Why did Prof. Svante Pääbo not receive the Japan Prize?

On February 4, the Japan Prize Foundation held a press conference in Tokyo, announcing that Prof. Svante Pääbo is awarded the Japan Prize 2020 in Life Science for his “Pioneering contributions to palaeoanthropology through decoding ancient...

On February 4, the Japan Prize Foundation held a press conference in Tokyo, announcing that Prof. Svante Pääbo is awarded the Japan Prize 2020 in Life Science for his “Pioneering contributions to palaeoanthropology through decoding ancient human genome sequences”. It was a very glad and honoured Prof. Pääbo who attended the press conference together with Prof. Gallager, who is awarded the prize in ICT, and the Japan Prize Foundation.

The Prize Ceremony was planned to be held on April 15 in the presence of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, followed by a banquet with all high-level attendees from the ceremony, including the Swedish Ambassador and the Swedish Counsellor for Innovation and Science.

Ambassador Pereric Högberg was also planning in hosting a reception at the Residence to celebrate the Swedish Laureate on April 16, with high-level participation from Government, Research Funding Agencies, Research Institutes, Universities, Industry, other countries, as well as Japanese alumni students from Swedish Universities.

Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the Japan Prize 2020 award ceremony and celebrations have been postponed, and will instead take place 2021, at a double award ceremony for 2020 and 2021. The Swedish Embassy is very much looking forward to celebrating Prof. Svante Pääbo next year!

Prof. Pääbo grew up outside Stockholm and his Alma Mater is Uppsala University. He has also been active in the USA and Germany, and is currently Director for the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In his pioneering work within genomics and palaeoanthropology, he has shown that Neanderthals were not related to the modern humans, but that the modern humans have a history of inter-breeding with Neanderthals, except for Africans, as illustrated in the figure below.

The ancestors of modern humans interbred with Neanderthals

The Prize Motivation for the 2020 Japan Prize in Life Science to Prof. Svante Pääbo is the following:

One of the major themes in biology is the origin of humans, that is, how humans emerged during the course of evolution. From the mid-1980s to the present day, Dr. Svante Pääbo has continuously pioneered the application of DNA analysis for ancient bones, and in particular regarding techniques for sequencing severely degraded DNA.

In 1997, Dr. Pääbo successfully sequenced the Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA. Based on that sequence, he estimated that Neanderthals were not the direct ancestors of modern humans but a lineage of ancient human species that split off long ago. He then took on the challenge of deciphering the nuclear genome. In 2010, he became the first in the world to sequence the ancient nuclear genome of Neanderthals at the “whole genome” level using the latest next-generation sequencing techniques.

The technique developed by Dr. Pääbo greatly improved the analysis accuracy and enabled him to discover the existence of interbreeding between human ancestors and Neanderthals, which would not have been possible with mitochondrial DNA analysis. He also applied his technique to a bone fragment and teeth excavated from Denisova Cave in Russia’s Altai region. The DNA sequence analysis showed that the fossil belonged to Denisovans, a group close to Neanderthals. Further analysis has since revealed that there was interbreeding between Neanderthals and Denisovans. Whether or not modern humans are of completely different lineage from other ancient humans had been long debated, but Dr. Pääbo’s analysis finally proved that modern humans had indeed inherited genomes from extinct ancient human species.

Dr. Pääbo had thus transformed paleoanthropological research by introducing the technique of genome analysis using ancient bones. Furthermore, his technique and achievements greatly impacted not only palaeoanthropology, but also all areas related to humankind, such as anthropology, archeology and history, and have contributed to their advancement. It must also be noted that as the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Dr. Pääbo has also led many projects on ancient human genomes. Under his leadership, he opened up the field of genome research in palaeoanthropology and has nurtured many researchers.

As mentioned above, Dr. Pääbo has shed light on the fundamental question of human origin through his pioneering research on the analysis of ancient genomes. It is for these significant contributions that Dr. Svante Pääbo is deemed most eminently deserving of the 2020 Japan Prize in the field of Life Science.

The Office of Science and Innovation met with Prof. Pääbo before the press conference announcing the Prize, and congratulated him. Upon OSI question on how he felt to be awarded the Japan Prize, he responded “it is really cool, and I am very honoured and happy”. We look forward to celebrating him more properly next year!