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Opinion
Faye Flam

Mapping Our Genetic Ties to Neanderthals Deserved a Nobel

Svante Pääbo’s studies of ancient genomes are helping scientists learn about modern humans’ health risks, from Covid to diabetes and lupus.

Svante Pääbo, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, with a model of a Neanderthal skeleton.

Svante Pääbo, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, with a model of a Neanderthal skeleton.

Photographer: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

What do Neanderthals have to do with medicine? More than enough, it turns out, to earn Svante Pääbo Monday’s Nobel Prize in medicine for sequencing the Neanderthal genome. It may sound more like a feat worthy of an anthropology prize, but scientists are already using Neanderthal DNA to make important medical findings, and they expect many more to come.

For example, in 2020 Pääbo and Hugo Zeberg found that having a specific Neanderthal gene variant may double the risk of dying from Covid-19. That gene is present in about 50% of people in south Asia and about 16% of Europeans. They later found another Neanderthal gene variant with a possible protective effect against Covid-19. It shows up in about half of people outside Africa.