Thursday, July 13, 2006

 

Code of the Caveman

A new DNA mapping technique may solve an ancient mystery: Do modern humans carry Neanderthal genes?

On a forest-choked expanse of land that will one day be called Germany, a herd of bison huddles together to ward off the cold. Hidden in the foliage nearby squats a man. Like the animals he's hunting, he has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to cope with freezing temperatures. His massive jaw juts out, and his forehead slopes forward to form a heavy brow - providing a thick layer of bone that protects his sinuses and large brain from the icy air. His barrel-shaped body and short limbs help him retain heat. So do the furs he wears and the fires his family builds in the cave where they live.

Forty thousand years after the bison hunter went down, a tall, lanky man with disheveled white hair and scuffed hiking shoes is using one of his species' own state-of-the art tools to pulverize the Neanderthal even further. On a warm spring day in Walnut Creek, California, geneticist Eddy Rubin stands surrounded by huge glass tanks. Inside, robotic arms move with frenetic precision over plates holding genetic material, reducing the Neanderthal's remains to tiny strings of nucleotides and producing the world's first extended sequence of Neanderthal DNA.

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