MySci Round-Up October 11: Columbus Needed Penicillin


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Today is Columbus Day, the holiday that commemorates the Italian-born explorer’s discovery—from a western European perspective, that is—of the Americas in 1492. While Columbus had hoped to discover a new trading route to Asia, a recent study suggests that instead of silk and spices, he instead may have brought a particularly insidious pathogen back to Europe. As this 2008 Reuters article reports, a study by Emory University evolutionary biologist Kristin Harper, published in the journal Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases, found evidence to support the theory that Columbus brought back to Europe the bacterium Treponema pallidum, which causes the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis.

According to the Reuters article, Harper’s genetic analysis of the syphilis family tree revealed that its closest relative was a South American cousin that causes yaws, an infection of a subspecies of the same bacterium. “Syphilis or a progenitor came from the New World to the Old World, and this happened pretty recently in human history,” Harper said.

Adding to the case that Columbus brought back the disease, the first documented syphilis epidemic in Europe occurred in Naples in 1495, less than two years after the explorer returned to Europe from the second of his four visits to the Western Hemisphere. “When you put together our genetic data with that epidemic in Naples in 1495, that is pretty strong support for the Columbian hypothesis,” Harper said.

Harper, who examined 26 different strains of bacteria from the Treponema genus, found that syphilis itself is fairly recent in origin. She told Reuters that she suspected that a non-venereal subspecies of yaws mutated into a pathogen that could survive the cooler European climate.

And with that, here are the science and technology stories of the day.

Cat study points to brain reorganization. We could use a little of that. Or else a second cup of coffee.


New carnivore discovered in Madagascar. Durrell’s vontsira (Salanoia durrelli) is only the size of a house cat, but it has some nasty looking teeth.

Desire to exercise and metabolic capacity could be linked. So there may be a genetic reason for why you hate to work out.

“Insane” kinetic sculpture pushes limits of math, art, man. It includes 455 stainless steel cables connected to 15,000 reflectors. Only in Texas.

New, improved HTML raises privacy concerns. It gives web sites unprecedented access to users’ hard drives and allows more tracking of what they do in the Internet, also.

Virgin Galactic completes first solo flight of space vehicle. SpaceShipTwo, also known as the VSS Enterprise, successfully detached from its mothership at 45,000 feet and landed safely in the Mojave desert.