The Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to the discoverer of ancient DNA, whose findings were crucial for understanding human evolution

Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo on Monday received the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries that advance our understanding of how modern humans evolved from extinct ancestors.

aabo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, won the award for “Discoveries about the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution,” according to the award committee.

Paabo was “overwhelmed” and “very happy,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Committee on Physiology or Medicine, after calling the scientist with the news.

Paabo, 67, said he thinks the call from Sweden is something to make his summer home there.

“So I just had the last cup of tea to pick my daughter up from her nanny where she was staying,” Paabo said in an audio recording released on the Nobel website.

“And then I got this call from Sweden and of course I thought it had something to do with our little summer house in Sweden … I thought the lawn mower was broken or something.”

When asked if he thought he would get the prize, he said, “No, I’ve gotten a few awards, but somehow I didn’t think it really qualifies for a Nobel prize.”

The son of a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, Paabo is credited with transforming the study of human origins after devising ways to allow the study of DNA sequences from archaeological and paleontological remains dating back to the dawn of the go back to human history.

Not only did he help uncover the existence of a previously unknown human species called the Denisovans from a 40,000-year-old fragment of a finger bone discovered in Siberia, his crowning glory is credited with being the method developed to enable the sequencing of a complete Neanderthal genome.

This research, which showed that certain Neanderthal genes are now preserved in the human genome, was once considered impossible because the Neanderthal DNA on the bones has shrunk over thousands of years into short fragments that have to be put together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle are also heavily contaminated with microbial DNA.

“This ancient flow of genes to modern-day humans has physiological relevance today, influencing, for example, how our immune system responds to infection,” the Nobel Prize committee said in a statement on Monday.


The prize is one of the most prestigious in the scientific world and is awarded by the Karolinska Institute of Sweden’s Nobel Assembly. It is endowed with 10 million Swedish kronor (900,357 US dollars).

It is the first of this year’s series of awards.

Born in Stockholm, Paabo studied medicine and biochemistry at Uppsala University before founding a scientific discipline called “palaeogenomics” that helped elucidate the genetic differences that separate living humans from extinct hominins.

“His discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human,” the committee said.

“A scientist who helps us to better understand our own species – and is rightly being honored for it today,” tweeted Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger on Monday.

Created in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and wealthy businessman Alfred Nobel, the awards have been given for achievements in science, literature and peace since 1901, although the business award was added later.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put medical research in the spotlight, and many expect the development of the vaccines that have allowed the world to regain some sense of normality could ultimately be rewarded.

Nonetheless, it typically takes many years for any given research to be recognized, with the committees charged with selecting the winners attempting to determine its full value with some certainty in what is always a crowded field of competitors.

When asked why the award wasn’t given to advances in fighting COVID, Perlmann said it was a good question that he wouldn’t answer.

“We’re only talking about people who get the Nobel Prize and not about those who don’t or haven’t gotten it yet.”

However, Paabo’s old forensic work offered insight into why some people are at higher risk of severe COVID.


In 2020, a report by Paabo and colleagues found that a gene variant inherited by modern humans from Neanderthals when they interbred about 60,000 years ago meant those who carried the variant were more likely to be mechanically ventilated had to be if they were infected with the virus that caused COVID.

“We can average the number of extra deaths we’ve had in the pandemic due to the contribution of Neanderthals. It’s quite significant, it’s more than a million additional people who died because of this Neanderthal variant,” Paabo said in the 2022 talk.

Paabo’s most-cited paper on the Web of Science was published in 1989 with 4,077 citations, said David Pendlebury of British scientific data analysis provider Clarivate.

“Only about 2,000 of the 55 million papers published since 1970 have been cited that many times,” he said.

The Nobel Assembly has clearly decided that this revolutionary research in genetics and evolution falls within the range of issues that should be recognized, he added.

“However, it is not an award for a discovery relevant to clinical medicine, which many expected this year after a Nobel Prize in Physiology last year.”

Previous winners in this field include a number of famous researchers, notably Alexander Fleming, who shared the prize for discovering penicillin in 1945, and Robert Koch, who was recognized as early as 1905 for his research into tuberculosis. The Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to the discoverer of ancient DNA, whose findings were crucial for understanding human evolution

Fry Electronics Team

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