Gene activity sets humans apart from extinct hominids

Methylation differs between modern people, Neandertals and Denisovans

2:00pm, April 17, 2014

BARE BONES  Differences between the skeletons of modern humans (back) and Neandertals (front) may stem from the way the groups use some genes involved in bone growth. Chemical modifications of DNA may have dialed down the activity of these genes in Neandertals, leading to stocky frames. 

Extinct human cousins may have used some genes differently than modern people do, an analysis of Neandertal and Denisovan DNA reveals.

Compared with living people, Neandertals and ancient Siberians known as Denisovans had slightly different patterns of DNA methylation — a chemical modification of DNA that doesn’t change the information in genes but helps control gene activity. Evolutionary geneticist Liran Carmel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues found that the extinct hominids had lower levels of activity in a group of genes called the HOXD cluster, which governs limb growth. Low HOXD activity could account for Neandertals’ stocky build, the team reports April 17 in Science.

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