DNA Study of First Ancient African Genome Flawed, Researchers Report

Feb 5, 2016

Photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

By Carl Zimmer

When scientists first started to figure out how to extract DNA from ancient skeletons, their success was met with astonishment. One minute, scientists were fishing Richard III’s genes from his royal bones, and the next they were showing off DNA retrieved from 5,000-year-old Incan mummies.

The idea that DNA could survive for thousands of years — let alone be reassembled into an entire genome — seemed little short of miraculous.

Despite the field’s rapid advances in recent years, though, ancient DNA is still hard to find and hard to make sense of. Potential errors lurk around every corner. Even little oversights can cause big headaches.

Andrea Manica, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, appreciates this fact all too well. A head-turning study by his team turned out to have a fundamental flaw that erased some of its most provocative conclusions.

In October, Dr. Manica and his colleagues reconstructed the first ancient human genome ever found in Africa, retrieved from the skeleton of a man who lived in Ethiopia 4,500 years ago.

Ancient DNA experts were delighted, because the genome may provide clues about African history that other kinds of evidence — broken pottery shards, for example, or scraps of ancient manuscripts — cannot.

“It’s an amazing, amazing, unique, special, incredible, first-of-its-kind data set,” David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the study, said in an interview.

After Dr. Manica and his colleagues published their results, Dr. Reich and Pontus Skoglund, another geneticist at Harvard, requested the original data. They wanted to use it in their own studies of ancient human populations.

Dr. Reich and Dr. Skoglund reanalyzed the findings — but did not reach the same conclusions.


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4 comments on “DNA Study of First Ancient African Genome Flawed, Researchers Report

  • 2
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    @Phil

    Science wins again.

    And it always will. Self-correction is the very reason why science is so reliable. When, in the entire history of the world, has any religious authority ever hinted at the possibly that they might have been wrong about any of their beliefs?….

    The answer is well known to all of us here. And that’s the reason why they cannot win. They are doomed to fail and will eventually end up in the dustbin of history. Devising ever improving ways to educate the masses will help to accelerate this process. It can’t happen soon enough.



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  • @OP – In October, Dr. Manica and his colleagues reconstructed the first ancient human genome ever found in Africa, retrieved from the skeleton of a man who lived in Ethiopia 4,500 years ago.

    It seems that traces of early human DNA are being found even earlier!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35595661
    Neanderthals and modern humans were interbreeding much earlier than was previously thought, scientists say.

    Traces of human DNA found in a Neanderthal genome suggest that we started mixing with our now-extinct relatives 100,000 years ago.

    Previously it had been thought that the two species first encountered each other when modern humans left Africa, about 60,000 years ago.

    The research is published in the journal Nature.

    Dr Sergi Castellano, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Germany, said: “It is significant for understanding the history of modern humans and Neanderthals.”

    The ancient remains of a female Neanderthal, found in a remote cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, are the source of these revelations about the sex lives of our ancestors.

    A genetic analysis reveals that portions of human DNA lie within her genome, revealing an interspecies mingling that took place 100,000 years ago.



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