454 Life Sciences , in collaboration with scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, launched a project to sequence the complete Neandertal genome. Neandertal is the closest relative to humans and knowledge of its genetic composition is expected to significantly enhance the understanding of human biology.

The project, which is estimated to take two years, received a grant from the Max Planck Society.

“The Max Planck Institute and 454 Life Sciences are working together to sequence the Neandertal genome. Our expertise with ancient DNA and the Neandertal, coupled with 454 Sequencing, a next-generation sequencing technology with unparalleled throughput, makes this an ideal collaboration,” explains Svante Pääbo, Ph.D., director of the department of evolutionary anthropology at the Max Planck Institute. “The advent of 454 Sequencing has enabled us to move forward with a project that was previously thought to be impossible.”
Neandertal inhabited Europe and the Near East until about 30,000 years ago then disappeared after his successor, Homo sapiens, migrated to Europe. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the first Neandertal fossil in Germany’s Neander Valley near Düsseldorf. Dr. Pääbo was the first to sequence DNA from a Neandertal fossil in 1997 while at the University of Munich.

“We are excited to collaborate with the Max Planck Institute to sequence the Neandertal genome, as it promises to yield more insight into human biology than the sequencing of any individual human,” says Christopher McLeod, president and CEO of 454 Life Sciences. “This ambitious project is further validation of 454 Sequencing technology and demonstrates that we can sequence any genome, even one from highly degraded samples.”

Over the last twenty years, Dr. Pääbo’s research group has developed methods for demonstrating the authenticity of ancient DNA results, as well as technical solutions to the problems of working with short, chemically modified DNA fragments. Together with 454 Life Sciences, they will now combine these methods with high-throughput DNA sequencing. By enabling a method of sequencing that is more comprehensive and less expensive than conventional sequencing methods, 454 Sequencing is well suited for such a project, explains Michael Egholm, Ph.D., vp, molecular biology, 454 Life Sciences.

“Unlike the human genome project, Neandertal samples are extremely scarce and have been contaminated with microbial DNA over tens of thousands of years. Therefore, this project is only possible with 454 Sequencing technology,” he continues.

Due to such sample contamination, the task of sequencing the Neandertal genome is much more extensive than the task of sequencing the human genome. 454 Life Sciences’ Genome Sequencer 20 System makes such an endeavor feasible by allowing approximately a quarter of a million single DNA strands from small amounts of bone to be sequenced in only about five hours by a single machine, according to Dr. Egholm. The DNA sequences determined by the Genome Sequencer 20 System are 100–200 base pairs in length, which coincides neatly with the length of ancient DNA fragments.

Over the next two years, the Neandertal sequencing team will reconstruct a draft of the three billion bases that made up the genome of Neandertals. For their work, they will use samples from several Neandertal individuals, including the type of specimen found in 1856 in Neander Valley and a particularly well-preserved Neandertal from Croatia. The Max Planck Society’s decision to fund the project is based on an analysis of approximately one million base pairs of nuclear Neandertal DNA from a 45,000-year-old Croatian fossil, sequenced by 454 Life Sciences.

Approximately 99% of the Homo sapiens genome is identical to the chimpanzee genome, our closest living relative. It is estimated that the Neandertal shares 96% of the 1% difference with Homo sapiens. The Neandertal shares the

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