For the first time in history, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a researcher who studies the past, and quite a distant one. Svante Pääbo is a Swedish evolutionist and geneticist, pioneer of archeogenomics, an interdisciplinary branch of science that uses the achievements of modern technologies to study the biological traces of bygone eras. Pääbo was well prepared for the profession – he first studied humanities, including Egyptology, history of science and Russian, and then medical sciences. He made his greatest discoveries in Leipzig, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the institute of which he is the director since 1997 to the present day. The source of his well-deserved fame and the newly awarded Nobel Prize was the genome sequencing of a Neanderthal, a hominin extinct about 40 thousand years ago. Pääbo proved that it is possible, albeit very difficult, to retrieve DNA sequences from bones excavated by archaeologists, even tens of thousands of year old. He also created standards for working with ancient DNA. Moreover, by studying DNA from bone remains found in the Denisov Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, he reconstructed the genome of a previously unknown archaic form of Homo. The Denisovans lived in Asia at a time when Europe was inhabited by Neanderthals, long before the advent of modern humans. Unlike the Neanderthals, they did not leave any larger skeletal fragments, what made classical anthropological research impossible. How the genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans came to be known are described by Pääbo in his book “Neanderthal Man. In Search of Lost Genomes”, published in 2014.
Archaeogenomic research does not bring measurable benefits for medicine and human health. However, it undoubtedly proved how much modern science can contribute to the discovery of new knowledge by crossing interdisciplinary barriers. Recognition of Svante Pääbo’s achievements is all the more important as even the sequencing of the human genome was not awarded by the Nobel Committee.
It is worth adding that the Nobel laureate was also Pääbo’s father, Sune Bergström, a biochemist honored in 1982 for his prostaglandin research. This is not the first time in history – fathers and sons who have won the Nobel Prize include:
– William Henry Bragg (father) and William Lawrence Bragg (son, shared prize in physics, 1915)
– Niels Bohr (father, prize in physics, 1922) and Aage Niels Bohr (son, prize in physics, 1977)
– Karl Manne Georg Siegbahn (father, prize in physics, 1924) and Kai M. Siegbahn (son, prize in physics, 1981)
– Hans von Euler-Chelpin (father, prize in chemistry, 1929) and Ulf von Euler (son, prize in medicine, 1970).