Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Smart Neanderthals

I think that we humans pride ourselves on being one of the most successful species on the Earth.  Which is why it is often surprising to hear when other animals are able to do that which we think separates us from the rest.  Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, have been shown to use tools and be able to use sign language – qualities indicating higher intelligence.  However, one recent piece of information comes from a species long gone – the Neanderthals.  Given the evidence that we carry a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA in our genome, I wonder if it is any surprise to learn that Neanderthals too may have discovered the benefits of herbal remedies.  That is, Homo neanderthalensis may have used medicine too!

Neanderthals – not just meat eaters. Male and female Homo neanderthalensis in the
Neandertal-Museum, Neandertal, Düsseldorf, Germany.
Image licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

In a study published one month ago (18 July 2012), a team of researchers led by Karen Hardy found traces of vegetables and medicinal plants in tartar samples of five individual Neanderthal skeletal remains from Asturias, Spain.  The researchers used mass spectrometry techniques to discover molecular evidence of inhalation of wood-fire smoke and evidence of eating cooked plant foods and starch granules.  In addition to this, they found pigments and bitter-tasting plants of little nutritional value (yarrow and chamomile).  The significance of this finding was that the researchers knew that the Neanderthals would find the plants bitter (with the identified TAS2R38 bitter taste perception gene, from a previous study by the same team) and so, the Neanderthals quite possibly could have eaten these plants for other purposes such as self-medication.  Yarrow works as an antiseptic and can be used to treat colds, while chamomile can be used to aid digestion and for stress.

Although, perhaps you might think that these findings were only co-incidental and that the researchers over-interpreted their findings.  But the long-held public belief that Neanderthals were – hmm… how to put this nicely – not as smart as Homo sapiens, seems to be misguided.  For those of you unaware, Neanderthals in fact had the same or larger cranial capacities (a measure of brain size) relative to modern humans, in addition to their larger and stronger build.  They mostly covered Europe and Central-Western Asia, and only became extinct around 30,000 – 24,000 years ago.  Several theories dictate why they became extinct, including interbreeding (with Homo sapiens), the Campanian ignimbrite volcanic super-eruption, climate change, or just plain old competition with humans!

Anyway, aside from the evidence of plants being used for medicinal purposes, it is also interesting to note that this fossilised teeth evidence also showed the presence of another thing – lots of bacteria and plaque!  So… although it seems that “medicine” was not unique to Homo sapiens (in fact, there is evidence that many other animals use plants for self-medication, known as “Zoopharmacognosy”), as far as I’m aware, we’ve certainly surpassed the Neanderthals on dental care!

Further reading

Hardy, K. et al. (2012) Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften, 99 (8), p.617-626.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/07/120720-neanderthals-herbs-humans-medicine-science/

Self-medication in non-humans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoopharmacognosy


Neglected diseases: who cares?

Source: Thomson Reuters - Global Research Report (June 2012)

Imagine yourself living in hot and humid area, in a village with no sanitation, no access to clean water and living in extremely poor housing conditions. And to make things worse: with no public or private health care available. Did you know that, according to the World Health Organization, this is the reality for more than 1 billion people in our planet Earth? Devastating diseases that make this people suffer in a daily basis are the so called “neglected diseases”. The problem is more severe in Africa and Latin America but also found in the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Young child from Panama with Chagas disease. Source: Wikipedia

Until recently there was no attention from the richest parts of the world, particularly because these diseases do not affect the developed countries. In addition, pharmaceutical companies hardly make any profit by developing treatments for these diseases. As the neglected diseases kill slowly or cause serious disabilities and deformities with time (instead of causing outbreaks and sudden death), rarely the news and media give any visibility.

Most of the neglected diseases such as Malaria, Trypanosomiasis, Leishmaniasis and Schistosomiasis are caused by parasites found in contaminated soil and water or spread by insects. Only Malaria affects more than 300 million people in tropical areas. Diseases caused by bacteria such as Trachoma, Buruli Ulcer and Yaws are also listed as neglected diseases.

A recent report from Thomson Reuters (June 2012) shows that the scientific interest in this area is increasing. Moreover, great efforts from world-wide governments and the pharmaceutical industry are raising funds and planning actions to address the problem. However, the report also presents the persistent disproportionality of investment and interest when compared to what is done about cancer and HIV.

Reflection: what is our purpose as scientists? What have we done to make the world a better place (for everyone) to live? It is not just about neglected diseases but neglected people with very fundamental needs: food, clean water, sanitation and housing. Furthermore, the development of more effective drugs and treatments has the potential to change the condition of millions of people radically. This involves efforts from a wide range of areas: education, politics, engineering, social services, health, science…

I’m looking forward to reading about “neglected diseases” in the near future as a problem that we solved together.

More information about the recent effort to eradicate neglected diseases:

Uniting to combat Neglected tropical Diseases


Bugs for bugs

Have you heard of integrated pest management, also known as IPM? IPM is becoming a trend in agricultural industries. It is a system where both biological control agents and target-focused chemicals are used to control pests. Biological control agents are the predatory species (natural enemies) of pests and they either exist in the natural ecosystem or being reared in commercial insectaries for release.

Why has IPM become a popular pest management option in many industries in agriculture? In traditional farming, non-targeted chemicals are often used to manage pest species. The downside of the story for farmers and consumers include residues of harmful pesticide to human health, to animals and to the environment. For example, DDT, the infamous insecticide for controlling malaria and dengue fever, was banned from Australia and the United States in the 1970’s and 80’s due to its detrimental effects on human and wildlife. DDT acts as a bioaccumulant in fatty tissues, where the concentration of this compound gets higher at the top end of the food chain. DDT can affect the nervous system, impaired development and damage reproductive system of animals, especially for fish and birds. (Another bioaccumulant is the methylmercury in sharks and tuna).

The softened eggshells due to the accumulation of DDT, National Geographic Image Collection

Pest species are adaptable to many of the pesticides; they are able to build up resistance to heavy chemicals which are use to kill them. This leads to the need of developing species-specific pesticides, however, the process could be lengthy and may not meet the demand in the market. Soft pesticides are also available as alternatives; they are more environmental friendly and are less harmful to people. However, they may not be as effective compared to the previous methods.

This is when biological control agents come into play. They do not harm human and other animals nor do they damage crops. They are inexpensive to rear and farmers could potentially build up a healthy population in their farms to manage pests. In some cases, they are more effective than chemical control due to their physiology and behaviour.

For example, mealybug species (pest) can infest grapes, citrus fruits, avocados and many other plants globally. One of the commonly used biological control agents is the Australian mealybug destroyer (a ladybird beetle, C. montrouzieri). The combination of both soft pesticides and biological control agents could help to achieve economical and environmentally friendly pest management.

The mealybug destroyer – C. montrouzieri, From G. Bohne licence under creative commons

Long-tailed mealybugs Pseudococcus longispinus, Image by James Castner, University of Florida

Although I cannot deny that there are unsuccessful cases in pest management, such as the introduction of cane toads in cane farms in Queensland. With sufficient amount of studies and perhaps trials in ‘controlled’ pest infested areas, the use of biological control agents can lead to a reduction in chemical usage and an increase in the sustainability and environmental stewardship.


So you think you know Public Health?

Source: Work Safe Victoria.

If you had watch television lately while watching the Olympics or any of your favorite shows you would have come across such advertisements! What was your first thought?! “Too cheesy?” or “Not my concerns! I want my show!” Well to be honest, those were my thoughts but this week it stuck me that it wasn’t as simple as that and such notices/ campaigns has vital impacts in our life.

Believe it or not these are all part of public health! From the clean water that reaches you to the taxes such as tobacco tax! YES! That means the clean environment you live in, getting education in school, clean toilet at a flush or the clean air you breathe isn’t a given but “Public Health” happened.

Public health is the big umbrella that is put in place to prevent any tragedies from happening, to improve health and also to increase our standard of living. So who does this important job where we took them for granted? The answer is everyone such as professionals from health experts to economist and scientist! It is where inputs from them such as data, research and analysis are sculptured to bring forth the message to the public and mostly by the government in different forms such as policies, campaigns or infrastructure upgrades. The main thing here is the importance such knowledge to be conveyed and accepted to the public. A great example where I could remember is where the campaign that promote the wash of hands in Singapore when there was the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak where health professionals had to convey simple habits to prevent possible spread.

Source: YouTube.

Recently, taxing sugar sweetened beverages is put into place just like tobacco and alcohol due to the “side effects” to the health concern such as the main cause of obesity and diabetes. Moreover, there are economic burden to the society where consumers are not wary of the future consequences and risks involved as there are hidden health cost in a long term. Health services are subsidised by the government and hence a huge economic burden. These issues were brought up by scientists and economist and the government! (K.D Brownell et. al. 2009. New England Journal of Medicine; 361(16) : 1599-1605)

So the next time when you come across such advertisement or the one that needs to convey such important messages, what would be your thoughts and what would you do?


1st Movement, In Science.

The process of exam revision can be a daunting one, especially when enthusiasm is lower than usual. Nearly every student that I have seen ‘studying’ has been seen with auditory stimulation, music. Having always loved music I could see why most students opted for this method of revising information. Learning whilst being distracted is a very difficult, and sometimes painful, process. Several studies have targeted the influence of music on the brain whilst maintaining attention on a task, along with several other test conditions.

Cognition refers to a person’s ability to carry out simple tasks to complex tasks. Attention is a form of cognition (or Cognitive ability) and is defined as the ability to sustain concentration on a particular object, action or thought. Could classical music be involved with improving cognitive ability? A study into the effects of music on reading comprehension showed a positive correlation between music with fewer beats per minute and various comprehension tasks; whereas the same study showed that upbeat, fast music decreased a person’s cognitive ability, (Cooper et al 2008).

This is where I turned towards classical music! Composers such as Chopin, Weber, Liszt (This guy toured the World; Russia, Turkey, Rome) and Grieg provided me with the focus that I much needed to get through my revision, and without much surprise, it worked!

Source: Flickr

Although I wasn’t prepared to go out and purchase Andre Rieu’ complete discography and off the map live performances. I instead chose compilations of classical music which would very much limit my expectations and give me the attitude of ‘I’ll give it a listen’, which in most cases is how we all stumble upon good music at some point in our lives.

I was impressed with my level of focus and commitment to study and I powered through my exams. At this point I wanted to know more! How did classical music influence my study patterns and strong focus? Was it the classical music in the first place? Was it the absence of lyrics that kept my focus?

I figured out, after reading a few online journal articles, that each Person has his/her own way of learning. One individual may have the same focus and cognitive ability to take in information when listening to heavy music, while another person can recall the exact same information in a silent environment. I had grown accustomed to playing music along the same style that when I switched to classical music it had a much more profound effect on my attention span. Studies have also shown that the presence of lyrics gives your brain more of a need to split focus on different aspects of the music, so much so that with the absence of lyrics you could probably bet that you will use that otherwise wasted focus and angle it towards your studies.

Nonetheless, to have no music and therefore no distractions with your study habits would of course be the most ‘effective’ form, enabling the absorption process more effective. I can give personal anecdotes of learning the various structures that proteins take on, which affect their overall function and even where they are distributed and localized within a specific cell, and tell you that having absolutely NO distractions was how I adequately and thoroughly learnt this information throughout my studies.

If you ever need to really focus on revising coursework material, I can suggest a few compositions by some great composers that will hopefully stimulate your attention and focus. (Links in Red) 

1838 Chopin:  Polonaise in A

1847 Liszt:  Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

1847 Liszt:  Liebestraum No. 3 in A Flat

1820 Weber:  Der Freischutz – Overture

1875 Smetana:  The Moldau

1808 Beethoven:  Symphony No.5, 1st Movement

1791 Mozart:  The Magic Flute- Overture

Try this, listen to a range of classical composers for a week, blend it in with your ‘normal’ daily playlists, it really soothes your mind and gives a sense of calm.

Happy Listening!


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