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Scientists Map Neanderthal Genome

A team of German scientists has completed the first draft of the genome. Scientists hope the ancient hominid will shed light on the evolution of modern humans.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology isolated three billion base pairs, or genetic building blocks, from 38,000-year-old Neanderthal bone fragments of three Croatian fossils. But the genetic blueprint is about 63 percent complete, researchers say, because many of the gene pairs are repeats.

Researchers had to use a special "clean room" to sift the DNA from the bacteria that had accumulated inside the fossils, which geneticists hope will answer questions about the extinct Neanderthals' migration out of Africa to Asia and Europe, where they died out 30,000 years later to be replaced by modern humans.

But there is argument about just how closely humans and Neanderthals are related. While some anthropologists believe Neanderthal was a direct ancestor, others believe the ancient hominid bred with other primates in Europe and Asia, which led to the explosion of modern humans.

Svante Paabo, lead scientist on the Neanderthal gene sequencing project in Leipzig,Germany believes Neanderthal is only a distant cousin of modern humans. "We have no definitive proof of any contribution of Neanderthals into the current gene pool. But the problem is, of course, to say that something does not exist at all. So, what we cannot say is we have not found it and if it exists, it has been quite small," Paabo said.

But researchers have identified one gene the ancient hominid and modern humans share in common called FOXP2, which codes for speech. "Language ability and speech and articulation rely on many, many other genes that we do not yet known where Neanderthals could have been different. So, we cannot say from this that they could speak; we could just say there's no reason to assume they could speak from the little we know," Paabof said.

Both the human and chimpanzee genomes have been sequenced and found to be more than 95 percent identical. Geneticists say the Neanderthal DNA will now be compared to that of modern primates to see if what clues it offers as to the origin of our species.

The announcement of the sequencing of the Neanderthal DNA project coincides with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution of man, and was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.