The Genomes of Five Late Neandertals Provide Insights Into Neandertal History

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have reconstructed the DNA of five ‘late’ Neandertals, two of them found on Belgian ground. (Photo: Max Planck Institute)
21/03/2018
The Genomes of Five Late Neandertals Provide Insights Into Neandertal History
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Reinout Verbeke

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have reconstructed the DNA of five ‘late’ Neandertals, two of them found on Belgian ground. By comparing the genome of the Neandertals, we gain insight in population shifts towards the end of Neandertal history.

Not much is known about Neandertal diversity, or the relation between Neandertals and early humans. That is why the research team of evolutionary biologist Svante Pääbo sequenced the nuclear genome of five late Neandertals, who lived between 39.000 and 47.000 years ago.

The researchers sampled teeth and bone pieces from Belgian specimens – from the caves of Spy and Goyet – and specimens from France, Croatia and the Russian Caucasus (found in Mezmaiskaya). They were able to extract nuclear DNA, which contains more information than mitochondrial DNA (DNA from the ‘powerhouse’ of the cell, with only information from the maternal line). Obtaining DNA from old material is extremely complicated, because the DNA can already be too degraded or because the fossils can house the DNA of bacteria or people that have held the fossils. Up until this study, scientists had only read the genome of four Neandertals. By adding a hypochlorite solution to the pulverized fossil, the researchers were able to remove alien DNA.

The scientists compared the genome of the Mezmaiskaya specimen with that of a 70.000 year older Neandertal of the same site. The results provide evidence of a population shift: the more recent Neandertal is more related to more western Neandertals from the same period, than to the older Neandertal from the same site. According to one hypothesis, it is possible that the older population went extinct locally – perhaps after a period of climate change and extreme cold around 60.000 years ago – and was replaced by a Neandertal population from the west.

DNA Exchange With Modern Humans

Westerners have about 2% Neandertal DNA, from Neandertals living between 70.000 and 150.000 years ago, the researchers write. Genetic exchange presumably occurred in both directions, but surprisingly no modern human DNA has been found in the Neandertal’s DNA. Was it mostly a one-way street, from Neandertals to humans? Further research has to bring clarity.

At least five Neandertals were found in the Goyet cave, two adults and one child were found in Spy. The genome study has proven that the analysed bone in Goyet, a femur, belonged to a female. The tooth from Spy came from a male jaw.

 

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