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From Neanderthals to the Nobel Prize

Svante Pääbo has won the 2022 Nobel Prize in medicine.

Pääbo was reached by the Nobel committee at his home in Leipzig, Germany where he is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

He was just gulping down the last cup of tea before dashing out the door to pick up his daughter after an overnight with the nanny, when he received the surprising call.

The Prize recognizes Pääbo’s groundbreaking work in sequencing the DNA of mankind’s early ancestors, termed hominids: erect, bipedal, primate mammals. These include the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The earliest precursor to modern man originated in Africa as Homo heidelbergensis.

Between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago, a branch migrated to Europe and Siberia to become Neanderthals, with the first of such skeletal remains found in the mid 19th century in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf.

Another branch migrated to central and south Asia to become Denisovans, first discovered in the Denisova cave in Siberia in the early 2000s.

Pääbo first gained fame researching mummies as a Ph.D. student in immunology, when he discovered that DNA survived in ancient Egyptian mummies. This launched the new field of palaeogenetics research.

In 2010, Pääbo’s team reconstructed a first version of the Neanderthal genome from bones tens of thousands of years old.

Their prize-worthy breakthrough came from developing new techniques, including working in a ‘clean room’ just like what is required for microchip manufacture, to avoid introducing their own DNA into the prehistoric samples they were working on.

They pioneered more efficient DNA-extracting methods, and then subjected the results to specialized computer analytics to discover the link to modern human DNA.

Pääbo’s work has demonstrated that some fifty to sixty thousand years ago, modern humans who migrated north from Africa met up with European Neanderthals, where they produced common offspring.

"Neanderthals are the closest relatives of humans today," said Svante Pääbo, and the genome of today's non-African people still contains about two percent Neanderthal DNA.

Until about 1,400 generations ago, there were other forms of humans around and they mixed with our ancestors, at least ancestors of people outside of Africa. That was only about 40,000 years ago.

The team is now at work to reconstruct the entire genome of the Denisovans and are expected to find that modern humans interbred with them as well.

"Nobel winners are just normal human beings”, said Pääbo, and this should give everyday people the confidence to try things – you might win a Nobel Prize!

The Nobel Prize includes a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be bestowed by the King of Sweden at the awards ceremony on December 10.

Unfortunately, today is a national holiday in Germany and the shops are all closed, so Pääbo must wait until tomorrow to purchase some champagne to celebrate in style!


Read more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in my new book Heroes & Scoundrels - entertaining biographies of the world’s most highly recognized scientists. From unapologetic Nazis to dedicated humanitarians who carried out prize-winning research while being resistance fighters or peace activists, these engaging true stories reveal the depths of both the human strength and depravity of the people who forged medical progress in the twentieth century.

“[Biographies] as entertaining and sometimes disturbing as they are informative…

The book’s descriptions of the research processes employed by the prizewinners are fascinating and accessible. Heroes & Scoundrels comes as a timely, necessary warning against accepting the pronouncements of medical 'experts'

without question.”

— Kristine Morris (Foreword Reviews September / October 2022)

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