News of the WeekANCIENT DNA

Sequencing Neandertal Mitochondrial Genomes by the Half-Dozen

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Science  17 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5938, pp. 252
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_252

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Fourteen years ago, sequencing just a few hundred bases of mitochondrial DNA from a Neandertal drew applause worldwide. Ancient DNA studies have come a long way since then. On page 318 of this week's issue of Science, researchers describe using a new technique to decipher the entire mitochondrial genomes from five of these extinct humans. These genomes show relatively little genetic diversity among Neandertals scattered across Europe and Russia. By the group's calculations, this diversity translates into the equivalent of at most 3500 breeding Neandertal females, or up to 7000 including males, lower than previous rough estimates of about 10,000. With relatively few individuals, the species may have been more vulnerable to extinction from climate change or competition from our ancestors, the researchers say.