Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
For pioneering the sequencing of ancient DNA and ancient genomes, thereby illuminating the origins of modern humans, our relationships to extinct relatives such as Neanderthals, and the evolution of human populations and traits.
Svante Pääbo founded the field of paleogenetics — the study of ancient DNA found in fossils. He was the first scientist to successfully sequence the genome of Neanderthals, a species closely related to modern humans that became extinct about 40,000 years ago. In the process, he discovered that some genes of Neanderthal origin are preserved in the genomes of people today. This implies that the two species must have interbred. In addition to advancing our understanding of Neanderthals and human evolution, Pääbo’s results may shed light on the origin and history of human diseases such as diabetes.
For the past 35 years I have had the privilege to have a job that is also my passion. Many people have helped make this possible. Foremost I think of my mother, who gave me the self-confidence to follow my dreams. There were also my thesis advisor Per Pettersson in Sweden, who taught me what good science is all about, and my postdoc advisor Allan Wilson at Berkeley, who showed me that it is possible to address questions of human origins and history in rigorous ways. I have also been very fortunate to work for the Max Planck Society, an organization that generously funds basic science with very few constraints. Finally, and importantly, there are many brilliant students and collaborators who have made my work possible, and my wife, Linda, and our children, Rune and Freja, who open so many perspectives in my life.