BERLIN – American and German scientists on Thursday launched a two-year project to decipher the genetic code of the Neanderthal, a feat they hope will help deepen understanding of how modern humans’ brains evolved.
Neanderthals were a species that lived in Europe and western Asia from more than 200,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago. Scientists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are teaming up with a company in Connecticut to map the genome, or DNA code.
“The Neanderthal is the closest relative to the modern human, and we believe that by sequencing the Neanderthal we can learn a lot,” said Michael Egholm, a vice president at 454 Life Sciences Corp. of Branford, Conn., which will use its high-speed sequencing technology in the project.
There are no firm answers yet about how humans picked up key traits such as walking upright and developing complex language. Neanderthals are believed to have been relatively sophisticated, but lacking in humans’ higher reasoning functions.
The Neanderthal project follows scientists’ achievement last year in deciphering the DNA of the chimpanzee, humans’ closest living relative. That genome map produced a long list of DNA differences between humans and chimps and some hints about which differences might be crucial.
The chimp genome “led to literally too many questions; there were 35 million differences between us and chimpanzees – that’s too much to figure out,” Jonathan Rothberg, 454’s chairman, said in a telephone interview.
“By having Neanderthal, we’ll really be able to home in on the small percentage of differences that gave us higher cognitive abilities,” he said. “Neanderthal is going to open the box. It’s not going to answer the question, but it’s going to tell where to look to understand all of those higher cognitive functions.”
Over two years, the scientists aim to reconstruct a draft of the 3 billion building blocks of the Neanderthal genome – working with fossil samples from several individuals.
They face the complication of working with 40,000-year-old samples and of filtering out microbial DNA that contaminated them after death.
Only about 5 percent of the DNA in the samples is actually Neanderthal DNA, Egholm estimated, but he and Rothberg said pilot experiments had convinced them that the decoding was feasible.
At the Max Planck Institute, the project also involves Svante Paabo, who nine years ago participated in a DNA test on a Neanderthal sample. The test was pioneering, though on a smaller scale than the test under way.
That study suggested Neanderthals and humans split from a common ancestor a half-million years ago. The study also backed the theory that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end.
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