Israeli Denisovan DNA breakthrough short-listed for 2019 science award
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Israeli Denisovan DNA breakthrough short-listed for 2019 science award

Scientists from Hebrew University in Jerusalem named finalist in Science Magazine's 2019 prize along with Stanford University peers

3-D reconstruction of a female Denisovans. Credit: Maayan Harel
3-D reconstruction of a female Denisovans. Credit: Maayan Harel

Israeli scientists who showed the facial and skeletal structure of an extinct and little-known group of humans have been listed as finalists for Science Magazine’s 2019 Breakthrough of the Year Award.

The Hebrew University team said this week they had made it through to the final four after researchers gave the world its first glimpse of Denisovans, a mysterious human species who lived 100,000 years ago.

A team including Dr David Gokhman from Stanford University and Hebrew U’s Professor Liran Carmel – the only Israeli nominated – were able to reconstruct the Denisovan’s anatomy using DNA from tiny bone fragments and teeth, a breakthrough that garnered worldwide attention.

The University urged supporters to vote for the team, saying: “Let’s bring the trophy home and place Israel on the world map for groundbreaking science and innovation.”

Their success offered new insights into Denisovans, who walked the earth with Neanderthals and modern humans’ ancestors until around 50,000 years ago.

Archaeologists only discovered the Denisovans in 2008, and only three teeth and the bone of a Denisovan’s small finger had been found by the time the team used genetic analysis to work out what this human group looked like.

Shortly after submitting their scientific paper, which followed three years studying the chemical changes in Denisovan DNA, a chance discovery showed they were right.

“One of the most exciting moments happened a few weeks after we sent our paper to peer-review,” said Carmel. “Scientists discovered a Denisovan jawbone! We compared it to our predictions and found it matched perfectly. Without even planning on it, we received independent confirmation of our ability to reconstruct whole anatomical profiles using DNA extracted from a single fingertip.”

Little is known about the Denisovans, who lived in Siberia and East Asia, but it is thought that their DNA helps today’s Tibetans live at high altitude. Studies have shown that around 6 percent of present-day Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians carry Denisovan DNA.

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