Svante Pääbo is to receive the Körber European Science Prize, endowed with 750,000 euros. He is to be honoured for his pioneering achievements in the field of palaeogenetics, of which he is considered the founder. One of Pääbo's most important scientific breakthroughs is the decoding of the Neanderthal genome. His work has revolutionized our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern humans; it has been significantly conducive to the realization that Neanderthals and other extinct human groups have contributed to the ancestry of present-day humans.
Svante Pääbo, 63, studied Egyptology and Medicine at Uppsala University. As a postgraduate, writing his PhD in immunology, he also demonstrated that DNA can survive in ancient Egyptian mummies and thus gained professional fame as a pioneer in the new field of palaeogenetics. Palaeogeneticists study the genomes of ancient organisms and draw conclusions about the course of evolution.
After completing his doctorate, Pääbo worked in the team of evolutionary biologist Allan Wilson at the University of California in Berkeley. From 1990 he headed his own laboratory at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. In 1997 Pääbo became one of five directors at the newly founded Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, where he is still active.
The Körber European Science Prize 2018 was presented to Svante Pääbo on 7 September in the Great Festival Hall of Hamburg Town Hall.
Insights into the origins of mankind
It all started with a mummy. Explaining his interest in research, Svante Pääbo told journalist Ranga Yogeshwar that his mother had taken him on a vacation to Egypt when he was a teenager. Seeing the preserved exhibits of human ancestors, his curiosity about their past was aroused and his career in research began. But at first it was difficult to prove that human DNA was still present in these finds. Impurities could not be excluded. But the new research field of palaeogenetics was born and Pääbo was regarded as its founder. And Pääbo soon immersed himself even further into the past. After some partial successes in DNA research, Pääbo decided in the early 2000s, when DNA sequencing methods had become much more efficient, to decipher the entire Neanderthal genome. And in 2010, Pääbo's team actually succeeded in reconstructing a first version of the Neanderthal genome from bones tens of thousands of years old.
This had also impressed Hamburg's Mayor Peter Tschentscher. In his welcoming speech in the Festival Hall of Hamburg's City Hall, he therefore also emphasised possible developments that could follow the receipt of the 750,000 Euro Körber Prize: "The prize winners can use the prize money for their research work and this not infrequently makes them candidates for further prizes and awards that honour their scientific success." Hamburg is an ambitious science location, Tschentscher continued, with a large number of scientific institutions and the goal of establishing excellent research in addition to a broad range of teaching and study opportunities. In his opinion, the Körber European Science Prize makes a hereditary contribution to this: "On behalf of the Senate, I would like to thank the Körber Foundation for its work, which does Hamburg great credit as a location for science and research."
Lothar Dittmer, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation, gave his assurance that this cooperation will continue in the future and replied to Tschentscher: "We are all glad that science is close to your heart in Hamburg, not only because you are familiar with it from your own perspective, but also because you are convinced that science is and will be a central key for the future of our city. Strengthening Hamburg as a science location is part of your political agenda and you can be certain of our support for this project."
It is less certain, Dittmer added, that the value of science itself will be preserved. The consensus of our enlightened society that "knowledge is better than opinion or belief" has been shaken dramatically in recent years. The relativising, ignoring and denying of knowledge are taking hold at a rapid pace. He argued that social media and the Internet have made a major contribution to this. "If we as a society lose the ability to separate genuine knowledge from mere opinion, if we can no longer even agree on what the undisputed facts for our actions are, then we are not only running the risk of losing social cohesion, but we are also recklessly gambling away our future."
Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society, also considers the onus to be on science here. As "representatives of enlightenment", scientists discovering facts have to do even more to give the population an understanding of the value of science. Particularly against the background of an increasingly complex world, people are more receptive to simple-sounding answers, even if these ignore facts. This is not new, but their rapid dissemination through social media is new. In order to control this, however, a rational approach to science must be taught in schools.
But it is precisely in schools that findings derived from the prize winner's research appear to be in danger. Dittmer pointed out that the theory of evolution has been banned from biology lessons in Turkey. And studies of German primary school curricula have brought to light that creation is indeed in evidence as an explanation of our origins, but that the concept of evolution is practically non-existent. The criterion "suitable for children" cannot have been the yardstick here. And even the Vice President of the USA takes the creationist stance that life and man came into being as it is written in the Bible. But Pääbo's work shows a different view. It has revolutionised our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern man; it has been significantly conducive to the realisation that Neanderthals and other early humans made a contribution to the ancestry of today's humans.
Photos: David Ausserhofer
The following photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the credit Körber-Stiftung/Friedrun Reinhold.
Topic Neandertal (Copyright: Max-Planck-Institute Leipzig)
Topic DNA from extinct humans discovered in cave sediments (Copyright: Max-Planck-Institute Leipzig)
Topic Denisova (Copyright: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)