Every year a large group of people wait for the announcement of 5 Nobel Prize laureates in the field of physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature & peace, and economic sciences. This year, the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology was awarded to Svante Pääbo for “his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution” (NobelPrize.org, 2022). What was Pääbo’s research based on and what did he discover?
THE QUESTION OF ORIGINS
The Human Genome Project allowed scientists to sequence the human genome and was a great leap in understanding what makes us. However, what we did not fully understand until now, was where our genes come from. It was impossible to sequence the genome of our archaic predecessors due to fragility of DNA which is easily decomposed and becomes contaminated with genetic material of other species. Our inability to sequence the genome of the extinct species was a significant barrier in knowing about our origins.
HOW DID Pääbo STUDY DNA FROM THE NEANDERTHALS?
The Swedish geneticist first started with sequencing the genome from mitochondrial DNA which is smaller than cellular DNA but it has more copies of genes which makes successful amplification and sequencing more likely. A successful trial of mitochondrial DNA sequencing was carried out with material from a 40,000-year-old bone. Unfortunately, the information obtained was not sufficient because the whole genetic material of an organism is much bigger. Pääbo continued his research in Leipzig, Germany, and published the first sequenced Neanderthal genome in 2010. It portrayed that Neanderthals were more genetically similar to contemporary Homo sapiens from Asia and Europe but not Africa as it was previously thought.
WHAT (OR WHO) IS DENISOVA?
In the process of looking for appropriate remains for gene sequencing, Pääbo and his team found a finger bone in the Denisova cave (Siberia). Surprisingly, the genetic information from the bone did not match any other gene sequences from other Neanderthals. This is how a new hominin, named Denisova, was discovered.
The groundbreaking research of Svante Pääbo has hugely contributed to the current understanding of our origins. Over the years, more genes have been sequenced creating a large database for scientists to analyze and use in their research. There are still mysteries and unanswered questions such as the issue of genomes of hominins from Africa. Hopefully, this novel and exciting field of science will solve those queries soon.
NobelPrize.org. “The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2022.” NobelPrize.org, 10 Nov. 2022, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2022/summary/.
Vinken, Frank. “Svante Pääbo – Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.” Eva.mpg.de, 2015, www.eva.mpg.de/genetics/staff/paabo/.