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Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo awarded Nobel Prize for contributions to Physiology and Medicine

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Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo has been awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to Physiology and Medicine. The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet granted the 2022 Nobel Prize to Pääbo for discoveries that aid our understanding of how modern-day people came into being since evolving from “extinct ancestors” the Homo sapiens at the dawn of human history.

Pääbo’s work has demonstrated the presence of a gene variant in modern-day humans, inherited from Neanderthals. His research has hypothesized practical implications during the COVID-19 pandemic showing a severe risk of illness in people who carry the gene variant.
Apart from his sequencing of the genome, he has made another sensational discovery, that of a previously known hominin, Denisova.
Pääbo has managed to find that the gene transfer occurred between hominins to Homo sapiens following migration out of Africa some 70,000 years before. His research is groundbreaking leading us into a new scientific discipline – paleogenomics, which has provided an opportunity to explore what makes us “uniquely human”.

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Svante Pääbo originally became intrigued by the possibility of “utilizing modern genetic methods” to study the DNA of the Neanderthals but his focus shifted to given the technical challenges such as the DNA becoming chemically modified with time. Thereby, Pääbo worked on developing methods that will aid him in his study of DNA.

As a new recruit at the University of Munich in 1990, Pääbo decided to analyze the DNA from Neanderthal mitochondria. Although the mitochondrial genome is small and contains only a fraction of the genetic information, Pääbo managed to sequence the mitochondrial DNA from a bone believed to be 40,000 years old. His investigations further demonstrated that Neanderthals were “genetically distinct”.
Following this, Pääbo moved on to sequencing the Neanderthal nuclear genome. At the same time, he accepted the offer to establish a Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany where he and his team work on improving methods to isolate and analyze DNA from “archaic bone remains”. Their efforts led to Pääbo publishing the first genome sequence in 2010 – which showed that the most common ancestor of the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens existed some 800,000 years ago.

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Furthermore, a comparative analysis of the DNA sequences showed that the DNA of Neanderthals was more similar to contemporary humans from Europa and Asia, instead of to Africa. According to his research, approximately one to four percent of the genome in European or Asian people originates from the Neanderthals. Pääbo’s discoveries have served to generate a new understanding of the evolutionary history of humans. Thanks to his discoveries, we can better understand the “archaic gene sequences”.

For a more detailed overview of Swiss scientist Svante Pääbo’s research, click here.

“The thing that’s amazing to me is that you now have some ability to go back in time and actually follow genetic history and genetic changes over time,” Pääbo addressed a news conference at the Max Planck Institute.

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