Background: The availability of the genomes of two archaic humans, Neanderthal and Denisovan, and that of modern humans provides researchers an opportunity to investigate genetic differences between these three subspecies on a genome-wide scale. Here we describe an algorithm that predicts statistically significant motifs based on the difference between a given motif's actual and expected distributions. The algorithm was previously applied to plants but was modified for this work. Results: The result of applying the algorithm to the human, Neanderthal, and Denisovan genomes is a catalog of potential regulatory motifs in these three human subspecies. We examined the distributions of these motifs in genetic elements including human retroviruses, human accelerated regions, and human accelerated conserved noncoding sequences regions. Differences in these distributions could be the origin of differences in phenotype between the three subspecies. Twenty significant motifs common to all three genomes were found; thirty-three were found in endogenous retroviruses in Neanderthal and Denisovan. Ten of these motifs mapped to the 22 bp core of MiR-1304. The core of this genetic element regulates the ENAM and AMTN genes, which take part in odontogenesis and whose 3' UTRs contained significant motifs. The introns of 20 genes were found to contain a large number of significant motifs, which were also overrepresented in 49 human accelerated regions. These genes include NAV2, SorCS2, TRAPPC9, GRID1, PRDM16, CAMTA1, and ASIC which are all involved in neuroregulation. Further analysis of these genes using the GO database indicates that many are associated with neurodevelopment. Also, varying numbers of significant motifs were found to occur in regions of the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes that are missing from the human genome, suggesting further functional differences between modern and archaic humans. Conclusion: Although Neanderthal and Denisovan are now extinct, detailed examination of elements from their genomes can shed light on possible phenotypic and cognitive differences between these two archaic human subspecies and modern humans. Genetic similarities and differences between these three subspecies and other fossil hominids would also be of interest.
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