I had totally forgotten that it’s Nobel Prize season, and the first one, the Medicine or Physiology Prize, was awarded today—to the human evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo, a Swede. The reader who sent me the news had these immediate reactions:
- Highly unusual that there is a single winner nowadays
- How often has the prize gone to an evolutionary scientist (of any shape or form) ?
- Probably being Swedish helped a bit!
Yes, the last “solo” prize was given in this field in 2016 to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on lysosomes and autophagy. As for the evolutionary biology, I’m not aware of anybody working largely on evolution who has won a Nobel Prize. The geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan won one, but it was his students who became evolutionary geneticists. I also remember that when I entered grad school, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin was helping prepare a joint Nobel Prize nomination for Theodosius Dobzhansky and Sewall Wright, but Dobzhansky died in 1975 before it could be submitted, and posthumous Prizes aren’t given.)
Of course, Pääbo has worked on the evolution of the genus Homo, and a human orientation helps with the Prize, but his substantial contributions fully qualify him for the Big Gold Medal. As for him being Swedish, I don’t know if there’s some national nepotism in awarding prizes, but again, Pääbo’s work is iconic and no matter what nationality he was, he deserves one. And of course I’m chuffed that an evolutionary geneticist—one of my own tribe—won the Big One.
Click on the Nobel Committee’s press release or the NYT article below to read about Pääbo or go to his Wikipedia page.
Pääbo is the leader of a large team, and has had many collaborators, but it’s clear that, if fewer than four people were to get the prize for work on human evolution, Pääbo would stand out as the main motive force, ergo his solo award. Sequencing the Neanderthal genome and estimating the time of divergence from “modern” H. sapiens (about 800,000 years)? That was Pääbo and his team. Finding the Denisovans, a separately-evolved group from Neanderthals? Pääbo and his team. Discovering that both of these groups interbred with our own ancestors, and we still carry an aliquot of their genes? Pääbo and his team. Learning that some of the introgressed genes from Denisovans have conferred high-altitude adaptations to Tibetans? Pääbo and his team. And that some Neanderthal genes confer modern resistance to infections? Pääbo and his team.
The man can truly be seen as the father of human paleogenetics—and he’s five years younger than I? Oy!
Although born in Sweden. Pääbo works mostly in Germany. Here’s his bio from the Nobel Prize Committee:
Svante Pääbo was born 1955 in Stockholm, Sweden. He defended his PhD thesis in 1986 at Uppsala University and was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Zürich, Switzerland and later at University of California, Berkeley, USA. He became Professor at the University of Munich, Germany in 1990. In 1999 he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany where he is still active. He also holds a position as adjunct Professor at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan.
A prize for work in evolutionary genetics! Well done, Dr. Pääbo!
And a bit of biography from the NYT article:
Dr. Pääbo has a bit of Nobel Prize history in his own family: In a 2014 memoir, “Neanderthal Man,” he wrote that he was “the secret extramarital son of Sune Bergstrom, a well-known biochemist who had shared the Nobel Prize in 1982.”
It took some three decades of research for Dr. Pääbo to describe the Neanderthal genome that won him his own prize. He first went looking for DNA in mummies and older animals, like extinct cave bears and ground sloths, before he turned his attention to ancient humans.
“I longed to bring a new rigor to the study of human history by investigating DNA sequence variation in ancient humans,” he wrote in the memoir.
It would be no easy feat. Ancient genetic material was so degraded and difficult to untangle that the science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book “The Sixth Extinction,” likened the process to reassembling a “Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash, and left to rot in a landfill.”
34 thoughts on “Svante Pääbo nabs Medicine and Physiology Nobel”
Congratulations, Svante Pääbo. He has become well known in Germany through his many years of work at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and even more so through his book “Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes”.
As a fellow member of the “tribe”, I am thrilled by this. And thank you for the concise summary of Pääbo’s most significant contributions.
I’ve read a couple of his books and recommend them highly. His passion for his work and his ability to tell the story of how he and his team did it make for interesting reading.
I’ve only read Neanderthal Man, but it was a very interesting book. Certainly worth readin if you have even the slightest interest in genetics. A well-deserved prize, I’d say, and probably the only Nobel Laureate I actually knew anything about prior to winning.
Likewise, nice to see a familiar name here. I’ve been stumbling across Paabo at least since Spencer Wells wrote The Journey of Man, a Genetic Odyssey twenty years ago. But JOM is an ancient and outdated work by the standards of this field where Paabo deserves so much acclaim.
I recommend <A Short History of Humanity, A New History of Old Europe (English translation 2021) by Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe. Krause led the team doing the Denisovan work in Paabo’s lab.
I’m fascinated by how much we have learned from ancient DNA – the kind of things no one would have dreamed possible 10 years ago – and hope the torrent of new knowledge continues pouring out.
I can recommend Krause’s book, too.
Ancient DNA was a real revolution in more than one field, and Pääbo was the main driver behind this. He got the funding and the cooperation from fossil owners at a time this seemed like science fiction.
I also recommend Krause’s book. It is written in a way that is easy to understand even for a layman, which is certainly due to the collaboration with Thomas Trappe, an experienced journalist.
Anyone who knows German reasonably well should also read Krause’s second book, “Hybris: Die Reise der Menschheit: Zwischen Aufbruch und Scheitern” (literally translated as “Hubris: The Journey of Mankind: Between Departure and Failure”). The information in it is directly related to “A Short History of Humanity” and is thus a valuable addition.
Warmest congratulations Svante!! What a tremendous personal recognition, and also a great honor for our whole field of evolutionary genetics.
What an accomplishment!
I think some years ago you posted a lecture he gave on Neanderthals at the Scripps Institute. I can’t find it but it was so informative and engaging.
He has some very interesting lectures on You Tube, and in one of them (“A Neanderthal Perspective on Human Origins”), he shows some data on sequencing ancient DNA from our sub-species — from humans who were co-existing with neanderthals. And there he finds a very high % of neanderthal DNA. So those would be humans with a recent neanderthal relative. Amazing.
I would have thought that Harvard’s David Reich might have been a co-awardee and maybe include British Museum’s Chris Stringer for his major input from a palaeo-anthropological perspective.
David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here, Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past is another fascinating account of human migration and the populating of our planet.
Not that I disagree with the award, but… What made his work possible were technical advances in the machines and software programs that find the right DNA present in very small amounts in a lot of non-human DNA. I wonder how much Paabo worked on any of the technology that made this possible. And, I wonder if we’ll ever know the names of the people who actually improved the machines, wrote the codes, and did the hands-on work. Nevertheless, without Paabo and his grant-writing, would the money and resources have been available? It is the way modern science works and who gets credit these days.
I did wonder why it was a single award and not shared.
From a FB comment yesterday, I gather that one of my old dept @ U Pgh’s former grad students was part of the team that developed the “454” sequencers that enabled the work, which was news to me. If I learn anything more I’ll come back with it.
Thanks for highlighting this. It seems like he more than deserves this prize. Now how do you pronounce his last name? I’ve never encountered a double umlaut a.
Basically sounds like “pae bo.” Just go into google translate and put the name in and then hit the button for the voice function. That is what I just did. When I have seen him referred to on various TV documentary shows like Nova, they always seem to pronounce the name like “pah bo.”
Thanks, John, I did what you said, and that’s what it sounds like to me as well- pah-bo. Not my first guess.
In Swedish it would come out Pae boo
Agreed! Dunno if that is how he himself pronounces it, but that would be the general take.
Pääbo’s mother the chemist Karin Pääbo was a WWII refugee from Estland, and the Estonian language split from Finnish and it seems they spell equally regularly. So my guess is that a long vowel would have a double letter.
I was pleased to hear this. I’ve watched quite a few of Paabo’s lectures on youtube though I haven’t gotten to his autobiography yet. He’s my favorite geneticist along with David Reich of Harvard. An afternoon listening to those guys is one very well spent.
HJ Muller was awarded the Nobel in 1946 for his work on mutation.
The below link shows a photo of him being thrown into a pool by celebratory colleagues.
When my wife told me he had won a Nobel, I asked her, “In what field?” When she replied, “Physiology or Medicine”, I was delighted to see work of this nature recognized. Nice reminder that Evolution by Natural Selection is the greatest idea the world has ever seen. Warmest congratulations.
As far as whether being Swedish helped a bit, there is one case where it had the opposite effect, and coincidentally that also involved Sune Bergström. Besides being Svante Pääbo’s father, Sune Bergström was once on the Nobel Committee.
Proteomics got its start from the protein sequences that were revealed the hard way – at the protein level – through Edman degradation, developed by Per Edman at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and who subsequently developed the “spinning cup” sequencer that automated the process after he went to Australia.
Edman’s move to Australia was always vaguely attributed to “difficulties” that he had in Sweden, but it always seemed unfair to me that he never won a Nobel Prize for his work, and since I was a post-doc at Karolinska in the earlier ’80s, I was at the perfect place to ask. One explanation was the Fred Sanger had already won one for getting the sequence of insulin, but his technique was hugely impractical for anything larger than insulin, so that never set very well with me.
I finally learned the true story from the other professors there, bile-acid chemist and mass spectrometrist Jan Sjövall. Apparently Edman was married to Sune Bergström’s sister, but then he ran off with his lab tech, who “looked just like Veronica Lake”.
In the realm of Nobel Prize stories, I cannot resist adding one recounted to me by a Swedish friend. The night before receiving his1993 Nobel for PCR, Kary Mullis got a bit inebriated and played with a laser pointer from the window of his hotel room. Since only a year earlier Stockholm had suffered a sniper with a laser sight (known in the press as “lasermannen”), the Stockholm police were not amused, and paid a visit to Mullis in the hotel room to stop his amusement.
That’s a good one. You might have thought that he could have found a 28y/o to celebrate with instead, tho.
Also the lasers with larger fluxes have been known to eye damage people or blind airplanes during landing – the international airfield outside Stockholm would have been a target – so they have been outlawed for private use. You have to get a license for other use.
Congratulations to Svante Pääbo!
As it happens I am participating in a population genetics course here in Uppsala and is sitting this weekend with a GWAS project including individuals with ancient genomes – the technology that Pääbo ushered in! 😊