You are on page 1of 2

The Hunt for Neandertal Genes [Excerpt] Biologist Svante Pbo describes the thrilling discovery of DNA from

the bones of an ancient Neandertal in this excerpt from his new book Feb 22, 2014 |By Svante Pbo Neanderthal Man book jacket

Basic Books Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, by Svante Pbo. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014. Late one night in 1996, just as I had dozed off in bed, my phone rang. The calle r was Matthias Krings, a graduate student in my laboratory at the Zoological Ins titute of the University of Munich. All he said was, It s not human. I m coming, I mumbled, threw on some clothes, and drove across town to the lab. That afternoon, Matthias had started our DNA sequencing machines, feeding them fragm ents of DNA he had extracted and amplified from a small piece of a Neanderthal a rm bone held at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn. Years of mostly disappoint ing results had taught me to keep my expectation low. In all probability, whatev er we had extracted was bacterial or human DNA that had infiltrated the bone som etime in the 140 years since it had been unearthed. But on the phone, Matthias h ad sounded excited. Could he have retrieved genetic material from a Neanderthal? It seemed too much to hope for. In the lab, I found Matthias along with Ralf Sc hmitz, a young archaeologist who had helped us get permission to remove the smal l section of arm bone from the Neanderthal fossil stored in Bonn. They could har dly control their delight as they showed me the string of A s, C s, G s, and T s coming out of one of the sequencers. Neither they nor I had ever seen anything like it before. What to the uninitiated may seem a random sequence of four letters is in fact sh orthand for the chemical structure of DNA, the genetic material stored in almost every cell in the body. The two strands of the famous double helix of DNA are m ade up of units containing the nucleotides adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosi ne, abbreviated A, T, G, and C. The order in which these nucleotides occur makes up the genetic information necessary to form our body and support its functions . The particular piece of DNA we were looking at was part of the mitochondrial g enome mtDNA, for short that is transmitted in the egg cells of all mothers to their children. Several hundred copies of it are stored in the mitochondria, tiny structures in the cells, and it specifies information necessary for these structures to fulfil l their function of producing energy. Each of us carries only one type of mtDNA, which comprises a mere 0.0005 percent of our genome. Since we carry in each cel l many thousands of copies of just the one type, it is particularly easy to stud y, unlike the rest of our DNA a mere two copies of which are stored in the cell nu cleus, one from our mother and one from our father. By 1996, mtDNA sequences had been studied in thousands of humans from around the world. These sequences woul d typically be compared to the first determined human mtDNA sequence, and this c ommon reference sequence, in turn, could be used to compile a list of which diff erences were seen at which positions. What excited us was that the sequence we h ad determined from the Neanderthal bone contained changes that had not been seen in any of those thousands of humans. I could hardly believe that what we were l ooking at was real. As I always am when faced with an exciting or unexpected result, I was soon plag ued by doubts. I looked for any possibility that what we saw could be wrong. Per haps someone had used glue produced from cowhide to treat the bones at some poin t, and we were seeing mtDNA from a cow.

No: we immediately checked cow mtDNA (which others had already sequenced) and fo und that it was very different. This new mtDNA sequence was clearly close to the human sequences, yet it was slightly different from all of them. I began to bel ieve that this was, indeed, the first piece of DNA ever extracted and sequenced from an extinct form of human. We opened a bottle of champagne kept in a fridge in the lab s coffee room. We knew that, if what we were seeing was really Neanderthal DNA, enormous possibilities had opened up. It might one day be possible to compare whole genes, or any spec ific gene, in Neanderthals to the corresponding genes in people alive today. As I walked back home through a dark and quiet Munich (I d had too much champagne to drive), I could hardly believe what had happened. Back in bed, I couldn t sleep. I kept thinking about Neanderthals, and about the specimen whose mtDNA it seemed we had just captured.