Jeffrey Jensen, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine, was among a group of scientists to receive the 2010 Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for sequencing the Neandertal genome, a scientific accomplishment considered both technically impressive and critical to understanding human evolution.
Sequencing of the Neandertal genome was initiated in 2006 using DNA extracted from a 38,000-year-old bone fragment. “Unlocking the Neandertal genome will help us answer questions that are fundamental to our very understanding of evolution as a process,” said Dr. Jensen, who is in the Program in Bioinformatics & Integrative Biology. “It is now possible to more precisely determine when in our evolutionary history the mutations that made us uniquely human occurred.”
The Neandertals first appeared in European fossil records dating to about 400,000 years ago and lived in Europe and Western Asia, traveling as far east as southern Siberia, and as far south as the Middle East. Neandertals came into contact with modern humans about 80,000 years ago in the Middle East before later encounters in Europe and Asia. About 30,000 years ago Neandertals died out, but not before intermingling with humans.
The Neandertal genome, composed of nearly 4 million base pairs, was compared to the genomes of five present-day humans from different parts of the world. Results indicate that Neandertals shared more genetic variants with present-day humans from Eurasia than with present-day humans from sub-Saharan Africa. This finding suggests that gene flow from Neandertals into the ancestors of non-Africans occurred before Eurasian groups diverged from each other.
Jensen was one of the study co-authors to receive this year’s Newcomb Cleveland Prize, which annually recognizes the author or authors of an outstanding paper published in the research articles or reports sections of the journal Science between June and the following May. Using intact genomic material obtained from the 38,000-year-old bone fragment, Jensen and colleagues compiled the draft sequence presented in the paper, “A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome,” published online May 7, 2010, by Science.
“The draft Neandertal genome sequence marks an incredible step forward in our perceptions of our closest hominid cousins,” Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts said. “This remarkable paper is a fundamental intellectual contribution as well as a stunning technical achievement and it will continue to be referenced and studied for years to come.”
The prize was established in 1923 with funds donated by Newcomb Cleveland of New York City and was originally called the AAAS Thousand Dollar Prize. Eligible Science papers include original research data, theory or synthesis that represent a fundamental contribution to basic knowledge, or a technical achievement of far-reaching consequence.
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