Although Svante Pääbo and John Hawks both agree that if even if the entire Neanderthal genome is successfully sequenced, we’re not likely to see these archaic people making a return to this world, as ‘intact cells’ would be needed to create a viable clone; however, sooner or later, someone will doubtless crack this problem, and the Neanderthals, the woolly mammoth, the mighty cave bear and who knows what else, will once more roam freely, though this time round ‘freely’ would not equate to the freedom they once enjoyed in a world unmodified by the civilising influences of humans.

Scientific American have a report updating us on the work of Pääbo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, as they attempt to reconstruct that Neanderthal genome,

…(they) examined ground-up Neanderthal bone as well as 43,000-year-old mammoth bone and 42,000-year-old cave bear bone to determine whether the genomes of such ancient creatures could be sequenced. Although researchers, including Pääbo, have been able to extract DNA from such bones, the entire genetic blueprint remains difficult to map due to confusing gaps in the long strand and potential contamination.

But by analyzing the available DNA, Pääbo found that such damage is most likely to occur at certain junctures in the strand near the end of molecules and, further, that such breakages are most likely to be misread as cytosine (C) for thymine (T) or guanine (G) for adenine (A)—the chemical bases that make up DNA.

Having pinned down both the locations of where errors are likely to creep in, as well as how those errors then tend to manifest themselves, it seems they could be on the verge of a breakthrough which will make it easier to sequence the entire genome. This from John Hawks…

“The damage seems to be limited to these two kinds of changes, and they have established that other changes can be trusted as genuine differences between ancient sequences and living homologues,”

“I know that people are wanting to try to clone a mammoth,” Hawks says. “I predict they will fail—not because it is impossible, but because we don’t understand enough about the genetic differences between mammoths and elephants yet to make it work.”

This echoed the sentiments of Svante Pääbo, commenting on the idea that extinct species could be cloned by placing their genetic material into the embryos of modern living relatives – the elephant/mammoth is the combination most often raised as a proposed method of reinstalling the woolly mammoth – here’s a final word from John Hawkson on the matter,

“Every genetic difference between a Neanderthal and a living person is a potential candidate for a gene or drug therapy,” Hawks says. “Every one of their genes worked in a human-like creature. We know that none of them were lethal. So, for instance, functional differences between Neanderthals and humans in muscle metabolism might lead to treatments for problems in humans like muscle wasting.”

In the event that technological advances eventually pave the way for a Neanderthal to be reborn, it’s not immediately clear what sort of life they would either be allowed to live or subjected to – would he or she be subject to the budgetary whims of whoever had funded the necessary finance needed for the research and development of the project – i.e. would they be little more than a lab specimen, as envisaged by Asimov in his cautionary tale, ‘The Ugly Little Boy‘, or would this resurrected human from the past be given the freedom in order that they might live a life with a future of their own choosing – subject to terms and conditions’ like the rest of us. (TJ)