Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Scientists have developed a new method for analyzing DNA preserved in Neanderthal bones. The novel analysis technique promises to reveal genetic trait differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.
By comparing thousands of human genomes with the handful of previously compiled Neanderthal genomes, researchers were able to isolate differences in gene regulation or expression, the instructions for turning specific genes or sets of genes on and off.
Differences in genetic coding doesn't tell the whole story of how two different species differ. More important are the differences in how each species' genes are expressed -- the differences in how their genes function.
Likewise, comparing the bones of Neanderthals and humans can only reveal so much. The latest research, published this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, promises to reveal how changes in gene instructions inspired trait differences between humans and our close relatives.
"Up until now, it has been challenging to interpret how individual genetic differences between humans and our close relatives relate to differences in our traits," lead researcher Tony Capra, an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, said in a news release. "Our new technique integrates the effects of many genetic variants together to give a more holistic look at what differences in our DNA mean about differences in our biology. This is helping us understand how our species changed across the last few hundred thousand years."
The new computational analysis pinpointed genetic expression changes responsible for differences in the immune, skeletal, cardiovascular and reproductive systems of Neanderthals and humans.
In followup studies, scientists hope to expand their survey to include the genomes of early human populations, as well as the genomes of other hominins, like the Denisovans.
"Increasing our understanding of what makes our ancestors both different and similar to us will give us an increasingly relevant and timely view on what happened to make us human," said Capra. "The ability to read this 'instruction booklet' for how genes were induced or repressed will set the stage for future research and could even one day lead to significant therapeutic implications."