Did we somehow wake up in a Michael Crichton novel without realizing it? First, Harvard University sets out to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. Now, researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have stated their intention to create miniature brains containing Neanderthal DNA.
If you’re wondering where Neanderthal DNA — referring to the genetic code of the archaic humans who lived up to 250,000 years ago — came from, the answer is a previous project from many of the same researchers. Starting around a decade ago, the Neanderthal genome project set out to sequence the DNA of ancient man. This DNA was first recovered from the femur bones of three 38,000-year-old female Neanderthal specimens from Croatia, along with other bones discovered in Spain, Russia and Germany. The project’s findings were ultimately reported in late 2013.
Jump forward to the present day, and the DNA is being used to create brain organoids — referring to simplified, miniature versions of organs. These miniature brains are about the size of a pea and do not exhibit any thought, but nonetheless showcase realistic basic micro-anatomy. They are being developed using a type of stem cell called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have been edited using CRISPR gene editing to contain Neanderthal versions of multiple genes.
The researchers hope that by examining these genes they will be able to highlight the differences between Neanderthals and modern man. Interestingly, it may also help shed light on a number of modern conditions. That’s because the Neanderthal genome project helped reveal that many living people today have miniscule traces of Neanderthal DNA in their genes. According to some theories, this is responsible for aspects of our immune system and skin color. Being able to analyze this in detail could help answer some of those questions.
“Pluripotent stem cells from diverse humans offer the potential to study human functional variation in controlled culture environments,” the abstract for a recent research paper about the work explained. “A portion of this variation originates from ancient admixture between modern humans and Neanderthals, which introduced alleles that left a phenotypic legacy on individual humans today. Here, we show that a large repository of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) harbors extensive Neanderthal DNA, including most known functionally relevant Neanderthal alleles present in modern humans. This resource contains Neanderthal DNA that contributes to human phenotypes and diseases, encodes hundreds of amino acid changes, and alters gene expression in specific tissues. Human iPSCs thus provide an opportunity to experimentally explore the Neanderthal contribution to present-day phenotypes, and potentially study Neanderthal traits.”