In real science

Nicholas Albertini

Is your roommate a Neanderthal? Now you can find out for sure. Scientists led by Professor Svante P„„bo, director of the genetics department at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, report that they have just finished fully sequencing the nuclear genome of a Neanderthal.
The mitochondrial genome had already been sequenced. The genetic material was extracted from a bone found in Croatia. Due to the age of the sample, the segments of DNA it contained were very short, but new techniques have allowed for its sequencing. The data are currently being analyzed by the team, and a preliminary summary was given Thursday, Feb. 12 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.
Neanderthals appear to have been more than 99-percent genetically identical to humans, though they diverged as a separate species about 400,000 years ago. Recall that we share about 98 percent of our genetic code with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have one more chromosome pair than humans, due to a human fusion of chromosomes 2a and 2b into chromosome 2 during evolution.
Also, humans have accumulated copies, deletions and inversions of certain genes that chimpanzees have not accumulated. It takes little genetic variance to produce relatively great phenotypic difference or speciation. We will know much more about the differences between humans and Neanderthals in short order.
With full knowledge of this genome, it may eventually become possible to clone a Neanderthal for study. Of course, many consider it unethical to clone humans, but again, Neanderthals were a separate species for about 370,000 years before they became extinct. There is no enforced federal or international law against cloning humans, though the federal government will not currently fund such research, and any institution that dared to try would likely live in fear of violent fundamentalists.
However, what could such fundamentalists, many of whom are creationists — and therefore do not believe in Neanderthals — have to say about cloning a Neanderthal? Such would be a strange paradox for them. Then there are the animal rights concerns. If we are to classify such a cloned Neanderthal as an animal, rather than a human, what would be ethical in terms of its treatment? We certainly would not treat it as poorly as we have treated so many research chimpanzees. I’d imagine that it would look too human for that to be possible.
Beyond the ethical issues, there would be great benefit in being able to observe the cognitive and behavioral differences between humans and Neanderthals in conjunction with being able to pinpoint the genetic divergences which caused them. Let’s face it; the DNA is only half of the story. What we are really interested in here are the neurological and behavioral differences in relation to the genes. There is only one way to observe those things, and now it has now become theoretically possible.