On December 19th, 2013 we learned about

Finding the missing link between Felix and other feral felines

This is sort of the “missing link” for cat domestication, filling in gaps between Near Eastern wildcats and the furballs we have shedding all over us now.

The bones outdate previous assumptions of cat arrival in China by about 3,000 years and also provide what seems to be the first concrete evidence bridging wildcats with domesticated cats, the researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What were the cats doing there? Since the village at the time depended on farming millet, they were probably making friends with people by catching mice and birds. But some were possibly getting handouts:

The authors performed isotope analyses on bone collagen from the feline remains, which turned up markers indicating a diet rich in millet-based foods. One cat in particular seemed to enjoy a particularly high vegetable-based diet than the others (perhaps it was the most spoiled one of the bunch?). The millet-rich cuisine indicates that the cats either scavenged on human garbage or else were intentionally fed by people, the authors think.

They also found some pretty worn down teeth, meaning at least one of the cats had a cushy-enough life to live to a relatively old age.

Source: Domestic Cats Enjoyed Village Life in China 5,300 Years Ago Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/domestic-cats-enjoyed-village-life-in-china-5300-years-ago-180948065/#WCI5GlJjuG42vd8P.99 Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter by Rachel Nuwer, Smithsonian Magazine

On December 6th, 2013 we learned about

Iron found to be the key to preserving dinosaur collagen

How did I miss the original story here?

The find was also controversial, because scientists had thought proteins that make up soft tissue should degrade in less than 1 million years, even in the best of conditions. In most cases, microbes feast on a dead animal’s soft tissue, destroying it within weeks.

Then they find that it’s collagen. And the scope expands greatly:

The researchers also analyzed other fossils for the presence of soft tissue, and found it was present in about half of their samples going back to the Jurassic Period, which lasted from 199.6 to 145.5 million years ago, Schweitzer said.

Half their samples? Zow.

The preservative seems to be iron. But there’s a catch before we go back and look in every old fossil:

To preserve the chemistry of potential soft tissue, the specimens must not be treated with preservatives or glue, as most fossil bones are, she said. And they need to be tested quickly, as soft tissue could degrade once exposed to modern air and humidity.

Nuts. But now there’s a technique, and awareness, so future samples should be tested, right?

Source: What preserved T. rex tissue? Mystery explained at last by Stephanie Pappas, NBC News

On December 6th, 2013 we learned about

Bacteria found in the cleanest place on Earth

A new genus of bacteria has been discovered in some of the very places we worked to sterilize. Two clean rooms, one in South America, the other thousands of miles away in Florida, have both been found to be the only known home to the newly named Tersicoccus phoenicis.

While the new bacteria may seem amazingly hearty to have survived in rooms that are repeatedly disinfected, heated, and filtered, the fact that they’re not everywhere may indicate that they’re actually not so tough.

“I think these bugs are less competitive, and they just don’t do so well in normal conditions,” says Cornell University astrobiologist Alberto Fairén, who was not involved in the analysis of the new genus. “But when you systematically eliminate almost all competition in the clean rooms, then this genus starts to be prevalent.”

Since these particular clean rooms were used by the European Space Agency and NASA to prepare spacecraft, it’s important to know more about these bacteria and if they could survive an unintended trip to space. We don’t want our first interaction with another planet to be contaminating it with something that could potentially do harm to an ecosystem, or at the very least complicate a search for novel life in space. However, there’s also a chance that by surviving in a hostile environment like a clean room, these bacteria have already survived a trip through space, which is how they arrived here in the first place.

Source: New Bacterial Life-Form Discovered in NASA and ESA Spacecraft Clean Rooms by Clara Moskowitz, Scientific American