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Sci Tech    H2'ed 5/12/10

Neanderthal genome - our red-headed, muscle-bound siblings live on within us

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Fascinating discoveries recently shed new light on the Neanderthal - researchers have sequenced the Neanderthal genome - we now know exactly what differs and what is the same between them and modern day humans. Not surprisingly, there are some major commonalities. Now we know that humans and Neanderthals interbred to some degree. Today, there remains a part of Homo neanderthalensis which lives on in Homo sapiens.

This is wonderful and exciting news for all except those who think existence is only 6k years old, and are convinced that Homo sapiens was created "special and different" from all other species.

Well, hold on, Fundie-fantasy-folks, because you're about to lose even more credibility if that's possible.

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So what is a genome? Well, it's the enormously huge list of chemical bases - there are only four - Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymine, called ACGT respectively, which by their arrangement tell our bodies how to do everything involved in making our selves. Further, AT form a pair, and CG form a pair. When we sequence a genome, we basically identify and then create the list of many millions of bases/letters - ATCGCGGCATTA - etc, which form "sentences' and each sentence is a particular gene, for example, the gene to make an eye, or skin. Each cell in our bodies houses two sets of the human genome- the "Double Helix" shown above. Many things require combinations of genes. But all humans essentially have exactly the same genes. That's why research into genetics will help cure diseases - breast cancer is "expressed' by a defect in the language of the sentence. Once we learn to repair the poor genetic grammar, we'll have cured breast cancer. And on and on.

Evolution is basically a natural editing of the sentences. Sometimes it's well done, enabling an individual to better live and function in its environment, and sometimes it is disastrous- leading to extinction. Sometimes, a misplaced base pair has no effect whatsoever. It's a slow process. Imagine if one base pair changed per lifetime and you begin to get an idea of how long evolution takes. (That's not 'exactly' how it happens, you might fine three base pair changes in one lifetime, and none for many generations, but the concept is fine for understanding the seemingly endless length of time a change would take to manifest across a species.

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It's no surprise at all that there are mutual genes with Neanderthals, really, but what we didn't know was that between 1 and 4% of the Eurasian genome comes directly from the Neanderthal. Yes, they were a separate line, but not so separate that interbreeding with sapiens couldn't happen, and now we know it did. Each time we make a leap in our knowledge, we learn more about the specifics of human and Neanderthal exchanges.

Forensic Anthropology scientists at both Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania have been working to further understand the connection between Neanderthals and humans.

Harold Dibble, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (if you haven't been, GO! it's one of the BEST) saw this coming years ago as scientists disagreed about many Neanderthal characteristics.

"In the late 20th century the field split over just how similar Neanderthals were to us, Dibble said. He calls the two factions the "smart Neanderthal camp" and the "dumb Neanderthal camp."

The "dumb" camp says Neanderthals were significantly less intelligent than modern man despite a comparable brain size. They lacked language and complex social order and couldn't possibly have interbred with our ancestors.

The "smart" Neanderthal camp says they had intelligence comparable to ours, they talked and otherwise behaved like human beings.

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Professor Paabo with Neanderthal skull.

In 2007 Science Magazine announced that European researchers extracted enough DNA from two Neanderthal skulls to suggest their owners sported red hair and white skin when they were alive 43,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Recently announced research led by Professor Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has revealed the new data.

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Carol is a writer - The Philadelphia Science Examiner -, and the Philadelphia Freethought Examiner; a painter and (more...)
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