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Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo has won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for pioneering the use of ancient DNA to unlock the secrets of human evolution.
The Nobel Committee said on Monday that Papo had “achieved something that seemed impossible” when he sequenced the first Neanderthal genome and revealed that Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals.
Its discovery was announced in 2010, after Pääbo pioneered methods for extracting, sequencing and analyzing ancient DNA from Neanderthal bones. Thanks to his work, scientists can compare the genomes of Neanderthals with the genetic records of humans living today.
“Pääbo’s basic research gave rise to an entirely new scientific discipline,” the committee said. “By revealing the genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, his discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human.”
Pääbo found that most current humans share between 1% and 4% of their DNA with Neanderthals, which means that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens met each other and had children before the extinction of Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago.
He has been Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany since 1997, and is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum, London.
“His main contribution is being a pioneer in restoring ancient DNA and that has been very important in the study of human evolution.” Chris Stringer, head of research in human evolution at that museum, told CNN on Monday.
Pääbo’s subsequent work to extract DNA from tiny fossil fragments found in a Siberian cave revealed an equally exciting discovery.
The genome he sequenced showed an entirely new species of extinct human, called Denisovans after the cave. By comparing Denisovan DNA with the genetic records of modern humans, Pääbo then showed that some populations in Asia and Melanesia inherited up to 6% of their DNA from this mysterious ancient human.
“I think the Neanderthal genome was his biggest single contribution. It revealed that Neanderthals interbred with us. This was disputed for many years, including by me. But it showed that most of us had ancient DNA (from Neanderthals and/or Denisovans) Stringer added.
Some of the genetic traces left by the encounters with these two ancient humans are of medical importance today. For example, a Denisovan version of the gene called EPAS1, which confers an advantage for survival at high altitudes and is common among Tibetans nowadays. Pääbo also found that Neanderthal DNA may play a small role in influencing the course of Covid-19 infection.
“This is an important scientific discovery in evolutionary biology,” said David Patterson, professor at Oxford University and president of the UK Physiological Society.
“Attributing physiological function to highly conserved mitochondrial genes has been critical to our understanding of high-altitude adaptation as populations move and adapt to new environments, and how genetic variants affect us on a daily basis in health and disease,” Patterson said in a statement.
Pääbo’s father, biochemist Sune Bergström, was part of the trio that won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1982.
When he first unveiled his findings, Babu said, “Having a first copy of the Neanderthal genome fulfills a long-standing dream.”
However, his childhood passion was Egyptology after he visited Egypt with his mother, according to a 2008 interview. Babu’s early success was when he was able to extract, clone and sequence DNA from an Egyptian mummy – an act he did secretly at night while conducting unreported research Link for a Ph.D.
It took Pääbo decades to perfect the process of extracting ancient DNA from fossils, because over time the DNA is chemically modified and broken down into short fragments. This leaves only a tiny amount that can easily be contaminated with existing DNA from bacteria and humans who come in contact with the fossils.
His DNA extraction methods have also been applied to the bones of long-extinct animals, revealing information about the lives of mammoths, cave bears, giant sloths, and many other creatures. His team is working on techniques to extract DNA from cave deposits – allowing scientists to identify our first relatives without having to find their bones – just dirt from the caves they’re lounging in.
Katrina Duka, an assistant professor of archeology at the University of Vienna who is collaborating with Pääbo, told CNN that his work on ancient DNA was as revolutionary in archaeology as the advent of radiocarbon dating, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1960.
Domain invented. He added: “It has revealed many secrets about human evolution.