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May 2002

Prehistoric Human Footpaths Lure Archaeologists Back To Costa Rica
Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2002
Source: University Of Colorado At Boulder (

Ancient, buried footpaths visible using satellite instruments but invisible on the ground to the human eye will be studied in Costa Rica this summer after a 20-year hiatus by University of Colorado at Boulder and NASA archaeologists.

Images of the footpaths, some dating to 2,500 years ago, were first made in 1984 by a NASA aircraft equipped with a suite of instruments that can "see" in the electromagnetic spectrum invisible to humans, said CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets. Sheets and NASA archaeologist Tom Sever, a CU-Boulder graduate, used the data to pinpoint the footpaths in the Arenal region of central Costa Rica.

The researchers have been able to date the ancient paths using stratigraphy gleaned from the Arenal volcano, which has erupted 10 times in the last 4,000 years. Excavations of the footpaths, covered by as much as six feet of volcanic ash, sediment and vegetation, turned up floors of ancient houses, as well as stone tools and pottery.

Last year, a commercial satellite known as IKONOS, designed and built by Space Imaging of Denver, took images of the footpaths in the visual and infrared portions of the light spectrum. Because the buried footpaths seem to have more vegetation growing over them and a thicker matrix of plant roots beneath the soil, the infrared instrument on IKONOS picked up a unique spectroscopic "signature" that caused the paths to show up as thin red lines in the images.

"Remote sensing has been used to detect ancient Roman roads, large prehistoric roads around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Incan roads," said Sheets. "But we had no idea it would be possible to image these little erosional footpaths. It is an exciting find with potential archaeological applications to other areas of the world."

The two-year project is funded by a $103,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. NASA also purchased $20,000 worth of IKONOS images for the team.

Previous work by Sheets' team indicates footpaths link an ancient cemetery to construction stone quarries and a spring. The team will use Global Positioning System equipment this season to pinpoint various archaeological anomalies.

"One of our primary goals is to better understand the activities at the cemetery," said Sheets, who noted the ancient dead were placed in coffins made of stone hauled in from several miles away. In addition, funerary ceramics and cooking and food-serving vessels, as well as many whole and fractured cooking stones, indicate the people camped, cooked and feasted at the cemetery for extended periods.

"There seems to have been a supernatural component to their behavior," he said. "The people likely saw the graveyard as an access to the spirits of their ancestors."

A primary question the team hopes to answer is whether the cemetery was used by one or more villages, he said. If it was used by more than one village, then the feasting could have integrated different village societies by facilitating organized labor, inter-village marriages, surplus food production, new alliances and trade.

A newly identified footpath discovered with IKONOS leads perpendicular to the primary graveyard path and may indicate more than one village was involved in the feasting rituals, said Sheets. The team will spend two months in the Arenal region, following the footpaths that conceivably could lead to villages.

CU-Boulder doctoral students Derek Hamilton and Devon White and master's candidate Errin Weller will accompany Sheets to the site. In addition, CU undergraduate Michelle Butler will be part of the excavation team as a result of funding through the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

Sever will be accompanied by NASA technician Dan Irwin. The team also will hire several local residents and involve Costa Rican archaeologists to assist in the project. The team will be in Costa Rica from about June 1 to Aug. 1.

The Costa Rican people established village life in the Arenal region about 4,000 years ago and maintained it up to the Spanish Conquest at about 1500, outlasting both the nearby Aztecs and Mayans "with a tremendous continuity of culture," said Sheets. They apparently avoided the disastrous eruptions of the Arenal Volcano, returning after the events to farm corn and beans in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil.

"They inhabited a very large region and seemed to avoid conflict, conquest and serious disease," Sheets said. "They appear to have led comfortable lives, relying on an abundance of natural resources and a stable culture."

Note: The original news release can be found at

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Ancient Flower Fossil Points To Underwater Origins
Posted: Monday, May 6, 2002
Source: National Science Foundation (

The world's oldest known flower never bloomed, but it has opened scientific questions into whether all of modern flowering plants share underwater origins.

The newly discovered remains of the oldest, most complete flowering plant show it lived at least 125 million years ago, most likely underwater, said University of Florida (UF) paleobotanist David Dilcher. The discovery is reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science and was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"This Lower Cretaceous fossil challenges many assumptions about the origins of flowering plants," said Quentin Wheeler, director of NSF’s division of environmental biology, which funded the research. "Such fossil discoveries combine with advances in the analysis of molecular and morphological evidence from living plants to provide a classification that is the conceptual framework for evolutionary biology."

Although it had no petals, there is no question it was a flowering plant because of the presence of seeds enclosed in an immature fruit, a trait separating flowering plants from all other seed plants, he said.

The discovery is important because it provides clues about how these now-extinct ancestors evolved into modern living flowering plants, said Dilcher.

"Flowering plants are the dominant vegetation in the world today," he said. "They're the basic food crop and fiber source for the world's population.

It's useful for us to understand the relationships among flowering plants, especially in this day of molecular genetic manipulations.

"When you sit down in the morning and have a bowl of Wheaties or cornflakes, that's a flowering plant," he said. "When you eat a beef steak, that's from an animal that ate flowering plants. So, when we study this fossil, we're looking at the ancestry of what sustains us in the world today."

The plant was about 20 inches high with thin stems stretching up in the water to the surface with its pollen and seed organs extending above the water, Dilcher said.

The seeds probably dispersed in the water and floated up along the shore and germinated in shallow water, he said.

"The mysteries of the origin and radiation of the flowering plants remain among the greatest dilemmas facing paleontology and evolutionary biology," said William Crepet, plant biologist at Cornell University. "This fossil represents the first evidence of an angiosperm that is basal to all other angiosperms, yet that does not fit within any modern taxonomic group of angiosperms this makes it one of, if not the most important fossil flowering plant ever reported."

The fossil was found in China by local farmers who gave it to one of the paper's coauthors. It is much more complete than one found at a nearby site four years ago, which Dilcher also studied, and suggests origins in water that refreshed the dinosaurs, said Dilcher.

"After having only a fragment and trying to imagine what the whole plant was like, it was a great surprise to find leaves typical of a plant that lived underwater with characteristics very unique to flowering plants at such an early age in their history," he said.

Editor's Note: The original news release can be found at

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Disorder Forces DNA Molecules Out Of Tight Spaces
Posted: Friday, May 3, 2002
Source: Cornell University (

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A new understanding of how large biological molecules behave in tiny spaces could lead to a method for separating DNA strands by length. It also could throw light on the way molecules move in living cells. Using a forest of nanofabricated pillars so small that DNA molecules can only slip through lengthwise, Cornell University researchers have demonstrated the existence of an entropic recoil force that causes the molecules to move from a tight space into a more open one.
The findings, published in Physical Review Letters (March 25, 2002), are by Stephen Turner, a postdoctoral research assistant at Cornell; graduate student Mario Cabodi; and Harold Craighead, the Charles W. Lake Jr. Professor of Engineering, professor of applied and engineering physics and interim dean of the Cornell College of Engineering.

This work follows previous advances by Turner, Craighead and others in the same field that shed new light on how DNA molecules are inserted into confined spaces. Now they are the first to demonstrate how DNA strands are ejected from confined spaces.

In water, strands of DNA or other long-chain molecules tend to coil into a roughly spherical shape. Previously the researchers found that when a DNA molecule in a spherical configuration comes up against an opening too small for the sphere to pass through, some small part of the chain is first pulled into the opening, causing the rest to uncoil and follow.

In these experiments the DNA molecules are pulled into the dense array of pillars by an electric field. If the field is removed before a molecule is all the way in, it will recoil back into the open space and resume its spherical shape. What is the force that causes this behavior? Physicists have theorized that it is an entropic force related to the confinement of the molecule in a narrow tube. Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a system, and an entropic force would tend to move things toward the most disorderly arrangement. In this case, Turner explains, that would be the one in which the molecule can assume many different configurations -- that is, free in water -- rather than the one in which it is confined in a narrow tube.

In the new experiment, the researchers used electron beam lithography equipment at the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility to build a device consisting of a flat open space next to a forest of tiny pillars. Each pillar is about 35 nanometers (nm) in diameter, with the pillars spaced 125nm apart. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or three times the diameter of a silicon atom.) The device is made of silicon nitride, which is transparent to visible light. The DNA molecules themselves are too small to be seen by visible light, but they are stained in a way to make them fluorescent so that the light they give off can be observed.

An electric field was applied to the ends of the experimental device, pulling the DNA molecules toward the pillared region. The field was applied in short pulses so that the molecules were first driven into the pillared region and than allowed to recoil. Molecules that had moved entirely into the pillared region did not recoil.

Analysis of videomicrographs showed that the recoil was not elastic, the researchers say. "Elastic recoil is initially rapid followed by a gradual slowing," they write in their paper. "Here, the recoil is initially slow and gradually increases in speed."

The recoil happens, Turner explains, because atoms within the chain molecules are always in motion, always colliding with water molecules and the surrounding pillars. Inside the pillared space, he says, these collisions happen in all directions, tending to cancel each other out. But at the interface between the pillars and the open space, the links in the chain just outside the pillared space can only collide with the pillars in one direction, and the reaction to these collisions exerts a force that tends to pull the chain back out.

"What we've seen here is a new way in which disorder can force something to move," Turner says.

From the geometry of the system and estimates of the drag exerted on the molecules by water, the researchers estimate the minimum entropic force at 5.7 femtoNewtons. (A femtoNewton is one-quadrillionth of the force it takes to support the weight of a medium-sized apple.) These conclusions should apply to all long-chain molecules, or polymers, the researchers say. And they suggest that entropic forces might play a role in the movement of such molecules in living cells. Since molecules that have moved all the way into confinement do not recoil, they say, this method could be used to separate molecules by length.

The paper in Physical Review Letters is titled "Confinement-Induced Entropic Recoil of Single DNA Molecules in a Nanofluidic Structure."

Editor's Note: The original news release can be found at

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