Early Agriculture, New Tech

‘Genetics news’ caught my eye this week.

DNA from barley that’s been sitting in a cave for six millennia is helping scientists learn about agriculture’s origins.

A fits-in-your-hand Biomolecule Sequencer is at the International Space Station. If it works, folks up there won’t have to send samples down for analysis.

Finally, the world’s first farmers were an unexpectedly diverse lot.

  1. Ancient Barley
  2. Testing a DNA Sequencer in Space
  3. First Farmers, DNA, and Origins

Science? In a “religion” blog??

Dogs, Wolves, and Laban’s Sheep

We’ve known that traits are inherited for upwards of 10 millennia, and applied that knowledge.

Paleontologists and archaeologists figure that agriculture, planting genetically-modified plants and harvesting them, started independently in several spots; with folks in southwest Asia getting there first.

The last I checked, they’re still not sure about dogs. The genetic evidence is clear enough: a particular breed of wolf started hunting with humans somewhere between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, and eventually became today’s dachshunds, akitas, and mutts.

Quite a few researchers insist that a particular sort of wolf started being really good at getting along with humans without any help. Maybe, but I’ve learned to be skeptical about assertions regarding “primitive” people.

I figure that when an apex predator ‘just happens’ to start helping us, we helped the process along. Folks who lived during and just before the Last Glacial Maximum were as human as I am: and that’s another topic.

Getting back to agriculture, livestock, and all that, Jacob’s deal with Laban in Genesis 30:273:13 at least hints that Jacob knew how to make a bumper crop of dark sheep and spotted or speckled goats. Laban doesn’t come across as the brightest bulb in the box.

Attack of the Mutant Macaroni?

We don’t think of “domesticated” animals as “GMOs,” but today’s cattle are the result of more than ten millennia of genetic tweaking.

Genetic engineering tech like gel electrophoresis is new — but genetic manipulation isn’t. Unless you’re a hunter, the odds are pretty good that you’ve never eaten food that didn’t come from a genetically modified plant or animal.

We’re developing new technology: but people have been using ‘synthetic’ organisms like chickens, macaroni wheat, and dogs, for a very long time.

We’ve come a long way from the days of, for example, introducing a red junglefowl and grey junglefowl and hoping for the best: but gene-swapping between species has been going on for — most likely — billions of years. What’s new is that we’re doing the swapping.

I don’t see ethical issues with tweaking the genetics of livestock and plants. We’ve been doing that for — a very long time, not that ‘we’ve always done it’ is an excuse for bad behavior. More to the point, grafting olive trees is a metaphor in Romans 11:1924: and those verses apparently don’t condemn the practice.

Maybe someone’s assumed that Deuteronomy 22:9 forbids grafting; or condemns marrying someone with a lower Dun & Bradstreet number, or whatever.

I don’t: particularly since it’s about seeds, and comes between a rule about parapets and another about using draft animals.1

Thinking is Not a Sin

I’ve run into folks who act as if they think God gave us brains, and is offended when we use them: particularly if we start wondering how things work.

That doesn’t make sense, not to me.

I’m a Catholic, so I see the universe as a place of order and beauty: being created and upheld by God, in a “state of journeying” toward an ultimate perfection. (Genesis 1:131; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3132, 302, 341)

We’re rational creatures, created in the image of God, “little less than a god;” left in charge of this world, with the power and frightening responsibilities that come with our nature. (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Psalms 8:6; Catechism, 355373, 2402, 24152418, 2456)

Forgetting that “little less than a god” isn’t “God” gets us in trouble, and that’s yet another topic.

Studying this world is okay. Using reason, we can see God’s work in the universe. (Catechism, 3536, 282289, 1704, 22922295)

Thinking is not a sin. Using the brains God gave us is part of being human. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 35, 159, 17301738)

1. Ancient Barley

(From Paul Shaw, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Barley fields of 6,000 years ago may have looked very similar to those of today”
(BBC News))

Ancient barley DNA gives insight into crop development
(July 18, 2016)

An international group of scientists have analysed the DNA of 6,000 year old barley finding that it is remarkably similar to modern day varieties.

“They say it could also hold the key to introducing successful genetic variation.

“Due to the speed at which plants decompose, finding intact ancient plant DNA is extremely rare.

“The preserved ancient barley was excavated near the Dead Sea, the journal Nature Genetics reports….”

Folks harvested that grain about the time Uruk, or Erech, depending on what you’re reading, was starting to grow into an important city.

About two millennia later, Utu-hengal, governor of Uruk, led Sumerian cities against Tirigan, the last Gutian ruler in Sumer.

Then Ur-Nammu took over and started the Third Dynasty of Ur. He’s mostly famous for the Code of Ur-Nammu, and that’s yet again another topic.

(From Ningyou, based on “Atlas of the Bible Lands,” C S Hammond & Co (1959); via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Over the next two millennia, the Old, Middle, and Neo-Assyrian Empires were a big deal until the Achaemenid Empire took over; then Alexander the Great rolled over that part of the world.

Meanwhile, Abraham and Sara’s descendants were planting crops, building cities, getting conquered, and rebuilding. Some of that shows up in 1 and 2 Kings. Alexander’s generals inherited pieces of his empire, including Yehud Medinata/Province of Judea.

The territory changed hands a few more times before Pompey took over. That was a little before the Roman Republic’s leadership went sour.

Found in Masada’s Yoram Cave

Folks in Iudaea Province revolted a few decades after our Lord stopped being dead, and that’s still another topic.

It was not a good time to be in Jerusalem.

Rebel forces held out in an unconquerable fortification on Masada until Roman forces re-engineered the terrain and conquered it.

Fighting didn’t reach Yoram Cave, in a southeastern cliff of the Masada Horst, so the grain stayed there.

Another two millennia of assorted good times and bad passed before researchers found it.

They selected ten grains and spikelets and split them, one set of halves getting analyzed to work out how old they were; the other half getting their DNA extracted and studied.

Genetic Time Capsules

Looks like folks were “tampering with things man was not supposed to know” long before Uruk became a city.

“…The DNA analysis showed that these 6,000 year old seeds were remarkably similar to modern day crops in the same region. Meaning that at the time they were harvested barley was already an advanced crop that had been heavily domesticated.

” ‘These 6,000 year-old grains are time capsules, you have a genetic state that was frozen 6,000 years ago. This tells us barley 6,000 years ago was already a very advanced crop and clearly different from the wild barley,’ Dr Nils Stein of the IPK Plant Genetics institute in Germany told BBC News.

“He added: ‘Already 6,000 years ago the barley fields may have looked very similar to barley that is grown today.’…

“…As well as providing a detailed insight into the archaeology and history of this ancient crop, the seeds could provide the key to ensuring successful reintroduction of genetic variation in modern day species….”
(BBC News)

That doesn’t bother me, partly because I remember when quite a few folks thought science and technology would solve all our problems; or at least make “the future” a magical place.

Now that we’re living in “the future,” it’s easier to find folks who fear that science and technology will destroy us all; after killing all the cute animals. I think that’s as silly as the old ‘science will solve all problems’ attitude.

Science and technology aren’t transgressions: they’re tools. Ethics apply, but studying this universe and using that knowledge to make new tech is part of being human. It’s part of our job. (Catechism, 22922296, 24022405, 2456)


Tweaking a wild grass like barley let folks spend time developing things like writing, bronze tools, and barley beer: which I think is okay. (July 10, 2016)

Over the last several millennia, we got really good at fine-tuning domestic plants and animals.

The good news is that our harvests brought in high-quality barley, wheat, and potatoes.

The bad news is that by now quite a few domesticated critters are monocultures: pretty close to clones of each other. We got things like the Great Famine (Ireland) when a ‘clone crop’ caught a disease and died.

It’s not entirely bad news, though. We’re learning a great deal about how genetics works: including potato blight‘s coding. That’s Phytophthora infestans, for folks who like scientific/Latin names for microcritters.

The name for that sort of name is Binomial nomenclature, which goes back to Carl Linnaeus.2

There’s a great deal left to learn, too, but I’m reasonably confident that we’ll develop ways to re-diversify barley, potatoes, and goats.

More than you may want or need to know about:

2. Testing a DNA Sequencer in Space

(From NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

DNA sequencer sent to space station
BBC News (July 18, 2016)

Nasa has sent a DNA sequencer to the International Space Station in an effort to help astronauts monitor their own health.

“A SpaceX cargo ship sent the sequencer into orbit on Monday, along with other items for the crew.

“It was developed by the UK-based company Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

“The device is designed to show whether DNA sequencing is possible in microgravity….”

NASA calls the experiment “Biomolecule Sequencer:”

“…The objectives of Biomolecule Sequencer are to (1) provide proof-of-concept for the functionality and (2) evaluate crew operability of a DNA sequencer in the space environment. The immediate capabilities from the sequencer are, but are not limited to, in-flight microbial identification for crew and vehicle health assessments….”

The rest of NASA’s page is informative, but a trifle on the dry side.

The facts are straightforward enough. If this gadget works as expected, folks on the ISS won’t have to send samples down and wait for lab results. Sounds like a good idea to me.

That didn’t stop me from wondering if someone’s glanced at the headlines after watching Leviathan, Gattaca, and Babylon A.D. — and started writing a screenplay about genetically-engineered game show hosts, NASA, and international corporations.

3. First Farmers, DNA, and Origins

(From Thinkstock, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The new study analysed the genomes of early farmers from Iran’s Zagros mountains”
(BBC News))

First farmers had diverse origins, DNA shows
(July 15, 2016)

Analysis of DNA from some of the world’s first farmers shows that they had surprisingly diverse origins.

“Researchers compared the genomes of ancient Neolithic skeletons from across the Near East, where farming began.

“The results shed light on a debate over whether farming spread out from a single source in the region, or whether multiple farmer groups spread their technology across Eurasia.

“The findings by an international team appear in the journal Science….”

These farmers lived in part of the Zagros Mountains that’s now in Iran. The earliest of them lived around the year 8000 BC, the others from roughly 7450 to 7100 BC.

Their genes were more than a bit like folks in today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran: and Sardinia, an island off Italy.

(From Broushaki1 et al., via Science, used w/o permission.)
(Map showing how descendants of these farmers settled in other parts of the world.)

I’m interested, but not particularly surprised, that descendants of these farmers traveled around over the next 10 millennia. Folks move for many reasons: but sooner or later, we’ll head for the horizon and settle somewhere else.

My ancestors didn’t arrive in central North America until about a century back, after a long layover in northwestern Europe, and that’s — you guessed it — another topic.

Or maybe not so much.

My family tree has roots in southern Norway — we’re the short, dark-haired Norwegians — and the northwest part of the British Isles. That overlaps areas where folks from the Zagros Mountains settled, which gives me a personal interest in their story.


  • Early Neolithic genomes from the eastern Fertile Crescent
    Farnaz Broushaki1, Mark G Thomas, Vivian Link, Saioa López, Lucy van Dorp, Karola Kirsanow1, Zuzana Hofmanová, Yoan Diekmann, Lara M. Cassidy, David Díez-del-Molino, Athanasios Kousathanas, Christian Sell, Harry K. Robson, Rui Martiniano, Jens Blöcher1, Amelie Scheu1, Susanne Kreutzer, Ruth Bollongino, Dean Bobo, Hossein Davudi, Olivia Munoz, Mathias Currat, Kamyar Abdi,, Fereidoun Biglari, Oliver E. Craig, Daniel G Bradley, Stephen Shennan, Krishna R Veeramah, Marjan Mashkour, Daniel Wegmann, Garrett Hellenthal, Joachim Burger; Science (July 14, 2016)

Last week’s ‘science’ post:

1 I take Sacred Scripture seriously. (Catechism, 101-133)

I also realize that cultures have changed in the 26 centuries since Deuteronomy was written.

” ‘When you build a new house, put a parapet around the roof; otherwise, if someone falls off, you will bring bloodguilt upon your house.

1 ‘You shall not sow your vineyard with two different kinds of seed; if you do, its produce shall become forfeit, both the crop you have sown and the yield of the vineyard.

“You shall not plow with an ox and an ass harnessed together.”
(Deuteronomy 22:810)

2 Carl Linnaeus published “Systema Naturae” in 1735.

Those were exciting times.

In 1778 Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon published his “Les époques de la nature,” saying that Earth was about 75,000 years old. He’d measured how fast iron cooled in his laboratory. The Sorbonne condemned Leclerc’s ideas, and he issued a retraction.

Physicist William Thomson, using similar methods in 1862, calculated an age of Earth at somewhere between 20,000,000 and 400,000,000 years. That was pretty good work, considering that scientists didn’t know about heat from radioactive decay, and effects of convection currents in Earth’s mantle yet.

This sort of thing fascinates me. Your experience may vary.

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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6 Responses to Early Agriculture, New Tech

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    A little confused about this sentence: “Working directly with a critter’s genes, instead of introducing a red junglefowl and grey junglefowl and hoping for the best: but gene-swapping between species has been going on for — most likely — billions of years.”

    This footnote number is a link, but the previous one isn’t: “2 Carl Linnaeus published”

    Strange sort of stutter: “He’d measured measuring how fast iron”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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