Svante Pääbo, director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and his team are genetically engineering brain organoids that contain Neanderthal DNA in an attempt to understand how humans differ from Neanderthals, The Guardian reports.
The organoids are being grown from human stem cells that have been edited to contain Neanderthalized versions of several genes, and they replicate some of the basic structures of an adult brain, the article notes.
The researchers are focusing on three genes known to be crucial for brain development, and they're using CRISPR gene editing to change the human stem cells into something resembling what Neanderthal cells would have been like, the newspaper says. The cells are then encouraged to clump together into organoid structures.
The researchers plan to compare the Neanderthalized organoids to fully human ones to assess the speed at which the stem cells divide, develop, and organize into three-dimensional brain structures and whether the brain cells are wired differently, The Guardian adds.
What Pääbo and his team are not looking to do is somehow create a functioning Neanderthal brain. In 2013, Harvard's George Church suggested that a cloned Neanderthal baby could be created if an "adventurous female human" would act as a surrogate, according to The Guardian. But Pääbo calls such scenarios unethical and unachievable with today's technology.
"People like me have to look like the boring, non-visionary guy, saying it's not possible and think about the ethics," he tells the newspaper about Church's comments.