Cloning the Neanderthals

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Cloning the Neanderthals


THE SOURCE: "Should We Clone Neanderthals?" by Zach Zorich, in Archaeology, March-April 2010.

NEARLY 50,000 YEARS AGO IN northern Spain, 11 Neanderthals were murdered. The circumstances remain mysterious, but the evidence--l,700 broken bones--is today providing scientists with many clues about what color hair Neanderthals had (red), what their skin looked like (pale), and whether they spoke (probably). It's possible that in due time, DNA extracted from those bones or those of another Neanderthal will be implanted in a cell, that cell will be coaxed into multiplying, and, with the right techniques and no shortage of luck, the result will be a living, breathing Neanderthal. Such an achievement will "force the field of paleoanthropology into some unfamiliar ethical territory; writes Zach Zurich, a senior editor at Archaeology.

Neanderthals are modem humans' closest extinct relative, having branched off from our line of the family tree some 450,000 years ago. Locked in their DNA could be priceless information for scientists studying diseases that are "largely human-specific, such as HIV, polio, and smallpox." If Neanderthals turn out to be genetically immune to such ailments, it's possible that studying their DNA could lead to gene therapy treatments. But for scientists interested in cloning a Neanderthal, technical hurdles stand in the way. A stitched-together genome (since no intact ones exist) would likely be full of errors, and to make it, scientists would have to take several samples, destroying rare bones in the process. …

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