Swedish Geneticist Svante Paabo Awarded Nobel Prize 2022 in Physiology or Medicine for Ancient Human DNA Research

Book Review by my dad, K.S.Loganathan

Ancient human DNA research is a subject of importance in human evolution. It casts light on what makes our physiology different from that of our ancestors, which has contributed to dramatic developments in building complex cultures, figurative art and speech and led to advanced technological innovations, such as for example, agriculture, the wheel and other advanced tools.

When ancient humans migrated out of Africa, at least two extinct hominin populations inhabited Eurasia. Neanderthals in Western Eurasia and the Siberian Denisovans existed. Humans encountered and inter-bred with both groups around fifty-four thousand to forty-nine thousand years ago. Genetic data can prove that ancient mixture between populations occurred. The sequencing of the Neanderthals, our big-brained cousins, also led to the discovery of the Denisovans, an archaic population that had not been predicted by archaeologists and that mixed with the ancestors of the present-day New Guineans.

From ancient DNA, we can reconstruct such populations that no longer exist (such as the Yellow and Yangtze River people) in unmixed form based on the bits of genetic material they have left behind in present-day people. Two approaches to DNA studies have emerged – the analysis of the entire genome or partial analysis based on mitochondrial DNA.

Book Cover

As Director at the Max Plank Institute for evolutionary anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Svante Paabo undertook research on ancient DNA, which led to the identification of ancient Denisovans as a distinct species. It has augmented traditional archaeology and historical linguistic studies as a tool for investigating past populations and their migration to all parts of the world.

Such studies reveal that the Yamnaya, a Steppe pastoralist tribe, invented the wheel and horse-drawn carriages, and spread agriculture throughout Europe and South Asia around 4000 years ago, mixing with Iranian farmers on the way. A smaller group entered India via Tibet. Early Sanksrit literature (like the Manusmriti), as well as the Avesta (the ancient Persian text) called them Aryans.

The genetics of modern humans gives the ancient travel path. Ancient DNA databases are currently run by different research groups, most of them in Europe and USA. For a general introduction to the subject, read ‘Who we are and how we got here’ by David Reich, Oxford University Press, 2018 and watch his videos on YouTube.

David Reich was a part of Svante Paabo’s international team, which sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome in 2007.

A Beautiful Mind

I became a member of the Creative Soul Club by Blogchatter recently, and they had posted which movie to watch for the meet. It was ‘A Beautiful Mind’ – a movie about John Nash, a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. John Nash had paranoid schizophrenia. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar.

John Nash was very sensitive and had people problems. The friendship between him and his roommate was special. Only later is something crucial revealed about this friendship.

There is a scene in the movie when John Nash and his friends are at a bar and looking to hit on women. That triggers Nash to challenge economist Adam Smith’s theory, which was that the best results come from every person in the group doing what’s best for himself/herself. John Nash says the best results come from every person in the group doing what’s best for himself/herself AND the group, thereby making a breakthrough in governing dynamics.

He was always the “weird” one but a genius, and his work meant everything to him. His relationship with his wife was wonderful in the beginning, which is why she fell in love with him, but later on when he started having his delusions, her role as a caregiver was often frustrating for her. She was a source of strength and support for him. After he was medicated to treat his schizophrenia, he felt dull and found it challenging to work as brilliantly as he had earlier.

He asks his wife “What do people do”? She tells him that there are activities available and to just add meaning to his life. “Try leaving the house. Talk to people. Try taking out the garbage,” she says. When he tells her that he was talking to a man who was collecting the garbage at night, his wife thinks he is having another delusion even though he was speaking the truth.

Sometimes, he skips his medication because he feels it make his brain dull. But this leads to near-disastrous results. He tries hard to fight his delusions and uses the rational part of his brain to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. His psychiatrist tells him “Without treatment, John, the fantasies may take over entirely.”

The scene where his wife says “ You want to know what’s real?” – “This is real,” pointing to her heart and his, was moving. She also tells him “I need to believe that something extraordinary is  possible.“ He goes back to work after approaching a former rival for work. The process is hard because Nash creates scenes when he sees his delusions. But he learns to ignore them and slowly but surely, his work is recognized by the Nobel committee. A representative from the committee approaches him and Nash uses humor to admit that he, indeed, has paranoid schizophrenia.

This movie depicts what it is like for a person with paranoid schizophrenia, but apparently in the book on which this was based, Nash does not have visual hallucinations. They introduced the visual aspect to make it suitable and more impactful for the screen.

Russel Crowe and Jennifer Connelly play the couple and they have turned in a brilliant performance. The movie was nominated for several awards and has won Oscars.

I recommend this movie to caregivers of people with mental health issues who will be able to relate to the important role they play in inspiring and motivating their relatives with mental illness.

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