From ancient Egyptian archaeological mummies to “questioning” ancestral DNA, the new winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine illuminates the “cold bench”Fly into the homes of ordinary people
Why do Asians have more asymptomatic encounters with the new coronavirus? This may be related to some of the genes of the ancient Neanderthals inherited by South and East Asians. The extinct group of ancient humans had cross-continental “gene exchanges” with our ancestors, and it affected the survival and life of modern humans? These intriguing puzzles are being solved, and lead to more important scientific propositions worth unraveling. Today, the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced, awarded to Swedish scientist Svante Pääbo for his “contributions to human evolution and the study of the extinct human genome”. The world-recognized god of ancient DNA research, traced back the DNA spanning thousands of years with groundbreaking research, and opened up a new discipline – paleogenomics.
This year’s medical awards upset?
Flowering paleogenomics is definitely the “surprise” of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Almost all previous predictions were “annihilated”, and even paleogenomics almost never appeared in the prediction horizon.
However, according to Xu Shuhua, a distinguished professor at the School of Life Sciences of Fudan University, Pabo’s award is well deserved.
Archaeology and paleontology have roughly outlined the appearance, trajectories, and lifestyles of human ancestors, but our curiosity about origins expects more detailed answers. The genome is the best clue. In the late 1990s, nearly the entire human genome had been sequenced, promising to unravel the genetic relationships between different populations. But answering the relationship between the extinct “relatives” of Homo erectus, the ancestor of Homo sapiens, and modern humans requires sequencing of genomic DNA from ancient samples.
It seems like an “impossible mission”.
“Over thousands of years, DNA will be chemically modified and degraded into fragments, and what is even more difficult is that the remaining trace amounts of DNA will be contaminated by bacteria and contemporary human DNA,” Xu Shuhua said. According to Xu Shuhua, Pabo won the Nobel Prize. It is because he broke through this “impossible task” – from a technical point of view, Pabo innovatively used new technologies to isolate DNA from ancient bone remains and sequence them efficiently, and he pioneered a series of operating procedures and specifications to Guaranteed to be free from contamination; on the other hand, data resources born out of Pabo’s team and their collaborators are widely used by scientists to advance the understanding of human evolution and migration as well as our own understanding of the diversity of our own genome.
“He pioneered the new discipline of paleogenomics. Under his leadership and advancement, the genomes of ancient humans have been continuously analyzed, and many of our recent studies have been extended based on his research results. More importantly, including Fudan University’s Including, ancient DNA laboratories around the world are built and operated in accordance with the technical standards established by Pabo. His research has not only advanced human scientific understanding, but has continued to have an important impact on academic research.”
It all starts with a mummy
Pabo, who has grown up in writing, became fascinated with ancient history during a trip to Egypt at the age of 13. Before pursuing a PhD in biology, he studied Egyptology at Uppsala University in Sweden and was obsessed with pharaohs, pyramids and mummies. Along with the excitement of achieving breakthroughs at the cutting edge of biology, this interest in ancient Egypt never faded. In the 1980s, he was acutely aware that DNA cloning of bacteria, which had not yet been used in archaeology, might help mummy research. This is where the DNA quest spanning thousands of years begins.
In 2010, he published the first Neanderthal genome sequence, and comparative analysis showed that the Neanderthal DNA sequence was more similar to that of contemporary humans originating in Europe or Asia than in Africa. This means that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred over thousands of years of coexistence. In modern humans of European or Asian ancestry, approximately 1%-4% of the genome is from Neanderthals. Subsequent research also found that during the expansion and eastward migration of Homo sapiens outside of Africa, they not only met and interbred with Neanderthals, but also with Denisovans.
Why do we go back in time? Professor Xu Shuhua pointed out that the paleogenomics technology established by Pabo not only promoted the development of anthropology and deepened human’s self-awareness, but also the scientific discoveries it triggered have actually deeply affected all aspects of medicine and even daily life. For example, Pabo’s research revealed that ancient gene sequences can affect the physiology of today’s human beings. For example, Neanderthal genes affect our immune response to different types of infections. The latest research is exploring the relationship between some gene fragments and new crown susceptibility. There are also several Denisovan genes that give humans an advantage in high-altitude survival, which is common in today’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau population; the gene FOXP2 from Homo erectus is the genetic basis for language function, reverse studies or It will advance research on language disorders, language and intelligence, and more.
“Cold Bench” Full of Cross Charm
Anthropology and evolutionary genetics seem to be a “cold bench” compared to the hot subjects in biomedicine. From the 1980s to winning the Nobel Prize this year, Pabo has been focusing on paleogenomics research for more than 40 years. Xu Shuhua believes that his persistence stems from the “internal drive” of interest. “Many disciplines that focus on basic theoretical research, such as anthropology, archaeology, population genetics, and molecular evolution, often lack social attention. Many young people who work in this field are often entangled and hesitant. We are very happy that Pabo’s award will be ‘ Illuminate this field and play a positive role in the whole field,” said Professor Xu Shuhua.
This is also a frontier that urgently needs to be interdisciplinary to unravel new mysteries. “Actually, we are very inclined to join students with cross backgrounds such as mathematics, computer, statistics, linguistics, archaeology, and sociology to join this charming ‘jianghu’,” Xu Shuhua said.
Xinmin Evening News reporter Yi Rong