Despite the fact that they lived nearly 30,000 years before modern humans, the genetics of Homo Neanderthals have a considerable influence on modern human genetic sequencing. Dr. Jeremiah Hagler, Chair of the Biology Department, presented his research on the Neanderthal Genome Project to the Massachusetts Archaeological Society and the Phillips Academy community on Wednesday. The presentation showcased recent developments in the genetic sequencing of Homo Neanderthals, the closest relative to modern day humans. Hagler said, “I wanted to raise awareness that humans are complex creatures… and we’re not the pinnacle of evolution.” “Especially now knowing that Neanderthals are part of us… there’s no pure human anymore,” he continued. The Neanderthal Genome Project is the first time scientists have sequenced a neanderthal’s full genome. Earlier studies suggested there was no connection between modern day Eurasians and Neanderthals. However, according to Hagler, the two species share one to four percent of genomic variation. Hagler speculates that this connection could be due to inter-breeding in earlier times. Hagler said, “[The connection between humans and Neanderthals] is equivalent [to] one great-great-great grandparents’ DNA contribution, an enduring legacy of an ancient group of people.” Homo Neanderthals became extinct as a species about 30 thousand years ago. Wesley Meyer ’11, who attended the lecture, said, “The part about how we’re [closely] related to them… as if they were like our great-great grandparents was particularly interesting.” One highlight of Hagler’s research was discovering the close relationship between modern humans and Homo Neanderthals. Hagler said, “Fair skin, common in Europeans, and red hair also came from Neanderthal mutations.” “If you saw a modern-day Neanderthal on the subway, you would have a hard time telling it apart from a human… they’re really, really similar to us,” he continued. Neanderthals were shorter, and more heavily built than humans, with a barrel chest and larger brain capacity. Meera Bhan ’14, said, “It was interesting to find out how connected we are to Neanderthals. I never realized that our ancestors were more than apes. It opened another door to a new era of history for me.” Most of the genetic material used in the study came from a Neanderthal bone fragment found in Spain. During the presentation Hagler said, “the comparison of genome suggests human genes [were] positively selected at 212 sites,” a very small number considering the hundreds of millions that make up a complete genome. Hagler pointed out that modern Eurasians have more similarities with Neanderthals than with modern humans in Siberia. The Neanderthal Genome Project, coordinated by the German Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the American 454 Life Sciences, was a collaboration to sequence the Neanderthal genome. The Neanderthal genome took only four years to sequence, compared to the ten years the Human Genome Project required. Hagler said, “The technology used is incredible… and illustrates the change in technology in the field.” “From a 40 thousand year-old bone we could find the DNA of the person and the person’s killer, whether it was tuberculosis or pathogens, and how it has changed over time,” he continued. Bhan said, “I was surprised by all the technology that is coming these days… it’s really amazing what they can do.” Contrary to popular perception, Neanderthals were not cavemen but rather sophisticated tool-builders, who built dwellings and wore jewelry. Hagler said, “If Neanderthals had been around for another 15 thousand years, they might have been painting, so they were pretty smart.” While Neanderthals were lactose intolerant, they possessed the FOXP2 gene, which determines linguistic ability. Hagler said, “The distinction between Neanderthals and humans is getting blurrier and blurrier as we learn more about them.” More research still needs to be done, since the genetic material here was only from one person. Hagler hopes to continue research.
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