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This Week in Science: Feb 27, 2015

A group of European researchers publish the discovery of a gene that is likely to have contributed to the physical expansion of the human neocortex — a key event in primate evolution. Known as ARHGAP11B, the gene is found in modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, but is not present in mice. It drives the proliferation of neural progenitor cells that build the brain's neocortex, which is involved in sensory perception, motor commands, conscious thought, and language. The researchers proposethat the gene arose in the human lineage shortly after it diverged from chimpanzees, and found that when it was expressed in a developing mouse brain, it triggered greater growth of the animal's neocortex and induced cortical folding.

Also in Science this week, a team of British researchers report that wheat was present in England millennia before modern humans began farming in there. They analyzed sediment cores near the Isle of Wight to reconstruct changes in the plant and animal species that were present at the site about 8,000 years ago, before it was submerged. They found sedimentary ancient DNA sequences matching Near Eastern wheat strains, although they found no evidence of the plants' cultivation or pollen. Because agriculture began in Britain about 6,000 years ago, the findings point to the existence of relationships between hunter-gatherers of northeast Europe and migrating Neolithic farmers. The Scan has a bit more on this here.