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Biologist Svante Pääbo has today been bestowed with the 2018 Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research. This prestigious prize recognises “scientific, technical, cultural, social and humanitarian work carried out at an international level.” Professor Pääbo is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Svante Pääbo has held two ERC grants. He was awarded his first ERC Advanced Grant in 2008 to investigate the genomic and phenotypic evolution of bonobos, chimpanzees and humans. In 2015, he won another ERC Advanced Grant to study genome sequences from extinct hominins The project funded with his latest ERC grant is set to continue until 2021. It integrates new approaches in molecular biology, physical anthropology and bioinformatics to perform genetic research into populations over an exceptional timespan and geographical area. The overall aim is to explain the history of the Neanderthal population and other ancient groups, and the project is expected to deliver a considerable advance in understanding of early human evolution, ranging from anecdotal observations to a more population based view of human ancestry.
Considered one of the founders of palaeogenetics, Svante Pääbo has led research to completely sequence the genome of Neanderthals, a species that became extinct some 30,000 years ago. He demonstrated already in the 1980s that it was possible to analyse the DNA of Egyptian mummies and worked on establishing rigorous methods to rescue ancient DNA sequences. His methodology has been used to study the phylogeny and genetics of populations of extinct animals, such as mammoths, terrestrial sloths, cave bears and large flightless birds such as Moas. He also discovered a new type of hominin, which has been named Denisovan, the first extinct hominin to be exclusively described through genetic data.
The Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research recognises “the work of fostering and advancing research in the field of mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics, physics, chemistry, life sciences, medical sciences, earth and space sciences or technological sciences, including those disciplines corresponding to each of these fields as well as their related technologies.”