Neanderthal book details scientific process
Bis Pääbo’s professional autobiography, and it provides a window into how scientists work at carefully gathering evidence — in this case, across continents and decades. While interesting, it is fairly dense, and sometimes even meticulous in detail. Perhaps Dr. Pääbo himself is the “Neanderthal man” of the title. His career progressed alongside the invention and exponential growth of genetic sequencing technology, and early on he dreamed of sequencing ancient DNA. This fascination was strong enough that he left medical school to pursue research in this nascent field almost 30 years ago. Some of the first targets were recently extinct creatures like the quagga and the Tasmanian wolf, as well as Egyptian mummies. In the early days, it wasn’t possible to read much of a genome. Pääbo and other scientists could confirm DNA was present, and used painstaking methods to read small segments. Inevitably, there were competitors who made sensational claims about extracting DNA from fossils millions of years old, including, famously, from insects trapped in amber. But Pääbo had already noticed that even his several-thousand year-old samples were hard to study due to the inevitable breakdown of genetic material. Sure enough, it soon turned out that the “dino-DNA” was really just contamination. Even a speck of dust floating in the lab may be a flake of someone’s skin, full of modern DNA. It’s just not possible to recover DNA from the dinosaurs. Frownyface emoticon, full stop. The rigorous checking, reviewing, and double-checking that scientists have to do is illustrated very well in Neanderthal Man. Rather than rush to a sensational headline, Pääbo and his team sought independent confirmation of their findings, and submitted their papers to peer review. Several times, this spared them from embarrassing retractions. The inner workings of academia make for some dry sections, but the acquisition of precious Neanderthal bones turns out to be one of the most intriguing parts of the story. With competitors prepared to “go to Russia with a pillowcase and an envelope full of euros,” Pääbo went to Croatia. Obtaining wellpreserved Neanderthal specimens required patience, persistence, and friends in high places. As the researchers gathered the DNA-filled bones they needed, genome sequencing technology came of age, and machines soon began spitting out millions of As, Gs, Cs and Ts that lined up closely with the human genome — but not completely. Ultimately, all this effort was able to answer some big questions about the human story. Did we “modern humans” have sex with Neanderthals and have their babies? Well, the 2.7 per cent (on average) of Neanderthal DNA in most of us had to get there somehow. The Neanderthal genome lives on in most of the humans of today, for the most part because it is (barely) present in modernday Africans. This supports the hypothesis that a wave of people left Africa, mixed and mingled with Neanderthals in the Middle East, and then spread out across the globe. Those are the headlines, but Neanderthal Man is really about the story behind the headlines, which is the story of science itself and the people who work through the years, mostly uncelebrated, to uncover more about who we are. E warned: in spite of the title, this book isn’t really about Neanderthal man. If you’ve ever wondered what Neanderthals might have looked like, where and how they lived, or what clothes, tools and culture they possessed, you will still be wondering at the end of this scientific memoir. Rather, look to the subtitle — this is a book about finding, decoding and studying ancient genomes. Svante Pääbo, a Swedish biologist, is one of the pioneers of paleogenetics, the study of ancient life through ancient DNA, and he is best-known for sequencing the Neanderthal genome in 2010. Neanderthal Man
Paul Klassen is a Winnipeg engineer.
Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost