Neanderthal Genome Published As Open Source

Elaine Radford

A high-quality full Neanderthal genome has been sequenced for the first time, and the open source data is now available to everyone. That's the exciting announcement today from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

The team, led by paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo, used material from a toe bone found in 2010 in a cave in southern Siberia. They had previously released information about the Neanderthal genome that same year including evidence of inbreeding between the Neanderthals and modern humans. The Neanderthal species (or subspecies, according to some scientists who place it in our own species) died out about 28,000 years ago.

The specimen in question is about 38,000 years old, and the genome contains about three billion letters. At this point, Pääbo said that the Neanderthal genome sequence is "is as good as or even better than the multiple present-day human genomes available to date."

Of course, the Germans have known for awhile that the Neanderthal genome project was in the works. In January, German magazine Der Spiegel interviewed controversial molecular biologist George Church, who said that he planned to recreate the Neanderthals by cloning them.

Church even claimed that he might eventually need a human surrogate mother for the project. Hey, I'm chuckling too, but the idea might not be as improbable as it sounds.

In 2010, Pääbo estimated that any human group that developed outside of the continent of Africa has up to four percent of its DNA from Neanderthals. In other words, humans and Neanderthals could and did occasionally breed where they overlapped. Native populations of sub-Saharan Africa don't have any Neanderthal DNA because the Neanderthals never lived there.

For the curious, the photograph shows a comparison of a human and a Neanderthal skull at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

However, even with access to the Neanderthal genome, the technical difficulties with cloning mammals probably mean that we won't be resurrecting the species any time soon.

[skull photo courtesy Mike Celeskey and Mike Baxter via Wikipedia Commons]