For the last year or two I've been saying silently to myself deh-ni-SO-vans for the Homo species or sub-species known only from a couple of teeth and a pinky bone and the DNA they contain. Russian researchers found them in the Denisova cave in Siberia, as I'm sure just about all you tracker readers know. So, because sportscasters say the tennis player Maria Sharapova is named "..share-a-PO-va" I figured the cave's gotta work the same way. Ditto for its mysterious Denisovan residents of long ago. Do you supposed Maria's surname in Russia is Share-AH-peva and it's all sporscaster's fault for my error? Truth is, I did know better once, but forgot and reverted to deh-ni-SO-vans.
To find out this morning I googled "pronounce Denisovans." Thank you Charles Q. Choi. The top hit was to his story at Fox News, picked up from the news service LiveScience. Charles does a good job of it, even including the qualifier "apparently" before declaring the finger bone's owner was a young girl with dark skin, brown hair and brown eyes. By the way, Fox News runs a great deal of LiveScience material. Sometimes, I seem to remember but memory is an unreliable source, it is laid out to make it seem that a LiveScience writer works directly for Fox. Not this one though - the proper credits are right at the top.
The news is in Science magazine from a large team put together at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig by Svante Pääbo. He is of course the man first made famous for studies of Oetzi, the stone age man found in thawing Tyrolean Alp ice more than 20 years ago. The news is that a new genome sequencing method perfected by lead author Matthias Meyer, able to reconstruct full genes from single-stranded DNA often found in fossilising tissue, has led to an astonishingly complete sequence of the girl's genes. From the echoes in it of her parents' genes are implications of how large the Denisovan population was and how closely related it was to both Neanderthals and modern Homo Sapiens. Those in turn suggest what kinds of ancient migrations may have led to the distribution of Denisovan alleles in modern human subpopulations.
I'll do a roundup of some of the renderings of this news shortly. But first a large shout out to one of the best, maybe the best. It is at Science itself by one of its in-staff journalists, Ann Gibbons. It is up at ScienceNOW, so anyone can read it. More important, but behind a password barrier as far as I can tell, she has a longer and more detailed News & Analysis piece in the magazine. If you can get to it that's the one to read. She specializes in paleoanthropology news (among other things), has written of this discovery extensively already, and of course has an inside track simply by being at the journal. It is a superb, dramatic tale she tells in both long and short versions. There is even room in the News & Analysis for some skeptical comments on a few of the technical article's interpretations of the evidence.
I mention this largely because, in the upper reaches of science journalism special respect is generally accorded to writers who get signed on at Science and Nature for their contributions to the news section. Those are plum jobs. They are badges on a resume. The question also has to be, is it full-bore journalism when the topic is a paper in one's employer's magazine, and often just a few pages away from the news story? I've always felt the answer is yes, mostly. There is a gradient that runs from the larger world of science writing to science journalism. But is there a threshhold, a boundary? I don't know. Surely some of the best science writing is being done in public affairs shops for universities and other research institutions. But that's not journalism. How about the swell reports by freelancing, accomplished journalists that happen to run in, say, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Journal? Good stuff. Not quite journalism that is free of overt entanglement with sources or with other conflicts.
- Scientific American - Katherine Harmon: New DNA analysis Shows Ancient Humans Interbred with Denisovans ; Headlines are not summaries of topics, they are hints of them. One bets Harmon did not write this one. The news is not interbreeding, as that was already pretty clear from cruder sequencing of the cruddy DNA in the not-quite-fully-mineralized fossils. No matter - this is a long and well-shaped account that, by the by, reveals that Sci Am prefers the spelling "Neandertal." This piece was picked up by Nature.com in its own news lineup.
- Cosmos (Australia) Gemma Black: Denisovans, an ancient human group, have genome mapped ; Scanning along through this one learns that Pääbo is not at all sure this is a distinct species - he's not even sure that we and Neanderthals are different species. Looks like he's in the multiregionalism camp of human radiation and speciation.
- Financial Times (UK) Clive Cookson: Scientists decode extinct humans' genome; What do you think? Is it best to call this exact product an extinct humans' genome, or just an extinct human's genome?
- LA Times - Rosie Mestel: Genome of ancient Denisovans may help clarify human evolution ;
- Ars Technia - John Timmer: High quality Denisovan genome sheds light on human evolution ; Quick, which headline (this or previous one) is better - the livelier metaphor second one, or the first and dryer one that doesn't use what some have said is a lame cliche? I have suppressed writing "shed light" twice already while doing this post. I wanted to. But the fragmentary memory of some scold's judgment scared me off.
- USA Today / ScienceFair blog - Dan Vergano: Brain genes differences mark ancient Denisovans ; Interesting hed. The brain gene distinctions may be the most intriguing in this study. But also the most vague, as nobody knows how the differences were expressed in the Denisovan clan, clade, population, species or whatever it was.
- BloombergBusinessweek - John Lauerman: Ancient Human Kin's DNA Illuminates Rise of Brains ; Uh, can't quite buy this hed. It doesn't illuminate it at all - not as in bring into clear focus something not already in the books. It might, to use another metaphor, point the way to a door that if opened might eventually tell science something new. The story gets it right, via a quote: "..what it will tell us in the future about what makes us special..."
- ScienceNow via Wired - Adrian Cho: Genome Brings Ancient Girl to Life ; This is a puzzler but it's too late in the morning for me to figure it out. While Mr. Cho's name is on this it is the same story given Ann Gibbons's byline at Science. Both work there. Am pretty sure Ann wrote it. Must be a mix-up in editing.
- .... could go on
- Charlie Petit