Swedish gene specialist gets Nobel season started with medicine prize

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Swedish genetic historian Svante Paabo, who sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal and discovered Denisova, a previously unknown precursor of Homo sapiens, on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize, the first of this year's awards from the Swedish Academy.

Svante Paabo is a paleogeneticist, someone who studies the distant past through the examination of preserved genetic material.

"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 in a statement.

Hominins are pre-human species that either died out or were eradicated by the parents of modern humans.

Paabo, director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the German city of Leipzig, found that gene transfer had occurred from these now extinct hominins to Homo sapiens following the migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago.

"This ancient flow of genes to present-day humans has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune system reacts to infections", the jury said.

Covid-19 patients with a tiny amount of Neanderthal DNA run a higher risk of severe complications from the disease, Paabo reported in a 2020 study.

Paabo takes home the award sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (901,500 euros), will receive the prize from King Carl Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

Last year, the Medicine Prize went to US pair David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for discoveries on receptors for temperature and touch, which have been used to develop treatments for a wide range of diseases and conditions, including chronic pain.

The Nobel season continues this week with the announcement of the winners of the Physics Prize on Tuesday and the Chemistry Prize on Wednesday.

Literature too tight to call

They will be followed by the much-anticipated prizes for Literature on Thursday and Peace on Friday.

US novelist Joyce Carol Oates, France's Annie Ernaux and Maryse Conde, Russia's Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Canada's Margaret Atwood have all been cited as potential literature laureates if the committee has its eyes on a woman.

Online betting sites however have France's Michel Houellebecq as the favourite, ahead of British author Salman Rushdie, who was the victim of an attack in August.

Among those cited as possible Peace Prize laureates are the International Criminal Court, tasked with investigating war crimes in Ukraine, jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The Economics Prize winds things up on Monday, 10 October.