Nobel Prize for Swedish scientist filling the gaps of human evolution

3 Oct 2022

Illustration of Svante Pääbo. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Prize

Geneticist Svante Pääbo sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal and helped us learn more about humanity’s evolution.

A Swedish scientist has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “pioneering research” in extinct hominins and human evolution.

The Nobel Committee said today (3 October) that Svante Pääbo accomplished “something seemingly impossible” when he sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans.

Pääbo’s research also led to the discovery of a previously unknown hominin called Denisova. Through his work, it was found that interbreeding had occurred between Homo sapiens and these extinct hominins following a migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago.

Pääbo and his team found that in modern day humans with European or Asian descent, approximately 1pc to 4pc of their genome originates from the Neanderthals.

Our gene transfer with Denisovans, meanwhile, was first seen in populations in Melanesia and other parts of south-east Asia, where individuals carry up to 6pc Denisova DNA.

Through his groundbreaking research, Pääbo established an entirely new scientific discipline known as paleogenomics. His discoveries have established a unique resource utilised by the scientific community to better understand human evolution and migration.

Who is he?

Svante Pääbo was born in 1955 in Stockholm. He completed his PhD thesis in 1986 at Uppsala University before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at University of Zürich and later at University of California, Berkeley.

Pääbo became a professor at Germany’s University of Munich in 1990. In 1999, he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, where he is still active to this day.

He also holds a position as adjunct professor at Japan’s Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. He was one of the winners of the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in life sciences.

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries on how heat and touch are turned into electric signals in our body.

Irish scientist William Campbell won the prize in 2015 for his role in discoveries concerning therapies to fight roundworm parasitic infections.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic