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Gene whiz! Researchers use DNA to unlock hidden chapters of human story

April 24, 2018

On National DNA Day, ASU scientists reveal how genetic analysis helps them research humankind's origins and futures

DNA — since the world first saw its iconic double helix structure in 1953, it has given scientists a treasure trove of insights into human health and uniqueness. And there’s no better time to appreciate this building block of life than on National DNA Day on April 25.

At Arizona State University, researchers in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change are using these building blocks to delve into wide-ranging topics, such as chimpanzee relationships and the roots of ancient tuberculosis, to better understand the human story.

How long have we had long-term relationships?

Kevin Langergraber, an assistant professor at the school and a research affiliate at the Institute of Human Origins, studies wild chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

“DNA allows me to determine how all of the 200 individuals belonging to the Ngogo chimpanzee community are related to one another,” he said. “I combine this data with long-term behavioral observations to study things like kinship’s impact on social bonds and the factors influencing male reproductive success.”

By researching chimpanzees, Langergraber gets a glimpse into how early human ancestors may have behaved, and thus, into the possible roots of modern human behaviors.

photo of chimpanzee in Kibale National Park
Chimpanzee behavior gives Kevin Langergraber a glimpse into the possible roots of human behaviors. Photo by Kevin Langergraber

Take chimps’ social and mating system, for example. On the surface, it’s very different from that of humans. Chimpanzee females mate with most males in their group, and males compete for higher rank and a better chance of siring offspring. In humans, however, most reproduction happens in the context of long-term relationships, or pair-bonds, between males and females.

But DNA tells a deeper story.

“I was very surprised a few years ago when I found that the amount of time that a male-female pair spent together was a better predictor of the male siring that female's infant than was his dominance rank at the time of conception,” Langergraber said.

In one case, DNA analysis revealed that a low-ranking chimp fathered three out of four offspring with a female he was close to for 16 years — suggesting that enduring relationships may go back very far in the human story.

Looking toward the future of DNA research, Langergraber said he hopes there will one day be technology that makes it easier and cheaper to get whole genome sequences out of low-quality sources, like the noninvasively collected fecal samples he currently uses to gather DNA.

“We would be able to better resolve the sorts of questions that we’re already pursuing, as well as many new types of questions that are currently far beyond our limitations.”

Will ancient-disease research protect us from TB?

Regents’ Professor Jane Buikstra studies ancient diseases, with a particular focus on tuberculosis (TB) — an illness that has affected humans for thousands of years and is today the top infectious killer worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

To uncover the history of TB in the Americas before and after European contact, Buikstra examines ancient skeletal remains and extracts pathogen DNA from lesions that may have been caused by the disease.

Working with fellow researchers at the Center for Bioarchaeological Research, she has used this method to help reveal that a strain of TB was present in the Western Hemisphere several centuries before Europeans arrived. The group's most startling discovery, however, was the source of this strain.

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Guilty: Seals or sea lions brought TB to the Americas more than 1,000 years ago. Photo from Pixabay.com

“The biggest insight DNA research has given me is that ancient TB in the Americas was brought to the east coast of South America by seals or sea lions more than 1,000 years ago,” she said.

Buikstra continues to study the evolutionary history of this and other strains of TB that spread across the Americas through human migration — work that can help inform clinical treatments and keep medical science ahead of how the disease may evolve in the future.

When asked what improvements she wants most in future DNA technology, Buikstra had a ready answer.

“I would most like to see refined methods for detecting changes that happen to ancient DNA as a result of the fossilization process,” she said. Such methods would allow her to dive even further into the deep history of various ailments and the lives of early humans affected by them.

 

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Mikala Kass

Editorial Communications Coordinator , School of Human Evolution and Social Change

480-965-0610

 
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ASU research is a 'Catalyst' for journalists

April 24, 2018

Cronkite School students produce new primetime science series for Arizona PBS

A new generation of science journalists and storytellers from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is producing a high-quality science series for Arizona PBS that is smart and relatable and shows the university’s impact on the world.

And it's about to go prime time.

The show is “Catalyst,” a 13-episode program that explores current cutting-edge research at ASU. It is the creation of students at the Cronkite School as part of an innovative professional immersion program in which they create high-quality content that serves the public under the guidance of executive producer Steve Filmer.

“The show is longer-form storytelling, and that brings with it some satisfactions and some challenges,” said Filmer, a professor of practice at the Cronkite School and an award-winning television producer whose credits include “ABC World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America.” “Keeping a viewer interested for a longer stretch of time means it has to have more moments, more story arcs and more surprises. It also means there’s a demand on students’ imaginations.”


Trailer for "Catalyst"


The 30-minute show is the first non-breaking-news series that Cronkite School students are producing for Arizona PBS. Each episode features four to five segments, which attempt to demystify research by telling the stories of the people in the labs and out in the field, spotlighting their pursuit of groundbreaking discoveries. It will air every Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Arizona PBS following “NOVA Wonders,” beginning April 25. Encore broadcasts will air Sundays at 2 p.m.

The first episode features ASU research on the development of an artificial tree that can reduce carbon dioxide as well as research advances in swarm intelligence in robots, which impacts technology such as driverless vehicles. The premiere also looks at how viruses can be used to combat diseases and how teams work under pressure using technology.

Cronkite Professor of Practice Vanessa Ruiz, the former co-lead anchor for 12 News, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, will handle hosting duties for the new series.

“The Cronkite School’s and Arizona State University’s commitment to innovation and, in this case, the wonders of science, is again evident through the creation of 'Catalyst,' ” said Ruiz, who reviews each script, reads introductions and anchors the show. “I am incredibly proud to be a part of the team behind this quality program, which will enrich and inform our viewers.” She added that she operates by example and her students have benefitted by watching her work under deadline pressure.

“Catalyst” is supported by ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development, which promotes interdisciplinary university research institutes and initiatives.

“Telling the stories of the people behind the research, their motivations and contributions is key to fueling curiosity, and engaging future innovators and storytellers in the pursuit of path-breaking discoveries,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU.

Students say they are receiving invaluable experience, working on all dimensions of the show from story conceptualization to research, shooting, editing, writing and production.

“I love that we get to go out into the field and interview scientists who are on the frontiers of research,” said Grace Clark, a graduate student at the Cronkite School, who also serves as show producer. “It’s fascinating to hear what they have to say and helping them communicate to wider audiences.”

Students at the Cronkite School, the home of PBS, started working in late August on the production, which supports the station’s mission of promoting lifelong learning by filling the need for more discovery-related content on television.

Each student is assigned to come up with four stories for the semester, depending on their tastes, research and discoveries. Journalism student Daniel Crumbley said he is attracted to the psychological rather than the biological spectrum of science.

“I look at stories that have an obvious human aspect to them,” said Crumbley, who produced a counseling psychology segment featuring Cynthia Glidden-Tracey, a clinical associate professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

Glidden-Tracey gave a lecture to students on rhythmic cognitive restructuring, a psychotherapy relaxation technique that helps turn negative thoughts into positive ones.

She said she was happy to oblige.

“It’s such a great opportunity to explain my work and what I do at ASU,” she said. “It’s also interesting to watch this process unfold.”

Glidden-Tracy may have been referring to the fact that Filmer was one of the camera operators and wasn’t teaching from the sidelines.

“That’s part of what I do,” Filmer said. “I have found value in that when students see where you are in the shot and how you move, they learn much faster than if I give them a blathering two-hour lecture about how to shoot documentary style. Sometimes it’s just easier to see someone do it.”

The class has doubled in size since last semester; it now has 20 students. Filmer said he believes there's a reason for that.

“What I’m hearing anecdotally is that there’s an appetite among a certain slice of Cronkite students — they’re looking for something in addition to or other than the newsroom experience,” Filmer said.

That’s exactly the reason Bailey Netsch, a graduate student studying mass communication at Cronkite, got into the program.

“I wish this were around when I first started taking journalism classes,” Netsch said. “It’s great to have a professional program that shows what a newsroom looks like when it’s not breaking news.”

 

Top photo: Producer Daniel Crumbley picks up class audio as photographer Bailey Netsch shoots video for "Catalyst" during Associate Professor Cynthia Glidden-Tracey's rhythmic cognition restructuring session on April 20. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now