A Habitation and a Name

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Philistine city of Gath have unearthed a small ceramic fragment inscribed with two names possibly linked to Goliath, the first solid indication that the famous biblical confrontation with David has a historical context.

Aren M. Maeir, of Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said the fragment bears the Indo-European names Alwt and Wlt written in ancient proto-Canaanite script, the forerunner of modern Hebrew and other Semitic scripts. Maier said scholars believe that Goliath is a derivative of such Indo-European names.

"When the Israelites heard the name, they wrote it phonetically based on the sounds they heard," Maeir said in an interview.

Maeir said the Philistines were an Indo-European people that probably migrated to the Middle East from the Aegean region about 1200 B.C. For 600 years, until the Babylonians destroyed their state, they adapted to their surroundings and probably adapted the Semitic alphabet to their own language.

Maier said the fragment is the oldest known Philistine inscription found in Israel, and archaeologists date it about 950 B.C., probably between 70 and 100 years after biblical chronology suggests David slew the Philistine giant with a stone from a slingshot.

While the fragment almost certainly has nothing to do with the Goliath, Maeir said it shows that the Bible story has "cultural context" rooted in the ancient Middle East and is not necessarily an elaborate legend written down hundreds of years after the event is alleged to have happened.

-- Guy Gugliotta

Greenhouse Gas Level Soaring

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years, according to study published Friday in the journal Science.

By drilling into a deep ice core in East Antarctica and analyzing the content of air bubbles trapped when the ice was formed, a group of European researchers has been able to chart the level of CO2 in the atmosphere more than 200,000 years further back in time than previous studies. Their research shows that the level of carbon dioxide, a "greenhouse gas" linked to global warming, is rising 200 times as fast as at any time during the past 650,000 years.

"It's the rate of increase that's alarming," one of the paper's lead authors, Thomas F. Stocker, said in an interview Wednesday. "These are tremendous changes in the climate system."

Stocker, professor of climate and environmental physics at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said the findings will provide a new baseline for computer climate models, allowing scientists to make more accurate predictions about Earth's changing atmosphere and climate.

He added that through activities such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, humans are releasing carbon dioxide "never seen in the atmosphere in millions and millions of years," which helps account for the sudden climate shift.

-- Juliet Eilperin

Allergy, Engineered Pea Linked

Scientists who created a genetically engineered green pea have bitten off more than they can chew, it seems, by inadvertently creating a food that tends to trigger allergic reactions. The research should serve as a warning flag for others making bioengineered foods, the scientists report in the Nov. 16 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Having identified a gene in the common bean plant that helps protect them against beetle damage, Simon Hogan of Australian National University in Canberra and colleagues transferred copies of that gene into pea plants that do not normally enjoy those protections.

The gene carries molecular instructions that allow bean plants -- and the newly modified pea plants -- to make a pest-repelling protein called alpha-amylase inhibitor-1. Studies had shown that the bean protein does not cause allergies in people or mice.

But when tests suggested that the protein was subtly different in the gene-altered peas than in its native bean, the researchers fed the peas to mice and subjected them to various tests. Surprisingly, the engineered food caused allergic reactions on rodents' skin and in the gut -- even when the peas were cooked.

Further tests showed that although the protein itself is identical in both plants, enzymes inside pea plant cells had "decorated" that protein with simple sugars and other molecules in a way that increased the likelihood of an allergic reaction.

The peas never made it to market. But food safety activists, saying that U.S. testing standards could have missed the problem, said the work confirms their long-standing assertion that federal regulatory agencies need to require more specific allergenicity tests for engineered foods.

-- Rick Weiss

An inscribed artifact, found in Israel, may be linked to Goliath.