Ancient Hobbit Was a Genetic Anomaly, but Not in an Exciting Way

This figure compares the skull of LB1 to that of Liang Momer E, another skull from Flores, dated in the range of 3000 to 5000 years ago.

This figure compares the skull of LB1 to that of Liang Momer E, another skull from Flores, dated in the range of 3000 to 5000 years ago.

Ten years ago researchers announced the discovery of an ancient human that resembled Bilbo Baggins more than any modern human. Understandably dubbed the “Hobbit,” the remains were found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores—a long, skinny parcel of land about halfway between Australia and Asia.

Two new studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, are taking issue with the original findings. According to them, Bilbo was just an unlucky loser of the genetic lottery, not a fanciful new species of hominid.

Bilbo wasn’t a hobbit; Bilbo had Down syndrome.

A reanalysis of the skull and femur found in the cave—the only two useful bones found from the hobbit specimen—has revealed that the original projections of their size was a bit low. The brain was likely larger than originally deduced, putting it within range of modern humans afflicted with the genetic disorder.

What’s more, when you forecast likely height based on the femur’s length based on normal growth rather than an African pygmy population, as was  originally done, the proposed height comes out to just over four feet rather than a mere three and a half. And just over four feet is also well within the range of humans now living on Flores and in surrounding areas.

But the nail in the coffin might be the asymmetry of the discovered skull. The original study attributed these factors to the small but important nuance that it had been buried for tens of thousands of years. But the new study suggests perhaps that’s really the way the skull was—yet another common characteristic of Down syndrome.

Actually, I take that back. The nail in the coffin is that none of the other remains found along with the hobbit skeleton were hobbit-like at all.

“This work is not presented in the form of a fanciful story, but to test a hypothesis: Are the skeletons from Liang Bua cave sufficiently unusual to require invention of a new human species?” said Robert Eckhardt, professor of developmental genetics and evolution at Penn State, who was involved in the study. “Our reanalysis shows that they are not. The less strained explanation is a developmental disorder. Here the signs point rather clearly to Down syndrome, which occurs in more than one per thousand human births around the world.”

Yeah, I’d say it’s probably more likely that they found a rare case of Down syndrome remains—which affects one out of every 691 births in the United States—rather than a brand new hobbit species.

So sorry folks, but no unusual hobbit-like species here in this corner of the world.

I did, however, read another interesting hypothesis. Haven’t you Lord of the Rings fans out there always wondered why Gandalf didn’t just take the ring to Mount Doom on the back of an eagle? I mean, they basically save the day at the end of both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

What if that was actually his plan all along? What if he was secretly pushing the Fellowship north toward the eagles’ home in the hopes of jumping on one of their backs? Was Gandalf really that fond of alliteration, or was his final words in Moria a suggestion of his intentions rather than a generalized order to get the hell out of there?

“Fly you fools.”

Then again, if an eagle could be summoned to Isengard with nothing but a whisper to a moth, you’d think that the eagles would be willing to come pick them up outside of Rivendell and spare the journey through the Misty Mountains. So instead, I’d like to amend the theory.

Perhaps Gandalf suddenly realized he had underestimated the difficulty of the task at hand? Or perhaps he thought that Frodo was incapable of making the journey without a wizard by his side? If it was a suggestion of flight, I think it would have had to have been a last second realization.

But what do I know? Either way, flying would have made for a pretty boring book.

The papers, “Evolved developmental homeostasis disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, denotes Down syndrome and not diagnostic traits of the invalid species Homo floresiensis,” and, “Rare events in earth history include the LB1 human skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a developmental singularity, not a unique taxon,” were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Eckhardt; Maciej Henneberg, professor of anatomy and pathology at the University of Adelaide; and Kenneth Hsü, a Chinese geologist and paleoclimatologist.

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Justice Driven by Reason, not Emotion

I’m a pretty logical person—almost too much so, most likely—especially when it comes to dealing with situations in which others are swayed more by emotions. For example, I have difficulty caring about providing prosthetics for dogs while human beings are starving or providing public funding for physically disabled individuals to be able to experience absolutely everything that a fully abled person has access to. Maybe people without legs don’t have to get to go skiing.

You would think that this trend would carry over into a general sense of justice. It seems like quite an emotional thing. People get worked up when life intervenes and deals a raw hand. Criminals should always be caught and punished appropriately for their crime.

I’ve always thought I was on the harsher side of the justice scale, thinking lots of jack asses in the world should get a solid punch in the face, for example. But it never seemed to jive with my logic circuits.

A new study out of the University of Chicago, however, might have something to say on the subject. After putting a couple dozen test subjects into an fMRI machine and having them watch video clips of injustices, a team of researchers found that people with high justice sensitivity are pushed by higher cognitive functions rather than emotional ones.

For example, participants saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away, and  were asked to rate how much they would blame or praise the actions. Surprisingly, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing… not so much.

Jean Decety, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago and lead on the study, said the conclusions were clear. “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

Of course, clear is a relative concept. The study had a sample size of a whopping 40 people, likely all from the same city. It’s hard to say anything is for certain with that few of test subjects who aren’t likely to be very socioeconomically diverse, to say nothing of other cultures outside of the United States.

But still, it’s an interesting concept. Plus it strokes my own ego, so there’s always that.

The awesomely titled study, “The Good, the Bad, and the Just: Justice Sensitivity Predicts Neural Response during Moral Evaluation of Actions Performed by Others,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience by Decety and Keith Yoder.


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Researchers tracking young loggerhead sea turtles with shell-mounted satellite transmitters have found the turtles making homes in seaweed mats that provide metabolism-boosting warmth, food and shelter.  Photos courtesy of Jim Abernethy, NMFS permit 1551

Researchers tracking young loggerhead sea turtles with shell-mounted satellite transmitters have found the turtles making homes in seaweed mats that provide metabolism-boosting warmth, food and shelter.
Photos courtesy of Jim Abernethy, NMFS permit 1551

And now for your daily dose of cuteness–I give you baby sea turtles. Loggerheads, to be exact.

After hatching on the Atlantic coast shores of the American south, these little critters drift away and don’t reappear until they are juveniles years later. What the hell are they doing in that intermittent time? Only one way to find out–tag them with radio transmitters.

That’s exactly what University of Wisconsin zoologist Warren Porter helped do with 17 freshly hatched turtles. The team tracked them up to hundreds of days across thousands of miles of Atlantic ocean.

Newly tagged with a satellite transmitter, a baby loggerhead sea turtle swims into the Gulf Stream and a period of its young lifelong known as the "lost years."

Newly tagged with a satellite transmitter, a baby loggerhead sea turtle swims into the Gulf Stream and a period of its young lifelong known as the “lost years.”

And apparently the turtles are straight chillin’ in sea weed.

Okay, so not chillin’, but warmin’. The turtles seek out floating mats of sargassum, a species of seaweed, which provides them with food and warmth. Not that the ocean is too cold for them. More that an extra five degrees of surrounding environment can shoot their metabolism up 50 percent, quickly making them less of an easy target to predators.

So there you have it. Some cool facts about baby loggerhead turtles and some totes adorbs pictures to go with it. What else do you want on a Friday?

The paper, “First satellite tracks of neonate sea turtles redefine the ‘lost years’ oceanic niche,” was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B with the help of Porter and a team of researchers led by Kate Mansfield, professor of biology at the University of Central Florida.

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Creating Super Oil-Producing Sugarcane

If the researchers achieve their goal, growers will be able to meet 147 percent of the U.S. mandate for renewable fuels by growing the modified sugarcane on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20 percent of the green zone on the map).  Graphic courtesy Stephen P. Long

If the researchers achieve their goal, growers will be able to meet 147 percent of the U.S. mandate for renewable fuels by growing the modified sugarcane on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20 percent of the green zone on the map). Graphic courtesy Stephen P. Long

One of the biggest problems with alternative energy sources is that they’re horrendously inefficient. Solar cells are lucky to get above 20 percent in the best conditions while biodiesel plants barely rise to a single percent in terms of producing oil, let alone the losses incurred after converting to fuel.

Luckily, we have really smart people working on both fronts. A team from Soitec recently set the world record with a solar cell efficiency of 44.7 percent. And on the plant side of the fuel equation, researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Nebraska are making similar strides.

During a recent energy summit, Stephen Long, University of Illinois professor of plant biology, presented progress on using genetic engineering to get sugarcane—one of the most productive crop plants known to man—to produce oil instead of sugar.

According to Long, getting oil out of a soybean and converting it to diesel is easy; you could do it in your kitchen. But soybeans don’t produce enough oil to make them economically viable as an alternative energy solution.

So Long and his colleagues inserted some oil-producing genes into sugarcane and managed to increase the plant’s oil production up to 1.5 percent. That may not seem like a lot, but a sugarcane field in Florida would make 50 percent more oil than the same field planted with soybeans.

Not bad.

But they’re not stopping there. The team has set a goal of oil production efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum up to 20 percent. And they’ve also used genetic engineering to increase the photosynthetic efficiency of the plants by 30 percent. And they’re crossing these oil-producing, sun-garbling mutants with Miscanthus—a related perennial grass that can withstand cold temperatures and grows as far north as Canada.

So in the not too distant future we could have a plant that can thrive anywhere in the United States and produce enough oil to make it a worthwhile cash crop of companies to pursue to help replace fossil fuels.

But, you know, fuck GMOs.

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They’re Long, They’re Strong, and They’re Down to Get the Galactose Metabolism On

The intricacies of life are just mind boggling when you stop to think about them. Take, for example, the “simple” act of a fetus growing a leg. This is happening every minute of every hour in a vast array of animals throughout the world, and it relies on precise timing and activation of specific genetic markers instructing cells how to differentiate and grow.

Hopefully most anyone reading a science blog has a decent idea of how genetics work. DNA is like a blueprint that gets read by RNA, which instructs other tiny structures how to build the thousands of tiny bits and pieces that makes complex life possible. Only about two percent of the human genome, however, encodes proteins, leaving a staggering 98 percent left to do something else.

For a long time, scientists thought this “nothing else” was just that—nothing. But it turns out that most—if not perhaps all—of it does actually play a function. For example, controlling the activation of other DNA segments.

There’s still so much to learn about how the body organizes and controls its various functions that it sometimes feels like Sisyphus forever pushing a boulder up a mountainside.

But sometimes the mountain plateaus, if only for a moment.

Elizabeth Tran, assistant professor of biochemistry at Purdue University, and her colleagues recently discovered a pretty neat trick that long non-coding RNAs can do. Long non-coding RNAs are strains of RNA longer than 200 nucleotide puzzle pieces that—you guessed it—don’t code for any proteins. While there are some thousands of these genetic machines in mammals, only a small proportion have been found to be biologically relevant.

One suggested role of long non-coding RNAs was gene repression, but Tran’s study showed the opposite is true.

Yeast are famous for eating sugars and crapping out carbon dioxide, allowing bread to rise and beer to carbonate. There are many forms of sugar, though, some of which are easier to metabolize than others, as any good South Beach dieter will inform you. Yeast’s sugar of choice is glucose, but when that runs out, it has no issue switching its metabolism over to feed on another type of sugar called galactose.

In Tran’s study, the researchers found that long non-coding RNAs prepare metabolic genes to be activated swiftly when baker’s yeast needs to switch its source of energy. Yeast with long non-coding RNA begin metabolizing galactose about 30 minutes quicker than yeast without.

And while that may not seem like that much of a difference, keep in mind that yeast reproduce every 90 minutes. What if I turned on something in you that made puberty hit twice as early? I bet you’d notice a difference then.

Tran likened the difference to a sprinter getting out of the gates quicker than the competition.”One reason the runner Usain Bolt is so fast is that he developed a technique of getting out of the block really quickly,” she said. “Being able to do that means you can spread out your energy during the race – all because you started faster at the beginning.”

Humans contain upwards of 8,000 long non-coding RNAs, some of which have been linked to cancer, developmental diseases and cardiomyopathy and other non-DNA mutations in the genome. Tran said the chances are high that long non-coding RNAs play a role in human diseases, developmental defects and delays.

“Now the question becomes why long non-coding RNAs are so closely associated with development,” Tran said. “Having opened up the possibility that they’re linked to timing and not end level of gene expression is really key.”

The study, “Long Noncoding RNAs Promote Transcriptional Poising of Inducible Genes,” was published in PLOS Biology by Tran and colleagues Sara Cloutier, Siwen Wang, Wai Kit Ma and Christopher Petell.

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Getting Rid of Eye Drops for Glaucoma

Pratt School of Engineering faculty member Jennifer West in the atrium of the Fitzpatrick Center

Pratt School of Engineering faculty member Jennifer West in the atrium of the Fitzpatrick Center

Imagine yourself at age 80, fumbling for the small vial of eye drops your ophthalmologist prescribed for your glaucoma. It’s five in the afternoon, you can’t remember whether you put them back in the bathroom or the bedside table after your last application, and you worry that your shaking hands will once again leave the drops on your cheeks instead of in your eyes. And even if you’re successful, only a small amount of medication will actually reach its intended target deep within the eye.

Jennifer West, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechancial engineering and materials science in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, and Molly Walsh, MD, an ophthalmologist and researcher with Duke Eye Center, want to make life easier for the tens of millions of glaucoma sufferers worldwide. Through collaborations with fellow Duke ophthalmologist Stuart McKinnon, MD, PhD, the team has created a device known as the Retroject RJT1125 that stabilizes the eyeball and allows a glaucoma drug to be injected into the veins near the iris.

Walsh has been developing the RJT1125, which is the size of a half-dollar and fits perfectly over the patient’s eye to stabilize it for an injection. The target is the episcleral vein that provides direct access to an area called Schlemm’s canal, which is where glaucoma medications need to be delivered.

Because blood in the vein is normally flowing away from the eye, the Retroject puts gentle pressure on the vein, making it flow backward and inside the eye. The entire process can take less than a minute and be done during a regular check-up by an ophthalmologist.

Molly Walsh, MD, holds the Retroject device, which she hopes will eliminate the need for medicated eye drops for many glaucoma patients.

Molly Walsh, MD, holds the Retroject device, which she hopes will eliminate the need for medicated eye drops for many glaucoma patients.

“One of the issues, however, is that you don’t want patients to have to come in too often to get these injections,” explained West. “Even though the procedure is essentially painless, it’s still a trip into the doctor, which can be difficult for many patients. So we are looking for ways to inject a long-acting medication.”

West wants to figure out how to make the injection last for months. To do this, she is turning to nanoparticles. The tiny spheres can be made to recognize chemical signals unique to Schlemm’s canal and latch onto the walls in only that location. Then, over time, the nanoparticles can slowly release the medication that they have been pre-loaded with.

The end goal is to eliminate the need for daily eye drops.

Although the nanoparticles are years away from public use, the Retroject device is on a fast track for testing in human clinical trials this month, thanks in part to support from theDuke Translational Medicine Institute (DTMI), whose mission is to speed up the translation of laboratory science into clinical care. The project gained further momentum in 2013 from aDuke/Coulter Translational Research Partnership grant, which supports collaborative research projects involving biomedical engineering and clinical medicine at Duke. The award provided financial support as well as advice and direction on regulatory pathways and commercialization strategies.

Through the Coulter award, Duke provided West and Walsh with a project leader, Kristi Viles, PhD, to help the researchers along the path toward success. This service is offered through theDuke Translational Research Institute (DTRI).

“The infrastructure and guidance Kristi provides are immensely helpful,” Walsh said. “This has pushed our technology forward in ways I could not have done alone.”

Now, the team has received a second Coulter award, which will fund continued investigation of the safety and efficacy of the RJT1125 and the nanoparticles. The injection technique itself is already in the first human trial to show that it can be safely placed on the eye and an injection can be safely completed, while the anti-glaucoma nanoparticles are in animal trials. The investigators will also work with the Duke Translational Research Institute to apply for regulatory approvals from the FDA and prepare applications for follow-on funding from the NIH Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program.

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Tilting the Vocal Scales: One Loud Voice > 40

voice-vote-illus-2-640There exist a few situations in which taking a voice vote of “yay” or “nay” makes a lot of sense. If there’s only a handful of voting members, the common parliamentary procedure can expedite the voting process. The same goes for motions that have a clear and overwhelming majority.

It would seem obvious to me, however, that taking a vocal vote with some thousands of people present on an issue that is just on the cusp of being passed or defeated is an absolutely horrendous idea. Not so, apparently, to the Democratic National Convention.

In the video above, taken from the 2012, the large crowd is asked whether the party should reinsert the phrases “God-given talents” and “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of the State of Israel” into the party’s platform document. The voice vote is so divided, that the question is repeated three times before Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa names a winner—some say erroneously.

Clearly this is a terrible way to do things when a two-thirds majority is required and it’s not anywhere remotely close to unanimous. One researcher from the University of Iowa, however, wondered just how awful of an idea it was.

Ingo Titze, professor of communications sciences and disorders at Iowa, and Anil Palaparthi, a research engineer with the National Center for Voice and Speech in Utah, put together a voting body of 54 students in a large classroom with five judges blindfolded in the front. They then had the students slowly shift the number of “yays” to “nays” or had certain students start being more acoustically aggressive in their voting.

The surprising result was that a single emotional voter with a nice set of pipes could make a lot more of a difference than sheer number of voters alone. While it took at least two people shifting their vote for the judges to notice a difference, a single person raising the volume swayed the result.

The researchers calculate it would take at least 40 normal loudness voices to overcome the bias of a single loud vote, in order to establish roughly a two-thirds majority.

So, yeah, I’m thinking it might be worth the time to take actual tallies on things like a party’s platform on emotionally charged topics in the future.

The paper, “The accuracy of a voice vote,” was published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America by Titze and Palaparthi.

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