Tag Archives: paleobiology

Was America discovered by the Romans? DNA sequencing provides evidence to substantiate this hypothesis.

Since my childhood, I was taught that the first european to set foot on the American continent was Cristoforo Colombo. Or better, the Vikings, but Italian education system never gave too much importance to those northern horned freaks. Then, when I moved to Barcelona, people argued me that Cristoforo Colombo’s name was actually Cristobal Colon, and he was Catalan. I must fairly admit that this theory makes a lot of sense, since one of the very first islands he discovered took the name of a mountain just a shot away from Barcelona, the Monserrat. Anyways, national prides and few historical proofs make the history of America’s discover quite cryptic.

Recently, another fact has come to light, and this story got more complicated and much more amazing. The italian science writer Elio Cadelo reported somenthing really striking on the italian newspaper La Stampa.

In a roman Shipwreck, dating back to Repubblican Age and found off the coast of Tuscany, the remains of a Roman doctor have been found in a very good condition. Archaeologists have unearthed phials, bandages, surgical instruments and closed boxes containing tablets very well-preserved. A DNA genomic analysis revealed that the tablets were made with Ibycus and Sunflower seeds. This is the point. Ibycus only grows in Southeastern Africa and India, and Sunflower is an american plant. Official history says that the very first one to describe a Sunflower to the Europeans was the Spanish conqueror Pizarro, who mentioned how Incas used to worship it as a sun- related divinity.

How did Romans got Sunflower seeds? We can make two hypothesis. On one side, one could argue that sunflower could have existed on this part of the Ocean at the age, and then be extinguished. On the other side, we can say that Romans actually discovered America and started to exploit his resources, or maybe started to commerce with indigenous populations. Both quite weak, honestly. We don’t have any proof indicating that Helianthus annuus, the Sunflower, existed outside America, and think that it existed and then extinguished it makes even less sense, given the economical importance of this flower, which surely would have attracted the interest of European farmers. But we also have to wonder why Romans, proud and fierce conquerors, and great historians, never tried to conquer the american territories and never reported in historical chronicles.

Anyways, that sunflowers tablets are talking for themselves. Furthermore, in his book (unfortunately in italian only), Elio Cadelo supports his fascinating theory with more evidences. A small roman literature talks about “brand new lands in the west”, and there are artifacts proving that an exchange between the two coasts of the Ocean really occurred.

So, was America discovered by the Romans? Well, I have to be honest. As I told before, everyone tries to claim this discover for his own country. I think I am just doing this, but this fact is fascinating enough to be reported. Where’s biology? Come on, they used DNA sequencing and I guess that Barcoding PCR is involved.

Four billion years old protein 3D structure determined by an Euro- American team. Showing the potential of evolutionary research.

One of the biggest challenges in molecular evolution studies is to gain informations about the evolution of protein tertiary structures. When we try to determine the evolutionary origins of proteins, we basically consider the structure similarities between contemporary proteins, since we don’t generally have enough paleo- materials to analyze. Therefore, we can only abstract a putative model of the ancestors of proteins.

The international team leaded by Sanchez- Ruiz from the spanish University of Granada overcome this problem resolving the x-ray structure of Precambrian thiredoxins. In an earlier paper, Sanchez- Ruiz and his collaborators constructed a phylogenetic tree of thioredoxins- proteins that are present in the three domains of life (archaea, bacteria and eukariotes).

The tree leaded the way for the resurrection of Precambrian proteins in the labotratory and the characterization of their features. In the new study, published on structure the last august 8th,  Sanchez- Ruiz teamed up with Jose Gavira from the Andalutian Institute of Earth Sciences (Spanish National Research Council — University of Granada) to analyze the X-ray chrystal structure of the resurrected proteins. The finidings are simply striking. The present- day thireodoxins are remarkably similar to those that existed 4 billions of years ago, a period really close to the origins of life. This is consistant to the punctuated- equilibrium model of evolution, in wich protein structures changes occur intermittently in short periods, with long periods of conservation.

This work is remarkable because of his capability to show the full potential of theoretical and base- research approaches in biology. The same author underlines it as it follows:

In addition to uncovering the basic principles of protein structure evolution, our approach will provide invaluable information regarding how the 3D structure of a protein is encoded by its amino acid sequence. (…) It could also provide information about how to design proteins with novel structures — an important goal in protein engineering and biotechnology.

For a theoretical biology blog it is very important to remark this. The base research approaches and theoretical contributions play a crucial role for the development of applied fields such as biomedical research and biotechnology.