Published February 11, 2010
As scientists come closer to completing a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome, creating a living person from an ancient DNA sequence is becoming a real possibility, according to Archaeology Magazine.
Scientists announced Wednesday that they have pieced together most of the DNA of a man who lived in Greenland about 4,000 years ago, a pioneering feat that revealed hints about his appearance and even an increased risk of baldness.
It's the first genome from an ancient human, showing the potential for what one expert called a time machine for learning about the biology of ancient people. But it's hardly going to be the last. In 2005, 454 Life Sciences began a project with the Max Planck Institute to sequence the genetic code of a 30,000 year old Neanderthal woman. Now nearly complete, the sequence will let scientists look at the genetic blueprint of humankind's nearest relative, understand its biology and maybe even create a living person.
The work is possible today thanks to vast increases in computing power over the past few years. 454's Thomas Jarvie told the magazine, "Six years ago if you wanted to sequence E. coli... it would have taken one or maybe two million dollars, and it would have taken a year and 150 people. Nowadays, one person can do it in two days."
The restoration of DNA tens of thousands of years old has been challenged by chemical changes, breakdown of the biological matter and contaminants. And once the DNA sequencing is complete, creating a clone from it is still an inexact science.
Some scientists believe that by making changes to the DNA inside a human cell -- thousands or even millions of changes, that is -- the human genome can be altered to match the recreated Neanderthal one. One cell is just a step towards a living creature, but it's a key one.
Advances in stem cell science have led to proposals to alter a stem cell's DNA to match the Neanderthal genome. That stem cell would be left to reproduce, creating a colony of cells that could be programmed to become any type of cell that existed in the Neanderthal's body -- even an entire person. Archaeology cites Robert Lanza, biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology's chief science officer, who notes that species such as cows and goats are now routinely cloned with few problems.
There are many technical obstacles, but it's reasonable to suppose that scientists could soon use that long-extinct genome to safely create a healthy, living Neanderthal clone. But should it be done?
That's the question that inspired author Zach Zorich to dig into the issue. He points out that legal precedents are on the side of Neanderthal human rights, noting that such a creature would deserve human rights.
"I've been following Neanderthal gene research for years, and it started to dawn on me that all of these decades-old academic questions about how Neanderthals were related to modern humans might suddenly have human rights implications," he told FoxNews.com.
"My hope is that the article will get people to think about what it is that makes us human beings so that there is a larger and better informed debate about how our society should proceed with cloning genetics research."
Some scientists question the fairness of bringing such a creature into today's world, where they could potentially be mocked or feared. Others believe these ancient creatures would act just like modern humans.
"I'm convinced that if one were to raise a Neanderthal in a modern human family he would function just like everybody else," says Trenton Holliday, a paleoanthropologist at Tulane University. "I have no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do."
For more on this fascinating story, see Archaeology.org.