Of all the mammals, the naturalist George Shaw (no relation) wrote when he first described it in 1799, the platypus ‘seems the most extraordinary in its conformation’, exhibiting ‘the perfect resemblance of the beak of a duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped’. Last week, the first near-complete platypus genome was published.
The photograph on the front page of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn’s website last week was a collage by the photographer Nelly’s, produced as propaganda for the Metaxas regime and displayed in the Greek Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. There’s a ruined temple in the background, and in the foreground the ancient bronze statue known as the Artemision Zeus or Poseidon, next to an elderly modern Greek shepherd who looks remarkably like the classical god. The message of racial continuity between ancient and modern Greeks that the regime was keen to project, alongside its tourism campaign, could not have been more obvious. The Golden Dawn headline above the picture claims that ‘the 4000-year racial continuity of the Greeks has been proved’. The article is based on a study published in Nature, ‘Genetic origins of Minoans and Mycenaeans’, by Iosif Laziridis et al. It was reported in the international as well as the Greek press, and the emphasis in most headlines was on the genetic continuity between people in the Bronze Age Aegean and contemporary Greeks: ‘Minos, our grandfather’, for example.
Lambing is just starting. But the pictures on TV in the last few days have been of stillborns, and of newborns with bent legs, seized-up joints and crooked necks. Their mothers had been infected during pregnancy with the Schmallenberg virus, called after the German town where it was discovered last year. It belongs to a family – the bunyaviruses – that are mostly spread by insect bites.
Craig Venter has created life. Or at any rate half-life: a synthetic copy of the goat-pathogen Mycoplasma mycoides. Neither creating an artificial genome nor transplanting a genome from one bacterium to another are world firsts – Venter’s team have done both before – but doing both at once is a breakthrough. In Venter's words: ‘It’s the first self-replicating cell on the planet that’s parent is a computer.’ Hidden in its genetic folds are a web address, the names of the 46 scientists who worked on the project and a few choice quotations, all written in a secret code. There’s this from American Prometheus, a biography of Oppenheimer: