The Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to Sweden’s Svante Pääbo, hunter of prehistoric DNA
The Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday crowned the pioneer of paleogenomics, Swede Svante Pääbo, for fully decoding the genome of Neanderthal man and laying the foundations of this discipline, which traces back to the DNA of prehistoric times to shed light on the human genes today.
“By uncovering the genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, his discoveries have laid the foundation for exploring what makes us humans such unique beings,” said the Nobel jury.
Thanks to the sequencing of a bone found in Siberia in 2008, the 67-year-old Swede also made it possible to uncover the existence of another definite and previously unknown hominin, Denisova’s husband, who lived in present-day Russia and Asia.
Based in Germany for decades – he works at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Basic Research – Svante Pääbo discovered in 2009 that gene transfer of the order of 2% had taken place between these extinct hominins such as Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
This ancient flow of genes to modern humans had physiological effects on modern humans, such as affecting the way their immune systems respond to infections.
For example, his work had recently shown that COVID-19 patients who carry a segment of Neanderthal DNA — particularly in Europe and particularly in South Asia — who inherited a crossbreed with the human genome some 60,000 years ago, were more likely to have severe disease Complications of this have disease.
“Genetic differences between Homo sapiens and our now extinct closest relatives were unknown until they were identified through Pääbo’s work,” the Nobel Committee said in its decision.
The Swedish researcher was able to overcome the difficulties associated with the degradation of DNA over time: after thousands of years, only traces remain, which are also largely contaminated by bacteria or modern human traces.
In an interview with the Nobel Foundation, the paleogeneticist said he was just about to “take his last sip of tea” when he got the call from Stockholm.
“I didn’t really think that (his findings) would qualify me for a Nobel Prize,” he said.
Neanderthals coexisted with modern humans in Europe for a time before disappearing completely around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, displaced by Sapiens of African descent.
“The last 40,000 years are quite unique in human history in that we are the only living form of humans. Before that, there were almost always other types of people,” M. Pääbo said on Thursday.
A native of Stockholm, he was long considered for a Nobel Prize. But he had disappeared from the list of favorites in recent years.
The Max Planck Institute was delighted with its award and praised work “that has revolutionized our understanding of the historical development of modern man”.
– Nobel and son of Nobel –
Svante Pääbo alone receives this Nobel Prize in Science, which is endowed with 10 million crowns (approx. 920,000 euros). An increasingly rare achievement, for example the last Nobel Prize in Medicine for a single winner in 2016.
The award opens an unlikely dynasty: his father, Sune Bergstrom (1916-2004), also received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982 for the discovery of prostaglandins.
He is actually the biological father of Svante, who publicly stated in 2014 to be the secret fruit of an extramarital affair, hence their different names.
“As an adult, I only saw him occasionally,” says Svante Pääbo in his memoirs “Neanderthals: In Search of Lost Genomes”.
The Nobel harvest continues with physics in Stockholm on Tuesday and chemistry on Wednesday, before the much-anticipated Literature Prizes on Thursday and the Peace Prizes on Friday, the only award presented in Oslo. The youngest economy prize closes the year next Monday.
Last year’s Medicine Prize went to two Americans, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, for their discoveries on how touch works.
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