Swedish geneticist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Svante Paabo, won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday, Oct. 3 for his discoveries that underpin our understanding of how modern-day humans evolved from extinct ancestors.
On hearing about his win of the prize, arguably among the most prestigious in the scientific world, Paabo was first convinced it was an elaborate practical joke.
“I initially thought it was a joke actually, that it was my research group who made an elaborate joke, but then it sounded a little too convincing, but it was hard to digest immediately,” Paabo told Reuters before joking he would spend the prize money, worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($900,357), renovating his summer house.
It is the first of this year’s batch of prizes. The Award committee officially gave Paabo the prize for “discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.”
“I think the thing that is amazing to me is that we now have some ability to go back in time and actually follow genetic history and genetic changes over time…we sort of make excavations in the human genome. But there might come practical implications out of that,” Paabo said.
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“We have discovered, for example, that in the COVID pandemic, the greatest risk factor to become severely ill and even die when you’re infected with the virus has come over to modern people from Neanderthals. So we and others are now intensely studying the Neanderthal version versus the protective modern version to try to understand what a functional difference would be, and if we understood that, we could perhaps also treat COVID better,” Paabo said of the practical benefits.
Clearly amused by all the fuss, Paabo, son of the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Sune Bergstrom, said he planned to carry on as normal, “without being disturbed by too many journalists.”
Paabo has been credited with transforming the study of human origins after developing approaches to allow for the examination of DNA sequences from archaeological and paleontological remains.
His key achievements include sequencing an entire Neanderthal genome to reveal the link between extinct people and modern humans.
He also uncovered the existence of a previously unknown human species called the Denisovans, from a 40,000-year-old fragment of a finger bone discovered in Siberia.
By Reuters. (Production: Martin Schlicht, Tanya Wood)