Neandertals and Their Mitochondria
At the International Palaeontological Congress this morning, I attended a wonderful presentation by Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute. Pääbo is the leader of the team that is studying the genome of Neandertals, trying to understand how this extinct group is related to modern humans.
This research group has found evidence that Neandertals interbred with modern humans, and that some Neandertal inheritance can be found in people from Europe and Asia. I thought that the entire presentation was quite compelling, but Pääbo made one statement that really made me think: apparently there is no evidence for Neandertal genes in the mitochondrial DNA of modern humans.* Mitochondrial DNA is different from our other genetic material in that it passes to a child only from the mother, not from both parents.
I have a question for the geneticists and statisticians: if many humans carry Neandertal DNA in our genomes but lack it in our mitochondria, what is the cause of this distinction? What is the likelihood that this pattern arose as a result of Neandertal men breeding with Homo sapiens women, but not vice versa? And if that was the case, then what does that tell the anthropologists about the nature of ancient societies in both groups?
Please let us know when you have an answer.
* And if I misinterpreted Pääbo’s statement, please let me know so that I can re-phrase the question!