The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine awarded the field’s top prize on Monday to Svante Pääbo, a Swedish geneticist who determined how to extract and analyze DNA from 40,000-year-old Neanderthal bones. Pääbo’s decades of research have made it possible for scientists to begin probing differences between today’s modern humans and their ancient ancestors.
Pääbo, who is 67, has spent decades pioneering and perfecting new methods of extracting Neanderthal DNA, an extremely complex and challenging process. Over time, very old DNA degrades and can become polluted with the DNA of bacteria, and modern scientists can also easily contaminate it with their own genetic material.
But time and again, Pääbo found ways around these and other issues. In 2010, after years of painstaking work, Pääbo and his team published the sequenced Neanderthal genome, a feat that at one time was considered impossible, reports the New York Times’ Benjamin Mueller. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her book The Sixth Extinction, the process was like trying to reconstruct a “Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash, and left to rot in a landfill.”
His work has made it possible for other scientists to pursue ancient DNA studies, opening the door for research that has “totally reconfigured our understanding of human variation and human history,” says David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, to the Associated Press’ Pietro de Cristofaro and Laura Ungar.
“Ancient DNA becomes very powerful because it gives you a direct look into the past,” Eske Willerslev, a biologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, told NPR’s Christopher Joyce in 2010.
Born in 1955 in Stockholm, Pääbo spent three decades working to unravel the Neanderthal genome, mostly at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He studied mummies and extinct animals before focusing his efforts on Neanderthals.
“I'm driven by curiosity, by asking the questions, ‘where do we come from,’ and ‘what were the important events in our history that made us who we are?’” Pääbo told Smithsonian magazine’s Steve Olson in 2006.
On Monday morning, Pääbo was just finishing a cup of tea when he got a call from Sweden. He assumed the call was bad news about his family’s summer home in Sweden and was instead surprised to learn he’d won the Nobel Prize. When asked whether he ever envisioned winning science’s most prestigious prize, Pääbo humbly replied that he “somehow did not think that this really would… qualify for a Nobel Prize,” per an interview posted on the Nobel Prize website.
Award-winning scientific discoveries are apparently in Pääbo’s blood. Though Pääbo has said he was much closer to his mother, chemist Karin Pääbo, his father, biochemist Sune Bergström, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1982. This is the eighth time that a child of a Nobel laureate has also gone on to win a Nobel Prize.
Pääbo’s win marks the start of this year’s Nobel Prize announcements, which will continue throughout the rest of the week with awards in physics, chemistry, literature, economics and peace. Winners get 10 million Swedish kronor (roughly $900,000), which comes from a bequest left by the late prize’s creator, Alfred Nobel. Last year, American scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their research on skin receptors.
Say good morning to our new medicine laureate Svante Pääbo!— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 3, 2022
Pääbo received the news while enjoying a cup of coffee. After the shock wore off, one of the first things he wondered was if he could share the news with his wife, Linda.
Photo: Linda Vigilant pic.twitter.com/l27hnzojaL
Paleontologists first discovered Neanderthal fossils in a German quarry in 1856 and have been perplexed by these early humans ever since.
Pääbo’s work hasn’t managed to answer all the scientific community’s questions about Neanderthals, but it’s given researchers an invaluable jumping off point for many of their inquiries—and has led to groundbreaking discoveries in its own right. For one, Neanderthals and modern humans share a common relative, called Denisovans, who appeared around 400,000 years ago.
His research also suggests that Neanderthals and modern humans had children together during periods when they co-existed. Today, most modern humans share between 1 and 4 percent of their DNA with Neanderthals, report CNN’s Rob Picheta and Katie Hunt.
This genetic transfer between species has likely had important implications for the immune systems of modern humans. In 2020, Pääbo and his colleague Hugo Zeberg found that a gene inherited from Neanderthals is tied to risk of severe Covid-19.
Some experts wondered whether Pääbo’s research would really garner him the Nobel Prize, in part because it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the prize’s categories. But in the end, his findings go far beyond helping humans learn more about the species’ evolution.
“It matters because our ancestry is what is affecting our health, and when you uncover the genes that we inherited from these distant ancestors that matter to our health, you’re going to open a new window into understanding human disease,” says John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to the Washington Post’s Carolyn Y. Johnson.