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Svante Pääbo and the Human Story

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“Nobel goes to Svante Pääbo for Neanderthal work,” is how a BBC headline writer described this year’s choice for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The New York Times, it was “Prize Awarded to Scientist Who Sequenced Neanderthal Genome.” And at the Guardian, “Swedish geneticist wins Nobel prize for Neanderthal research.”

All true. But notwithstanding this close focus on Pääbo’s research into Neanderthals, it’s important to note that his scientific contributions have shaped the entire field of paleogenetics, not just the study of Homo neanderthalensis. Indeed, his work has spanned all three known species of humans, one of which the world likely wouldn’t even know about but not for Pääbo and his research team.

As a graduate immunology student in the early 1980s, the young Swede performed molecular genetic analyses on 23 Egyptian mummies, one of which—a 2,400-year-old child specimen—proved to contain clonable DNA. The first scientific paper published on DNA extracted from fossil tissue was the result of this discovery.

Svante Pääbo

The then-available technology didn’t allow Pääbo to sequence the mummy’s entire genome, nor those of the Neanderthal specimens he would later study. And it wouldn’t be until 2014—following two decades of research—that…



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