The tico who works with the Nobel Prize in Medicine: who is Felipe Mora?

From a very young age, Felipe Mora Bermúdez was drawn to human evolution. It was not for less, he had two great influences in his life: an anthropologist mom and a geologist dad, so for him, that area was just the point of union in what his parents did.

When the time came to choose a profession, he chose Biology. It was not difficult for him to decide. This path later took him to Germany, where he first studied molecular biology and then specialized in the development of brain cells.

The goal is to get to know the human brain well and one step to achieve this is to compare it with that of other similar species, since it helps to give another perspective and obtain more information.

His work led him to study the brains of Neanderthals and Denisovans, considered the closest relatives to us. Homo sapiens, and that they cohabited the planet for thousands of years.

This is how Mora arrived at the Max Planck Institute, where he met Svaten Pääbo, the father of paleogenomics, which is the study of prehistoric genes. Since then they have participated, each one from his specialty, in various jobs.

However, the one from the tico is not just any partner, because this October 3 Pääbo was announced as the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

From his home in Dresden, Germany, Mora spoke with The nation. It was close to 9 pm for him, he had a cup with Costa Rican motifs and sat down in front of the computer. He confessed that he did not have coffee in it, he loves Costa Rican coffee and is never short of it in his pantry, he considers it a precious commodity that knows how to yield, but he admitted that drinking coffee at night makes it difficult for him to sleep.

This is an excerpt from the conversation with this 46-year-old Tico, who is also passionate about reading, talking and learning.

– I remember since I was little being fascinated by animals, plants, cells, human evolution, that point in common with my anthropologist mother and my geologist father.

“After getting my bachelor’s degree in Biology at the University of Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to go to Germany to do my master’s degree in Heidelberg and from there a doctorate at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. There I studied dynamics and condensation of chromosomes.

“Later, I went to Dresden to study brain development, in particular the cell division of the stem cells of the neocortex (a region of the cerebral cortex related to the capacities that differentiate human beings from other mammals).

“This was bringing me closer to the Neanderthals.”

– This was already in Dresden, in the Max Planck Institute (where both work). Svante’s team was in Leipzig (a city 60 minutes by train from Dresden). We had meetings every several months to exchange ideas and analyze results.

“At some point, when Svante’s team had the complete and high-coverage sequence of the Neanderthal genome ready, the possibility arose of collaborating and doing joint projects to see if the genomic differences they had found were also of some importance. physiological.

“That is, not only were they differences in DNA bases that they had already seen, but they were also differences that had some impact on cell biology or brain physiology and led to differences between us and our ‘cousins’.” Neanderthals and Denisovans”.

Svante is a tremendously intelligent, brilliant man with an impressive track record throughout his life, who has published a great deal. He has been recognized with several awards and now with the Nobel.

“He is a very focused person. When it comes to work he is very concentrated, very focused and is very good at understanding things, even if they are outside of his expertise.

“When he started the project, for example, he didn’t have much knowledge of cell division, but he quickly caught up.

“And outside of work he’s a nice person. He likes to talk pleasantly, laugh, make jokes. The truth is a nice person to talk and work with.

– The basis was the spectacular work that Svante and his team did to sequence the genomes (analyze gene by gene) of archaic humans. A spectacular breakthrough, which is hard to believe was possible. It is DNA that was obtained from fossils.

“With these genomes, it was easy to compare them with the genome of us, modern humans, and see if there were any differences.”

– It was seen, for example, that there were 100 differences in proteins, this in the genome.

“The idea was to think “we know that there are these differences in the genome, but we don’t know what the physiological result is, if there are changes in the cells or in the functioning of the organism, if there are any.

“As there are many, we have been sharing that work. They proposed to me to deal with six differences that, it was known, have something to do with brain development, because they are very active proteins in the brain and have something to do with cell division”.

– I began to analyze these proteins in the context of stem cells, in the brain. Doing experiments with my work team, we were able to see that there were indeed differences, for example, in that fewer errors are made in the cell division of Homo sapiens than in Neanderthals. We are still studying.”

– We had meetings to share experimental results, discuss, debate what the next steps would be, see if the results made sense and what could be improved. It was a joint work.

“I did most of the practical work in Dresden, because here is the technology to study living tissues and cells, and in Leipzig more work has been done on sequencing ancient DNA.

“In Dresden, it was a matter of preparing cells, of preparing tissues to be able to observe them under the microscope. These tissues had stem cells, either from Neanderthals or modern humans, and you compared them and you saw what happened to the brain stem cells.”

– Well, having seen these differences in cell division with human amino acids (molecules that form proteins) and Neanderthal amino acids and that this led to fewer cellular “errors” in modern humans versus Neanderthals, now the idea is to see what effect it has that reduction of errors in the functioning of the neural cells, for example, the neurons of the cortex.

“In short, it is to see if there is an impact on these differences and how it is, on neurons and on brain function. But, let’s remember, these studies are in six of more or less 100 differences that there are.

“There are other projects, with other researchers, and they are very interesting, and another 100 differences are analyzed.”

– One thing is very clear. With the Neanderthals and Denisovans we have, by far, many more similarities than differences. We are really very similar to them. The differences are few, minimal. They may be important differences, but we have a lot in common with them.

“It would be very interesting to know why they became extinct and how we managed to survive, to understand more about what has us here and to see the risks to our survival and future existence.

“Unfortunately, they became extinct and we have no other way to analyze them than with fossils. It would have been very interesting to meet them and learn more about them. To know how they were 50,000 years ago, unfortunately we have few clues left.

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The tico who works with the Nobel Prize in Medicine: who is Felipe Mora?