The New York Times, June 5, 2019

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A skeleton in Siberia nearly 10,000 years old has yielded DNA that reveals a striking kinship to living Native Americans, scientists reported on Wednesday.

The finding, published in the journal Nature, provides an important new clue to the migrations that first brought people to the Americas.

“In terms of peopling of the Americas, we have found close to the missing link,” said Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen and a co-author of the new paper. “It’s not the direct ancestor, but it’s extremely close.”

Decades of research by archaeologists and linguists suggests that people first came to the Americas at the end of the last ice age, by 14,500 years ago. The route, most experts believe, was a land bridge that connected Alaska and Siberia across what is now the Bering Sea. Continue reading “Who Were the Ancestors of Native Americans? A Lost People in Siberia, Scientists Say”

The New York Times, June 5, 2019

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Some of the scenes in Mark Honigsbaum’s “The Pandemic Century” were so vivid they had me drafting movie treatments in my head. Midway through the book, I was picturing a doctor climbing the front steps of a rowhouse in Annapolis, Md., in the winter of 1930. His knock on the door goes unanswered, so he makes his way inside. An auto mechanic is sprawled in a living room chair, muttering in a feverish sleep. His wife wanders in from the bedroom, shouting gibberish. From the kitchen, her mother emerges unsteadily, a rattling cough rising up from deep in her lungs.

The camera cuts to a wire bird cage suspended from the ceiling. Lying on the bottom is a dead parrot, claws up.

The great parrot fever outbreak of 1930 has slipped from our collective memory. But at its peak, it was the stuff of panicked headlines — “Parrot Disease Fatal to Seven” in The Los Angeles Times, for example. From coast to coast, parrots were passing pathogens to their owners. Over the course of six months, upward of 800 cases of parrot fever were recorded worldwide, and 33 Americans died. The ranks of the dead included some of the scientists who were struggling to identify the outbreak’s cause. Continue reading “Ebola, H.I.V., Spanish Flu, SARS — the 20th Century’s Deadliest Hits”

The New York Times, May 22, 2019

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Scientists reported on Wednesday that they have discovered the oldest known fossils of fungi, a finding that mayreshape our understanding of how life first arrived on land from the oceans.

Fungi are the invisible giants of the natural world, even if most people are only dimly aware of them as toadstools along a hiking trail, or mushrooms sprinkled across a pizza.

Scientists have identified about 120,000 species of fungi so far, but estimate there are as many as 3.3 millionspecies in all. By comparison, all living mammals comprise fewer than 6,400 species. Continue reading “A Billion-Year-Old Fungus May Hold Clues to Life’s Arrival on Land”

The New York Times, May 15, 2019

Scientists have created a living organism whose DNA is entirely human-made — perhaps a new form of life, experts said, and a milestone in the field of synthetic biology.

Researchers at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Britain reported on Wednesday that they had rewritten the DNA of the bacteria Escherichia coli, fashioning a synthetic genome four times larger and far more complex than any previously created.

The bacteria are alive, though unusually shaped and reproducing slowly. But their cells operate according to a new set of biological rules, producing familiar proteins with a reconstructed genetic code.

The achievement one day may lead to organisms that produce novel medicines or other valuable molecules, as living factories. These synthetic bacteria also may offer clues as to how the genetic code arose in the early history of life. Continue reading “Scientists Created Bacteria With a Synthetic Genome. Is This Artificial Life?”

The New York Times, May 8, 2019

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To scientists like Michael Snyder, chair of the genetics department at Stanford University, the future of medicine is data — lots and lots of data.

He and others predict that one day doctors won’t just take your blood pressure and check your temperature. They will scrutinize your genome for risk factors and track tens of thousands of molecules active in your body.

By doing so, the doctors of the future will identify diseases, and treat them, long before symptoms appear. Continue reading “In This Doctor’s Office, a Physical Exam Like No Other”