Swedish scientist Svante Paabo yesterday won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discoveries on human evolution that provided key insights into our immune system and what makes us unique compared with our extinct cousins, the award’s panel said.
Paabo has spearheaded the development of new techniques that allowed researchers to compare the genome of modern humans and that of other hominins — the Neanderthals and Denisovans.
While Neanderthal bones were first discovered in the mid-19th century, only by unlocking their DNA have scientists been able to fully understand the links between species.
Photo: AFP / Frank Vinken / Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
This included the time when modern humans and Neanderthals diverged as a species, determined to be about 800,000 years ago, Nobel Committee chair Anna Wedell said.
“Paabo and his team also surprisingly found that gene flow had occurred from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens, demonstrating that they had children together during periods of co-existence,” she said.
This transfer of genes between hominin species affects how the immune system of modern humans reacts to infections, such as the coronavirus. About 1 to 2 percent of people outside Africa have Neanderthal genes.
“Svante Paabo has discovered the genetic make up of our closest relatives, the Neanderthals and the Denison hominins,” Nils-Goran Larsson, a Nobel Assembly member, said after the announcement. “And the small differences between these extinct human forms and us as humans today will provide important insight into our body functions and how our brain has developed and so forth.”
Paabo, 67, performed his prizewinning studies in Germany at the University of Munich and at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Paabo is the son of Sune Bergstrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982.
It is the eighth time that the son or daughter of a Nobel laureate also won a Nobel Prize, the Nobel Foundation said.
Scientists in the field lauded the Nobel Committee’s choice this year.
David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, said he was thrilled the group honored the field of ancient DNA, which he worried might “fall between the cracks.”
By recognizing that DNA can be preserved for tens of thousands of years — and developing ways to extract it — Paabo and his team created a completely new way to answer questions about our past, Reich said.
That work was the basis for an “explosive growth” of ancient DNA studies in recent decades.
“It’s totally reconfigured our understanding of human variation and human history,” Reich said, adding that Paabo “was, more than anyone, the pioneer of this field.”
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