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Extinct Ancestors Influencing Us…

The 2022 Nobel Prize in Medicine has recently been awarded to Svante Pääbo (b. April 20, 1955), a Swedish Geneticist specialising in the field of evolutionary genetics and one of the founders of Paleogenetics, for mapping Neanderthal genome. He has not only developed methodologies to extract clean DNA from 1000-year-old human fossils, but also to read the genetic information they contain. Furthermore, Pääbo has discovered the Denisovans or Denisova hominins, an extinct species or subspecies of archaic human that ranged across Asia during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic. Denisovans, another close relatives of modern human beings, are known from few physical remains and consequently, most of what is known about them comes from DNA evidence.

As one of the founders of Paleogenetics, Pääbo has made a serious attempt to address various issues… where we come from, who were our ancestors, why did they disappear, how Homo Sapiens survive, why can we talk, and whether our ancestors were able to talk, et al. Svante Pääbo is at the forefront of those molecular biologists, population geneticists and evolutionary geneticists, who are working on these issues.

Svante Pääbo

One knows that the DNA of living people can be analysed. However, DNA analysis of ancient skeletons can also provide a lot of information about our history, and also about our ancestors. Recent analysis of ancient DNAs has provided information about the global migration of different populations. US Geneticist David Emil Reich‘s (b. July 14, 1974) 2009 paper ‘Reconstructing Indian Population History‘ was a landmark study in the research on India’s genepool and the origins of its population.

Pääbo has gone a step further, as he has successfully analysed DNA of the ancient skeletons of our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals. It is a tough job, indeed. With the help of South Korean geneticists, the Indian researchers managed to sequence the DNA of only one out of 61 skeletons from Harappan Civilisation, dating back 4500 years, at Rakhigarh in the northern Indian Province of Haryana. Researchers had found those skeletons at Rakhigarh, one of the five known biggest townships of Harappan Civilisation in the Indian Sub-continent. And, Pääbo has sequenced the genome of the skeletons of 35,000-40,000-year-old other people. He has also made an attempt to compare the ancient DNA of various extinct human species with complete genome sequences of modern humans.

Interestingly, modern humans and the Neanderthals were able to interbreed. Their children had also been able to give birth to the next generation. Hence, people, outside of Africa, carry 1-4% Neanderthal genes even today. Some genes of our extinct ancestors still influence the physiology of modern humans. One such example of this is the Denisovan version of the EPAS1 gene that gave people an advantage to survive at high altitudes. Now, the Tibetans carry this gene. The Neanderthal genes, too, have a positive impact on our immunity to various infections. Comparisons between the genes of ancient extinct humans and modern humans, and its effectiveness may lead to new avenues of medical treatment in the coming years.

It seems that Pääbo’s works shall encourage young scientists to conduct research on evolutionary genetics. It will ultimately help us know ourselves, our roots and our history. Meanwhile, Pääbo shall be receiving the Nobel Prize on December 10, 2022.

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