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Svante Pääbo receives Japan Prize in field of life science

Svante Pääbo receives the 2020 Japan Prize (Photo: Japan Prize Foundation)

NOMIS Awardee Svante Pääbo received the 2020 Japan Prize at a ceremony in Tokyo on April 13, 2022. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 and 2021 prizes were presented together with the 2022 Japan Prize.

On February 4, 2020, the Japan Prize Foundation (President Hiroshi Komiyama) announced the 2020 (36th) Japan Prize Laureates. The 2020 prize fields were “Electronics, Information, Communication” and “Life Science”. Prof. Robert G. Gallager (United States) was chosen for the field of “Electronics, Information, Communication”, and Dr. Svante Pääbo (Sweden) was chosen for the field of “Life Science”.

Prof. Robert G. Gallager, who was chosen for the field of “Electronics, Information, Communication,” is being honored for his “pioneering contribution to information and coding theory”. On the other hand, Dr. Svante Pääbo who was chosen for the field of “Life Science” is being honored for his “pioneering contributions to paleoanthropology through decoding ancient human genome sequences”.

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako of Japan at the 2022 Japan Prize award ceremony (Photo: Japan Prize Foundation)

The 2022 ceremony was attended by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako of Japan.

Svante Pääbo: 2020 Japan Prize in Life Science

One of the major themes in biology is the origin of humans, that is, how humans emerged during the course of evolution. From the mid-1980s to the present day, Dr. Svante Pääbo has continuously pioneered the application of DNA analysis for ancient bones, and in particular regarding techniques for sequencing severely degraded DNA.

In 1997, Dr. Pääbo successfully sequenced Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA. Based on that sequence, he estimated that Neanderthals were not the direct ancestors of modern humans but a lineage of ancient human species that split off long ago. The technique developed by Dr. Pääbo greatly improved the ability to retrieve small amounts of ancient DNA and in 2010 he became the first in the world to sequence the ancient nuclear genome of Neanderthals at the “whole genome” level.

The analyses of the nuclear genome allowed his team to discover that human ancestors interbred with Neanderthals. He also applied his technique to a bone fragment and teeth excavated from Denisova Cave in Russia’s Altai region. The DNA sequence analysis showed that the fossil came from a previously undescribed group of extinct hominins, which they termed Denisovans. Denisovans were close to Neanderthals and further analyses revealed that there was interbreeding between Neanderthals and Denisovans. Whether or not modern humans are a completely different lineage from other ancient humans had been long debated, but Dr. Pääbo’s analysis finally proved that some modern humans indeed inherited part of their genomes from forms of human which are now extinct.

Dr. Pääbo had transformed paleoanthropological research by introducing the technique of genome analysis using ancient bones. Furthermore, his technique and achievements greatly impacted not only paleoanthropology, but also all areas related to humankind, such as anthropology, archeology and history, and have contributed to their advancement. It must also be noted that as the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Dr. Pääbo has led many projects on ancient human genomes. Under his leadership, he opened up the field of genome research in paleoanthropology and has nurtured many researchers.

As mentioned above, Dr. Pääbo has shed light on the fundamental question of human origin through his pioneering research on the analysis of ancient genomes. It is for these significant contributions that Dr. Svante Pääbo is deemed most eminently deserving of the 2020 Japan Prize in the field of “Life Science”.

About the Japan Prize Foundation

The creation of the Japan Prize was motivated by the Japanese government’s desire to “express gratitude to international society by establishing a prestigious international award in the fields of science and technology”. Supported by numerous donations, the Japan Prize was established in 1983 with a cabinet endorsement. The Japan Prize honors those who have made significant achievements that contribute to the peace and prosperity of mankind, based not only on contributions to the advancement of science and technology but also on social contributions to our lives. The award covers all fields of science and technology and takes into consideration the developments in science and technology. Every year, the foundation designates two fields for the award presentation. One award is given for each field as a general rule. Each laureate receives a certificate of merit and a prize medal. A cash prize of 50 million yen is also presented to each prize category.

Read the Japan Prize publication about Svante Pääbo’s work

Read the press release: 2020 Japan Prize Laureates Announced


NOMIS Researchers

Director, Department of Evolutionary Genetics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
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