DNA from 400,000 year old hominin: a great leap forward
Past Horizons, 05-12-2013
Using novel techniques to extract and study ancient DNA researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have determined an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-old representative of the genus Homo from Sima de los Huesos, a unique cave site in Northern Spain, and found that it is related to the mitochondrial genome of Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neanderthals in Asia. DNA this old has until recently been retrieved only from the permafrost.
Sima de los Huesos, the “bone pit”, is a cave site in Northern Spain that has yielded the world’s largest assembly of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils, consisting of at least 28 skeletons, which have been excavated and pieced together over the course of more than two decades by a Spanish team of paleontologists led by Juan-Luis Arsuaga. The fossils are classified as Homo heidelbergensis but also carry traits typical of Neanderthals. Until now it had not been possible to study the DNA of these unique hominins.
Matthias Meyer and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have developed new techniques for retrieving and sequencing highly degraded ancient DNA. They then joined forces with Juan-Luis Arsuaga and applied the new techniques to a cave bear from the Sima de los Huesos site. After this success, the researchers sampled two grams of bone powder from a hominin thigh bone from the cave. They extracted its DNA and sequenced the genome of the mitochondria or mtDNA, a small part of the genome that is passed down along the maternal line and occurs in many copies per cell. The researchers then compared this ancient mitochondrial DNA with Neanderthals, Denisovans, present-day humans, and apes.
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