We’re living in an age when many people believe there are no limits to what technology can do. Apply that to paleogenetics and you’ll see research into ancient disease, the domestication of animals, the genes Neanderthals passed on to humans, prehistoric migration routes, and so much more. The next step for a leading paleogenetics researcher and his team? Mini Neanderthal brains!
According to The Telegraph , the lab-created brain tissue will be about the size of a lentil and grown from human stem cells that have been genetically engineered to contain Neanderthal DNA. Researchers have already begun the work to make miniature brains that are “incapable of thoughts or feelings but will replicate the basic structures of an adult brain.”
The goal is to discover how human brains may differ cognitively, and perhaps biologically, from the brains of Neanderthals – essentially what may make human brains unique from our closest ancestor.
- Humans and Neanderthals Branched off 600,000 years ago Due to an Incompatible Y Chromosome
- Neanderthals May have been Infected by Diseases carried out of Africa by Humans, say Researchers
Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls. (CC BY SA 2.0)
The Guardian reports the tiny Neanderthal brains will be grown at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany in the new few months. The director of genetics at the institution, Svante Pääbo, explained why this study could be groundbreaking:
Neanderthals are the closest relatives to everyday humans, so if we should define ourselves as a group or a species it is really them that we should compare ourselves to. We’re seeing if we can find basic differences in how nerve cells function that may be a basis for why humans seem to be cognitively so special.
Pääbo is a Swedish biologist and paleogenetics founder with an expertise on evolutionary genetics. In 2010, Pääbo was part of the international team which successfully cracked the Neanderthal genome.
Prof. Svante Pääbo with a reconstruction of a Neanderthal skull ( Max Planck Institute/EVA )
The results showed that human-Neanderthal interbreeding occurred quite often , so much so that all non-Africans today carry 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA . While the numbers may seem small, the impact is not. As April Holloway has written :
The amount of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans is not huge, but it has had a very important impact. Characteristics obtained from Neanderthal DNA may have actually been the key to the survival of Homo sapiens. Genes such as ones which provided an advantage in difficult climates would have certainly been useful.
- Neanderthals Cared for Each Other and Survived into Old Age – New Research
- Refined Analysis Asserts There was No Human-Neanderthal Interaction at Vindija Cave
The cracking of the Neanderthal genome has led to many other fascinating studies on how and where Neanderthal genes live on in humans today. While our Neanderthal-provided immune-boosting gene has been helpful, studies have shown that the same gene has also made many people more susceptible to allergies. A 2016 study showed that Neanderthal genes have also made some people more likely to suffer from certain health problems , such as psychological and neurological issues.
Neanderthal genes have been connected to many health issues in modern humans. ( Deborah Brewington/Vanderbilt University )
Ancient DNA science has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last decade. It is no surprise that topics such as interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans, the number of ancient hominids, and the food they used to eat , have all been explored. Scientists have even discovered that fossils aren’t always necessary for their work, they’ve begun extracting ancient DNA from dirt !
Top Image: Neanderthal man at the Natural History Museum London. Source: CC BY NC ND 2.0