From the recent March/April issue of Archaeology. Zach Zorich writes:
If Neanderthals ever walk the earth again, the primordial ooze from which they will rise is an emulsion of oil, water, and DNA capture beads engineered in the laboratory of 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Connecticut. Over the past 4 years those beads have been gathering tiny fragments of DNA from samples of dissolved organic materials, including pieces of Neanderthal bone. Genetic sequences have given paleoanthropologists a new line of evidence for testing ideas about the biology of our closest extinct relative.
The first studies of Neanderthal DNA focused on the genetic sequences of mitochondria, the microscopic organelles that convert food to energy within cells. In 2005, however, 454 began a collaborative project with the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, to sequence the full genetic code of a Neanderthal woman who died in Croatia’s Vindija cave 30,000 years ago. As the Neanderthal genome is painstakingly sequenced, the archaeologists and biologists who study it will be faced with an opportunity that seemed like science fiction just 10 years ago. They will be able to look at the genetic blueprint of humankind’s nearest relative and understand its biology as intimately as our own.
In addition to giving scientists the ability to answer questions about Neanderthals’ relationship to our own species — did we interbreed, are we separate species, who was smarter — the Neanderthal genome may be useful in researching medical treatments. Newly developed techniques could make cloning Neanderthal cells or body parts a reality within a few years. The ability to use the genes of extinct hominins is going to force the field of paleoanthropology into some unfamiliar ethical territory. There are still technical obstacles, but soon it could be possible to use that long-extinct genome to safely create a healthy, living Neanderthal clone. Should it be done?
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