Storms expose iron age skeleton
Friday, 11 January 2013 | Written by Shetland News
SHETLAND’S pre-Christmas storms have revealed remains of an iron age building and a human skeleton believed to be 2,000 years old.
Archaeologists said a structure was briefly exposed at Channerwick before being buried again by a rockfall over the festive period.
Before it disappeared from view, police officers and archaeologists were able to investigate the site and take a bone sample for radiocarbon dating.
Shetland Amenity Trust assistant archaeologist Chris Dyer said: “The skeleton, initially reported by a local resident, looked as if it were contemporary with the Iron Age remains.
“The original burial now lies under several tons of fallen bank and the Iron Age structures have also disappeared from view.”
County archaeologist Val Turner added that during the investigation she and freelance colleague Samantha Dennis discovered evidence of at least one, and possibly two other burials.
The cellular building emerging. Turner said that the force 10 easterly storms had damaged archaeological sites along the entire east coast of Shetland.
In South Nesting as much as a metre has been lost of an Iron Age site at Gletness.
And a Viking site above the beach at the Easting on Unst, originally excavated and consolidated by the Unst Archaeology Group and Glasgow University, has been partially lost to the sea.
“We are fortunate to have a record of these sites as a result of earlier work but coastal erosion is an ever present feature of archaeology in Shetland,” she said.
“Shetland Amenity Trust’s archaeology section would be keen to hear from anyone who knows of other sites which may have appeared or been eroded by the storms.
“We are hoping that once we have an indication of just how great a problem has been created in the last few weeks, we will be able to formulate an action plan.”
New study sheds light on the origin of the European Jewish population
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14 January 2013 Oxford University Press (OUP)
Under embargo until 17 January 2013 00:01 GMT
Despite being one of the most genetically analysed groups, the origin of European Jews has remained obscure. However, a new study published online today (Thursday) in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution by Dr Eran Elhaik, a geneticist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, argues that the European Jewish genome is a mosaic of Caucasus, European, and Semitic ancestries, setting to rest previous contradictory reports of Jewish ancestry. Elhaik's findings strongly support the Khazarian Hypothesis, as opposed to the Rhineland Hypothesis, of European Jewish origins. This could have a
major impact on the ways in which scientists study genetic disorders within the population.
The Rhineland Hypothesis has been the favoured explanation for the origins of present-day European Jews, until now. In this scenario Jews descended from Israelite-Canaanite tribes left the Holy Land for
Europe in the 7th century, following the Muslim conquest of Palestine. Then, in the beginning of the 15th century, a group of approximately 50,000 left Germany, the Rhineland, for the east. There they maintained high endogamy, and despite wars, persecution, disease, plagues, and economic hardships, their population expanded rapidly to around 8 million in the 20th century. Due to the implausibility of such an event, this rapid expansion was explained by Prof Harry Ostrer, Dr Gil Atzmon, and colleagues as a miracle . Under the Rhineland Hypothesis, European Jews would be very similar to each other and would have a predominant Middle Eastern ancestry.
The rival explanation, the Khazarian Hypothesis, states that the Jewish-convert Khazars – a confederation of Turkic, Iranian, and Mongol tribes who lived in what is now Southern Russia, north of Georgia and east of Ukraine, and who converted to Judaism between the 7th and 9th centuries – along with groups of Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman Jews, formed the basis of eastern Europe’s Jewish population when they fled eastward, following the collapse of their empire in the 13th century. European Jews are thus expected to exhibit heterogeneity between different communities. While there is no doubt that the Judeo-Khazars fled into Eastern Europe and contributed to the establishment of Eastern European Jewry, argument has revolved around the magnitude of that contribution.
Dr Elhaik’s paper, ‘The missing link of Jewish European ancestry: contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses’, examined a comprehensive dataset of 1,287 unrelated individuals of 8 Jewish and 74 non-Jewish populations genotyped over 531,315 autosomal single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). This was data published by Doron Behar and colleagues in 2010 , which Elhaik used to calculate seven measures of ancestry, relatedness, admixture, allele sharing distances, geographical origins, and migration patterns. These identified the Caucasus-Near Eastern and European ancestral signatures in the European Jews’ genome along with a smaller, but substantial Middle Eastern genome.
The results were consistent in depicting a Caucasus ancestry for all European Jews. The analysis showed a tight genetic relationship between European Jews and Caucasus populations and pinpointed the biogeographic origin of the European Jews to the south of Khazaria, 560 kilometers from Samandar –Khazaria’s capital city. Further analyses yielded a complex multi-ethnical ancestry with a slightly dominant Caucasus -Near Eastern, large South European and Middle Eastern ancestries, and a minor Eastern European contribution.
Dr Elhaik writes, “The most parsimonious explanation for our findings is that Eastern European Jews are of Judeo-Khazarian ancestry forged over many centuries in the Caucasus. Jewish presence in the Caucasus and later Khazaria was recorded as early as the late centuries BCE and reinforced due to the increase in trade along the Silk Road, the decline of Judah (1st-7th centuries), and the rise of Christianity and Islam. Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian Jews gravitating toward Khazaria were also common in the early centuries and their migrations were intensified following the Khazars’ conversion to Judaism… The religious conversion of the Khazars encompassed most of the Empire’s citizens and subordinate tribes and lasted for the next 400 years [3, 4] until the invasion of the Mongols. At the final collapse of their empire in the 13th century, many of the Judeo-Khazars fled to Eastern Europe and later migrated to Central Europe and admixed with the neighbouring populations.”
Dr Elhaik’s findings consolidate otherwise conflicting results describing high heterogeneity among Jewish communities and relatedness to Middle Eastern, Southern European, and Caucasus populations that are not explained under the Rhineland Hypothesis.
Although Dr Elhaik’s study linked European Jews to the Khazars, there are still questions to be answered. How substantial is the Iranian ancestry in modern day Jews? Since Eastern European Jews arrived from the Caucasus, where did Central and Western European Jews come from? If there was no mass migration out of Palestine at the 7th century, what happened to the ancient Judeans?
And crucially for Dr Elhaik, how would these new findings affect disease studies on Jews and Eurasian populations?
“Epidemiologists studying genetic disorders are constantly struggling with questions regarding ancestry, heterogeneity, and how to account for them,” he says. “I hope this work will open up a new era in genetic studies where population stratification will be used more correctly.”
 Atzmon, G., et al., Abraham's children in the genome era: major Jewish diaspora populations comprise distinct genetic clusters with shared Middle Eastern Ancestry. American Journal of Human Genetics, 2010. 86(6): p. 850-9
 ‘The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people’ by Doron M. Behar, Bayazit Yunusbayev, Mait Metspalu, Ene Metspalu, Saharon Rosset, Jüri Parik, Siiri Rootsi, Gyaneshwer Chaubey, Ildus Kutuev, Guennady Yudkovsky, Elza K. Khusnutdinova, Oleg Balanovsky, Ornella Semino, Luisa Pereira, David Comas, David Gurwitz, Batsheva Bonne-Tamir, Tudor Parfitt, Michael F. Hammer, Karl Skorecki & Richard Villems. Nature, 466, 238–242 (08 July 2010).
 Polak, A.N., Khazaria - The History of a Jewish Kingdom in Europe (Tel-Aviv, Israel: Mosad Bialik and Massada Publishing Company, 1951) [in Hebrew]
 Baron, S.W., A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vol. 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)
Full bibliographic information
‘The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses’ by Eran Elhaik, Genome Biology and Evolution, DOI: 10.1093/gbe/evs119
Notes for editors
An embargoed pdf of the full paper can be downloaded before publication by journalists at: http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/gbe/prpaper.pdf
Genome Biology and Evolution is a wholly open access journal that publishes evolutionary advances at the forefront of genomics. The journal is published by Oxford University Press. The journal’s homepage can be found at: http://gbe.oxfordjournals.org/
Please acknowledge source as Genome Biology and Evolution in any reports.
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Archeologists revise image of ancient Celts
The Celts were long considered a barbaric and violent society. But new findings from a 2,600-year-old grave in Germany suggest the ancient people were much more sophisticated than previously thought.
The little Bettelbühl stream on the Danube River was completely unknown, except to local residents. But that changed in the summer of 2010 when a spectacular discovery was made just next to the creek.
Not far from the Heuneburg, the site of an early Celtic settlement, researchers stumbled upon the elaborate grave of a Celtic princess. In addition to gold and amber, they found a subterranean burial chamber fitted with massive oak beams. It was an archeological sensation that, after 2,600 years, the chamber was completely intact.
Nicole Ebinger-Rist hopes to find out who the princess was
The wooden construction was preserved by the constant flow of water from the Bettelbühl stream. "In dry ground, the wood wouldn't have had a chance to survive over so many centuries," said Nicole Ebinger-Rist, the director of the research project handling the find.
A life of luxury?
Since the rings in the wood allow them to date the other items in the burial chamber, researchers are now hoping to gain a new understanding of Celtic culture and history
The result could change our view of the Celts. Roman writers in particular described the heterogeneous people as barbaric, only excelling in violence and war. But that's a distorted view, according to Dirk L. Krausse from Baden-Wurttemberg's state office for historic preservation.
"There's also a bit of propaganda involved, since the Celts conquered Rome in the year 387 B.C., so they couldn't have been so primitive," Krausse explained. The findings at the Heuneburg near Hundersingen also indicate that the Celts living in the upper Danube region were more advanced than previously thought.
The Heuneburg was an important hub for the Celts
The Heuneburg is a center of Celtic culture in south-western Germany. In its heyday, giant security walls in the area protected a city of as many as 10,000 people. Wealthy members of society led lives of luxury: Etruscan gold jewelry, Greek wine, and Spanish tableware were all traded here. The Celtic princess's grave supports the hypothesis that her people were interested in culture and comfort.
Elaborate pearl earrings, solid gold clasps, an amber necklace and a bronze belt are just some of the findings from the grave that baffle the archeologists.
"We find objects here everyday that we cannot categorize at this time," Krausse said.
The burial chamber is not only well preserved - but also full. In most cases, archeologists find themselves digging up graves that were plundered by thieves years ago. But here, stacks of burial objects made of gold, amber, jet and bronze were discovered alongside the skeletons of the princess and an unidentified child.
It quickly became clear, however, that it would be a huge challenge to retrieve the treasures. So specialists were called upon to place a steel frame around the burial chamber and lift it out of the gravel and onto a heavy truck. The findings were then transported to a laboratory near Stuttgart, where they are now being examined in painstaking detail.
Transporting the burial chamber was a tricky undertaking
Archeologists, restorers, excavation experts, anthropologists and botanists are all investigating the 3.6-by-4.6-meter (roughly 12-by-15-foot) burial chamber, Nicole Ebinger-Rist said. "The colleagues here lie on their bellies and look down into the depths, suspended over the findings," she explained.
Who was she?
Every single centimeter of the find is examined with brushes, tweezers, and scrapers. "This space, which had been furnished with a lot of different objects, has shrunk to just a few millimeters due to the pressure of the earth," Ebinger-Rist said. Lasers and scanners allow the researchers to create a 3D computer image of what the burial chamber originally looked like.
In addition to the gold and amber jewelry, the researchers are also particularly interested in the plant and animal remains found in the chamber. "The organic material is actually just as important as the artifacts because it gives us information about their burial rituals," Ebinger-Rist added.
When the excavation of the grave is completed this spring, the six-person team will begin two years of detailed research. For Ebinger-Rist, the priority is to uncover the identity of the buried princess. "We call her a princess, but we actually know very little about the social organization of the time because we don't have any written sources."
Attention to detail is crucial during restoration work at the ancient Celtic burial chamber
History's big mystery
The researches are also hoping to learn more about the Celts' wars of domination - one of the greatest mysteries of central European history. Experts still don't know why the Celts were advancing quickly from the sixth century B.C. until the birth of Christ and then abruptly disappeared from the scene.
Should that mystery be solved, then the tiny Bettelbühl creek in south-western Germany will also go down in history. Without its steady flow, the princess's burial chamber likely wouldn't have survived its 2,600-year sleep.
Archaeological feast: Heap of ancient cattle bones discovered
Study finds site in Peloponnese, Greece, may be left from years of lavish dining
Archaeologists pulled a metric ton of cattle bones from an ancient Corinth theater, perhaps representing yearly feasts in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.
By Stephanie Pappas
updated 1/10/2013 2:22:29 PM ET
A metric ton of cattle bones found in an abandoned theater in the ancient city of Corinth may mark years of lavish feasting, a new study finds.
The huge amount of bones — more than 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds) — likely represent only a tenth of those tossed out at the site in Peloponnese, Greece, said study researcher Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg.
"What I think that they're related to are episodes of big feasting in which the theater was reused to process carcasses of hundreds of cattle," MacKinnon told LiveScience. He presented his research last Friday at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle.
A theater may seem an odd place for a butchery operation, MacKinnon said, but this particular structure fell into disuse between A.D. 300 A.D. and A.D. 400. Once the theater was no longer being used for shows, it was a large empty space that could have been easily repurposed, he said.
The cattle bones were unearthed in an excavation directed by Charles Williams of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. They'd been discarded in that spot and rested there until they were found, rather than being dragged to the theater later with other trash, MacKinnon said.
"Some of the skeletal materials were even partially articulated (connected), suggesting bulk processing and discard," MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon and his colleagues analyzed and cataloged more than 100,000 individual bones, most cattle with some goat and sheep. The bones of at least 516 individual cows were pulled from the theater. Most were adults, and maturity patterns in the bones and wear patterns on the teeth showed them all to have been culled in the fall or early winter.
"These do not appear to be tired old work cattle, but quality prime stock," MacKinnon said.
It's impossible to say how quickly the butchering episodes took place, MacKinnon said, though it could be on the order of days or months. The bones were discarded in layers, likely over a period of 50 to 100 years, he said.
The periodic way the bones were discarded plus the hurried cut marks on some of the bones suggest a large-scale, recurring event, MacKinnon said. He suspects the cattle were slaughtered for annual large-scale feasts. Without refrigeration, it would have been difficult to keep meat fresh for long, so may have been more efficient for cities to take a communal approach.
"What goes around comes around, so maybe we'll do it this year and next year, it's the neighbor's turn to do it," MacKinnon speculated. "Neighborhoods might sponsor these kinds of things, so people do it to curry favor."
The next step, MacKinnon said, is to look for other possible signs of ancient feasting at different sites.
"Maybe there are some special pots, or maybe we'll find big communal cauldrons or something," he said. "Something that gives a material record of a celebration."
Roman Toilet Paper/Game Piece Revisionism?
Ancient artefacts thought to be early gaming pieces will have to be reclassified after new research which claims they were actually used to wipe bottoms.
The flat, disc-shaped Roman relics have been in the collection at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester, West Sussex, since the Sixties.
Up until now museum experts thought the items were used for early games like draughts, but an article in the British Medical Journal has now proposed that they have a very different function.
It is well publicised that Romans used sponges mounted on sticks and dipped in vinegar as an alternative to toilet paper.
Yet the idea these ceramic discs might also have been used for such personal hygiene is a revelation.
The broken pieces – known as ‘pessoi’, meaning pebbles – range in size from 1in to 4in in diameter and were excavated near to the museum in 1960.
It had been thought that they were chips used to play an ancient game, also known as ‘pessoi’, but research published last month in the BMJ drew from classical sources to present evidence that they were also used to clean up after going to the toilet.
Noting the ancient Greek proverb ‘three stones are enough to wipe one’s a***’, Philippe Charlier, assistant professor in forensic medicine at the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in Paris, points to archaeological excavations which have uncovered pessoi inside the pits of Greek and Roman latrines across the Mediterranean.
In one such dig in Athens, American archaeologists found a range of such pessoi 1.2-4in in diameter and 0.2-0.8in thick which, Professor Charlier wrote, were ‘re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma’.
Other evidence from the classical world has been passed down to us in the form of ceramics painted with representations of figures using pessoi to clean their buttocks.
According to Professor Charlier’s article, the Greeks and Romans even inscribed some of their pessoi with the names of their enemies or others they didn’t like.
Thus everytime they went to the toilet they would literally be wiping their faecal matter on the names of hated individuals.
Examples of such stones have been found by archaeologists bearing the names of such noted historical figures as Socrates, Themisthocles and Pericles, Professor Charlier reported.
Museum curator Dr Rob Symmons said: ‘When pottery like this is excavated it is someone’s job to wash it clean.
‘So, some poor and unsuspecting archaeologist has probably had the delight of scrubbing some Roman waste off of these pieces.
‘It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we could still find some further signs of waste or residue.
‘However, these pottery pieces have no monetary value because we are essentially talking about items once used as toilet roll.
‘The pieces had always been catalogued as as broken gaming pieces but I was never particularly happy with that explanation.
‘But when the article produced the theory they were used to wipe people’s bums I thought it was hilarious and it just appealed to me.
‘I love the idea we’ve had these in the museum for 50 years being largely ignored and now they are suddenly engaging items you can relate to.’
Dr Charlier’s research indicates that the use of such stones would have probably been rather hard on the rear ends of the ancients, and could have caused a variety of medical issues.
He suggests the abrasive texture of the pessoi could have led to skin irritation, mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids.
He wrote: ‘Maybe this crude and satiric description by Horace in his 8th epode (1st century BC) — “an a*** at the centre of dry and old buttocks mimicking that of a defecating cow”— refers to complications arising from such anal irritation.’
Dr Symmons, who has been at the Fishbourne Roman Palace museum for seven years, added: ‘We will obviously have to think about re-classifying these objects on our catalogue.
‘But we hope the pieces will make people smile when they learn what they were used for.
‘They would have probably been quite scratchy to use and I doubt they would be as comfortable as using toilet roll.
‘But in the Roman era it was that or very little else.’
Eastern Europe: Tree rings reveal climate variability and human history
14 January 2013 Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL
Under embargo until 14 January 2013 20:00 GMT
A total of 545 precisely dated tree-ring width samples, both from living trees and from larch wood (Larix decidua Mill.) taken from historical buildings in the northern Carpathian arc of Slovakia, were used to reconstruct May-June temperatures yearly back to 1040 AD. The tree-ring data from the Tatra Mountains best reflects the climate history of Eastern Europe, with a geographical focus on the Baltic. The tree-ring record reveals several cold phases around ~1150, 1400, and in the 19th century. Mild springtime conditions occurred in the first half of the 12th century, as well as from ~1400-1780. The amount of climate warming since the mid-20th century appears unprecedented in the millennium-long context.
In addition to the development of the tree ring-based temperature history, the interdisciplinary research team* compared past climate variability with human history. Plague outbreaks, political conflicts and migration movements often matched periods of cooler temperatures. Moreover, fluctuations in settlement activity appear to be linked to climate variability. The Black Death in the mid-14th century, the Thirty Years War between ~1618-1648 and the Russian crusade of Napoleon in 1812 are three most prominent examples of climate-culture interactions.
The new evidence from Eastern Europe partially confirms similar observations from previous dendroclimatological investigations in Central Europe. However, the lead author of both studies, Ulf Büntgen, is cautious about making simplified conclusions: “the relationship between climate and culture is extremely complex and certainly not yet well enough understood. Nevertheless, we now better recognize that well documented and carefully analyzed tree-ring chronologies can contain much more information than supposed so far”. Thus, more data, independent studies and interdisciplinary approaches are of great interest for the enhancement of future knowledge.
Archaeologists in West Bromwich find grave robbing evidence
17 January 2013 Last updated at 08:33
Archaeologists have found evidence of grave robbing while digging at a 19th Century burial ground in West Bromwich.
A team working at the former Providence Baptist Chapel site found a mortsafe - a metal cage fixed around a coffin to stop people stealing the body.
Empty coffins and one filled with scrap metal were also discovered which archaeologists said was evidence of attempts to deter body snatchers.
Sandwell Council museum staff are now planning an exhibition of the finds.
The site of the chapel and burial ground in Sandwell Road was excavated by Hereford-based Headland Archaeology while work on the A41 underpass and Providence Place was going on nearby.
Sandwell Council's Museums Manager, Frank Caldwell said: "The body protected by the mortsafe belonged to a young woman who we found suffered from a disfiguring skin and bone disease.
"It meant that her remains would have fetched a premium for the body snatchers and that would be why her body was protected by the mortsafe - her family were concerned that it would be stolen."
Mr Caudwell said West Bromwich would have been a prime target for the grave robbers supplying the anatomy and medical schools that were being set up in Birmingham in the late 1700s.
"The simplest method of protecting the graves was to employ a guard," he said.
"However it appears from records in other towns that the money paid for a fresh body, which could be over £25, that these guards were often bribed to turn a blind eye. "
Archaeologists also found a brick coffin where the body at the top was hiding a false bottom with another person buried beneath.
Following the excavation, the remains from the 148 graves were removed and given a Baptist burial in Heath Lane cemetery.
"We were not able to put names to any of the skeletons as the name plates from all the coffins would have been made out of cheap thin tinplate and had all corroded to dust," said Mr Caudwell.
"One intriguing find was a musket ball in one of the coffins - we presume it contributed to that person's death but research has not helped us identify any shootings in West Bromwich at this period. Some secrets are literally taken to the grave."
Scientist seeks 'adventurous female' to give birth to Neanderthal
by: Tory Shepherd
January 18, 2013 6:59PM
· Scientist wants to recreate Neanderthals
· He says he just needs an 'adventurous' surrogate
· Australian scientist says there may be some issues with that...
A US scientist reckons he can bring Neanderthals back. He just needs one thing.
As personals ads go, it's a cracker. He doesn't want long walks on the beach or a GSOH. Just an "adventurous female" .
Oh, but she must be prepared to give birth to a Neanderthal.
Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics George Church has some pretty wild ambitions. He wants to genetically engineer humans so they live to the ripe old age of 120 (or even 150), make them immune to viruses and cancer resistant, and he wants to recreate Neanderthals; our close relatives who went extinct about 33,000 years ago.
You may think of Neanderthals as primitive cave dwellers, but new research has found they were more like us than previously thought, and may even have interbred with Homo sapiens.
And now, Prof Church wants to bring them back.
He told German newspaper Der Spiegel that he's gathered their DNA, will work some laboratory magic on it, and could then be ready to recreate one – provided he can find an "adventurous" human surrogate mother.
According to News.com.au's slightly stilted translation of the German article, he believes it is technically possible to "rebirth" a Neanderthal and has "already managed to attract enough DNA from fossil bones for them to reconstruct the DNA of the human species largely extinct".
He wants to genetically engineer human cells to become Neanderthal then create a clone using an "adventurous female human".
He goes further, saying there would be political implications to creating "a kind of Neanderthal culture."
There's a long history to mad and not-so-mad scientists wanting to resurrect extinct creatures. There have been stories in the past about the possibilities of genetically engineering the Tasmanian Tiger or the Woolly Mammoth.
It's theoretically possible, but according to one of Australia's top genetic experts, highly unlikely to happen any time soon.
Professor Ryszard Maleszka from The Australian National University's Research School of Biology said these sort of "over the top" claims were often made "for publicity".
"To put it mildly I'm really sceptical about this idea of creating ancient organisms from pieces of DNA found in bones and elsewhere," he said.
"There is a technical issue because the pieces of DNA will always be tiny and degraded and getting the entire genome is extremely difficult. We have extracted DNA from existing organisms but even then we can't assemble 100 per cent of the genome."
"It sounds nice and people will be excited, but in practical terms I'm not sure how he's going to do it."
Prof Maleszka said even if it was technically possible, Prof Church would struggle to make his Neanderthal a reality.
"There are many barriers in addition to the technological ones; there are social and ethical barriers that wouldn't allow this experiment to continue," he said.
Ultimately, according to Prof Maleszka, it's "wishful thinking".
Read more: http://www.news.com.au/technology/sci-tech/scientist-seeks-adventurous-female-to-give-birth-to-neanderthal/story-fn5fsgyc-1226557001537#ixzz2IYmQp0qL
Interview with George Church: Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead?
Rick Friedman/ DER SPIEGEL
In a SPIEGEL interview, synthetic biology expert George Church of Harvard University explains how DNA will become the building material of the future -- one that can help create virus-resistant human beings and possibly bring back lost species like the Neanderthal.
George Church, 58, is a pioneer in synthetic biology, a field whose aim is to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory. During the 1980s, the Harvard University professor of genetics helped initiate the Human Genome Project that created a map of the human genome. In addition to his current work in developing accelerated procedures for sequencing and synthesizing DNA, he has also been involved in the establishing of around two dozen biotech firms. In his new book, "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves," which he has also encoded as strands of DNA and distributed on small DNA chips, Church sketches out a story of a second, man-made Creation.
SPIEGEL recently sat down with Church to discuss his new tome and the prospects for using synthetic biology to bring the Neanderthal back from exctinction as well as the idea of making humans resistant to all viruses.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by "soon"? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?
Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it's very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn't we be able to do so?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps because it is banned?
Church: That may be true in Germany, but it's not banned all over the world. And laws can change, by the way.
SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?
Church: Well, that's another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what's technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.
SPIEGEL: So let's talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.
Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.
SPIEGEL: How do we have to imagine this: You raise Neanderthals in a lab, ask them to solve problems and thereby study how they think?
Church: No, you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be ethically problematic to create a Neanderthal just for the sake of scientific curiosity?
Church: Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it's not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.
SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?
Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.
SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an "extremely adventurous female human" could serve as the surrogate mother.
Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.
SPIEGEL: Could you also stop the procedure halfway through and build a 50-percent Neanderthal using this technology.
Church: You could and you might. It could even be that you want just a few mutations from the Neanderthal genome. Suppose you were to realize: Wow, these five mutations might change the neuronal pathways, the skull size, a few key things. They could give us what we want in terms of neural diversity. I doubt that we are going to particularly care about their facial morphology, though (laughs).
SPIEGEL: Might it one day be possible to descend even deeper into evolutionary history and recreate even older ancestors like Australopithecus or Homo erectus?
Church: Well, you have got a shot at anything where you have the DNA. The limit for finding DNA fragments is probably around a million years.
SPIEGEL: So we won't be seeing the return of the caveman or dinosaurs?
Church: Probably not. But even if you don't have the DNA, you can still make something that looks like it. For example, if you wanted to make a dinosaur, you would first consider the ostrich, one of its closest living relatives. You would take an ostrich, which is a large bird, and you would ask: "What's the difference between birds and dinosaurs? How did the birds lose their hands?" And you would try to identify the mutations and try to back engineer the dinosaur. I think this will be feasible.
SPIEGEL: Is it also conceivable to create lifeforms that never existed before? What about, for example, rabbits with wings?
Church: So that's a further possibility. However, things have to be plausible from an engineering standpoint. There is a bunch of things in birds that make flying possible, not just the wings. They have very lightweight bones, feathers, strong breast muscles, and the list goes on.
SPIEGEL: Flying rabbits and recreated dinosaurs are pure science fiction today. But on the microbe level, researchers are already creating synthetic life. New bacteria detect arsenic in drinking water. They create synthetic vaccines and diesel fuel. You call these organisms "novel machines". How do they relate to the machines we know?
Church: Well, all organisms are mechanical in the sense that they're made up of moving parts that inter-digitate like gears. The only difference is that they are incredibly intricate. They are atomically precise machines.
SPIEGEL: And what will these machines be used for?
Church: Oh, life science will co-opt almost every other field of manufacturing. It's not limited to agriculture and medicine. We can even use biology in ways that biology never has evolved to be used. DNA molecules for example could be used as three-dimensional scaffolding for inorganic materials, and this with atomic precision. You can design almost any structure you want with a computer, then you push a button -- and there it is, built-in DNA.
SPIEGEL: DNA as the building material of the future?
Church: Exactly. And it's amazing. Biology is good at making things that are really precise. Take trees for example. Trees are extremely complicated, at least on a molecular basis. However, they are so cheap, that we burn them or convert them into tables. Trees cost about $50 a ton. This means that you can make things that are nearly atomically precise for five cents a kilo.
SPIEGEL: You are seriously proposing to build all kinds of machines -- cars, computers or coffee machines -- out of DNA?
Church: I think it is very likely that this is possible. In fact, computers made of DNA will be better than the current computers, because they will have even smaller processors and be more energy efficient.
SPIEGEL: Let's go through a couple of different applications of synthetic biology. How long will it take, for example, until we can fill our tanks with fuel that has been produced using synthentic microbes?
Church: The fact is that we already have organisms that can produce fuel compatible with current car engines. These organisms convert carbon dioxide and light into fuels by basically using photosynthesis.
SPIEGEL: And they do so in an economically acceptable way?
Church: If you consider $1.30 a gallon for fuel a good number, then yeah. And the price will go down. Most of these systems are at least a factor of five away from theoretical limits, maybe even a factor of 10.
SPIEGEL: So we should urgently include synthetic life in our road map for the future energy supply in Germany?
Church: Well, I don't necessarily think it's a mistake to go slowly. It is not like Germany is losing out to lots of other nations right now, but there should be some sort of engineering and policy planning.
SPIEGEL: Germans are traditionally scared of genetically modified organisms.
Church: But don't forget: The ones we are talking about won't be farm GMOs. These will be in containers, and so if there's a careful planning process, I would predict that Germany would be as good as any country at doing this.
SPIEGEL: There has been a lot of fierce public opposition to genetic engineering in Germany. How do you experience this? Do you find it annoying?
Church: Quite to the contrary. I personally think it has been fruitful. And I think there are relatively few examples in which such a debate has slowed down technology. I think we should be quite cautious, but that doesn't mean that we should put moratoriums on new technologies. It means licensing, surveillance, doing tests. And we actually must make sure the public is educated about them. It would be great if all the politicians in the world were as technologically savvy as the average citizen is politically savvy.
SPIEGEL: Acceptance is highest for such technology when it is first applied in the medical industry ...
Church: … yes, and the potential of synthetic life is particularly large in pharmaceuticals. The days of classic, small molecule drugs may be numbered. Actually, it is a miracle that they work in the first place. They kind of dose your whole body. They cross-react with other molecules. Now, we are getting better and better at programming cells. So I think cell therapies are going to be the next big thing. If you engineer genomes and cells, you have an incredible amount of sophistication. If you take AIDS virus as an example ...
SPIEGEL: ... a disease you also want to beat with cell therapy?
Church: Yes. All you have to do is take your blood cell precursors out of your body, reengineer them using gene therapy to knock out both copies of your CCR5 gene, which is the AIDS receptor, and then put them back in your body. Then you can't get AIDS any more, because the virus can't enter your cells.
SPIEGEL: Are we correct in assuming you wouldn't hesitate to use germ cell therapy, as well, if you could improve humans genetically in this way?
Church: Well, there are stem cell therapies already. There are hematopoietic stem cell transplants that are widely practiced, and skin stem cell transplants. Once you have enough experience with these techniques you can start talking about human cloning. One of the things to do is to engineer our cells so that they have a lower probability of cancer. And then once we have a lower probability of cancer, you can crank up their self-renewal properties, so that they have a lower probability of senescence. We have people who live to be 120 years old. What if we could all live 120 years? That might be considered desirable.
SPIEGEL: But you haven't got any idea which genes to change in order to achieve that goal.
Church: In order to find out, we are now involved in sequencing as many people as possible who have lived for over 110 years. There are only 60 of those people in the world that we know of.
SPIEGEL: Do you have any results already?
Church: It's too early to say. But we collected the DNA of about 20 of them, and the analysis is just beginning.
SPIEGEL: You expect them all to have the same mutation that guarantees longevity?
Church: That is one possibility. The other possibility is that they each have their own little advantage over everybody else. What we are looking for is protective alleles. If they each have their own answer, we can look at all of them and ask, what happens if you put them all in one person? Do they cancel each other out, or do they synergize?
SPIEGEL: You seriously envisage a new era, in which genes are used as anti-aging-cures?
Church: Why not? A lot of things that were once left to luck no longer have to be if we add synthetic biology into the equation. Let's take an example: virus resistance ...
SPIEGEL: ... which is also achievable using synthetic biology?
Church: Yes, it turns out there are certain ways to make organisms of any kind resistent to any viruses. If you change the genetic code ...
SPIEGEL: ... you are talking about the code that all life forms on Earth use to code their genetic information?
Church: Exactly. You can change that code. We're testing that out in bacteria and it might well be possible to create completely virus-resistant E. coli, for example. But we won't know until we get there. And I am not promising anything. I am just laying out a path, so that people can see what possible futures we have.
SPIEGEL: And if it works in bacteria, you presumably could then move on to plants, animals and even humans? Which means: no more measles, no more rabies, no more influenza?
Church: Sure. And that would be another argument for cloning, by the way, since cloning is probably going to be recognized as the best way of building such virus resistance into humans. As long as it is safe and tested slowly, it might gain acceptance. And I'm not advocating. I'm just saying, this is the pathway that might happen.
SPIEGEL: It all sounds so easy and straightforward. Aren't biological processes far more complicated than you would like to lead us to believe?
Church: Yes, biology is complicated, but it's actually simpler than most other technologies we are dealing with. The reason is that we have received a great gift that biology has given to us. We can just take a little bit of DNA and stick it into a human stem cell, and all the rest of it is self-assembled. It just happens. It's as if a master engineer parked a spacecraft in our back yard with not so many manuals, but lots of goodies in it that are kind of self-explanatory. You pick up something and you pretty much know what it does after a little study.
SPIEGEL: Do you understand that there will be people who feel rather uncomfortable with the notion of changing the genome of the human species?
Church: I think the definition of species is about to change anyway. So far, the definition of different species has been that they can't exchange DNA. But more and more, this species barrier is falling. Humans will probably share genes with all sorts of organisms.
SPIEGEL: First you propose to change the 3-billion-year-old genetic code. Then you explain how you want to create a new and better man. Is it any wonder to you when people accuse you of playing God?
Church: I certainly respect other people's faith. But, in general, in religion you wouldn't want people to starve. We have 7 billion people living on this planet. If part of the solution to feed those people is to make their crops resistant to viruses, then you have to ask: Is there really anything in the Bible that says you shouldn't make virus-resistant crops? I don't think there's anything fundamentally more religiously problematic about engineering a dog or a cow or a horse the way we have been doing it for 10,000 years versus making a virus-resistant crop.
SPIEGEL: Virus-resistant crops is one thing. Virus-resistant humans is something altogether different.
Church: Why? In technology, we generally don't take leaps. It's this very slow crawl. We are not going to be making a virus-resistant human before we make a virus-resistant cow. I don't understand why people should be so deeply hurt by that kind of technology.
SPIEGEL: Apart from religious opposition, biotechnology also generates very real fears. Artificial lifeforms which might turn out to be dangerous killer-bugs. Don't we need special precautions?
Church: We have to be very cautious, I absolutely agree. I almost never vote against caution or regulations. In fact, I requested them for licensing and surveillance of synthetic biology. Yes, I think the risks are high. The risks of doing nothing are also high, if you consider that there are 7 billion people who need food and are polluting the environment.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, do you believe in God?
Church: I would be blind, if I didn't see that faith in an overall plan resulted in where we are today. Faith is a very powerful force in the history of humanity. So I greatly respect different kinds of faith. Just as I think diversity is a really good thing genetically, it's also a good thing societally.
SPIEGEL: But you're talking about other people's faith. What about your own faith?
Church: I have faith that science is a good thing. Seriously, I'd say that I am very much in awe of nature. In fact, I think to some extent, "awe" was a word that was almost invented for scientists. Not all scientists are in awe, but scientists are in a better position to be in awe than just about anybody else on the planet, because they actually can imagine all the different scales and all the complexity. A poet sees a flower and can go on and on about how beautiful the colors are. But what the poet doesn't see is the xylem and the phloem and the pollen and the thousands of generations of breeding and the billions of years before that. All of that is only available to the scientists.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, we thank you for this conversation.
Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle.