Meet Wilma: The First Neanderthal Model

September 19, 2008

“Wilma” was named after the character on “The Flintstones”, history’s most famous Neanderthal family

Okay, she’s obviously no Kate Moss but Wilma has already won over the hearts of the scientific community as for the first time a reconstruction of a Neanderthal’s face has been completed based on DNA evidence. National Geographic explains:

Artists and scientists created Wilma (shown in a photo released yesterday) using analysis of DNA from 43,000-year-old bones that had been cannibalized. Announced in October 2007, the findings had suggested that at least some Neanderthals would have had red hair, pale skin, and possibly freckles.

Created for an October 2008 National Geographic magazine article, Wilma has a skeleton made from replicas of pelvis and skull bones from Neanderthal females. Copies of male Neanderthal bones—resized to female dimensions—filled in the gaps.

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DNA – Not Just For Lab Coat Wearing Nerds Anymore!

September 11, 2008

Our DNA keeps telling us more and more about ourselves

In the 1983 movie Trading Places starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd, there’s a great scene in which the characters played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche get into a discussion about the age old question of what influences an individual more: heredity or environment. The two men decide to conduct an experiment using Murphy’s and Akroyd’s characters and the plot is set.

Even though this film was made only a quarter century ago, the contention of the debate seems a bit archaic in light of the exponential understanding we now have in regards to genetics. There was a time when suggestions that a person acted the way that they did because of their ancestry would be laughed at as “old wives’ tales”. Yet now we know better. Researchers keep isolating genes regulating all sorts of things from our health to our intelligence to our psychological state on an almost weekly basis. Our genes seem to be our lives as an open book.

Our genetic makeup is now even being marketed for our love lives. A company called GenePartner wants to match potential couples together according to how complementary their genetic makeup is with one another. This Swiss firm wants to:

evaluate singles and couples according to the potential union of their HLA genes, which help regulate immune response.

People may naturally be attracted to mates with HLA profiles different from their own, ostensibly guaranteeing the hybrid vigor of their offspring’s immune systems — and also providing a spark that will last through good times and bad.

“Proper age, similar life goals and ideas, education levels — all of these things have to fit. And on top of that, you need to be biologically compatible,” said Tamara Brown, managing director of GenePartner.

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The Aging Process Has Been Halted….in a Lab

August 12, 2008

liver proteins

Stopping the build up of harmful proteins can stop the aging process

The quest for eternal youth is as old as human civilization. From the ancients with their elixirs to Ponce de Leon and his quest for the Fountain of Youth. mankind has always sought to delay the final reckoning that is death.

Science of course has been making giant strides in understanding our mortality and why we age as we do. A team of scientists in New York City has managed to stop the aging process in mice livers:

The researchers, led by Associate Professor Ana Maria Cuervo, blocked the ageing process in mice livers by stopping the build-up of harmful proteins inside the organ’s cells.

As people age their cells become less efficient at getting rid of damaged protein resulting in a build-up of toxic material that is especially pronounced in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.

The researchers say the findings suggest that therapies for boosting protein clearance might help stave off some of the declines in function that accompanies old age.

Read more at this link.

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Neanderthals: Death Through Inbreeding With Humans?

August 11, 2008

Neanderthal Clan

Why did Neanderthals disappear?

Neanderthals died out around 30,000 years ago. Why was that? Did they die out due to breeding with humans or did our ancestors kill them off? Steve Connor of the UK Independent reviews this question as he reports on a new finding that might solve the riddle in The Neanderthal Murder Mystery.

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the article explaining the main differences between us humans and our Neanderthal relatives:

Neanderthal Man

Heavy jawbone and beetle brow would have made him look like a rugby player on steroids. Flared rib cage meant he did not have a defined waistline. Strong muscles would have added to his thick-set appearance. Used stone tools, controlled fire and buried his dead but little evidence for more symbolic behaviour. Presence of hyoid bone in the throat suggests the use of speech, but experts doubt that language was sophisticated. Well adapted to cold conditions, with short limbs and heavy torso, which would have helped to survive the successive ice ages in Europe.

Modern Man

Graceful chin and jaw and lack of a double arch over the eyebrow gives his face a softer appearance. Tapering rib cage separated the lower abdomen from the chest, giving a marked waistline. Used sophisticated stone tools, controlled fire and buried their dead with ritual. Indicates the development of symbolic thought and being able to plan for the future. Hyoid bone indicates speech as an important feature in terms ofsocial organisation. Gracile limbs and body indicates adaptation to a warm climate.

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Is Your DNA Your Destiny?

July 28, 2008

DNA tests tell us a lot about what we can expect

DNA tests can tell us a lot about what we can expect in our future

The old “Nature vs. Nurture” argument has been around since Gluk the Caveboy started playing around with flint to the consternation of his cavemother and cavefather. Lately though, the argument has been tipping towards the nature side with the breakthroughs piling up in genetic research.

One BBC Reporter decided to do a genetic test and have his results analyzed. Here’s what he found:

Up pops a list of grisly conditions – most of which are familiar to me, indeed some of them lurk in my family history.

And it’s the ones that have touched my life that I am drawn to first. I click on Heart Attack, bypass the warm-up “introduction” to the condition, and head straight for my own “risk summary”.

I’m told: “According to the selected literature, the relative genetic risk calculated from your genotype for males of European ancestry is 0.90.

“This corresponds to a 44.2% lifetime risk of developing heart attack, which is 10% less than for males of European ancestry in general.”

So far so good, I suppose, but that’s still a high risk and I’m not celebrating with a full English breakfast yet.

I scan the list of 25 traits again and settle on Crohn’s disease. Here I’m told the research indicates that I have a lifetime risk 1.42 times the average. Not so good. But for Diabetes, types 1 and 2, better news.

Pretty neat! Read more from the above link to see what else the test told him about himself and then click on this link to see how the deCODEme site gives its users a genetic snapshot.  Read the rest of this entry »

Human Evolution is Speeding Up

July 25, 2008

DNA strand

Genetic research is telling us that human evolution is proceeding at a much faster pace than previously thought

While some are still mired in the debate about evolution actually being real, scientists continue to find the clues that are solving some of the most elementary mysteries of who we are as humans and where we’re going.  Nancy Shute in US World News Report tells us that human evolution is proceeding at a faster pace than any time in our short history. A few excerpts from this excellent article:

Until recently, anthropologists thought that human evolution had slowed down. But last December, Hawks reported that it has actually accelerated 100-fold in the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. He figured that out by comparing chunks of DNA among 269 people from around the world. Over time, DNA accumulates random mutations, just as the front of a white T-shirt tends to accumulate spots. The bigger the chunks of DNA without random spots, the more recently it had been minted. Using this system, Hawks concluded that recent genetic changes account for about 7 percent of the human genome. Much of the increase, he says, has been fueled by the growth of the world’s population, which has expanded by a factor of 1,000 over the past 10,000 years. Having more people increases the odds of mutations.

At the same time, the human genome has been scrambling to adapt to a rapidly changing world—11,000 years ago, nobody farmed, nobody milked domesticated animals, and nobody lived in a city. People with a mutation that aided survival were more likely to thrive, reproduce, and pass that mutation along to offspring. For example, the capacity to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, has become common only over the past 3,000 years. Now, about 95 percent of the people in northern Germany have the mutation, which also popped up independently among the Masai in Africa and the Lapps in Finland. Hawks says: “This is really rapid evolution.”

Mutations serve as triggers for change. Read the rest of this entry »