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Pääbo received this year’s prize for “his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.” The Swedish researcher, widely considered as being one of the founding fathers of the discipline of paleogenetics, successfully sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal, having made the remarkable discovery of a previously unknown hominin, Denisova. According to Pääbo’s research, gene transfer from these two extinct hominins to Homo sapiens took place following the migration from Africa around 70 thousand years ago.
Pääbo’s findings have genuine medical relevance today, with the ancient flow of genes to modern-day humans being relevant for the study of immune system reaction to infections. In a research paper co-authored with Hugo Zeberg in 2020, Pääbo identified the major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 as being inherited from Neanderthals. "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.
The Swedish academic, who also previously led his own laboratory at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, is the fifth Nobel laureate in just three years for the illustrious Max Planck Society. "His work has revolutionized our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern humans," said Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society. “Svante Pääbo, for example, demonstrated that Neanderthals and other extinct hominids made a significant contribution to the ancestry of modern humans.
The Max Planck Society is Germany's most successful research organization, with 29 Nobel laureates among the ranks of its scientists.
Recent Nobel laureates drawn from the ranks of the Max Planck Society include last year’s winner catalysis researcher Benjamin List (Max Planck Institute for Coal Research); meteorologist Klaus Hasselmann (Max Planck Institute for Meteorology) last year; and gravitational physicist Reinhard Genzel (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology), co-inventor of the CRISPR-Cas gene editing technique the year before.