Interview Professor Ingo Kurth

  Man with glasses looking into the camera Copyright: © Uniklinik RWTH Aachen

This year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to the Swedish evolutionary biologist Svante Pääbo, who is considered to be the founder of paleogenetics and who was the first researcher to sequence the Neanderthal genome. We asked Professor Ingo Kurth from the Institute of Human Genetics at RWTH Aachen University Hospital to tell us what lies behind this research into human evolution.

Professor Kurth, what does the genetic information from Neanderthals that have been extinct for many thousands of years tell us?

Kurth: First of all, of course, it tells us that DNA is enormously durable. Despite its age, it allows us to trace a large part of human history. It shows us, for example, when humans originating from Africa encountered the Neanderthals living in Europe and how they came together and intermingled.

What are the implications of these findings for our modern lives?

Pääbo has proven that gene transfer to Homo sapiens took place during the many millennia that African humans and Neanderthals lived side by side and produced offspring together. Using ever more refined methods and with the help of technological advances, such as high-throughput sequencing, Pääbo and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig were able to show that the genes of our ancestors that remain in our genome as a result account for around one to four percent of our genome. These genes still have an effect on our immune system, among other things. This means that this discovery can help in the fight against diseases.

What do you think was the deciding factor that saw the award given to Svante Pääbo?

Besides the discoveries that I have mentioned, Pääbo could be called the founder of a molecular archaeology. It took extreme persistence to tackle the many obstacles on the way to understanding human origins: How does one deal with contaminating "ancient" samples with other DNA? In other words, how do we distinguish which DNA is authentic and which came to the sample later during excavations and investigations? His approaches to solving the problem have really pushed research forward.

More information:

You can get more info on the subject at Professor Kurth's lecture entitled "Of Mummies, Neanderthals, and a Modern Genomic Medicine: What Genes Reveal About Us," on December 2, starting at 6:30 p.m. in lecture hall H04 at the C.A.R.L. Lecture Hall Complex. Please note that the talk will be held in German.