Establishing a new field of science to answer the question of what makes humans unique from our extinct relatives earned Svante Päbo the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Humanity has always been intrigued since its origin. Where did we come from, and how do we relate to those who came before us? What makes us different from humans who are extinct? said Anna Wedell, a member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who announced the prize on October 3.
Before Pääbo’s work, archaeologists and paleontologists studied bones and artifacts to study human evolution. But a superficial study of their remains could not answer some fundamental questions about the genetic changes that led humans to thrive while other humans became extinct in ancient times. Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, worked to extract and analyze DNA from ancient bones (SN: 11/15/06). This led to the discovery of small genetic differences between humans and their extinct relatives.
Getting DNA from ancient bones was once thought to be impossible, says Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York City who is president and chief scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. DNA has been shed over time, so many scientists thought that there would be no future in the fossils for tens of thousands of years. Except that DNA from bacteria and other microbes and from living humans can contaminate ancient genetic material. However, Pääbo managed to piece together the smallest fragments of Neanderthal DNA into the sequence of the legend. It started with DNA from mitochondria, the organelles inside cells that generate energy. He then collects a genetic study book, or genome, for the Neanderthal.
Over the years Vosshall as Pääbo observed DNA extracts from ancient bones presented at scientific meetings. “No one believed him; everyone thought it was contamination or broken stuff” from living people. “What he has done is so unbelievable. That a genuine Neanderthal could obtain a whole series, until he did so, seemed an absolutely impossible feat.
“On a technical basis, the award is also very well deserved,” he said.
Note Nils-Göran Larsson, vice-president of the Nobel committee: “This is a very fundamental, great discovery… To get to the bottom of it, [this] I will give an insight into human physiology.”
Pääbo’s work established the paleogenomic field. “It has always pushed the boundaries of evolutionary anthropology,” says Louis Orlando, a molecular archaeologist at the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics in Toulouse, France.
Pääbo and colleagues have made surprising discoveries about human evolution by studying ancient DNA. In fact, they knew that humans and our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals, had children together. That discovery came as a shock even to people who had been looking for signs of interbreeding (SN: 5/6/10). Evidence of this mixture can be found in many people today.SN: 10/10/17).
Pääbo’s study of the finger bone revealed a previously undiscovered extinct human relative called the Denisovan.SN: 8/30/12). Like Neandertals, Denisovans interbred with humans.
The DNA handed down from those extinct ancestors has led to human health and physiology for better or worse. For example, genetic variants inherited from Dionysus helped humans adapt to the high altitude in Tibet (SN: 7/2/14). But some Neanderthal DNA has been linked to a higher risk of developing certain diseases, including severe-Covid-19 (.SN: 2/11/16; SN: 10/2/20).
His work also focused on the tiny genetic changes that influenced the development of the human brain (.SN: 2/26/15). Other researchers have applied Pääbo’s techniques to the study of animal evolution and domestication (SN: 7/6/17) and learn how ancient people were led around the world.
“It’s unique in nature,” says Vosshall.
He is not the only one in his family to win a Nobel Prize, however. Pääbo’s father, Sune Bergström, shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1982.SN: 10/16/82).
Pääbo will win prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor, roughly $895,000 as of October 3.
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