May 7, 2010 in Nation/World

Neanderthal DNA lives on in humans

Testing traces genes back to cave men
Randolph E. Schmid Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Richard E. Green holds replicas of bones from which Neanderthal DNA was extracted.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – We have met Neanderthal and he is us – at least a little.

The most detailed look yet at the Neanderthal genome helps answer one of the most debated questions in anthropology: Did Neanderthals and modern humans mate?

The answer is yes, there is at least some cave man biology in most of us. Between 1 percent and 4 percent of genes in people from Europe and Asia trace back to Neanderthals.

“They live on, a little bit,” says Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Researchers led by Paabo, Richard E. Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and David Reich of Harvard Medical School compared the genetic material collected from the bones of three Neanderthals with that from five modern humans.

Their findings, reported in today’s edition of the journal Science, show a relationship between Neanderthals and modern people outside Africa, Paabo said.

That suggests that interbreeding occurred in the Middle East, he said.

“People are interested in the question: ‘By what route did I get here?’ And the idea that there is a faint echo of Neanderthals” is interesting, reflected Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The closest extinct relative to modern people, Neanderthals coexisted with humans for 30,000 to 50,000 years in Europe and western Asia.

Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has long argued that Neanderthals contributed to the human genome, welcomed the study, commenting that now researchers “can get on to other things than who was having sex with who in the Pleistocene.”

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