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paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

Photo Credit: Dental chipping in Homo naledi. Ian Towle and colleagues

Quote: Darwin on the line of progenitors leading to humans

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin ends his discussion of the relationship of other animals to humans with this evocative paragraph:

Thus we have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality. The world, it has often been remarked, appears as if it had long been preparing for the advent of man; and this, in one sense is strictly true, for he owes his birth to a long line of progenitors. If any single link in this chain had never existed, man would not have been exactly what he now is. Unless we wilfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge, approximately recognise our parentage; nor need we feel ashamed of it. The most humble organism is something much higher than the inorganic dust under our feet; and no one with an unbiassed mind can study any living creature, however humble, without being struck with enthusiasm at its marvellous structure and properties.

Why won't Science publish replication studies?

An article in Slate by Kevin Arceneaux and coworkers recounts their experiences trying to publish a replication of a high-profile psychology study in Science: “We Tried to Publish a Replication of a Science Paper in Science. The Journal Refused.”

The story concerns a 2008 study in Science that claimed that people react differently to scary pictures depending on whether they are political liberals or conservatives. The study was widely publicized at the time of publication and has become a mainstay of

There’s one problem: It didn’t replicate. Arceneaux and coworkers explain how they got grants to set up expensive equipment in their laboratories and tried to extend the work with hundreds of subjects. And failed. And then they tried to replicate the exact circumstances of the original study, with the input of the original authors, with a larger sample of subjects. And failed.

They wrote it up and submitted it to Science. Desk reject. The story is well worth reading, this is the authors’ bottom line:

We believe that it is bad policy for journals like Science to publish big, bold ideas and then leave it to subfield journals to publish replications showing that those ideas aren’t so accurate after all. Subfield journals are less visible, meaning the message often fails to reach the broader public. They are also less authoritative, meaning the failed replication will have less of an impact on the field if it is not published by Science.

Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The cause of science is not advanced by publishing studies that attract huge public attention, but then failing to publish the results when those studies fail to replicate.

I am surprised that the editors of the journal do not see the opportunity here to establish a responsible precedent. Well-powered, pre-registered studies that revisit splashy research findings are the way that future science is going to happen. As it is, Science is appealing to researchers who design underpowered studies that produce counterintuitive results. As we’ve seen in the last few years from the “replication crisis”, those studies are very likely to turn out to be bunk.

I would add one thing. To me, here’s an irritating part of the story that is not getting the attention it deserves:

We had raised funds to create labs with expensive equipment for measuring physiological reactions, because we were excited by the possibilities that the 2008 research opened for us.

That’s the power of a research study published in Science: it changes the funding environment for all scientists in a field. Such studies establish for referees and grant agencies what is worth investing time and resources in.

That’s bad. No single study should have that kind of influence. But the reality is that new research directions often come from just such single cases, and a study like this can start a rush to be in the first wave of researchers investigating a new phenomenon. When those results are bunk, all that time and money—that could have been spent in more promising directions—is wasted.

Quote: Martin on the difficulties of reconstructing human migrations

For a writing project, I’ve been looking at some pre-Darwinian accounts of human origins and relationships. One of the most detailed was published in 1841 by William Martin, “A General Introduction to the Natural History of Mammiferous Animals”.This is a haphazard book, something like a rambling Dickensian biology textbook, but I thought it was worth sharing this paragraph on the difficulty of examining the relationships of humans:

Let it also be remembered, that the migrations of Man are, for the most part, not single acts, performed by one tribe, and, so to speak, finished at once; but they have generally been like the waves of the advancing tide---the way once open, swarm has followed swarm, the movement has been general, and years have passed, till, at length, the flood has either ceased to roll on, or has taken some new direction. Meanwhile the invaders have become amalgamated with the more ancient possessors of the soil, and their commingled descendants again with other invaders, in their turn. Most nations, besides, if even relics of their early history be by chance preserved, have fondly claimed for themselves a romantic or heroic origin---a descent from gods, or god-like men---have blended facts with fables, between which it is not a little difficult to separate, and have assigned the most extravagant antiquity to their commencement. Hence, then, the difficulty of forming a clear digest of the subject, and of tracing the branches and offsets to their primitive stocks; hance the uncertainty which attends the most plausible hypotheses.

Scaling data, some hints in dimension reduction methods

PLoS Computational Biology has a very helpful article by Lan Huong Nguyen and Susan Holmes meant to help people with statistical visualizations: “Ten quick tips for effective dimensionality reduction”.

Commonly, people examining large datasets with many dimensions will present their results with figures that show only two dimensions. In genetics, most of them will use principal components analysis (PCA) to reduce thousands of dimensions into two. In morphology, PCA is also very common, although some specialists may use Procrustes fitting or other methods. This paper by Nguyen and Holmes runs through several common misconceptions and errors in choosing methods to reduce dimensions and displaying the results of such procedures.

One of the biggest: A PCA plot should be scaled according to the variances of the dimensions, not an arbitrary scale. Otherwise, data that are really normally distributed may look anything but.

Figure 2 from Nguyen and Holmes 2019, showing the effects of different aspect ratios upon visualizations of PCA results
Figure 2 from Nguyen and Holmes, 2019. These charts all show the same data, which were generated by selecting two sets of normally distributed (Gaussian) random variables with two centers. The two clusters are red and blue in the final frame, which has an aspect ratio based on the variance in the data. The others show incorrectly scaled data, which are easily misinterpreted. I would add, morphological datasets are based on much smaller samples, and more easily give rise to false interpretations.
It's a frequent irritation to me that for data visualizations we are so often at the mercy of people who write up papers but do not share original data. So in presentations or for secondary work you're left relying upon someone else's PCA plot. These are almost always composed with bad choices of colors, unreadable fonts, and weird scales that make no sense. Don't get me wrong, there are some beautiful data visualizations out there. But the average paper in morphology or genetics is full of stinkers. And it would be so easy to just provide the original data so that those of us who re-use data in other contexts can make your results look better. Share!

More on posters

Nell Greenfieldboyce of NPR covers the trend toward making posters at academic conferences more like billboards on the highway: “To Save The Science Poster, Researchers Want To Kill It And Start Over”.

"Imagine you're driving down the highway, and you see billboards, but instead of an image and a catchy phrase, there's paragraphs of text all over the billboards," says Morrison. "That's what we're seeing, we're walking through a room full of billboards with paragraphs of text all over them."
It's impossible to take in unless you stop in front of a poster to read it. But there are so many posters that we just keep moving.
"It's mostly noise. You're just skimming desperately," says Morrison, "and you're going to miss a lot as you walk by." Maybe people stop and engage with one or two posters, Morrison says, but it generally takes time to even figure out what the poster is about. That means researchers often spend time with a poster that turns out to be not all that significant for them.

Anything to make posters more engaging and useful is worth doing. I wouldn’t go for this style myself, because in paleoanthropology and genetics we can rely instead upon compelling graphics, which are not part of the “billboard” style. But I completely agree with the basic idea, recognizing that presenters try to cram too much detail into their posters, and usually fail to make editing decisions that reinforce their takeaway points.

The important thing with any presentation is to build with your audience in mind. Posters are a style of presentation. They are more personal than a podium presentation, and that means that the poster should serve the purpose of introducing the presenter to the audience.

For a scientific meeting with 30,000 attendees, and many non-presenters who are attending for professional enrichment, the billboard poster may be the best way of focusing the audience on a single takeaway. But for a smaller conference where building relationships with other professionals is the main goal, a more nuanced approach is probably the way to go.

Probing ancient pheomelanin

Living organisms create spatial patterns of trace elements in their bodies. Clever means of detecting those spatial patterns are arriving. These have given new avenues into the biology of extinct organisms, by pulling information from exceptional fossils.

A new paper in Nature Communications by Phillip Manning and colleagues describes a new way to look at the distribution of the red pigment, pheomelanin, in the preserved fossil soft tissues of ancient organisms: “Pheomelanin pigment remnants mapped in fossils of an extinct mammal”.

They have applied XRF (X-ray fluorescence) and XAS (X-ray absorption spectroscopy) at a very tiny scale by using a synchotron. This provides a way of building a microscopic matrix of trace element distributions across a fossil.

Similar approaches have been looking at eumelanin distributions for some time, exploiting the fact that the process for generating eumelanin relies upon a copper-containing enzyme. Recently, it has become possible to quantify pheomelanin versus eumelanin by focusing on zinc. The results described in this paper focus on a particular fossil mammal, a Pliocene mouse. Those are interesting as a proof of concept but I am more fascinated by their description of the chemistry involved:

Trace metals are key components of melanin and play important roles in melanogenesis. Melanins are complex molecules formed from the aromatic amino acid tyrosine via the action of the Cu-containing enzyme tyrosinase. Because Cu is the metal cofactor in the enzymatic process forming eumelanin, elevated concentrations of organically bound Cu can typically be correlated with eumelanin-rich tissue. After Cu, Zn is the second most abundant metal in mammal melanosomes. Both metals may be complexed within the interior ring structure of eumelanin, attached to the diol functional group of dihydroxyindoles, or attached to terminal carboxylate groups, but in all cases, the Cu and Zn within eumelanin are strictly light-element coordinated (O/N): in eumelanin, there are no sulfur groups to which trace metals can bind. Importantly for this study, pheomelanin synthesis additionally requires the sulfur containing amino acid cysteine as a substrate. Sulfur in pheomelanin is contained within benzothiazole (or benzothiazine) units that are accessible for metal attachment. While Cu is strongly associated with eumelanin, Zn correlates with pheomelanin pigment. Previously, work on fossil integument concluded that organosulfur–Zn complexes may be the residue of pheomelanin; however, detailed coordination chemistry for Zn in extant pheomelanin to use in comparison with the fossils was unavailable. Subsequently, Edwards et al. applied detailed XRF and XAS to extant pheomelanin-rich feathers. The results showed that these feathers possessed a distinct chemical signature for Zn and S, with a significant portion of the Zn inventory bonded to S, almost certainly through the S contained within the pheomelanin molecule. This conclusion was based on the fact that there was a strong, spatially resolvable correlation between Zn and pheomelanin-associated sulfur groups.

Biochemistry is complicated, and bodies do other things with heavy metals besides make melanin. Besides, fossils get trace elements in them from post-depositional processes, not only from the intrinsic biochemistry of the living organism. So it is extremely necessary to validate these kinds of approaches using large samples of tissues from extant organisms as well as various controls from non-fossil bearing sedimentary situations.

That kind of work has so far been pretty light. For understandable reasons, research teams are working to validate their approaches upon exceptional fossils that preserve details of soft tissue anatomy, and preferably tissue microanatomy.

The point of using exceptional fossils in such analyses is that the chemical patterns can be compared to anatomical patterns. When they correspond to each other, that gives some confidence that the chemistry is seeing something real.

My hope would be that once the techniques are validated more widely, they may be able to bring some information out of the much larger samples of less exceptional fossils.

Probabilistic calls of the titi monkeys

A fascinating paper in Science Advances today looks at the way that a small platyrrhine monkey species conveys information about predators in its vocal communication system: “Titi monkeys combine alarm calls to create probabilistic meaning”.

The titi monkeys have two kinds of alarm calls, which they can combine together in complex sequences. The research by Mélissa Berthet and coworkers shows that the sequences carry information about not only the type of predator but also the location of the predator. Unlike human sentences, which are comprised of words that have distinct meanings, these titi monkey call sequences are probabilistic, that is, it is not the precise order or number of calls, but their quantity in combination that predict to a feature of the environment.

A couple of paragraphs from the discussion of the paper are enlightening:

Human and nonhuman animals (hereafter referred to as animals) live in environments where most stimuli appear in a continuous form, but perception is often categorical (9). For example, although rainbows consist of continuously changing wavelengths, they are perceived by humans as color bands. Similar effects are found in communication systems, including human speech. Acoustically, the human vocal tract can gradually alter the second formant of the syllable from the sound “b” (as in “beer”) to “d” (as in “deer”) and then to “g” (as in “gear”), although they are perceived in sharply categorical ways by listeners (10). Another example comes from the American Sign Language, where the hand configuration gradually differs between the words “please” (the thumb and all the fingers are selected) and “sorry” (only the thumb is selected) but is perceived categorically by deaf signers (11).

Linguists have focused quite extensively on the categorical encoding of human language. In looking for precursors or analogues of human communication in other animal communication systems, linguists and animal behaviorists have often paid attention to such categorical systems – for example, the alarm calls of vervet monkeys, which seem to form clear categories relating to predator types.

Yet maybe there is more to be seen in the simple call systems of non-human primates than correspondences between calls and features of the environment:

Although the notion of categorical meaning is intuitively compelling, it is not necessarily the default mode of animal perception. Categorical perception has been a major theoretical pillar in animal communication research, particularly because of its intuitive link to linguistic theory. For example, Macedonia and Evans [(16), p. 179] presupposed that external events are processed in categorical terms (“…all eliciting stimuli must belong to a common category”). Although this approach has been fruitful and productive, it has also generated enigmas suggesting that the underlying theory may have to be revised. For example, in a seminal paper, Cheney and Seyfarth (17) were puzzled by the fact that animals appeared to have very few categorical semantic labels, mostly limited to predator classes and a few social events. One possibility is that graded meanings are the default way of animal communication [e.g., (18)], although this hypothesis has been much ignored and considered as less interesting than categorical perception (16). Our study suggests that explaining animal communication on categorical terms alone may be too restrictive and anthropocentric and may explain the struggle to extract meaning from some animal communication systems.

I think this is cool. It suggests that natural language learning systems, which include strongly probabilistic features, might make some headway with animal communication systems.

Quote: Darwin on human variation

There is much that could be said about Charles Darwin’s discussion of human races in Descent of Man. In Chapter 7 he embarked on a long discussion of whether races of humans should be considered as different species. Throughout, he argues that they should not, but Darwin presented and weighed the best arguments he can find on either score.

As I read the following quote, I wanted to tweet it, but it’s too long:

Every naturalist who has had the misfortune to undertake the description of a group of highly varying organisms, has encountered cases (I speak after experience) precisely like that of man; and if of a cautious disposition, he will end by uniting all the forms which graduate into each other, under a single species; for he will say to himself that he has no right to give names to objects which he cannot define.

I think that’s a wonderful precept. If every scientist refrained from “giving names to objects” without a clear definition, it would save marvelous confusion.

The immediate context of this sentence is Darwin’s discussion of what he describes as “the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species”, namely, that human races grade continuously into each other. As a consequence, he notes:

Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty- three, according to Burke. (18. See a good discussion on this subject in Waitz, 'Introduction to Anthropology,' Eng. translat., 1863, pp. 198-208, 227. I have taken some of the above statements from H. Tuttle's 'Origin and Antiquity of Physical Man,' Boston, 1866, p. 35.) This diversity of judgment does not prove that the races ought not to be ranked as species, but it shews that they graduate into each other, and that it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them.

Many of today’s issues in biology were already known to Darwin. It is easy to forget how much his presentation of such issues shaped the way later authors would present them. He sometimes packaged the ideas of others, but the fact that Darwin promoted and gathered such ideas together tended to place them into the biological canon.

Link: Long-read on Cayo Santiago

The New York Times Magazine today has a long-read article about Cayo Santiago, the island just off Puerto Rico where a large colony of rhesus macaques was introduced back in the 1930s to supply the medical research trade. The island became a laboratory where researchers could study every aspect of the free-ranging macaques’ lives.

In 2017, Puerto Rico was hit hard by Hurricane Maria, with enormous effects on the people of the island. Cayo Santiago was also hit, stripping much of its forest. The macaques weathered the storm relatively well, but researchers have found longer-term effects. The article explores these effects on the macaques, explains the research and its history, and highlights the struggles of the people of Puerto Rico: “Primal Fear: Can Monkeys Help Unlock the Secrets of Trauma?”

In October 2018, Lauren Brent began analyzing some of the preliminary poststorm observational data and began to notice unexpected patterns. There seemed to be two things going on. One, the monkeys seemed to be expanding their social networks, increasing the number of individuals that they had meaningful relationships with. Two, the monkeys appeared to become more tolerant of one another. They were living under radically diminished circumstances, competing for resources that had never been in such short supply, like edible leaves and the temperature-reducing shade that those leaves produced, but the amount of inter- and intratroop violence had seemed to taper off significantly. It was as if the hurricane had bonded even former foes against a common enemy and made the monkeys much more tolerant of life’s everyday frustrations, at least in the early days.

I’ve chosen to quote a passage that is monkey-centric, but the article really is about the human stories – researchers, local research assistants, and other people caught in an extraordinary and often tragic set of circumstances.

Handaxes trailing up the coastline

In The Conversation this week, archaeologist Amanuel Beyin and his colleagues Ahmed Hamid Nassr and Parth Chauhan describe their work surveying the Red Sea coast of Sudan for early archaeological sites: “Red Sea stone tool find hints at hominins’ possible route out of Africa”.

This is valuable work and I’m happy to see the authors sharing it. They are exploring for evidence of ancient hominin activity in a place where hominins should logically have been abundant in the Pleistocene, and they’re finding sites:

Recently we led a research team to fill the existing evidence gap about our ancestors’ route out of Africa. Our focus was on the western periphery of the Red Sea. This area links the fossil-rich Horn of Africa and the Sinai Peninsula, which is the only land bridge that could have facilitated direct hominin movement between Africa and Eurasia in the past two million years.
We found evidence of hominin settlement in the area in the form of stone artifacts that suggests this region was a key early dispersal corridor – and possibly the first. That evidence includes stone tools, colloquially referred to as handaxes or bifaces. These were associated initially with the first fully bipedal (upright walker) hominin species, Homo erectus, and subsequently with other species.

Handaxes are highly recognizable evidence because they were not commonly produced in Africa after 150,000 years ago. For the archaeologist, they give a rapid indicator that sites of Early or Middle Pleistocene antiquity are present—although handaxes can erode out of older sites and lie on the surface for a very long time. In any event, the presence of a network of ancient populations on the Red Sea coast is a logical prediction and great to find. This may be a region that was important to the repeated connections between African and Eurasian populations during the Middle Pleistocene.

I’m skeptical about the concept of “dispersal corridors” for hominins. I’ll reflect on that idea at greater length some other time, I don’t want to detract from the value of these authors sharing their work. All I’ll say is that I was worried when I saw the headline of this piece pointing to the “possible route out of Africa” that the work would have a lot of the usual nonsense about “southern route” and “northern route” possibilities for modern humans. So I was very pleasantly surprised that the authors were taking a broader view and filling in some important unknowns with respect to much earlier archaeological material.

Quote: 'Disciplinary integration' in anthropology is a myth

I’ve been reading a new open access book by the anthropologist Rob Borofsky: An Anthropology of Anthropology: Time to Shift Paradigms?. The book is available for free download.

Borofsky has become well known as an advocate for “public anthropology”, the idea that anthropology should interact with a broader public, and be of service to the public.

I may point to a number of passages in the book as I read it. There is a great paragraph on page 23 that I want to highlight. Borofsky looked at several journals including the American Anthropologist and others to assess how many articles involve more than a single subfield – that is, when the research question actually requires core concepts and original data from two or more different kinds of anthropology.

The lack of subfield integration in times past is readily apparent when you read through old issues of the American Anthropologist. So why would anthropologists affirm something about the past—that the subfields previously collaborated in significant ways—that is clearly at variance with established fact? The myth of an earlier “golden age” of disciplinary integration constitutes a “social charter” for today’s departmental structure: It holds up an ideal. Disciplinary integration is imposed on the past—an “invention of tradition,” to quote Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. But it also does more. It implicitly represents a call for more disciplinary integration to resolve the current problem of departmental fragmentation. The myth allows anthropologists to address a problem of social structure—intellectual fragmentation within a department—without the pain of anyone actually having to change. It allows them to pretend that they all once worked together as a team.

Conspiracy theories in pseudoarchaeology

Science magazine has a recent online article by journalist Lizzie Wade looking at the growing influence of ancient aliens and other pseudoarchaeological nonsense in the United States: “Believe in Atlantis? These archaeologists want to win you back to science”.

I’ve selected a passage in the middle of the article to quote:

Adding to archaeologists’ sense of responsibility is that “many of these ideas started within mainstream archaeology,” says Jeb Card, an archaeologist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “We have to own these stories.”
For example, white settlers and early archaeologists in 19th century North America excavated elaborate pre-Columbian burial mounds—but ascribed them to a lost “moundbuilder race” that was killed by the ancestors of Native Americans. Former President Andrew Jackson used those ideas to justify displacing Native Americans from their lands.
Today, white nationalists make similar claims. To argue for Europeans’ deep roots in the Americas, they have latched onto Vinland, a short-lived medieval Viking settlement in eastern Canada, and the “Solutrean hypothesis,” which argues that the Americas were first peopled by arrivals from Western Europe. Neither claim started as pseudoarchaeology—Vinland was real, and the Solutrean hypothesis was proposed by mainstream archaeologists, then tested and ruled out—but they have been twisted for ideological ends. A white supremacist accused of murdering two people on a train in Portland, Oregon, in 2017 included the words “Hail Vinland!!!” in a Facebook post less than a month before the attack.

When it comes to mainstream media figures who are promoting pseudoarchaeology, I think we need to focus on the money. Pseudoarchaeology is a business. The media organizations, actors, and authors who are promoting this nonsense are profiting enormously from it. They’re quacks.

That money is coming, directly and indirectly, from people who often have a genuine and deep interest in knowing about the human past. Pseudoarchaeology is stealing their money and betraying their real quest for knowledge by feeding people nonsense.

Broadening participation in research beyond research jobs

The current issue of American Anthropologist has a series of short essays by biological anthropologists, featured as a “Vital Topics Forum” in the journal. The essays come from anthropologists of a diversity of backgrounds and training, including many groups that have been historically underrepresented in this field of science. According to the journal, these are open access, and I may feature several of these essays over coming weeks.

Today I read the essay by Milena Shattuck, “Research in a Non‐Research Position”. One of the ongoing realities of academic institutions in the U.S. and internationally is a shift toward contingent (adjunct and other non-tenure-track) faculty for many teaching and service roles. As PhD scientists finish their degrees and proceed through their early career, they are increasingly finding that research is not part of the jobs they are getting. That reality has important implications for how we train and mentor PhD students, and also for how we conceive of research.

[G]iven the constraints that most people in our field face, it may be time to rethink our idea of who belongs at the table. For starters, given that teaching responsibilities are increasingly shifted onto NTT faculty, we need to acknowledge their importance in training the next generation of scientists. However, we also need to consider their potential role in research. High‐budget projects that produce large datasets are absolutely necessary to advance our field. But we must not conflate the research with the researcher, and those who manage to produce knowledge despite limited means should be valued too. Rather than be sidelined, NTT faculty should be actively sought out for collaborations. Ignoring 70 percent of academics can only harm science.

I would add, at the same time that universities are creating more non-research positions, they are also expecting more and more undergraduate research experience for students who apply to pursue higher degrees. This is a contradiction. I agree that research experience is valuable for students, and to provide it we must value and provide more support for the research roles of many instructors, even those in primarily teaching positions.

Link: Anatomical models

The Age has an article describing the work of two anatomists who want to bring new high-fidelity plastic models into medical anatomy training: “Buster, the perfect human made of plastic, is the future of anatomy”.

There are VR simulators and screens that can slice a virtual human body in two with the swipe of a finger. But the secret real secret here is a machine, pioneered by Professor McMenamin, that can print out plastic human bodies. No one else in the world can do this.
First, a high-accuracy CT scan of a donor body is obtained. Then, about half-a-million dollars’ worth of cutting-edge 3D printers build a copy out of soft plastic.
They are so accurate, calling them models does not do them justice. Professor McMenamin prefers “replica”.

I know many anatomy professors very well. All of them attest that the experience of learning anatomy with donor cadavers cannot be matched by any artificial model. The gift that donors give when they will their bodies to medical education is precious and irreplaceable. The linked article shares the Australian professors’ view, which is aligned with mine.

But even though there is no replacement for experience with real human cadavers, I see great promise in 3D models to broaden anatomy education. In undergraduate courses, we cannot match the experience of gross anatomy training in the medical school context. Having high-resolution models like these from real individuals would enable us to bring human variation into a much broader sample of courses. That would be helpful for health sciences training by giving pre-med and pre-nursing students more repetitions with better materials. It would also broaden knowledge and training in human anatomy outside of the health professions.

Link: So easy to match DNA to names

Forensic genealogy is now mainstream. From Bloomberg Businessweek, a report by Kristen Brown: “A Researcher Needed Three Hours to Identify Me From My DNA”.

It wasn’t hard. I’d previously sent a DNA sample to the genetic testing company 23andMe Inc. and then uploaded my data anonymously to a genealogy website. Researcher Michelle Trostler was able to access my data from that site and spent an afternoon looking for connections that would help her put a name to my data. The task was so easy that in the meantime she rewatched a season of Game of Thrones.

Seems to me that we are only a few steps in synthetic biology away from people being able to conceive “three-parent” children, where some of the DNA is modeled on the publicly available sequence of someone off the internet.