The Neanderthal Genome: File Under Non-Fiction

As I wrote in May, there have been some signs that scientists were gearing up to reconstruct the Neanderthal genome. Now it's official, as Nicholas Wade reports in the NY Times. [link fixed] I'm particularly intrigued that the paleoanthropologists doing this work are teaming up with a hot little biotech company down the road from me in Branford, Connecticut called 454. They had a paper out recently showing how they can sequence DNA much faster than by conventional methods. Combine classic fossil work with the latest in genome sequencing, and voila...

Update, seconds later: Whoops, forgot to mention that 454 has set up a very nice page on the project, with fact sheets and papers.


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There are 7 neanderthal nucleotide sequences (mitochondrial) in genbank already, and one protein (osteocalcin, from bone fragments) sequenced using MALDI-TOF. So, just a few million more to go and they're done!
I'm interested to see how practical this turns out to be. DNA isn't very stable in the long term, but perhaps massive sequencing redundancy will help, and the 'scaffolding' of the already sequenced human genome will provide a good starting point.
I wonder what the limits of their technology is? Would they, for example, be able to tell if neanderthals have a different number of chromosomes? The DNA will be highly fragmented and altered.

Scientists doing DNA studies of extinct species -- we all know where this is going, right? It will GO WRONG somehow and we're going to have hordes of dangerous Neanderthals rampaging through the streets of Hartford!

Get me Michael Crichton's agent -- this smells like BLOCKBUSTER, baby!

This is just too cool! Actually, one of the things that I find interesting is that according to the NYT article, it is still an open issue whether Neanderthals could mate with humans. I had read another source that was much more negative on that issue (but sorry I can't remember where I read that). I think some people may be repulsed by the idea that the Neanderthals might make up part of our gene pool, but to me it wouldn't be so shocking. By the same token, it would be really interesting to learn whether homo floresiensis could mate with humans, as some oral traditions have implied.

By Elliot Kennel (not verified) on 24 Jul 2006 #permalink

If you review the science citatation index of ISI Web of Science you get a pretty even mix of pro-con Neanderthal-cromagnon cross-breeding articles.

It can not be ruled out and it's a strong argument that Neanderthals interbred with Cromagnons.

In which case it's time to start reading more STAN GOOCH.