The Number One News Story of 2010: DNA.byJames Zaworski

2010 is quickly winding down. As I write this, it is Christmas. You will see a lot of "top ten" stories in the news during this final week of the year. Everything from the economy to politics to China, tensions in Korea, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism, and natural disasters will fill this list. I suggest here one story with several examples from 2010 for my choice of "the number one news story of 2010".It's the scientific study of genetics, of DNA. Some of the major discoveries in the history of genetics have occurred this year. These discoveries, which include mapping of entire genomes of various species and genetic comparisons, will have consequences that range from how we view ourselves, to human health in the future, how we view other species, and how we may yet find solace in science and genetic engineering to feed our burgeoning population in the future.Examples of news stories include the mapping of the Neandertal genome, and comparing the Neandertal genome with our genome, and the finding that we interbred. Not only did we interbreed, but all modern humans north of the Sahara hold between 1-4% unique Neandertal DNA. This has rewritten our history, and our understanding of human origins, and the relationships between our closest relatives. I have particular interest in this, as I have focused on paleoanthropology and archaeology in my academic pursuit of my general degrees in anthropology. Prior to this discovery, the interpretations were made only on the the comparative morphology and anatomy of the bones, as well as the associated archaeological evidence. Once and for all, genetics steps in and settles the 150-year old debate. Incredible. Also, the revelation that Europeans, Han Chinese, Papuan New Guineans and North Africans all have Neandertal DNA, is a revelation as well. Appearances are only skin deep, and the discovery of this magnitude should really help us to redefine our way of looking at each other, that we are in face, so much closer than appearances on the surface may indicate. This is an anthropological dream.

A hitherto unknown close relative of Neandertals, dubbed the Denisovans, also interbred with our ancestors. A finger bone and a tooth were found in a cave in Siberia. The mitochondrial DNA analysis indicated that this was a different species from us, distinct. The nuclear DNA analysis, and comparisons, were revealed last week. Not only was this a 'sister species' to Neandertals and early modern humans, they were also interbreeding with modern humans as well, and their unique 'DNA signature" is present in levels of 5% in modern Melanesians, of New Guinea and the Oceanic Islands. Now, ancient teeth and bones can reveal more relationships that we have only interpreted through comparative anatomy from before. What will DNA analysis of Homo erectus and Homo ergaster specimens reveal of our relationships? Probably there will be many more surprises to come.

Tutankhamon's Family Relationships Revealed.King Tut's familial relationships have been revealed through genetic analysis. Though so much more recent than the Neandertal and Denosovan remains, Tut's family relationships have been a source of speculation, theory, and conspiracy theory. What this means for the future is that the way people try to write their histories, often with political purpose about 'who came here first', can mean, in a very real sense, that the physical remains of people can definitively be examined genetically, and compared with the inhabitants that live there now. This has significant implications that can transcend 'historical revisionism'. I like this, the fact that you can't argue with genetics when the methods are applied under scrutiny.

Turkey and apple tree genomes decoded in 2010.The turkey's genome has been decoded, with hopes that we can improve the birds as a source of food, producing turkeys that produce more meat and do it more efficiently. The apple tree, despite its many varieties, is in particular danger of disease as it is so genetically vulnerable (inbred), has had its genome decoded, and expeditions have been mounted to look for ancestral wild stock in the Caucasus Mountains, where it originated. Both of these stories indicate the importance of genetic studies of existing agricultural species that we use, how to improve the food yield for our future, as population growth over the next 40 years is expected to be 2 billion or more people. Indeed, 2011 is expected to see the population of the world rise to 7 billion, and 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed all of these people? The land is finite, and the only way to do it is to improve productivity of the plants and animals that we exploit for our food sources. Another way, is to preserve wild lands, like rain forests and wild lands all over the world, where something may exist there that can be the next breadfruit of the world.

The genome of the fruit fly and the Haitian cholera strain have been decoded in 2010.Genetic research on diseases, and of how our medicines will fight them, are the realm of this story.Will the pathogens of the world, through mutation, or the human medical realm, and its scientific research, win the day?Perhaps funding is the key.

Other stories include the genetic code of an ancient Greenlander, from a hair and hair follicle, reveal some additional insight.

The National Geographic article on human population reaching 7 billion next year is also 'food for thought'.

So, my top news story for 2010 is DNA and genetics. This could not only hold the key to who we are, where came from, but also where we are going. The food supply and the ability to fight disease, improve human health, and quality of life, and, indeed, the length of our life, may be at stake.

National Geographic has reported an interesting, somewhat controversial, news story on the Hominid species Homo gautengensis. The problem is, that this taxon is not universally recognized by paleoanthropologists as being the oldest member of our genus, Homo. That honor goes to Homo habilis, or "handy man". 

Taxonomic 'lumpers' would include this with H. habilis. 'Splitters' would put it into its own species.

The problem is the disproportionate arm length.

Cannibalism cannot be proven, only inferred. Cutmarks on the skull could be from ritual defleshing for burial.
A volcanic eruption in Iceland has grounded more than 3000 flights from European countries, such as the UK, Ireland and Norway.  Mother earth is certainly more powerful than puny business and pleasure travel!

Earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China have left hundreds of thousands dead.  However, if you compare the magnitude of each quake, the more developed the country, despite the larger magnitude the earthquake, the lesser death toll results.  Smaller earthquakes in poor countries can have a huge death toll, such as Haiti.  China's recent earthquake was 6.9, and killed at least 760, but that will probably rise.

Is it unusual?  Not really.  The earth is active, and there are always earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the like.  It's just that the news reports on them more, and that information can be shared instantaneously, plus we have more people living on this planet

April has proven to be an interesting month.  With a little help from some friends, I've been hooked up with what looks like a good chance and opportunity.  

In the news, there have been earthquakes, historical remembrances and tragic news stories.

On April 10, 2010, the Polish President, Lech Kacynski, and a delegation of top Polish government and military officials died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia.  As an American of Polish descent, I was moved by this story, and as a student and degree holder in history, with a keen interest in geopoltics and Polish history, I commented on the news story on the BBC website's "Have Your Say" section.

Someone was reading, and they asked me for an interview, which I agreed to, as one with a unique "expert perspective" on the subject.

Now, I'm off to work...