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Headlines Published on 12 July 2007

Title The human family tree explored

It sounds as though it came out of the pages of a science fiction book or from the mind of Steven Spielberg. But as is often the case, reality is where all the action is and this time it's happening in Leipzig, Germany. There, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are close to unlocking the secrets of the DNA belonging to Neanderthal man. Their efforts will help answer the question as to just how close a relative the Neanderthal man is to modern Man.

A 3D reconstruction of a Neanderthal skull.  © Max-Planck-Institute
A 3D reconstruction of a Neanderthal skull
© Max-Planck-Institute
Neanderthals roamed the earth thousands of years ago. They lived all across Europe, as well as in parts of west and central Asia. They first appeared some 230 000 years ago before mysteriously vanishing approximately 29 000 years ago. What happened to them? How and why did they suddenly disappear? Scientists at the Institute may be close to finding an answer.

There has been much debate in the scientific community as to whether there is any relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans. Currently, the deliberation is divided into two main camps with some researchers believing that Neanderthals were simply replaced by early modern humans, while those in the other camp posit that the two groups may have indeed interbred.

That is why the research conducted by these European scientists is so important. By sequencing the genome of Neanderthals, scientists will be able to clarify the evolutionary relationship between humans and Neanderthals. This will also help identify those genetic changes that enabled modern humans to leave Africa and make their way across the world some 100 000 years ago.

The process of extracting, identifying and sequencing ancient DNA from fossils is a technically demanding undertaking. When any organism dies, its tissues are soon overrun by bacteria and fungi. This results in much of the DNA being destroyed; only a small amount remains, which is in turn broken into short pieces and chemically modified during the long period of fossil formation.

As a result, when scientists 'mine' tiny samples of ancient bones for DNA, much of the DNA obtained is actually from contaminants such as bacteria, fungi, and in some cases even from scientists who have previously handled the bones. Over the last 20 years, the research group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, headed by Svante Paabo, have pioneered methods for demonstrating the authenticity of ancient DNA results, as well as technical solutions to the problems of working with short, chemically-modified DNA fragments.

The team's findings have been published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information:

  • BBC: 'Neanderthal yields nuclear DNA'
  • Social sciences and humanities on Europa

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