Monday, August 30, 2010

Ancient brewers tapped antibiotic secrets



By Carol Clark

A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer. The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

The research, led by Emory anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine,” Armelagos says. “But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing.”

Armelagos is a bioarcheologist and an expert on prehistoric and ancient diets. In 1980, he discovered what appeared to be traces of tetracycline in human bones from Nubia dated between A.D. 350 and 550, populations that left no written record. The ancient Nubian kingdom was located in present-day Sudan, south of ancient Egypt.
Green fluorescence in Nubian skeletons indicated tetracycline-labeled bone, the first clue that the ancients were producing the antibiotic.

Armelagos and his fellow researchers later tied the source of the antibiotic to the Nubian beer. The grain used to make the fermented gruel contained the soil bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline. A key question was whether only occasional batches of the ancient beer contained tetracycline, which would indicate accidental contamination with the bacteria.

Nelson, a leading expert in tetracycline and other antibiotics, became interested in the project after hearing Armelagos speak at a conference. “I told him to send me some mummy bones, because I had the tools and the expertise to extract the tetracycline,” Nelson says. “It’s a nasty and dangerous process. I had to dissolve the bones in hydrogen fluoride, the most dangerous acid on the planet.”

The results stunned Nelson. “The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” he says. “I’m convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug.”



(The yellow film in the flask above shows tetracycline residue from dissolved bones.)

Even the tibia and skull belonging to a 4-year-old were full of tetracycline, suggesting that they were giving high doses to the child to try and cure him of illness, Nelson says.
Egyptian 12-dynasty figures shows workers grinding, baking and fermenting grain, to make bread and beer. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The first of the modern day tetracyclines was discovered in 1948. It was given the name auereomycin, after the Latin word “aerous,” which means containing gold. “Streptomyces produce a golden colony of bacteria, and if it was floating on a batch of beer, it must have look pretty impressive to ancient people who revered gold,” Nelson theorizes.

The ancient Egyptians and Jordanians used beer to treat gum disease and other ailments, Armelagos says, adding that the complex art of fermenting antibiotics was probably widespread in ancient times, and handed down through generations.

The chemical confirmation of tetracycline in ancient bones is not the end of the story for Armelagos. He remains enthused after more than three decades on the project. “This opens up a whole new area of research,” he says. “Now we’re going to compare the amount of tetracycline in the bones, and bone formation over time, to determine the dosage that the ancient Nubians were getting.”

Related:
Mummies tell history of 'modern' plague
Putting teeth into the Barker hypothesis

Friday, August 27, 2010

The nurturing mind in evolution

Mary Loftus writes in Emory Magazine:

Watch a toddler—any toddler, anywhere in the world—struggle to rise up from crawling, balance unsteadily on two feet, and take a few wobbly steps, and you can see the history of natural selection and human evolution played out in microcosm. And, if you watch the parent waiting to catch the child, you begin also to understand the impact of social attachment—also known as love, says Emory anthropologist Melvin Konner.

In his latest book, “The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind,” Konner provides a Darwinian interpretation of a child’s development from infancy to adolescence—a journey rooted in genetically inherited traits and brain development, yet deeply influenced by emotions and social interactions.

The 900-page book was a long time in the making. “I thought it would take three years; it took three decades,” Konner says. “During that time, advances in the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, behavior genetics, and brain development greatly enhanced our understanding of childhood.”

Advances in brain imaging allow for important, real-time insights into the working of the child and adolescent’s cognitive processes and mental life. “Before we could look at brains only after death, or very crudely during life, supplement those meager findings with evidence from the study of other animals, and then guess how the brain generates its major product—behavior,” Konner says. “Now we can watch brain circuits in action, down to the level of millimeters, while mental processes are going on.”

All of this research suggests that the evolution of intelligence and mind is driven not just by primal needs such as making tools and remembering food locations, he says, but by the vital need to negotiate emotions and relationships.

Read the whole article.

Top photo credit: iStockphoto.com.

Related:
The fruits of play
The biology of shared laughter

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Insiders' guide to Georgia barrier islands



"Especially in view of global sea level change, barrier islands are almost like the canaries in the coal mine," says Anthony Martin, a paleontologist in Emory's department of environmental studies. Martin researches trace fossils and ecology in the maritime forests, marshes and beaches off the Georgia coast. He also leads classes on field trips to the region. “The Georgia barrier islands are world class. I want students to be aware of what an incredible resource they have that’s more or less in our back yard,” he says.

Dolphins swim along the coast of Saint Catherines Island (above) and an alligator floats in the marsh (below). Photos by Carol Clark.

Most people have never heard of Saint Catherines Island, a restricted research preserve, where exotic imports like lemurs co-exist with native species. The public is not allowed access to the island’s interior. But a group of Emory and Oxford College students spent three days exploring the island last Spring, on a field trip led by Martin and Oxford geologist Stephen Henderson.

The group stayed in former slave cabins made of tabby and harvested a meal of quahog clams from the pristine marsh. Saint Catherines’ superintendent Royce Hayes, who has lived on the island for 30 years, told the students stories about the Guale Indians who created mysterious shell rings on the island thousands of years ago, and the violent history of the 16th-century Spanish mission known as Santa Catalina de Guale. Island ornithologist Jen Hilburn introduced the students to the American Oystercatcher, a colorful wading bird whose population is threatened.

“The island is our textbook,” Martin says. “We just go out into the field and I know I’m going to see a new edition of the textbook. There’s going to be something that I haven’t seen before, and I get to share in that joy of discovery with the students.”

Related:
A policy of 'No Child Left Inside'
'Survivor': The marsh episode
Dinosaur burrows yield clues to climate change

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How to parent a college student


“It’s a wonderful and sobering experience,” Emory psychologist Marshall Duke says of the rite of passage when parents help a freshman move into a college dorm. Each year, Duke gives a popular Emory orientation seminar on “Parenting a College Student: What to Expect.”

“You’ve brought a treasure to us and you’re going to leave this treasure with us, and you’re going to go home,” Duke tells parents. “Something has happened that you have anticipated, even looked forward to, but also dreaded. That is the moment when your child goes one way and you go another. And that moment of separation is extremely powerful and important. It’s a moment that is so invested with power and emotion that whatever you say is elevated to a level of importance rarely achieved. You have more to do than to simply say goodbye. You have to take that moment and use it. What is it you’re going to say, that will be elevated to this level of importance, that will stick forever?”

Watch the video to learn Duke’s advice for navigating the complex changes in family dynamics.

Related:
Parenting a college student

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The math of Mozart


Mozart was fascinated with numerology, especially as it related to Freemasonry."Certainly, three and five were pivotal numbers in Freemasonry, and they were very important to Mozart," says Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In the video clip above, Spano explains how Mozart incorporated these numbers into his popular opera "The Magic Flute."

Spano launched his role as a Distinguished Artist in Residence at Emory last Spring by helping develop a seminar called "Harmonic Experience: The Metaphysics of Music." The seminar explored connections throughout history between music, math, astrology and mysticism, and how we perceive and process music in our minds. Spano continues his residency at Emory through 2012.

Related:
Singing the praises of psychology and music
Notes on the musical brain

Friday, August 13, 2010

Singing the praises of psychology and music


“One of the most fascinating crossovers I encountered in my double major of music and psychology was a class on infancy, and a class on the metaphysics of music,” says Nate Kaplan, who graduated in May from Emory. “The infancy class is getting at the primary building blocks that make us human. The metaphysics of music class is breaking down music into its primary building blocks. Why do we think of music the way we do? Why does it affect us the way it does? And that’s a huge part of the human experience.”

Related:
The math of Mozart
How babies use numbers, space and time

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sociologists celebrate civil rights, diversity

When Delores Aldridge was a student at what is now Clark Atlanta University, her participation in civil rights marches landed her several times in jail. “I was in jail when Martin Luther King Jr. visited, telling us to ‘hold on,’” she recalls.

“I was very young then,” adds the Grace Towns Hamilton Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, “but I felt that I could not let this moment pass and not be a part of helping to transform and make things better.”

Aldridge is receiving the 2010 Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award, given by the American Sociological Association to honor scholars who serve social justice with an eye toward advancing the status of disadvantaged populations. As Emory’s first African American female faculty member, Aldridge pioneered the first degree-granting Black Studies program in the South. She will receive the national award at the ASA’s annual meeting in Atlanta Aug. 14-17. Thousands of sociologists from around the country are expected at the conference, themed “Toward a Sociology of Citizenship: Inclusion, Participation and Rights.”

Presentations will include one by a team of Emory faculty, which is investigating whether moving from a project-based public housing system to a voucher system is impacting crime in Atlanta neighborhoods.

“Atlanta planned by 2010 to have demolished all of its large-scale public housing projects, which would make it the first in the country to do so,” says sociologist Elizabeth Griffiths, a co-investigator, along with political scientists Michael Rich and Michael Leo Owens and public health biostatician Lance Waller. Work is far from complete on the ambitious study, Griffiths says, which will include comparative data on Chicago from the Urban Institute.

Some of the other Emory sociologists slated to present include Irene Browne, whose talk is called “We don’t eat tortillas: Racial and class distinctions between middle-class Dominicans and Mexicans living in Atlanta;” Dennis Condron, who will describe his global research into “Affluence, Inequality and Educational Achievement;” Roberto Franzosi, on “Narratives of Lynching in Georgia, from 1875-1930;” and Timothy Dowd, on “Life in Music and Music in Life.”

Related:
Profile of Delores Aldridge
Separate and unequal?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What young scientists do on vacation

Yamini Potini did evolutionary biology experiments with monarch butterflies.

Morgan Mingle spent her summer analyzing the musical tastes of chimpanzees. Julie Margolis cut up human bones with a bandsaw. Yamini Potini immersed herself in the world of monarch butterflies.

All three say they had a blast doing hands-on science that led to discoveries. They were part of this year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Emory (SURE), which awards selected students a stipend, free housing, and a chance to work with top scientists.

Mingle, who won a spot in the lab of primatologist Frans de Waal, designed an experiment with chimpanzees to look deep into the evolutionary history of music. “Music is in every human culture, but we can’t figure out what makes it so biologically important to us. It’s a big mystery,” says Mingle, a neuroscience major from Southwestern University.

Mingle (below, center) with de Waal at the SURE poster session.

The chimps showed a preference for African and Indian tunes over Japanese music or silence. The Japanese recording may have put the chimps off because it resembled the rhythmic slapping and stamping sounds made by a male chimp displaying dominance, Mingle says. “Socko does amazing displays,” she adds, referring to a famous resident of Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “He keeps really good time.”

Related: Singing the praises of psychology and music

Margolis, a junior entering Emory from Oxford College, analyzed tetracycline in ancient remains for bioarcheologist George Armelagos. “My mom used to bury animal bones in my sand box so I could dig them out,” Margolis says, explaining why she was thrilled to work alone in a basement with human skeletons. “This has been my passion since I was a little kid.”

She used a bandsaw to slice 1,000-year-old rib cages from Nubia into thin pieces. She submerged the bone slices in epoxy, then baked them and ground them down for slides. When she studied the samples under a microscope, she found markers for tetracycline spread throughout.

Related: Ancient brewers tapped antibiotic secrets

“Tetracycline is an antibiotic that binds to calcium,” Margolis explains. Although the bones pre-date the official discovery of the drug, “it appears these people were ingesting tetracycline throughout their lifetimes.”

Her work supported Armelagos’ growing body of research into how tetracycline may have been a byproduct of an ancient beer-making process.

Potini, an Emory sophomore, also studied ancient forms of medication – involving monarch butterflies. Her project took her into the field and into a lab, where evolutionary biologist Jaap De Roode raises eastern monarch butterflies in flight cages. De Roode studies complex interactions between parasites that infect the butterflies, and toxic chemicals, known as cardenolides, in milkweed plants.

The study that Potini worked on found that females infected with parasites preferred to lay their eggs on plants with higher levels of cardenolides, raising the question of whether they have some kind of medicinal benefit.

“Self-medication probably occurs more often than we realize in wild life, but we don’t have a lot of data on it,” Potini says. Learning how insects self-medicate could provide clues to fight human parasitic diseases, such as malaria, she adds.

Related:
Notes on the musical brain
Scholar reads the classics -- and bones
Working through the bugs of evolutionary biology
Undergrad research booming

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Teaching evolution enters new era

A hypothetical young planet with a soupy mix of potentially life-forming chemicals pooling around the base of rocks. Drawing by NASA.

From fall to spring, Lakshmi Anumukonda is a science teacher at a metro-Atlanta high school. But in the summer, she dons a lab coat and becomes a molecular time traveler.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “We’re looking at chemical bonding and primitive elements that were present on prebiotic Earth.”

Anumukonda is exploring the origins of life some 3.5 billion years ago through the Center for Chemical Evolution. Several dozen middle- and high-school teachers are involved in the virtual center (formerly known as the Origins Project).

The roots of the Center for Chemical Evolution go back nearly a decade, growing out of collaborations between Emory and Georgia Tech. The latest phase of the venture launched this week, fueled by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation and NASA. The center now encompasses 15 laboratories at institutions including Emory, Georgia Tech, the Scripps Research Institute, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Jackson State University, Spelman College, Furman University and the SETI Institute.

The center’s mission “gives me goose bumps,” said Matthew Platz, incoming director of the NSF Division of Chemistry. Platz recalled his own sense of wonder in high school, when he learned about the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment. That was the first demonstration that Earth’s primordial soup favored chemical reactions that could lead to organic compounds.

“I thought that was incredibly cool,” Platz said. “For more than 40 years, I’ve been waiting to learn the next step: how these chemical reactions created life on this planet. Now we have the technology to take on that question.”

Related: Peptides may hold 'missing link' to life

As the university scientists seek to unravel how life began, the high school teachers are seeking ways to connect their students to the discoveries.

“I’m learning so much,” Anumukonda said. “Our high school textbooks talk about the prebiotic soup experiment and then stop there. After that, we have no idea about the recent research.”

A supernova explodes, below, scattering elements of which we and the Earth are made into space. Credit: Hubble Heritage Team, Y. Chu, NASA.

This summer, she worked alongside scientists in the lab of David Lynn, chair of chemistry at Emory. Lynn leads research into molecular self-assembly and other forces of evolution, along with the center’s education and outreach component.

Anumukonda used her lab experience to develop lesson plans for the self-assembly of molecules. This fall, her high school students will prepare samples of sodium acetate, and then take a field trip to Emory, where they can see through an electron microscope how their samples crystallize under different conditions.

“It’s wonderful to learn about the potential for real-world applications,” said Robert Hairston, another high school science teacher who spent much of his summer in Lynn’s lab. He was intrigued by how the forces of evolution could be harnessed to help in drug design and genome engineering.

“When I bring my students to Emory in the fall, I want them to have questions already in mind,” Hairston said. “They’re going to be amazed when they see the work that is being done.”

Emory seeded the educational component of the center through an “Evolution Revolution” symposium, teacher workshops, theatrical performances, visual arts and public talks to bring people together to discuss the topic.

“Emory is the perfect place to experiment with ways to improve the public’s understanding of evolution,” Lynn said. “We’ve taken the lead in addressing an issue that is sometimes charged and fractious in the Southeast, when it should be unifying.”

Related:
Should high school chemistry be fun?
A new twist on an ancient tale
Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'
Uncovering life's beginnings

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Gulf warrior

"I was this conservative little girl from South Alabama," Casi Callaway recalls with a chuckle, "and my father was really horrified when I became interested in ecology and recycling." Photo by Tom Nugent.

Tom Nugent profiles Emory grad Casi Callaway in Emory Magazine. Since 1998, Callaway has served as executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, Alabama’s largest and most active environmental advocacy group. Under her leadership, the group has grown from a few hundred members to more than 4,000, and is currently contending with the oil spill. An excerpt from the article:

“This is a battleground no question,” Callaway says. “We’ve got hundreds of volunteers mobilized to fight the spill, all along the Alabama coast, and there isn’t a moment to lose. If we can’t stop this oil, we’re going to lose all our beaches and bays for at least a generation.”

Spend a few hours patrolling the shoreline with Callaway and you’ll soon discover why environmentalists across the country describe her as “relentless” in her quest to protect the waterways of Alabama. “I think I’m lucky because I seem to have a knack for dealing with pressure,” says Callaway, who was recently honored with a “Lifetime Celebrates Remarkable Women” citation from the Lifetime Television network.

Callaway double-majored in philosophy and ecology at Emory. “In many ways, I actually think it was studying Plato that has helped me the most in this job—because Plato teaches you how to argue,” she says. “After you’ve studied the dialectics of Socrates, you know how to ask the right questions during a debate, so you can make your case in the strongest possible terms. Studying philosophy also taught me how to analyze a situation. I’m not bragging on you . . . but if I have to, I feel like I can take an opponent apart in an argument, thanks to the preparation I got in those philosophy classes.”

But she also notes that her long study of Plato has helped her in another way: it taught her how to look for creative solutions to disputes. “A lot of people are surprised to hear that in the past 12 years, we’ve only filed five or six lawsuits against polluters in South Alabama," she says. "We’re willing to go into the courtroom, of course, and if you keep violating the [1972] Clean Water Act and other environmental laws, we will sue you. But in most situations, the courtroom is a last resort.

“Over the years I’ve learned that you can usually get where you need to go by using the tools of persuasion effectively. The key is the ability to think creatively, to think on your feet—and that’s what you learn when you study philosophy.”

Read the whole article.

Related:
Oil spill may reshape environmental law
Gulf oil mess fuels interest in green energy
Both spill and clean-up pose health risks

Monday, August 2, 2010

When spheres go 'wild'


Did you know that math has pathological phenomena? Watch the video to see how a sphere that is behaving particularly badly can grow horns.

The demo of the Alexander Horned Sphere was created by Michael Rogers, associate professor of math at Emory's Oxford College, for the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. Click here to see more of Rogers' interactive visualizations, that can be downloaded for free.