Genome of Near Relative Analyzed

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September 02, 2012

The importance of genetic research in helping us understand diversity among our ancestors is playing an ever more important part. Last week a paper in the journal Science Express cast new light on a previously dimly glimpsed people referred to as the Denisovans.

These people were contemporaneous with and related to the  Neanderthals living in central Asia between 60 and 80,000 years ago.  their existence became known two years ago and the original discovery team has continued to investigate the fragmentary DNA a young girl left behind.

(The scientists responsible for this research, while declaring the Denisovans to be different in their genetic makeup than Neanderthals, have not named them a new species such as, for example, “Homo denisovensis”.  This is an exceptional degree of caution compared with earlier times in the field of paleoanthropology when almost every new discovery resulted in the naming of a new species.)

As revealed in this paper, the Denisovan genome has been reconstructed with a high degree of accuracy.  All that was found in this chilly Siberian cave were two wisdom teeth and a sliver of finger bone.  The lead author of this article was the principal scientist developing new techniques with the fragmentary DNA remaining in that small bone.  He is able to say the individual was a juvenile female with brown eyes, brown hair and skin color.  The Denisovam population was small without a great deal of genomic diversity and its genetic makeup was-related  to but not identical with contemporaneous Neanderthals and later Homo sapiens.

For background on the cave called Denisova and the significance of what was discovered there, see the news article Look Ma, No Bones appearing on this website two years ago and discussing the extent to which genetic analysis is overtaking fossil evidence.

It is expected the methodology developed in this case will contribute to further breakthroughs in reconstructing fragmentary DNA.

Read the paper, published last week in Science Express.