Svante Pääbo, PhD

Nobel Conference 50
Oct. 7 & 8, 2014

Paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo, PhD – director, Department of Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

Svante Pääbo is interested in the genetic relationships between Neanderthals and humans. The Neanderthal genome project, which he directs, has successfully sequenced a complete Neanderthal genome. His research group also discovered a previously unknown species of ancient hominin—the Denisovans. We now know that, during the last Ice Age, three groups of hominins (modern humans and their relatives) shared this planet; our ancestors lived in Ice-Age Eurasia with both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. We modern humans share bits of our genomes with both these extinct groups, and Pääbo’s work is unraveling some of those inter-species interactions.

What makes us human? What does our genetic history look like? These are the questions that Pääbo asks of fossil material. In contrast to paleontologists, who examine the remains themselves for those answers, Pääbo and his team seek the genetic record of ancient humanity, extracted from the bones. To answer that question, Pääbo looks to the closest extinct relatives of humans—the Neanderthals. In 1997, Pääbo and coworkers published a mitochondrial DNA sequence from a Neanderthal. It was no small feat to extract tiny fragments of DNA from a fossil arm-bone, where they had been preserved for more than 30,000 years. Over the next decade and more, Pääbo’s group would perfect techniques for eliminating contamination, amplifying tiny bits of DNA, and distinguishing fossil genetic material in many kinds of organisms—human and non-human. His goal was to understand what makes us human, from a genetic point of view. The 2010 publication of a complete Neanderthal sequence allows us, for the first time, to compare our genetic makeup with our closest cousins, who went extinct during the last Ice Age. A subsequent sequence of an ancient human revealed that a third species of human relative—the Denisovians—lived during the last Ice Age.

The path to the Neanderthal genome has taken Pääbo through a long journey in molecular biology. Beginning with Egyptian mummies, he has worked on genetic material from cave bears, wooly mammoths, marsupial wolves, and the “Ice Man” from the Alps. Each project has come with a peculiar set of scientific challenges that have spurred discovery and innovation in molecular biology, often as a direct result of technical difficulties in extracting DNA from ancient remains. The techniques developed in his laboratory set the standard for handling, extracting, and sequencing delicate, ancient genetic material from animals, plants, and humans. The quest for the elusive Neanderthal genome has been the mother of invention for Pääbo and his team—they tested, refined, and extended techniques for genetic sequencing so that they could reliably investigate ever-older fragments of genetic material.

Born in Sweden, Svante Pääbo earned his doctorate from Uppsala University, studying medicine and molecular immunology. He conducted postdoctoral work at the University of Zürich and the University of California-Berkeley. He moved to Germany in 1990 as a professor at the University of Munich. In 1997, Pääbo became the founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Recipient of several honorary doctorates and professorships, Pääbo has earned recognition from the scientific community and the general public. Among many other awards, he received the Theodor Bücher Medal, the Newcomb-Cleveland Prize, the Gruber Genetics Prize, and H.M. the King’s Medal (Sweden), and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2007. Pääbo has co-authored more than 269 scientific articles and has recently published a book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, which chronicles the journey to the Neanderthal genome.