Now that everybody is talking about that show Cavemen, the question that genomics experts have been researching for the past couple of years is more relevant than ever: Do we have elements of homo neanderthalis in our present-day homo sapiens genomes? In plain English: are we the results of love matches between ancient humans and Neanderthals? New gene-sequencing techniques that work on DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils have made this an answerable question, but still the scientists are arguing! Two recent, highly-reputable studies have looked at Neanderthal DNA and come up with radically different scenarios. One group, led by Max Planck scientist Richard Green, says the human genome is riddled with Neanderthal, which means the species did some intermingling. In fact, Green argues, there is actually less difference between ancient homo sapiens and Neanderthal than there is between different racial groups today. But another research group, led by Lawrence Berkeley Lab geneticist James Noonan, says that's absurd. It found no Neanderthal DNA in our pristine homo sapiens genome, and suggests that any offspring created by the two species had no significant impact on contemporary homo sapiens. Who should you believe?
A new research paper released today in PLoS Genetics says both studies may have gotten it wrong. They suggest that contamination might have screwed up Green's study, making it appear that there was a lot more admixture between the two hominids than there actually was. On the other hand, evidence from other studies make it seem likely that there was at least some mixing between human and Neanderthal, and that we have inherited some traits from those hairy, European hominids with the big foreheads who died out about 40 thousand years ago. You should expect to see more controversy coming out of Neanderthal DNA sequencing projects in coming months. People never cease to be fascinated by the idea that at one time there were two hominid populations living side-by-side in Europe — and that fascination fuels research grants. Image by Frank Franklin II for AP.
Inconsistencies in Neanderthal Genomic DNA Sequences [PLoS Genetics]