Being the son of a Nobel Prize winner is a poisoned candy. Above all, if you want to dedicate yourself to the same thing as him. Because yes, that relationship opens doors for you, gives you an unbeatable perspective of top-level research and provides you with social capital light years ahead of the rest of the mortals. However, it generates many suspicions.
Svante Pääbo knew that well when he left his native Sweden for California in the late 1980s. Pääbo’s father (Sune Bergstrom) had won the medina nobel in 1982 and was a burden that weighed so heavily on the young Svante that, in fact, he began to use his mother’s surname. But, in the end, everything is known. And, perhaps for this reason, when she arrived at Allan Wilson’s laboratory, she was something that seemed impossible.
history is a dump
At least, that’s the impression it gives as soon as we get out of the books: we’re talking about a huge, messy, insane, pointless landfill. That was, surely, the first great lesson that Svante learned when trying to study the DNA of Neanderthals. Later he learned more things: the most important was that DNA is chemically modified and degrades into short fragments. After thousands of years, only traces of DNA remain, and what remains is massively contaminated with DNA from bacteria and contemporary humans.
At that time in the late 1980s, dedicating yourself to that was dedicating yourself to something that everyone thought was simply impossible. A way to entertain a dad son arriving at a cutting-edge evolutionary biology lab, the lab that was going to find the original evethe African woman from whom all the mitochondrial DNA in the world today derives.
The problem is that Svante was passionate about the subject. In 1990, Paabo was hired by the University of Munich and decided to continue his work on archaic DNA. Using what he had learned in Wilson’s lab, he set to work analyzing the DNA of Neanderthal mitochondria. The logic was alone: it is true that the chains of this genome are small and fractional, but they are replicated thousands of times; that is, there were more chances of success.
A 30 year journey
And, to everyone’s surprise, it was successful. Pääbo managed to sequence a region of mitochondrial DNA a 40,000-year-old bone. For the first time, we had access to a sequence of an extinct relative and, in this way, confirm that they were genetically different beings from both modern humans and chimpanzees. That’s where the good started.
Thanks to the support of the Max Planck Institute at Leipzig, Pääbo improved techniques for isolating and analyzing DNA from archaic skeletal remains. He collected all the remains he could and put them together with experts in population genetics and advanced sequence analysis. Thus, 30 years later, in 2010, Pääbo was able to publish the first sequence of the Neanderthal genome.
A couple of years earlier, in 2008, Paääbo’s team began analyzing a 40,000-year-old finger bone found in Denisovan, a cave in southern Siberia. The bone contained such exceptionally well-preserved DNA that it opened the door to a completely different history: that of a humanity that was not only made up of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, but also an immense group of human species that have disappeared today.
Does this deserve a Nobel?
No one doubts Pääbo’s feat: he alone was able to establish a completely new scientific discipline, paleogenomics. But what real relevance does this have for people’s lives? Does he really deserve a Nobel Prize for medicine? That is the most wonderful thing.
Because thanks to the discoveries of Svante Pääbo, we now know that the genetic sequences of our extinct relatives influence the physiology of modern humans. An example of this is the version of the EPAS1 gene which confers a survival advantage at high altitude and is common among Tibetans today: comes from the Denisovans; but there are many more cases that have an essential impact on our day to day.
In the end, Pääbo’s works show us that there is no better way to understand our present, our physiology, our way of getting sick than by analyzing what makes us human and what is hidden in the memory of the planet. Fortunately, we have learned to decipher it and that will change everything.
Image | Nobel Foundation
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In 1990 someone gave a doctoral student an impossible mission. That young man just won the Nobel