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Neanderthals had Siberian kin, study finds

Dec. 24, 2010
Courtesy of Nature
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists have used DNA from a fin­ger bone to de­code the ge­nome of what they de­scribe as an­cient Si­be­rian rel­a­tives of Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple.

As with Ne­an­der­thals, stocky early evolutionary cousins of hu­mans that lived in Eu­rope and Asia from about 125,000 to 30,000 years ago, re­search­ers are re­port­ing some ev­i­dence of in­ter­breed­ing be­tween the Si­be­ri­an group and an­a­tom­ic­ally mod­ern hu­mans.

The re­sults are pub­lished this week in the re­search jour­nal Na­ture

A mo­lar tooth of the peo­ple known as De­ni­so­va hom­i­n­ins. (Cour­tesy Da­vid Reich et al., Na­ture)


The Deni­sova ho­minins—as the early popula­t­ion is be­ing called, the bone hav­ing turned up in south­ern Si­ber­ia’s Deni­sova Cave—are thought to have con­tri­but­ed 4 to 6 per­cent of their ge­net­ic ma­te­ri­al to pre­s­ent-day Melane­sians. 

The bone had pre­vi­ously had its “mi­to­chon­drial” DNA se­quence pub­lished. Mi­to­chon­drial DNA is a ge­net­ic ma­te­ri­al that lies in cel­lu­lar com­part­ments called the mi­to­chon­dria rath­er than in the nu­cle­us, where most of the genes are. Mi­to­chon­drial DNA is in­her­it­ed from the mother as a sin­gle un­it, rath­er than as a mix­ture of DNA from the moth­er and fa­ther. 

In the new stu­dy, Da­vid Re­ich of Har­vard Med­i­cal School, Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary An­thro­po­l­ogy in Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny, and oth­ers se­quenced the larg­er “nu­cle­ar” ge­nome. This com­prises tens of thou­sands of genes that are con­sid­ered to be less sub­ject to ran­dom changes or “ge­net­ic drift” than the mi­to­chon­drial genes, and thus may pro­vide more ac­cu­rate clues to ge­net­ic rela­t­ion­ships among popula­t­ions.

The Denisova ho­minins shared a com­mon or­i­gin with Ne­an­der­thals, but based on the shape of a tooth found in the cave seems to have been an ev­o­lu­tionarily dis­tinct group, the sci­en­tists re­ported. “They may have been wide­spread in Asia during the Late Pleist­o­cene epoch,” the last Ice Age that ended some 12,000 years ago, the in­ves­ti­gators wrote.

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Scientists have used DNA from a finger bone to decoded the genome of what they describe as an ancient relative of Neanderthal people from southern Siberia. As with Neanderthals, the stocky early cousins of humans that lived in Europe and Asia from about 125,000 to 30,000 years ago, researchers are reporting some evidence of interbreeding between the Siberian group and anatomically modern humans. The results are published this week in the research journal Nature. The Denisova hominins—as the early population is being called, the bone having been found in Denisova Cave—are thought to contributed 4-6 percent of their genetic material to the genomes of present-day Melanesians. The bone had previously had its “mitochondrial” DNA sequence published. Mitochondrial DNA is a genetic material that lies in cellular compartments called the mitochondria rather than in the nucleus, where most of the genes are. Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited as a single unit, rather than as a mixture of DNA from the mother and father. In the new study, David Reich of Harvard Medical School, Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany, and others sequenced the larger “nuclear” genome. This comprises tens of thousands of genes that are considered to be less subject to random changes or “genetic drift” than the mitochondrial genes, and thus may provide more accurate clues to genetic relationships among populations. The Denisova hominins shared a common origin with Neanderthals, but based on the shape of a tooth found in the cave seems to have been an evolutionarily distinct group, the scientists reported.