- The Nobel committee stated on Monday that Dr Pääbo’s lifelong obsession
- Bioinformatic and chemical tricks
- Dr Pääbo was “the secret extramarital son of Sune Bergstrom.”
Svante Pääbo, a Swedish-born scientist, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday. His decades-long efforts to extract DNA from 40,000-year-old bones culminated in the publication of the Neanderthal genome in 2010.
1955 saw the birth of Svante Pääbo in Stockholm, Sweden. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zürich in Switzerland before moving on to the University of California, Berkeley in the United States. He successfully defended his PhD thesis at Uppsala University in 1986.
In 1990, Svante Pääbo was appointed a professor at the University of Munich in Germany. He established the Leipzig, Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in 1999, where he continues to be involved. He is also an adjunct professor at Japan’s Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.
Since the first Neanderthal fossils were discovered in a German quarry in 1856, palaeontologists have been plagued by the following questions, which the publication of that genome opened the door to address: How did those primitive humans differ from modern ones and how did they relate to them?
The Nobel committee stated on Monday that Dr Pääbo’s lifelong obsession
How to recover and analyse ancient genetic material—seemed destined to fail in the face of frustrating technical challenges.
Chemical alterations to ancient DNA cause to typically only found in very small amounts in ancient samples. It can be easily contaminated with the DNA of the researchers handling it, making it challenging to distinguish between ancient and modern genes. Additionally, bacteria can leave DNA in fossils, forcing researchers to learn how to identify those genes as well.
But Dr Pääbo made use of the most recent DNA sequencing technology. He navigated the political complexities of obtaining fossilised bone fragments from other nations when he ran out of bone. He created “clean rooms,” laboratories with strict cleanliness requirements that shielded specimens from contamination.
He and his team then used sophisticated statistical techniques to identify the modern genetic contaminants after unravelling the millions of DNA fragments in the fossils.
Bioinformatic and chemical tricks
Dr Nils-Göran Larsson, the chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine and a professor of medical biochemistry at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, stated that it was “certainly considered to be impossible” to recover DNA from 40,000-year-old bones.
Such a discovery was made possible by Dr Pääbo’s exacting standards and his “bioinformatic and chemical tricks,” according to Dr Larsson. They would “allow us to compare changes between contemporary Homo sapiens and ancient hominids,” according to Dr Larsson. And this will provide us with a great deal of insight into human physiology over the coming years.
The study contributed to the discovery that modern humans and Neanderthals have a 600,000-year-old common ancestor. Genetic proof that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred during times of coexistence was also discovered by Dr Pääbo and his team.
Dr Pääbo was “the secret extramarital son of Sune Bergstrom.”
But even after Dr Pääbo’s ground-breaking discoveries, the most important query — what distinguishes modern humans from other species — remains a mystery. His research discovered genetic variations that are present in living humans but not in Neanderthals, providing a kind of blueprint for the mutations that set modern humans apart and explain their dramatic divergence from Neanderthal culture and behaviour.
It is still difficult to connect those mutations to modern human characteristics like the ability to create figurative art, complex cultures, extensive social networks, and cutting-edge innovation.
Dr Anna Wedell, a professor of medical genetics at the Karolinska Institute, described Dr Pääbo’s work during the Nobel Committee announced on Monday. Nevertheless, his research allowed researchers to start that investigation. The results “allow us to address one of the most fundamental questions of all: What makes us unique,” she claimed.
In his 2014 autobiography, “Neanderthal Man,” Dr Pääbo revealed that he was “the secret extramarital son of Sune Bergstrom, a well-known biochemist who had shared the Nobel Prize in 1982.”
Dr Pääbo’s description of the Neanderthal genome, which earned him his own prize, was the result of about three decades of research. Before focusing on ancient humans, he first looked for DNA in mummies and older animals, such as extinct cave bears and ground sloths.
In his memoir, Dr Pääbo stated, “I yearned to bring new rigour to the study of human history by examining DNA sequence variation in ancient humans.
It wouldn’t be a simple task. In her book “The Sixth Extinction,” science writer Elizabeth Kolbert compared reconstructing ancient genetic material to putting together a “Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash, and left to rot in a landfill.”