Et is perhaps the greatest irony in the history of science and mankind: This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for decoding the human genome does not go to the International Human Genome Project, the most expensive major evolutionary research project, which made headlines around the world more than twenty years ago when it was presented the “Book of Life” to the White House in Washington and thus to the power center of western civilization. It is therefore not the genetic decoding of the evolutionary showpiece, ours, Homo sapiens, that is being honored first with the most important science prize in the world. It is that of its extinct relatives, the so often misunderstood Neanderthal man who died out at least thirty thousand years ago, and that of the equally vanished eastern Denisova man.
But that’s not all: With Svante Pääbo, this year’s medicine prizewinner, the award and the prize money of around 914,000 euros also go to a single researcher, which is not only extremely rare in the history of the Nobel Prize, but also goes against the scientific zeitgeist of the networked large-scale research. In other words: Rarely has the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm captivated the world with such an amazing and gratifying Nobel Prize in Medicine. This is also pleasing from a German perspective because the Swede Svante Pääbo is the fifth Nobel Prize winner in just three years from the ranks of highly decorated Max Planck researchers: the catalysis researcher Benjamin List and the meteorologist Klaus Hasselmann last year, the gravitational physicist Reinhard Genzel the year before and the same year, the French and co-inventor of the gene scissors CRISPR-Cas, Emmanuelle Charpentier, who heads the Max Planck Research Center for the Science of Pathogens.
Founder of Paleogenetics
Like the molecular biologist Charpentier, the paleogeneticist Pääbo has created something special, especially in terms of method. In the mid-1990s, when doubts were raised about the realization of the human genome deciphering, the Egyptologist and doctor, who was trained in Uppsala in Sweden, undertook something unthinkable. He was obsessed with extending the genetic decoding of Egyptian mummies, which he had started after completing his PhD in immunology at the University of Calfornia at Berkeley and continued at LMU Munich in the early 1990s, to extinct hominins. Pääbo thus founded paleogenetics. In 1996, the first snippets of DNA were deciphered from the remains of Neanderthals, in particular from the bones of the Neanderthal remains recovered and preserved near Mettmann near Düsseldorf.
For many researchers, who even then began to doubt the feasibility of a complete, complete decoding of the three billion DNA building blocks of today’s human beings, Pääbo’s plan was as daring as it was futile. In fact, the genome remnants in bones tens of thousands of years old are not only often chemically altered, they are also often contaminated with foreign DNA and subject to decay for energetic reasons alone. Pääbo has turned the extraction and analysis of such gene snippets into a science of its own in the “clean rooms” of his laboratory.
From 1997 onwards, his early human genetics plans at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig finally picked up speed. As one of five founding directors, he soon gathered a small group of young researchers who, to this day, have been working almost exclusively on early human DNA. He attracted international attention with his work on the FOXP2 gene, which is linked to language and speech. The decisive factor for the success of paleogenetics, says Johannes Krause, one of the first students of Pääbo, who succeeded him in Leipzig, were the close connections with highly specialized gene laboratories, which were able to read the gene sequences in high-throughput processes: “To this day we have We don’t have anything like the promulgation of the human genome, but we have many individual reference sequences that together result in the almost completely deciphered genome sequence of the Neanderthal.” And to this day, the Leipzig institute is literally unique in the world. This is one of the reasons why there could only be one person, Pääbo, who received the Nobel Prize for paleogenetics.
Pääbo’s group has not only found out a lot about our relationship with its genetic work, but also about the consequences of “mixed marriages” between early humans and Homo sapiens. She is also about to decode the hundred crucial amino acid differences to Neanderthals that have been identified, down to the level of gene functions. The now 67-year-old Pääbo, who was born in Stockholm, has added five more years of research after his retirement, which is actually due this year, which he wants to spend in Leipzig and in a Japanese laboratory.