German scientists are preparing to create “miniature brains” that have been genetically engineered to contain DNA from what they believe are pre-human “Neanderthals” in experiments designed to study the theory of evolution.
But don’t worry, say the scientists: The little brains, or “organoids,” grown from human stem cells won’t be capable of thoughts or feelings.
The experiments start with certain evolutionary assumptions.
“Neanderthals are the closest relatives to everyday humans, so if we should define ourselves as a group or a species it is really them that we should compare ourselves to,” said Prof Svante Pääbo, director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where the experiments are being performed.
Skeptics believe the whole theory of “Neanderthals” is a myth based on fossils that are likely the remains of humans rather than an evolutionary link.
But Pääbo is a believer. He led the effort to crack the so-called “Neanderthal genome,” inserting genes for craniofacial development into mice and other genes for pain perception genes into frogs’ eggs.
“We’re seeing if we can find basic differences in how nerve cells function that may be a basis for why humans seem to be cognitively so special,” Pääbo told the Guardian.
In the basement beneath Pääbo’s office, scientists are working to extract DNA – the code of life – from ancient human and animal fossils excavated at sites across the world. The team’s success relies on taking obsessive precautions against contamination.
In a suggestion reminiscent of the movie “The Fly,” the researchers point out that a speck of dust floating in through a window can contain more DNA than the few milligrams of powdered ancient bone under analysis.