Friday, August 26, 2011

Denisovans in Science

It's been pretty quiet around the blog lately, as I've been pretty busy in the "real world." Classes just started, I've got a busy research project, and so there's not a lot of time for blogging.

But today I see Science has two new items on Denisovans, those elusive Neandertal cousins from Siberia, and those Denisovans always get my attention. You might recall that we know quite a lot about Denisovans from their genome, sequenced and published last year. What we don't know is what they looked like. The only fossils we are sure came from Denisovans are teeth and a finger bone. So they're a genome in search of a fossil record. Kind of the opposite of what we usually have.

The first piece in Science is a report from Ann Gibbons on a July meeting of human origins researchers in the Altai Mountains at the Denisova Cave. Not a lot of earth-shattering revelations, except that one more Denisovan tooth has been identified. One of the researchers on the Denisova dig when the tooth was found is quoted as saying, "I thought it must belong to a cave bear." That's a really different kind of tooth than what is usually attributed to members of Homo. The other article from Abi-Rached et al. describes research that we've been hearing about for some time, the discovery that some very important immune receptor genes in modern humans appear to have originated in the Denisovan genome.

Some very interesting research, but many questions remain: What did the Denisovans look like? Will they be described as a new species or just subspecies of H. sapiens? How far did they range? And what happened to them?

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