Sunday, July 25, 2010

Venetian DNA: a first look

Readers of this blog may recall several posts over the years concerning our quest to trace the origins of the Venetians using DNA analyses (type "dna" in the search box on the right of the blog to see them all) . There are competing theories and references to the legendary origins of the Veneti (or Enetoi?).
We're either originally from Paphlagonia, or from Lusatia (Poland) and we may or may not be related to the Veneti of Gaul (Britanny) mentioned by none other than Julius Caesar (see detailed map online). Since we learned that a study of DNA haplogroups may shed light on these hypotheses, we launched our Venice DNA Project in 2008.
The idea for the project was born in 2004, after I read  an article on the Phoenicians in National Geographic magazine. I bounced around the idea with WPI faculty colleagues for a while, until my happenstance stumbling upon a brief mention of the Genographics project in Wired magazine in 2007, which lead to my decision to begin exploring the topic in 2008.  That fall, thanks to the enterprising team of WPI students, we began our collaboration in the Genographics Project, collecting our first sample from my mentor Count Marcello, and continuing the collection in the fall of 2009, with the last team of WPI students studying the Origins of Venice and its inhabitants.
You may also remember the big flurry of media attention that we inadvertently attracted to this project in conjunction with the Funeral for Venice of  We are hoping that the release of our results will quell any leftover smolders from that overblown controversy.  This past May, the Genographics project released the results of the DNA analyses conducted on the 156 Venetian cheek-swabs we had sent to the Unitat de Biologia Evolutiva of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.  After two years of work, we were finally able to look at the DNA evidence which Kyle faithfully tallied up for a first look at where we stand, his Canadianess betrayed by the use of French labels in the maps. Out of  the 156 samples we collected, 57 were not viewable on the Genographic site for one of two reasons: 34 were Invalid (not enough DNA?) and 23 others (labeled Faulty in pie chart) simply failed to show up on the site.  We have initiated an inquest on these issues and we are hoping to retrieve at least some of these unusable samples.  "In the end" (as Adrian is fond of saying), the total number of valid samples thus far is 99.  Two thirds of these (66 out 99) show the genetic pathway in the map above, which we are told is a very typical "European" trace (blue pie slice), which confirms that Venice has been a melting pot, rather than the home of a distinct gens. Ironically, my DNA (probably of Spanish origin), that of my brother-in-law Alberto Gallo (clearly a Gaul)  and Kyle Miller's (a Canadian of British descent) all had the same exact lineage, which we shared with the overwhelming majority of other participants as shown in the map at the top of the post.
 Of more interest to me are the two sets of samples which show a path through the Balcans (labeled "Greek" in pie) and perhaps the most intriguing one which I labeled Paphlagonian in the google chart, which looks like the map down here. Unfortunately, only 6 of our samples display this genealogical profile, which skirts all four of our main target areas: Trebizond, the Veneto, Britanny and the Baltic.  A DNA pattern that could reconcile all theories and references in the literature... hmmm!
While I was in Barcelona in June to visit Prof. David Comas, I perchance met a young Polish researcher, Krzyszof Rebala, who - by pure luck - happens to be focusing his attention on the Venedi of Poland, which he has thoroughly studied without finding any distinguishing trait to clearly separate them from other European populations.  So far then, the Venetians we sampled  do not seem to have any really striking DNA patterns nor do they seem to be related to the Wends of Lusatia, which paradoxically might give fuel to the controversial Venetic theory of a pre-celtic settlement of Veneti across the heart of Europe.
Since the Genographic project is slated to wrap up next summer, I discussed with Dr. Comas the options we have left to complete our research project.  Here is the plan I sketched out in Barcelona:
  1. Collect another 100 samples in small villages in the Veneto hinterland to seek out purer DNA strands for the ancient Veneti of NE Italy
  2. Collect 100 samples in Paphlagonia, near the Turkish city of Trebizond, with the help of Jeremy Chapman, whom I met in Istanbul in June
  3. Collect 100 samples in Brittany where the Armorican tribe of seafaring Veneti (aided by Asterix's own tribe, I am sure) put up a good fight against Caesar's navy in the battle of Morbihan
  4. Then match all these samples with the samples that Krzyszof has collected in Poland and see what, if any, match we may find across the four geographical areas.
I think these are challenging but interesting follow-ups that are worth pursuing, but the logistics are tough (and possibly costly).  We could definitely use some grant support to pull it out.  This may well be the mission we assign to this year's Origins team.  We shall see what happens.
More details on our results and on the final plans for this project in an upcoming post.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Mediterranean "tour de feu"

After finally arriving in Venice on June 13 and welcoming the arrival of Ben Lichtner (the Brown intern from Santa Fe I mentioned in a recent post), Nick and I quickly departed again for a whirlwind (working) journey around the Mare Nostrum.
But first we spent some time with the nonni (Wilma and Cino), the zii (Barbara and Alberto) and the cuginetti (Barnaba and Samuele), met some friends and business associates, moved into our semi-habitable house and enjoyed some homemade nonna meals.
It was a brief but welcomed respite before Nick and I embarked on another epic coast-to-coast voyage, this time from the Western coast of the Mediterranean (Barcelona) to the Eastern one (Istanbul), and across the Aegean from Kos (Greece) to Athens (after navigating our way through Santorini and Ios).  Barcelona was wonderful, as was Istanbul, in different ways.  Nick and I were in Barcelona alone, then were joined by Laura Sabbadin in Turkey with whom we drove through Thrace and the Aegean coast of Anatolia down to Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus, an ok place, hence yellow on map), hitting Troy (disappointing: red on map), Pergamon (good: green) and Ephesus (very good).  We were all positively impressed by the hospitality of Turkish people. Nice!
Ben Lichtner caught up with us in Kos (not so good = yellow) and tracked back with us all the way to Athens (disappointing/red), by way of Santorini (good) and Ios (even better).  The markers with a black dot on the map signify overnight stopovers. We had fun adjusting to each culture, language and food, at times feeling like real tourists (i.e. slightly overcharged for inferior food or taken advantage of by suspicious taxi drivers), but generally adapting to the local mores with unexpected ease.  The trip had three work-related stops, each of which will be the subject of future posts .
  1. In Barcelona, I finally met Prof. David Comas of the Unitat de Biologia Evolutiva of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra whose research group has analyzed the 166 DNA samples of Venetians we collected in 2008 and 2009 for the Genographic project.  We discussed a joint research project.
  2. In Istanbul, we met Jeremy Chapman, a recent WPI graduate and friend of Kyle's, a turcophile who has been living in Constantinople for a while and will be helping us organize future DNA collections in the Trebizond area of northern Turkey -- formerly known as Paphlagonia -- where the Veneti (or enetoi) are supposed to be coming from, according to authoritative, albeit not-necessarily-reliable, sources such as Homer, Titus Livius and Strabo.
  3. In Kos, Greece, Ben and I were the last (dulcis in fundo or cherry-on-the-cake) presentation at the second annual WIT conference on the Modelling, Monitoring and Management of Forest Fires. The sandtable demo that Ben put together on the fly (after learning that Steve couldn't make the trip) awed and inspired the audience several of whom may follow-up with Simtable.
Since our flight back to Venice left from Athens, we were forced to visit the disappointing capital of Greece, whose only redeeming qualities, besides the Acropolis and the Archelogical Museum, is the absolute must-see of any Athenian tourist: the changing of the guards (every half hour or so) in front of the Greek υπουργείο of ανόητος  περιπάτους, which probably inspired the eponymous Monty Python's skit (or viceversa)...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Oxford Energy Futures

After leaving the US on June 6th, Nick and I first stopped in Oxford, UK, where we spent a week at Rawlinson road with Kseniya, Adrian, Masha and Kiril (Karen was away in France on a wine-gathering tour).
While Nick enjoyed the local skateboarding scene, Adrian and I prepared for our joint lecture at the Oxford Energy Futures conference hosted by the Oxford University CPD center at Rewley House.  The conference was really interesting, spanning the gamut from wood-derived energy to nuclear fusion and everything in-between - solar, wind and tide energy being still the primary technologies of promise.
Our dual presentation was very well received, especially the Energence web site demo by Adrian and my shameless plug for Bump which entailed handing the Droid phone I got from Google I/O to the audience so they could shake the phone and see the beautifully hypnotic accelerometer display that Josh Thorp endowed the application with.  We met a number of notables at the conference and it appears likely that Adrian and I may be invited back to lecture at Oxford in the fall.  Quoite Noice!
I also made time for a bit more work on our Energence enterprise, which (in a nutshell) is a company that Adrian and I founded to allow municipalities to monitor compliance with CO2 emission targets, based on the  "Merton Rule", which is named after the London Borough of Merton, where Adrian and I concocted the idea of a "Merton Gauge" while he was the chief environmental officer there and I was advising a team of students from WPI, while on a stint at the WPI London Project Center. The Merton Rule is now a national standard adopted by all local governments in the UK and Adrian Hewitt, FRSA, is Mr. Merton Rule (also known as "the green evangelist").  In abidance to the Merton Rule, new buildings throughout Great Britain now have to produce 10-20% of their energy on site, using renewable technologies, in order to contribute to the abatement of the carbon footprint of the town as mandated by a national law.  Energence provides a simple, web-based system that makes it possible for city officials to check whether these installations actually meet their targets once the buildings are occupied and the renewable equipment is in operation.
Together with Constantin Windisch-Graetz, our chief financial officer who happens to be the descendant of a Styrian prince, Adrian and I traveled to Beaconsfield (inexplicably pronounced Baconsfield, a feature of British language that continues to puzzle those of us who aren't native speakers) to discuss municipal leasing programs with Ken Hunnisett and David Cranmer of Cranmer & Lawrence.
The confusingly palindromic duo of Chris Martin and Martin Watson of EMC (the Energy Monitoring Company) who are providing us the hardware necessary to monitor energy production (and soon consumption too) at our building sites (appropriately starting in Merton, of course) were also in attendance at C&L.  Given the potential for a huge demand for these web-addressable, GPRS energy data loggers, we are discussing with EMC how to ramp up production and streamline installation.  Later in the week, I also finally met Ed Cotterill, our chief of operations, who had replaced Adrian as the chief environmental officer in Merton, after Adrian left for the private sector.  I think we have a very good and complementary team of people who are also fun to be with and pub-worthy.
Our initiative is shifting into high gear and picking up some real momentum. On this very day, a short month after Nick and I spent that week in Oxford, Adrian, Constantin and Ed are hosting a major workshop at the City of Westminster on Victoria Street, London. Half of the boroughs of London are in attendance, as well as representatives of the Energy Saving Trust (EST), the Local Government Association (LGA) and the acronymically anagrammatic Greater London Authority (GLA).  Down in Santa Fe, Redfish -- or more accurately John Guerin (Steve's dad) in Phoenix, Arizona -- has put in extra time to make sure that we have as many devices as possible on line in preparation for the event, which could be a major turning point in our own Oxford Energy Future.

In bocca al lupo!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Halfway home

July 2nd is the 183rd day of the year...  the midpoint of 2010.  It's an opportune time to catch up with some blogging after some pretty busy time at our halfway house in Spencer.  Since the last blog post, Nick and I have spent a fruitful month of May in Massachusetts, where Nick signed up for his first semester at the Quinsigamond Community College and I tied a few loose ends at home, wrapped up the Bump project and attended the 2010 commencement at WPI.  I even managed to squeeze a quick trip to UNH for an update on the DEW project and a concomitant trip to Maine to help my friend Jonathan put his wooden boat in the water.
 The highlight of that trip was an evening cruise on Jonathan's Lyman Runabout from Georgetown to Boothbay (a 15 min. boat ride vs. a 50 min. drive!) for dinner at Scoop's house there, with John Meehan and Evelyn Ansel, a talented young lady who is following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather by building her first wooden boat while on a semester-long hiatus from Brown University.  It seems likely that she may become the second Venice intern from Brown in the summer of 2011, after her fellow brownian Ben Lichtner of the Santa Fe Complex, who is in Venice this summer as part of the SantaVe exchange, whose alumni now include Tyler White, Kyle Miller, and Ilan Shomorony, who collaborated with Ben on a great piece of interactive art in the summer of 2009.
From the porch of the McAskill's cottage in Boothbay - which I had last visited approximately a quarter century ago - we witnessed the most triumphant moonrise "ever-ever" (as Nick would say)  and then proceeded to circumnavigate Southport island to cap the evening.
Immediately thereafter, I attended the second annual DSO weekend at Hampton Beach and even saw a very powerful Michael Franti & Spearhead concert with Scoop and Brenda on Lansdowne street, in the former home of the mythical Metro club of yesteryear.  Franti's reggae is extraordinarily energetic, and his message, attitude and persona are among the best I have witnessed firsthand.
Right before leaving Massachusetts again, I met up with Adrian on US soil and spent an afternoon visiting with the New Urban Mechanics duo (Chris and Nigel) and then meeting up at Thoughtbot with my old ATΩ pal James McElhiney and his Haitian business partner Rousseau Aurelien of FutureFridays, a very exciting entrepreneurship incubator company they started after successfully launching  Over a very special homemade Negroni, we discussed how Adrian and I will be able to contribute to their goal of starting four new successful companies every year.  I am very grateful to Jamie's wife, Louisa Bertman for being such a great artist and for including me on her mailing list for her open studio, which allowed me to reconnect to Jamie, another "brother" that I had lost touch with, but whose professional life has much in common with mine.
The next day, Adrian and I attended the wedding of our de-facto Energence legal counsel Jason Cofield with lovely Twilight Seward at Boston University.  Finally, Adrian, Nick and I got on the same plane and traveled to Oxford together for the start of our European working vacation, which will be the subject of the next few summer posts from Venice, where Nick and I will be until the end of July, after my real meno uno birthday...