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Posts tagged ‘human evolution’

Evo in the news: Making sense of ancient homonin DNA


Denisova Cave, where the fossil finger was discovered. Photo provided by ЦуваевНиколай at ru.wikipedia and shared via Creative Commons.

When archaeologists discovered a 40,000 year old pinky bone in a Siberian cave, everyone wondered who the bone belonged to. Researchers extracted DNA from the fossil and used it to construct an evolutionary tree to see how the pinky bone's owner was related to modern day humans and Neanderthals. Scientists were surprised by what they found — read more about it in this month's Evo in the news: Making sense of ancient homonin DNA.

Each month, the UCMP's Understanding Evolution website features an Evo in the news article, which focuses on the evolutionary aspects of a popular news story. Click here to browse the Evo in the news archive!

Congratulations Tim White!


Tim White. Photo: Discovery Communications, LLC.

Congratulations are due to Tim White, Director of the Human Evolution Research Center and Faculty Curator at the UCMP! Tim was selected by Time Magazine as one of The 100 Most Influential People in the World. Tim receives this recognition for his work on human evolution. This past fall, Tim and his colleagues published numerous papers on Ardipithecus ramidus, the oldest and most complete skeleton of a human ancestor. Congratulations, Tim!

Genetics and Evolution of the Skeleton Research Initiative conference

gesriThe Genetics and Evolution of the Skeleton Research Initiative recently had its semiannual meeting in San Francisco. Organized by UCMP Faculty Curator Leslea Hlusko, the focus for this year’s meeting was Development, Diseases, and Evolution of Mineralized Tissues. Two graduate students from the Hlusko lab, Theresa Grieco and Sarah Amugongo, give us these snapshots from the conference:

Highlights from the conference, by Theresa Grieco:

The GESRI meeting draws bone biologists from all over the Bay Area — UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, UC Davis, Stanford, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab. The speakers and attendees work in a variety of contexts, including biomed, EvoDevo, paleontology research, and veterinary/clinical research. It is great that this meeting is able to draw together a diverse group that is willing to talk across field boundaries and present their findings to the broader scientific community. We heard talks about fracture repair, bone mineralization and its changes during fossilization, osteoarthritis, tooth bioengineering, and how bones and teeth can be used to infer life history traits.

For me personally, it is a great way to meet and keep in touch with local mentors and colleagues and get fresh ideas. It’s really the best way to find out about potential resources and collaborations for research projects. It was also great to see a presentation by a biochemist or embryologist drawing questions from practicing MDs or bioengineers, and to see such different people getting excited about each other's work. One thing that I thought was interesting was that sometimes questions would be misunderstood, usually because people trained in different fields catch on to very different aspects of your research than the ones you’ve been trained to look at. Talking about these kinds of questions in a little more detail can reveal significant implications of your research in other arenas, or where the methods or data collected from another field could make your research better.

A highlight of the day was one of our plenary speakers, Dr. David Kingsley, who gave a talk about why he developed the stickleback fish as a model system for EvoDevo and a case study about pelvic reduction and hindlimb loss in these fish. Through genetic mapping, his lab identified a set of chromosome deletions in the regulatory region of a gene called Pitx1. These deletions have been selected for in many different stickleback populations around the world. These deletions only affect the molecular switch for Pitx1 expression in the hindlimb, allowing the rest of the gene’s vital functions to be preserved. He then showed us how similar phenotypes can be seen evolutionarily, with hindlimb loss and pelvic reduction in snakes, manatees, and in mice missing the Pitx1 gene. Dr. Kingsley then brought us into the clinic with case studies of club foot in humans. Wow!

A sampling of GESRI talks, by Sarah Amugongo:

Though only in its infant stages, GESRI has already become very popular among bone biologists in the Bay Area and beyond. I was astounded by the turnout, especially from the un-registered members. The range of topics covered was quite impressive: from basic bone biology, to clinical application, to evolutionary history of bone mineralization.

Here are a few of the talks that were given at the conference:

  • One talk focused on the repair of fractures. A high oxygen level was demonstrated to be very important for the healing of fractures. Interestingly, the process of fracture repair is different from the process of normal bone development in several ways. The source of bone cells is different, and the processes that regulate cell fate are different too.
  • The inverse relationship between osteoarthritis and osteoporosis was also notably interesting. With the loss of cartilage, there is an up-regulation of bone growth as demonstrated by research on osteoarthritis of the hip.
  • The growth hormones TGF-beta and IGF-1 have different signaling pathways, but both have been demonstrated to be important to the skeleton as they regulate osteoblast differentiation and proliferation. Osteoblasts are cells that are responsible for bone formation.
  • In addition to studying the extant organisms, learning that soft tissue is also preserved in the fossil record through the study of dinosaur fossils was really amazing. It made me wonder what else we’ve been missing by just focusing on bones. This might open a whole new area of research in paleo!

View the full meeting program here.

Ardi is Breakthrough of the Year

Credit: Jay Matternes © 2005

Credit: Jay Matternes © 2005

Ardipithecus ramidus has been named Science magazine's Breakthrough of the Year. At 4.4 million years old, Ardi is the oldest hominid skeleton. This fall, a series of 11 papers about Ardi and her paleoenvironment were published in Science. UCMP Faculty Curator and Human Evolution Research Center (HERC) director Tim White was one of the lead scientists on the project, which involved an international team of researchers, including UCMP Faculty Curator Leslea Hlusko. To learn more about Ardi, Breakthrough of the Year, read this article in today's issue of Science, watch this video, also on Science's website, and read this article on BBC news. For more links and more info on the discovery of Ardi, visit the UCMP's previous blog post.

Judy Scotchmoor named AAAS Fellow

Judy ScotchmoorCongratulations Judy Scotchmoor, UCMP Assistant Director for Education and Public Programs! Judy was named an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow. Judy receives this prestigious award "for leadership in defending teaching of evolution and quality science education through nationally recognized websites on these issues and through leadership of Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science."

The websites, for which Judy is project coordinator, include The Paleontology Portal, Understanding Evolution, and Understanding Science.  She is also a founder of the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), a grassroots network of science organizations.

Upon learning of her award, Judy exclaimed "This was a huge and wonderful surprise — a real 'Oh WOW!' kind of moment!"

Judy will receive her award in February 2010 at the AAAS Annual Meeting, in San Diego.

Human evolution in the headlines

scienceardicoverThis week's big paleo story centers on Ardipithecus ramidus, a species of hominid that lived in the woodlands of Ethiopia, 4.4 million years ago. UCMP Faculty Curator and Human Evolution Research Center (HERC) director Tim White is co-director of the Middle Awash Project, the team of researchers that excavated and studied the fossils. The team includes UCMP Faculty Curator and HERC Associate Faculty member Leslea Hlusko.  Find out more about the discovery:

  • Science magazine has 11 papers about A. ramidus in the October 2 issue, as well as a number of online extras.
  • Discovering Ardi is the online companion to the Discovery Channel's upcoming program, and has wonderful photos, reconstructions and videos of the fossils and the people who work with them, including videos featuring Tim White.
  • Carl Zimmer summarizes the most interesting findings on his blog.


Tim and his colleagues found a lot of fossil material — over 125 pieces from the skeleton of a single individual (nicknamed Ardi), as well as specimens from nearly three dozen other individuals. The teeth provide clues about the species' social structure, and the pelvis, hand, and foot bones indicate how it may have walked and climbed.

If you're on the Berkeley campus, be sure to check out HERC's exhibit on human evolution, on the second floor of the Valley Life Sciences Building at UC Berkeley. There is a new section of the exhibit about Ardipithecus ramidus.