Svante Pääbo, a Swedish scientist working in Germany, has won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for decoding the DNA of extinct hominins, a development that will increase understanding of human evolution.
“Through his pioneering research, Pääbo accomplished something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans,” said the Nobel Assembly on Monday, adding that he had also discovered the Denisovans, a previously unknown group in the hominin family that are near-relatives of modern-day humans.
Pääbo works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, which he founded in 1999. He is only the second solo winner of the SKr10m ($900,000) medicine prize in the past 10 years; it is usually shared by two or three people.
“He was overwhelmed, he was speechless — very happy,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly, who had called Pääbo with the news. The laureate himself said: “I didn’t think [my research] would qualify for a Nobel prize.”
Pääbo’s genetic analysis of DNA extracted from Neanderthal and Denisovan teeth and bones showed that both types of hominin had interbred with ancestral modern humans, who coexisted with them in Europe and Asia tens of thousands of years ago.
These ancient gene patterns have physiological and medical implications today, affecting for example how the human immune system responds to infection. The research showed that the genomes of humans today contain 1 to 4 per cent Neanderthal DNA if they are of European or Asian descent, while some people in south-east Asia have up to 6 per cent Denisovan DNA.
The mission to read the 3bn biochemical letters of the Neanderthal genome began 20 years ago in Leipzig, as Pääbo’s lab developed techniques to extract tiny quantities of their DNA from fossils dating back more than 40,000 years. This genetic material had to be purified and amplified without being contaminated by contemporary human DNA.
Publication of the first draft Neanderthal genome in 2006 was a scientific sensation, followed in 2010 by the genome of a previously unknown hominin that Pääbo discovered by sequencing DNA from a bone fragment found in Denisova Cave in Siberia.
The Nobel medicine prize normally recognises discoveries with more direct application to clinical medicine than paleogenomics, the discipline Pääbo founded. Some thought that this year’s medicine prize would go to research associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, findings about coronaviruses or mRNA vaccines.
But Pääbo’s award reminded the scientific world that, although it is often just called the medicine prize, its full title is the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Professor David Paterson of Oxford university, president of the UK Physiological Society, said Pääbo’s discoveries were “important in our understanding in high-altitude acclimatisation as populations move and adapt to new environments, and how genetic variants affect us on a day-to-day basis in health and disease”.
Pääbo, 67, is a popular scientific communicator, who does not hesitate to pose with hominin skeletons to popularise his research. His biochemist father Sune Bergström won the Nobel medicine prize in 1982.
“Great to see Svante winning the Nobel prize,” said Ewan Birney, deputy director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. “People forget how radical it was to think that one could sequence ancient DNA up to the level of whole genomes.”
The medicine award is the first of this year’s six Nobels to be revealed. Prizes for physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics will be announced in the coming week.
Source: Financial Times