Swedish geneticist wins Nobel prize for medicine for deciphering ancient DNA

Swedish geneticist wins Nobel prize for medicine for deciphering ancient DNA
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  • Paabo ‘very happy’ when they told him about the award
  • His findings are crucial to understanding human evolution.
  • Neanderthal genome sequenced to show modern human bond
  • Discoveries relevant today, for example for the immune system.
  • Medicine is the first of this year’s prizes to be awarded

STOCKHOLM/LONDON, Oct 3 (Reuters) – Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for discoveries that support our understanding of how modern people evolved from extinct ancestors at the dawn of human history. .

Paabo’s work demonstrated practical implications during the COVID-19 pandemic when he found that people infected with the virus who carry a genetic variant inherited from Neanderthals are at higher risk of severe disease than those without.

Paabo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, won the prize for “discoveries about extinct hominin genomes and human evolution,” the prize committee said.

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“What surprises me is that you now have some ability to go back in time and really follow genetic history and genetic changes over time,” Paabo told a news conference at the Max Planck Institute. “It’s a possibility to start looking at evolution in real time, if you want to.”

Paabo, 67, said he thought the call from Sweden was a prank or something to do with his summer home there.

“So I was drinking my last cup of tea to pick up my daughter from her nanny’s house, where she spent the night,” Paabo said in a 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…I thought the lawn mower had broken down or something.”

When asked if he thought he would get the prize, he said: “No, I’ve received a couple of awards before, but somehow I didn’t think this would really 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 ways that allow the examination of DNA sequences from archaeological and paleontological remains.

Not only did he help discover the existence of a previously unknown human species called Denisovans, from a 40,000-year-old finger bone fragment discovered in Siberia, but his greatest achievement is considered to be the methods developed to enable the sequencing of a complete Neanderthal genome.


This research, which showed that certain genes of Neanderthal origin are conserved in the genomes of people today, was once considered impossible, given that Neanderthal DNA in bones has been shriveled up over thousands of years into short fragments that must be assembled as a gigantic puzzle. , and are also heavily contaminated with microbial DNA.

“This ancient gene flow for modern-day humans has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune systems react to infections,” the Nobel Committee said.

The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, is awarded by the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and has a value of 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 show the genetic differences that distinguish living humans from extinct hominins.

“Their discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human,” the Committee said.

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 may finally be rewarded.

Still, it usually takes many years for any given research to be honored, and the committees tasked with choosing the winners seek to determine their full value with some certainty among what is always a crowded field of contenders.


When asked why the prize did not go to advances in the fight against COVID, Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, said the committee would only talk about prize winners, not non-winners. either they have won or they haven’t yet.

However, Paabo’s former forensic work offered insight into why some people are at higher risk of severe COVID.

In 2020, a report de Paabo and colleagues found that a genetic variant inherited by modern humans from Neanderthals when they interbred about 60,000 years ago made those who carried the variant more likely to require artificial ventilation if infected with the virus that causes COVID.

“We can make an average indicator of the number of additional deaths that we have had in the pandemic due to the contribution of Neanderthals. It is quite substantial, it is more than a million additional people who have died due to this Neanderthal variant that they carry” Paabo said at the 2022 conference.

Paabo’s most-cited article in Web of Science was published in 1989, with 4,077 citations, said David Pendlebury of UK-based science data analytics provider Clarivate.

“Only about 2,000 articles out of the 55 million published since 1970 have been cited that many times,” he said.

“However, it is not an award for a discovery relevant to clinical medicine, which many anticipated this year after a physiology-focused Nobel Prize last year.”

Previous winners in the field include a number of famous researchers, notably Alexander Fleming, who shared the 1945 prize for the discovery of penicillin, and Robert Koch, who won as early as 1905 for his tuberculosis research.

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Reporting by Niklas Pollard, Johan Ahlander, Simon Johnson in Stockholm, and Natalie Grover in London; additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Marie Mannes in Gdansk, and Kristi Knolle and Riham Alkousaa in Berlin; Edited by William Maclean

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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