Neanderthals, Gibbons, and Bats, Oh My!

New sequencing technologies allow scientists to unravel the DNA of our ancient human cousins.

Jul 25, 2006

New sequencing technologies are opening up a world of possibilities in understanding ancient DNA. Scientists in Germany announced plans last week to sequence the Neanderthal genome in collaboration with 454 Life Sciences, a Connecticut sequencing company.

Collecting and analyzing DNA from fossilized bones has been notoriously difficult because genetic material in such bones breaks down into short strands. But new technology developed by 454 analyzes the sequence of thousands of DNA fragments in parallel, allowing a quarter million short DNA strands to be sequenced in just four hours.

As a test of the new technology, scientists have already sequenced one million bases from a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal fossil in Croatia. They eventually plan to compare the Neanderthal genome to the genomes of chimps and modern humans. (Here’s the 454 press release.)

In other news, the National Human Genome Research Institute announced their latest sequencing plans. Topping the list of animals is the Northern white-cheeked gibbon, a primate with an unusually high number of chromosomal rearrangements compared with other primates. Also on the list: the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), domestic cat (Felis catus), guinea pig (Cavia porcellus), African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), tree shrew (Tupaia species), rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), and an as-yet-undetermined species of bat.