Monday, July 24, 2006

Neanderthal Genome

Researchers in Germany plan to reconstruct the genome of Neanderthals. The story is here and here. What do they hope to gain from this research? The piece in the NY Times explains:

Recovery of the Neanderthal genome, in whole or in part, would be invaluable for reconstructing many events in human prehistory and evolution. It would help address such questions as whether Neanderthals and humans interbred, whether the archaic humans had an articulate form of language, how the Neanderthal brain was constructed, if they had light or dark skins, and the total size of the Neanderthal population.

....One of the most important results that researchers are hoping for is to discover, from a three-way comparison between chimp, human and Neanderthal DNA, which genes have made humans human. The chimp and human genomes differ at just 1 percent of the sites on their DNA. At 1 percent, Neanderthals resemble humans at 96 percent of the sites, to judge from the preliminary work, and chimps at 4 percent. Analysis of the DNA at the sites at which humans differ from the two other species will help understand the evolution of specifically human traits “and perhaps even aspects of cognitive function,” Dr. Paabo said.