The Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded, on Monday, October 3, to the Swedish Svante Pääbo, 67, for the sequencing of the genome of Neanderthal man and his role in the emergence of paleogenomics.
“By revealing the genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, their findings have provided the basis for exploring what makes us humans so unique.”greeted the jury.
Thanks to the sequencing of a bone found in Siberia in 2008, the scientist also revealed the existence of another different and hitherto unknown hominid, Denisova man, who lived in present-day Russia and Asia.
At 67 years old and living in Germany for decades – he works at the prestigious Max-Planck Institute – Svante Pääbo discovered in 2009 that there had been a gene transfer of around 2% between these extinct hominids, such as Neanderthals, and the Homo sapiens.
This ancient gene flow for modern humans has physiological relevance today, for example by affecting how our immune systems respond to infections.
Thus, their work had recently shown that Covid-19 patients carrying a segment of Neanderthal DNA, particularly in Europe, and most notably in South Asia, inherited from a crossover with the human genome some 60,000 years ago, are at increased risk of serious central nervous system complications. illness.
“The genetic differences between Homo sapiens and our now-extinct closest relatives were unknown until they were identified through the work of Pääbo”added the Nobel committee in its decision.
The Swedish researcher has overcome the difficulties posed by the degradation of DNA over time: after thousands of years, only traces remain, also largely contaminated by bacteria or modern human traces.
Neanderthals cohabited for a time with modern humans in Europe before disappearing completely around 30,000 years ago, supplanted by Sapiens, with African roots.
Pääbo, a native of Stockholm, had long been considered eligible for the Nobel Prize. But he had dropped off the favorites list in recent years. “He lives in Leipzig so it was easy to locate him, he wasn’t sleeping”said Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel committee responsible for awarding the prize. “He was speechless, very happy, he asked me if he could tell his wife, I said yes. He was incredibly happy. »
His award opens a dynasty: his father, Sune Bergström (1916-2004), had also received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982 for research related to hormones. He is the natural father of Svante, who publicly explained in 2014 to be the result of an extramarital relationship, hence the different names of him.
The harvest continues in Stockholm on Tuesday with physics, then chemistry on Wednesday, before the highly anticipated literature prize on Thursday and peace on Friday, the only prize awarded in Oslo. The most recent economic price will close the harvest on Monday.
with this 113me Nobel Prize in medicine, there are already 226 people who have obtained the prize in physiology or medicine since its creation. Among them, twelve women. No organization has ever been awarded, which is prohibited by the rules of the Karolinska Institute, which awards the prize.
The Nobel Prize in Medicine, which comes with a 10 million crown (about 920,000 euros) reward, was awarded last year to Americans Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius for their discovery of how the nervous system transmits temperature and touch.
Male researchers from the United States or domiciled in the United States have still largely dominated scientific Nobel laureates in recent decades, despite efforts by juries to crown more women. The 2021 Nobel harvest was no exception to the rule, with twelve winners and only one winner. All scientific prizes had been awarded to men.