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The Neanderthal in all of us . . .


Shannon Bradley/State of Minds host:

And now to UC Santa Cruz where Guy Lasnier finds that because of interbreeding thousands of years ago inside most of us is a little bit of Neanderthal.

Guy Lasnier: (off camera)

The discovery last year that Neanderthals and humans interbred shook up the field of anthropology and prompted headlines around the world.

A key figure behind that discovery is Professor Ed Green, a bioinformatics expert at the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz.

Green coordinated the Neanderthal Genome Project while at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Richard E. "Ed" Green, professor of biomolecular engineering, UC Santa Cruz:

The Neanderthal Genome Project is a remarkable resource for understanding not only the history of our species and how we interacted with them, but also understanding the important biological changes that have happened since we diverged from Neanderthals.

David Haussler, director, Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering, UC Santa Cruz:

I view Ed Green's project to sequence the Neanderthal, and analyze it in comparison with the human genome, as one of the greatest scientific projects of our time.

This is really a project about origins. This is a project about understanding who we are and how we came to be.

 Richard E. "Ed" Green:  (over visual, animation of Genomics 101)

A genome is all of the DNA that is passed on from one generation to the next, all of the genetic information that you get from your mother and your father.  One of the purposes of a genome project is to get a comprehensive list of all the genes. The genome contains the genes in some linear order. The genes themselves carry out all of the functions you have to have carried out in order to be alive.

Guy Lasnier: (off camera)

At UC Santa Cruz, Green is affiliated with one of the world's leading centers for genomic research, the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. Professor David Haussler leads a group that assembled the first working draft of the human genome sequence and created the UCSC Genome browser.  

David Haussler:

If you just go to on the Internet, you'll find the browser and you can select the Neanderthal Genome analysis, as I've done here, and you can see the cave in which they recovered the bones. Here's a picture of the bones and a reconstruction of what a Neanderthal looked like.

But contained within this are all of the DNA sequences that were obtained from the Neanderthal specimen and they are matched to the human genome so that you can see the corresponding segments of the human genome. And then we can start to explore what the differences between Neanderthal and human may mean.

Richard E. "Ed" Green:

Data collection starts by getting a bone that has DNA in it. What happens is the bone is taken into a clean room and in the clean room you drill a small bit of this bone with a dentist's drill to pulverize it and make bone powder.

Then we take a solution that will dissolve DNA and do a DNA purification from this bone powder and hopefully there is DNA in there that can be sequenced - go into a sequencer library and go on a machine.

This is really where I come in, after all those things have been done in the lab and in the sequencing facility. Looking at these DNA sequences, which are just strings of  "a," "c," "g," and "t," and try to make some biological sense of this.

We are here in the sequencing center at UC Santa Cruz and there are lots of sequencing machines in this room and they are all chugging away on samples, spitting out DNA sequence data. The sequencing facility here, run by Nader Pourmand, is really cutting edge in terms of not only having the latest technology for us to generate data but also in exploring new kinds of technology and new ways to make libraries and new ways to generate data that are useful for genome assembly.  

Guy Lasnier: (off camera)

In December 2010, Green and the same team published a second groundbreaking study based on ancient DNA.

This time they discovered a previously unknown group of human relatives, called "Denisovans," who lived in Asia 30,000 years ago.

Richard E. "Ed" Green:

What we have done is generate a complete genome sequence from DNA extracted from a small tip of a finger bone that came out of a cave in alpine mountains in Siberia. What we have learned from this is that this finger bone belonged to a member of a population that's distinct from the Neanderthals who are around at that time and distinct from modern humans.

It is a terribly exciting project and like all scientists there is the thrill of discovery -- that moment between when you didn't know something and you do know something and you are the only one who knows it.

And maybe it's right and maybe it's wrong and you can hopefully try to figure that out, but being right there on the cutting edge for something and other people will care about it and you get to see it first.

Guy Lasnier: (off camera)

Ed Green's cutting edge research sequencing the Neanderthal genome earned him the Newcomb-Cleveland Prize for the top paper published in the journal Science in 2010.

Reporting from UC Santa Cruz, this is Guy Lasnier.