Geneticist Svante Pääbo has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his extraordinary work on human evolution: 40 years after his father won the same prize for his work on prostaglandins.
Pääbo won the £867,000 (10m Swedish kronor) prize for his discoveries “concerning the genomes of extinct hominins”, having decoded the genome of Neanderthals, as well as his discovery of Denisovans, a previously unknown human ancestor.
Pääbo and his team sequenced the DNA from a 40,000-year-old finger bone from a cave in southern Siberia, identifying it as from neither Homo sapiens or Neanderthals.
The Swedish geneticist, who is a director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, was told that he had won on Monday morning – 40 years after his biochemist father, Sune Bergström, won the same award for his work on prostaglandins.
“I was very surprised and overwhelmed, I had not expected this,” Pääbo told the BBC.
Yet despite the astonishing coincidence, Pääbo didn’t know much about his father, only meeting him “occasionally” as an adult. He grew up as the secret extra-marital son of Sune Bergstrom, only learning later in life that his famous father “had two families, one of which did not know about the other.”
Even so, Pääbo followed in his father’s footsteps by studying biochemistry, earning a PhD at Uppsala University for using DNA research to study a protein of adenovirus, common viruses which cause cold-like symptoms.
Pääbo’s latest work could have implications on modern medicine, given that the DNA of modern-day humans contains DNA from both Neanderthals and Denisovans.
A Denisovan variant of the EPAS1 gene is commonly found in Tibetans, and helps people survive at high altitudes.
“Svante Pääbo’s groundbreaking discoveries allow us to address one of the most fundamental questions of all: what makes us unique?” Nobel committee member Anna Wedell said.