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Researchers Develop "Species from Feces" DNA Tool to Identify Bats

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Animal poop is an underappreciated resource for studying shy animals, a new study argues. Published today, September 21, in PLOS One, the research by bat ecologists and geneticists at Northern Arizona University finds that guano can be used to identify different species when the bats themselves aren’t present.

“Bat guano is a relatively untapped reservoir of information,” they write. To mine it, the researchers developed the memorably named Species From Feces, a DNA mini-barcoding tool that can confirm the species of bats present in different environments or confirm the species of captured bats that are hard to identify by eye. It analyzes a certain mitochondrial gene present in bats all over the world, but not in their prey. That makes it ideal to target in a feces test, where there might be remnants of the bat’s dinner as well as its own genetic material.

This study validated the test by using it to correctly identify 54 different bat species from eight families. It was correct 92 percent of the time when identifying species from a larger research database containing the genetic information of about a third of the world’s known bats (1338 species).

The test works with both fresh guano or older pellets, and can identify both those bats that eat insects and those that feed on nectar, individually and in larger communities. The project has a searchable database where other researchers can confirm that the test works for the species they’re looking to study. Need your bat guano tested? See the lab's brochure of services [PDF].

This feces-based technique could be useful in studying bat diseases like the deadly White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of North American bats.

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Gino Fornaciari, University Of Pisa
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Accidentally Discover Ancient Hepatitis B in a 16th-Century Mummy
Gino Fornaciari, University Of Pisa
Gino Fornaciari, University Of Pisa

Since the 1980s, a child mummy buried in the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples, Italy in the 16th century has been known as the earliest recorded case of smallpox in the world. The problem is, the 2-year-old didn’t have smallpox, according to new research spotted by IFLScience. But, as the scientists reexamining the remains discovered, it’s still a landmark study in disease evolution. It appears to be the earliest instance of hepatitis B that researchers have ever found in Italy, giving scientists insight into how the virus has evolved over the last several centuries.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) attacks the liver and can result in cirrhosis and liver cancer, killing around 887,000 people per year. Though it can now be largely prevented by a vaccine, the World Health Organization estimates that 257 million people around the world live with HBV. It often affects children, spreading from mother to child during birth.

For the current study published in PLOS Pathogens, a team of researchers from McMaster University in Canada set about studying the child mummy with the hopes of continuing their past work nailing down how smallpox spread and evolved over human history. But when they used molecular analysis to study the mummy’s skin and bones, they didn’t find anything that indicated that the toddler had smallpox. Instead, they found the hepatitis B virus—which can cause a rash called Gianotti-Crosti Syndrome that the original researchers studying the mummy may have mistaken for the telltale rash associated with smallpox.

The ancient HBV strain found in the mummy's tissues had a genome closely related to that of the modern virus, which, The New York Times explains, could very well mean that the mummy was contaminated when it was first studied in the 1980s. But after analyzing the genetic material further and studying other examples of older HBV strains, they found that it’s plausible that the virus just hasn’t evolved extensively in the past 500 years. Though the contamination theory is still possible, it’s more likely that the mummy really does carry an ancient version of the virus. Considering that HBV has also been traced back to the 16th century in Asia, it’s likely that Europeans were suffering from it around the same time.

[h/t IFLScience]

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Illustration by Eric S. Carlson in collaboration with Ben A. Potter
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
11,500-Year-Old Skeleton Reveals an Unknown Group of Ancient Migrants to the Americas
Illustration by Eric S. Carlson in collaboration with Ben A. Potter
Illustration by Eric S. Carlson in collaboration with Ben A. Potter

In 2013, deep in the forest of central Alaska's remote Tanana River Valley, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a 6-week-old baby at a Late Pleistocene archaeological site. The tiny bones yielded big surprises for researchers, who announced this week that the child's genome—the oldest complete genetic profile of a New World human—reveals the existence of a human lineage that was previously unknown to scientists. Related to yet genetically distinct from modern Native Americans, the infant offers fresh insights into how the Americas were first peopled, National Geographic reports.

Published in the journal Nature on January 3, the study analyzed the DNA of the infant, whom the local Indigenous community named Xach'itee'aanenh T'eede Gaay ("sunrise girl-child" in the local Athabascan language). Then, researchers used genetic analysis and demographic modeling to identify connections between different groups of ancient Americans. This allowed them to figure out where this newly identified population—named Ancient Beringians—fit on the timeline.

University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site in central Alaska.
Members of the archaeology field team watch as University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site.
UAF photo courtesy of Ben Potter

The study suggests that a single founding group of Native Americans separated from East Asians some 35,000 years ago. This group, in turn, ended up dividing into two distinct sub-groups 15,000 years later, consisting of both the Ancient Beringians and what would eventually become the distant ancestors of all other Native Americans. The division could have occurred either before or after humans crossed over the Bering land bridge around 15,700 years ago.

After arriving in the New World, Ancient Beringians likely remained north, while the other population spread out across the continent. Eventually, the Ancient Beringians either melded with or were replaced by the Athabascan peoples of interior Alaska. 

The study provides "the first direct evidence of the initial founding Native American population, which sheds new light on how these early populations were migrating and settling throughout North America," said Ben Potter, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks archaeologist who discovered the remains, in a news release. Potter was a lead author of the study, along with Eske Willerslev and other researchers at the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum of Denmark.

[h/t National Geographic]

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