He has sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal and discovered a previously unknown hominin, Denisova: for his research on the evolution of humans and their extinct relatives, the Swedish evolutionary researcher Svante Pääbo, who works in Leipzig, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This was announced by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday. Pääbo is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA).
“This is a long-awaited and highly deserved award,” said Jean-Jacques Hublin, Pääbo’s long-time colleague and also a scientist at MPI-EVA. Hublin calls Pääbo the “father of palaeogenetics,” explaining that over the past 20 years, this new discipline has revolutionised the study of human evolution by providing access to the genome of extinct forms of humans such as the Neanderthal.
“The question of our origin and what makes us unique has engaged humanity since ancient times,” the Nobel Committee wrote, explaining its selection. Pääbo’s work on the genetic differences between modern humans and their extinct relatives forms the basis for answering this question, according to the committee.
Among Pääbo’s key research findings is the realisation that traces of the Neanderthal’s genetic material can still be found in the DNA of humans today – the two species had interbred during their time together on Earth. The genetic traces of our extinct relatives still influence human health today. For example, there are Neanderthal genes that affect our immune response to different types of infections, according to the Nobel Committee.