Scientists unravel Neanderthal genome
Extraordinary feat will shed light on what it means to be human
* guardian.co.uk, Thursday 12 February 2009 15.01 GMT
Scientists have unravelled the genetic make-up of the Neanderthal, the
long-faced, barrel-chested relative of modern humans.
Anthropologists analysed more than a billion fragments of ancient DNA plucked
from three Croatian fossils to reconstruct a first draft of the Neanderthal
The extraordinary feat gives scientists an unprecedented opportunity to clarify
the evolutionary relationship between humans and Neanderthals that may
ultimately shed light on the great mystery of how we became the most formidable
species on the planet.
Neanderthals were the closest relatives of modern living humans. They lived in
Europe and Asia until they became extinct around 30,000 years ago. The reason
they died out is not clear, but likely factors are dramatic swings in the
climate that affected the availability of food, and competition with early
By comparing the genomes of modern humans with Neanderthals and chimps,
scientists hope to unravel the genetic differences that define what it is to be
The Neanderthal genome was built up from strands of DNA, most of which came
from a 38,000-year-old fossilised leg bone unearthed in a cave in Vindija,
Croatia. Other material came from older remains dating back 70,000 years.
Together, the fragments make up more than 60% of the Neanderthal genome.
Svante Pääbo, who led the project at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Biology in Leipzig, Germany, said the team would spend the rest of the year
analysing the DNA. They will focus on genes linked to modern human evolution,
such as FOXP2, which is involved in speech and language.
The draft genome was announced at the American Association for the Advancement
of Science meeting in Chicago.
Two years ago, the same group used the ancient DNA to pinpoint the moment,
about 500,000 years ago, when modern humans split from Neanderthals.
The analysis should clear up once and for all the ongoing debate as to whether
Neanderthals and modern humans continued to mate with each other after
separating along the path of evolution.
Remains of Neanderthals dating back to 400,000 years ago suggest they were
proficient at crafting basic tools and weapons and buried their dead. The last
Neanderthals died out shortly after Homo sapiens migrated to Europe and settled.
Neanderthals were stocky and well-adapted to a cold climate, with brains that
were on average larger than those of modern humans. Some fossil evidence
suggests they were occasionally cannibalistic, though they more commonly hunted
large animals including horses and mammoths.
* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
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