A small bone that scientists had initially ignored has begun to yield secrets of the Neanderthal genome, launching a new way to learn about the stocky and muscular relative of modern humans, scientists say.
Genetic material from the bone has let researchers identify more than a million building blocks of Neanderthal DNA so far, and it should be enough to derive most of the creature's 3.3 billion blocks within the next two years, said researcher Svante Paabo.
"We're at the dawn of Neanderthal genomics," said gene specialist Edward Rubin of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.
Such research will "serve as a DNA time machine that will tell us about the biology and aspects of Neanderthals that we could never get" otherwise, Rubin said.
The Neanderthal data will shed light on what DNA changes helped produce modern humanity by revealing which changes appeared relatively late in human evolution, after the ancestors of Neanderthals and of humans split apart, scientists said.
Paabo, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues presented an initial analysis of Neanderthal DNA in this week's issue of the journal Nature. Rubin and his collaborators presented their own analysis in this week's issue of Science.
Both are based on DNA extracted from a bone that lay in a Croatian cave for 38,000 years.
"It's rather small and uninteresting and was thrown into a big box of uninformative bones" at a museum in Zagreb, Croatia, Paabo said.
It wasn't handled much, meaning that its DNA was not extensively contaminated by that of modern-day people, a major plus for the DNA work, he said. Only about four grams or less of the bone will be enough to get a rough draft of the Neanderthal genome.