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Swedish scientist's study on Neanderthal genes wins Nobel Prize for medicine

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Svante Paabo, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, received the Nobel Prize for sequencing the ancient genome of the human-like species that went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Photo by Karsten Möbius/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Svante Paabo, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, received the Nobel Prize for sequencing the ancient genome of the human-like species that went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Photo by Karsten Möbius/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Oct. 3 (UPI) -- A Swedish scientist has been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his groundbreaking research that proved modern humans once procreated with ancient Neanderthals.

Svante Paabo, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, received the award for sequencing the ancient genome of the human-like species that went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

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The fascinating discovery could lead to new understanding, or possibly even better treatments, of many common human ailments.

Extracting DNA from bones thousands of years old was a feat that had never been accomplished before, and was "seemingly impossible," the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute said Monday in a statement, announcing the award for physiology or medicine.

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The "discoveries have generated new understanding of our evolutionary history," the statement said, while also recognizing Paabo's recent discovery of a new hominid species -- the Denisovans -- in the Altai Mountains in Russia.

Ancient humans encountered Neanderthals while migrating out of Africa and ultimately procreated with the species, as proven by Paabo's study showing the DNA had been retained over many millennia. Today, the Neanderthal genome can be found in about 2% of humans outside Africa.

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Paabo's work is considered revolutionary because it introduced a new branch of paleontology called "paleogenomics," which looks to ancient DNA to unlock the mystery of how present-day humans came to be.

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"It was certainly considered to be impossible to recover DNA from 40,000-year-old bones," said Nils-Goran Larsson, a biochemistry professor at Karolinska Institute in Solna, Sweden, according to The New York Times. Paabo's methods will "allow us to compare changes between contemporary Homo sapiens and ancient hominins. And this, over the years to come, will give us huge insights into human physiology."

Neanderthals are believed to have existed for about 800,000 years. Their bones were first unearthed in a German quarry in 1856.

More than 150 years later, in 2010, Paabo and his team of researchers sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome for the first time.

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Through the years, more Neanderthal fossils have been unearthed, further indicating that today's human population, including the first modern Europeans, originated in Africa, as researchers have suggested for years.

"It's a basic scientific discovery," Larsson said. "It identifies the very small and few differences between anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, and extinct hominins."

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