The winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine of 2022 is the Swede Svante Paabo for his discoveries on human evolution.
Paabo, 67, is one of the founders of paleogenetics: recovering DNA from the fossils of primitive men and reconstructing it despite the age, damage suffered and contamination, he managed to build a family tree of our ancestors, completing the reconstructed history with the archaeological remains.
Paabo coordinated the research project that led to the complete sequencing of Neanderthals in 2009, confirming that part of his genes are also present in modern humans. During the pandemic, it was discovered among other things that the presence or absence of some genes dating back to Neanderthals influences the response of our immune system to the coronavirus.
Analyzing the bone of a finger recovered in Siberia and dating back to 40 thousand years ago, he demonstrated the existence of a new human species, the Denisovana.
The relationships between archaeologists and paleoanthropologists have not always been idyllic, but in recent years paleogenetics has become a mature discipline, capable of adding its pieces to the ancient history of man, especially when it comes to reconstructing the relationships between the various families. of ancient men, their genealogical relationships and their migrations. Paabo currently heads the genetics department of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, but is also a member of the Accademia dei Lincei in Italy. “It is an honor to have him among our foreign members” commented the president of the Academy, Roberto Antonelli.
When Paabo began to deal with paleogenomics, it was still not known whether the DNA molecule was capable of withstanding time, and for how many years. By contacting an old professor of Egyptology, secretly from the professor who followed him for his doctorate in cell biology, Paabo managed to obtain a fragment of a mummy from a museum in East Berlin. His DNA analysis ended up on the cover of Nature in 1985.
One of the foremost experts in evolutionary biology at the time, Allan Wilson, of Berkeley, then wrote to Paabo asking him to welcome him to his laboratory for a sabbatical. Paabo, who was only a graduate student, replied that he had no laboratory. And he asked if he could rather not be welcomed as a student at Berkeley.
His work, the jury explained, was awarded because it “revealed the genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominids. His findings have provided the basis for exploring what makes us humans so unique.” But among researchers, Paabo is also famous for his Hawaiian shirts and the habit of working in the laboratory in Bermuda shorts.
Paabo says that the passion for archeology was born in him during a trip to Egypt at the age of 13 with his mother, who was involved in chemistry. At the time he dreamed of becoming a sort of Indiana Jones, then he enrolled at Uppsala University and graduated in Medicine, specializing in cell biology, but he did not neglect to study Coptic, Latin and hieroglyphs.
His father, Sune Bergstrom, also won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982, but Paabo bears his mother’s name because his parents’ relationship was unofficial.
Last year the award went to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries on how the human body perceives temperature and touch. This year a choice linked to the pandemic was expected, but as always, the representatives of the Nobel Committee have displaced all predictions.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, the prize for Physics will be announced, which last year went to our Giorgio Parisi among others. Wednesday morning will be the turn of chemistry, Thursday of literature and Friday of peace. Next Monday, October 10, the Nobel Prize for economics will be announced.
The winners share a sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (920 thousand euros) for each discipline. The award procedures were established by the Swedish inventor (his own, among others, the patent of dynamite), Alfred Nobel.
Nobel, for fear of being remembered for the invention of an instrument of destruction, wrote in his will that the prize would go to the person “who has contributed most to the well-being of humanity”.