”Pääbo helps us see how life forms evolved”
Overjoyed — and a bit bowled over. That is how Kerstin Johannesson, professor of marine ecology at the University of Gothenburg, feels about the news that Svante Pääbo has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Other researchers at the University, too, think the Prize is well deserved.
“As an evolutionary biologist, I’m both very happy and surprised at the award going to our research area, which may be seen as something of an outlier in relation to physiology and medicine,” Johannesson says.
“At the same time, Svante Pääbo's research has very clearly shown what we can learn from understanding our biological background. His focus is on the past of humankind and our biological inheritance but, of course, the same applies to all other species as well.”
Gene flow right up to modern times
The 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to Svante Pääbo for his research on the genome of extinct hominins (often defined as humans, including our ancestors, but not other primates), and his discoveries about human evolution.
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute justifies its choice by citing how, through his research, Svante Pääbo has done what no one thought was feasible: mapping the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of humans alive today.
Pääbo also discovered the Denisova, a previously unknown hominin, and found that interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens occurred after after the latter migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago. Moreover, he has shown how the Neanderthal gene flow has left traces in modern humans outside Africa, and how these traces have a physiological bearing on human defenses against infections, for example.
Pääbo a pioneer in DNA technology
Svante Pääbo’s discoveries span multiple research areas. Kristian Kristiansen, a professor of archeology at the University of Gothenburg, thinks the award is well deserved.
“His mapping of Neanderthal DNA is a fundamental discovery that reveals how we modern humans relate to the Neanderthals. That discovery has also significantly contributed to identifying modern human genetic traits of Neanderthal origin — traits that enabled us to survive the Ice Age,” Kristiansen says.
For Kerstin Johannesson, marine organisms are the starting point for research on the biological mechanisms that bring about new species and biodiversification. An evolutionary biologist and professor of marine ecology at the University of Gothenburg, she is the director of Tjärnö Marine Laboratory.
“Pääbo has been a pioneer in terms of developing techniques for extracting ancient DNA from skeletal parts and analyzing them even now, several tens of millennia after the individuals died. Today, the same technology is used to study extinct organisms, both animals and plants, and helps us understand how different forms of life developed.”
Svante Pääbo, born 1955 in Stockholm, Sweden. He defended his PhD thesis in 1986 at Uppsala University and was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Zürich, Switzerland and later at University of California, Berkeley, USA. He became Professor at the University of Munich, Germany in 1990. In 1999 he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany where he is still active. He also holds a position as adjunct Professor at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan. (Karolinska Institutet)