Gentlemen, we can rebuild them. We have the technology.

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Well, not exactly. But if we can sequence the human genome (in record time and underbudget, thanks Mr. Collins), why not the Neanderthals genome too?

There have been some big potential holdups. First, there’s the problem that they’re extinct. And then the fact that genomes start degrading right away. And that 95% of the DNA recovered from Neanderthal bones is bacterial DNA. And most Neanderthal bones that have been recovered are hopelessly contaminated by the DNA of the humans who found them.

But new advances in technology appear poised to overcome what used to be seen as insurmountable obstacles (a recurring theme in the biological sciences). The New York Times reports that scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany are using a new technique that can combine small fragments of ancient DNA (usually under 100 base pairs in length) into complete genomes.

The process filters out bacterial DNA and slowly pieces together the larger genome. It’s been used on ancient cave bears and mammoths, but the application to Neanderthals would shed light on a particularly controversial area of scientific investigation; whether Neanderthals are direct human ancestors or merely a related line that died off (or that we out-competed or killed off).

Sequencing the Neanderthal genome (which at ‘first glance’ is 99.5% identical to human, whereas chimpanzees are at least 95% identical genetically) will give us better evidence on the question of whether humans crossbred with Homo neanderthalensis, picking up important genes along the way, or simply displaced Neanderthals in Europe around 35,000 years ago. While most scientists seem to agree that there is no hard evidence for crossbreeding, not everyone agrees.

Some scientists have recently asserted (in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences) that humans picked up an important gene (microcephalin, MCPH1) necessary for brain development from Neanderthals.

One reason this research will be so fascinating to follow is that the relation of Homo sapiens (us) to Homo neanderthalensis (them) is anything but certain. Neanderthals (see Wikipedia) had tools, likely had language (their hyoid bone was nearly identical to ours), buried their dead, constructed complex shelters, controlled fire, and possibly even made rudimentary musical instruments.

So what we Neanderthals really like? Only time (and good genome sequencing technology) will tell.

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