It's the time of year when people take stock of the past 12 months, and make resolutions for the New Year.
That's kind of what Svante Paabo is doing — but the Swedish archeological geneticist is looking over a time span of 30,000 years.
He's almost finished mapping the DNA of neanderthal man, a distant cousin of modern humans. Paabo has found that many people today carry within their DNA about 3 to 5 per cent in common with neanderthals.
Paabo says it's important to learn more about our caveman cousins' DNA to reveal the differences between us and them, differences that have seen modern humans survive and thrive over the millennia, while neanderthals have become extinct.
"I really hope that over the next 10 years we will understand much more of those things that set us apart. Which changes in our genome made human culture and technology possible? And allowed us to expand and become 7, 8, 9 billion people and spread all over the world?," he asked at a recent genetic conference in Ottawa.
The room was packed with people from across North America who wanted to hear Paabo speak. He's recognized as the inspiration for Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.
'He is a rock star'
Pierre Meulin, president of Genome Canada, describes Paabo this way. "He is a rock star," he says, with a laugh.
And he's not surprised Paabo's work captures the public's imagination.
"I think people want to understand where they come from. And now people are very interested in what their identity is, and the genetic makeup of an individual is the absolutely ultimate identity card for any individual. So people are very interested in that," Meulin added.
Those genetic differences, Meulin said, can help pinpoint various diseases, and perhaps lead to a cure. But Meulin believes that one day DNA mapping will have a much more common use.
"With the social networking we see these days, when we all have our gene profiles on our iphone we'll be self selecting who we would like to be with. 'Oh, are you like me? Because I have this or this gene profile, etc. etc.' It'll happen."