Technologies developed by Pääbo to sequence Neanderthal DNA are being widely used in many clinical laboratory settings, including to study infectious disease outbreaks
In October, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo, PhD, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, for his innovative work with ancient DNA. And his revolutionary techniques have found their way into many clinical laboratory processes.
Pääbo is considered to be the founder of paleogenetics. This field of science studies the past through examination of preserved genetic material found in remains of ancient organisms. It was his development of pioneering technologies that allowed for the genomic sequencing of Neanderthal DNA.
“[Pääbo’s] work has revolutionized our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern humans,” said German electrochemist Martin Stratmann, PhD, President of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (MPG), in a press release. “Svante Pääbo, for example, demonstrated that Neanderthals and other extinct hominids made a significant contribution to the ancestry of modern humans.”
“The thing that’s amazing to me is that you now have some ability to go back in time and actually follow genetic history and genetic changes over time,” Svante Pääbo, PhD (above), director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, stated in a news conference, Reuters reported. “It’s a possibility to begin to actually look on evolution in real time, if you like.” Development of modern clinical laboratory techniques for identifying and tracking disease outbreaks have already evolved due to these findings. (Photo copyright: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.)
Comparing Neanderthal DNA to That of Modern Humans
Back in the mid-1990s, Pääbo and a team of researchers decoded relatively short fragments of mitochondrial DNA of a Neanderthal male. They discovered through their analysis that the DNA from the Neanderthal varied considerably from the genome of contemporary humans. This validated the belief that modern humans are not direct descendants of the Neanderthals.
Pääbo’s research team found nearly all (99.9%) of the Neanderthal DNA they studied to be heavily colonized by bacteria and fungi. That required them to create solutions for assembling the short components of mitochondrial DNA like a huge puzzle.
To accomplish this, the team had to:
- Work under clean room conditions to prevent the accidental introduction of their own DNA into their experiments.
- Establish more efficient extraction methods to enhance the output of Neanderthal DNA.
- Generate complex computer programs that could compare the ancient DNA fragments with reference genomes of both humans and chimpanzees.
“Neanderthals are the closest relatives of humans today” said Pääbo in the press release. “Comparisons of their genomes with those of modern humans and with those of apes enable us to determine when genetic changes occurred in our ancestors. In the future, it could also be clarified why modern humans eventually developed a complex culture and technology that enabled them to colonize almost the entire world.”
Pääbo’s team succeeded in reconstructing their first version of the Neanderthal genome in 2010. Their comparisons between the genomes of Neanderthal and modern humans proved that the two groups had produced common offspring about 50,000 years ago and that this genetic contribution did influence human evolution.
In “Discovery That Modern Humans Aren’t Especially Unique, Genetically Speaking, May Lead to Improved Precision Medicine Diagnostics and Therapeutics,” Dark Daily reported that researchers had found that having Neanderthal DNA may affect the health of modern people who carry it. Perception of pain, immune system function, and even hair color and sleeping patterns have been associated with having Neanderthal DNA.
The genome of modern non-African people still contains about 2% Neanderthal DNA.
“We have found around 30,000 positions in which the genomes of almost all modern humans differ from those of Neanderthals and great apes,” Pääbo added. “They answer what makes anatomically modern humans ‘modern’ in the genetic sense as well. Some of these genetic changes may be the key to understanding what distinguishes the cognitive abilities of today’s humans from those of now extinct hominids.”
Those with Neanderthal DNA More Susceptible to Severe COVID-19 Infection
Pääbo’s research also found that Neanderthal DNA may have affected the immune systems of modern people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his work verified that individuals who carry a gene variant inherited from Neanderthals are more prone to severe forms of the illness than those who do not have that gene variant.
Dark Daily reported Pääbo’s findings in “European Study Links Genes Inherited from Neanderthals to Higher Risk for Severe COVID-19 Infections in Today’s Humans.”
“We can make an average gauge of the number of the extra deaths we have had in the pandemic due to the contribution from the Neanderthals,” Pääbo said in a 2022 lecture, Reuters reported. “It is quite substantial, it’s more than one million extra individuals who have died due to this Neanderthal variant that they carry.”
Pääbo’s research team continues to develop new methods for reconstructing DNA fragments that are even more biodegraded, and which present in smaller amounts. Their ultimate goal is to investigate even older DNA and genetic material that is scarce due to climate conditions.
The DNA technologies pioneered by Pääbo to sequence Neanderthal DNA are being used widely in many clinical laboratory and research settings today. They include forensic science and the ability to collect DNA from human remains hundreds of years old to identify infectious disease outbreaks and study how today’s human genome has adopted new mutations.