Ancient DNA reveals ingredients of Roman medicine


Ancient Roman pharmacies must have looked a lot like vegetable gardens. DNA analysis of 2000-year-old medicinal tablets suggests the pills included onions, carrots and other garden vegetables.

Medical texts written by Pliny the elder and others detail herbal remedies the Romans and Greeks used, but not a lot is known about the contents of individual tablets, says Robert Fleischer, a geneticist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. He presented early results from the analysis at the International Symposium of Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark yesterday.

His team obtained the tablets from a shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany that probably occurred between 140 and 120 BCE, based on items recovered from the ship, which was excavated in the 1980s and 90s. Among them was a wooden medical chest stocked with well-preserved tablets filled with what looked like ground plants and vegetables.

To find out what the medicines were made of, Fleischer extracted DNA from two of the tablets and sequenced DNA from the chloroplasts. Among the components were vegetables such as onions, carrots, parsley and cabbage, as well as alfalfa, hawthorn, hibiscus and chestnut – all known to have grown in the Mediterranean at the time, or available to Romans. “All this makes sense,” says team member Alain Touwaide, also at the Smithsonian. Sequencing also turned up a few head scratchers, including a new world plant called helianthus, that probably represent contamination.

His team is working on ferreting out such contaminants and obtaining more tablets, so those looking for a dose of Roman medicine might want to hang onto their trowels.

Image: photo by stevendepolo via Flickr under Creative Commons.

Space laundry among prize challenges featured on new site

spacelaundry260.jpg Like US college students going home for the weekend, astronauts on board the International Space Station must bring their dirty laundry with them when they return to Earth. They wouldn’t have to if there was a clever way of washing clothes in a microgravity environment. If you can figure out how, NASA is offering a $25,000 prize for your winning solution.

The problem—and the posted reward for solving it—is one of many that can be found on, a website launched this week by the General Services Administration (GSA), a branch of the US federal government. On the website, agencies such as NASA can post their challenges and have participants compete for cash prizes and other awards.

The platform was launched in response to President Barack Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation, a white paper released in September 2009 calling for agencies to promote innovation through prizes and challenges.

“Prizes empower new, untapped talent to deliver novel solutions that accelerate innovation,” writes Tom Kalil of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in a blog post for the website’s launch.

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Secretary general of Europe’s basic research agency resigns

Andreu Mas-Colell, an economist at Pompeu Fabra university in Barcelona Spain, has stepped down early from his post as secretary general of the European Research Council (ERC), a €7.5 billion (US$11 billion) pan-European initiative to fund frontier research judged solely on excellence.

Mas-Colell’s term was due to end in December next year. But he has taken early leave, announced yesterday, as the ERC reorganises its management structure which will see Mas-Colell’s job merged with that of the director of the council’s executive body. The ERC is currently looking for a candidate who is “a distinguished scientist with robust administrative experience” for the director’s position. Jack Metthey, a European Commission official, is the interim director.

Science Business reports that the announcement ends speculation over when Mas-Colell would step down.

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Largest-ever epigenetic study launched

A hugely ambitious study of epigenetic effects in identical twins was launched today, the largest of its kind to date. The Epitwin Project is a collaboration between TwinsUK, a research group based at King’s College London, and BGI, the Chinese DNA sequencing powerhouse in Shenzhen.

Epigenetics is an emerging field focused on the effects that chemical reactions in the body have on gene expression. Such reactions may occur randomly, or be caused by environmental factors. The result, DNA methylation, can be fleeting, but may also persist for generations.

The researchers will investigate the methylation patterns of 20 million genes (called CpG islands) in 5000 twins, and look for differences between twin-pairs. This should help to explain why identical twins don’t always develop the same diseases, and to identify which genes are responsible.

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Much ado about Cable

This morning, Vince Cable, the UK’s Business Secretary, delivered his first speech on science and innovation. The speech itself could be read as a tepid affair: It praised the UK’s historic excellence in science and technology and called for even more excellence in the future.

The British scientific community saw nothing benign in Cable’s words. The UK is facing heavy cuts, and British scientists and pundits were out in force to read between his lines.

First the facts:

  • Cable’s speech definitely implied that science would be taking it on the chin this fall, along with the rest of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

*He is against indiscriminate “salami slicing” cuts. Instead, he wants excellence to be funded over lower-quality work. This echoes the “excellence” rhetoric coming out many of Britain’s scientific elite at the moment, though again is short on details.

*He would like to see more tech transfer. One new idea, lifted from a recent report by Hermann Hauser, is to create a Fraunhofer-like set of labs that would be funded jointly by business and government. No one else seems to have been picked up on this concept (or the idea that it would come at the expense of some 60 Labour-era “centres of excellence”).

Now for the fun stuff, the rampant speculation. Over at Research Fortnight William Cullerne Bown suggests that Cable doesn’t understand fundamental research, and specifically, he’s under the mistaken impression that much is being wasted (an idea bolstered by the business secretary’s appearance on Radio 4 this morning). The blog of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK has a stark, if selective, comparison of Cable’s statements on science with those of other leaders from around the world. Roger Highfield discusses the question of whether the cuts are inevitable, one which he put to Cable himself at this morning’s press conference. Cable told him that nothing was set in stone and that scientists must scream “in the right direction”, which means “towards the Treasury department.”

Generally the feeling seems to be that Cable doesn’t really understand science, and that the cuts are going to damage the UK’s leadership (Cambridge was recently named the world’s top university in one ranking scheme).

My own little piece of titillation from the speech? Cable referred to the planned UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation as a “potential” cluster for innovation. Potential? Does that mean that the government’s commitment to UKCMRI is not yet finalized? Discuss.

with reporting by Jeorg Heber

Short notice for asteroids’ near-miss

Tunguska260.jpg The announcement from NASA yesterday that two small asteroids would today miss our planet by less than the distance between the Earth and the Moon brings into focus the short notice that we are likely to have of any collision from smaller space rocks.

One asteroid, 2010 RX30, estimated by NASA to be between 10 and 20 metres across, passed within 248,000 kilometres of Earth at 10.51 am BST today. The second, 2010 RF12, estimated to be only 6 to 14 metres across, will pass within 79,000 kilometres at 10:12 pm tonight. Both were only discovered on Sunday, just three days before their time of closest approach. That is due to their small size; smaller objects are harder for telescopes to pick up.

It’s unknown exactly how much damage such objects would do if they did hit Earth. In 2008, Mark Boslough and David Crawford of Sandia National Laboratories published simulations showing that a 30 to 50 metre asteroid could cause substantial damage to Earth’s surface by depositing energy several kilometers up in the atmosphere, and causing a jet of expanding gas to plunge to the ground.

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Europe passes lab animal law

After years of wrangling, Europe has adopted a new law to regulate the use of animals in research. (European Parliament)

The legislation, which updates a law from 1986, was passed by the European Parliament in Strasbourg today – the final hurdle in the law-making process. It marks a compromise between anti-vivisection campaigners and researchers, which was hammered out in April (see Lab-animal battle reaches truce)

As that story says:

Basic research using primates will now be allowed, for example, and animals will not have to be destroyed immediately after research procedures that cause “moderate” discomfort, as previous forms of the directive had decreed. Instead, the animals can be used in other procedures. At the same time, the draft addresses concerns about animal welfare by introducing minimum cage sizes and other measures.

The directive does ban some forms of research — those involving great apes or causing extreme and prolonged pain. But researchers can appeal for an exemption, on grounds of clinical urgency, through a special committee to be set up in Brussels.

No stay for stem cell injunction

Royce_Lamberth.jpgA Washington DC court this afternoon denied the government’s motion requesting that last month’s injunction against federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research be lifted.

“Defendants are incorrect about much of their “parade of horribles” that will supposedly result from this Court’s preliminary injunction,” writes Judge Royce Lamberth (right), who handed down the injunction on 23 August, in today’s court order. (Download a PDF of judge’s order here.)

“In this Court’s view, a stay would flout the will of Congress, as this Court understands what Congress has enacted in the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Congress remains perfectly free to amend or revise the statute. This Court is not free to do so.”

The government has said it will appeal if a stay is not granted.

Meanwhile, in documents filed on Friday, the plaintiffs said they plan to file for a so-called “summary motion” on 10 September, which they hope would prevent the case from being tried in a court room and would bring about a decision within two months.

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Oxygen “sags” and oil “snow storm” near spill site

thick-sed-oil300.jpgA new report from the Joint Analysis Group (JAG), which includes the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that oxygen levels have dropped by about 20% below average in locations around the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In an unrelated development, a team of researchers has found evidence (see photo, right) of precipitated oil on the seafloor below causing significant harm to organisms there.

The zones of depleted oxygen, called “sags” extend some 100 kilometres from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. The sags are the result of microbial activity breaking down the oil and are not low enough to cause dead zones in the deep ocean, says Steve Murawski, Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries and head of the joint agency team.

The findings, based on data collected between 8 May and 9 August, dispel questions raised in the JAG’s second report over whether low oxygen signals were simply due to fouled instrumentation. Academic scientists have been documenting significant oxygen drops for months, but the previous JAG report raised concerns that these measurements were “false positives”.

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An end to (large-scale) deforestation in the Amazon?

evol_distrb_prodes_2010.jpgCould it be? Things are changing so quickly in the Amazon that it’s hard to come up with a satisfactory explanation of anything, but the latest deforestation statistics certainly make you wonder.

Here’s the gist: Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research issued preliminary satellite data last week indicating that the rate of deforestation dropped by 47.5 percent, from 4,375 to 2,296 square kilometres, in 2010. (Beware: the English version contains an error with these specific numbers) This is low-resolution satellite data, so the official number (which no one really disputes) will be substantially higher when it comes out in December. But it is an apples-to-apples comparison.

The final tally for 2009 was 7,464 square kilometres, and the 2010 total is expected to register below 4,000 square kilometres. That would represent an 85 percent drop compared to the recent peak year of 2004, when 27,772 square kilometres were chopped down. It would also mean that Brazil has met its commitment to reduce deforestation by 80 percent by 2020 a decade early, says Doug Boucher, who heads the tropical forest programme for UCS. “That’s a remarkable achievement."

Boucher translates an 80-percent reduction from the long-term baseline (roughly 19,500 square kilometres between 1996 and 2005) into an annual reduction of about 1 gigatonne of carbon dioxide emissions. That is equivalent to roughly 17 percent of the United States’ annual greenhouse gas emissions, which is about what the United States is promising to do by 2020. And the US commitment is roughly equivalent to what the European Union has committed to doing unilaterally between now and 2020.

In other words, if Brazil can prevent a major backslide, it will have accomplished as much in the past few years as the United States and Europe are committing to do over the next decade. And then there’s the added benefit to biodiversity.

Now, there are reasons to be wary.

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