Paleogenetics – Svante Paabo (1955 to Present)


Svante Paabo


Svante Paabo (born 20 April 1955) is a Swedish biologist specializing in evolutionary genetics. One of the founders of paleogenetics, a discipline that uses the methods of genetics to study early humans and other ancient populations, he has worked extensively on the Neanderthal genome. Paabo was born in Stockholm and grew up with his mother, Estonian chemist Karin Paabo. His father, biochemist Sune Bergstrom, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Bengt I. Samuelsson and John R. Vane in 1982.


Paabo earned his PhD from Uppsala University in 1986. Since 1997, he has been director of the Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In 1997, Paabo and colleagues reported their successful sequencing of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), originating from a specimen found in Feldhofer grotto in the Neander valley. In August 2002, Paabo’s department published findings about the “language gene“, FOXP2, which is lacking or damaged in some individuals with language disabilities, and in 2006, Paabo announced a plan to reconstruct the entire genome of Neanderthals. In 2007, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year.


In February 2009, at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago, it was announced that the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology had completed the first draft version of the Neanderthal genome. Over 3 billion base pairs were sequenced in collaboration with the 454 Life Sciences Corporation. This project, led by Paabo, has shed new light on the recent evolutionary history of modern humans. Paabo and his coworkers also published a report in 2010 about the DNA analysis of a finger bone found in the Denisova Cave in Siberia; the results suggest that the bone belonged to an extinct member of the genus Homo that had not yet been recognized, the Denisova hominin. In May 2010, Paabo and his colleagues published a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome in the journal Science. He and his team also concluded that there was probably interbreeding between Neanderthals and Eurasian (but not African) humans. There is growing support in the scientific community for this theory of admixture between archaic and anatomically-modern humans, though some archeologists remain skeptical about this conclusion.


In 2014, Paabo published the book Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes where he, in the mixed form of a memoir and popular science, tells the story of the research effort to map the Neanderthal genome combined with thought on human evolution.


In terms of awards, in 1992, Paabo received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which is the highest honor awarded in German research. Paabo was also elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2000. In October 2009 the Foundation For the Future announced that Paabo had been awarded the 2009 Kistler Prize for his work isolating and sequencing ancient DNA, beginning in 1984 with a 2,400-year-old mummy. Also, in June 2010 the Federation of European Biochemical Societies awarded him the Theodor Bucher Medal for outstanding achievements in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and in 2013, he received Gruber Prize in Genetics for ground breaking research in evolutionary genetics. In June 2015 he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from NUI Galway.



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