Reconstructed epigenetics maps of Neanderthals and Denisovans reveal why their appearance and disease risk differ from ours.
Scientists have increasingly realized that DNA is only part of what makes us us — perhaps equally important is how our genes’ activity is modified by a process called epigenetics. Recently this cutting-edge field has turned its attention to some very old DNA: Researchers today announced they have reconstructed methylation maps for our extinct relatives. The findings might explain certain differences in appearances between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and us, as well as the prevalence of disease.
Epigenetics is a branch of science that explores how the expression of our DNA can be influenced by external factors without the DNA itself changing. Research in the field has focused on DNA methylation. This is when a chemical compound called a methyl group attaches to DNA. This can regulate an individual’s genetic expression and even be passed down through generations. DNA methylation has been linked to disease and also to an individual’s appearance and behavior. This is the first time, however, that an archaic pattern of methylation has been reconstructed for early humans.