Researchers led by Professor Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have completed a first draft version of the Neanderthal genome.
Using sequencing technology from 454 Life Sciences and Solexa, the team has sequenced more than one billion DNA fragments extracted from three Neanderthal fossils found in Croatia.
The researchers have sequenced more than three billion bases of Neanderthal DNA, which makes up more than 60 per cent of the entire genome.
The sequences will now be compared to the human and chimpanzee genomes to uncover what makes Neanderthals and homo sapiens different.
In a statement, the researchers said they had developed the sequencing libraries under clean-room conditions to avoid contamination of experiments by human DNA, and designed sequence tags carrying unique identifiers attached to the ancient DNA.
Along with other new technologies, these steps enabled the researchers to use only a tiny amount of DNA from the fossils, with only half a gram of bone used to produce the draft sequence.
Paabo has organised a consortium of researchers from around the world to analyse the results, which will be published later this year.
They plan to look at many genes of special interest in recent human evolution, such as FOXP2, which is involved in language and speech in humans, as well as the Tau locus and the microcephalin-1 gene, to see whether variants found in humans were inherited from Neanderthals.