SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

What happened between the Neanderthals and us?

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ABSTRACT: ANNALS OF THE GENOME about Svante Pääbo and the Neanderthal Genome Project. Svante Pääbo heads the evolutionary genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany. At any given moment, he has at least half a dozen research efforts in progress, all attempting to solve the question of what defines us as human. Pääbo’s most ambitious project to date, which he has assembled an international consortium to assist him with, is an attempt to sequence the entire genome of the Neanderthal. The project is about halfway complete and has already yielded some unsettling results, including the news that modern humans, before doing in the Neanderthals, must have interbred with them. Once the Neanderthal genome is complete, scientists will be able to lay it gene by gene against the human genome, and see where they diverge. “I want to know what changed in fully modern humans, compared with Neanderthals, that made a difference,” Pääbo said. “What made it possible for us to build up these enormous societies, and spread around the globe.” Pääbo, who is now fifty-six, grew up in Stockholm, the product of a love affair between his mother and a married biochemist named Sune Bergström. From an early age, he was interested in old things. In the early nineteen-eighties, he was doing doctoral research on viruses when he began fantasizing about mummies. His paper on mummy DNA became the cover article in Nature magazine. Pääbo moved to the University of California at Berkeley and, later, became a professor at the University of Munich. The first Neanderthal was found in a limestone cave about forty-five miles north of Bonn, in an area known as the Neander Valley. Describes the history of Neanderthal research. Mentions 454 Life Sciences. Toward the end of 2006, Pääbo and his team reported that they had succeeded in sequencing a million base pairs of the Neanderthal genome. But later analysis revealed that the million base pairs had probably been contaminated by human DNA. Pääbo’s research eventually showed that before modern humans “replaced” the Neanderthals, they had sex with them. The liaisons produced children, who helped to people Europe, Asia, and the New World. All non-Africans carry somewhere between one and four per cent Neanderthal DNA. From the archeological records, it’s inferred that Neanderthals evolved in Europe or Western Asia and spread out from there, stopping when they reached water or some other significant obstacle. This is one of the most basic ways modern humans differ from Neanderthals and, in Pääbo’s view, also one of the most intriguing. If the defining characteristic of modern humans is a sort of Faustian restlessness, or “madness,” then, by Pääbo’s account, there must be some sort of Faustian gene. Mentions La Ferrassie, the Grotte des Combarelles, and Denisovans

The New Yorker 15-22 Ağustos 2011

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