Sex and the single Sykes

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Nigel Hawkes looks at some of the latest discoveries reported in the news.

Despite appearances, nobody alive today is descended from Neanderthal Man. But, remarkably, if your name is Sykes you have a very good chance indeed of descending directly from the aboriginal Sykes, a Yorkshireman who lived 700 years ago.

These two findings emphasise the extraordinary power of DNA to reveal human history. The first, reported by Dr William Goodwin of Glasgow University and colleagues, comes from a study of a Neanderthal child found in a cave in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia.

The bones had been so well preserved since the child died 29,000 years ago that it was possible to compare DNA stretches with those of modern humans and conclude there was no direct line of descent. Neanderthals and modern humans had a common ancestor half-a-million years ago but then the two species went their separate ways.

The genealogy of the Sykes family was traced by a Sykes - Professor Bryan Sykes of Oxford University. He acquired DNA samples from 61 male Sykes - simple swabs taken from the inside of the cheek - and compared DNA from the Y chromosome, which is passed down unchanged from father to son. He found that fully half the men had the same DNA - which means that they originated from a single Sykes, who got his name at the time surnames became established in the 14th century. The other half had different DNA, which means that adoption or cuckoldry by Sykes women in ages past had introduced genes from other men.

But the level of such "non-paternity" was incredibly low, given the time elapsed since the name was first used. "It means," says an astonished Professor Sykes, "that 99 per cent of Mrs Sykes in history have been well behaved."

FIVE little piglets have brought good news to PPL Therapetics, the Edinburgh company that cloned Dolly the sheep. They are the first pig clones ever born, and advance PPL's claim to be hot on the trail of a breed of pigs that can be used as a source of organs for human transplant.

Cloning is only a first step. PPL will now have to produce "knock-out" pigs in which one gene is silenced, the gene responsible for adding to a pig's cells a flag - in the form of a sugar on the cell surface - by which the human immune system recognises it as foreign. That should help stop the pigs' organs being instantly rejected.

They will also have to satisfy regulators that the organs are safe and will not transfer porcine viruses to human patients. PPL, which lost pound;14 million last year, needed some good news. Its approach to profitability is proving slower than hoped.

PHYSICISTS at the European particle physics laboratory CERN, in Geneva, have produced a tiny bang, recreating the conditions that existed a split second after the Big Bang in which the universe was created. They did so by accelerating lead ions to 99.99 per cent the speed of light and colliding them with lead targets.

For a split second, this produced a state of matter that has not existed since the Big Bang - "quark-gluon plasma" in which the fundamental particles of matter are disassociated. "The fireball exists for only the tiniest fraction of a second," says Dr David Evans of Birmingham university. "We have to work out what happens from the particles that escape from the fireball."

US physicists have been slightly sniffy about the result, suggesting that the evidence is so far inconclusive. But that may simply be sour grapes, as they too are close to producing the exotic state of matter and had hoped to be the first to do it.

Nigel Hawkes is science editor of 'The Times'

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