The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded this Monday to the Swedish Svante Pääbo, 67, for the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the creation of paleogenomics.
“By revealing the genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from the extinct hominins, their discoveries have laid the groundwork for exploration of what makes us humans unique,” the jury said.
Thanks to the sequencing of a bone found in Siberia in 2008, he was able to reveal the existence of another different and hitherto unknown hominin, Denisova man, who lived in present-day Russia and Asia.
67 years old and living in Germany for decades, Pääbo discovered in 2009 that 2% of genes had passed from these now-disappeared hominins to Homo sapiens.
This ancient flow of genes into modern man has a physiological impact, for example on the way the immune system reacts to infections.
His work had recently shown that covid-19 patients with a Neanderthal DNA segment — especially in Europe and South Asia — inheritance from a cross with the human genome about 60,000 years ago, have a higher risk of suffer from serious complications of the disease.
“The genetic differences between Homo sapiens and our closest extinct relatives were not known until they were identified thanks to the work of Pääbo ,” the Nobel committee added in its decision.
The Swedish researcher managed to overcome the difficulties of studying DNA that has deteriorated greatly over time, since after thousands of years, only remains remain, highly contaminated by bacteria or human traces.
Neanderthal man cohabited for a time with modern man in Europe, before totally disappearing around 30,000 years ago.
Pääbo , a native of Stockholm, received the Princess of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research in Spain in 2018.
“He lives in Leipzig (Germany), so it was easy to get in touch with him, he did not sleep,” explained Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel committee.
“He was speechless, very happy, he asked me if he could tell his wife, I said yes. He was incredibly happy.”
His father, Sune Bergström, already received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982 for his findings on hormones. Svante Pääbo is named after his mother, the Estonian chemist Karin Pääbo .
The prize is accompanied by a reward of 10 million crowns (about 900,000 dollars).
The Nobel Prize in Medicine will be followed by Physics on Tuesday, Chemistry on Wednesday and, the most anticipated, Literature on Thursday and Peace on Friday (in Oslo).
The most recently created Nobel Prize for Economics closes the 2022 season next Monday.
With this 113th Nobel Prize in Medicine, there are 226 individuals who have won the award since its creation, including 12 women. No organization has been rewarded, as it is prohibited in the regulations of the Karolinska Institute that awards the prizes.
A Nobel Prize dominated by men
Last year, the award went to Americans Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius for their discoveries about how the nervous system transmits temperature and touch.
American researchers or researchers installed in the United States, of the male sex, widely dominate the scientific Nobel prizes of recent decades, despite the efforts of the juries to consecrate more women.
For the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, critics questioned by AFP are leaning towards a better-known name, after two more discreet winners, the American poet Louise Glück in 2020 and the British novelist of Tanzanian origin Abdulrazak Gurnah last year.
The American Joyce Carol Oates, the French Annie Ernaux, the Russian Ludmila Ulitskaia or the Canadian Margaret Atwood would ratify the parity efforts of the jury in recent years.
But it would be the Peace Prize that would have the most impact this year.
After having awarded two journalists, the Russian Dmitri Muratov and the Filipino Maria Ressa, will the Norwegian committee give an anti-Putin prize after the invasion of Ukraine?
Never since World War II has an interstate conflict occurred so close to Oslo.
The International Criminal Court (ICC), in charge of investigating war crimes in Ukraine, as well as the International Court of Justice, also based in the Netherlands, sound among the candidates. Also the imprisoned Russian opponent Alexei Navalni or the Belarusian opponent Svetlana Tijanóvskaya.