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Scientists to Grow 'Mini Brains' in Lab Using Neanderthal DNA

In the next few months, the scientists will be working on blobs of tissue, known as brain organdies, in attempt to grow basic brains from human stem cells genetically edited to contain “Neanderthalised" versions of a few genes.

The organoids, which are the size of lentils, are incapable of thoughts or feelings, and replicate some of the basic structures of an adult brain.

The tissue will show for the first time if there were significant differences between Neanderthal and human brain biology.

Prof Svante Pääbo, director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany said: “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.”

Mr. Pääbo has led the international effort to crack the Neanderthal genome in the past, and his lab now has its eyes set on bringing Neanderthal traits back to life in the lab through sophisticated gene-editing techniques.

The lab has previously inserted Neanderthal pain perception genes into frogs’ eggs, which could provide insight into whether they had a different pain threshold to humans.

Mr. Pääbo said: “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.”

In the basement beneath Pääbo’s office, scientists are working to extract DNA – the code of life – from ancient human and animal fossils excavated at sites across the world.

The team’s success relies on taking obsessive precautions against contamination: a speck of dust floating in through a window can contain more DNA than the few milligrams of powdered ancient bone under analysis.

Researchers shower and don spacesuit-style uniforms before entering rooms kept sterile by UV lights and a sophisticated air filtration system.

It was under these stringent working conditions in 2010 that his team reassembled the code of the Neanderthal genome from heavily degraded samples taken from four females who lived in Europe tens of thousands of years ago.

The genome revealed Neanderthals interbred with our ancestors – and successfully enough that all non-Africans today carry 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA. And since people acquired slightly different genes, collectively about a third of the Neanderthal genome is still floating around in modern populations.

However, there are also genetic dead zones: large stretches of the Neanderthal genome that nobody inherited, possibly because they conferred disadvantages to health, fertility, cognition or physical appearance.
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