Jun 22, 2017

Bringing back Neanderthals

Our Expert Voices conversation on de-extinction.

As an anthropologist who studies extinct populations of human relatives, when I hear de-extinction, I think of Neanderthals.

Neanderthals became extinct around 30,000 years ago. A few scientists have talked about using technology to make a Neanderthal child – at one point, the geneticist George Church joked that he just needed "an adventurous female human" to make a go of it.

I'm not in favor of making Neanderthal babies. But babies are just the final step of a research process where every other step may prove tremendously valuable. Scientists are already studying the effects of Neanderthal genes within human tissues, and they have already engineered mice with Neanderthal genes. Soon, there will be Neanderthal cell lines, tissues and organs.

What we can learn: Throughout the history of human genetics, we have relied on natural experiments — the differences that evolution has built into human populations—to learn about how our genes work. The evolution of Neanderthals took them down a different path than any living human population. Studying Neanderthal cells and tissues will help us to understand how human genes work.

Bottom line: De-extinction of Neanderthals — at least in the lab — may just give us new targets for drugs or other treatments to help humans today.

Other voices in the conversation:

Joseph Bennett, biologist, Carleton University: Keep animals from going extinct in the first place

Molly Hardesty-Moore, ecologist, University of California, Santa Barbara: Don't forget an extinct creature's ecology

Ben J. Novak, biologist, The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback: De-extinction is like any other conservation program

Alejandro Camacho, legal scholar, University of California, Irvine: Wildlife laws aren't ready for the return of extinct species

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