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Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Past becomes even older, july, 2009


  1. Think your life is bad? Archaeologists show us worse.
  2. Were our earliest hominid ancestors European?
  3. Ivory sculpture in Germany could be world's oldest
  4. Monkeys found to wonder what might have been
Short stories:
  1. Stone Age Superglue Found -- Hints at Unknown Smarts?
  2. Ancient Elite Island With Pyramid Found in Mexico
  3. Bone appears to date human presence in Treasure Coast back 13,000 years
Today's comments are quite short, since the articles are quite self-explaining. The common theme is the new evidences of how old actually humans are. I hope you enjoy!

Think your life is bad? Archaeologists show us worse.

Posted 5/10/2009 10:27 PM

Consider life on the high steppes of Central Asia, the Altai Mountains, around 500 B.C., in modern-day Mongolia. Back then, it was the home of the Pazyryk peoples, horse-riding nomads who lived next door to the not-so-friendly Scythians.

Archaeologists know the Pazyryk from burial mounds, or tumuli, of larch wood covered with stones, "in which the bodies of Pazyryk warriors were buried with their horses and their weapons, such as battle-axes, daggers, swords, and bows and arrows," according to a study in the July Journal of Archaeological Science, which describes seven of these graves.

"These people led violent lives," says Xavier Jordana of Spain's Universitat Auto'noma de Barcelona, who led the two-year study effort. At the burial sites, which he describes as "typical," an international team uncovered the remains of 10 people in all, seven men, one woman and two children. Similar to past Pazyryk burials, a horse was buried with each individual, as well as a ceramic bowl, iron knife and back bone of a sheep or goat. "Small sheets of gold were also always found next to the skull," says the study. Weaponry included "pointed battle-axes with wooden handles, short daggers, both of bronze or iron, and trilobate arrowheads made of bone or bronze."

Also typical, "Seven individuals exhibited a total of 14 traumatic injuries," notes the study. Two of the men showed evidence of healed battle-axe wounds on their skulls. Five of the individuals, including the women and one child, were killed by axes or dagger wounds. One man was shot in the head with an arrow.

Herodotus had described human sacrifice and warfare as common among nomads in his day, so Jordana and his colleagues analyzed the wounds they saw in an attempt to understand exactly how these people died. "Were they fighting battles or sacrificed," he asks. "Herodotus is known as the 'Father of History' but he is also called the 'Father of Liars,' so we wanted to see."

Raids, not warfare, marked the deaths of the people who died violently, concludes the study.

"These were burials of a warrior class of people," Jordana says, but they fit with the pattern of violent lives lived in the past. "They buried women and children with weapons. It's not clear (that) these were Amazons, but they led very hard lives, compared to today." source

My comment: This burial reminds me so much of a burial of Thracians in our lands and also of the burials of Bulgars. All buried with their horses, with their wives and with gold. It's very interesting that I've never heard of the people described in the article, but considering the location-Altai, they are very likely related to both Bulgars and Thracians. It becomes more and more interesting.

Were our earliest hominid ancestors European?

Millions of years before early humans evolved in Africa, their ancestors may have lived in Europe, a 12-million-year-old fossil hominid from Spain suggests.

The fossil, named Anoiapithecus brevirostris by Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Catalan Institute of Palaeontology in Barcelona, Spain, and his colleagues, dates from a period of human evolution for which the record is very thin. While only the animal's face, jaw and teeth survive, their shape places it within the African hominid lineage that gave rise to gorillas, chimps and humans. However, it also has features of a related group called kenyapithecins.

Moyà-Solà says that A. brevirostris and some similar-looking kenyapithecins lived in Europe shortly after the afrohominid and kenyapithecin lineages split, and so that the divergence itself may have happened there. If he is right, our hominid ancestors lived in Europe and only later migrated to Africa, where modern humans evolved.

This "into Africa" scenario is likely to be controversial. Critics argue that discoveries like Moyà-Solà's are more likely to reflect the quality of the fossil records in Africa and Europe than offer clues to the actual origins of hominids. source

My comment: I'm also very suspicious of the idea of Africa. It's not about discriminating the black continent, I love Africa in a very odd way. But as for humans as a specie, I think there are many questions in regard of the Africa-scenario. Obviously, there we can find some of the oldest fossils and we have settlements and so on. Homo Sapience came from Afica. But is this the whole story or are we missing something? What happened to the Neanderthals? Who were they, what were they?

Ivory sculpture in Germany could be world's oldest

May 13th, 2009
( -- The 2008 excavations at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany recovered a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory from the basal Aurignacian deposit. This figurine, which is the earliest depiction of a human, and one of the oldest known examples of figurative art worldwide, was made at least 35,000 years ago. This discovery radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Paleolithic art.

The figurine lay about 3 meters below the current surface of the cave in an area about 20 meters from the cave’s entrance. The Venus from Hohle Fels is nearly complete with only the left arm and shoulder missing. The excellent preservation and the close stratigraphic association of the pieces of the figurine indicate that the Venus experienced little disturbance after deposition.

Radiocarbon dates from this horizon span the entire range from 31,000 - 40,000 years ago. The fact that the venus is overlain by five Aurignacian horizons that contain a dozen stratigraphically intact anthropogenic features with a total thickness of 70 - 120 cm, suggests that figurine is indeed of an age corresponding to the start of the Aurignacian around 40,000 years ago.

The Venus shows a range of entirely unique features as well as a number of characteristics present in later female figurines. The Venus of Hohle Fels lacks a head. Instead an off-centered, but carefully carved ring is located above the broad shoulders of the figurine. This ring, despite being weathered, preserves polish suggesting that the figurine was worn as a pendant. Beneath the shoulders, which are roughly as thick as they are wide, large breasts project forward. The figurine has two short arms with two carefully carved hands with visible fingers resting on the upper part of the stomach below the breasts.

The Venus has a short and squat form with a waist that is slightly narrower than the broad shoulders and wide hips. Multiple deeply incised horizontal lines cover the abdomen from the area below the breast to the pubic triangle. Several of these horizontal lines extend to the back of the figurine and are suggestive of clothing or a wrap of some sort. Microscopic images show that these incisions were created by repeatedly cutting along the same lines with sharp stone tools.

The legs of the Venus are short and pointy. The buttocks and genitals are depicted in more details. The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continues without interruption to the front of the figurine where the vulva is visible between the open legs. There can be no doubt that the depiction of oversized breast, exentuated buttocks and genetalia result from the deliberate exaggeration of the sexual features of the figurine. In addition to the many carefully depicted anatomical features, the surface of the Venus preserves numerous lines and deliberate markings.

Many of the features, including the emphasis on sexual attributes and lack of emphasis on the head, face and arms and legs, call to mind aspects of the numerous Venus figurines well known from the European Gravettien, which typically date between 22 and 27 ka BP. The careful depiction of the hands is reminiscent of those of Venuses including that of archetypal Venus of Willendorf, which was discovered 100 years earlier in summer of 1908. Despite the far greater age of the Venus of Hohle Fels, many of its attributes occur in various forms throughout the rich tradition of Paleolithic female representations.

The new figurine from Hohle Fels radically changes our view of origins of Paleolithic art. Prior to this discovery, animals and therianthropic imagry dominated the over two dozen figurines from the Swabian Aurignacian. Female imagry was entirely unknown. With this discovery, the notion that three dimensional female imagry developed in the Gravettian can be rejected. source

My comment: Not much to say here, except that this is a wonderful example of how our theories get updated every day now. Because as the article states, this is the first 3d image of a person from that time. From my perspective, it's naive to expect that the great cave paintings are produced in a moment of inspirations and then forgotten. To create such magnificent art you need dedication and patience. It takes years to become so good in what you do and you cannot do it, while you hunt for mammoths or whatever. It takes a developed society. That we haven't found evidences of this society doesn't mean it's not there. Same as Thracian gold treasures. You cannot create something so elaborate and stunningly beautiful just like this. You need time to learn and to pass knowledge. This require a developed society. I'm still waiting for the Cities of Gold. I just hope the gold will hit the news before it hit the unknown collectors.

Monkeys found to wonder what might have been

May 14th, 2009

( -- Monkeys playing a game similar to "Let's Make A Deal" have revealed that their brains register missed opportunities and learn from their mistakes.

"This is the first evidence that , like people, have 'would-have, could-have, should-have' thoughts," said Ben Hayden, a researcher at the Duke University Medical Center and lead author of the study published in the journal Science.

The researchers watched individual neurons in a region of the brain called the (ACC) that monitors the consequences of actions and mediates resulting changes in behavior. The monkeys were making choices that resulted in different amounts of juice as a reward.

During each trial, the monkeys chose from one of eight identical white squares arranged in a circle. A color beneath the white square was revealed and the monkey received the corresponding reward.

Over many weeks, the monkeys were trained to associate a high-value reward with the color green and the low-value rewards with other colors. After receiving a reward, the monkey was also shown the prizes he missed.

What the researchers saw was that neurons in the ACC responded in proportion to the reward -- a greater reward caused a higher response. They also found that these same neurons responded when monkeys saw what they missed. Most of these ACC neurons responded the same way to a real or imagined reward.source

My comment: A very small comment here. We tend to underestimate both monkeys, animals and even our fellow Homo. So, I find such article extremely enlightening, because they show us that we're actually wrong. If a monkey understands past, future, possible and impossible, actual and virtual rewards, what happens with Neanderthals who have lived for like 300 000 years?

Stone Age Superglue Found -- Hints at Unknown Smarts?

Ker Than, National Geographic News , May 11, 2009

Stone Age humans were adept chemists who whipped up a sophisticated kind of natural glue, a new study says.

They knowingly tweaked the chemical and physical properties of an iron-containing pigment known as red ochre with the gum of acacia trees to create adhesives for their shafted tools.

Archaeologists had believed the blood-red pigment—used by people in what is now South Africa about 70,000 years ago—served a decorative or symbolic purpose.

But the scientists had also suspected that the pigment may have been purposely added to improve glue that held the peoples' tools together.

So researchers recreated the ancient glue using only Stone Age materials and technologies.

The results showed that glue containing red ochre was less brittle and more shatterproof than glue made from acacia gum alone.

But making the glue wasn't easy for the ancient Africans. It was mentally taxing work that would have required humans to account for differences in the chemistry of gum harvested from different trees and in the iron content of ochre from different sites.

The finding also suggests the intelligence of Stone Age humans was more akin to that of modern humans than previously thought, she added. source

Ancient Elite Island With Pyramid Found in Mexico

Alexis Okeowo in México City, National Geographic News, May 13, 2009

An island for ancient elites has been found in central Mexico, archaeologists say. Among the ruins are a treasury and a small pyramid that may have been used for rituals.

The island, called Apupato, belonged to the powerful Tarascan Empire, which dominated much of western Mexico from A.D. 1400 to 1520, before the European conquest of the region.

The Purépecha people—named Tarascan by the Spanish—were formidable enemies with their neighbors, the Aztec. From their powerful capital city and religious center Tzintzuntzan, the Tarascans successfully thwarted every attack by the Aztec.

Tarascan people valued such products as honey, cotton, feathers, and salt, and they often expanded into neighboring lands in search of these goods.

Fisher and colleagues found a square structure with a formal entrance that is believed to have been an imperial treasury. Adjacent to the treasury is a small pyramid, which has large, open rooms that would have been suitable for ritual activity. Pipe fragments were also found near the treasury.The pipe discoveries may bear out ritual descriptions on a previously found ancient Spanish scroll.

The scroll shows people smoking pipes and drinking pulque—a drink made of agave, a crucial crop used for alcoholic drinks, such as tequila, and syrup, Fisher said. The scroll also describes ritual treasury caches dedicated to specific gods.

Toward the end of the island's Tarascan occupation, the area was a "ritual center" where people of elite status lived and worked, he added.

Evidence of crop cultivation also suggests that humans continuously occupied the site for 2,000 years, Fisher said.source

Bone appears to date human presence in Treasure Coast back 13,000 years

VERO BEACH — Local amateur fossil collector James Kennedy appears to have made an unprecedented archaeological discovery that might help confirm a human presence here up to 13,000 years ago.

A 15-inch-long prehistoric bone fragment found near Vero Beach contains a crude engraving of a mammoth or mastodon on it, said Dr. Barbara Purdy, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Florida.

“It is humbling to realize that we are seeing what the hunter saw more than 13,000 years ago,” Purdy said.

Tests so far have shown it to be genuine.

If so, it appears to be “the oldest, most spectacular and rare work of art in the Americas,” she wrote in a report to other scientists.

The only comparable images are found in European cave paintings, she said in an interview Friday. The bone contains “the unmistakable incising of an ancient proboscidean (elephant),” she said. source

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Inspiration from Nature goes to 21st century, june 2009

But first, check out this stunning new fish:

It almost has a face!

  1. Novel vaccine approach offers hope in fight against HIV
  2. Radiation Review: Some People May be 'Allergic' to Cell Phones, Computers
  3. Progress Toward Artificial Tissue?
  4. The Origin of Artificial Species: Creating Artificial Personalities
Short stories:
  1. Women have a more powerful immune system than men
  2. Common diabetes drug may 'revolutionize' cancer therapies
  3. A new lead for autoimmune disease
  4. Genes that influence start of menstruation identified for first time
I have to make a little announcement. Since it's mid-Summer and I have so many things to do (totally unrelated with the fact that it's vacation and I should have fun instead of working), I'll have to make posts even less frequent. I hope I don't disappoint too much people, I don't if I trust the web-statistics, but I simply have no choice. I so want to get back to the old form of 3-4 commented articles or even less, to make it a little bit more personal, but I have so much content waiting to be published. So, I have no idea how I'd do it, I'd probably post whatever I can in the next month and then, I'll pause and figure out how to continue. So, until now, be warned for the chaos.

Novel vaccine approach offers hope in fight against HIV

May 17th, 2009

A research team may have broken the stubborn impasse that has frustrated the invention of an effective HIV vaccine, by using an approach that bypasses the usual path followed by vaccine developers. By using gene transfer technology that produces molecules that block infection, the scientists protected monkeys from infection by a virus closely related to HIV—the simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV—that causes AIDS in rhesus monkeys.

Johnson cautioned that many hurdles remain before the technique used in this animal study might be translated into an HIV vaccine for humans. If the technique leads to an effective HIV vaccine, such a vaccine may be years away from realization.

Most attempts at developing an have used substances aimed at stimulating the body's immune system to produce antibodies or killer cells that would eliminate the virus before or after it infected cells in the body. However, clinical trials have been disappointing.

The approach taken in the current study was divided into two phases. In the first phase, the research team created antibody-like proteins (called immunoadhesins) that were specifically designed to bind to SIV and block it from infecting cells. Once proven to work against SIV in the laboratory, DNA representing SIV-specific immunoadhesins was engineered into a carrier virus designed to deliver the DNA to monkeys. The researchers chose adeno-associated virus (AAV) as the carrier virus because it is a very effective way to insert DNA into the cells of a monkey or human.

In the second part of the study, the team injected AAV carriers into the muscles of monkeys, where the imported DNA produced immunoadhesins that entered the blood circulation. One month after administration of the AAV carriers, the immunized monkeys were injected with live, AIDS-causing SIV. The majority of the immunized monkeys were completely protected from SIV infection, and all were protected from . In contrast, a group of unimmunized monkeys were all infected by SIV, and two-thirds died of AIDS complications. High concentrations of the SIV-specific immunoadhesins remained in the blood for over a year. source

My comment: That's nice, but as usual, I doubt the use of virus to spread certain type of modified DNA in the body. Genetic therapy is powerful but still dangerous approach. We're way too far from understanding what we're doing and although AIDS is very lethal in Africa, in Western world it is not and there is no need to rush the things. If that sounds racist-I am not. The point is that AIDS can be controlled with available means, which mean that it's absolutely irresponsible to use such therapies on humans. Not until we know for sure what's going on or until we find a way to insert DNA without the need of virus-carrier. And my bet is that this is going to happen any time soon.

Radiation Review: Some People May be 'Allergic' to Cell Phones, Computers

May 15th, 2009 By Lisa Zyga
( -- How exactly does the radiation from electromagnetic fields (EMF) affect the human body? Is it possible that cell phones, computer monitors, TVs, and other electronic devices - which operate within current EMF safety standards - cause illnesses, or are the people who claim to be sensitive to these devices just paranoid? The topic is one of the most controversial subjects in technology today, having important consequences in politics, consumerism, human rights, and health costs.

Olle Johansson, an associate professor and head of the Experimental Unit, Department of Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has been investigating the effects of electromagnetic fields on human physiology since the early ‘80s. Johansson’s research has led him to become an outspoken supporter of the view that the dangers of EMF radiation from our gadgets are real, and that existing safety standards, which are based on acute thermal effects only, do not adequately protect public health.

In a review to be published in an upcoming issue of Pathophysiology, Johansson has summarized the results from dozens of studies that have investigated the effects of EMFs on the in particular. As he explains, EMFs can act like an allergen, disturbing by eliciting various allergic and inflammatory responses. Johansson hopes that this review, along with the reviews in the extensive Bioinitiative Report published in 2007 that have identified harmful effects from wireless technologies, will urge policymakers to create new public safety limits and limit the future deployment of untested technologies.

In the current review, Johansson explains that the human immune system has evolved to deal with its known enemies, and not with electromagnetic “allergens” (e.g. TV signals, radiowaves, microwaves from cell phones or WiFi, radar signals, X-rays, artificial radioactivity, etc.) which have been introduced within the last 100 years. Our immune systems have developed under the influence of the sun’s radiation and the practically static geomagnetic field, he explains, but not under electromagnetic waves at other frequencies, or the magnetic and microwave pulses generated, for example, by cell phones.

As Johansson explains, antigens are substances that cause the immune system to react in an excessive manner, so that the immune system becomes damaging to local tissue and the entire body in general. Such hypersensitivity reactions can be caused by environmental disturbances that are small enough to enter the immune system. Examples can include dust and drugs, which can enter the respiratory tract or at site-specific locations. Another example is EMFs, which penetrate the entire body.

Different electronic devices produce EMFs that vary in strength, frequency, and pattern. While some studies have found associations between, for example, power lines and leukemia, or brain tumors and cell phones, other studies point out that no biological mechanism causing these illnesses has been identified. As Johansson argues, many studies assume that the only biological mechanism that causes adverse effects is the acute heating of cells and tissues, although he says that non-thermal effects, such as EMFs acting as antigens in the immune system, can occur before heating can be detected, especially after long-term exposure.

In some of the studies that Johansson summarizes, people claim to suffer from subjective and objective symptoms when exposed to electronic devices. Electrohypersensitivity (EHS) affects an estimated 3% to 10% of the population, he says, and often leads to lost work and productivity. In Johansson’s review, some studies hypothesize that people who claim adverse skin reactions after exposure to computer screens or mobile phones may actually have a correct avoidance reaction to the radiation. As he explains, the skin contains mast cells, which are known to react to external radiation such as radioactivity, X-rays, and UV light. Studies have found that skin samples of EHS people after radiation exposure have a higher number of mast cells in the upper dermis, and mast cells infiltrate other layers of the skin that don’t normally have them. EMFs may also cause mast cells to “degranulate,” releasing inflammatory substances that are involved in allergic hypersensitivity, itching, and pain. In previous theoretical studies, Johansson has proposed a model for how a proliferation of mast cells (mastocytosis) could explain sensitivity to EMFs. As in an allergic reaction, EMFs likely affect people differently based on varying immune functions due to variations in genetic make-up.

Johansson’s overall argument is that more research needs to be done on possible non-thermal mechanisms of EMFs’ damage to the human body, and investigations into immune system response in particular could lead to the discovery of a specific mechanism for biological damage.source

My comment: I have to agree here. Although I'm one of those people who cannot leave without internet and computer and mobile, I think we have to explore in depth the biological reaction to EM radiation. It's not that it's killing us, it is not! Live expectancy is still increasing despite the growing number of electronic devices. But that doesn't mean they don't affect us. We really are not used to that kind of radiation and not to that kind of volume. There are always some high energy particles flying around, there's the sun radiation, but today, we're drown in all kind of emissions in all kind of wavelengths that often carry information. And since our brain is a machine for information processing and one equipped quite well, I can bet this could be confusing. And not only this, but for example, there are theoretical evaluations that old GSM phones really could boil an egg solely with their signal-because of the so called Quasi-normal modes. There are dangerous wavelengths that should be avoided! And we don't research this! Why?! Ok, maybe some military scientists do research it, but this is a civil safety issue and it should be carefully examined. They might not kill us, but they can damage us or cause us headaches. Why should we endure discomfort, when we can modify our technologies to be more biologically acceptable. Too costy? Well, I prefer to give those money to stay healthy, than to give it because I'm sick!

Progress Toward Artificial Tissue?

May 15th, 2009

( -- For modern implants and the growth of artificial tissue and organs, it is important to generate materials with characteristics that closely emulate nature.

However, the tissue in our bodies has a combination of traits that are very hard to recreate in synthetic materials: It is both soft and very tough.

A team of Australian and Korean researchers led by Geoffrey M. Spinks and Seon Jeong Kim has now developed a novel, highly porous, sponge-like material whose mechanical properties closely resemble those of biological soft tissues. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, it consists of a robust network of DNA strands and carbon nanotubes.

, such as tendons, muscles, arteries, and skin or other organs, obtain their mechanical support from the extracellular matrix, a network of protein-based nanofibers. Different protein morphologies in the extracellular matrix produce tissue with a wide range of stiffness. Implants and scaffolding for require porous, soft materials -- which are usually very fragile. Because many biological tissues are regularly subjected to intense mechanical loads, it is also important that the implant material have comparable elasticity in order to avoid inflammation. At the same time, the material must be very strong and resilient, or it may give out.

The new concept uses as a matrix; the strands completely “wrap” the scaffold-forming carbon nanotubes in the presence of an ionic liquid, networking them to form a gel. This gel can be spun: just as silk and synthetic fibers can be wet-spun for textiles, the gel can be made into very fine threads when injected into a special bath. The dried fibers have a porous, sponge-like structure and consist of a network of intertwined 50 nm-wide nanofibers. Soaking in a calcium chloride solution further cross-links the DNA, causing the fibers to become denser and more strongly connected.

These spongy fibers resemble the collagen fiber networks of the biological extracellular matrix. They can also be knotted, braided, or woven into textile-like structures. This results in materials that are as elastic as the softest natural tissues while simultaneously deriving great strength from the robust DNA links.

An additional advantage is the electrical conductivity of the new material, which can thus also be used in electrodes for mechanical actuators, energy storage, and sensors. source

My comment: Now that's a complete alchemy! If you bothered to read the description, it sounds so cool, it's amazing they figured how to do it. I see immense potential in that and I hope they develop it properly. It's really really something big!

The Origin of Artificial Species: Creating Artificial Personalities

May 14th, 2009 By Lisa Zyga

( -- Does your robot seem to be acting a bit neurotic? Maybe it's just their personality. Recently, a team of researchers has designed computer-coded genomes for artificial creatures in which a specific personality is encoded. The ability to give artificial life forms their own individual personalities could not only improve the natural interactions between humans and artificial creatures, but also initiate the study of “The Origin of Artificial Species,” the researchers suggest.

The first artificial creature to receive the genomic personality is Rity, a dog-like software character that lives in a virtual 3D world in a PC. Rity’s genome is composed of 14 chromosomes, which together are composed of a total of 1,764 genes, each with its own value. Rather than manually assign the gene values, which would be difficult and time-consuming, the researchers proposed an evolutionary process that generates a genome with a specific personality desired by a user.

Kim told “I proposed a new concept of an artificial chromosome as the essence to define the personality of an artificial creature and to pass on its traits to the next generation, like a genetic inheritance. It is critical to provide an impression that the robot is a living creature. ”

As the researchers explain, an autonomous artificial creature - whether a physical robot or agent - can behave, interact, and react to environmental stimuli. Rity, for example, can interact with humans in the physical world using information through a mouse, a camera, or a microphone, with 47 perceptions. For instance, a single click and double click on Rity are perceived as “patted” and “hit,” respectively. Dragging Rity slowly and softly is perceived as “soothed,” and dragging it quickly and wildly as “shocked.”

To react to these stimuli in real time, Rity relies on its internal states which are composed of three units - motivation, homeostasis, and emotion - and controlled by its internal control architecture. The three units have a total of 14 states, which are the basis of the 14 chromosomes: the motivation unit includes six states (curiosity, intimacy, monotony, avoidance, greed, and the desire to control); the homeostasis unit includes three states (fatigue, hunger, and drowsiness); and the emotion unit has five states (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and neutral).

“In Rity, internal states such as motivation, homeostasis and emotion change according to the incoming perception,” Kim said. “If Rity sees its master, its emotion becomes happy and its motivation may be ‘greeting and approaching’ him or her. It means the change of internal states and the activated behavior accordingly is internal and external responses to the incoming stimulus.”

The internal control architecture processes incoming sensor information, calculates each value of internal states as its response, and sends the calculated values to the behavior selection module to generate a proper behavior. Finally, the behavior selection module probabilistically selects a behavior through a voting mechanism, where each reasonable behavior has its own voting value. Unreasonable behaviors are prevented with matrix masks, while a reflexive behavior module, which imitates an animal’s instinct, deals with urgent situations such as running into a wall and enables a more immediate response.

As the researchers explain, each of the 14 chromosomes in Rity’s genome is composed of three gene vectors: the fundamental gene vector, the internal-state-related gene vector, and the behavior-related gene vector. Rity has 1,764 genes in total, each gene can have a range of values represented by real numbers. While genes are inherited, mutations may also occur. The nature of the genetic coding is such that a single gene can influence multiple behaviors, and also a single behavior can be influenced by multiple genes.

Depending on the values of the genes, the researchers specified five personalities (“the Big Five personality dimensions”) and their opposites to classify an artificial creature’s personality traits: extroverted/introverted, agreeable/antagonistic, conscientious/negligent, openness/closeness, and neurotic/emotionally stable.

As the researchers showed, a 2D representation of the genome can enable users to view the chromosomes of the three gene types and easily insert or delete certain chromosomes or genes related to an artificial creature’s personality. source

My comment: Wow, that sounds like a great tamagochi. Just imagine, you buy a domestic robot, but it's not only there to clean for you, it can also simulate a dog or a cat and to have it's own moods. It makes interaction so much more interesting and "valuable" to the person in the terms of acquired fun. It's great. And you can even breed such codes and find the one that you enjoy the most. You can experiment with the genes and what's the most important, it clearly gives you a more personal feeling of your companion. Just imagine what you could do with all this. Absolute treasure!

Short stories:

Women have a more powerful immune system than men

May 12th, 2009 When it comes to immunity, men may not have been dealt an equal hand. The latest study by Dr. Maya Saleh, of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and McGill University, shows that women have a more powerful immune system than men. In fact, the production of estrogen by females could have a beneficial effect on the innate inflammatory response against bacterial pathogens.

More specifically, estrogen naturally produced in women seems to block the production of an enzyme called Caspase-12, which itself blocks the inflammatory process. The presence of estrogen would therefore have a beneficial effect on innate immunity, which represents the body's first line of defence against pathogenic organisms. "These results demonstrate that women have a more powerful inflammatory response than men," said Dr. Saleh.

This study was conducted on mice that lack the Caspase-12 gene, meaning that the mice were extremely resistant to infection. The human Caspase-12 gene was implanted in a group of male and female mice, yet only the males became more prone to infection.

Since these experiments were conducted using a , the researchers consider these results to be applicable to humans. This feature of the female innate might have evolved to better protect women's reproductive role. source

Common diabetes drug may 'revolutionize' cancer therapies

June 3rd, 2009

Researchers at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that a widely used anti-diabetic drug can boost the immune system and increase the potency of vaccines and cancer treatments.

...They discovered that the widely prescribed diabetes treatment metformin increases the efficiency of the immune system's T-cells, which in turn makes cancer and virus-fighting vaccines more effective.

The specialized of the human immune system known as "T-cells" remember pathogens they have encountered from previous infections or vaccinations, enabling them to fight subsequent infections much faster. This "immunological memory" has been the subject of intense study for many years, but until now the underlying cellular mechanisms behind it were not well understood. Now, the researchers say, they can use diabetic therapies to manipulate T-cell response and enhance the immune system's response to infections and cancer alike.

"We serendipitously discovered that the metabolizing, or burning, of by T-cells following the peak of infection is critical to establishing immunological memory," Pearce added. "We used metformin, which is known to operate on fatty-acid metabolism, to enhance this process, and have shown experimentally in mice that metformin increases T-cell memory as well as the ensuing protective immunity of an experimental anti-cancer vaccine."

The recent findings suggest a new link between the metabolic pathways deregulated in and and their role in immune cell function. The results suggest that common diabetic therapies which alter cellular metabolism may enhance T-cell memory, providing a boost to the . This could lead to novel strategies for vaccine and anti-cancer therapies. source

A new lead for autoimmune disease

June 4th, 2009

A drug derived from the hydrangea root, used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, shows promise in treating autoimmune disorders, report researchers from the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the Immune Disease Institute at Children's Hospital Boston (PCMM/IDI), along with the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. In the June 5 edition of Science, they show that a small-molecule compound known as halofuginone inhibits the development of Th17 cells, immune cells recently recognized as important players in autoimmune disease, without altering other kinds of T cells involved in normal immune function. They further demonstrate that halofuginone reduces disease pathology in a mouse model of autoimmunity.

Currently there is no good treatment for autoimmune disorders; the challenge has been suppressing inflammatory attacks by the immune system on body tissues without generally suppressing (thereby increasing risk of infections). The main treatment is antibodies that neutralize cytokines, chemical messengers produced by T cells that regulate immune function and inflammatory responses. However, antibodies are expensive, must be given intravenously and don't address the root cause of disease, simply sopping up cytokines rather than stopping their production; patients must therefore receive frequent intravenous infusions to keep inflammation in check. Powerful immune-suppressing drugs are sometimes used as a last resort, but patients are left at risk for life-threatening infections and other serious side effects.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers show that halofuginone prevents the development of Th17 cells in both mice and humans, halts the disease process they trigger, and is selective in its effects. It also has the potential to be taken orally.

Recognized only since 2006, Th17 cells have been implicated in a variety of autoimmune disorders including inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, eczema and psoriasis. They are genetically distinct from the other major categories of T-cells (Th1, Th2 and T-regulatory cells).

Th17 cells normally differentiate from "naďve" CD4+ T cells, but when Sundrud and colleagues cultured mouse CD4+ T-cells along with cytokines that normally induce Th17 development, there was a pronounced decrease in Th17 cells - but not in Th1, Th2 or T regulatory cells - when halofuginone was added. Similarly, in cultured human CD4+ T-cells, halofuginone selectively suppressed production of IL-17, the principal cytokine made by Th17 cells.

And in mice with experimental autoimmune encephalitis (EAE), an artificially-induced immune disease resembling multiple sclerosis in humans, and marked by infiltration of Th17 cells into the central nervous system, low-dose halofuginone treatment significantly reduced both the development of EAE and its severity. (In mice with another form of EAE that doesn't involve Th17 cells, halofuginone had no effect.)

Eventually, they found that halofuginone acts by activating a biochemical pathway known as the "amino acid starvation response," or AAR, which typically protects cells when , essential building blocks of proteins, are in short supply. When excess amino acids were added to cultured exposed to halofuginone, the AAR didn't switch on, and Th17 cells were able to develop. Conversely, the researchers were able to inhibit Th17 differentiation simply by depleting amino acids, thereby inducing the AAR.

Why would the AAR prevent Th17 cells from forming? The researchers propose that the AAR has an energy-saving function, slowing down a cell's building activities to conserve amino acids.

Halofuginine is one of the 50 fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine, and has been used as an antimalarial agent. source

Genes that influence start of menstruation identified for first time

May 17th, 2009

Researchers from the Peninsula Medical School, along with collaborators from research institutions across Europe and the United States, have for the first time identified two genes that are involved in determining when girls begin menstruation.

The findings of the study could have ramifications for normal human growth and weight too, because early-age menstruation is also associated with shorter stature and increased body weight. In general, girls who achieve menstruation earlier in life tend to have greater (BMI) and a higher ratio of fat compared to those who begin menstruation later.

The study carried out an analysis of 17,510 women across eight different international population-based sources. This number included women of European descent who reported the age at which they reached menstruation of between nine and 17 years.

The two genes identified were on chromosomes nine and six. One in 20 females carry two copies of each of the gene variations which result in menstruation starting earlier, and they will start menstruating approximately four and half months earlier than those with no copies of the gene variants.

She added: "The study takes us nearer to understanding the biology of the processes involved in puberty and early growth and to understand what constitutes 'normal' in growth and development." source

Friday, 3 July 2009

Past and present, june 2009


  1. Culture May Be Encoded in DNA
  2. Early domestic animals were surprisingly well bred
  3. Spanish scientists develop echolocation in humans
Short Stories:
  1. 'The world's oldest manufactured beads' are older than previously thought
  2. China's earliest known carving found in central Henan Province
  3. New fossil primate suggests common Asian ancestor, challenges primates such as 'Ida'
  4. Monkey 'stock market' prone to fluctuations too
  5. The end of war: Deep down we're peaceful(link only)
This is going to be relatively short post, because I'm quite tired today. The focus is the evolution of our knowledge about our ancestors. I think that if we compare what we know about our past today with what was known 10 or 15 years ago, we'd see that now, even though we have much more information, we're much less secure about its interpretation. Or to be precise we have theories, on which we can rely with certain probability, but we are much more comfortable with the surprises that might (and eventually do) come.

Culture May Be Encoded in DNA

Knowledge is passed down directly from generation to generation in the animal kingdom as parents teach their children the things they will need to survive. But a new study has found that, even when the chain is broken, nature sometimes finds a way.

Zebra finches, which normally learn their complex courtship songs from their fathers, spontaneously developed the same songs all on their own after only a few generations.

“We found that in this case, the culture was pretty much encoded in the genome,” said Partha Mitra of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, co-author of a study in Nature on Sunday.

Birds transmit their songs through social interactions, as humans do for languages, dances, cuisine and other cultural elements. Though birds and humans have clearly followed different evolutionary paths, birdsong culture can still inform theories of human culture.

Normally, male finches learn their complex courtship songs (MP3) from their uncles and fathers. But if there are no vocal role models around, the song will deviate from the traditional song and be harsh to female finch ears (MP3). Each bird, then, must learn from his father or uncles.

Mitra’s team wanted to find out what would happen if an isolated bird raised his own colony. As expected, birds raised in soundproof boxes grew up to sing cacophonous songs.

But then scientists let the isolated birds give voice lessons to a new round of hatchlings. They found that the young males imitated the songs — but they tweaked them slightly, bringing the structure closer to that of songs sung in the wild. When these birds grew up and became tutors, their pupils’ song continue to conform, with tweaks.

After three to four generations, the teachers were producing strapping young finches that belted out normal-sounding songs.

You can listen to the progression below, but keep in mind that the elements that are important to female finches — duration of beats, rise and fall of pitch — can be difficult for the untrained human ear to pick up on. (QuickTime works best for these)

  • birds raised in isolation (MP3)
  • first generation (MP3)
  • second generation (MP3)
  • third generation (MP3)
  • fourth generation (MP3)
  • wild birds (MP3, MP3)

“It all happened so fast, and there was so little difference between the colony and in the one-to-one tutoring environment,” said lead author Olga Fehér of City College of New York. “So the process is pretty much hardwired. And the interesting thing was also that they could only get so close in a single generation, so the three to four generations were necessary for the phenotype to emerge.”

Though there are approximately 6,000 different languages in the world, they all share certain structural and syntactic elements. Even when a language arises spontaneously, as it did in the 1970s among deaf school children in Nicaragua, it adheres to these stereotypical human language features. source

My comment: I find this one rather fascinating since I also believe that our DNA encodes much more than we currently have established. And this is a fine experiment, because it shows that although songs are inherited by the father, the first generation won't know it. It will need whole 3 generations to "get back to normal". It's like the Nature's fail-safe mechanism-social interactions and learning are better, but if anything happens, don't worry. Nice.

Early domestic animals were surprisingly well bred

THEY may not have known about genes and Darwinism, but our ancestors knew how to drive the evolution of once-wild beasts to serve their own needs. A spate of studies published last week show how domestication suddenly gave horses coats of many colours, cows the extra genes to produce milk and fight infection - and even shrank sheep's horns.

The studies also support what archaeologists have long argued about the domestication of wild beasts: that sheep were probably the first farmed animals, about 11,000 years ago, followed by cattle. Then, around 5500 years ago humans tamed horses, giving riders hitherto unmatched military might, speed and mobility.

Ludwig led a team which analysed six genes linked with coat colour in 89 horse fossils, originating from 40,000 years ago to the Middle Ages, which were collected from sites ranging from Spain to China.

The genetic analysis revealed that before about 5500 years ago, almost all horses had reddish-brown or black coats (Science, vol 324, p 485). Then, in what is now Ukraine, Romania and Russia, there was an explosion in colour when humans tamed horses and bred animals with a new range of coat colours, from chestnut to cream, white and dappled.

Our impact on the ancestors of sheep was no less dramatic, show several studies, including one led by Massimo Palmarini of the University of Glasgow in the UK. By analysing harmless "stowaway viruses" in the genetic material of sheep, Palmarini's team was able to distinguish ancient from modern breeds (Science, vol 324, p 532).

They found that sheep were domesticated in two waves. Examples of the first wave still survive as semi-wild breeds, such as the shaggy Soay and Orkney breeds on Scottish islands. The second wave started about 6000 years ago, when farmers in what is now Iraq and Iran began selecting for characteristics such as reduced moulting and smaller horns. Their more ancient, shaggier counterparts were exiled to the fringes of Europe, where they became semi-wild again.

Also, the first analyses of the entire cow genome show that with domestication came a big spurt in the diversity of genes linked with milk production, musculature and immunity to bacterial infection. "There are several areas of the genome you can see that clearly differentiate between beef breeds and dairy breeds," says Harris Lewin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who leads the international cow-genome sequencing project. source

My comment: Cannot comment too much here, I just find it fascinating that once humans figured how to selectively breed, they mastered the technology so quickly. It's amazing that they figured it on the first place, of course. But I must say the numbers are somewhat questionable to me. Because this is so soon. I mean, 5000 years ago is really quite soon. And if they figured how to do it 11000 years ago, then why dis they have to wait for 6000 years to domesticate horses? I think we might have some missing information here-like that horses were domesticated earlier, but then the knowledge "disappeared" for a while.

Spanish scientists develop echolocation in humans

June 30th, 2009

A team of researchers from the University of Alcalá de Henares (UAH) has shown scientifically that human beings can develop echolocation, the system of acoustic signals used by dolphins and bats to explore their surroundings. Producing certain kinds of tongue clicks helps people to identify objects around them without needing to see them, something which would be especially useful for the blind.

The team led by this scientist has started a series of tests, the first of their kind in the world, to make use of human beings’ under-exploited echolocation skills.

In the first study, published in the journal Acta Acustica united with Acustica, the team analyses the physical properties of various sounds, and proposes the most effective of these for use in echolocation. “The almost ideal sound is the ‘palate click, a click made by placing the tip of the tongue on the palate, just behind the teeth, and moving it quickly backwards, although it is often done downwards, which is wrong”, Martínez explains.

The researcher says that palate clicks “are very similar to the sounds made by dolphins, although on a different scale, as these animals have specially-adapted organs and can produce 200 clicks per second, while we can only produce three or four”. By using echolocation, “which is three-dimensional, and makes it possible to ‘see’ through materials that are opaque to visible radiation” it is possible to measure the distance of an object based on the time that elapses between the emission of a sound wave and an echo being received of this wave as it is reflected from the object.

In order to learn how to emit, receive and interpret sounds, the scientists are developing a method that uses a series of protocols. This first step is for the individual to know how to make and identify his or her own sounds (they are different for each person), and later to know how to use them to distinguish between objects according to their geometrical properties “as is done by ships’ sonar”.

Some blind people had previously taught themselves how to use echolocation “by trial and error”. The best-known cases of these are the Americans Daniel Kish, the only blind person to have been awarded a certificate to act as a guide for other blind people, and Ben Underwood, who was considered to be the world’s best “echolocator” until he died at the start of 2009.

However, no special physical skills are required in order to develop this skill. “Two hours per day for a couple of weeks are enough to distinguish whether you have an object in front of you, and within another two weeks you can tell the difference between trees and a pavement”, Martínez tells SINC.

The scientist recommends trying with the typical “sh” sound used to make someone be quiet. Moving a pen in front of the mouth can be noticed straightaway. This is a similar phenomenon to that when travelling in a car with the windows down, which makes it possible to “hear” gaps in the verge of the road.

The next level is to learn how to master the “palate clicks”. To make sure echoes from the tongue clicks are properly interpreted, the researchers are working with a laser pointer, which shows the part of an object at which the sound should be aimed.

Another of the team’s research areas involves establishing the biological limits of human echolocation ability, “and the first results indicate that detailed resolution using this method could even rival that of sight itself”. In fact, the researchers started out by being able to tell if there was someone standing in front of them, but now can detect certain internal structures, such as bones, and even “certain objects inside a bag”.

ВръзкаThe scientists recognise that they are still at the very early stages, but the possibilities that would be opened up with the development of echolocation in humans are enormous. This technique will be very practical not only for the blind, but also for professionals such as firemen (enabling them to find exit points through smoke), and rescue teams, or simply people lost in fog. source

My comment: Now, that's totally cool. When I read about people who can echolocate I was totally amazed. It's hard to believe that someone can learn to uses sounds to orients him/herself so easily and so quickly. If you read trough the article, you'll see that it take month of quite little practice (2 hours a day is hardly a lot of practise for a new sensory input-you practice a lot more with your eyes and ears). And the results are quite astonishing. And if we go further-if you can learn to use simple sounds to "see" bones, what could happen if you learn how to use EM radiation (ok, our eyes see the visible part of the spectrum, but we can feel infrared as warm, so we can do it). It gives a whole new meaning of the idea of "aura-reading", right?

Short stories:

'The world's oldest manufactured beads' are older than previously thought

May 5th, 2009
( -- A team of archaeologists has uncovered some of the world’s earliest shell ornaments in a limestone cave in Eastern Morocco. The researchers have found 47 examples of Nassarius marine shells, most of them perforated and including examples covered in red ochre, at the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt.

The fingernail-size shells, already known from 82,000-year-old Aterian deposits in the cave, have now been found in even earlier layers. While the team is still awaiting exact dates for these layers, they believe this discovery makes them arguably the earliest shell ornaments in prehistory.

The shells are currently at the centre of a debate concerning the origins of modern behaviour in . Many regard the shell bead ornaments as proof that anatomically modern humans had developed a sophisticated symbolic material culture. Up until now, Blombos cave in South Africa has been leading the ‘bead race’ with 41 Nassarius shell beads that can confidently be dated to 72,000 years ago.

Aside from this latest discovery unearthing an even greater number of beads, the research team says the most striking aspect of the Taforalt discoveries is that identical shell types should appear in two such geographically distant regions. As well as Blombos, there are now at least four other Aterian sites in Morocco with Nassarius shell beads. The newest evidence, in a paper by the authors to be published in the next few weeks in the Journal of Quaternary Science Reviews, shows that the Aterian in Morocco dates back to at least 110,000 years ago.

Research team leader, Professor Nick Barton, from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘These new finds are exciting because they show that bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behaviour were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.’source

China's earliest known carving found in central Henan Province
ZHENGZHOU, April 28 (Xinhua) -- Chinese archaeologists say they have identified the country's earliest known carving -- a deer antler sculpted into the shape of a bird -- dating back 12,000 to 15,000 years.

The fossilized grey figurine, which is 2.1 centimeters long, 1.2 centimeters high and 0.6 centimeters thick, was found in Xuchang County in China's central Henan Province in March.

It is made from evenly-heated antler, and vividly carved with amicrolithic cutting tool.

"The carving technique is more exquisite than the western carvings of its time," said Li Zhanyang, head of the archeological team in Xuchang, and a researcher with the Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.

Carvings of the late Paleolithic Age have been found in western countries, such as 30,000-year-old ivory horse and mammoth carvings at Vogelherd Cave in Germany, and human profile carvings at a cave in La Marche, France, that are about 10,000 years old.

The bird figurine was unique in its feet that were carved with symmetrical sockets that enable it to stand stably, said Li. "This demonstrates that human beings already had a good grip of the equilibrium principal then."

Li said the bird carving might have been left by hunters when they were very active in Henan Province around the Last Glacial Maximum period, which started about 25,000 years ago. It could have been a totem to represent good luck and freedom.

The bird carving is not the first find at that site. In 2007 and2008, Chinese archaeologists announced that they found more than 30,000 relics in Xuchang, including human skull fossils dating back 80,000 to 100,000 years.source

New fossil primate suggests common Asian ancestor, challenges primates such as 'Ida'

July 1st, 2009

According to new research published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) on July 1, 2009, a new fossil primate from Myanmar (previously known as Burma) suggests that the common ancestor of humans, monkeys and apes evolved from primates in Asia, not Africa as many researchers believe.

A major focus of recent paleoanthropological research has been to establish the origin of anthropoid primates (monkeys, apes and humans) from earlier and more primitive primates known as prosimians (lemurs, tarsiers and their extinct relatives). Prior to recent discoveries in China, Thailand, and Myanmar, most scientists believed that anthropoids originated in Africa. Earlier this year, the discovery of the fossil primate skeleton known as "Ida" from the Messel oil shale pit in Germany led some scientists to suggest that anthropoid primates evolved from lemur-like ancestors known as adapiforms.

According to Dr. Chris Beard-- a paleontologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a member of the international team of researchers behind the Myanmar anthropoid findings--the new primate, Ganlea megacanina, shows that early anthropoids originated in Asia rather than Africa. These early Asian anthropoids differed radically from adapiforms like Ida, indicating that Ida is more closely related to modern lemurs than it is to monkeys, apes and humans.

The 38-million-year-old Ganlea megacanina fossils, excavated at multiple sites in central Myanmar, belong to a new genus and species. The name of the new species refers to a small village, Ganle, near the original site where the fossils were found, and the greatly enlarged canine teeth that distinguish the animal from closely related primates. Heavy dental abrasion indicates that Ganlea megacanina used its enlarged canine teeth to pry open the hard exteriors of tough tropical fruits in order to extract the nutritious seeds contained inside.

Two other amphipithecids, Pondaungia and Myanmarpithecus, were previously discovered in Myanmar, while a third, named Siamopithecus, had been found in Thailand. A detailed analysis of their evolutionary relationships shows that amphipithecids are closely related to living anthropoids and that all of the Burmese amphipithecids evolved from a single common . source

Monkey 'stock market' prone to fluctuations too

Monkeys might not deal in stocks and shares, but they do trade commodities, and now it seems that monkey exchange rates are influenced by supply and demand.

Grooming acts as a common currency among non-human primates, says Ronald Noë at the University of Strasbourg, France. It is exchanged for food, greater tolerance from dominant members of the group – and even for sex.

To see how the exchange system works, Noë's team created an artificial market in groups of vervet monkeys by introducing a plastic box filled with food that only one subordinate female was trained to open.

An hour after the female opened the box, the biologists noted that she was rewarded by being groomed more often and for longer by other group members, and that she could afford to groom dominant group members less often.

Next, the team halved the importance of the female's ability to provide food, by introducing a second lunch box that only a second female could open. The first female's grooming "stock value" decreased, while the second monkey's rose, until both arrived at roughly the same value and were groomed for the same amount of time. source