Svante Paabo has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution”.
The Swedish geneticist, 67, has worked extensively on the Neanderthal genome and is known as a founder of the paleogenetics discipline.
“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 Prize committee tweeted.
Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the committee, announced the winner at a ceremony at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday.
“He was overwhelmed, he was speechless. Very happy,” said Mr Perlmann after he called Prof Paabo to break the news.
“He asked if he could tell anyone and asked if he could tell his wife, and I said that was ok. He was incredibly thrilled about this award.”
The awarding of the honour started a week of Nobel Prize announcements. The physics winner will be unveiled on Tuesday, the chemistry winner on Wednesday and literature on Thursday.
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics award on next Monday.
The Nobel Assembly said Prof Paabo had “accomplished something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans”.
“He also made the sensational discovery of a previously unknown hominin, Denisova,” the committee said, referring to his breakthrough from examining a 40,000-year-old fragment of a finger bone found in Siberia.
“Importantly, Paabo also 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.”
Svante Paabo was born in Stockholm in 1955 and earned a doctorate at Uppsala University. He became a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zurich and later at University of California, Berkeley.
He became a professor at the University of Munich in 1990 and, in 1999, he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he still works.
Prof Paabo also holds the position of adjunct professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan.
He is the son of Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Sune Bergstrom, who was in 1982 recognised for his discoveries concerning prostaglandins and related substances.
Among the researchers who it had been speculated may be honoured this year are those who were instrumental in the development of the mRNA technology that drove Covid-19 vaccines. However, it typically takes many years for any given research to be honoured by the committee.
Asked why the prize was not awarded to advances in combating the coronavirus, Mr Perlmann said it was a question that he was not going to answer.
“We only talk about people who are getting the Nobel Prize and not those who are not receiving or not received them yet,” he said.
Last year’s recipients were David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.
Each prize carries a cash award of £805,300 ($900,000) and will be handed out on December 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.
Winners are also given a Nobel Prize diploma, medal and official document.