On October 3, 2022, the laureate of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was announced in Stockholm. He became the Swedish biologist and geneticist Svante Paabo for his author’s method of studying the DNA molecule of ancient people.
“The DNA in ancient bones is highly degraded and also subject to chemical damage. In addition, this molecule is heavily contaminated by contact with bacteria and people who worked with the samples. Svante Paabo used existing technologies as they developed and introduced his methods to refine the analysis of ancient DNA,” said Nils-Joran Larsson from the Nobel Committee.
Svante Paabo is a Swedish biologist, and one of the founders of paleogenetics, a science that studies the genomes of ancient people. The first DNA he was able to decode belonged to a Neanderthal. The scientist discovered that the transfer of genes to these ancient people took place more than 70 thousand years ago from hominids, a group of human-like primates that are now extinct. In a practical sense, this research is important because these genes continue to influence modern humans – for example, how our immune system responds to infections. From the beginning of his career, Paabo was interested in whether modern genetic research methods could be applied to the study of Neanderthal DNA. He faced a serious problem: the DNA is subsequently chemically modified and breaks up into short fragments. But this did not stop Paabo, he continued to work on methods of studying the DNA of ancient people. Together with his colleagues, Paabo developed a special technique for maximally complete extraction of DNA from the remains. In 2008, a 40,000-year-old fragment of a finger bone was found in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. Paabo’s team discovered that the bone contained remarkably well-preserved DNA and set to work.
In 2010, experts decoded the DNA sequence of the so-called Denisovan man. Paabo’s discoveries improved our understanding of the history of evolution. We now know that at the time Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa, Eurasia was inhabited by at least two populations of extinct hominids. Neanderthals lived in the western part of Eurasia, while Denisovans lived in the eastern part of the continent. At the same time, it cannot be said that Paabo’s victory was predictable. Although the authoritative company Clarivate does not make predictions, it annually compiles a list of the best scientific works based on their citations. This year, Paabo’s work was not included in their list of “citation laureates”. Many experts expected that the Nobel Prize would be awarded for research closer to medicine.
The discovery of the Swedish scientist was a great achievement for science because genes had crumbled over the centuries and it was almost impossible to extract them.