Ancient Horse Mother Found

1 02 2012

A team of geneticists, paleontologists, and archaeologists have identified the ancient mother of all the horses alive today, according to a paper (link here) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 30.

The study, led by Alessandro Achilli, of the Dipartimento di Biologia Cellulare e Ambientale, at the Università di Perugia, in Perugia, Italy, determined that the common ancestral mare to all living horses trotted the earth between 130,000 and 160,000 years ago, with a date of approximately 140,000 years being most likely.  More importantly, the study also identified 18 major clusters of genes called haplogroups, that were involved in the domestication of horses.

Torroni and his colleagues examined 83 modern horse genomes from the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.  While the generalities of horse domestication are broadly understood, the specifics of time and location are not.  This study sheds significant light on these aspects of the horse’s natural history.

The study indicates that horses were domesticated over a broad area of Eurasia with multiple incidents of domestication occurring at different times.  This differs from many other domestic animals, such as cattle and sheep, which were domesticated from a handful of animals at very specific locations and then spread through trade and capture.  At least one of these domestication events took place in Europe, with Iberia being a possible location for it.

Horses have an extended and close relationship with humans.  They have played a major role in human history.  Horses were widely used in warfare until the end of World War I, and were still used to some extent even in World War II.  In civilian use, millions of horses were engaged for transportation and to haul goods until the 1920s, when they were largely replaced by trucks and automobiles.  They were still a common sight on many American roads until the 1940s.

In addition to its general scientific interest, the paper points out that the results of the study can also be used to classify fossil horse remains, identifying where they belong on the horse family tree; better define and understand modern horse breeds and their ancestry; and evaluate the role of maternal ancestry in racehorse performance.


A 30,000 year old rock painting from Bhimbetka in north central India, showing a man riding a horse. This image comes from Wiki Commons and is used under the GNU Free Documentation License

Mendel’s Manuscript Mess

1 06 2010
Image of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) the father of modern genetics

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) the father of modern genetics

One of the most important manuscripts in modern science, long thought lost, has resurfaced in the middle of an ownership dispute.

The original manuscript of Gregor Mendel’s pea-breeding experiments, that allowed him to deduce the laws of heredity, thereby laying the foundations of modern genetics, has turned up in Germany after being missing for more than 50 years.

At the time it was published, Mendel was an Augustinian monk in the Abbey of St. Thomas, in the Austro-Hungarian city of Brünn, now Brno in the Czech Republic.

The importance of Mendel’s work was unrecognized by the international scientific community until 1900 (16 years after Mendel’s death).  The was due mostly to the fact that it was published in the rather obscure Journal of the Brünn Natural History Society.

Once discovered, however, it quickly became one of the most important articles in modern science.  This was because it was the first publised article to describe in detail how genetics operated, even though Mendel (and the rest of the world for that matter) knew nothing about DNA or other elements of genetics.  Indeed, it was Mendel’s paper that set the world on the road to discovering the whole of genetic theory.  In addition, Mendel’s experiment is often cited as one of the most elegant scientific experiments in history.

In an article published on Monday (June 31) in The New York Times, writer Nicholas Wade describes what happened to the orignal manuscript after it was published 1865.  According to Wade, the manuscript, the title of which translates into English as Experiments on Plant Hybridization, has been through a lot in the last 145 years.  It languished in the Brünn Natural History Society’s library until 1911, when it was discarded.  Saved from the trash by a local high school teacher, it was returned to the society’s files.  During World War II, a German botany professor (apparently part of the occupying force, who was in chage of the library) keep it in his briefcase.  Afterward, when Soviet forces occupied the area, it disappeared and was presumed destroyed.  Only in 1988 did it resurace, in the hands of a descendent of Mendel’s, who is also an Augustinian monk.  Since then, there have been competing claims to its ownership, with the monk’s order threatening to throw him out and even the German government getting involved.

For the complete story and the details of  the ownership controversy, please see the NY Times article, here.