Friday, May 7, 2010

Neanderthal genome has been sequenced

Researchers have finally succeeded in using tiny samples of powdered bone, 40 thousand years old, to sequence the Neanderthal genome. The team included the Swede Svante Pääbo (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig), the American Richard Green (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Hernán Burbano (Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá).

This achievement—whose conclusions have just been published in the journal Science—comes a decade after the successful sequencing of the human genome, and five years after the publication of a draft genome sequence of the chimpanzee. It's henceforth possible to compare the three genomes, to determine which genes are shared, and which genes are found uniquely in Homo sapiens.

It's particularly fascinating to find genetic evidence of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. This lends weight to the idea that we might be two subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, rather than two distinct species. This, of course, is good news for observers who like to imagine (as I do) the use of cloning techniques to bring Neanderthals back into existence.

Neanderthal clones might enable old men leading solitary lives in the mountains to find charming female companions for Scrabble on winter evenings in front of the fireplace. But this wishful thinking could well be illusory.

The ladies would insist on using old-fashioned Neanderthal spelling, and arguments would soon break out…

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