Thursday, January 30, 2014

Neanderthal genetic code lives on in humans

Researchers have discovered that we possess up to one fifth of our prehistoric cousins' genetic code.

In an effort to learn more about the genetic similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans, Benjamin Vernot and Joshua Akey at the University of Washington sequenced the genomes of 600 people and then used a computer to identify gene variants that seemed to be Neanderthal in origin.

Their remarkable results suggested that the combined total amount of Neanderthal DNA present in modern humans was as high as 20%.

"Although Neanderthals are extinct, there's still a lot of genetic information about them floating around, in our own genomes," said Vernot. "It's not necessarily useful in that it will cure cancer, but it helps us to learn about our history."

It is believed that the genetic similarities are the result of encounters between Neanderthals and modern humans up to 65,000 years ago. Despite interbreeding being rare, some of the benefits obtained from the Neanderthal genes would have been sufficient enough to ensure their perseverance in humans all the way up to the present day.

The discovery is particularly helpful to scientists as it means it is possible to study a significant percentage of the Neanderthal genome without having to extract it from ancient fossils.