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Coloured transmission electron micrograph of two Streptococcus sanguinis bacteria

Genomic analysis identified starch-loving Streptococcus sanguinis bacteria (artificially coloured) in the mouths of modern humans and Neanderthals, but not in chimpanzees’ mouths. Credit: National Infection Service/Science Photo Library

Microbiome

Microbes in Neanderthals’ mouths reveal their carb-laden diet

Gunk on ancient teeth yields bacterial DNA, allowing scientists to trace the oral microbiome’s evolution.

Neanderthals’ mouths teemed with bacteria that break down starchy food, suggesting that a carbohydrate-rich diet has ancient roots in the human family tree.

An animal’s diet, genetics and habits can all shape the diverse set of microscopic organisms in its mouth. To probe the history of humans’ oral microbiome, James Fellows Yates at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and his colleagues sequenced the genomes of microbes scraped from the teeth of primates and hominids, lineages of the tree of the life separated by 40 million years. This period encompasses humans’ shift to eating farmed plants, and other changes that could have altered microbial diversity.

The team found the same ten types of bacterium in modern humans, Neanderthals, monkeys and apes, pointing to the animals’ common origin. But Neanderthals and modern humans — both members of the genus Homo — harboured bacteria that the others did not, including a group of Streptococcus bacteria, which often help to digest starches.

The genes that enable these Streptococcus bacteria to convert starches into energy-rich sugars were much more abundant in modern humans than in Neanderthals, hinting that reliance on starches grew during the course of human evolution.

More Research Highlights...

Camera-trap image of Dendrohyrax interfluvialis

Some tree hyraxes scream in the night, but the newly identified Dendrohyrax interfluvialis (above, camera-trap image) utters a complex series of squawks, rattles and barks. Credit: J. F. Oates et al./Zool. J. Linn. Soc.

Zoology

A bark in the dark reveals a hidden hyrax

Its neighbours scream, but a new species of tree hyrax — a cousin of the elephant — unleashes a rattling bark.
Plastic and other debris floats underwater in blue water

Plastic detritus from snacks and meals floats in the Red Sea. Marine sampling shows that food waste accounts for nearly 90% of plastic pollution at some locales. Credit: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media/Getty

Ocean sciences

Humanity’s fast-food habit is filling the ocean with plastic

Food bags, drink bottles and similar items account for the biggest share of plastic waste near the shore.
Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles.

An artist’s impression of ‘entangled’ particles, which share properties even at a distance. Entangled photons can be used to help secure a multi-party video meeting. Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

Quantum information

Quantum keys dial up tamper-proof conference calls

A new experiment efficiently distributes the highly secure keys to four parties instead of the typical two.
Farmers harvest pineapples in a field.

Workers harvest pineapples in Lingao County, China. Less than one-third of the money spent on food eaten at home reaches farmers. Credit: Yuan Chen/VCG/Getty

Economics

Poor harvest: farmers earn a pitiful fraction of the money spent on food

The bulk of consumer food spending around the world ends up in the coffers of distributors, processors and other parties beyond the farm gate.
A woman wearing a protective face mask splashes her hands in a jet of water

A pedestrian seeks relief from searing temperatures in Spain, where a high proportion of heat-related deaths have been linked to climate change. Credit: SALAS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Climate change

More than one-third of heat deaths blamed on climate change

Warming resulting from human activities accounts for a high percentage of heat-related deaths, especially in southern Asia and South America.
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