Origins of Neanderthals: Neanderthal Genome to Unlock Secrets of Human Evolution
This research was announced on Darwin Day, 12 February 2009. The common ancestor of both Homo neanderthalis and Homo sapiens dates back some 830,000 years.
The article is from The Times, London, by Mark Henderson, Science Editor, in Chicago.

The genetic code of Neanderthal Man has been pieced together from DNA recovered from ancient fossils, providing insights into evolution that promise to reveal many of the genes that make us human.

As Homo neanderthalis is the closest evolutionary cousin of Homo sapiens that has ever existed, comparisons between its genome and those of modern humans and chimpanzees will allow scientists to identify DNA sequences that are unique to our species. Many of these will explain human capabilities that are not shared by other animals, such as complex thought, language and art.

“Studying the Neanderthals and studying the Neanderthal genome will tell us what makes modern humans really human, why we are alone, why we have these amazing capabilities,” said Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, who led the project with his colleague Professor Svante Pääbo. “It will allow us to analyse our genome and manipulate it.”

The reconstruction of the Neanderthal genome will not, however, pave the way for the resurrection of the ancient human relatives by cloning. While sufficient DNA can be recovered from fossils to allow a rough genome map to be assembled, this will be too incomplete to clone a living being, the scientists said.

“I would say that starting from DNA from a fossil, it [cloning] remains impossible,” Professor Pääbo said. “As far as I can see into the future, there isn't an improvement in technology that would make that possible.”

The announcement came on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. “It is really about understanding our evolution,” Professor Pääbo said. “We will be able to catalogue the changes that happened before humans diverged from Neanderthals, and those that happened afterwards. The second goal, which is fitting for Darwin's birthday, is finding evidence of positive selection, of identifying changes that really made a difference in our ancestors.”

The Neanderthal genome, which will be presented by Professor Pääbo on Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago, is a first draft, containing at least some data on 63 per cent of the DNA letters that make it up. Nonetheless, it is a scientific tour de force that has greatly improved the ability to study the genetics of extinct species.

While DNA from extinct creatures has been extracted and sequenced before, this has come from animals that were frozen in permafrost, mainly mammoths, and in which soft tissue had been preserved. The Neanderthal DNA, by contrast, was taken from bones found at four sites: Vindya in Croatia, El Sidrón in Spain, Mezmaiskaya in Russia and Feldhofer in the Neander valley in Germany, where the original specimens that gave the species its name were found.

This DNA could be read because of new genome sequencing technology that has become available only in the past few years. The sequencing was conducted by 454 Life Sciences, which recently mapped the genetic code of James Watson, who with Francis Crick identified the double-helix structure of DNA.

Preliminary analysis of the Neanderthal genome has identified several critical genes that are similar or different to modern humans. Neanderthals do not appear to have the gene for lactase, which allows adults to digest milk and is common among Europeans and some Africans, but rare elsewhere in the world.

The research has also confirmed that Neanderthals share the human version of a gene called FOXP2, which is known to be involved in language, which suggests it is possible that they could have been capable of speech. “This is the only gene we happen to know about that's involved in speech, and there will be many others, so we cannot say that they could speak,” Professor Pääbo said. “However, there is no reason to assume they couldn't speak, from the little we know. How human were they? My take on that is we will probably never fully know.”

Another early finding is that Neanderthals appear not to have interbred with modern humans. “Our data show that the contribution of Neanderthals to the modern gene pool is very little, if anything,” Professor Pääbo said.

Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “If the Neanderthal genome data show little evidence of potential hybridisation, that would fit with my view from the fossil evidence that, while interbreeding was probably possible, it may have occurred only rarely, with trivial impact on modern humans.

“The populations had been separate for hundreds of thousands of years and I think there would have been significant physical and behavioural differences between them. However, larger samples would be desirable to get a more complete picture, and hopefully those will follow soon.”

The research suggests that the evolutionary split between humans and Neanderthals happened about 830,000 years ago. The Neanderthals died out around 30,000 years ago, and competition with modern humans may have been an important factor.

N.B. Origins of Neanderthal extinction, Part 1, was initiated in the group ORIGINS on 21 December 2008
and a consideration of Neanderthal Language was made in ORIGINS in September/October 2008.

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Replies to This Discussion

It's interesting to speculate. If humans and Neathanderthals overlapped by hundreds or thousands of years, and if they were genetically compatible, and in geographic proximity, it's hard to imagine that there wouldn't be at least some mixing. Humans, at least, are too sexually curious, aggressive, and promiscuous to think that there wouldn't be some recombination of gene pools. But - if the results were like donkeyXhorse=mule, then it would end with that generation. This is a lot of "if's", anyway.

It's amazing to think that there is enough intact DNA to replicate 63% of their genomes. These specimens are thousands of years old. I would have thought there would be no DNA remaining. Impressive.
Impressive indeed. So many scientists are doing such stunning work at this time. We may not be in a 'eureka' phase of science with revolutionary new theories that affect all of biology but there is a lot of knowledge being amassed. There is so much technological growth in gene-sequencing and computer modeling that the sum total of the work in the last 10 years has been the equivalent of 'great discoveries'.
Earlier this month I visited the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. While I didn't see any evidence for creation I did have an interesting conversation with a young earth creationist/ electrical engineer who was an assistant to the curator, "Dr." Carl Baugh. in part of this conversation his assistant maintained that Neanderthals were really old humans. When I explained that they lived at the same time he reiterated, "No. I mean they were humans that were several hundred years old. Remember that people lived for very long periods of time back then because they didn't sin."

I blinked at him a few times, partially astounded and partially dumbfounded. When I realized he was serious I asked him if his skull was small because he was older than me and turning into a Neanderthal or if he was just a Homo Sapien with a tiny brain.

Once I get moved in to my new house I'll finish my article on my trip to that freaky museum and post it here.
Ooh, I'm looking forward to this crazy extravaganza.
Do write it up in detail.
I am also curious as to the events that took place upon your visit.

I saw Religilous and laughed at the part showing the creation museum.
I envy you your trip to the creationist museum. It sounds like an adventure. Those people are so stupid. It's like looking at a car accident or train wreck.

I've never heard that Neanderthal's were Methuselah et al. Hilarious! Can you prove they're NOT old people? Huh?

A few years ago I went to the Vatican with my partner. It was a hot day. He insisted on taking shorts, but wore long pants to get in. He changed in a restroom. I said, "No, they'll throw us out". He said "No they won't". We were promptly escorted out of Vatican City by the Swiss Guards, due his indecent clothing (these were Bermudas that reached his knees).

We returned to the Vatican the next day and got to see all of the cool paintings and statues of gods and goddesses and graven idols (oops, I mean saints).

Still, I loved the fact that we were thrown out of Vatican City. It's my favorite part of that trip.
Daniel, you do get style points for getting the boot from there! That might qualify you for an A/N Hall of Fame kind of status. Cheers!
Maybe this could become a collection - like PZ Myers getting Expelled from Expelled. My next goal would be to be ejected from a creationist museum - it was thinking about that (getting back to topic) that made me remember my experience at the Vatican

I was thinking about Neanderthals just being really, really old people. Actually, people get osteoporosis and their bones get really fragile when they age. The bones don't become thicker and stronger. Women get osteoporosis more than men, but men can also develop this condition - the older they are, the more likely it is. So the bones would not become more heavy, they would become more transparent and fragile. (I guess that didn't happen until sin was introduced - but wait - sin was introduced with Adam and Eve, BEFORE Methuselah). Plus, this seems to mean that it was Neanderthals, not us, that were made in Yahweh's image. Put THAT on a ceiling fresco!

Even more back to topic, now what we really need is a Neanderthal person uncovered from the permafrost, so we can get a more complete genome. But I suspect that they never ventured that far North.
Who knows what will turn up in the ice one day!? The Bronze Age Ice Man of the Alps has given us so much useful information, but come to think of it I have not heard anything about DNA data from him.
As an aside, I have had my own DNA analysed and it is very interesting ideed.
New DNA study suggests that the Iceman apparently has no living relatives (October 30 2008)

A study in Current Biology has found that the Iceman's mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), one of the best ways of determining genealogy, is apparently not related to anyone living today.

Researchers discovered that "Ötzi's mtDNA belonged to a broad genetic category called K1, which is still common in Europe today.... However, modern Europeans today belong to three sub-lineages of K1, whereas ... Ötzi belonged to a previously unidentified lineage of K1 that has not been seen to date in modern European populations." According to Martin Richards, a professor of biology at the University of Leeds in northern England, "Our research suggests that Ötzi's lineage may indeed have become extinct."

This finding contradicts an earlier 1994 study (based on a very small section of the gene sequence) which suggested that Ötzi might have living descendants.

Researchers are careful to point out that, if a larger number of Europeans are tested, especially in the alpine areas where the Iceman roamed, it is still possible a genetic link might be found between the Iceman and people today.
Ötzi is the fellow responsible for interesting me in paleoanthropology. I love the idea of trying to recreate prehistoric events and customs based on archaeological evidence, evolution, and a general understanding of the human psyche. We can assume, based on evidence of course, that he was hunted down. I wonder now if Ötzi's whole family was the target of another rival family or families. This could account for his lack of mtDNA linkage today.
CFI were asking people to video themselves reading aloud from the last chapter of The Origin of Species while standing in front of their countries famous landmarks. My first thought was to go into the Creation Evidence Museum on a busy day, sit in the middle of the place and perform the task until I was physically removed and/or arrested. I think it would have been worth it and I might still do it.

Another thing about the "old" Neanderthals: They only lived for around forty years as evidenced by their teeth and other common forensic age determination factors.

I laughed aloud at your fresco reference. I imagined several other beings with long white beards adorning the ceiling: Tiktaalik, Lucy, and Heidelberg man among them.




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