Monday, October 26, 2009

Plan to Scan 'Neanderthal' Genome for 'Modern Human' DNA

Despite the sensationalized title of this article, it discusses an interesting new project. For the first time, the Neanderthal genome will be scanned for traces of modern human DNA. From The Times Online October 25, 2009 Neanderthals ‘had sex’ with modern man Modern humans and Neanderthals had sex across the species barrier, according to a leading geneticist who is overseeing a project to compare their genomes. ... Professor Svante Paabo, director of genetics at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, will shortly publish his analysis of the entire Neanderthal genome, using DNA retrieved from fossils. He aims to compare it with the genomes of modern humans and chimpanzees to work out the ancestry of all three species. ... Paabo recently told a conference at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory near New York that he was now sure the two species had had sex — but a question remained about how “productive” it had been. “What I’m really interested in is, did we have children back then and did those children contribute to our variation today?” he said. “I’m sure that they had sex, but did it give offspring that contributed to us? We will be able to answer quite rigorously with the new [Neanderthal genome] sequence.” [He doesn't explain how he is so certain 'Neanderthal' and 'modern human' got close enough to each other to have sexual intercourse ala "Clan of the Cave Bear."] ... Last week Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum, presented a conference at the Royal Society in London with an idea that could accommodate both sets of evidence [of Neanderthal-modern human offspring]. “It’s possible that Neanderthals and humans were genetically incompatible, so they could have interbred but their children would have been less fertile,” said Stringer. This phenomenon is seen in many other species such as when lions breed with tigers and horses breed with zebras. “I used to believe Neanderthals were primitive,” said Stringer, “but in the last 10,000-15,000 years before they died out, around 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals were giving their dead complex burials and making tools and jewellery, such as pierced beads, like modern humans.” Due to the length of time that has elapsed since Neanderthals became extinct, any trace of their DNA in modern humans could have been diluted below detectable levels. Paabo hopes to overcome this by scanning the Neanderthal genome for the genes of modern humans. Click here to watch an interview with Professor Svante Paabo, who is overseeing the neanderthal genome project, where he talks about whether neanderthals and modern humans had sex.

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