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Genome of Ancient Human Is Sequenced

Using sophisticated DNA sequencing technology and powerful data analysis tools, an international team has succeeded in sequencing approximately 80 percent of the genome of a 4,000-year-old sample from a man who lived in Greenland and belonged to an extinct culture (Saqqaq) that was the first to settle in the New World Arctic. The sequencing was achieved using DNA obtained from a permafrost-preserved tuft of hair. According to the research team, led by Dr. Eske Willerslev and his graduate student Morten Rasmussen at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics, this marks the first time that a detailed reconstructed genome of an ancient human has been published. The scientists have named the ancient human "Inuk," which means "man" or "human" in Greenlandic. The genome sequence serves as a blueprint that scientists can use to give a description of how the pre-historic Greenlander looked--including his tendency to baldness, dry earwax, brown eyes, dark skin, the blood type A+, shovel-shaped front teeth, and that he was genetically adapted to cold temperatures, and to what extent he was predisposed to certain illnesses. This is important as, aside from four small pieces of bone and hair, no human remains have been found of the first people that settled the New World Arctic. Dr. Willerslev's team was also able to determine that Inuk's ancestors crossed into the New World from north-eastern Siberia between 4,400 and 6,400 years ago in a migration wave that was independent of those of Native Americans and Inuit ancestors. Thus, Inuk and his people left no dependents behind among contemporary indigenous people of the New World. “Our findings can be of significant help to archaeologists and others as they seek to determine what happened to people from extinct cultures,” Dr. Willerslev said. “Doing so requires organic material--bones or hair kept as museum pieces or found at archaeological sites. Previously, the DNA needed to have been frozen or buried in a layer of permafrost. But with the new methods developed here at the Centre, that is not a premise anymore.” "Not so long ago, reconstructing an entire modern human genome took years," noted Rasmussen. “But the new methods and the abundance of sequencing machines allow us to do it in just a few months--and that includes the time-consuming task of analyzing the results.” This landmark sequencing effort serves as the cover story of the February 11 issue of Nature. The accompanying image of Inuk was drawn by Nuka Godfredtsen. [University of Copenhagen press release] [Nature article]