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Why we humans are different from chimpanzees, bonobos, Denisovas and Neanderthals?

Giuseppe Remuzzi

Appreciating science and scientists

Europeans respect scientists, but 80 per cent want their work to be subject to greater oversight. People esteem scientists but fear novelty.

Why? Scientists must help the public to appreciate science through storytelling, not academic lectures. By asking questions like, ‘Why are we different from the Neanderthals, and chimpanzees? Where do we come from?’

We were once all convinced these questions were impossible to answer – except for Svante Pääbo and his team. In 2008, Pääbo extracted DNA from a bone found in Siberia. He demonstrated that over the millennia, Neanderthals and Sapiens mixed genes (we each have approximately 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA). It’s why we have managed to survive outside of Africa.

Thanks to Neanderthals, Homo Sapiens were able to migrate to Europe and defend themselves against new illnesses. However, modern humans also have Neanderthal DNA to thank for diabetes and heart attacks. Neanderthals needed these gene – we don’t.

This leads us to a more current question: why do Coronavirus infections cause only mild symptoms in most, while others get more seriously ill? There is a region on our genome related to susceptibility to COVID19; a gene there determines how the disease manifests. Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo’s brilliant idea was to ask where that piece of chromosome came from. Of the 13 variants that make up the risk haplotype, 11 came from Neanderthals. What was that haplotype doing in Neanderthals? Once, it protected against infections, but today it is responsible for dangerous, excessive immune responses to Coronavirus. The Origin project in Bergamo recently sought to understand this in greater depth and found that people exposed to the virus who carry this haplotype had more than double the risk of developing severe COVID19.