Focus on Research
Penn State Intercom......March 2, 2001

Waterlilies one
of first flowers

By Barbara K. Kennedy
Eberly College of Science

University researchers have performed the most extensive study yet in an attempt to learn what the first flowering plants may have looked like. The genetic analysis was designed to find the first flower's closest living next of kin among 150 species whose genetic origins are thought to be the most ancient. The analysis revealed that the title of "oldest living flower" is shared by two very different-looking plants -- water lilies and a rare woody shrub named Amborella.RESEARCH_Coverflower

A flurry of recent analyses of flowering-plant genes by other research teams had led scientists to believe that Amborella, which grows wild only on the remote island of New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific Ocean, was the winner of the title "oldest flowering plant," with water lilies coming in second. But because the University team's results show both plants share first place, more options are now open for what the first flowering plant could have looked like.

The study was led by Claude W. dePamphilis, associate professor of biology. Among the potential benefits of it are clues for the more efficient discovery of natural drugs, a precise framework for directing and evaluating the bioengineering of plants used for agriculture and medicine, and the ability to make more informed decisions about biodiversity conservation.

According to dePamphilis, "Our estimate that both water lilies and Amborella are equally close to the root of the angiosperm family tree is an alternative hypothesis that needs to be entertained as seriously as the earlier studies." The researchers feel that the analysis methods they developed for the study not only give its conclusions substantial weight but also could serve as a model for further studies by other researchers.

They analyzed an extensive variety of leaves and flowers from plants they had been collecting from around the world for over a decade. "It has taken us 10 years to collect tissues from over 1,000 plant species, including those whose genetic origins are thought to be the most ancient -- plants growing as far away as Borneo and as close as right next to the lab," dePamphilis said. "We intentionally sampled these most basal lineages very densely to get the clearest possible picture of the tremendous diversity at the base of the angiosperm tree."

In addition to dePamphilis, the research team included: Todd J. Barkman, assistant professor at Western Michigan University; James Lyons-Weiler, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell; Gordon Chenery, a high-school teacher in Nashville, Tenn., who earned a master's degree in biology under the direction of dePamphilis; and Joel R. McNeal, a graduate student.

Human Genome Project
had help from IST professor

A large-scale database indexing method co-developed by a faculty member in the University's School of Information Sciences and Technology is speeding up the mapping of the human genetic code.

The algorithm, created by James Wang, holder of the PNC career development professorship, and his collaborators, made it possible to accelerate the search for patterns among the staggering mass of information that makes up the human genetic code, as well as the genetic codes of other living creatures. Called a Sequence Search Tree, or SST, the algorithm is believed to have quickened the pattern recognition pace 20-fold. The method does entail a slight loss in accuracy, but it significantly speeds up the mapping of genetic patterns. The breakthrough was made possible by the way the SST algorithm indexes genetic information.

Initially developed in 1999, SST has been used by an industrial partner of the National Human Genome Institute, a consortium studying man's genetic makeup.

The results of the institute's project, as well as one being conducted by Celera Genomics, are expected to revolutionize the understanding and treatment of disease. Scientists recently published early draft descriptions of the human genome.

The work on the algorithm was performed while Wang was a graduate student at Stanford University. Wang and his team have applied for a patent for SST.

Media crusades against satanists
may hinder more than help

By Paul Blaum

Public Information

When confronted by satanism scares, both secular and religious leaders should avoid the temptation to persecute those suspected of occult activity. While evil certainly exists and a few individuals have suffered as a result of satanic rites, institutional crusades against real or imagined satanists have the capacity for infinitely greater evil, according to a University folklorist.

"Satanism scares are both the cause and effect of various tinkerings with the occult, real or imagined," said Bill Ellis, associate professor of English and American studies at Penn State Hazleton, and longtime researcher of contemporary urban legends. "In either case, they can actually serve a social need for individuals or groups, who are seeking proof that they have control over supposedly demonic forces and that the universe, while frightening, is essentially ordered and meaningful. Satanism scares belong to the realm of folklore and are generally harmless unless they are taken too seriously by governments, churches, the media or any other official moral censor."

"Satanic rumor panics, such as the cattle mutilation scare of the 1970s, were secular revivals, helping participants believe that their faith in themselves and their mythologies is justified," Ellis said.

When evil co-opts the ideals and institutions of religion, the consequences are much more harmful than when persons carry out self-consciously evil acts. This is the lesson of the 1692 Salem witch trials and many others which over the centuries have claimed thousands of innocent lives while punishing a handful of malevolent cranks.

Ellis' research is published in the recent book, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions and the Media (University of Kentucky Press). The book deals with a variety of satanic practices ranging from Ouija boards to graveyard desecration to "diabolical medicine," described by Ellis as "the psychiatric community's version of exorcism."

"Not everyone who reports or investigates cult activity is hysterical or deluded," Ellis noted. "In fact, for such people satanic cult beliefs may well be cultural language that allows them to express emotions and experiences that they might otherwise not be able to handle. Ironically, when societies lack traditions of belief that describe such events, persons there may often experience greater psychological trauma because they fear that describing their experiences will label them as deviant."