Svante Pääbo on human evolution – a must-watch lecture

by Matthew Cobb

Last week (20-22 November) there was a paleogenomics jamboree at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge (the real one, in the UK).  At the meeting, entitled “Human Evolution: Fossils, Ancient and Modern Genomes”, the great and the good of the ancient DNA and human evolution worlds got together to discuss the latest research in a field that, over the last decade, has transformed our understanding of human evolution.

The man who has been the driving force in the field for nearly three decades is called Svante Pääbo (pronounced ‘pair-bo’). He has made some of the most extraordinary discoveries, including the identification of a hitherto unknown human relative, the Denisovans, and above all the realisation that our ancestors mated with both Neanderthals and Denisovans and left traces in the genomes of modern non-African populations. (Jerry, myself and Greg have posted on these discoveries over the lifetime of this site – here is a list of the posts.)

Pääbo was invited to give the opening talk at the meeting, and the lecture is now available on YouTube. It is an hour long, but it is limpid, informative, and brilliant. Please watch it, and think about both the incredible technical tour de force that lies behind these discoveries, and also the brilliant, mild-mannered man who has done so much to take the field forward:

I bumped into Pääbo last year at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. He was sat quietly in the canteen, and I went up to him and started burbling like a fanboy. I lost all intellectual control and just started chuntering about how brilliant his work was. Nevertheless, I managed to apologise to him, because I remember a ‘journal club’ when the lab I was in discussed his first paper on Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, and we dismissed the results as being due to contamination from modern DNA. We simply did not believe it was possible to identify a DNA sequence from so far back. And yet, thanks to the brilliance of Pääbo and his colleagues, it was all absolutely true.

45 Comments

  1. johnw
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Thinks for posting, I’m a huuuge Paabo fan. Agree his work is brilliant, and he always comes across as an extremely kind and humble person despite his scientific stature. I have wondered about the Paleogenomics community and the fact that there seems to be Paabo’s sphere and then Eske Willeslev’s…. I may be way off but to an amateur admiring genomics geek like me there doesn’t seem to be much collaboration between those groups, but definitely competition.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “pronounced ‘pair-bo’ ”

    One more thing off my list – thanks…..

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    …. but “the real one”?… now, was that called for?

    • David Harper
      Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      To avoid confusion with the much more recent copy in Massachusetts 😉

    • Posted November 27, 2017 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      Non-American, non-British here. Yes, the one in England is the real one.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted November 27, 2017 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        Errrmmm …. so there is some need to defend the status of Cambridge, England as the best one.

        • Posted November 27, 2017 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

          Just saying if you need a third opinion…

          • David Harper
            Posted November 28, 2017 at 1:34 am | Permalink

            There are actually two Cambridges in England, as I’m occasionally reminded when I tell some web sites that I’m in Cambridge. They will helpfully ask “The one in Cambridgeshire? Or the one in Gloucestershire?”

            Even more amusing, the station name signs on the platforms at Cambridge railway station all now carry a panel which reads “Home of Anglia Ruskin University”. Oh, there’s that other university as well, of course. You know, the 800-year-old one. But ARU somehow managed to get their name on the most prominent sign that’s seen by everyone arriving by train. Full marks to ARU for chutzpah 🙂

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 27, 2017 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Are people not getting the meaning of the question “was that called for?”?…. not to distract the discussion here, but….

      • David Harper
        Posted November 28, 2017 at 1:35 am | Permalink

        We’re just having a bit of fun, in the spirit of PCC(E)’s original remark. Don’t take it too seriously.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted November 28, 2017 at 5:15 am | Permalink

          Matthew Cobb

  4. Eric Grobler
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the link, great talk, so much happened since my paleo-anthropology studies in the 80’s when we were basically dependent on bone fragments.
    Exciting times and every year I get more confused on exactly how modern human evolution occured.

  5. Simon Hayward
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I was at his talk at Vanderbilt when the wraps came off the first Neanderthal genome work – we went expecting to hear about mitochondrial DNA and got the full genome story and the possibility of cross-mating with modern humans. Ironically, of course, in the middle of the bible belt!

    Great talk (that one, not had a chance to watch this yet) and someone with a history of great work. Thanks for the link.

  6. prinzler
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that Jerry’s writing style is sufficiently appreciated, so allow me to do so now. For instance,

    “I bumped into Pääbo last year at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. He was sat quietly in the canteen, and I went up to him and started burbling like a fanboy. I lost all intellectual control and just started chuntering about how brilliant his work was.”

    Not only is that so disarming (for a leader in the field to get all mushy meeting another leader looked up to), but it made me find out what “chuntering” means. Jerry’s vocabulary includes such choice words at times.

    Lastly: I aspire to losing all intellectual control someday. Probably feels good.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Someone tell prinzler that this is by Matthew Cobb. To see so, look on the subtitle line – it says “by Matthew Cobb”.

      • prinzler
        Posted November 27, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Ouch, now I have to retract all my praise for Jerry. Sheesh.

        But my point still holds in general, because I’ve been a fan of *Jerry’s* writing for a while. Just chose the wrong time (not checking the byline) to bring it up.

        I consider myself properly chastened.

    • Posted November 27, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes, as ThyroidPlanet notes, this was written by Matthew; the clue would be the word “chuntering”, which is a UK phrase I’d never use. Matthew is an excellent writer.

      • David Harper
        Posted November 28, 2017 at 4:01 am | Permalink

        And chuntering is a perfectly cromulent dialect word from northern England.

        • darrelle
          Posted November 28, 2017 at 7:47 am | Permalink

          Never heard it before, but it’s my new favorite word of the moment. Regardless of what it actually means.

  7. Vaal
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Will watch. Thanks Prof CC.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Did Pääbo get a two-fer-one deal on the umlauts? I mean, even The New Yorker, which is lousy with them, puts ’em only above the second vowel of a diphthong. 🙂

    Great vid, btw.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 27, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Are they smart umlauts or dumb umlauts?

    • Posted November 27, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      “Pää” is Finnish for “head”. “Bo” is Swedish for “nest” or “place to stay”.

      Finnish for “wedding” is “häät”. Finnish for “pity” is “sääli”.

      • Christopher
        Posted November 27, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        That’s great, thanks! Head-nest, a fantastic phrase in translation. “It’s late. Time for me to return to my head-nest.”

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 27, 2017 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Thäänks!

      • Posted November 27, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

        Are the “ää”s, wherever they occur, always pronounced as “air’s”?

        So many languages, so many words, so little time.

        • Hempenstein
          Posted November 27, 2017 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

          With Swedish family names, at least, all bets are off. I have a friend & colleague there whose last name is Höög. Pronounced just like hög (high), roughly “herg” in either case. I can’t think of any Swedish words with double vowels with diacritical marks.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted November 27, 2017 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

            So like the German “ö” in Gödel ör Göethe?

            That’s ödd.

  9. Norbert Francis
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Humanized mice.
    Can we send our president to this lab?

  10. GBJames
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Most interesting. I watched another lecture Pääbo gave about a year ago (?) at UW-Madison. What a contribution that man has made!

  11. Posted November 27, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Pääbo is, indeed, not only a great scientist but a great lecturer. Saw him a few years back in Finland.

  12. rickflick
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    The progress over my lifetime is really quite breathtaking. I never imagined that so many questions that were rolling around in my head decades ago would be answered in my lifetime. Now, if I could have just one more lifetime…

  13. Curt Nelson
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why Neanderthals (N) weren’t saved by mating with modern humans (MH) and why no modern humans have N mitochondria, or N Y-chromosomes? Does it say something about how the matings took place? I would think that the way it would overwhelmingly happen is for males of both types to mate with females of the other type who then rear their children among her own people. This would tend to keep the mitochondria of each type out of the gene pool of the other.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted November 27, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Maybe N mated readily with MH females but not so much MH with N. That’s why the N weren’t saved.

      • Posted November 27, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        Good question! I could be just sample size. Not many Neanderthal MT genomes are known.

  14. Christopher
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Can’t wait to watch this! Anyone who hasn’t read his book “Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes” is really missing a great tale of scientific triumph.

    • Posted November 27, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Agree. It is a bit startlingly frank in his personal history, but does an excellent job of explaining many of the challenges in sequencing ancient DNA, and how they were overcome.

      It seems to me that the title does not help the book. Svante means it as a quip, that he is the man who works on Neanderthals. While that’s clever, most people seeing the book on the bookstore shelf or online will have the reaction that “that’s a book reviewing what is known about Neanderthal Man” and may give it a miss, which is a shame.

      I believe that, as he explains, the name Pääbo is Estonian rather than Finnish, not that this makes much difference.

      • Posted November 27, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        The Pääbo family is certainly Estonian. Here’s Heiko Pääbo lecturing about Holocaust:

        The etymology is fairly obscure. There doesn’t seem to be much sense in combining the Finnish “head” with the Swedish “nest”, but the interesting thing is how common these double umlauts are here around the Baltic.

  15. Posted November 27, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    “It’s counting down..and then it will explode.” —Svante Pääbo on the lecture timer.

  16. Posted November 27, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I find it inspiring that he ardently wants more samples of “late Neanderthals”. More data points, better analysis. I also greatly respect his use of the “RESET” button whenever the technology leapfrogs current practice. He seems singularly unafraid to abandon any of his conclusions on receipt of further evidence.

  17. tjeales
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    To be fair to your old journal club, while the neanderthal results were on point, the work that first brought Pääbo to acclaim, did turn out to be contamination. His first published ancient DNA paper was of a 5000 year old mummy but it turned out he’d sequenced his own mitochondria. Oh well science is the art of making fewer mistakes

  18. lkr
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I’ll have to watch this later — I’ve enjoyed all of Paabo’s deliciously dry lectures. Not the least, a 2014 lecture on UCTV supported by a bequest from the first third of the 20th C — a Foerster Lecture on the Immortality of the Human Soul.

    Paabo made no bones about believing in a deity or in souls, but suggested that only our DNA — Neanderthal, Denisovan and moderns — are provisionally nonmortal..

  19. Aldoleopold
    Posted November 27, 2017 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting Dr Cobb! Great lecture

  20. Posted November 28, 2017 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    I saw him lecture at the Royal Institution a few years ago – thanks for posting.

    🙂


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