A dense account of the efforts to decode Neanderthal DNA and a revealing glimpse into the inner workings of scientific research.
Pääbo (Director, Department of Genetics/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology), a Swedish biologist specializing in evolutionary genetics, developed techniques for sequencing DNA from extinct creatures. After years of work, his research group succeeded in sequencing the Neanderthal genome. Since Neanderthals are our closest evolutionary relatives, the author’s work in decoding Neanderthal DNA gives scientists a way to understand how we differ genetically from them and offers the opportunity to learn what genetic changes have made humans unique on this planet. At first, Pääbo faced enormous difficulties, and he relates how he assembled a team of researchers with the right talents, how specimens were obtained, how they coped with the serious matter of contamination, how they dealt with numerous technical problems, and how high-throughput DNA sequencing helped them to coax DNA from ancient bones. As he makes clear, science is a social endeavor in which both competition and cooperation operate, and he does not hide his anxiety about getting his findings published first. His Neanderthal genome paper, published in 2010, received wide attention from scientists and nonscientists alike, and the debate about the interactions between our ancestors and Neanderthals continues. Questions remain: Why did Neanderthals go extinct, and why is Neanderthal DNA present in small amounts in modern humans? In a chapter that feels like a late add-on, Pääbo explores the story of the bones of a different kind of extinct human found in Denisova Cave in Siberia in 2010, which raises more questions about the history of human evolution.
For nonscientists, grasping the details of the technical problems facing Pääbo and his research group is no easy matter, but the larger question of the significance of his work makes the book worthwhile.