Scientists to decipher Neanderthal's genome

Neanderthals were a species of the Homo genus who lived in Europe and western Asia from more than 200,000 years ago to as little as roughly 30,000 years ago.

Scientists from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are teaming up with Branford, Connecticut-based 454 Life Sciences Corp. to map the Neanderthal genome, or DNA code, the AP reports.

There are no firm answers yet about how humans picked up key traits such as walking upright and developing complex language. Neanderthals are believed to have been relatively sophisticated, but lacking in humans' higher reasoning functions.

The Neanderthal project follows scientists' achievement last year in deciphering the DNA of the chimpanzee, our closest living relative, which produced a long list of DNA differences with the chimp and some hints about which ones might be crucial.

The chimp genome "led to literally too many questions, there were 35 million differences between us and chimpanzees - that's too much to figure out," Jonathan Rothberg, 454's chairman, said in a telephone interview.

Over two years, the scientists aim to reconstruct a draft of the 3 billion building blocks of the Neanderthal genome, working with fossil samples from several individuals.

They face the complication of working with 40,000-year-old samples, and of filtering out microbial DNA that contaminated them after death.

About 5 percent of the DNA in the samples is actually Neanderthal DNA, Egholm estimated, but he and Rothberg said pilot experiments had convinced them that the decoding was feasible.

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