Svante PaaboDecoding genomes is getting cheaper. Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is busy decoding the genome for the Neanderthal. Decoding the genetic makeup of Neanderthals will allow us to see just where this human relative falls in our family tree. By comparing the makeup of this genome with that of the varous races of modern humans, and with bonobos and chimpanzees we can see a little more clearly where they fall.

The genome of Neanderthal is not easy to decode because the available samples are few and far between, and degraded through thousands and thousands of years. This is less of a hindrance to Pääbo than you would expect. His partnership with 454 Life Sciences provides him with sequencing equipment ideally suited for the job. The equipment works on efficiently sequencing small segments of DNA, no more than a few hundred base pairs long. Neanderthal DNA fragments have only a hundred or so pairs remaining in sequence after all these years. This length is ideal for the 454 Life Sciences machines. By sequencing many fragments, each sequence can be “plugged into” the bigger framework of the very similar human genome based upon known references in the chain.

DNA - Photo by Scott IngramWhat can we expect to learn from this? Was there Human – Neanderthal interbreeding? What did Neanderthals look like – hair, eyes, skin color? Did they have sophisticated speech? What characteristics did Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens’ common ancestor share with us? What adaptations did Neanderthals have that made them well suited to cold climates?

This is exciting research, and will yield a lot of new knowledge about us and our cousin the Neanderthal.