In Search of Lost Genomes

I was in search of a book for my wife in the science section of Barnes and Noble tucked way in the back, opposite children’s books, and along the way picked up a copy of Svante Paabo’s Neanderthal Man, subtitled In Search of Lost Genomes (Basic Books, 2014). It is a compelling read, although too long to absorb in a single sitting! As a young man Paabo began studying Egyptology, but found it too static. He went on to molecular biology, but did not drop his interest in ancient humans. He got the idea of looking for DNA in mummies, and from there pursued an increasingly successful career in studying ancient genomes, both of mammals and humans. In this book he describes the intense effort over a four-year period to decipher the genetic material of Neanderthals. Unlike many popular books on science, this one leads the reader into the intricacies of analysis, describing in detail the painstaking process of going over and over the ground, searching for errors in his team’s procedures, interacting with other groups, trying out different techniques, discarding the failed ones along the way, and finally getting the key methods and the sought after information. It is a remarkable story. The principal result is that when comparing the Neanderthal genome to those of several other modern humans and, for reference, the chimpanzee, Paabo’s team discovered that a significant percentage of the DNA of Europeans and Asians derives from Neanderthals. But none is detected in Africans. This answers an important question in paleontology that scientists have debated fruitlessly on anatomical grounds: whether Neanderthals mixed with modern humans. The simplest explanation is that modern humans migrating out of Africa encountered the Neanderthals in the Middle East and mixed with them before spreading to Asia and Europe. The Neanderthal genome is now publicly available for anyone to reference, and people are already doing that in diverse projects. To quote a blurb from Ed Wilson on the jacket: “..if you want to learn how real science is really done, I suggest you read it.”

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