Swedish paleogeneticist, Svante Paabo, who sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal and discovered the previously unknown hominin Denisova, on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize.
Paabo’s research gave rise to an entirely new scientific discipline called paleogenomics, and has “generated new understanding of our evolutionary history”, it said.
“By revealing genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, his discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human”, the Nobel committee said in a statement.
The founder and director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Paabo found that gene transfer had occurred from these now extinct hominins to Homo sapiens following the migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago.
“This ancient flow of genes to present-day humans has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune system reacts to infections”, the jury said.
One such example is that Covid-19 patients with a snippet of Neanderthal DNA run a higher risk of severe complications from the disease, Paabo found in a 2020 study.
Paabo, 67, who takes home the award sum of 10 million Swedish kronor ($901,500), will receive the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.
Paabo is the son of Sune Bergstrom, a Swede who won the 1982 Nobel Medicine Prize for discovering prostaglandins, which are biochemical compounds that influence blood pressure, body temperature, allergic reactions, and other physiological phenomena.
In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Paabo said he was the result of a secret extra-marital affair and that Bergstrom’s “official” family knew nothing of his or mother’s existence, the Estonian chemist Karin Paabo until after Bergstrom’s death in 2005.