The 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Svante Pääbo for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.
Svante Pääbo is a leading Swedish geneticist, perhaps best known for his extensive work on the Neanderthal genome.
From early in his career, Pääbo was interested in the possibility of using modern genetic methods to study the DNA of Neanderthals. However, he faced considerable challenges because of the way ancient DNA degrades over time. In 1997, the new methods he had pioneered through decades of work made it possible for him to analyse Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA for the first time. He went on to develop these methods further at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany – of which he was a founder – and in 2010, accomplished the seemingly impossible task of sequencing the entire Neanderthal genome.
This work opened up unprecedented opportunities to investigate the genetic relationships between Neanderthals and modern-day humans around the world in order to better understand human evolution and migration.
Around the same time, Pääbo was also responsible for another ground-breaking evolutionary discovery. Using his expertise in ancient genomic material, he was able to sequence DNA from a tiny, 40,000-year-old fragment of finger bone discovered in Denisova cave, Siberia, in 2008. His analysis led to the identification of a previously unknown hominin species, the Denisovans. What is more, he was also able to determine that Denisovans, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens had interacted and interbred during the millennia in which they coexisted.
Svante Pääbo’s research has given rise to a whole new scientific discipline, paleogenomics – the reconstruction and analysis of genomic information of historic or extinct species – and has been instrumental in understanding our evolutionary past and discovering the genetic differences that distinguish modern humans from extinct hominins, providing a basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human.
The Nobel Prize is a recognition of his contribution to this important field of science.