Friday, December 11, 2009

Genetic 'map' of Asia's diversity

The study indicates that all of Asia was populated through one migration event

An international scientific effort has revealed the genetics behind Asia's diversity.

The Human Genome Organisation's (HUGO) Pan-Asian SNP Consortium carried out a study of almost 2,000 people across the continent.

Their findings support the hypothesis that Asia was populated primarily through a single migration event from the south.

The researchers described their findings in the journal Science.

They found genetic similarities between populations throughout Asia and an increase in genetic diversity from northern to southern latitudes.

The team screened genetic samples from 73 Asian populations for more than 50,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).

These are variations in pieces of the DNA code, which can be compared to find out how closely related two individuals are genetically.

This is the first study to give a clear answer to the question on the origin of East Asian populations
Shuhua Xu

Chinese Academy of Sciences

The study found that, as expected, individuals who were from the same region, or who shared a common language also had a great deal in common genetically.

But it also answered a question about the origin of Asia's population. It showed that the continent was likely populated primarily through a single migration event from the south.

Previously, there has been some debate about whether Asia was populated in two waves - one to South East Asia, and a later one to central and north-east Asia, or whether only a single migration occurred.

Diversity explained

Edison Liu from the Genome Institute of Singapore was a leading member of the consortium.

He explained that the age of a population has a much bigger effect on genetic diversity than the population size.

"It seems likely from our data that they entered South East Asia first - making these populations older [and therefore more diverse]," he said.

"[It continued] later and probably more slowly to the north, with diversity being lost along the way in these 'younger' populations.

"So although the Chinese population is very large, it has less variation than the smaller number of individuals living in South East Asia, because the Chinese expansion occurred very recently, following the development of rice agriculture - within only the last 10,000 years."

Dr Liu said that it was "good news" that populations throughout Asia are genetically similar.

This knowledge will aid future genetic studies in the continent and help in the design of medicines to treat diseases that Asian populations might be at a higher risk of.

And the discovery of this common genetic heritage, he added, was a "reassuring social message", that "robbed racism of much biological support".

This provides another important piece to the jigsaw puzzle of global human diversity
Peter Underhill, Stanford University

Shuhua Xu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was a member of the consortium, said that this was "the first comprehensive study of genetic diversity and history of Asian populations".

"This is the first study to ive a clear answer to the question on the origin of East Asian populations," Dr Xu added.

Vincent Macaulay, a statistical geneticist at the University of Glasgow in the UK told Science magazine that the team had produced "a fabulous data set".

The evidence for the southern coastal migration route, he said seemed "very strong".

The consortium involved 90 scientists from 11 countries including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the US.

Peter Underhill, a geneticist from Stanford University who was not involved in this study said that it represented an investment of a "tremendous amount of time, work and inter-institution collaboration".

He told BBC News: "This provides another important piece to the jigsaw puzzle of global human diversity."

Abkhazia prepares for presidential election

Six months after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered Abkhazia major military support, the BBC's Tom Esslemont reports from the breakaway territory as it prepares to go to the polls for its first presidential election since Russia recognised its independence from Georgia.

n the lush, sub-tropical grounds of the Sukhumi military school, 20 Abkhaz soldiers are warming up with a march and rousing song.

They do so with such gusto that it nearly drowns out the noise of their boots pounding on the concrete.

With 3,600 Russian soldiers currently stationed in Abkhazia, their need to defend the homeland has been made easier. The Russians are here to provide security for this tiny breakaway state.

"Russia and Abkhazia signed several agreements. Russia says it will offer us military training and consultancy. It is the guarantor of our security," says Maj Gen Gary Kupalba, the deputy defence minister of Abkhazia.

But Maj Gen Kupalba admits that Abkhazia relies on Russia's support.

"Yes, every state depends on others, more or less. But even if we do rely on Russia for some economic support Abkhazia is still independent."

Wine boom

Abkhazia's relationship with Russia goes further than just military aid. It now depends on Russia for 90% of foreign investment. It also has a small amount of trade with Turkey, even though that country has not recognised Abkhazia's independence, because of its ties with Georgia.

Valeri Avidzba, chieft wine maker
If our people have chosen to be with Russia then this is their choice
Valeri Avidzba
Chief wine maker, Abkhaz Wine and Beverages company

By Abkhaz standards any investment is an improvement on what it had before. Under an ongoing Georgian embargo - and a Russian blockade, which ended in 2008 - what remained of Abkhazia's crumbling export industries collapsed.

Its one-time productive tea plantations along with many of its vineyards became overgrown.

There are signs, though, with new money, that that is changing.

In the centre of Sukhumi, next to the rickety hulks of old Soviet-era factories, there are one or two signs of activity.

Thanks to Russian investment, the Abkhaz Wine and Beverages company has increased production sevenfold. It is now one of Abkhazia's few thriving export industries.

This year it produced seven million bottles of wine, 86% of which was exported to Russia.

The pungent smell of alcohol wafts through the air. Inside thousands of bottles are being passed along a conveyor belt.

Little choice

Valeri Avidzba is chief wine maker at Sukhumi's only wine factory. I ask him if he is worried that Russia is his only export market.
Wine bottles at Abkhazia Wine and Beverages factory
Most of the wine produced was exported to Russia

"Absolutely not," he says. "We can hardly meet the demands of the Russian market with our produce. I am not worried.

"On the contrary, it opens a huge market and helps us to grow. If our people have chosen to be with Russia then this is their choice."

The truth, though, is that there is little choice. None of the five candidates in this election - including the incumbent, Sergei Bagapsh, has properly doubted Russia's role in Abkhazia - seen in the West as nothing short of annexation.

Even on the streets of Sukhumi, where glamorous new restaurants have opened in the past year, there's still a strong sense of national pride. It is one reflected widely in the views of the 200,000 people who live in the territory.

"No, Russia is not annexing Abkhazia," says Angela, who is in her 20s.

"American military bases are found all around the world but that does not mean America is annexing those countries. So I think that Russian bases are there just for protection of borders."

Russian investment

Although others are aware of the scale of Russia's power, they are equally resilient.
Map of Abkhazia

"I think that our population is mature enough to know when it is being absorbed by another country," says one middle-aged woman.

"I think that people of Abkhazia have enough intelligence to stop Russia's influence if it threatens our national identity, for example."

The election campaigns have hardly questioned the role of Russia, instead tending to focus on the need to build economic prosperity.

Russia supplies 90% of foreign investment to Abkhazia.

"We have to create conditions of order in Abkhazia," says ex-KGB agent Raul Khadzimba, one of five presidential candidates.

"If people become more interested in economic development then more countries will recognise Abkhazia."

Russian control

"Russia controls Abkhazia - no one else," says one Gali-based school teacher.

"Russia keeps law and order here. The authorities do not. Russia has more control over this region than Sukhumi," she said, adding that she did not want to be named out of fear for reprisals from those loyal to the authorities.

Like most of those in this community of 40,000 she does not have an Abkhaz passport. She says she has not been granted one and, therefore, cannot vote.

By way of contrast with Sukhumi, Russian investment here is only evident in the military bases down the road from her school.

For Sukhumi's de-facto government, $500m of Russian aid appears a positive sign.

But in the eyes of the West this is a state which still doesn't exist in its own right. And the tensions between those who back Russia's role here - and those who do not - are very palpable.

T.rex 'little cousin' discovered

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Researchers have unveiled a new species of dinosaur from the late Triassic period - a small, early relative of T.rex and Velociraptor.

The 2m-long dinosaur, named Tawa hallae, was found in a "bone bed" on the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, US.

The discovery of this early theropod, reported in the journal Science, sheds light on early dinosaur evolution.

The team says the find also highlights how dinosaurs dispersed across what was then the "supercontinent" Pangaea.

Sterling Nesbitt, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin in the US, led a team from a number of US research institutes that studied the fossilised dinosaur bones.

The researchers named the 215 million-year-old dinosaur Tawa after the Native American Hopi word for the sun god.

Hollow bones

When we saw [the specimens], our jaws dropped
Sterling Nesbitt
University of Texas at Austin

Dr Nesbitt told BBC News that the bone bed was first excavated in 2004, but his team made a larger excavation in 2006, discovering articulated dinosaur skeletons that were between 90% and 95% complete.

These remarkable specimens enabled the researchers to confirm, without doubt, that Tawa was a new type of dinosaur.

"When we saw the [specimens], our jaws dropped," said Dr Nesbitt. "A lot of these theropods have really hollow bones, so when they get preserved, they get really crunched. But these were in almost perfect condition."

"Tawa has an interesting combination of different characteristics," he said. "There's no single huge difference, but in combination, the characteristics show that Tawa is brand new."

The bipedal dinosaur had relatively short forelimbs with sharp claws, and downward curving teeth.

"The teeth have little serrations - like a steak knife - so we're fairly confident that it was a carnivore," said Dr Nesbitt.

Travelling dinosaurs
New Mexico dig (A Turner)
The bone bed yielded remarkably complete skeletons

"Tawa is a little bit of a relic of the early evolution of dinosaurs," Dr Nesbitt told BBC News. "It's about 215 million years old and our oldest dinosaurs are about 230 million years old."

He explained that it filled a gap in the fossil record, demonstrating that dinosaurs split into their three major groups - theropods, sauropodomorphs and ornithischians - very early in their evolution.

"These three groups then persisted until at least 65 million years ago," said Dr Nesbitt.

The finding provides strong evidence for an existing hypothesis that dinosaurs originated in what is now South America, and very soon diverged into three major lines.

The theropods were bipedal dinosaurs, and were mainly carnivores. The line included the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex andvelociraptor.

Sauropodomorphs included ground-shaking giants like Apatasaurus, and ornithischians included a range of dinosaurs, such as Stegosaurus and Triceratops.

Dr Nesbitt and his team found other theropods in the same bone bed as Tawa. These simultaneous discoveries allowed them to reconstruct a picture of how the early dinosaurs dispersed throughout the world.
Ghost Ranch (S Nesbitt)
The location of the discovery shows how early dinosaurs dispersed

"The closest relatives of the other theropods [we found] were dinosaurs that are found in South America.

"So Tawa shows us that dinosaurs moved between South and North America," he said.

This was at the time of the supercontinent Pangaea, when "you could walk from the North to the South Pole," Dr Nesbitt told the Science podcast.

David Martill, a palaeontologist from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, who was not involved in this study, said this was a "very exciting discovery".

"This... rewrites the evolutionary tree for meat-eating dinosaurs," Dr Martill told BBC News.

"This beast shows how important it is to keep going in to the field looking for fossils.

"Just one lucky discovery can make such a difference to the way we perceive the evolution of dinosaurs, and any other creature for that matter."

US federal agents arrest 286 'illegal aliens'

US federal immigration agents have arrested 286 suspected illegal immigrants in California during the largest such operation ever.

More than 400 agents and local law enforcement officers were involved in the three-day search.

This was the biggest operation undertaken by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agency.

More than 100 of those caught in the sweep have already been deported, with many others facing proceedings.

Officials said more than 80% of those arrested between Tuesday and Thursday had previous convictions for serious or violent crimes including rape and robbery.


There were also 30 convicted sex offenders in the group.

Most of the people - 207 - arrested were Mexican nationals, the AFP reported.

The others were from countries including Guatemala, India, Bolivia, the UK, Cambodia and Thailand.

At least 17 people are due to face charges for illegally re-entering the country after being deported. If they are convicted, they face 20 years in jail.

Six of those arrested did not have a criminal record.

Ice director John Morton said: "These are not people we want walking our streets.

"Legal immigration is an important part of our country's history and the American dream exists for many immigrants

"However, that dream involves playing by the rules and those who break our criminal laws will be removed from the country."

During the past year, 136,000 people have been expelled from the US after the government stepped up efforts to root out criminals evading deportation.

The Ice estimates that 560,000 "fugitive aliens" remain at large in the US. Not all of these people have criminal records.

Cambodia king pardons Thai jailed for spying on Thaksin

Cambodia's king has pardoned a Thai man jailed for seven years for spying on Thai ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, a Cambodian government spokesman says.

Siwarak Chothipong, 31, was accused of passing Mr Thaksin's private flight details to Thai diplomats while the former PM was on a visit to Cambodia.

Relations between the two nations have been tense since Mr Thaksin was named an economic adviser to Cambodia.

He is wanted in Thailand to serve a prison sentence for corruption.

A government spokesman said Siwarak, an air traffic controller, would be released on Monday to his family and a delegation from Thailand's main opposition party, the AFP news agency reports.

Spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP that King Norodom Sihamoni had signed the royal pardon on Friday morning, following a request on Thursday by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.

'Security breach'

In court, Sirawak - an employee of the Cambodia Air Traffic Service - admitted he had relayed flight schedule information to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.

But he denied stealing any documents.

At his sentencing on Tuesday, the judge said he had breached security by leaking the details of Mr Thaksin's private flights while Mr Thaksin was a guest of the government.

But the seven-year sentence was actually the lightest possible for spying. The maximum would have been 15.

Cambodia's relationship with its larger neighbour has deteriorated since July last year, when it secured World Heritage status for an ancient temple in a disputed border area.

Last month's appointment of Mr Thaksin as a special economic adviser to the government in Phnom Penh made matters worse.

A mutual withdrawal of ambassadors followed, as Thailand accused Cambodia of political interference.

The Thai tycoon was toppled in a 2006 coup and is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption.

'US backed' Colombian attack on Ecuador camp

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Colombia

Ecuadorian soldiers ready for patrol (file pic March 2008)
Ecuador broke off diplomatic ties with Bogota after the attack

A Colombian attack on a rebel camp in Ecuador in March 2008 was carried out with support from US forces based in Ecuador, a new report alleges.

The report was prepared for the Ecuadorian government.

It says that US intelligence provided from a base within Ecuador was used in the execution of the attack.

The report comes at a bad time as Ecuador and Colombia were just beginning to re-establish diplomatic relations.

'Anti-drug missions'

The Colombian military operation in March 2008 saw a Colombian rebel base within Ecuador bombed.

At the time Washington had a military base in Manta, in the north of Ecuador, granted under an agreement that allowed the US to conduct anti-drug missions in the region.

The report said that the support provided by US military went beyond that agreement.

Now the US has a military pact with Colombia, which gives the Americans military access to bases here.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has frozen diplomatic links fearing that the US-Colombia military pact is the first step to an attack on his nation.

New grammar book seeks to 'unify' Spanish language

A new grammar book has been launched in Spain that aims to draw up joint rules for a language spoken by some 500 million people in more than 20 nations.

It took the Royal Language Academy of Spain (RAE) over 11 years to complete two volumes covering some 4,000 pages.

A third volume is expected to be published within a few months.

The guidelines replace the RAE's own 1931 grammar, which is said to be out of touch with the way Spanish is spoken in Latin American countries.

'Not speaking poorly'

"Here are all the voices, all the ways of speaking, coming together in a grand polyphony," RAE president Victor Garcia de la Concha said at Thursday's launch of the book in Madrid.

Rules are set by speakers. What the academy does is observe and document
Victor Garcia de la Concha, RAE president

"This book comes from the people, and it is to the people that it reaches out," he added.

The new guidelines do not set cut-and-dried dogma on what is correct and what is not.

Instead, they make recommendations as to what linguists generally accept to be proper Spanish.

"Rules are set by speakers. What the academy does is observe and document," the RAE president said.

Modern Spanish is full of differences in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary in Spanish-speaking countries around the world.

But until now grammar rules in nations outside Spain had been never acknowledged, said Mexican linguist Rocio Mandujano.

"We know now that we are not speaking poorly. It's only a different grammar," Ms Mandujano, from Mexico City's National Autonomous University, told the Associated Press news agency.

The new book in its jumbo version costs 120 euros (£109), but it also comes in simplified versions aimed at students and the general public.

Blackwater denies covert CIA help

Guards from American security company Blackwater participated in CIA raids on suspected militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, the New York Times says.

It reported that the raids revealed a greater level of involvement between the spy agency and Blackwater than previously acknowledged by either.

Blackwater said it was "never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or Special Operations".

It was employed to provide security at bases for CIA staff.

In response to the New York Times article, a spokesman for Blackwater - now called Xe Services - said: "Blackwater USA was never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or Special Operations personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.

"Any allegation to the contrary by any news organisation would be false."

'Snatch and grab'

The New York Times quoted various unnamed current and former Blackwater employees and agency staff describing so-called "snatch and grab" raids on suspected insurgents in Iraq from 2004 to 2006.

"Instead of simply providing security for CIA officers, they say, Blackwater personnel at times became partners in missions to capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, a practice that raises questions about the use of guns for hire on the battlefield," the newspaper reported.

The company began work with the CIA providing security round the perimeter of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, then moved to accompanying staff on missions.

The sources said they then became more deeply involved by planning the safest way to carry out operations to prevent any casualties among CIA staff.

Rendition flights

Eventually, Blackwater staff themselves were allegedly participating in the raids.

Former Blackwater employees also alleged that they provided security on some CIA rendition flights transporting detainees between prisons in different countries.

One former CIA office was quoted by the paper saying: "There was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency."

A CIA spokesman did not discuss Blackwater's contract, but did tell the paper that contractors are used to "enhance the skills of our own work force, just as American law permits".

Blackwater lost its contract to provide security for the State Department diplomats in Iraq after several of its guards were accused of killing up to 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007.

Four men are due to stand trial next year.

In August, the New York Times reported allegations that the CIA hired Blackwater for planning, training and surveillance as part of a secret programme to track and kill top al-Qaeda figures.