In the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamen, the elaborately painted walls are covered with dark brown spots that mar the face of the goddess Hathor, the silvery-coated baboons — in fact, almost every surface.Despite almost a century of scientific investigation, the precise identity of these spots remains a mystery, but Harvard microbiologist Ralph Mitchell thinks they have a tale to tell.Nobody knows why Tutankhamen, the famed “boy king” of the 18th Egyptian dynasty, died in his late teens. Various investigations have attributed his early demise to a head injury, an infected broken leg, malaria, sickle cell anemia, or perhaps a combination of several misfortunes.Whatever the cause of King Tut’s death, Mitchell thinks those brown spots reveal something: that the young pharaoh was buried in an unusual hurry, before the walls of the tomb were even dry.Like many ancient sites, Tutankhamen’s tomb suffers from peeling paint and cracking walls. In the oppressive heat and humidity, throngs of tourists stream in and out of the cave, admiring it but also potentially threatening it.Concerned about the tomb’s preservation, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities approached the Getty Conservation Institute for help. The Getty, in turn, had questions for Mitchell.What are the brown spots? Are visiting tourists making them worse? Most important, do they present a health hazard?In his investigation, Mitchell, the Gordon McKay Research Professor of Applied Biology at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), combines classical microbiology with cutting-edge genomic techniques. His research team has been culturing living specimens swabbed from the walls of the tomb as well as conducting DNA sequence analyses.Meanwhile, chemists at the Getty have been analyzing the brown marks, which have seeped into the paint and the plaster, at the molecular level.So far, the chemists have identified melanins, which are characteristic byproducts of fungal (and sometimes bacterial) metabolism, but no living organisms have yet been matched to the spots.“Our results indicate that the microbes that caused the spots are dead,” said Archana Vasanthakumar, a postdoctoral fellow in Mitchell’s lab. “Or, to put it in a more conservative way, ‘not active.’”Further, analysis of photographs taken when the tomb was first opened in 1922 shows that the brown spots have not changed in the past 89 years.While the identity of the ancient organism remains a mystery, all of this is good news for tourists and Egyptologists alike, because the evidence suggests that not only are the microbes not growing — they’re actually part of the history, offering new clues to the circumstances of the king’s death.“King Tutankhamen died young, and we think that the tomb was prepared in a hurry,” said Mitchell. “We’re guessing that the painted wall was not dry when the tomb was sealed.”That moisture, along with the food, the mummy, and the incense in the tomb, would have provided a bountiful environment for microbial growth, he said, until the tomb eventually dried out.Exotic as the project may sound, investigations like this are typical of Mitchell’s research in applied microbiology.In past years, his lab has studied the role of bacteria in the deterioration of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the microorganisms living within limestone at Maya archaeological sites in southern Mexico. Nick Konkol, a former postdoctoral research associate, and Alice Dearaujo, a current research assistant, have developed rapid new ways to detect mold growing within the paper of historical manuscripts, paintings, and museum artifacts.The field is referred to as “cultural heritage microbiology,” and Mitchell literally wrote the textbook on it.For microbiologists with broad interests, cultural heritage provides an endless supply of surprising, new applications, crossing disciplines and cultures and providing important insights into modern environmental problems.“This type of research is typical of the interactive activity of SEAS, where modern scientific and engineering techniques are integrated to solve complex problems,” Mitchell said.Just a few years ago, he was called down to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to investigate the collection of Apollo space suits. In the heat and humidity of the museum’s Maryland storage facility, black mold was chewing through the many-layered polymers, damaging the priceless suits.The relatively simple solution in that case was the installation of a climate control system. Unfortunately, however, there is a difference between prevention and treatment. Once a historical artifact has begun to deteriorate, the damage is usually irreversible.Mitchell points to the example of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany. Built over the course of 632 years and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the walls of the magnificent cathedral feature angels and historical figures carved out of stone.In just the past 100 years, the angels’ faces have been eaten away by air pollution.“I always use the analogy of cancer,” Mitchell said. “You want to get to it early enough that it isn’t doing major destruction.”But what to do about the Egyptian tomb’s 3,000-year-old microbial problem?The damage is already done, so Mitchell predicts that the conservators will leave the spots alone, particularly since they are unique to that site.“This is part of the whole mystique of the tomb,” he said.“This type of research is typical of the interactive activity of SEAS, where modern scientific and engineering techniques are integrated to solve complex problems,” said Ralph Mitchell, the Gordon McKay Research Professor of Applied Biology at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Photo by Eliza Grinnell/SEAS
In commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the Rwandan American Community of the Midwest will honor the lives of victims and reflect on the causes of ethnic violence on Saturday in McKenna Hall from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.Alice Cyusa, a Notre Dame budgets and grants coordinator and a member of the local Rwandan community, said the Kellogg Institute for International Studies partnered with the Rwandan American Community of the Midwest to sponsor the event, which will feature speakers discussing topics from genocide prevention to forced immigration.Keri O’Mara “Fr. Bob Dowd of the Kellogg Institute helped us secure the venue for the event, which is mainly funded by the local Rwandan community,” Cyusa said.Immaculee Mukantaganira, the treasurer for the community organization, said the event will commemorate 20 years of recovery following the 1994 genocide, which claimed the lives of some one million Tutsi Rwandans.“This 20th commemoration is special,” Mukantaganira said. “In Rwanda, a flame of remembrance has traveled Rwanda since January of this year. It communicates a message of hope, telling Rwandans that the flame will never die. This year, we tried to educate the public about the genocide, its causes and its consequences.”According to Nxulalo Louis Ruhaya, who also helped organize the event, education and spreading awareness about the Rwandan Genocide carries great importance for preventing future atrocities.“The 20th anniversary commemoration gives us an opportunity to share our stories with the American people and bring awareness to the kind of atrocities that took place in our country so that together we can make sure it never happens again anywhere in our lifetime,” he said.Mukantaganira said the commemoration will build around a three-part theme that works toward renewal in the Rwandan community.“The theme of the commemoration is Remember, Unite, Renew. We remember our beloved we lost during the genocide against the Tutsi, we remember how they shaped our lives, how they blessed us with their love,” she said.Mukantagnira said the phrase “kwibuka20,” meaning, “remember 20” in the Rwandan language, embodies this spirit of remembrance and has the potential to unite Rwandans regardless of perceived ethnic divisions.“We are all Rwandans who speak the same language and bounded by the same culture,” Mukantagnira said. “As we stand together, we renew together, committing to continue building a new Rwanda where there are no divisions and where a lasting peace is the purpose of surviving.”Rwandan-Americans from Ohio and Illinois are expected to attend the event, Mukantagnira said.Ruhaya said he hopes Notre Dame students also join in the commemoration.“I hope we can have many of our Notre Dame students attend, as they are the future leaders of tomorrow,” Ruhaya said.Tags: 1994 Rwandan Genocide, Rwanda, Rwandan American Community
– GAWU, Labour Dept to meet company next weekThe Demerara Timbers Limited (DTL) has reportedly dismissed yet another employee over the industrial action taken by employees over pay increases.According to information this newspaper gathered, following the dismissal of eight employees on Tuesday, another worker was subsequently laid off which brings to nine workers reportedly sacked by DTL.This latest dismissal comes just days before a scheduled meeting involving DTL, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) and the Social Protection Ministry’s Labour Department.A senior GAWU official told Guyana Times on Thursday that the union is maintaining that the workers must be reinstated with unbroken service. It was explained that the union is demanding that workers, once reinstated, be paid for the days they have been denied employment.One worker explained that the protests at Mabura Hill had eased on Thursday, pending the outcome of next week’s meeting.GAWU General Secretary Seepaul NarineIt was on Monday that workers protested at the company’s headquarters in Kingston, Georgetown. It was after this industrial action that the sight (now nine) DTL employees were reportedly handed pink slips. A move vehemently condemned by GAWU.In fact, the union on Wednesday issued a statement pointing out that this is the first time in history that a private or public entity, has taken such an action despite the country’s labour laws, which prohibits workplaces from dismissing workers for taking industrial action. GAWU had pointed out that DTL’s action is a violation of Section Eight of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act.GAWU added that the moves by the company can be seen as another “anti-worker and anti-union act”.According to the union, the company’s high-handed and “ominous act” represents a decision which must be roundly condemned by all right-thinking Guyanese: “It is a clear attempt to intimidate the workers and use extralegal measures to deny workers their just claims for pay increase.”It was earlier this week that calls were being made for the Labour Department of the Social Protection Ministry to take legal action against DTL over labour violations.GAWU General Secretary Seepaul Narine, who was present at the protest, had told Guyana Times that the timber company must be prosecuted by government over its continued disrespect for Guyanese employees.“What we believe needs to be done now is the Ministry needs to prosecute them because they are in clear violation of the law and not only violating the law to the detriment of the employees but a flagrant disrespect to the Ministry. I don’t think that the Ministry should continue to accept such a situation,” he stated.Efforts to contact Minister with responsibility for Labour Keith Scott on Thursday proved futile.Negotiations between the union and the company reached a stalemate on 17 November 2015 after the company did not approve any pay rise but offered a Christmas bonus of $5000 to each worker. DTL had informed that its financial state precluded it from offering a pay rise.Following the impasse, the dispute was next subjected to conciliatory services by the Ministry of Social Protection, Department of Labour.