Oldest Evidence of Jesus? / Mapping Genes that Cause Disease / 2002 World Health Report

This is Steve Ember. And this is Bob Doughty with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about an ancient stone box that may be the oldest evidence of Jesus. We tell about an effort to create a new human genome map to identify genes that cause disease. And we tell about the latest World Health Report.

Religious experts are excited about the discovery of what may be the oldest historic evidence of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian religion. It is a small stone box that may have held the bones of a man said to be Jesus' brother James.

The box is called an ossuary (OSH-oo-ar-y). Two-thousand years ago, Jews used ossuaries to hold the remains of their dead. This box now belongs to a private collector in Israel. The owner purchased it from a dealer who said the box was found in an ancient burial area in Jerusalem. The box contains a message written in Aramaic, a language spoken in the Middle East two-thousand years ago. The writing says "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

Andre Lemaire is a researcher and expert on ancient languages at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. He examined the ossuary and wrote a study about it. The study was published in the Biblical Archeology Review. Herschel Shanks is publisher of the magazine. He says chemical tests done on the stone box show that the writing is as old as the box itself.

Mr. Shanks says the writing must have been on the box when it was first used two-thousand years ago. Mr. Shanks also says tests have failed to find any metal particles on the writing. He says this shows the words probably were not made with a modern tool.

James is identified as Jesus' brother in the Christian holy book, the Bible. Two-thousand years ago, the name James was common in Jerusalem. So were the names Jesus and Joseph. Andre Lemaire considered the rate at which the three names appear in existing records from that time. He estimates there could have been no more than twenty men in Jerusalem named James who had fathers named Joseph and brothers named Jesus.

Mr. Lemaire and Mr. Shanks say it was common for an ossuary to include the name of the dead person's father. But they say there are only two reasons to include the name of the dead person's brother as well. One reason was if the brother was responsible for the burial. However, the James noted in the Bible was killed thirty years after Jesus was executed. The other reason to include a brother's name on the ossuary was if the brother was an extremely important person.

Not all experts believe that the ossuary is a direct link to the man whom Christians believe is the son of God. Some people criticized the Biblical Archeology Review for publishing a study that involves an object that was stolen from a burial place. Other experts question the shape of some of the letters and the spelling of some of the names on the ossuary.

The ossuary will be shown to the public for the first time at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada starting November sixteenth. Museum officials say the ancient box was damaged while it was being transported from Israel to Toronto. But they say the ossuary was expected to be repaired in time for the exhibition.

International scientists have joined forces to create a new kind of map of all the genes of the human body. The effort is called the International HapMap Project. The project will compare genetic differences among individuals. Experts hope the project will lead to identifying genes responsible for diseases like cancer and diabetes. They believe it will help tell why some people get these diseases while others do not.

The research will cost about one-hundred-million dollars. Project scientists estimate the work will take about three years.

Fifteen research teams will begin the map after studying the genes of people of four ethnic groups. They are Japanese, Han Chinese, the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Americans of northern and western European ancestry. The researchers will examine blood from as many as four-hundred people. Project scientists are from government agencies, universities, nonprofit research laboratories and private companies. The researchers come from Japan, China, Britain, Canada and the United States. The United States National Institutes of Health is providing thirty-nine million dollars. That is the largest part of the research money for the project.

The scientists are developing their work from recent findings about the human genome. Last year, researchers at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made an important discovery about genetic material called D-N-A.

They learned that, over time, people pass their D-N-A to their children in large, unchanged blocks. These blocks of D-N-A are called haplotypes (HAP-lo-types). Earlier, scientists had thought D-N-A became mixed as each set of parents had children. The goal of the new genetic map is to show where the haplotypes appear throughout the human genome.

The International HapMap Project will also depend on the results of the Human Genome Project. Scientists produced a map of all human genes two years ago. But this human genome did not identify the genes that cause diseases.

Some genetic research has resulted in identifying a single gene responsible for a disease. For example, scientists found the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, a disease that affects a person's lungs and other organs. The disease cannot be cured. People who suspect they carry this gene may now be tested for its presence.

However, researchers say most common diseases do not result from a single gene but are thought to be caused by several genes acting together. These conditions include Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and a mental disease called schizophrenia. Scientists believe environmental influences also are linked to these diseases.

Francis Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health. He said the HapMap would provide a powerful tool to help doctors understand the influence of genes on common illnesses.

However, some experts express less hope for the project. Some reject the description of the haplotypes in the human genome. Others do not believe that studying haplotypes will find genes that cause diseases.

The life expectancy of people around the world could increase by five to ten years if action against common health risks is taken. This is one of the findings in this year's World Health Report released recently by the World Health Organization. The report is called "Reducing Risks, Promoting Life."

Researchers found that ten major threats to good health are common around the world. The chief of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland, called them the ten leading killers. They include unsafe sex, poor nutrition, high blood pressure, use of tobacco and alcohol, unsafe water and unclean living conditions. Also included are high levels of dangerous fat in the blood, indoor smoke from solid fuels, a lack of iron in the body and too much body weight, or obesity. Together, these ten health risks make up forty percent of the fifty-six-million deaths worldwide each year.

Doctor Brundtland called for reducing the ten main health risks by twenty-five percent within ten years. If this were done, life expectancy in industrial countries could increase by ten years. In developing countries, it could increase by five years.

Currently, the number of life years lost because of these health risks differs around the world. Doctor Brundtland says the differences these health risks create between rich and poor nations are shocking. For example, about one-hundred-seventy-million children in poor countries are underweight. They do not weigh enough because they do not get enough food. However, more than one-thousand-million adults around the world are too fat. Most of these people live in rich, industrial countries.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by George Grow, Jerilyn Watson and Jill Moss. It was produced by George Grow. This is Bob Doughty. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.)

Voice of America Special English

Source: SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - November 12, 2002: Oldest Evidence of Jesus? / Mapping Genes that Cause Disease / 2002 World Health Report
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