First Migration from Africa Less Than 95,000 Years Ago

Recent measurements of the rate at which children show DNA changes not seen in their parents -- the "mutation rate" -- have challenged views about major dates in human evolution.

In particular these measurements have made geneticists think again about key dates in human evolution, like when modern non-Africans split from modern Africans. The recent measurements push back the best estimates of these dates by up to a factor of two. Now, however an international team led by researchers at the University of Tübingen and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, present results that point again to the more recent dates. The new study is published in Current Biology.

The team, led by Johannes Krause from Tübingen University, was able to reconstruct more than ten mitochondrial genomes (mtDNAs) from modern humans from Eurasia that span 40,000 years of prehistory. The samples include some of the oldest modern human fossils from Europe such as the triple burial from Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, as well as the oldest modern human skeletons found in Germany from the site of Oberkassel close to Bonn.

The researchers show that pre-ice age hunter-gatherers from Europe carry mtDNA that is related to that seen in post-ice age modern humans such as the Oberkassel fossils. This suggests that there was population continuity throughout the last major glaciation event in Europe around 20,000 years ago. Two of the Dolni Vestonice hunter-gatherers also carry identical mtDNAs, suggesting a close maternal relationship among these individuals who were buried together.

The researchers also used the radiocarbon age of the fossils to estimate human mutation rates over tens of thousands of year back in time. This was done by calculating the number of mutations in modern groups that are absent in the ancient groups, since they had not yet existed in the ancient population. The mutation rate was estimated by counting the number of mutations accumulated along descendent lineages since the radiocarbon dated fossils.

Using those novel mutation rates -- capitalizing on information from ancient DNA -- the authors cal-culate the last common ancestor for human mitochondrial lineages to around 160,000 years ago. In other words, all present-day humans have as one of their ancestors a single woman who lived around that time.

The authors also estimate the time since the most recent common ancestor of Africans and non-Africans to between 62,000-95,000 years ago, providing a maximum date for the mass migration of modern humans out of Africa. Those results are in agreement with previous mitochondrial dates based on archaeological and anthropological work but are at the extreme low end of the dates sug-gested from de-novo studies that suggest a split of non-Africans from Africans about thirty thousand years earlier.


"The results from modern family studies and our ancient human DNA studies are in conflict" says Krause. "One possibility is that mutations were missed in the modern family studies, which could lead to underestimated mutation rates." The authors argue that nuclear genomes from ancient modern humans may help to explain the discrepancies.

Source: Science Daily


Distant Planetary System Is a Super-Sized Solar System

A team of astronomers, including Quinn Konopacky of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto, has made the most detailed examination yet of the atmosphere of a Jupiter-like planet beyond our Solar System.

According to Konopacky, "We have been able to observe this planet in unprecedented detail because of the advanced instrumentation we are using on the Keck II telescope, our ground-breaking observing and data-processing techniques, and because of the nature of the planetary system."

Konopacky is lead author of the paper describing the team's findings, to be published March 14th in Science Express, and March 22nd in the journal Science.

The team, using a high-resolution imaging spectrograph called OSIRIS, uncovered the chemical fingerprints of specific molecules, revealing a cloudy atmosphere containing carbon monoxide and water vapour. "With this level of detail," says Travis Barman, a Lowell Observatory astronomer and co-author of the paper, "we can compare the amount of carbon to the amount of oxygen present in the planet's atmosphere, and this chemical mix provides clues as to how the entire planetary system formed."

There has been considerable uncertainty about how systems of planets form, with two leading models, called core accretion and gravitational instability. Planetary properties, such as the composition of a planet's atmosphere, are clues as to whether a system formed according to one model or the other.

"This is the sharpest spectrum ever obtained of an extrasolar planet," according to co-author Bruce Macintosh of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "This shows the power of directly imaging a planetary system. It is the exquisite resolution afforded by these new observations that has allowed us to really begin to probe planet formation."

The spectrum reveals that the carbon to oxygen ratio is consistent with the core accretion scenario, the model thought to explain the formation of our Solar System.

The planet, designated HR 8799c, is one of four gas giants known to orbit a star 130 light-years from Earth. The authors and their collaborators previously discovered HR 8799c and its three companions back in 2008 and 2010. All the planets are larger than any in our Solar System, with masses three to seven times that of Jupiter. Their orbits are similarly large when compared to our system. HR 8799c orbits 40 times farther from its parent star than Earth orbits from the Sun; in our Solar System, that would put it well beyond the realm of Neptune.

According to the core accretion model, the star HR 8799 was originally surrounded by nothing but a huge disk of gas and dust. As the gas cooled, ice formed; this process depleted the disk of oxygen atoms. Ice and dust collected into planetary cores which, once they were large enough, attracted surrounding gas to form large atmospheres. The gas was depleted of oxygen, and this is reflected in the planet's atmosphere today as an enhanced carbon to oxygen ratio.

The core accretion model also predicts that large gas giant planets form at great distances from the central star, and smaller rocky planets closer in, as in our Solar System. It is rocky planets, not too far, nor close to the star, that are prime candidates for supporting life.

"The results suggest the HR 8799 system is like a scaled-up Solar System," says Konopacky. "And so, in addition to the gas giants far from their parent star, it would not come as a surprise to find Earth-like planets closer in."

The observations of HR 8799c were made with the Keck II 10-metre telescope in Hawaii, one of the two largest optical telescopes in the world. The telescope's adaptive optics system corrects for distortion caused by Earth's atmosphere, making the view through Keck II sharper than through the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomers refer to this as spatial resolution. Seeing exoplanets around stars is like trying to see a firefly next to a spotlight. Keck's adaptive optics and high spatial resolution, combined with advanced data-processing techniques, allow astronomers to more clearly see both the stellar "spotlight" and planetary "firefly."

"We can directly image the planets around HR 8799 because they are all large, young, and very far from their parent star. This makes the system an excellent laboratory for studying exoplanet atmospheres," says coauthor Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada. "Since its discovery, this system just keeps surprising us."

Konopacky and her team will continue to study the super-sized planets to learn more details about their nature and their atmospheres. Future observations will be made using the recently upgraded OSIRIS instrument which utilizes a new diffraction grating -- the key component of the spectrograph that separates light according to wavelength, just like a prism. The new grating was developed at the Dunlap Institute and installed in the spectrograph in December 2012.

"These future observations will tell us much more about the planets in this system," says Dunlap Fellow Konopacky. "And the more we learn about this distant planetary system, the more we learn about our own."

Source:Science Daily


Astronomers Conduct First Remote Reconnaissance of Another Planetary System

Researchers have conducted a remote reconnaissance of a distant planetary system with a new telescope imaging system that sifts through the blinding light of stars. Using a suite of high-tech instrumentation and software called Project 1640, the scientists collected the first chemical fingerprints, or spectra, of this system's four red exoplanets, which orbit a star 128 light years away from Earth.

A detailed description of the planets -- showing how drastically different they are from the known worlds in the universe -- was accepted Friday for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

"An image is worth a thousand words, but a spectrum is worth a million," said lead author Ben R. Oppenheimer, associate curator and chair of the Astrophysics Department at the American Museum of Natural History,according to Science Daily.

Oppenheimer is the principal investigator for Project 1640, which uses the Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. The project involves researchers from the California Institute of Technology, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cambridge University, New York University, and the Space Telescope Science Institute, in addition to Oppenheimer's team at the Museum.

The planets surrounding the star of this study, HR 8799, have been imaged in the past. But except for a partial measurement of the outermost planet in the system, the star's bright light overwhelmed previous attempts to study the planets with spectroscopy, a technique that splits the light from an object into its component colors -- as a prism spreads sunlight into a rainbow. Because every chemical, such as carbon dioxide, methane, or water, has a unique light signature in the spectrum, this technique is able to reveal the chemical composition of a planet's atmosphere.

"In the 19th century it was thought impossible to know the composition of stars, but the invention of astronomical spectroscopy has revealed detailed information about nearby stars and distant galaxies," said Charles Beichman, executive director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology. "Now, with Project 1640, we are beginning to turn this tool to the investigation of neighboring exoplanets to learn about the composition, temperature, and other characteristics of their atmospheres."

With this system, the researchers are the first to determine the spectra of all four planets surrounding HR 8799. "It's fantastic to nab the spectra of four planets in a single observation," said co-author Gautam Vasisht, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


The results are "quite strange," Oppenheimer said. "These warm, red planets are unlike any other known object in our universe. All four planets have different spectra, and all four are peculiar. The theorists have a lot of work to do now."

Researchers are already collecting more data on this system to look for changes in the planets over time, as well as surveying other young stars. During its three-year survey at Palomar, which started in June 2012, Project 1640 aims to survey 200 stars within about 150 light years of our solar system.

"The variation in the spectra of the four planets is really intriguing," said Didier Saumon, an astronomer at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was not involved in this study. "Perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising, given that the four gaseous planets of the solar system are all different. The hundreds of known exoplanets have forced us to broaden our thinking, and this new data keeps pushing that envelope."


workshop on producing bio fuels

DAMASCUS, (ST) - Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs in cooperation with the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology recently held a workshop on establishing a station for producing bio fuels of household waste, fats and used oils.  The workshop focused  the general framework for the design and implementation of the project and its economic feasibility.

And Minister of State for Environmental Affairs, Dr. Nazira Sarkis, confirmed the importance of applying scientific researches on the ground and turn them into projects of social, economic and environmental interest through the use of waste and residues in a scientific way to turn into eco-friendly materials and contribute to providing employment opportunities for many groups in society.

"The ministry encourages projects of environmental benefit and works with all universities and scientific research centers on linking scientific and applied research environment, particularly in the area of clean energies. The ministry also coordinates with all public and private entities and associations of civil society to undertake projects and activities designed aim at shifting to renewable and clean energies," the Minister pointed out.

For his part, Head of Laboratory of Renewable Energies in the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology, Dr. Suleiman Suleiman, clarified the importance of linking scientific research with the social benefit, providing moral, technical and material support for scientific research and ensuring the legal and legislative frameworks to make use of them, pointing to the existence of many researches that can be applied in the field of saving energy and preserving environment to support the national economy.

During the workshop, the team work at the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology, Dr. Suleiman Suleiman, Dr. Fayez Mustafa and eng. Ayman Hodbah gave lectures dealt with the general frameworks for the design and implementation of a plant for producing bio fuels and prospects of its development.


Sh. Kh.

Volcanic Aerosols, Not Pollutants, Tamped Down Recent Earth Warming

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder looking for clues about why Earth did not warm as much as scientists expected between 2000 and 2010 now thinks the culprits are hiding in plain sight -- dozens of volcanoes spewing sulfur dioxide.

The study results essentially exonerate Asia, including India and China, two countries that are estimated to have increased their industrial sulfur dioxide emissions by about 60 percent from 2000 to 2010 through coal burning, said lead study author Ryan Neely, who led the research as part of his CU-Boulder doctoral thesis. Small amounts of sulfur dioxide emissions from Earth's surface eventually rise 12 to 20 miles into the stratospheric aerosol layer of the atmosphere, where chemical reactions create sulfuric acid and water particles that reflect sunlight back to space, cooling the planet.

Neely said previous observations suggest that increases in stratospheric aerosols since 2000 have counterbalanced as much as 25 percent of the warming scientists blame on human greenhouse gas emissions. "This new study indicates it is emissions from small to moderate volcanoes that have been slowing the warming of the planet," said Neely, a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint venture of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A paper on the subject was published online in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. Co-authors include Professors Brian Toon and Jeffrey Thayer from CU-Boulder; Susan Solomon, a former NOAA scientist now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Jean Paul Vernier from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.; Catherine Alvarez, Karen Rosenlof and John Daniel from NOAA; and Jason English, Michael Mills and Charles Bardeen from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Builder.

The new project was undertaken in part to resolve conflicting results of two recent studies on the origins of the sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere, including a 2009 study led by the late David Hoffman of NOAA indicating aerosol increases in the stratosphere may have come from rising emissions of sulfur dioxide from India and China. In contrast, a 2011 study led by Vernier -- who also provided essential observation data for the new GRL study -- showed moderate volcanic eruptions play a role in increasing particulates in the stratosphere, Neely said.

The new GRL study also builds on a 2011 study led by Solomon showing stratospheric aerosols offset about a quarter of the greenhouse effect warming on Earth during the past decade, said Neely, also a postdoctoral fellow in NCAR's Advanced Study Program.

The new study relies on long-term measurements of changes in the stratospheric aerosol layer's "optical depth," which is a measure of transparency, said Neely. Since 2000, the optical depth in the stratospheric aerosol layer has increased by about 4 to 7 percent, meaning it is slightly more opaque now than in previous years.

"The biggest implication here is that scientists need to pay more attention to small and moderate volcanic eruptions when trying to understand changes in Earth's climate," said Toon of CU-Boulder's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. "But overall these eruptions are not going to counter the greenhouse effect. Emissions of volcanic gases go up and down, helping to cool or heat the planet, while greenhouse gas emissions from human activity just continue to go up."

The research for the new study was funded in part through a NOAA/ ESRL-CIRES Graduate Fellowship to Neely. The National Science Foundation and NASA also provided funding for the research project. The Janus supercomputer is supported by NSF and CU-Boulder and is a joint effort of CU-Boulder, CU Denver and NCAR.

Source Story:Science Daily