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Entrance to the archaeological site of Vindija Cave, Croatia.
MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology/ J. Krause

Scientists Extract Neanderthal DNA From Cave Dirt

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Entrance to the archaeological site of Vindija Cave, Croatia.
MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology/ J. Krause

Researchers have developed a new DNA sequencing technique that allows them to identify a site’s prehistoric inhabitants, even in the absence of fossils or bones. The team reported their results in the journal Science.

The Ice Age was a turbulent time. Archaeologists would love to know more about how and where proto-humans like Neanderthals and Denisovans lived back then, but the two groups left very little of themselves behind. Today, their remains are scarce.

For a long time, the absence of bones or other fossil evidence meant the absence of information. But research technology is getting more versatile, more expansive, and more incisive every day. Thanks to high-powered telescopes, microscopes, and advanced medical imaging, we can see things now that we never could before. And the same holds true for DNA sequencing technology.

Our DNA is not concentrated in our blood or our bones. It’s all over us. And we’re constantly shedding it, in the form of hair, skin cells, urine, and feces, just as prehistoric peoples did thousands of years ago.

Evolutionary geneticist Viviane Slon of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) and her colleagues wondered if technology had advanced enough to spot fragments of long-ago-shed DNA. They collected soil and sediment samples from 85 different sites in Europe and Russia, all of which were known Neanderthal or Denisovan hangouts. They then combed through these samples, looking for any trace of mammalian mitochondrial DNA, Neanderthal, DNA, or otherwise.


Becky Miller sampling sediment for genetic analyses at the archaeological site of Trou Al’Wesse, Belgium. Image Credit: Monika V. Knul

What they found overwhelmed them. “It’s on the order of trillions of DNA fragments in a sample the size of a teaspoon,” co-author Matthias Meyer of MPI told Science reporter Lizzie Wade in a separate article. Most of those fragments were non-human. They belonged to woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, spotted hyenas, and a whole host of other Ice Age animals.

But there were signs of ancient hominin life, too. Samples from four caves turned up Neanderthal DNA. Denisovans had left their genetic mark in another. Teeny-tiny pieces of their loose genetic material—teeny-tiny traces of their lives—had hung on, resting in the dirt, for all these years.

Chris Stringer is an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. He was not part of the research team, but told Science that their findings represent “a great breakthrough. Anyone who’s digging cave sites from the Pleistocene now should put [screening sediments for human DNA] on their list of things that they must do.”

Primary image credit: MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology/ J. Krause

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Entrance to the archaeological site of Vindija Cave, Croatia.
Courtesy of Nature
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Scientists Create Three Puppy Clones of 'Snuppy,' the World's First Cloned Dog
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Courtesy of Nature

Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog, died in 2015, but his genetic legacy lives on. As the National Post reports, South Korean scientists recently described in the journal Scientific Reports the birth of three clone puppies, all of which are identical replicas of the famous Afghan hound.

Those who lived through the 1990s might remember Dolly, the Scottish sheep that gained fame for being the very first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Following Dolly's 1996 cloning, scientists managed to replicate other animals, including cats, mice, cows, and horses. But dog cloning initially stymied scientists, Time reports, as their breeding period is limited and their eggs are also hard to extract.

Ultimately, researchers ended up using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to clone a dog, the same method that was used to make Dolly. In the early 2000s, a team of South Korean scientists inserted DNA harvested from an Afghan hound's skin cells into a dog egg from which the DNA had been removed. The egg divided, which produced multiple cloned embryos.

The scientists implanted 1095 of these embryos in 123 dogs, an exhaustive initiative that yielded just three pregnancies, according to NPR. Of these, Snuppy—whose name is a combination of "puppy" and Seoul National University's initials—was the only survivor.

Snuppy died from cancer in April 2015, just shortly after his 10th birthday. To celebrate his successful life, the same South Korean researchers decided to re-clone him using mesenchymal stem cells from the dog's belly fat, which were taken when he was five. This time around, they transferred 94 reconstructed embryos to seven dogs. Four clones were later born, although one ended up dying shortly after birth.

The tiny Snuppy clones are now more than a year old, and researchers say that they don't think that the pups face the risk of accelerated aging, nor are they more disease-prone than other dogs. (Dolly died when she was just six years old, while cloned mice have also experienced shorter lifespans.) Snuppy's somatic cell donor, Tai, lived just two years longer than Snuppy, dying at age 12, the average lifespan of an Afghan hound.

Researchers say that this new generation of Snuppys will yield new insights into the health and longevity of cloned animals. Meanwhile, in other animal cloning news, a Texas-based company called ViaGen Pets is now offering to clone people's beloved pets, according to CBS Pittsburgh—a service that costs a cool $50,000 for dogs.

[h/t National Post]

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Entrance to the archaeological site of Vindija Cave, Croatia.
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Hate Waiting at Baggage Claim? Here's How to Make Sure Your Suitcase Arrives First
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Air travel involves plenty of waiting, from standing in long security lines to preparing for takeoff. And even after you land, your trip is stalled until you locate your luggage on the carousel. Luckily for impatient fliers, there are several ways to game the system and ensure a speedy suitcase delivery once you step off the plane, according to Travel + Leisure.

To score true VIP luggage treatment, ask the representative behind the check-in counter if they can attach a “fragile” sticker to your bag. Suitcases with these kinds of labels are often loaded last and unloaded first. (Plus, they receive the type of kid-glove treatment that ultimately helps them last longer.)

Keep in mind, however, that you’ll need a new tag each time you fly. If it looks old, or was issued by a different airline, the crew might not pay attention to it, according to Condé Nast Traveler. Also, consider upping your suitcase game, as quality, hard-shell bags look like they contain delicate or important items. Their appearance—along with the fragile sticker—will inspire baggage handlers to give them special treatment.

Another trick that can shave a few minutes off your wait time is making sure you're the last person to check in, instead of rushing to be first. If you can't resist getting to the airport early, try asking if you can check it at the gate. This could make your bag one of the last on the plane, and thus one of the first taken out. This method isn't surefire, however, as loading and unloading systems vary among flights.

And if all else fails, Thrillist advises that you try upgrading your flight. Some airlines give priority to bags that belong to elite travelers and business class, meaning they’ll be stored separately from other luggage and come out first. Good luck! No matter what happens, at least you can't have it worse than the lady who had to wait 20 years for her bag to show up.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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