Today’s Top Science Headine –Scientists Growing ‘Mini-Brains’ Using Neanderthal DNA to “See If Something is Hidden That Sets Us Apart”

 

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“We want to know whether among those things, is there something hiding there that really sets us apart?” said Svante Pääbo, director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany where the experiments are being performed. “Is there a biological basis for why modern humans went on to become millions and eventually billions of people, spread across the world and have culture?”


“We’re seeing if we can find basic differences in how nerve cells function that may be a basis for why humans seem to be cognitively so special,” added Pääbo.

 

Scientists are preparing to create “miniature brains” that have been genetically engineered to contain Neanderthal DNA, in an unprecedented attempt to understand how humans differ from our closest relatives continues Hannah Devlin in today's Guardian. In the next few months the small blobs of tissue, known as brain organoids, will be grown from human stem cells that have been edited to contain “Neanderthalized” versions of several genes.

The lentil-sized organoids, which are incapable of thoughts or feelings  replicate some of the basic structures of an adult brain. They could demonstrate for the first time if there were meaningful differences between human and Neanderthal brain biology.

“Neanderthals are the closest relatives to everyday humans, so if we should define ourselves as a group or a species it is really them that we should compare ourselves to,” said Pääbo.

 

Neanderthald

Pääbo previously led the successful international effort to crack the Neanderthal genome, and his lab is now focused on bringing Neanderthal traits back to life in the laboratory through sophisticated gene-editing techniques.

The lab has already inserted Neanderthal genes for craniofacial development into mice (heavy-browed rodents are not anticipated), and Neanderthal pain perception genes into frogs’ eggs, which could hint at whether they had a different pain threshold to humans. Now the lab is turning its attention to the brain.

The research comes as the longstanding stereotype of Neanderthals as gormless and thuggish is being rewritten by emerging evidence that they buried their dead, produced cave art and had brains that were larger than our own.

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Image credit:  Michael Smeltzer, Vanderbilt University and the Allen Brain Institute (top of page)

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