U.S.D.A. Approves Modified Potato.

A potato genetically engineered to reduce the amounts of a potentially harmful ingredient in French fries and potato chips has been approved for commercial planting, the Department of Agriculture announced on Friday.

The potato’s DNA has been altered so that less of a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected of causing cancer in people, is produced when the potato is fried.

The new potato also resists bruising, a characteristic long sought by potato growers and processors for financial reasons. Potatoes bruised during harvesting, shipping or storage can lose value or become unusable.

The biotech tubers were developed by the J. R. Simplot Company, a privately held company based in Boise, Idaho, which was the initial supplier of frozen French fries to McDonald’s in the 1960s and is still a major supplier. The company’s founder, Mr. Simplot, who died in 2008, became a billionaire.

The potato is one of a new wave of genetically modified crops that aim to provide benefits to consumers, not just to farmers as the widely grown biotech crops like herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn do. The nonbruising aspect of the potato is similar to that of genetically engineered nonbrowning apples, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which are awaiting regulatory approval.

But the approval comes as some consumers are questioning the safety of genetically engineered crops and demanding that the foods made from them be labeled. Ballot initiatives calling for labeling were rejected by voters in Oregon and Colorado this week, after food and seed companies poured millions of dollars into campaigns to defeat the measures.

The question now is whether the potatoes — which come in the Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties — will be adopted by food companies and restaurant chains. At least one group opposed to such crops has already pressed McDonald’s to reject them.

Genetically modified potatoes failed once before. In the late 1990s, Monsanto began selling potatoes genetically engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle. But the market collapsed after big potato users, fearing consumer resistance, told farmers not to grow them. Simplot itself, after hearing from its fast-food chain customers, instructed its farmers to stop growing the Monsanto potatoes.

A Simplot storage facility with gene-modified Russet Burbank potatoes, which resist bruising and, when fried, also produce less of a potentially harmful ingredient.


This time around could be different, however, because the potato promises at least potential health benefits to consumers. And unlike Monsanto, Simplot is a long-established power in the potato business and presumably has been clearing the way for acceptance of the product from its customers.

Simplot hopes the way the potato was engineered will also help assuage consumer fears. The company calls its product the Innate potato because it does not contain genes from other species like bacteria, as do many biotech crops.

Rather, it contains fragments of potato DNA that act to silence four of the potatoes’ own genes involved in the production of certain enzymes. Future crops — the company has already applied for approval of a potato resistant to late blight, the cause of the Irish potato famine — will also have genes from wild potatoes.

“We are trying to use genes from the potato plant back in the potato plant,” said Haven Baker, who is in charge of the potato development at Simplot. “We believe there’s some more comfort in that.”

That is not likely to persuade groups opposed to such crops, who say altering levels of plant enzymes might have unexpected effects.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group, said that the technique used to silence the genes, called RNA interference, was still not well understood.

“We think this is a really premature approval of a technology that is not being adequately regulated,” he said, adding that his group might try to get a court to reverse the approval of the potato.

He said one of the substances being suppressed in the Innate potatoes appeared to be important for proper use of nitrogen by the plant and also for protection from pests.

The Agriculture Department, in its assessment, said the levels of various nutrients in the potatoes were in the normal range, except for the substances targeted by the genetic engineering. Simplot has submitted the potato for a voluntary food safety review by the Food and Drug Administration.

The company says that when the Innate potatoes are fried, the levels of acrylamide are 50 to 75 percent lower than for comparable nonengineered potatoes. It is unclear how much of a benefit that is.

The chemical causes cancer in rodents and is a suspected human carcinogen, though the National Cancer Institute says that scientists do not know with certainty if the levels of the chemical typically found in food are harmful to human health.

Still, Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that deals with nutrition issues, welcomed the approval. “We support clearly trying to reduce consumers’ exposure to acrylamide and if this product helps do that, I think it’s a benefit,” he said.

Last year, the F.D.A. issued draft guidance advising the food industry how to reduce levels of acrylamide, which is also found in some baked goods, coffee and other foods. The agency listed numerous steps that could be taken in the growing, handling and cooking of potatoes. Many food companies no doubt have already taken steps to reduce acrylamide levels and might not need the genetically engineered potatoes.

Whether McDonald’s, which did not respond to requests for comment, adopts the potatoes is somewhat academic for at least another couple of years. Simplot anticipates that only a few thousand out of the nation’s more than one million acres of potatoes will be planted with Innate potatoes next year, far too little to serve fast-food chains.

Instead, the company will focus on sales of fresh potatoes and fresh-cut potatoes to supermarkets and food service companies and to potato chip manufacturers, said Doug Cole, a spokesman for Simplot.

The National Potato Council, which represents potato farmers, welcomed the approval, albeit with reservations.

John Keeling, chief executive of the trade group, said growers wanted new technology. But in comments to the Agriculture Department, the group has expressed concern that exports could be disrupted if genetically engineered varieties inadvertently end up in shipments bound for countries that have not approved the potatoes.

China, for instance, recently turned away shipments of corn containing small amounts of a genetically engineered variety developed by Syngenta that it had not approved for import. Some corn farmers and exporters have sued Syngenta for their losses.

Mr. Cole of Simplot said growers would have to keep the genetically engineered potatoes separate from others and out of exports at least for now. The company plans to apply for approval of the potatoes in the major markets, starting with Canada, Mexico, Japan and then other parts of Asia.

Stopping Inhaled Steroids in COPD Feasible

Withdrawing inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) from patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) did not lead to an increased rate of exacerbations, investigators reported.

Steroid withdrawal was associated with 1,097 exacerbations of any severity among 1,242 patients, which met statistical criteria for noninferiority versus continuation of ICS (1,078 exacerbations in 1,243 patients). The frequency of severe or moderate/severe exacerbations did not differ between groups or within any subgroups. The time to first COPD exacerbation also was similar between groups.

Withdrawal of ICS was associated with a larger drop in FEV1 during the final step of withdrawal, Helgo Magnussen, MD, of the Pulmonary Research Institute in Grosshansdorf, Germany, said here at CHEST 2014.

“In patients with GOLD [Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease] 3-4 COPD, receiving dual bronchodilators, the risk for moderate to severe exacerbations is statistically noninferior with ICS withdrawal compared with ICS therapy,” Magnussen said. “On the basis of these results we conclude that inhaled corticosteroids may be successfully withdrawn in patients receiving dual bronchodilator therapy with a long-acting muscarinic antagonist (LAMA) and a long-acting beta-agonist (LABA).”

In contrast, hospitalized patients with severe COPD had an increased risk of subsequent hospitalization for pneumonia if they did not receive prophylactic antibiotic therapy, according to results of a separate study reported at the meeting.

LAMA-LABA Combination

Previous studies have shown that LAMA-ICS combination therapy reduces the risk of exacerbations in severe COPD as compared with monotherapy, Magnussen said by way of background. Additionally, dual bronchodilator therapy with a LAMA and a LABA has demonstrated superiority over either agent alone.

Magnussen and colleagues hypothesized that ICS could be withdrawn from patients receiving LAMA-LABA combination therapy without increasing the risk of moderate or severe COPD exacerbations compared with patients who continued ICS in addition to dual bronchodilator therapy.

To test the hypothesis, they randomized 2,485 patients with severe COPD (GOLD stage 3-4) managed with triple therapy to continue ICS along with dual bronchodilation or to a step-down steroid withdrawal strategy. The primary endpoint was the time to a first moderate or severe on-treatment exacerbation during 12 months of randomized therapy.

The trial had statistical power to demonstrate noninferiority, defined as hazard ratio of <1.2. Noninferiority was tested in the overall study population and in prespecified subgroups stratified by geographic region, age, sex, smoking status, baseline body mass index, and COPD treatment history.

The treatment groups did not differ significantly with respect to baseline characteristics, including a mean age of 64 and a mean FEV1 of 0.98 L.

The primary analysis yielded an HR of 1.058 for ICS withdrawal versus continuation. Subgroup analysis did not identify any patients who fared significantly better or worse with ICS withdrawal. A stratified analysis by baseline FEV1 also showed no difference between groups, nor did analyses of time to first moderate exacerbation, first severe exacerbation, or first exacerbation of any severity.

Magnussen noted that the ICS withdrawal group had similar lung function during the first 12 weeks of follow-up, followed by a 39 mL decline at week 18, increasing to 43 mL at week 52. In contrast, FEV1 remained stable throughout the 12-month study in patients who continued ICS.

Hospitalization for Pneumonia

Patients in an evaluation of another form of less intensive therapy for COPD did not fare as well as in the ICS trial. Specifically, patients hospitalized for an acute exacerbation of COPD had double the rate of pneumonia-related hospitalization in the next year if they did not receive antibiotic therapy during hospitalization for the COPD exacerbation, reported Luis Felipe Reyes, MD, of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Investigators retrospectively reviewed records of 1,421 patients admitted to 12 British hospitals during 2009-2011 for acute exacerbations of COPD. The primary objective was to determine the translation of clinical data into clinical practice: Previous studies had shown that increased sputum purulence was the only Anthonisen criterion that predicted clinical failure in outpatients with mild or moderate COPD not treated with antibiotics. Use of a point-of-care test for C-reactive protein further increased the predictive accuracy of treatment failure, Reyes said.

The records showed that 259 (18%) of the 1,421 hospitalized patients did not receive antibiotics during hospitalization for COPD exacerbation. The only significant difference between patients who did and did not receive antibiotics was a higher proportion of Anthonisen type 3 (mild) exacerbations in the latter group (31% versus 19%, P<0.001).

After correcting for Anthonisen severity criteria, the investigators found that patients who did not receive antibiotics during hospitalization for COPD exacerbation had an odds ratio of 2.04 for pneumonia-related hospitalization in the 12 months after discharge (13.5% versus 7.7%, P=0.001).

“Understanding antibiotic selection and initiation in patients hospitalized for acute exacerbations of COPD may predict the need for subsequent hospitalization of COPD patients,” Reyes said.

Scientists tell U.S. – find recipe for Ebola cure in survivors’ blood

A group of scientists including three Nobel laureates in medicine has proposed that U.S. health officials chart a new path to developing Ebola drugs and vaccines by harnessing antibodies produced by survivors of the deadly outbreak.

The proposal builds on the use of “convalescent serum,” or survivors’ blood, which has been given to at least four U.S. Ebola patients who then recovered from the virus. It is based on an approach called passive immunization, which has been used since the 19th century to treat diseases such as diphtheria but has been largely surpassed by vaccination.

The scientists propose using new genetic and other technologies to find hundreds or thousands of different Ebola antibodies, determine their genetic recipe, grow them in commercial quantities and combine them into a single treatment analogous to the multi-drug cocktails that treat HIV-AIDS.

That contrasts with current drug development, which focuses on finding one molecule, or a small number, to defeat the Ebola virus that has killed nearly 5,000 people in West Africa and infected thousands more since March.

Nobel laureates David Baltimore, an expert in the molecular biology of the immune system, James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix that is DNA, and Jim Simons, who founded hedge-fund Renaissance Technologies and was a pioneer in the quant revolution on Wall Street, are among the advocates of the idea. It was outlined in a letter that was reviewed by Reuters.

The proposal was sent to officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Food and Drug Administration, to lawmakers and to biotech companies. They have not responded, said geneticist Michael Wigler of Cold Spring Harbor Lab, who wrote and gathered signatures for the position paper. The recipients did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment or said they had no comment.

The scientists urged government leadership without offering a specific development or production plan, and it is not clear whether the idea would offer a faster track to success than current efforts.

“Government agencies, commercial manufacturers and perhaps philanthropy” must work together to form a research and development infrastructure capable of producing therapeutic antibodies, Wigler said in an interview.

Although there is no proof that blood from survivors helps Ebola patients survive, it is known that patients recover when their own blood produces enough antibodies to stop the virus.



Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system to fight bacteria, viruses, and other invaders, from colds to measles. Giving antibodies to infected people would offer their immune systems a head start in fighting Ebola, the theory goes.

If the antibodies in survivors’ blood is genetically sequenced, they would provide a recipe for treatments, which could be produced with technologies already used to manufacture antibodies that target cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, the scientists said.

“It would cost less than $1 million to get the genetic sequences of the antibodies from people who have recovered, and then we would have an armamentarium of hundreds or even thousands of antibodies,” Wigler said.

He speculated that the idea has not gained traction before because “academics are trained to overlook the obvious.” The approach would be difficult, and “many people in this day and age are afraid to risk failure,” he said.

Ebola experts were cautious about the possibility that hundreds of anti-Ebola antibodies would prevent or cure infections.

Studies have shown that some antibodies that neutralize Ebola virus in test tubes don’t protect infected lab animals, said Dr. Thomas Geisbert of the University of Texas Medical Branch, who is working on Ebola vaccines. He also questioned whether the proposal would save time, given the need to test any antibody cocktail in both lab animals and human volunteers.

One of the most promising experimental treatments, Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s ZMapp, consists of three different antibodies produced by mice infected with Ebola. Initial research was published in 2000, but it took until this summer for a study to show that ZMapp cured Ebola-infected lab monkeys.

GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK.L) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) are among the drugmakers working on an Ebola vaccine. Both declined to comment on whether the antibodies proposal might be effective against Ebola.

Wigler acknowledges that none of those who have signed on to the proposal are experts on Ebola. Nor do they know how long it might take to develop a production line, get regulatory approval, and test the antibodies.


European researchers separately are planning to test whether Ebola survivors’ serum can cure patients, starting this month. But relying on transfusions of survivors’ blood for those antibodies is a daunting task in West Africa, given the need to screen it for other diseases and ensure health workers aren’t exposed during the collection or infusion process.

By contrast, “it takes a very short time” to produce countless copies of antibody genes, said molecular biologist Michel Nussenzweig of the Rockefeller University, an expert on the immune system who was not involved in the Ebola proposal. “Hundreds are not a problem; this has been automated,” he said. However, he questioned whether hundreds would be necessary to fight Ebola.

Wigler’s answer: the Ebola virus is mutating. That might thwart an three-antibody cocktail like ZMapp, he said, but it is highly unlikely that the targets of hundreds of antibodies would all mutate. A diversity of antibodies “mimics the body’s own defenses and could overcome mutations in the virus that may develop,” he said.

Multiple antibodies is what finally worked against HIV, which causes AIDS and, like the Ebola virus, mutates rapidly.

“We should make sure we learn from HIV to take our best shot at Ebola,” Nobelist Baltimore said in an interview.

Parkinson’s stem cell ‘breakthrough’

Stem cells can be used to heal the damage in the brain caused by Parkinson’s disease, according to scientists in Sweden.


They said their study on rats heralded a “huge breakthrough” towards developing effective treatments.

There is no cure for the disease, but medication and brain stimulation can alleviate symptoms.

Parkinson’s UK said there were many questions still to be answered before human trials could proceed.

The disease is caused by the loss of nerve cells in the brain that produce the chemical dopamine ,which helps to control mood and movement.

To simulate Parkinson’s, Lund University researchers killed dopamine-producing neurons on one side of the rats’ brains.

They then converted human embryonic stem cells into neurons that produced dopamine.

Parkinson's Disease
Parkinson’s is one of the commonest neurodegenerative diseases

These were injected into the rats’ brains, and the researchers found evidence that the damage was reversed.

There have been no human clinical trials of stem-cell-derived neurons, but the researchers said they could be ready for testing by 2017.

Malin Parmar, associate professor of developmental and regenerative neurobiology, said: “It’s a huge breakthrough in the field [and] a stepping stone towards clinical trials.”

A similar method has been tried in a limited number of patients.

It involved taking brain tissue from multiple aborted foetuses to heal the brain.

Clinical trials were abandoned after mixed results, but about a third of the patients had foetal brain cells that functioned for 25 years.

Using embryonic stem cells may be preferable, as it is easier to get hold of the large numbers of cells needed for transplant by growing them in the laboratory.

It also opens up the possibility of using less ethically charged sources of stem cells, such as those made from adult tissue.

The charity Parkinson’s UK said the research “could be a stride towards clinical trials in people with Parkinson’s”.

Its director of research and development, Arthur Roach, said: “This important research is a key step along the way in helping us to understand how stem cells might shape future Parkinson’s treatments.

“There are important potential advantages of these cells over the foetal-derived cells used in past cell transplantation work.

“This study could be a stride towards clinical trials in people with Parkinson’s but there are still many questions that need to be answered before this development can be tested in people with the condition.”

Ebola robots on White House agenda

Robots have been working in disaster zones since 9/11. They can reach remote and dangerous locations and operate in places people can’t go, including the rubble of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

So it seems a natural step to think about if and where robots could help in a medical crisis like the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

It’s a topic that will be discussed at a conference later this Friday involving three leading US robotics universities and the White House.

One idea which is being presented by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts is to eschew designing new robots from scratch.

That’s because this would be a huge investment of time and money.

Rather, WPI says, existing robots should be repurposed to work on Ebola-specific tasks.

Red Cross workers in the Liberian capital Monrovia
Medical workers put themselves at risk to help tackle Ebola in West Africa

The other universities involved are Texas A&M and the University of California, Berkeley.

Remote-controlled robots

One of the robots WPI has begun adapting is the Aero (Autonomous Exploration Rover).

It was originally designed for space exploration but is now being converted to help with decontamination work by adding sprayer tanks to its body.

The idea is that a person sitting safely outside a contaminated area would control it remotely.

“We’re trying to pull the workers further away from the disease,” says Velin Dimitrov, a robotics engineering PhD candidate.

Aero robot
The Aero robot was originally designed to take part in a competition held by Nasa

“Ebola doesn’t spread through air, so if you can tele-operate a robot from just outside it reduces the risk to the workers.”

WPI’s team hopes to deploy Aero among other robots to help with the decontamination effort in West Africa within the next three months.

Clothes bots

One challenge is the lack of experience robotics students have with the day-to-day needs of Ebola workers.

So WPI has set up a makeshift tent on its campus to study the safety clothing workers have to wear to avoid the disease.

Baxter experiment
Researchers are trying to prove Baxter could be used to dispose of contaminated clothes

The university is also looking to repurpose another robot, Baxter. This manufacturing robot was designed to be fixed to one spot in factories, and has the relatively small price tag of $26,000 (£16,392).

The thought is that it could keep health care workers safe by removing their clothing.

WPI is keen to stress that none of the robots involved would work autonomously – each would have a human operator based a safe distance away.

“We’re not trying to make this a completely automated process,” explains Dmitry Berenson, an assistant professor in WPI’s robotics programme.

“The key is you won’t need another person to help take the clothing off and you won’t need to risk another person being contaminated.

A street artist, Stephen Doe, paints an educational mural to inform people about the symptoms of the deadly Ebola virus in the Liberian capital Monrovia
More than 4,800 people have died as a result of the current Ebola outbreak

“This is a point that we keep coming back to: How to keep the human element in the robot interaction?”

Physical presence

Something that the workshop also has to grapple with is the degree to which people with Ebola already feel stigmatised.

Isolating them further by treating them with robots risks causing even greater distress.

The use of robots for telepresence – which uses a technique to let someone based elsewhere seem as if they are present by showing their face on a screen, using speakers and microphones for conversations, and/or mirroring their body movements – offers a solution.

Robots could provide a cost-effective way to get not only expertise to remote locations, but also to let people interact with loved ones who have been isolated after showing symptoms.

WPI Professor Taskin Padir has also proposed repurposing some field hospital tents to become “tech tents”.

These would incorporate sensors used elsewhere to keep watch over elderly patients.

US firm iRobot has already designed a range of telepresence robots for use in hospitals

“A smart tent [would] have networked sensors to provide a mobile robot with reliable navigation. And such a robot can be used to deliver water, food and medicine to the patients and it can be monitored from all over the world,” says Prof Padir.

“If I am working in Boston I can still consult with patients.

“The sensors are off-the-shelf devices that we can purchase in stores.

“[They can] detect a door opening or closing, we can even monitor if a person breaks out of isolation.”

Mental trauma

The White House workshop will also discuss if people would accept help from robots during an outbreak.

Ebola can spread during the burial process, so the teams want to know if burial robots would be accepted by local communities to transport the deceased.

Ebola transportation
Transporting the bodies of Ebola victims after death can present a risk of contagion

“There are definitely benefits to technology where we don’t want to put human life in danger, but with that comes risks,” says Jeanine Skorinko, associate professor of psychology at WPI.

The danger, she explains, is that the desire to secure medical workers’ physical safety has the side-effect of causing the patients and their families additional mental trauma.

Flying robots

Commercial robot companies are also getting involved.

Helen Greiner is chief executive of CyPhy Works, which specialises in tethered drones.

Its products include Parc (persistent aerial reconnaissance and communications), a drone that can carry out round-the-clock surveillance from the sky if its tether is connected to a power source below.

She suggests that Parc’s tether could also be used to send video and audio to and from isolated victims.

“If there was no way to have good communications, you could send this up with a small cellular box in it.

“It’s flying up at 500ft [152m], so you don’t have to bring in the infrastructure or build a tower to turn it on” she says.

Ms Grenier says she is not worried about the robots being accepted.

“If they are bringing you something that you want or need, if they’re bring clothing and stuff, I think people will be very excited.”

Warning on effects of 3D on vision

Children wearing 3D glasses

Children up to the age of 13 should have only moderate exposure to 3D, the report finds
A French health watchdog has recommended that children under the age of six should not be allowed access to 3D content.

The Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (Anses) added that access for those up to the age of 13 should be “moderate”.

It follows research into the possible impact of 3D imaging on still-developing eyes.

Few countries currently have guidelines about 3D usage.

According to Anses, the process of assimilating a three-dimensional effect requires the eyes to look at images in two different places at the same time before the brain translates it as one image.

“In children, and particularly before the age of six, the health effects of this vergence-accommodation conflict could be much more severe given the active development of the visual system at this time,” it said in a statement.

Nintendo warning

It is not the first time questions have been raised about the safety of 3D, which is used in many feature films as well as on some video games, TVs and computer screens.

Italy has sought to restrict the use of 3D glasses by young children, following a similar warning from its national health agency last year.

When Nintendo released its 3D video console in 2010 it warned that playing games on it could damage the eyesight of children under six.

More and more firms are creating 3D-enabled products and Apple is rumoured to be developing a 3D display that can be viewed without the need to wear special glasses.

The American Optometric Association has said that it has had no reports of eye damage as a a result of viewing 3D content.

The Last Thing They Ever Saw

You’ve probably heard the old wives’ tale of ‘The Image In A Dead Man’s Eye’ – the idea that the eye retains the last thing it sees before death.

…Isn’t it odd how obvious superstitions sometimes turn out to be completely true?

‘Optography’, or the art of recovering the last image seen by an eye, is a very real thing with a long and strange history.

watch the video on youtube. URL:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE_YGENJ0Mk

European genetic identity may stretch back 36,000 years

Europeans carry a motley mix of genes from at least three ancient sources: indigenous hunter-gatherers within Europe, people from the Middle East, and northwest Asians from near the Great Steppe of eastern Europe and central Asia. One high-profile recent studysuggested that each genetic component entered Europe by way of a separate migration and that they only came together in most Europeans in the past 5000 years. Now ancient DNA from the fossilized skeleton of a short, dark-skinned, dark-eyed man who lived at least 36,000 years ago along the Middle Don River in Russia presents a different view: This young man had DNA from all three of those migratory groups and so was already “pure European,” says evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev of the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen, who led the analysis.

Eske Willerslev found that a man from Kostenki in modern-day Russia had a lot in common with living Europeans.

In challenging the multiple migration model, the new genome data, published online today inScience, suggest that Europeans today are the descendants of a very old, interconnected population of hunter-gatherers that had already spread throughout Europe and much of central and western Asia by 36,000 years ago. “What is surprising is this guy represents one of the earliest Europeans, but at the same time he basically contains all the genetic components that you find in contemporary Europeans—at 37,000 years ago,” Willerslev says.

The origins of Europeans used to seem straightforward: The first modern humans moved into Europe 42,000 to 45,000 years ago, perhaps occasionally meeting the Neandertals whose ancestors had inhabited Europe for at least 400,000 years. Then, starting 10,000 years ago, farmers came from the Middle East and spread rapidly throughout Europe. As researchers recently sequenced the genomes of more than a dozen ancient members of our species, Homo sapiens, in Europe and Asia in rapid succession, they added a third genetic component: a “ghost” lineage of nomads who blew into northeast Europe from the steppesof western Asia 4000 to 5000 years ago.

To explore European ancestry further, Willerslev’s team extracted DNA from the ulna, or lower arm bone, of a skeleton of a young man discovered in 1954 at Kostenki 14, one of more than 20 archaeological sites at Kostenki-Borshchevo. This area in southwest Russia was a crossroads at the boundary of eastern Europe and western Asia and was famous for its carved Venus figures of women. Using radiocarbon dating, the man, also known as the Markina Gora, was recently dated to 36,200 to 38,700 years old, making it the second oldest modern human whose whole genome has been sequenced.

Kostenki XIV (Markina Gora), reconstructed by M. M. Gerasimov

A reconstruction of Kostenki 14.

Willerslev extracted 13 samples of DNA from the arm bone, and his graduate student Andaine Seguin-Orlando and other lab members sequenced the ancient genome to a final coverage of 2.42x, which is relatively low and means that on average each nucleotide site was read 2.4 times. From the sequence data, they found gene variants indicating that the man had dark skin and eyes. He also had about 1% more Neandertal DNA than do Europeans and Asians today, confirming what another, even older human from Siberia had shown—that humans and Neandertals mixed early, before 45,000 years ago, perhaps in the Middle East.

The man from Kostenki shared close ancestry with hunter-gatherers in Europe—as well as with the early farmers, suggesting that his ancestors interbred with members of the same Middle Eastern population who later turned into farmers and came to Europe themselves. Finally, he also carried the signature of the shadowy western Asians, including a boy who lived 24,000 years ago at Mal’ta in central Siberia. If that finding holds up, the mysterious DNA from western Eurasia must be very ancient, and not solely from a wave of nomads that entered Europe 5000 years ago or so, as proposed by researchers in September.

Willerslev says the data suggest the following scenario: After modern humans spread out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, they encountered Neandertals and interbred with them, perhaps in the Middle East. Then while one branch headed east toward Melanesia and Australia, another branch of this founder population (sometimes called “basal Eurasians”) spread north and west into Europe and central Asia. “There was a really large met-population that probably stretched all the way from the Middle East into Europe and into Eurasia,” Willerslev says. These people interbred at the edges of their separate populations, keeping the entire complex network interconnected—and so giving the ancient Kostenki man genes from three different groups. “In principle, you just have sex with your neighbor and they have it with their next neighbor—you don’t need to have these armies of people moving around to spread the genes.”

Later, this large population was pushed back toward Europe as later waves of settlers, such as the ancestors of the Han Chinese, moved into eastern Asia. The Kostenki man does not share DNA with eastern Asians, who gave rise to Paleoindians in the Americas.

Other researchers say that this new genome is important because “it is the first paper to document some degree of continuity among the first people to get to Europe and the people living there today,” says population geneticist David Reich of Harvard University, one of the authors on the triple migration model. It also is “a striking finding that the Kostenki 14 genome already has the three major European components present that we detect in modern Europeans,” says Johannes Krause of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

But even if the man from Kostenki in Russia had all these elements 36,000 years ago, that doesn’t mean that other Europeans did, Reich says. His team’s DNA data and models suggest that Europeans in the west and north did not pick up DNA from the steppes until much later. He and Krause also think that Willerslev’s study needs to be confirmed with higher resolution sequencing to rule out contamination, and to have more population genetics modeling explain the distribution of these genetic types. The bottom line, researchers agree, is that European origins are “seem to be much more complex than most people thought,” Willerslev says.

The theory of everything.

Tomorrow a new film which chronicles the personal life of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is released to US audiences. The Theory of Everything is an adaptation of a memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde, and centers around their time together in Cambridge during the 1960s as Hawking begins his PhD research and struggles against the onset of ALS (i.e. Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The movie is reportedly first and foremost a personal story between Stephen Hawking and Jane, and the groundbreaking physics for which Hawking is famous takes a back seat.

Simulated black hole.

Stephen Hawking is one of the most recognizable theoretical physicists, both in academic corridors and in popular media. Within the field of astrophysics, he has greatly advanced our understanding of black holes and the singularity known as the Big Bang at the beginning of our universe. By weaving together the complex theories of general relativity (important for very massive objects) and quantum mechanics (which describes very very small objects), Hawking was the first to predict that black holes can lose small amounts energy, or radiation, over time. This theory, now known as Hawking radiation, is most likely the work for which he could win a Nobel prize.

Stephen Hawking is director of research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge.

Dennis Overbye (New York Times) has had a chance to review the film and praises its heart and the performance by leading actor Eddie Redmayne for personifying the crippling effects of ALS.

But Overbye notes that the process of actually doing science could have been portrayed a bit more accurately. He correctly emphasizes that science is not advanced by isolated and magical flashes of genius granted to a privileged few, but rather by shear perseverance in collaboration with others, building incrementally on the knowledge within a field. To suggest otherwise is to negate the years of effort, uncertainty, false starts, and collaborative work that goes into a revolutionary idea.
Many famous scientists have also stressed this.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

— Thomson Edison, Inventor

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

— Isaac Newton, Physicist and Mathematician

“What a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world and what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed in the world there must have been in Kepler and Newton to enable them to unravel the mechanism of the heavens in long years of lonely work!”

— Albert Einstein, Physicist
Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, where Stephen Hawking completed his PhD work.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant physicists alive today, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his life, and I very much look forward to watching The Theory of Everything. I’m also anticipating some familiar scenes — many of the scenes were filmed in my college, St. John’s, while I was a graduate student in Cambridge.

And Hawking himself has lent a personal touch to the film. His computerized voice helps narrate the film and he even met with actor Redmayne on occasion, lending approval to what must have been a strange thing to witness — a film about yourself played by someone else.

Tomorrow is a big day for black holes in movies: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is also being released and we look forward to bringing you a review of the physics next week!

Encephalitis of Unclear Origin Diagnosed by Brain Biopsy

Importance  Brain biopsy specimens that exhibit encephalitis without specific histopathologic features pose a diagnostic challenge to neuropathologists and neurologists. Such cases are generally referred to pathologically as encephalitis, not otherwise specified (ENOS). A systematic approach to diagnostic evaluation in such patients is challenging, and currently there is no generally accepted algorithm.

Objective  To examine ultimate diagnostic outcomes in patients with ENOS diagnosed by brain biopsy.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This retrospective case series at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, a tertiary care urban neurosciences center, studied patients with encephalitis diagnosed by brain biopsy from January 1, 1983, through December 31, 2011.

Exposures  Brain biopsy.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Clinical and neuropathologic diagnosis.

Results  Among 58 patients who met the inclusion criteria for the study, the original pathologic diagnosis was ENOS in 49 patients (84%). The median age was 40 years (interquartile range, 27-53 years), 35 patients were male, and 13 had known human immunodeficiency virus or AIDS. Median time from onset of symptoms to brain biopsy was 66 days (interquartile range, 18-135 days). For the 29 patients in whom material for pathologic analysis was still available, additional neuropathologic review led to a more specific categorization in 10 (34%). Clinical detail and follow-up information was available for 42 patients, and a specific diagnosis was reached with the help of ancillary testing and/or clinical follow-up in 12 patients. Despite a comprehensive neuropathologic review with additional studies and information, 27 patients still had to be classified in the ENOS category at the end of the study.

Conclusions and Relevance  ENOS is the most common initial type of encephalitis diagnosed by brain biopsy. In such patients, it may be worth having the biopsy materials reviewed again in a comprehensive fashion by a neuropathologist because additional review led to a more specific categorization in one-third of our cases. Ancillary testing, clinical correlation, and clinical follow-up establish more specific diagnoses in some patients. ENOS still remains a diagnostic challenge after all these efforts in many cases. Current algorithms are of limited value. More advanced methods and better diagnostic algorithms are needed to characterize these patients.