- Swedish paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology Monday.
- He is an “unusual” pick, a member of the Nobel decision-making committee said.
- His revolutionary DNA discoveries, both linking humans to Neanderthals, and exploring key differences between them, could one day have huge implications for human health.
Swedish paleogenetics expert Svante Pääbo won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology on Monday for his decades of groundbreaking work unlocking the DNA of human ancestors who lived more than 40,000 years ago.
Pääbo’s research, which often relies upon tiny fragments of early hominid bones, has uncovered a plethora of new information about our early human ancestors, including finding:
“Until quite recently, maybe 14,000 generations or so ago, there were other forms of humans around, and they mixed with our ancestors and have contributed to us today,” Pääbo told Nobel Prize Outreach, shortly after his prize was announced. “The last 40,000 years is quite unique in human history, in that we are the only form of humans around.”
Pääbo’s sequencing discoveries were once thought near impossible to achieve, because (unlike the blood or spit often used to sequence the genome of living humans and animals) ancient DNA has been contaminated and degraded through thousands of years of decay.
Pääbo’s discoveries often surfaced after years of painstaking work for “disappointing results,” as he wrote in his 2014 book “Neanderthal Man.”
An ‘unusual’ prize that may be important to future medicine
Pääbo was surprised by his new laureate status, saying he “did not think” that his work would ever “qualify for a Nobel Prize.”
Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly — the group of 50 professors who pick out the Nobel Prize in Medicine winner each year — told Insider that this is indeed an “unusual prize.”
“It breaks new ground in an area that is of profound importance for understanding who we are as humans, and also our physiology,” Perlmann said. “We now have a grip on the individual genes that must have changed and made us who we are today, as humans,” in areas that include uniquely human cognitive abilities, language development, and social interactions.
“I’m sure this will develop in very exciting ways that — eventually — may also prove important for medicine,” Perlmann added.
In 2018, Pääbo won the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research (widely considered Spain’s version of the Nobel Prizes). Pääbo is also the son of Nobel Laureate Sune Bergström, who won the Nobel prize in medicine in 1982. (Bergström had an affair with Estonian chemist Karin Pääbo, Svante’s mother.)
Pääbo credits his mother as the biggest scientific influence in his life, saying she is the one who consistently stimulated and encouraged his interest in the field.
He said the fact that his father won a Nobel “maybe” helped him realize that Nobel Laureates “are normal human beings” and “it’s not such an amazing thing.”
Have bigger confidence, he said, to “try sort of challenging things yourself.”