STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Swedish scientist Svante Pääbo won this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discoveries about human evolution, which have revealed key questions about our immune systems and what sets us apart from our extinct cousins, according to the committee awarding the award.
Pääbo has led the development of new techniques that have allowed researchers to compare the genome of modern humans and other hominids, Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Although the first Neanderthal bones were discovered in the 19th century, it wasn’t until researching their DNA that scientists were able to understand the links between species.
This includes learning about the time when modern humans and Neanderthals diverged as a species, believed to be about 800,000 years ago, said Anna Wedell, chair of the Nobel Committee.
“Pääbo and his team also unexpectedly found that gene transfer had occurred from Neanderthals to homo sapiens, showing that they had children together during periods of coexistence,” he explained.
This transfer of genes between hominin species affects the reaction of the immune system of modern humans to infections such as the coronavirus. People outside of Africa have between 1 and 2% Neanderthal genes.
Pääbo, 67, did his award-winning studies in Germany at the University of Munich and at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Pääbo is the son of Sune Bergstrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1982.
The award kicked off a week of awards. The winner in the Physics category would be announced on Tuesday, the Chemistry category on Wednesday and the Literature category on Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize would be announced on Friday, and the Economics Nobel Prize on October 10.
Last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine went to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries about how the human body perceives temperature and touch.
The award includes 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) in cash and is awarded at a gala on December 10. The money comes from a fund left behind by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1985.