Swedish scientist with Estonian roots wins Nobel prize in medicine

  • 2022-10-03
  • BNS/TBT Staff

STOCKHOLM – Svante Paabo, a Swedish paleogeneticist with Estonian roots, who sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal and discovered the previously unknown hominin Denisova, on Monday won the Nobel medicine prize.

"By revealing genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, his discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human", the Nobel committee said in a statement.

Paabo, director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, found that gene transfer had occurred from these now extinct hominins to Homo sapiens following the migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago.

"This ancient flow of genes to present-day humans has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune system reacts to infections," the jury said.

COVID-19 patients with a snippet of Neanderthal DNA run a higher risk of severe complications from the disease, Paabo reported in a 2020 study.

Svante Paabo's mother is chemist Karin Paabo, an Estonian refugee, and his father is the Swedish biochemist and Nobel laureate Sune Berstrom, who received the prize in 1982.

Svante Paabo studied Egyptology, Russian, economics and medicine at Uppsala University. In 1986, he received his doctorate from the same university for his work on molecular immunology. He then pursued further education at the University of California from 1987-1990.

It was at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany where he did the work which led to his publication of the Neanderthal genome sequence in 2010. 

The prize for physiology or medicine is the first to be awarded in the Nobel season, which continues this week with the announcement of the winners of the physics prize on Tuesday and the chemistry prize on Wednesday.

Paabo, 67, who takes home the award sum of 10 million Swedish kronor or 917,000 euros, will receive the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.