Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his discoveries that shed light on how modern humans evolved from extinct ancestors.
Paabo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, won the prize for “discoveries relating to extinct hominin genomes and human evolution,” the prize committee said.
Paabo was “overwhelmed” and “very happy,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, after calling the scientist to tell him the news.
Paabo, 67, said he thought the call from Sweden had to do with his summer home there.
“So I was having my last cup of tea to pick up my daughter,” Paabo said in an audio recording posted on the Nobel website.
“And then I got this call from Sweden and of course I thought it had something to do with our little summer house in Sweden…I thought the lawnmower had broken down or something.”
Asked if he thought he would receive the award, he said: “No, I’ve received a couple of awards before, but somehow I didn’t think this would qualify for a Nobel Prize.”
Paabo, the son of a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, is credited with transforming the study of human origins after developing methods that allow the examination of DNA sequences from archaeological and paleontological remains dating back to the dawn of mankind. human history.
Not only did he help discover the existence of a previously unknown human species, the Denisovans, from a 40,000-year-old finger bone fragment discovered in Siberia, but his crowning achievement is the methods developed to enable sequencing of a complete Neanderthal genome.
This research, which showed that certain genes of Neanderthal origin are conserved in the genomes of modern people, was previously considered impossible, since the Neanderthal DNA in bones has withered over thousands of years into short fragments that must be assemble like a gigantic puzzle, and which are also heavily contaminated with microbial DNA.
“This ancient gene flow into modern humans has physiological relevance today, for example by affecting how our immune systems react to infections,” the Nobel Committee said in a statement on Monday.
The prize, one of the most prestigious in the scientific world, is awarded by the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and is endowed with 10 million Swedish crowns (900,357 dollars).
It is the first of this year’s awards batch.
Born in Stockholm, Paabo studied medicine and biochemistry at Uppsala University before creating a scientific discipline called “paleogenomics,” which helped shed light on the genetic differences that distinguish living humans from extinct hominins.
“Their discoveries lay the groundwork for exploring what makes us uniquely human,” the Committee said.
Created in the will of dynamite inventor and wealthy Swedish businessman Alfred Nobel, the prizes for achievement in science, literature and peace have been awarded since 1901, although the prize for economics is later.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought medical research center stage, with many hoping that the development of the vaccines that have allowed the world to regain some sense of normalcy can be rewarded.
However, the committees charged with choosing the winners try to determine with certainty the total value of an investigation in a race that is always full of applicants.
When asked why the award for progress in combating COVID was not being awarded, Perlmann said it was a good question that he was not going to answer.
“We only talk about the people who receive the Nobel Prize and not those who do not receive it or have not received it yet.”
However, Paabo’s forensic work did offer insight into why some people are at increased risk of severe COVID.
In 2020, a report by Paabo and colleagues found that a genetic variant inherited by modern humans from Neanderthals, when they interbred about 60,000 years ago, made carriers of the variant more likely to need artificial ventilation if infected with the virus that causes COVID.
“We can make an average estimate of the number of extra deaths that we’ve had in the pandemic because of the Neanderthal contribution. It’s quite substantial, it’s more than a million extra individuals that have died because of this Neanderthal variant that they carry,” he said. Paabo at the 2022 conference.
Paabo’s most-cited paper in the Web of Science was published in 1989, with 4,077 citations, said David Pendlebury, of the British scientific data analysis provider Clarivate.
“Only about 2,000 articles out of the 55 million published since 1970 have been cited that many times,” he said.
It is clear that the Nobel Assembly decided that this groundbreaking research in genetics and evolution fell within the range of topics that should be recognized, he added.
“However, it is not an award for a discovery relevant to clinical medicine, which many expected this year after a Nobel Prize focused on physiology last year.”
Previous winners in this field have included a number of famous researchers, notably Alexander Fleming, who shared the prize in 1945 for the discovery of penicillin, and Robert Koch, who won as early as 1905 for his tuberculosis research.