Svante Pääbo: Nobel laureate revolutionized research into our prehistory

Updated on 10/07/2022 at 4:20 PM

  • With the award of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2022, a wider audience is now learning about Svante Pääbo’s revolutionary achievement.
  • How the Leipzig geneticist’s breathtaking career began with a mummy and why his work sheds a whole new light on the evolution of Homo sapiens.

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Actually, this Nobel Prize was too late. Because no one has changed research into human prehistory in recent decades as revolutionary as Svante Pääbo. The Swede, who has been conducting research at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for 25 years, has not only made it possible to read the genetic material of bones thousands of years old. His work also showed that Homo sapiens mixed with Neanderthals and Denisovans and what effect the primordial heritage has on us today.

For example, some Neanderthal gene variants influence the course of coronavirus infections – some make the cures more difficult, others ensure that patients end up in intensive care less often. The decipherment of the ancient genome also makes it possible to trace exactly how members of the species Homo sapiens, our direct ancestors, have spread from Africa across the globe. Their migration movements can be traced and their adaptations to new environments can be reconstructed. Researchers today can even understand the effects of historic epidemics.

When Pääbo began his medical studies at Uppsala University in the 1980s, none of this could be foreseen, even in the wildest dreams. But besides medicine, the young man is also passionately interested in Egyptology and comes up with a great idea: he takes tissue samples from Egyptian mummies in the Uppsala Museum and secretly tries to extract genetic material from them in the evenings and on weekends.

He does not tell this to his promoter, but makes him believe that he only wants to multiply viruses as part of his thesis. When Pääbo, together with an Egyptologist from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, published the results in the renowned scientific magazine “Nature” in 1985, the news hit like a bomb. A new field of science – paleogenetics – is born and a breathtaking career is underway.

Svante Pääbo: from Egyptian mummies to extinct animals

It doesn’t stop with Egyptian mummies. For example, over the years, Pääbo and colleagues have succeeded in obtaining genetic material from the extinct Australian thylacine or the disappeared New Zealand giant bird Moa. The analysis of the genes allows completely new statements about the relationships of the extinct animals to those alive today. There is a problem, however: the older the sample to be examined, the more the genetic material it contains has decayed and the more difficult it is to decipher it.

But Svante Pääbo is not discouraged and continues to develop the method together with colleagues. After stops in Zurich, Berkeley and Munich, in 1997 he became one of the five directors of the newly founded Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, where he still works. And back in the mid-1990s, he ventured into the most spectacular analysis yet—one that no one would have thought possible before.

“It has always been my dream to study Neanderthals because they are the best-known form of humans who are very close to us and yet a little different from us,” says Pääbo. In fact, the Swede and his team initially manage to obtain genetic material from the mitochondria – the mini-power plants of a cell – of Neanderthals. But the big breakthrough came in the early 2000s, when Pääbo began to decipher the entire Neanderthal genome thanks to increasingly efficient methods of sequencing DNA. The first version will be ready in 2010.

Homo sapiens had many sexual contacts with prehistoric humans

Then the findings follow in quick succession: It turns out that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens intermingled outside of Africa about 50,000 years ago. Therefore, non-African people today carry about two percent of Neanderthal DNA. Numerous genes are now known from prehistoric humans that influence our health and many physical characteristics.

Equally spectacular: In 2010, researchers working with Svante Pääbo discovered an entirely new human relative in a Siberian cave, which they call the Denisova Man. They only identify him from a small piece of a finger bone, the genetic material of which they analyze. The Denisova man also had sex with Homo sapiens, it turns out in 2021. That’s why one percent of the genome of today’s Europeans and two percent of the genome of East Asians comes from this primitive man.

In 2014, Pääbo and colleagues even managed to decipher epigenetic differences between Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo sapiens. According to this, some of our idiosyncrasies may not be due to a genetic change at all, but to a change in the environment of the genes that affect their regulation.

Burning questions, great mysteries: where do we come from? How did we get this way?

None of these insights would have been possible without Svante Pääbo. The brand new Nobel Prize winner is not only interested in the Neanderthals and other prehistoric people. Above all, he wants to know where we come from, who we are. One of the most burning questions is: What sets us, Homo sapiens, apart from other human forms? What made us so successful that we are the only human species that exists on Earth today?

In an interview with a weekly magazine, Pääbo once put it this way: “The archaic forms of man appeared about two million years ago, but they never reached America, Australia or any of the smaller islands. But modern man came about 100,000 years ago. and settled all over the world in a very short time, it’s because he got the idea to sail out in a small boat and look for an island that he doesn’t even know exists – you must be crazy to to do that.”

The genes and gene variants that drove Homo sapiens “crazy” in this way and made them very special creatures have still not been identified. Deciphering it remains one of the most exciting challenges – for Pääbo and for science as a whole.

This message comes from the journalism portal RiffReporter. About 100 independent journalists report together on current affairs and background information on The RiffReporter received the Grimme Online Award for their offering.

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