2013 Gruber Genetics Prize
Svante Pääbo, PhD, 57, is a pioneer in the field of evolutionary genetics and considered the founder of molecular paleontology, the application of genetics to the study of prehistoric life. His 1997 sequencing of mitochondrial Neandertal DNA is considered a watershed in evolutionary genetics. Not only did it prove that DNA could be successfully extracted and sequenced from extinct hominins, the sequencing also showed that Neandertals and humans were distinctly different. Over the past decade, Pääbo has led the challenging effort to sequence nuclear DNA from Neandertals. His lab published a draft sequence of the Neandertal genome in 2010, along with the startling finding that Neandertals have contributed up to 4 percent of the genetic material in modern humans. That same year, he and his team reported that their DNA analysis of a minute bone fragment found in a Siberian cave revealed the existence of a previously unknown hominin group— the Denisovans. Pääbo has also played a critical role in defining the genetic relationship between humans and great ape populations, particularly how differences in gene expression evolve. Since 1997, Pääbo has been director of the Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.