AFP, published Monday 03 October 2022 at 5:50 pm
The Nobel Prize in Medicine crowned pioneer pioneer Svante Pääbo from Sweden on Monday for the complete sequencing of the Neanderthal human genome and founding this discipline that goes back to the DNA of the past to illuminate human genes today.
“By revealing the genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominids, his findings have provided the basis for exploring what makes us humans so unique,” said the Nobel jury.
By sequencing a bone found in Siberia in 2008, the 67-year-old Swede also revealed the existence of another distinct and previously unknown hominin, Denisova’s man, who lived in modern-day Russia and Asia.
Settled in Germany for decades – working at the prestigious Max-Planck Institute for Fundamental Research – Svante Pääbo discovered in 2009 that a gene transfer of the order of 2% had taken place between these extinct hominids, such as Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens.
This ancient flow of genes to modern humans has had a physiological impact on modern humans, for example by influencing how their immune systems respond to infections.
His work had therefore recently shown that Covid-19 patients carrying a segment of Neanderthal DNA – particularly in Europe, and particularly in South Asia – inherited a cross with the human genome some 60,000 years ago, they are more likely to have serious complications from the disease.
“The genetic differences between Homo Sapiens and our now extinct closest relatives were unknown until they were identified through Pääbo’s work,” praised the Nobel Committee in its decision.
The Swedish researcher has been able to overcome the difficulties posed by the degradation of DNA over time: after thousands of years only traces remain, however, largely contaminated by bacteria or modern human traces.
In an interview with the Nobel Foundation, the paleogeneticist said he was “having his last sip of tea” when he got the call from Stockholm.
“I didn’t really think (his findings) would qualify me for a Nobel Prize,” he said.
Neanderthal man coexisted for a time with modern man in Europe before disappearing completely around 30,000-40,000 years ago, supplanted by the Sapiens, with African roots.
“The last 40,000 years are quite unique in human history as we are the only living human form. Before that there were almost always other types of human beings,” M. Pääbo said on Thursday.
A native of Stockholm, he had long been considered a Nobel Prize. But in recent years he had disappeared from the favorites list.
The Max-Planck Institute was delighted with its award, hailing a work “which has revolutionized our understanding of the historical evolution of the modern human being”.
– Nobel and Nobel’s son –
Svante Pääbo alone wins this scientific Nobel Prize, endowed with a reward of 10 million crowns (approximately 920,000 euros). An increasingly rare feat, the last Nobel Prize in medicine for a single winner dating back to 2016, for example.
The award opens an unlikely dynasty: his father, Sune Bergström (1916-2004), also received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1982 for the discovery of prostaglandins.
He is actually Svante’s natural father, who publicly explained in 2014 that he is the secret fruit of an extramarital affair, hence their different names.
“I only saw him occasionally as an adult,” said Svante Pääbo in his memoir “Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes”.
The Nobel year continues on Tuesday in Stockholm with physics and Wednesday with chemistry, before the highly anticipated literature awards on Thursday and the peace awards on Friday, the only recognition awarded in Oslo. The latest economic price closes the year next Monday.
Last year, the medicine award went to two Americans, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, for their findings on how touch works.