First glimpse at what ancient Denisovans may have looked like, using DNA methylation data

Related Articles

Related Articles

If you could travel back in time 100,000 years, you’d find yourself living among multiple groups of humans, including anatomically modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans.

But exactly what our Denisovan relatives might have looked like had been anyone’s guess for a simple reason: the entire collection of Denisovan remains includes a pinky bone, three teeth, and a lower jaw. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Cell have produced reconstructions of these long-lost relatives based on patterns of methylation in their ancient DNA.

“We provide the first reconstruction of the skeletal anatomy of Denisovans,” says author Liran Carmel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “In many ways, Denisovans resembled Neanderthals, but in some traits, they resembled us, and in others they were unique.”

Overall, the researchers identified 56 anatomical features in which Denisovans differed from modern humans and/or Neanderthals, 34 of them in the skull. For example, the Denisovan’s skull was probably wider than that of modern humans or Neanderthals. They likely also had a longer dental arch.

Carmel, along with study first author David Gokhman and their colleagues, came to this conclusion by using genetic data to predict the anatomical features of the Denisovans. Rather than relying on DNA sequences, they extracted anatomical information from gene activity patterns. Those gene activity patterns were inferred based on genome-wide DNA methylation or epigenetic patterns, chemical modifications that influence gene activity without changing the underlying sequence of As, Gs, Ts, and Cs.

The researchers first compared DNA methylation patterns between the three hominin groups to find regions in the genome that were differentially methylated. Next, they looked for evidence about what those differences might mean for anatomical features based on what’s known about human disorders in which those same genes lose their function.


Subscribe to more articles like this by following our Google Discovery feed - Click the follow button on your desktop or the star button on mobile. Subscribe

“By doing so, we can get a prediction as to what skeletal parts are affected by differential regulation of each gene and in what direction that skeletal part would change–for example, a longer or shorter femur,” Gokhman explains.

To test the method, the researchers first applied it to two species whose anatomy is known: the Neanderthal and the chimpanzee. They found that roughly 85% of the trait reconstructions were accurate in predicting which traits diverged and in which direction they diverged. By focusing on consensus predictions and the direction of the change rather than trying to predict precise measurements, they were able to produce the first reconstructed anatomical profile of the little-understood Denisovan.

The evidence suggests that Denisovans likely shared Neanderthal traits such as an elongated face and a wide pelvis. It also highlighted Denisovan-specific differences, such as an increased dental arch and lateral cranial expansion, the researchers report.

Carmel notes that while their paper was in review, another study came out describing the first confirmed Denisovan mandible. And, it turned out that the jaw bone matched their predictions.

The findings show that DNA methylation can be used to reconstruct anatomical features, including some that do not survive in the fossil record. The approach may ultimately have a wide range of potential applications.

“Studying Denisovan anatomy can teach us about human adaptation, evolutionary constraints, development, gene-environment interactions, and disease dynamics,” Carmel says. “At a more general level, this work is a step towards being able to infer an individual’s anatomy based on their DNA.”

CELL PRESS

Header Image Credit : Maayan Harel

- Advertisement -

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Study Suggests the Mystery of The Lost Colony of Roanoke Solved

The Roanoke Colony refers to two colonisation attempts by Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a permanent English settlement in North America.

Drones Map High Plateaus Basin in Moroccan Atlas to Understand Human Evolution

Researchers from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) have been using drones to create high-resolution aerial images and topographies to compile maps of the High Plateaus Basin in Moroccan Atlas.

The Kerguelen Oceanic Plateau Sheds Light on the Formation of Continents

How did the continents form? Although to a certain extent this remains an open question, the oceanic plateau of the Kerguelen Islands may well provide part of the answer, according to a French-Australian team led by the Géosciences Environnement Toulouse laboratory.

Ancient Societies Hold Lessons for Modern Cities

Today's modern cities, from Denver to Dubai, could learn a thing or two from the ancient Pueblo communities that once stretched across the southwestern United States. For starters, the more people live together, the better the living standards.

Volubilis – The Ancient Berber City

Volubilis is an archaeological site and ancient Berber city that many archaeologists believe was the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania.

Pella – Birthplace of Alexander The Great

Pella is an archaeological site and the historical capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon.

New Argentine fossils uncover history of celebrated conifer group

Newly unearthed, surprisingly well-preserved conifer fossils from Patagonia, Argentina, show that an endangered and celebrated group of tropical West Pacific trees has roots in the ancient supercontinent that once comprised Australia, Antarctica and South America, according to an international team of researchers.

High-tech CT reveals ancient evolutionary adaptation of extinct crocodylomorphs

The tree of life is rich in examples of species that changed from living in water to a land-based existence.

Fish fossils become buried treasure

Rare metals crucial to green industries turn out to have a surprising origin. Ancient global climate change and certain kinds of undersea geology drove fish populations to specific locations.

Archaeologists Discover Viking Toilet in Denmark

Archaeologists excavating a settlement on the Stevns Peninsula in Denmark suggests they have discovered a toilet from the Viking Age.

Popular stories