Oldest Hominin DNA Sequenced

Matthias Meyer and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have developed new techniques for retrieving and sequencing highly degraded ancient DNA. They then joined forces with Juan-Luis Arsuaga and applied the new techniques to a cave bear from the Sima de los Huesos site. After this success, the researchers sampled two grams of bone powder from a hominin thigh bone from the cave. They extracted its DNA and sequenced the genome of the mitochondria or mtDNA, a small part of the genome that is passed down along the maternal line and occurs in many copies per cell. The researchers then compared this ancient mitochondrial DNA with Neandertals, Denisovans, present-day humans, and apes.

From the missing mutations in the old DNA sequences the researchers calculated that the Sima hominin lived about 400,000 years ago. They also found that it shared a common ancestor with the Denisovans, an extinct archaic group from Asia related to the Neandertals, about 700,000 years ago. "The fact that the mtDNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominin shares a common ancestor with Denisovan rather than Neandertal mtDNAs is unexpected since its skeletal remains carry Neandertal-derived features," says Matthias Meyer. Considering their age and Neandertal-like features, the Sima hominins were likely related to the population ancestral to both Neandertals and Denisovans. Another possibility is that gene flow from yet another group of hominins brought the Denisova-like mtDNA into the Sima hominins or their ancestors.