The Swedish evolutionary geneticist has revolutionized the study of ancient DNA, describes an unprecedented human line, gave a new breath to the genetics of populations and open of evolutionary medicine tracks.
Svante Pääbo finally obtained the award that many predicted him for twenty years. The Swedish paleogeneticist, 67, was awarded, Monday, October 3, the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominines and human evolution”.
It is to him that we owe the fine description of the DNA of our Neanderthal cousin, in 2010, revealing in passing that our ancestors had mixed and that it remained neanderthal in the majority of current humanity. It was at the origin the same year of the description of another human line, which is also disappeared: the Denisovians, so named because a tiny phalanx found in the Siberian cave of Denisova then delivered an unprecedented genome.
These shots have opened a less visible revolution in the study of human evolution: the multiplication of ancient genomes irrigates the genetics of populations, and the comparison of genomes helps to better define the specificity of Homo sapiens , including on the medical and physiological level.
a favorite molecule
Svante Pääbo, who founded the Max-Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology of Leipzig twenty-five years ago, forged molecular tools and methods, taking advantage of the latest advances in genomics, to ‘Old DNA. Before him, paleogenomic was of science fiction. “He invented the discipline,” notes Ludovic Orlando (CNRS, University of Toulouse), one of his French specialists in the field.
For paleontologist Jean-Jacques Hublin, who had joined him in Leipzig in 2004, perhaps we must see in the obsession of his colleague for the origins “the sublimation of a more personal questioning” on his own past, “complicated”: Svante Pääbo is indeed the illegitimate son of Sune Bergström (1916-2004), Nobel Prize in Medicine (1982), which led a double life. Hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism, he recounts in Neanderthal, looking for lost genomes (the links that release, 2015), he was saved by heparin, a molecule purified by his father in 1943.
But his scientific vocation, he may owe it as much to his mother, an Estonian chemist, who takes him for a stay in Egypt at the age of 13: the ancient world fascinates him, and he will then have Heart to see if mummies cannot offer old DNA. Because medical studies started in Sweden and virology will only be a detour before returning to its favorite molecule, support for the heredity and memory of our evolutionary past.
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