After years of seemingly endless research, scientists have completed a first draft of the Neanderthal genome.
Nature reports that a team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany has sequenced 60 percent of the genome of a Neanderthal, the closest relative of modern humans. After analyzing more than a billion fragments of ancient DNA, the researchers constructed the genome mostly with DNA strands from a 38,000-year-old fossilized leg bone found in a cave in Croatia. They also used material from older remains, some up to 70,000 years old.
Neanderthals are thought to have been proficient at crafting basic tools and weapons, and died out shortly after Homo sapiens migrated to Europe, but the precise connection between the species has always been unclear. The Neanderthal genome sequence will clarify the evolutionary relationship between humans and Neanderthals as well as help identify those genetic changes that enabled modern humans to leave Africa and rapidly spread around the world, starting around 100,000 years ago [PhysOrg].
The rough draft of the genome has already turned up some fascinating tidbits, such as the revelation that Neanderthals shared the gene associated with speech and language in modern humans. Says lead researcher Svante Pääbo: “There’s no reason to think they [couldn't] articulate as we do, although there are many more genes related to speech” [Wired News].
Comparing the genomes of Neanderthals and humans should answer some long-debated questions, such as whether Neanderthals and modern humans continued to mate with each other after separating along the path of evolution [The Guardian]. Some anthropologists have suggested that as the two groups of early humans lived close to each other in Europe, they must have interbred; while others have taken a quite opposite stance, arguing that modern humans probably killed off the Neanderthals.
While researchers are eager to learn more about Neanderthals’ lives and capacities, researchers say the larger goal is reaching a better understanding of how we humans came into our own. Says Pääbo: “It was always a dream to look at the DNA of our closest evolutionary relatives. Now that we have the Neanderthal genome, we can look for areas in the human genome where a change seems to have swept rapidly through us since we separated from Neanderthals” [BBC].
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