CHICAGO (Reuters) – Gene sleuths who have come up with a rough draft of the Neanderthal DNA code said on Thursday the ancient relatives of modern humans shared with us one gene for speech, but little else.
The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and 454 Life Science Corp, a Roche company, said they have sequenced more than 60 percent of the entire Neanderthal genome.
Preliminary results confirm what the group had already suspected: that Neanderthals, humanity's closest relative, contributed very little to the gene pool of modern humans.
"Our data really shows if there was a contribution, it was very small. It's tiny," Svante Paabo, who is heading up the effort at the Max Planck Institute, told reporters in a video conference.
Neanderthals lived in Europe and parts of Asia until about 30,000 years ago, when Cro-Magnon people, the ancestors of modern humans, moved in.
The group is working to get a complete Neanderthal gene map, which they plan to compare to the previously sequenced human and chimpanzee genomes in the hopes of gaining more insights about how Neanderthals differed from humans.
Paabo said the analysis so far confirms that humans and Neanderthals had the same variant of the FOXP2 gene known to play a role in speech.
"We cannot say from this they could speak. We can just say there is no reason to assume they couldn't speak from what little we know," he said.
The team wants to look at other genes, including those involved in brain ageing and development, he said.
So far, the two groups have sequenced a total of more than 1 billion fragments of Neanderthal DNA, generating a first draft sequence of the entire Neanderthal genome.
The researchers have had to devise computer programs that detect whether changes in the ancient DNA were due to chemical damage over time, or to contamination with modern human DNA from handling.
Most of the DNA sequences come from bones from Vindija Cave in Croatia, which has proven to be a particularly rich source of Neanderthal DNA.
But the team is looking for new fossils that can be carefully excavated to minimize human contamination.
And Paabo said given the age of the ancient DNA, using cloning technology to try to resurrect a Neanderthal is out of the question. "It is and will remain impossible," he told reporters.
Paabo said the team hopes to publish detailed findings later this year.
(Editing by Maggie Fox, Editing by Sandra Maler)