Daria Martin, Schering Stiftung Projektraum


Ernst Schering Prize 2003

Prof. Dr. Svante Pääbo

Professor Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, uses material from extinct organisms from pleistocene mammals such as the cave bear, the mammoth and the Neanderthal as well as from extant species to help understand the genetic evolution of humans. His groundbreaking research is to be honored by the Ernst Schering Foundation with the 2003 Ernst Schering Prize. With a prize money of 50,000 euro, it is one of the richest German research prizes. The prize will be presented on September 26, 2003, at a ceremony in the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland. A press interview will be held on September 16 at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig: Prof. Pääbo will report on his research findings on the evolution of the human genome and will also present new data on the development of the sense of smell. Thus, according to the latest research, only two thirds of the genes responsible for smell actually functions in humans in comparison with the chimpanzees.

Svante Pääbo is responsible for the introduction of the state-of-the-art molecular genetics procedures in paleontology and is seen as the founder of paleogenetics. With his outstanding research results Prof. Pääbo has made an important contribution to expanding our knowledge on the pre- and early history of humans as well as establishing a connection between extinct and extant species and has made the first statements on the evolution of various organs and behavior characteristics.

Prof. Pääbo was the first person to analyze material from a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton. The results of the comparison of the mitochondrial DNA of the Neanderthal with that of humans alive today have shown that the Neanderthal was a lateral branch rather than in the direct line of human evolution. Pääbo emphasizes: "This does not exclude the possibility that some Neanderthal genes have had an influence on modern humans, but a significant genetic mixing of the two groups is unlikely. As early as 600,000 years ago modern humans and the Neanderthals must have had a common ancestor."

When observing the genetic history of our species the question arises again and again as to who we should be comparing ourselves with. Prof. Pääbo's data supports the premise that chimpanzees are our closest relatives. Our hereditary material differs from that of the ape species by a mere 1.2 percent. In other words, genetically speaking we are 98.8 percent chimpanzees. But what does almost 99 percent identical DNA mean?
Fascinated by this question, Prof. Pääbo spent five years researching the genetic causes of the differences between chimpanzees and humans as well as between the Neanderthal and our species. Since the differences are most marked in the cognitive area, the experts carry out analysis on how the genes in the brain, liver and blood cells are switched off and on in humans, the chimpanzees, the orang-utang and the rhesus monkey. Of key interest here is the number of gene copies (messenger RNA) made of each individual gene in the tissues. Prof. Pääbo and his team were able to demonstrate that more changes took place in the human brain than in the chimpanzee brain. This means that in the course of evolution humans switched to using the genes in the brain differently.

The evolution of language is another key area in Prof. Pääbo's research. Here, the Leipzig scientists work with the FOXP2 gene, a necessary prerequisite for human speech ability. They analyzed the base sequence of the human FOXP2 gene and compared it with the sequence of the same gene in apes, rhesus monkeys and mice. Pääbo and his group found hardly any differences between the different species examined, so that the evolutionary change in FOXP2 must have been very slow. The gene product of FOXP2 consists of 715 amino acids. The mouse version of the gene product only differs from every human in three and the chimpanzee version only in two amino acids. Researchers working with Prof. Pääbo are now speculating that the small evolutionary changes in FOXP2 were important in the development of our highly articulate language since these changes made it possible for humans to gain fine-motor skills in the mouth and larynx, the prerequisite for human speech.

In their search for differences between humans and chimpanzees, Prof. Pääbo and his collaborators systematically analyzed every gene important for sensory perception. When analyzing the gene responsible for smell, the Leipzig team was able to prove for the first time that in comparison with the apes one third of the genes cannot function in humans. The inactivation of the smell genes is a continuing process, not yet complete. Is our species on the way to losing its sense of smell?


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