DNA sequenced from a 400,000 year old hominin from Spain

After developing techniques for extracting and analysing DNA from ancient (c. 40,000 years ago) Neanderthal and Denisovan specimens the Max Planck team have now taken a giant leap backwards in time in extracting and analysing an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-hominin. The specimen is from  Sima de los Huesos, a unique cave site in Northern Spain. The results show that it is related to the mitochondrial genome of Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neandertals in Asia. DNA this old has until recently been retrieved only from the permafrost.

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The Sima de los Huesos hominins lived approximately 400,000 years ago during the Middle Pleistocene. © Kennis & Kennis, Madrid Scientific Films

The result itself is of great interest but it is the development of the techniques for extracting and analysing – without any contamination – and with sufficient confidence, the entire MtDNA sequence in such old specimens that is quite revolutionary. Archaeological evidence – and particularly of of such age – is subject to a great deal of subjective interpretation. But dating techniques and now DNA extraction techniques are removing much of this subjectivity and they are now providing the anchor points around which the evolutionary narrative must be built. And this narrative is now of a much more complex story of hominin expansions and admixture than has generally been thought. Ancient and presumed extinct hominin species are now showing themselves within us.

“Our results show that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This opens prospects to study the genes of the ancestors of Neandertals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting” says Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Matthias Meyer, Qiaomei Fu, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Isabelle Glocke, Birgit Nickel, Juan-Luis Arsuaga, Ignacio Martínez, Ana Gracia, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Eudald Carbonell, Svante PääboA mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los HuesosNature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12788

Read the whole post in 6,000 Generations

 

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