New Delhi: A team of geneticists and archaeologists from Ireland, France, Iran, Germany, and Austria has sequenced the DNA from a 1,600-year-old sheep mummy from an ancient Iranian salt mine known as Chehrabad.
This specimen has revealed sheep husbandry practices of the ancient Near East, as well as underlining how natural mummification can affect DNA degradation.
The salt mine of Chehrabad is known to preserve biological material. It is in this mine that human remains of the famed “Salt Men” were recovered who had likely been killed in the salt mine disaster some 1,700 years ago.
The new research confirms that this natural mummification process — where water is removed from a corpse, preserving soft tissues that would otherwise be degraded — also conserves the animal remains.
The research team extracted DNA from a small cutting of mummified skin from a leg recovered in the mine. While ancient DNA is usually damaged and fragmented, the team found that the sheep mummy DNA was extremely well-preserved with longer fragment lengths and less damage that would usually be associated with such an ancient age.
The group attributes this to the mummification process, with the salt mine providing conditions ideal for preservation of animal tissues and DNA.
The mummified animal was genetically similar to modern sheep breeds from the region which suggests that there has been a continuity of ancestry of sheep in Iran since at least 1,600 years ago.
The team also exploited the sheep’s DNA preservation to investigate genes associated with a woolly fleece and a fat-tail — two important economic traits in sheep.
The team built a genetic impression of the sheep and discovered that the mummy lacked the gene variant associated with a woolly coat, while fibre analysis found the microscopic details of the hair fibres consistent with hairy or mixed coat breeds.
The mummy carried genetic variants associated with fat-tailed breeds, suggesting the sheep was similar to the hairy-coated, fat-tailed sheep seen in Iran today.
Using a combination of genetic and microscopic approaches, the team managed to create a genetic picture of what sheep breeds in Iran 1,600 years ago may have looked like and how they may have been used.
DNA testing can help find if your chocolate bar was a product of child labour
Scientists have developed a new method of DNA testing on cocoa beans that can pinpoint the farm where the cocoa was grown, as well as the processing unit where an individual chocolate bar was made.
This advance could revolutionise the chocolate industry, offering consumers greater reassurance about the origins and ethics of their beloved comfort food, and giving the global cocoa industry a precision tool to help end slavery and child labour.
Using this research, activists, NGOs, and governments, will be able to prove whether the chocolate bar you buy in your local store contains cocoa grown on farms which abuse the environment or employ child or forced labour.
The cost of DNA sampling would be a tiny fraction of the chocolate industry’s revenues, according to the researchers. Building a database in Ghana and Ivory Coast — which is the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa production — would help ensure that the industry does not end up supporting millions of child labourers working on farms in West Africa.
The majority of the world’s cocoa is collected by small-scale traders and taken to larger trading facilities, where vast quantities are traded on international markets. Tracing beans back to the farm of origin is a challenge due to the number of different parties aggregating and mixing crops early in the supply chain.
Biochemical ‘barcodes’ extracted from plant DNA – offer a way to resolve this issue.
These biomarkers are unique indicators of a plant and the particular environment in which it is grown. Biomarkers in cocoa beans can survive the industrial processes used in chocolate making, allowing for the identification of individual cocoa farm beans from a mixture of different origins in final products.
Sharp clawed dinosaur discovered in Spain
A team of researchers has identified a new species of sharp-clawed dinosaur excavated at a site in Catalonia in Spain.
The dinosaur was originally found in what has been described as a prehistoric graveyard back in 1998, but only recently has it been thoroughly studied.
The dinosaur was approximately eight meters long. It has been named Portellsaurus sosbaynati and has been dated back to approximately 130 million years ago.
The fossil that the researchers found was a jawbone. The dinosaur likely had multiple sharp claws, some rising from its “thumbs” and others from its “fingertips.” The researchers said that these claws would have been useful for fighting off predators, as well as in slicing open fruit.
They would not have been used to kill prey, however, as the dinosaur ate only plants. The researchers note that the dinosaur also had very large nostrils, which indicated it likely had a very keen sense of smell, which was probably beneficial for foraging.
It also had a very large tail, which would have been carried upright to maintain balance. While standing, the researchers estimate it would have been just over three meters tall, and it would have weighed at least 3,600 kilograms.
New AI tool can predict protein structures in minutes
Scientists at the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington have created an artificial intelligence system that can accurately predict protein structures based on limited information within 10 minutes.
Without the aid of such software, it can take years of laboratory work to determine the structure of just one protein.
Dubbed RoseTTAFold, the freely available software can now be used by scientists around the world to build protein models to accelerate their own research.
Proteins consist of strings of amino acids that fold up into intricate microscopic shapes. These unique shapes in turn give rise to nearly every chemical process inside living organisms.
By better understanding protein shapes, scientists can speed up the development of new treatments for cancer, COVID-19, and thousands of other health disorders.
RoseTTAFold software tool can reliably compute a protein structure in as little as ten minutes on a single gaming computer.
The team used RoseTTAFold to compute hundreds of new protein structures, including many poorly understood proteins from the human genome. They also generated structures directly relevant to human health, including those for proteins associated with problematic lipid metabolism, inflammation disorders, and cancer cell growth.
Seismometres can be used to accurately locate elephants
Researchers from the University of Oxford have managed to accurately determine elephant locations by measuring the vibration of the ground caused by their rumbles,
To do this, the team used seismometers, which are typically used for measuring earthquakes and explosions.
Seismic waves pass through lots of different solid materials between source and sensor, unlike the acoustic waves. It was a surprise that the seismic sensors worked just as well as the acoustic sensors to localise the elephants.
Acoustic and seismic equipment was set up around a watering hole known to be frequented by elephants at the Mpala research center in Kenya, and paired with camera traps to provide additional data.
Researchers discovered that the seismic dataset led to a more accurate localisation of elephants than the acoustic dataset.
From a conservation perspective, using seismic sensors offers an alternative way of assessing wildlife activity.
Knowing whether or not elephants are present in protected areas, or if they’re going into environments with higher risks, allows for reactive responses, and can limit human-elephant conflict.
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