Studying Malaria

Pardis Sabeti: So it’s difficult to say what drives people’s passions or why we do one thing rather than another but I know that I’ve always sort of- always had an interest in medicine and in the natural world actually. I love animals. I love plants. I always have so I’ve gravitated towards them.

So I think probably as a child my two big things that you would say are distinctive of me is that I loved nature and I just loved kind of going outside and playing with animals and seeing plants and looking at the world around me, and I’ve loved math and math puzzles. So to me the work that I’m doing it’s happened to be in sort of its windy path that it’s taken me to exactly where I was probably at the age 6, which is wandering around looking at the world and trying to understand it mathematically.


Question: Is there any spirituality in what you do?


Pardis Sabeti: Yeah. So absolutely. I think that everyone has different ways that they’re trying to understand the world and a lot of people do it through religion and I respect that tremendously.

But for me actually I do it through the study of science and through looking at the people around me and the world around me.

The world is so fascinating both culturally and scientifically and I have really enjoyed that so I think that my journey, if we all have journeys, is through that, through understanding the world.

I think that evolution; like I said, I absolutely respect religion and people’s religious beliefs and there’s a lot of beauty to it, but I think that evolution also just has a lot of beauty to it by understanding how-- I don’t think that it’s at all denigrating to think that we are related to the other animals on earth. I think it’s just a beautiful thing and it’s an extension. In many ways warms my heart to see the connectivity between all of these different organisms and how they’ve grown together.


Question: Have you worked with people that have had malaria?


Pardis Sabeti: Yeah. So I’ve worked with-- I don’t do clinical work right now so that was a choice. It was-- The difficult choices we have to make in our lives is that I couldn’t do- teach and do research and do medicine well and I wanted to be able to do whatever I do well, and I didn’t think that it would be good for my patients if I was focusing on research and teaching and also seeing them from time to time. I wanted to focus and some people can do it well. They said I had too many interests and so while I love medicine I wasn’t going to ever be able to do clinical work but we do work with a lot of sites in Senegal and Nigeria and actually throughout Africa with a lot of different consortiums that we work with. So I’ve seen and worked with a lot of patients with different- with malaria and Lassa fever but I leave it to the doctors to do the good work.


Question: What’s the urgency in the work you do?


Pardis Sabeti: It’s kind of-- It’s a wonderful thing to be in a field that you know that- has such a sense of urgency, that malaria every day that you’re not working, every day that you don’t have a cure, those are lives that could be saved, and the same with Lassa fever.

So you benefit from feeling that intensity but fundamentally science takes time and to do it well. You don’t want to actually rush in so quickly that you don’t-- in a way is actually a very difficult thing and in some ways we have to be very patient in the way that we try to interact with it because we tried in the ‘60s- and ‘50s and ‘60s to eradicate it and it just came right back.

So in a lot of ways while we don’t want to be too patient that we’re not moving as quickly as we can you want to be very thoughtful in the way that you approach it, and so I both feel the sense of urgency and the need to be very cautious and careful.


Recorded on: June 29, 2008


For Pardis, the work she is doing has taken her back to what she was doing at age 6 - though it's more urgent.

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.

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