Ronald Cole-Turner: Transcending Evolution

Denisovan DNA in Focus

Using new techniques to study ancient DNA, scientists have unraveled the genetic details of a young girl who lived in central Asia around 50,000 years ago.

She is the only individual of her kind, a unique branch of the human family called the Denisovans, named for the cave where her remains were found in 2008.

What makes the research all the more startling is that only two teeth and one pea-size bone fragment has been found. But from those tiny fragments of humanity, the story of the Denisovans is being pieced together.

The new techniques were developed by Matthias Meyer, working in the department of evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, a research program led by Svante Pääbo. DNA extracted from the bone fragment was separated into two strands that were amplified and analyzed separately, many times over, until a highly reliable sequence was determined.

Researchers claim that the result is as complete and accurate as the sequence of living human beings. Already, the new technique is being used to study other ancient remains, including samples of Neanderthal DNA. Denisovans and Neanderthals, distinct but closely related forms of humanity, overlapped with anatomically modern humans and interbred with them.

New methods in genetics, including the technical breakthrough described in this paper in Science, are opening new windows on the human family tree, which resembles an intergrown vine more than a straight line of branches.

So accurate is the genetic analysis that researchers can reach some conclusions about other Denisovans, even though no samples exist for them. For one thing, despite their wide geographic spread, they apparently never reached high numbers. Their DNA lives on today in the faint echo of ancient interbreeding found in the uniquely Denisovan sequences carried by those who live in the islands of southeast Asia.

No one knows what Denisovans looked like, but they probably resembled us in many ways. The Denisovan girl whose DNA was studied carried genes that are associated today with brown hair, brown eyes, and dark skin. Like us, they had 23 pairs of chromosomes (compared with chimps, with 24), making interbreeding more readily possible.

One of the more tantalizing aspects of the report is the light it sheds not on the Denisovans or the Neanderthals but on us anatomically modern human beings who live today. Why did we survive and flourish culturally when they did not?

One explanation may lie in the genetic differences between us and them, which can be studied for the first time in detail. In this paper, researchers identify specific changes in genes that are associated with brain complexity, synaptic connections, and speech development. According to the paper, “it is thus tempting to speculate that crucial aspects of synaptic transmission may have changed in modern humans.” In other words, tiny differences in DNA led to still relatively small differences in brain function that led to huge differences in culture.

Future technical advances will continue to shed new light on the complex story of recent human ancestry. By gaining ever-higher clarity on the genetic differences between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans, we will come to know the story of our humanity in greater detail.

The paper ends with this reflection: “This [work] should ultimately aid in determining how it was that modern humans came to expand dramatically in population size as well as cultural complexity while archaic humans eventually dwindled in numbers and became physically extinct.”

A version of this post first appeared on Enhancing Theology.

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