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5 Historical Figures (and Families) ID'd with DNA

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For some historical figures, death wasn't the end of their journeys. As wars were waged and empires changed, famous bodies were moved from graveyard to graveyard. Others were simply lost. Religious figures were even worse off—people often traded their bones as collectors' items and symbols of power. But thanks to DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, scientists have identified the bodies of some notable people who were previously thought to be lost. Here are their stories.

1. Christopher Columbus

In death, Christopher Columbus traveled almost as much as he did in life. He wanted to be buried in Hispaniola (an island in the Antilles), but there were no proper churches there to perform a religious ceremony. His family buried him in Valladolid, Spain, and then he was moved with his son Diego to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1537. In 1795 Spain ceded the island to France, and his body was moved to Havana; as least, that's what some say. In 1877, a crew at the cathedral in Santo Domingo unearthed a coffin with the inscription "Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon." The Dominican Republic claims that this proves the Spaniards moved the wrong body to Havana. In any case, a body that may or may not have been Columbus was moved again from Havana to Seville, Spain in 1898.

Spanish geneticist Jose Antonio Lorente compared the Seville body DNA with Columbus' brother, Diego, and found that the remains had a mitochondrial DNA match. This proved that at least some, if not all, of Columbus' body returned to Spain. Dominicans balked at the results, insisting Columbus' body is buried in their country. The Dominicans refuse to open the coffin, claiming they are religious and don't like to bother the dead. Part of Columbus' body could be buried in Dominican Republic and part could be in Spain, but if the Dominican Republic doesn't unseal the coffin, only Seville can claim the remains of the explorer.

2. Joan of Arc

joan-arc.jpgIn 1431, the British condemned 19-year-old Joan of Arc to death for heresy. They strapped her to a stake and set her aflame. Her heart did not burn, which the devout saw as a miracle. The British didn't want any part of her body to be intact because they feared the French would make her a martyr, so they burned it a second and third time before spreading the ashes over the Seine. One follower claimed to have saved some materials from the burning: a little wood, a cat femur (a cat was often thrown on the pyres of accused witches), a rib, and bits of clothes. In 1867 a Parisian pharmacist claimed to find a jar with these items in it, bearing the inscription "Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, virgin of Orleans." These eventually landed in the Vatican's collection and many considered them to be some of most hallowed Catholic relics.

Many speculate that the bones were sent to the Vatican to help Joan of Arc's chances for sainthood. In 1909, scientists decided it was highly probable that the bones belonged to the martyr, which would allow for their use in the beatification and canonization of Joan. In 2006, French scientists Phillippe Charlier began DNA testing on the relics. Because he had no familial DNA, the tests could only reveal whether the rib belonged to a 19-year-old girl who lived during the 15th century. Using carbon dating, Charlier discovered that the rib was from an Egyptian mummy of underterminable gender who died between 7 and 3 B.C.E. and the cat femur was from a mummified cat of the same period.

3. Nicolaus Copernicus

copernicus.jpgCopernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (his theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe and the planets revolved around it) in 1543 "“ the same year he died following a stroke and coma. He was buried in an unmarked grave and there were no public records of his final resting place. Because he lived most of his life in Northern Poland, historians assumed he was buried around Frombork. In 2004 archeologist Jerzy Gassowski began searching for Copernicus' body in the Cathedral of Frombork. He found bones under tiles near the altar and a broken vault and coffin with teeth inside. Gassowski pieced together an nearly complete skeleton, missing only a bottom jaw.

Marie Allen, a genetic expert from Uppsala University in Sweden, took DNA samples from the teeth and bones and compared it to hairs found on a book that belonged to Copernicus. She found a match, confirming that Copernicus had indeed been interred beneath the cathedral floor. Using computer reconstruction techniques, researchers were able to generate a face from the bones and compare it to paintings of the scientist. The skull had a broken nose and a gash over one eye socket, just as the living Copernicus did.

4. St. Luke the Evangelist

st-luke.jpgLuke was born in Antioch and worked as a physician until he met the Apostle Paul and became his faithful follower. Luke died at age 84 in 150 C.E. and was buried in Thebes, but this was far from his final resting place. In 338 C.E. his body was moved to Constantinople and moved again in 1177 C.E. to Padua, Italy, to save his remains from rulers bent on destroying religious artifacts.

In the Middle Ages, trading religious relics was a popular custom. It was a booming industry and devout rulers sought relics, hoping to bolster their power. In 1354, Emperor Charles IV took the head of Luke to Prague, where he held court.

For a time, most people forgot about the body in Padua. In 1998, Guido Barbujani of the University of Ferrara broke the seals of the coffin to study of the corpse. The head was returned from Prague and it fit perfectly on the topmost vertebra. Without direct descendants, scientists couldn't identify Luke, but they could use radiocarbon dating to determine how old the bones were. They were pleased to find the bones belonged a man who died in his 80s around 150 C.E. Using DNA extracted from a tooth in the coffin and comparing it to samples from modern day Kurds and Greeks, Barbujani learned that the body was three times more likely to be Syrian than Greek. He said if Luke's body is a fake relic, it is one of the most accurate fakes on record.

5. The Romanovs


On July 16, 1918, ten Bolshevik revolutionaries shot and speared Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, and their five children: Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana, and Anastasia. The soldiers buried the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. In 1922, a woman named Anna Anderson emerged claiming that she was, in fact, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anderson had previously been institutionalized and attempted suicide (because, she said, no one believed she was Anastasia). Opinions were mixed as to whether Anderson was the real Anastasia, but no one could prove her wrong for much of the 20th century.

In 1991, during the last days of the Soviet Union, five bodies were discovered and were positively identified through DNA testing of descendants as Romanovs. They compared these results to Anderson, who had died and was cremated; the results proved there was no genetic connection between Anderson and any of the Romanovs.

In July 2007, two bodies were discovered near the Ural Mountains; these remains were badly burned and chemically damaged from Soviet cremation experimentation. Scientists conducted three DNA tests—mitochondrial DNA, autosomal STR, and Y-STR. The mitochondrial DNA proved the children were Czarina Alexandra's; the SRT paternity test proved it was highly likely that the bodies were children of the Czar and Czarina; the Y-STR test was only conducted on Alexei and matched both Nicholas' and Prince Andrew's tests. Only one question remains: whether the girl's body is another of the Grand Duchesses, or Anastasia herself.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”