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Neandertal Genome Draft Published

May 6, 2010

The long-awaited Neandertal genome has finally been published.

The May 7, 2010 edition of the journal Science features two papers by the Neandertal Genome Analysis Consortium lead by Svante Pääbo.  The first by Green et al describes the first draft sequence of the 3 billion+ base-pair Neandertal nuclear genome, constructed from the bones of three separate female Neandertals.  The second, more technical, paper from Burbano et al describes some the Consortium’s methods for capturing and sequencing the ancient DNA.  There is also a summary article by Ann Gibbons and other special features all free to all site visitors.

The sequence of the modern human genome was published in 2001, and the genomes of countless other organisms have been sequenced and published over the years.  What makes the Neandertal genome special?  First of all, ancient DNA is much more difficult to work with than modern DNA.  Living Neandertals disappeared from the Earth 30,000 years ago, and since that time their DNA has been sitting in fossilized bone, suffering the ravages of time.  This leaves researchers with very little material to work with, and what there is can be damaged or contaminated with the DNA of modern humans as they perform their work.  The NGAC was very careful to limit contamination of their samples with modern human DNA and so achieved the cleanest, most accurate sequence possible.

This sequence has already given us some fascinating insight into possible interactions of Neandertals and ancient Homo sapiens.  I’m sure the mainstream media will present it as “We have discovered that Neandertals interbred with the ancestors of modern humans! ”  But really there was already some speculation that Neandertals and  Homo sapiens could mate and produce offspring, this research confirms and refines that idea.   Further study of the genome, particularly looking at where it diverges from the modern human genome, could also give us insight into what makes us, the modern Homo sapiens, unique among hominids.  In other words, we could gain more knowledge of what it is about our DNA that makes us modern humans.

There are already posts discussing the human-Neandertal mating angle (somehow I knew this would be the most interesting bit) and some of the less salacious insights, as well as a long and insightful post summing up most of the main points of both papers and reiterating just how cool this research is.

I hope to expand on this topic later, once I’ve also gotten a chance to read the papers!

From → Evolution

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