We hear how a Norwegian palaeontologist secured a 47 million year-old primate fossil called Ida for his Oslo museum.
LISA MULLINS: A primate fossil has received a lot of attention recently. Some have hailed it as a missing link in the lineage of animals that led, eventually, to human beings. The fossil is 47-million-years old, it was found in Germany. Scientists unveiled it a couple of months ago to much fanfare. Well, the lead scientist has now explained to the BBC just how he came to possess the specimen. Norwegian paleontologist Jorn Horum of Oslo University's Natural History Museum says he found it at a German fossil fair in December 2006.
JORN HORUM: There's thousands and thousands of fossils for sale, and also crystals, and other thins made out of stone. I go there every year to buy a few exhibition pieces for the museum, but that one particular dealer that I know very well Thomas Parnat [PH], he came to me and said, "Well, I have something to show you." And then we went to a bar and he showed me three pictures. The one photograph of the whole specimen, and one of the head and arms, and one of the foot. And I knew immediately what it was. It was really fantastic to see a specimen like this. He said, "Well, the asking price is a million dollars." And I said, "I don't think my museum can ever afford a specimen like this." But I was starting to think and I said, "Well, could you let me have some time until after Christmas and I will see?" Because the important thing for me here was to try to save this specimen for a public museum. So he said, "Well, I can wait until after Christmas." He said, and I went back to my hotel and I didn't sleep for two nights. And when I got back to Norway, I started to discuss with my director about something else, and she asked me if there was any good fossils at the show? And I said, "Well, I've seen the most fantastic fossil I'm ever going to see, but I don't think we can afford it." And she said, "Well, let's present it for the board and see what they will say." And they said, "Well, go ahead and see if you can get the price down and we will buy the fossil." Then I started to contact the dealer and said, I can give you this and this kind of money, and then we were haggling it down and we got down to a more reasonable price and then we bought the fossil.
LISA MULLINS: Jorn Horum examined that fossil top to bottom before handing the money over though, it was no fake. Then he awaited its arrival in Norway.
JORN HORUM: [LAUGHS] That was in September 2007, and it was fantastic to see this fossil come to the museum by a special security transport, and then we locked it into the museum, opened the box and looked at it for the first time in the museum, and knew that we had the world's sensation. And that was just a very, very special moment.
LISA MULLINS: Well, it was likely a very special moment for somebody else too, Jorn Horum named the fossil Ida, or Ee-da, as he pronounces it. That's the name of another special primate in his life, his daughter.
LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH, Boston. An international team of scientists has made a discovery that may change our understanding of the history and future of the AIDS pandemic. Scientists have long believed that the AIDS virus, HIV, evolved from a related virus that infects monkeys and chimpanzees. It's called SIV for Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. Researchers had thought that SIV was relatively harmless, but it now turns out that infected chimpanzees in Africa are coming down with what is, in essence, AIDS. The research was done at Gombe National Park in Tanzania. That's where Jane Goodall conducted her pioneering work with chimps. Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham headed the current study. Her team followed the chimps for 10 years to see how those infected with SIV fared.
BEATRICE HAHN: When we compared the two groups infected and the uninfected chimps in Gombe, we realized the mortality in the infected group was significantly increased.
LISA MULLINS: Why is that so surprising though, because we know that mortality among humans with HIV, who eventually develop AIDS, that the mortality will be increased, they'll die from the disease very often. Why is it so surprising that Simian's who have SIV will eventually become sick?
BEATRICE HAHN: It's surprising because we assumed the opposite. We assumed that chimpanzees worked just like these other primate species, for which we had data that they don't get sick. We found that infected chimps were 10 to 16 times more likely to die in any given year than uninfected ones.
LISA MULLINS: So how does this new finding then, promote any kind of change in our understanding, and perhaps even treatment of HIV in humans.
BEATRICE HAHN: It provides an opportunity. It lets you look at HIV one infection in humans from a different angle. Obviously, chimps have it too, but they don't have it quite as bad as humans, there must be a difference. Chimpanzees must have evolved a different way to deal with their infection. Although at the end, some of them also dies prematurely or of AIDS. And, to just compare and contrast that will give us new insight in how HIV works in people.
LISA MULLINS: I suppose when you unveil information like this, especially when it contradicts earlier research that you personally had done, it must be, in many ways, heartening, because you have unraveled something that had been so difficult, that may in fact help humans eventually in terms of the treatment or the infection rate anyway, of HIV and AIDS. On the other hand, is it for you good news or bad news that chimps themselves are not resistant to AIDS, and that they do die from it just as humans do?
BEATRICE HAHN: It's good news and bad news. [LAUGHS] It's potentially bad news for chimpanzees because it's still another factor that does them in. The good news is, it gives us new avenues to combat HIV one. There's a great interest right now to look at genetic determinance in people that modulate how the disease comes about or doesn't come about. There are people who progress very rapidly, and there are people who don't progress at all. And people want to know what are the genetic determinance in the host that are responsible for that. And finally, perhaps chimps mount different types of immune responses. Perhaps more efficient neutralizing antibody responses that we could then utilize to make better vaccines for humans.
LISA MULLINS: I imagine it also would help out withy a job of conserving chimps. There are so many chimp populations that are now endangered.
BEATRICE HAHN: I would hope so. I know these chimps like the back of my hand. You get to know them, you get to know their life histories, you know what they do. I need to know this information in order to factor it into my virus research. And it's extremely interesting, and somewhat gratifying, and you get attached to them. And every time we identify a new individual that has become infected, it's both a good thing and a bad thing. You [INDISCERNIBLE], oh my god, why this chimp? And then you say, okay, now we have to study it and factor in all the particular things we know about this particular individual.
LISA MULLINS: By the way, did that happen with one chimp recently, that you said, why this one?
BEATRICE HAHN: Yes.
LISA MULLINS: Which one?
BEATRICE HAHN: It did. I will not disclose the identity of my chimps.
LISA MULLINS: You won't disclose the identity of your chimps?
BEATRICE HAHN: No.
LISA MULLINS: How come?
BEATRICE HAHN: It's a sensitive subject, just like in people.
LISA MULLINS: [LAUGHS] Really?
BEATRICE HAHN: Well, it's our choice. We obviously know these chimps, and Jane, you know, has given them names to make them more personal to humans. There's an important and interesting psychology going on here. I fully subscribe to that, but on the same hand, when you disclose an infected individual, you open that individual up to potential harm, and we don't wanna do this.
LISA MULLINS: It's really interesting research, we appreciate you talking to us. Beatrice Hahn's study of an AIDS like illness in African chimpanzees appears in this week's issue of The Journal Nature. Dr. Hahn joined us from the studios of WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Thank you.
BEATRICE HAHN: Thank you.