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Animal hybrids may hold clues to Neandertal-human interbreeding

Physical changes in the bodies of other species could give insights into hominid history

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11:00am, October 5, 2016
illustration of two skulls

THE HYBRID FACTOR  To understand signs of interbreeding among humans, Neandertals and other ancient hominids, scientists are studying physical changes in the bodies of various animal hybrids. 

Neandertals are the comeback kids of human evolution. A mere decade ago, the burly, jut-jawed crowd was known as a dead-end species that lost out to us, Homo sapiens.

But once geneticists began extracting Neandertal DNA from fossils and comparing it with DNA from present-day folks, the story changed. Long-gone Neandertals rode the double helix express back to evolutionary relevance as bits of their DNA turned up in the genomes of living people. A molecular window into interbreeding between Neandertals and ancient humans suddenly flung open.

Thanks to ancient hookups, between 20 and 35 percent of Neandertals’ genes live on in various combinations from one person to another. About 1.5 to 4 percent of DNA in modern-day non-Africans’ genomes comes from Neandertals, a population that died out around 40,000 years ago.

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