Discovery on human evolution has major implications - GulfToday

Discovery on human evolution has major implications

Neanderthal DNA lives on in the genes of many modern humans.

Neanderthal DNA lives on in the genes of many modern humans.

Swedish palaeogeneticist Svante Paabo won the 2022 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology for his work on sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, the species that preceded the emergence of the modern human being, homo sapiens. The director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology has opened new vistas about the human evolution, and his work should be of great interest to the general public and not just for the scientists involved in evolutionary anthropology. Paabo showed that one-to-four per cent of the DNA – the genetic material that is transmitted from generation to generation, can be traced back to the Neanderthal. But it was not just that of the Neanderthal. There is another sub-species called the Denisovan and the Neanderthal genomic material was passed on to the modern human through the Denisovan. There are two general aspects of Paabo’s discovery that would be of great interest to the general public and not just the specialists.

The first aspect is that there was inter-breeding among the Neanderthals and the homo sapiens, and the homo sapiens did not happen to be a new variation which had broken away from the older species. Paabo had discovered another species called the Denisovans, which seemed to have flourished in the evolutionary sequence along with the Neanderthal and homo sapiens. Secondly, the presence of the ancient genetic material in the modern human being which emerged 40,000 years or so ago – the Neanderthal existed before the emergence of the homo sapiens and there has been speculation in recent years that the two – Neanderthals and the homo sapiens – co-existed in the early years of homo sapiens and the later years of Neanderthals but they existed independent of each other.

Paabo’s work shows that there has been inter-breeding between the two and many other minor sub-variants as well. For many years, it seemed that there was interbreeding only among other animal species and the human beings were an exception. Now it emerges that there was interbreeding in the story of human evolution. The discovery has another implication for the modern human being. The presence of ancient genetic material of the Neanderthal tells us much about the adaptation capabilities of modern human beings. It shows that the presence of the Neanderthal genetic material in the modern human beings in Europe and Asia reveals that human beings are vulnerable to infections like that of Covid-19. Secondly, it also explains the adaptability virtues of human beings like the Tibetans in higher altitudes.

Many of Paabo’s fellow researchers in the field who are involved directly in Paabo’s work believe that the Swedish geneticist’s work brings human evolution to the centre of research. They also believe that Paabo has the rare ability of getting the big picture right even as he is fiercely focused on the smallest details of his field of work. So, he is believed to get his research details right even as he draws the larger implications of his micro-research.

Many a time the Nobel prize in the sciences goes for work that is important but which is too technical, and whose general implications are indeed hidden. It is for the first time in many years that Paabo’s work should excite members of the general public who take keen interest in research developments in science. Paabo’s discovery does not mark the end of all questions about human evolution or that it offers final answers. It draws limited inferences about the influence of Neanderthal and Denisovan genetic material in modern human beings, and it keeps the door open for other discoveries, which could possibly refute or replace Paabo’s research findings. The unending journey of science is what makes it exciting, and Paabo’s discovery which fetched him this year’s Nobel Prize belongs to this journey of discovery.

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