Scientists working with samples of ancient feces have found previously unknown microbes that could help in the fight against chronic illnesses such as diabetes.
The microbes lived in our ancestors' digestive systems, forming part of the ancient human gut microbiome, which differs significantly to those found in people living in modern industrialized societies, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
The microbiome is a combination of fungi, bacteria and viruses that resides in your gut, primarily in the large intestine, helping digest food, fight disease and regulate the immune system.
Previous research has made a connection between preindustrial diets, greater diversity in the gut microbiome and lower rates of chronic illnesses, and the team set out to find reconstruct ancient human gut microbiomes to investigate this link, said researcher Aleksandar Kostic of the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
Research in the field has been held back by a lack of well-preserved DNA samples, but the team were able to perform a detailed genetic analysis of eight human feces samples found in Mexico and the southwestern United States, which date from 1,000-2,000 years ago.
The feces were "exquisitely preserved" thanks to the extreme aridity of the desert areas where they were found, Kostic said.
Researchers reconstructed a total of 498 microbial genomes and concluded that 181 were from ancient humans. Of those, 61 had not previously been found in other samples.
The team then compared them with present-day gut microbiomes from industrial and nonindustrial populations and found that the ancient ones are closer to today's non-industrial genomes.
A nonindustrial lifestyle is "characterized by consumption of unprocessed and self-produced foods, limited antibiotic use and a more active lifestyle," according to the study, which uses samples from Fiji, Madagascar, Peru, Tanzania and a Mazahua indigenous community in central Mexico.
Both the ancient and modern nonindustrial genomes contain more genes used to metabolize starches. This may be because people in these societies ate more complex carbohydrates compared with present-day industrial populations.
When microbes disappear or become extinct there are knock-on effects on our health, Kostic said.
"When they're gone we're missing a key piece of what makes us us," he said.
While research is at an early stage, Kostic hopes the microbes reconstructed by the team could eventually be used to reduce the rate of chronic conditions such as obesity or autoimmune diseases.
"We could reseed people with these human-associated microbes," he said.
Research in the field is advancing, said Kostic, with some fecal microbic transplants working toward approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The plan is to first see if the rediscovered microbes are in fact present in nonindustrial populations alive today, and then introduce gut biomes from nonindustrial people into animals to see how they are affected.
Next is pinpointing certain microbes that can be introduced to the human gut, and then using synthetic biology to reconstruct them, Kostic said.
At the same time, more archeological research is needed to determine if there is "a unified human microbiome that used to exist," he added.
In the meantime, Kostic said there's nothing we as individuals can do to bring back extinct microbes to our gut microbiomes.
However, we can boost the diversity of our gut microbiomes by eating fiber and complex carbohydrates, exercising and coming into contact with soil and animals, he added.
A Liechtenstein prince is accused of killing one of Europe's biggest bears, and more of this week's weirdest news
A Liechtenstein prince is accused of killing one of Europe's biggest bears
Prince Emanuel von und zu Liechtenstein — the 32-year-old nephew of the tiny principality's reigning Prince Hans-Adam II — is accused of shooting 17-year-old Arthur in March during a hunting expedition.
Prosecutors opened an investigation Thursday on two grounds: The bear's killing was not licensed and some of those involved may not have had weapons permits, according to CNN affiliate Antena 3.
Environmental organization Agent Green believes the prince was granted a four-day hunting permit from the Ministry of Environment to shoot a young female bear that had been attacking farms in Covasna county, Transylvania.
Instead it is alleged that the prince shot Arthur, who lives in a protected area.
Gabriel Paun, the president of Agent Green, said in a statement on the group's website that he didn't understand how the prince could confuse a young bear that had been stealing chickens from a village with the largest male bear that existed in the depths of the forest.
Romania has the biggest bear population in Europe outside Russia and is proud of its ursine heritage.
It outlawed trophy hunting in 2016. However, exceptions are made in extreme cases, such as when a bear has damaged property or threatened human life.
This story has received widespread media attention in the country.
Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu said media reports were incorrect and Arthur may not be the biggest brown bear in Europe. His response has been widely criticized.
The prince has said "he doesn't want to be involved in this sensitive matter," Antena 3 reports.
Romanians have been bombarding the website of the family's Riegersburg Castle with abuse. Travel review site TripAdvisor says it has temporarily suspended reviews of the castle.
Baby elephant rescued after falling into village well 30 feet deep
A baby elephant's misadventure turned into an elaborate rescue mission in a small Indian village after it fell into a well nearly 30 feet (9 meters) deep.
The calf was among a herd of elephants to enter Nimatand village from the nearby forest, in Giridih district in the eastern state of Jharkhand, late on May 2. Villagers shooed away the herd, but discovered the calf at the bottom of the well the following morning.
"Unfortunately, in the dark of the night, roughly around 9 p.m. local time, an elephant calf fell into the well," said local government official Shashikant Verma, who photographed the rescue.
"The (water) level wasn't high enough, but the calf got some buoyancy after falling and didn't get any injuries."
Villagers alerted the local forest department, which launched a rescue operation using three backhoes. Officials demolished an entire side of the well wall, eventually cutting a ramp into the earth to allow the calf to walk out on its own instead of being lifted vertically.
Eight hours later, the calf stumbled out of the well, covered in mud and dust.
Retired circus elephants get new home with plenty of room to roam
After years of entertaining fans under the big top -- and a few years in retirement -- in Central Florida, a herd of former circus elephants is settling into their new home at a wildlife refuge.
The 12 female Asian elephants arrived at White Oak Conservation, outside Jacksonville, Florida, recently and were released into a forest habitat with pine trees, ponds, wetlands and open grasslands, according to an announcement from the refuge.
The elephants range from 8- to 38-years-old and had previously belonged to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
They were all born in the United States and never lived in the wild, said Michelle Gadd, the chief of conservation for the Walter family, which owns White Oak Conservation and bought the animals from the circus.
"They are doing amazingly well. I am very surprised at how quickly they adapted to the environment, how readily they went out of the gates as soon as the gates were opened," Gadd told CNN.
She was afraid they would just hang out around their barn because they're used to being around people, but Gadd said the elephants will sleep out in the woods and venture on their own for a few days at a time.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey retired its elephants in 2016 after complaints about their treatment by animal rights groups and regulators. The circus gave its final performances in 2017 after more than a 100 years of existence.
White Oak also bought the farm where the female elephants had lived in Polk City, Florida, near Orlando, which Gadd said is much smaller and doesn't have as many trees.
Asian elephants are listed as endangered with an estimated population of between 40,000 and 50,000 in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund. They once roamed across much of Asia but now are restricted to 15% of their original range. They are threatened by poaching, habitat loss and conflict with humans.
This elephant group has been socialized together the past two years and includes two sets of full sisters and several half sisters, Gadd said. They are also the youngest elephants and were expected to be the most adaptable.
Staff put out hay, produce and special elephant supplements around the habitat, but Gadd said the elephants are starting to eat some of the food options that are growing there.
They also like to dig up saw palmettos, and Gadd said they use the branches to scratch their undercarriage.
It took them a few days to get used to pine trees, which would spring back and smack an unsuspecting elephant in the face when they tried to snap them with their foreheads, Gadd said.
"On the first day it had scared them and one female trumpeted and ran away," Gadd said. "But by day three that tree was well and truly flattened."
The heard will be joined by up to 20 additional elephants from the Polk City farm once additional construction is completed on the 2,500 acre area. The space will be able to be divided into multiple habitats for different herds or to separate some of the elephants. It will also have three barns with high tech veterinary equipment.
The second barn is expected to be built next year, but Gadd said they aren't rushing the project.
"The elephants always take precedence," Gadd said. "So our priority is letting them settle in and be undisturbed here and have the whole place to themselves for a while without construction crews, and without disturbance, and without additional elephants even, coming right away"
Gadd said eight of the elephants at Polk City are males, who need to be kept apart by "a whole different level of fortification" of fences, barns and transportation.
"Asian males are not known to be forming cohesive groups that tolerate one another," Gadd said. "So we're not going to be moving multiple males up here until we have multiple habitats and barn spaces ready for them."
The Polk City farm is also home to some of the oldest female elephants in the US and some of them might not respond well to change, or the 200 mile trip to White Oak, which requires specially customized trucks for them and their veterinarians and handlers.
"We will continue to care for elephants there throughout their lives if they cannot be brought up here," Gadd said.
White Oak Conservation, a 17,000 acre refuge certified by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, is home to many rare animals, including rhinos, cheetahs and antelopes.
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