny worms to human beings. Finally, there is sleep, which is unique to a certain group of multicellular eukaryotic organisms — i.e. Animals.

Sleep is a recurring activity, usually occurring within a circadian (“of 24 hours”) rhythm. As humans, we know we get tired at night, lie down, close our eyes, stop moving, relax… and sleep. When asleep, we all enter alternating states of consciousness. We lose track of time and become rather indifferent to outer stimuli. Dreams may appear and go. And we may or may not remember them in the morning. Whatever the experience is for each individual, each night, our brain is a primary player in this phenomenon. By altering its own electrical patterns — what is known as Brain Waves — it controls behavior, alertness, and memory.

Transcranial Magnetic StimulationSimple observations tell us that animals sleep as well. We see our dogs and cats lie down, stationary, while their shut eyelids are rapidly twitching from side to side as they dream (about us perhaps). However, scientific research provides the evidence that simpler forms of animals, such as flies and worms, sleep as well — even if “sleep” is manifested differently with these species.

As technology advances more and more, we now have methods of controlling human brain waves, as a way to induce hypnosis-like states in patients or to facilitate concentration in people suffering from ADD. These machines work primarily via sound and light, although future versions could operate on the premise of magnetic waves. There is already an experimental method used in psychiatric hospitals, called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which remotely affects a person’s brain patterns.

On the exciting applications of TMS (and other futuristic methods of brain-wave manipulation) on animals, come back for next week’s issue of… Future Nature.

TMS Picture by Revolution Health

Paper Load

Our planet has been undergoing rapid and massive deforestation during the last 50 years. One of the main reasons for this brutal attack on the world’s rain forests is the need for paper. Whether toilet paper, copy paper, or romance novels — our daily use of paper is indispensable.

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Virtual Paper

To solve this problem researchers are working on the development of Virtual Paper. What this term actually refers to is a very thin and flexible screen, that can be held like a normal paper page, yet changes its appearance on demand. You could curl up in bed with it, or fold it into your pocket.

Such technology is probably still ten to twenty years in the future, but it is certain to arrive one day.

Several technical issues would have to be resolved first: how to dynamically inject color onto the page, which materials could be used that are reliable enough and extremely flexible at the same time, how to wirelessly transfer the data onto the Virtual Paper, and how to enable the paper to receive commands from its human owner.

By now scientists have managed to create dynamically injected semi-flexible papers — but only in black & white. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll read this blog on your very own virtual paper. In the meantime, please minimize the use of paper as much as possible, and maximize your efforts at recycling. Remember that you can use both sides of a page, and that most letters today could be replaced by Emails.

Picture by Technology Madness

Dr. Dolittle’s Science

We are not alone in the universe. And no, I’m not talking X-Files.

Future Nature

Mankind always had to share this Earth with countless species of animals. From cockroaches to dogs and giant squids, we had to learn how to get along with, and how to use them for our own needs. For many millennia, humans raised cattle, domesticated cats, and mounted horses with saddles. We were godlike, and they were our servants, expandable and brainless. Then, one day a man named Darwin got up and claimed that humans are but animals themselves!

By now, we all know that animals have intelligence; animals feel pain and joy; animals have social structures and personal identities; and animals even communicate with each other via complex linguistic methods. Animals such as ants communicate via their sense of smell, while squids change their skin color to communicate with their fellow molluscs. But the most fascinating research, in my opinion, is the one focusing on the auditory patterns of such species as whales and elephants.

Both marine mammals and elephants are highly social creatures. Elephants bury and mourn their dead, while dolphins procreate for the sake of pure enjoyment. Communication-wise, elephants can broadcast low-frequency vibrations to a great distance, while whales and dolphins use sonar waves to broadcast unique whistles beneath the water. For many years, science has been trying to decipher their languages.

Can Monkeys Use Language

However, we have been able to communicate directly with certain primates. Chimpanzees in captivity were taught the American Sign Language, and were even able to exchange this knowledge with their offsprings. These delicate and furry creatures proved themselves to be intelligent sentient beings.

As scientific research marches forward, and technological breakthroughs are a common sight, it wouldn’t be long before we could ask our dog “where it hurts”. In fact, many animal psychologists claim to do this sort of thing on a daily basis — Although I’m talking about something much more fundamental here. Imagine having a Canine Dictionary, or a miniature device that translates a cat’s meows into meaningful units of information.

These developments, yet to come, would raise serious ethical issues. Will we see the day when a dog is given legal representation, or circus gorillas form a labour union?