Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I saw Mummy kissing mosquitos!

In a thrilling example of what the Journal of the American Medical Association considers relevant (to sales), we now know what killed King Tut. Here's the typically measured reaction reported in the story about the story.

"This is very exciting that we can take modern technology and learn more about Egyptian history," said Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan's Center for the History of Medicine.

Well, the facts: From a morphological exam of dear ol' Tut, we already knew that he had problems with his spine that might be (hint-hint) attributed to Marfan's syndrome or some other genetic (and thus real) disease. Thus, to really be sure we're not imagining his abnormal spine curvature, we need some DNA to spice up our investigation (and which will make it real science!). We're less sure that the DNA would be necessary to prove that he had a deformed toe and broken leg, but that will probably come in the next release from this genetics project. Be patient! You can't expect the investigators to give away the whole store in the first release.

Now, the story that we saw did not happen to mention the lack of any genetic finding relative to Tut's spinal anomaly (nor the toe), so it did not enlighten us on that score. Presumably we'll have to settle for the actual direct if untrustworthy evidence of the naked eye rather than a complex genetic allele (most of which we already know quite well have poor predictive value).

But there's another bombshell in this same story: the investigators detected DNA sequence evidence of infection with the malaria parasite. Let's assume that this is not contamination from the many possible sources from which that could arise since the tomb was discovered.

That Tut was young is undeniable (by looking at him, and believe it or not, despite the paucity of telomeric-length evidence from his DNA!!). Of course, even the story notes that many mummies of various adult ages at death also have already been shown to have been exposed to malaria. Thus, the rigorous conclusion was drawn that Tut may have died of malaria and a broken leg (and broken his Mummy's heart!).

Now if all this seems like good logic, rigorous science, or something beyond material for editorial hype and television programs, then you've hit the wrong blog!

Still, it's nice to see what it takes to send thrills up the spine (if not the toe) of reporters and the august JAMA readership. Hopefully, that's not what your doctor's doing rather than keeping up with his profession.

(If you detect a nuance of satire in this post--tut, tut!--we hope you'll forgive us)

1 comment:

Ken Weiss said...

The whyevolutionistrue blog has a post on this same story. Jerry Coyne's comments provide more detail about the story than we did.

But neither we nor he said what I think is a relevant point. If this is legitimate DNA research rather than publicity-seeking, and the investigators want to know something about King Tut's health, they should have checked to see if he had any of the well-known circum-Mediterranean protective globin-gene or other genotypes. That might have been at least a tad closer to real science.