Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded for studies on human evolution

We often look so far into the future that a “review” of the past, such as the Nobel Prize in Medicine, produces a renewed interest in our ancestors. The Swedish Svante Pääbo won the first prize awarded by the Swedish Academy, which will have as a corollary the awaited Nobel Peace Prize. However, this study on human evolution was very well received by the scientific community.

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The Karolinska Institute announced, last Monday, the first award in its week of recognition for the different disciplines it awards. Pääbo, of a particular history, was recognized for discoveries made about the genomes of extinct hominids and the process of human evolution. Paleogenomics, a new scientific discipline, is based on the reconstruction and analysis of the genomic information of extinct species. Pääbo is the initiator of this new branch of science and, on this occasion, he worked on ancient genes and the quest to learn more about the origins of mankind.

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Nobel Prize in Medicine looking back

In a society with the characteristics of a liquid modernity, as Zygmunt Bauman put it, a backward glance does not seem to be the most usual thing to do. Pääbo succeeded, with his research, in obtaining the sequencing of the genome of the extinct relative of today’s human, the Neanderthal. In addition, he discovered Denisova, a semi-unknown hominid that was part of human evolution. Finally, their work also determined how ancient genes were transferred from hominids to Homo sapiens, which is us, and how this has affected our physiological makeup.

We often know, or pretend to know, where we are going or what our intentions are with futurism. However, we do not usually stop to recognize our past and how humanity has evolved. Pääbo’s work points to our origins and draws on studies conducted in disciplines such as paleontology and archaeology. The extinction of the Neanderthals and whether there was contact with Homo sapiens is a whole discussion about a possible coexistence and the possibility that one species led to the disappearance of the other, as well as the type of relationship achieved.

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The human genome began to be sequenced, in our species, towards the end of the 1990s. Thus began the work of recognizing the genetic relationship between the different human populations. Now, the focus is on knowing what happened to the extinct hominids and how their genome is related to our DNA. The genomic information obtained by Pääbo seemed impossible due to the contamination of the samples, which were hundreds of thousands of years old on our planet.

A scientist with an award-winning past

At the age of 67, the Swede Svante Pääbo is recognized with the Nobel Prize in Medicine and repeats an achievement obtained by his father 40 years earlier. The Swedish scientist is the son, from an extramarital relationship, of biochemist Sune Bergström. In 1982, he had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, together with Bengt Samuelsson and John R. Vane, for their work on prostaglandins.

Pääbo was always linked to science and history. In his early days he had devoted his research to Egyptology and also carried out work on the DNA of Egyptian mummies. Last year, in this same branch, the winners were David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, for their discovery of how the human body senses hugs and warmth.