Missing Links

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

CarlIn the summer of 1981, a Swedish graduate student named Svante Paabo filled a laboratory at the University of Uppsala with the stench of rotting liver. Paabo was supposed to be studying viruses, but he had become secretly obsessed with a more exotic line of research: extracting DNA from Egyptian mummies. No one at the time had any idea if the desiccated flesh of pharaohs still contained any genetic material, so Paabo decided to run an experiment. He bought a piece of calf’s liver and put it in a lab oven at about 120 degrees for a few days to approximate mummification. In the dried, blackened lump of meat, he succeeded in finding scattered fragments of DNA. It was the start of what has turned out to be an extraordinary scientific career. Paabo went on to find DNA in a 2,400-year-old mummy and then from much older animals, like extinct cave bears and ground sloths. In 2010, he became world-famous when he and his colleagues unveiled the Neanderthal genome.

Neanderthals have puzzled scientists ever since their fossils first emerged in a German quarry in 1856. They were clearly ancient (their fossils span a range from about 200,000 to 30,000 years ago) and had distinctive anatomical differences from living humans, such as a thick brow ridge. But Neanderthals had brains as big as ours; they could make sophisticated tools and hunt large mammals. Precisely how they were related to modern humans became the source of a debate that rolled on for decades. In “Neanderthal Man” Paabo offers a fascinating account of the three decades of research that led from a secret hobby to a scientific milestone. The book follows the style of two previous memoirs by pioneering geneticists — James D. Watson’s “The Double Helix” (1968) and J. Craig Venter’s “A Life Decoded” (2007). In “The Double Helix,” Watson described discovering the structure of DNA. In “A Life Decoded,” Venter told how he led a team that developed new ways to read DNA and eventually assembled a rough draft of the entire human genome. Paabo now recounts his success in recovering a human genome that has been sitting in fossils for tens of thousands of years.

More here.