Clone a caveman? That's still in the realm of science fiction. But for the first time ever, researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute have compiled the complete genome of the Neanderthal-like early human called a Denisovan. The scientists managed the feat using DNA from a finger bone found in a Siberian cave.
The dizzyingly complex DNA sequences that make up the new genome contain "fewer errors than most genomes from present-day humans," Dr. Matthias Meyer, a researcher at the Planck Institute, said in a written statement. That suggests it might prove useful for cloning a human ancestor—that is, if we decide caveman cloning is morally OK.
There's been a debate in the last several years over cloning Neanderthals. One of the main points in favor of cloning an early human, writes Zach Zorich in Archaeology magazine, is that
Neanderthal cells could be important for discovering treatments to diseases that are largely human-specific, such as HIV, polio, and smallpox, he says. If Neanderthals are sufficiently different from modern humans, they may have a genetic immunity to these diseases. There may also be differences in their biology that lead to new drugs or gene therapy treatments.
But could a Neanderthal or a Denisovan adapt to contemporary life? Would he have legal rights? Would she be subject to ridicule?
We're not sure. Even accurate genomic data, like that produced by the Planck Institute, is only one step toward creating a living real live clone.
Cloning a Neanderthal will take a lot more than just an accurately reconstructed genome. Artificially assembling an exact copy of the Neanderthal DNA sequence could be done easily and cheaply with current technology, but a free-floating strand of DNA isn't much good to a cell. "The bigger challenge is--how do you assemble a genome without a cell?" asks James Noonan, a geneticist at Yale University. "How do you package DNA into chromosomes, and get that into a nucleus? We don't know how to do that."
In the meantime, there are other potential applications of the new genome. Dr. Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute told the Daily Mail, "We hope that biologists will be able to use this genome to discover genetic changes that were important for the development of modern human culture and technology.These changes enabled modern humans to leave Africa and rapidly spread around the world, starting around 100,000 years ago."