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No. 130: JUL-AUG 2000

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Has Human Evolution Been Directed by Bacteria?

With considerable fanfare, a multinational team of scientists has announced that the mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) "squeezed" from a 29,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton found in the northern Caucasus differs by 3.48% from the mtDNA of a 40,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton from (fittingly) Germany's Neander Valley. Furthermore, both mtDNA samples differ from that of modern humans by a substantial 7%.

These two innocent-appearing, widely publicized numbers have far-reaching implications:

  1. Modern humans and Neanderthals are only very distantly related, and they certainly never interbred, as suggested in many recent, popular articles; and

  2. Since neither Neanderthal mtDNA sample is closer to that of modern Europeans than it is any other modern human population, the so-called "multiregional" theory of human evolution and dispersion is unlikely to be correct. Thus, the out-of-Africa theory is favored;.

These data and their implications stimulate several observations and comments; only one of which is mentioned in the references given below.

F.H. Smith, an anthropologist from Northern Illinois University and a supporter of the multiregional theory, opines that 30,000-40,000 years ago the mtDNA of the early humans, who were mixing it up with the Neanderthals, was certainly very different from what it is today. Since mtDNA mutates rapidly, way back then human mtDNA might have been much more like that of the Neanderthals.

(Ovchinnikov, Igor V., et al; "Molecular Analysis of Neanderthal DNA from the Northern Caucasus," Nature, 404:490, 2000. Bower, B.; "Salvaged DNA adds to Neandertals' Mystique," Science News, 157:213, 2000. Donn, Jeff; "Neanderthal DNA Has Little Human Link," Austin American-Statesman, March 29, 2000. Cr. D. Phelps.)

Comment. From among many possible comments, we settle for just one: It is relevant that mtDNA is not the nDNA (nuclear DNA) that is the primary determinant of an animal's morphology and other attributes. Scientific consensus now holds that mtDNA comes from bacteria that invaded complex cells (eukaryotes) and set up housekeeping in them eons ago. The mitochondria are called "endosymbionts," but we must wonder how symbiotic they really are. Not only does mtDNA mutate much faster than nDNA ("our" DNA), but the mitochondria the mtDNA serves must have different evolutionary goals from us; that is, mitochondria might really be parasites and we are their hosts! See next item.

From Science Frontiers #130, JUL-AUG 2000. 2000 William R. Corliss

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