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Science
FRONTIERS
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Wednesday 21:00-21:30
Frontiers explores new ideas in science, meeting the researchers who see the world through fresh eyes and challenge existing theories - as well as hearing from their critics. Many such developments create new ethical and moral questions and Frontiers is not afraid to consider these.
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Listen to 21 November
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Wednesday 21 November 2007
Barbel Auffermann from the Neanderthal Museum shows Andrew where Neanderthal bones were first discovered in 1856.
Barbel Auffermann from the Neanderthal Museum shows Andrew where Neanderthal bones were first discovered in 1856.

Neanderthal DNA

In the first programme in a new series of Frontiers, Andrew Luck-Baker meets geneticists who are trying to extract nuclear DNA from Neanderthal bones. Within the next year, they hope to have sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome.

Sequencing ancient DNA is technically very challenging. Not only is the DNA degraded by time, but it’s also been contaminated by fungi and animal residues.

Human contamination is also a big problem. Simply touching a bone will leave fragments of modern DNA on it, and that makes the extraction of Neanderthal DNA even more difficult.
But if the genome can be sequenced, it’s possible that we might eventually be able to answer all sorts of tantalising questions. Why, for instance, did modern humans survive, and Neanderthals become extinct? During the ten thousand years that Neanderthals and modern humans were both living in Europe, is there any evidence of interbreeding?

Andrew goes to the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology where much of the DNA sequencing work is being carried out. He talks to researchers about the reasons for embarking on the research, and the practical difficulties of trying to retrieve DNA that’s more than 30,000 years old.

He then visits the Neanderthal Museum at Mettmann, and visits the site in the Neander Valley where the first Neanderthal bones were unearthed in 1856.

Andrew also talks to other Neanderthal experts.

Dr Eddy Rubin, Director of the Joint Genome Institute in California. Eddy heads another team that’s also trying to sequence the whole Neanderthal genome.

Carles Lalueza-Fox at Barcelona University has recently published a paper about a specific gene, FOXP2, which has been identified in the Neanderthal genome. The presence of this gene suggests that Neanderthals might have been able to speak.

Chris Stringer is based at the Natural History Museum in London. A palaeontologist, he talks to Andrew about the likelihood of interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans.
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