The Nobel Committee announced on Twitter that Svante Paabo, a Swedish scientist, “has established an entirely different scientific discipline called paleogenomics,” according to the Nobel Committee.
The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Svante Paabo, a Swedish scientist who discovered key information about human evolution and what makes us different from our extinct relatives.
Paabo was the pioneer in the development of new techniques which allowed researchers to compare modern humans’ genomes with those of other hominins, the Neanderthals or Denisovans.
Although the first discovery of Neanderthal bones was in the mid-19th Century, scientists have only been able to unlock their DNA to understand the connections between species.
This includes the time that modern humans and Neanderthals split as a species. It was around 800,000. years ago, according to Anna Wedell (chair of the Nobel Committee).
She said that Paabo and his team discovered that gene flow occurred from Neanderthals into Homo sapiens, which was surprising considering that they were co-parents during coexistence.
The immune system of modern humans is affected by the transfer of genes among hominin species. Neanderthal genes are found in 1% of people outside Africa.
Paabo and his team could also extract DNA from a small finger bone found in Siberia. This led to the identification of a new type of ancient human they call Denisovans.
Wedell called this “a sensational discovery”. This revealed that Neanderthals were sister groups to Denisovan, and they split around 600,000. Up to 6% of all modern humans have Denisovan genes, which indicates that there was interbreeding.
Wedell stated that homo sapiens learned sequences from them by mixing with them after they migrated out of Africa. This increased their survival chances in new environments. Denisovans also share a gene that allows Tibetans to adapt to high altitudes.
“Svante patio has discovered the genetic makeup of our closest relatives the Neanderthals, and the Denison hominins,” Nils Goran Larsson, a Nobel Assembly member told the Associated Press following the announcement.
He said that the differences between extinct human forms, and humans as we know them today, will give us important insights into how our bodies function and how our brains have developed.
Paabo, now 67, completed his prizewinning research in Germany at the University of Munich as well as at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig). Paabo is the son Sune Bergstrom’s 1982 Nobel Prize in Medicine winner.
“Pioneer of the field”
The eighth time that a Nobel laureate’s son or daughter has also been awarded a Nobel Prize is according to the Nobel Foundation. A father-son team has only once shared the Nobel Prize. This was in 1915 when William Laurence Bragg and Sir William Henry Bragg won the Physics award together.
The Nobel Committee’s selection this year was praised by scientists in the field.
David Reich, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, stated that he was delighted the group recognized the field of ancient DNA. He worried that it might “fall between cracks.”
Reich stated that Paabo and his team discovered DNA can be kept for thousands of years and developed methods to extract it. This allowed them to create a new way to answer our questions about the past. This work led to an “explosive increase” in ancient DNA research over the past decade.
Reich stated that “it’s completely reconfigured our understanding of human variation and history,” adding that Paabo was “more than anyone, the pioneer in this field.”
A week of Nobel Prize announcements began with the medicine prize. The physics prize will be announced on Tuesday, followed by literature and chemistry on Wednesday. On Friday, the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and the economics prize will be announced.
Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius were the medicine recipients last year for their discoveries about temperature and touch perception.
The cash prize of 10 million Swedish Kronor (nearly $990,000) will be given out on Dec. 10. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor, left the money in a bequest.