Life in a test tube

October 7, 2007

News reports say Craig Venter will announce the creation of the first artificial life form sometime this week. 

Interesting to me that the post that alerted me to the issue is in the Religion Blog part of the Dallas Morning News blog stable. But then, the religion section was just downgraded. The paper killed its award-winning science section completely.

But it does seem the religious people are more worried about the impact of this sort of science on believers and reasons to believe, than scientists are interested at all.

DMN religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss points to an article in the Guardian:

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.

Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before”.

Expect more comment from religion pages of newspapers than other sections. Evolution and other science deniers will be greatly stressed by such an announcement — if the Guardian story is accurate, as early as this next week.

See also this longer piece in the New York Times about the methods used — from last month’s editions.

Prehistory and art: Lesson plan material

October 7, 2007

Teachers looking for good interactive graphics on human migration in prehistoric times should take a look at the website of Australia’s Bradshaw Foundation. The map requires an Adobe Flash player, and I cannot embed it here — but go take a look, here. “The Journey of Man” seems tailor made for classroom use, if you have a live internet connection and a projector.

Ancient art is the chief focus of the foundation.

Ancient paintings, the Bradshaw paintings, at the Bradshaw Foundation Examples of some of the most famous cave and rock paintings populate the site, along with many lesser known creations — the eponymous paintings, the Bradshaw group, generally disappear from U.S. versions of world history texts. The Bradshaw Foundation website explains:

The Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated, as you will see from the 32 pictures in the Paintings Section, yet they are not recent creations but originate from an unknown past period which some suggest could have been 50,000 years ago. This art form was first recorded by Joseph Bradshaw in 1891, when he was lost on an Kimberley expedition in the north west of Australia. Dr. Andreas Lommel stated on his expedition to the Kimberleys in 1955 that the rock art he referred to as the Bradshaw Paintings may well predate the present Australian Aborigines.

This ancient art carries a story that should intrigue even junior high school students, and it offers examples of archaeological techniques that are critical to determining the ages of undated art in the wild:

According to legend, they were made by birds. It was said that these birds pecked the rocks until their beaks bled, and then created these fine paintings by using a tail feather and their own blood. This art is of such antiquity that no pigment remains on the rock surface, it is impossible to use carbon dating technology. The composition of the original paints cant be determined, and whatever pigments were used have been locked into the rock itself as shades of Mulberry red, and have become impervious to the elements.

Fortuitously, in 1996 Grahame Walsh discovered a Bradshaw Painting partly covered by a fossilised Mud Wasp nest, which scientists have removed and analysed using a new technique of dating, determining it to be 17,000 + years old.

Texas history and geography teachers should note the Bradshaw Foundation’s work on prehistorica art in the Pecos River Valley: “Pecos Experience: Art and archeaology in the lower Pecos.” There is much more here than is found in most Texas history texts — material useful for student projects or good lesson plans.

Painting from Panther Cave, lower Pecos, Texas - Bradshaw Foundation

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