Pääbo is the son of biochemist Sune Bergström, who also won the Nobel Prize. His mother was a chemist and an Estonian refugee
Sweden’s Svante Pääbo has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on human evolution. The Prize committee on October 3 said Pääbo, 67, was being given the top honour for his discoveries in the genetic code of one of our extinct relatives - Neanderthals.
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Pääbo is also credited for the ‘sensational’ discovery of the previously unknown relative - Denisovans.
Son of a Nobel laureate
Pääbo was brought up in Stockholm. His mother was a chemist and an Estonian refugee who worked in the laboratory of a biochemist named Sune Bergström for some time. Bergström later won the Nobel Prize. Although Pääbo was aware that he was the son of Bergström, he was not allowed to discuss it as the biochemist had a wife and another son. Pääbo’s mother never married. Bergström would visit Pääbo on Saturdays and take him for a walk in the woods or a place where he would not be recognised, The New Yorker reported.
Wanted to be Indiana Jones
Pääbo was interested in old things from an early age and would collect bits of pottery made by prehistoric Swedes. However, his interest in archaeology deepened after his mother took him to Egypt when he was 13. In his early day, Pääbo wanted to be like Indiana Jones, discovering mummies and other ancient hidden treasures.
“I had a very romantic idea of what archaeology was. But when I got to
Research in secret, at night
Pääbo took up medicine under the influence of his father Bergström. He did his doctoral research on adenoviruses and their interaction with the immune system. At the same time, without telling his PhD advisor, Pääbo started working on isolating some DNA from tissue samples obtained from a German museum. He conducted most of his mummy research in secret, at night. In 1984, his findings that DNA survived in the cell nuclei of some Egyptian mummies were published in a small East German journal.
Pääbo started working in California with eminent biochemist Allan Wilson in 1987. In 1990, he returned to Europe and became a professor of general biology at the University of Munich. It was here that he started focusing on developing techniques to study ancient DNA and started applying them to humans’ closest extinct relative – Neanderthals.
Pääbo is one of the founders of paleogenetics, which is a way of using genetics to study early humans and other ancient populations. He has been credited for transforming the study of human origins after developing approaches.
Pääbo, with the help of his colleagues, extracted and sequenced the first Neanderthal genome from ancient bones. At the time, this was considered improbable, Economic Times reported. The team published the draft sequence in May 2010. According to the publication, this species of archaic humans lived till about 40,000 years ago in Eurasia.
It was because of Pääbo’s sequencing that it is now possible to compare a Neanderthal genome with a human one. Pääbo and his colleagues are also credited for proving the existence of a previously unknown human species called the Denisovans in March 2010.
Awards and recognitions
Pääbo has received a number of awards, including the Louis Jeantet Prize for Medicine (Switzerland), the Leibniz Prize (Germany) and the Kistler Prize (USA). He has also been a member of Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences.
(Edited by : Sudarsanan Mani)