There is so much prehistoric man in our genes: the Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo receives the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his findings about human evolution.
How did we humans become what we are today? For answering this question, Svante Pääbo was honored with this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The doctor and biologist was born in Stockholm in 1955. Today the Swede is considered the founder of paleogenetics – the analysis of genetic samples from fossils and prehistoric finds, i.e. long-dead organisms. He managed to extract genetic information from it and create it artificially.
While still a doctoral student, he caused a stir in 1985 with his work on the cloning of DNA from a 2,400-year-old Egyptian child mummy. Among other things, he was the first researcher to sequence the Neanderthal genome. He briefly worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, and in 1999 he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, which he now directs.
Pääbo set new standards
Geneticist Pääbo put together a huge puzzle from 40,000-year-old bones and teeth and used it to decipher the Neanderthal genome in 2010. Using a specially developed process, he was able to decipher the original DNA of humanity.
“It was a big breakthrough in itself to achieve this technically,” says Anita Rauch, Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Zurich, in praise of the Nobel Prize winner.
Because as human remains decay, the genetic material also decays. In addition, bacteria and other microbes contaminate the bones and teeth. And last but not least, every person who works with these valuable, millennia-old samples is a risk factor: they could contaminate the samples with their own DNA. That’s why Pääbo conducted research in the cleanest possible environment, in a clean room laboratory.
Neanderthals are in our bones
In his analyses, Nobel Prize winner Pääbo compared the Neanderthal genome with that of modern humans and found that human history is more interconnected than previously assumed.
During his analysis of the Neanderthal genome, he discovered parallels to the genome of modern humans Homo Sapiens. That could only mean one thing: the two species of humans had children together. A discovery that was celebrated as a sensation a good ten years ago because no one had expected it.
“I don’t really care who had sex with whom 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, they can do whatever they want. What interests me is how this affects me today,” said geneticist Svante Pääbo in 2015 on the SRF program “Einstein”.
Primordial genes still influence us today
Because the Neanderthal genes still have an effect on us today. They not only influence our appearance such as skin tone or hair color, but also our health: the breakdown of fats, for example, or the strengthening of the immune system.
However, this influence can also be of a negative nature. In the past two years, Pääbo and his team have been able to show that the risk of a severe course of Covid disease can be traced back to a gene that was already in the DNA of Neanderthals.
Genetic research for better health
Pääbo at the Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig is still working on the question of how the genes of prehistoric humans affect modern humans.
A big question. Human geneticist Rauch from the University of Zurich says: “We are still at the beginning of knowing what significance this has for us.” Today’s living conditions are simply not comparable to those of the Neanderthals.
But research could definitely be important for disease prevention, says Rauch: “If you better understand what makes people unique, then you can also draw conclusions about how you can optimize your health.”