Svante Pääbo, a Swedish geneticist and professor who sequenced the Neanderthal genome through his work on human evolution, has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Pääbo, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and co-founder of the field of paleogenomics, has been awarded ten million Swedish krona (approx. $900,000). He follows in the footsteps of his father, Sune Bergstrom, who won the same Nobel Prize in 1982.
Professor Pääbo learned about his award on Monday after he was called by Thomas Perlmann, the secretary for The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine. “He was overwhelmed, he was speechless [and] very happy,” said Professor Perlmann.
Professor Pääbo has been awarded the Nobel Prize for his astonishing discoveries on the evolution of hominins, relatives of humans more closely related to us than chimpanzees, hence contributing to the exploration of our own evolutionary history and migration around the planet.
The Nobel Committee said, “By revealing genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, his discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human.”
Neanderthals and Denisovans Identified as Co-existing with Humans
The Swedish geneticist sequenced the genome of Neanderthals by overcoming immense technical hurdles presented by the degradation of DNA across tens of thousands of years. This sequencing aided in discovering yet another previously unknown hominin, the Denisovan.
Pääbo’s perceptions revealed that both of these species had co-existed with humans—their DNA mixing with ours after modern humans migrated out of Africa roughly seventy thousand years ago.
During the committee’s announcement on Monday, Anna Wedell, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said, “Humanity has always been intrigued by its origins. Where do we come from? And how are we related to those who came before us? What makes us different from hominids that went extinct?”
She further notes that “like us, Neanderthals had big brains. They lived in groups and they used tools, but these changed very little during hundreds of thousands of years, until [they] disappeared.”
Neanderthal bones were first discovered in a German quarry in Neander Valley in 1856, but before the invention of genetic analysis, scientists who studied them were limited to comparing them with human bones by appearance only.
Although DNA sequencing had been discovered, challenges in extracting ancient genetic material for study persisted, especially due to the degradation of material over time and contamination from bacteria and even scientists.
Pääbo Awarded Nobel Prize for His Toolkit Extracting DNA from Neanderthal Bones
To solve the paradox of extracting ancient genetic material, Pääbo developed a sophisticated toolkit of new techniques to sidestep these problems. These included extracting mitochondrial DNA from bones in stringently sanitized rooms prior to applying statistical techniques to weed out remaining genetic contaminants.
After applying these methods to three Neanderthal bones discovered across Europe, Pääbo successfully sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome in 2008.
He not only determined that humans and Neanderthals were genetically distinct but that the two species shared a recent common ancestor who lived roughly eight hundred thousand years ago.
It was also found that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had coexisted and procreated together. In modern-day humans of European or Asian descent, up to two percent of DNA can be traced back to Neanderthals.
After peering into the genome of a 40,000-year-old bone fragment discovered in Siberia’s Denisova Cave in 2008, Pääbo and his fellow researchers discovered an entirely new hominin—the Denisovans.
The Denisovans mated with humans in eastern Eurasia, implying that up to six percent of the populations in Melanesia and parts of Southeast Asia can carry Denisova DNA.
Genetic Discovery on Neanderthal Genome Revealed Origin of Humans
Further findings indicated that one of the genes humans inherited from Denisovans helps modern-day Tibetans survive in high-altitude, low-oxygen environments.
Wedell revealed that Pääbo’s discoveries not only helped in further clarifying humans’ origin but also highlighted some of the reasons behind the success of Homo sapiens.
The discovery revealed that Neanderthals had large brains, were highly social, and used complex tools. Their cultural patterns, nevertheless, changed very little across hundreds of thousands of years until they died out about forty thousand years ago, according to Wedell.
Wedell said, “Homo sapiens, on the other hand, rapidly developed complex cultures, figurative art, and advanced innovations.”
“They crossed open waters and they spread to all parts of our planet,” Wedell added. “The basis for this dramatic development must lie in genetic changes that occurred after we separated from Neanderthals and Denisovans.”