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.”