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Svante Paabo  

Max Planck Institute Director, Department of Genetics

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany was abuzz in the summer of 2006, and not just because the city was one of the hosts of the World Cup soccer tournament. On July 20, 2006, the institute announced the start of one of the most ambitious research projects in recent years: sequencing the complete genome of a Neanderthal. These ancient hominids, who shared the Earth with modern humans before dying out 30,000 years ago, represent humans' closest relative. If their genome can be deciphered, then combined with the recently completed genome of chimpanzees, humans' closest living relative, the road may finally be paved for understanding the origins of humans and what makes us unique.

If that happens, the scientist Svante Pääbo, elected to the National Academy of Sciences as a foreign associate in 2004 and the Director of the Max Planck Institute's Department of Evolutionary Biology, would be very pleased. Since his days in graduate school in Sweden, Pääbo, who once dreamed of becoming an Egyptologist, has uncovered ancient secrets perhaps even more valuable than King Tut's treasures. Pääbo has been instrumental in creating the field of molecular paleontology, having developed and refined the techniques used to isolate and sequence ancient DNA. In addition, he has worked extensively with modern DNA samples in his studies of genetic variation and human evolution.

A recent advance in high-throughput DNA sequencing, which has enabled Pääbo to coax DNA out of the remains of mammoths, ground sloths, marsupial wolves, and ancient corn, may help in obtaining enough nuclear DNA from 40,000-year-old bones to complete the Neanderthal genome. To prepare for this endeavor, Pääbo, in his Inaugural Article in this issue of PNAS (1), discusses how damaged bases in DNA can cause sequence errors and what general patterns they may display. These findings should help researchers detect and filter nucleotide misincorporations, a potential hazard of this new sequencing technique. “There are some special technical issues with this,” he says, “but I think within 2 years we will have a rough draft version of the Neanderthal genome.”

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