September 12, 2009 5:17 am

Science briefing: Oldest fibres discovered

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Oldest fibres discovered

Some groups of humans were clothing themselves with thread and cloth made from flax as long as 34,000 years ago, archaeologists believe. Their conclusion is based on fibres found during excavations in a cave in the Republic of Georgia and is reported in this week’s Science magazine.

The items made from the flax fibres had long since perished and the fibres themselves were too small to be identified by the naked eye. They were detected under the microscope in samples of clay retrieved from the cave. Some fibres were twisted, suggesting they had been used to make string or rope, while others had been dyed, the colours derived from plants local to the region.

According to Prof Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, spinning thread from flax was a critical invention for early humans: “They might have used this fibre to create parts of clothing, ropes or baskets “ he said. “We know that this is wild flax that grew in the vicinity of the cave and was exploited intensively or extensively by modern humans”. The discovery, nevertheless, was a surprise to the researchers. The oldest fibres previously known were discovered in the Czech Republic and were made some 28,000 years ago.

Bean plants speed evolution of bacteria

Bean plants have evolved a complex defence against marauding bacteria but in doing so may have provided the intruders with a way of becoming even more deadly, researchers think. Their research, published this week in Current Biology, could provide clues to new approaches to tackling pathogens which wreak havoc on bean and other food crops.

They concentrated their efforts on halo blight in french beans. This causes brown and yellow spots on the leaves leading to wilting and death. When the plants are invaded by the blight, they defend themselves by sending a “suicide” signal to the cells surrounding the bacteria. The dead cells release chemicals which are toxic to the microbes. The bacteria react, however, by cutting out small sections of their DNA responsible for their pathogenicity and throwing them out of the bacterial cell. There they can be absorbed by other bacteria and incorporated into their own DNA. This exchange of genetic material, which scientists call transformation, could speed up the evolution of more dangerous species. Prof John Mansfield of Imperial College London said: “For disease-causing bacteria, this means that mechanisms meant to disable them could actually contribute to their continued survival”.

New technology detects counterfeit drugs

Space scientists at Leicester university have turned detective to create a simple, fast and low cost method of detecting fake pharmaceuticals – or, indeed, any other fake product that has to be packaged to appear authentic. The black market in fake drugs is worth, it seems, about $40bn annually. Counterfeit drugs can kill but conventional methods of detection involve time-consuming laboratory tests.

The Leicester technique takes only seconds and makes use of a spectrograph – a machine for analysing the characteristics of reflected light – originally designed by the university’s space research centre for astronomical research. Essentially the Leicester technique is based on detecting the differences between light reflected from drug packaging at a number of randomly selected but predetermined places – counterfeiters could not know which areas of the packaging were to be investigated and so would not be able to create an apparently genuine replica.

Martin Gill, formerly Professor of Criminology at Leicester and now head of the university’s spin-out company PRCI, said the problem of fake drugs was worst in developing countries but counterfeit drugs were increasingly being found in the developed world.

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