Published: 03-10-2022 18:43 | Updated: 02-12-2022 16:05

Hugo Zeberg on his Nobel Prize awarded colleague: “I’ve learnt a lot from him"

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Nobel Prize laureate Svante Pääbo and KI researcher Hugo Zeberg at a summer house in southern Sweden. Private photo.

Many people were delighted to hear that Professor Svante Pääbo has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, particularly so Hugo Zeberg, researcher at Karolinska Institutet. He has collaborated with Svante Pääbo for years, not least on the work to find Neanderthal genes that can influence how ill different people become after contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Hugo Zeberg, assistant professor at the Department of Neuroscience, listened to the Nobel Prize announcement in Biomedicum on the Solna campus. Over the past few years, he has divided his time between Karolinska Institutet and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, founded by Svante Pääbo.

“It’s a wonderful day,” he says. “For us working in the field, it’s like ‘At last!’ It’s fantastic that it has such a reach.”

Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo have worked together for some years, especially on the project to identify which genes affect who becomes seriously ill with COVID-19.

“Svante Pääbo had published the Neanderthal genome,” says Hugo Zeberg. “Back then I was working as an emergency doctor in Huddinge, treating COVID patients, among others. I started looking at genetic risk factors for serious COVID and found a direct match in the Neanderthal genome.  It struck me as an important discovery, so I wrote to Svante, who was then in his summer cottage. I flew down to him there and we wrote an article in a couple of days. It’s a wonderful memory and a ‘Eureka moment’ that I got to share with him.”

Researching with a child-like fascination

Hugo Zeberg describes Svante Pääbo as a highly engaged and galvanising researcher.

Svante Pääbo
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2022. Photo: Cecilia Odlind.

“I’ve learnt a lot from him,” he says. “As a researcher, I’ve learnt that you can research full-time with a kind of child-like fascination, and the importance of writing comprehensibly so that you can appeal to the general reader as well as to the more scientific one. He’s become a close friend.”

In its announcement, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet commended the achievement by Svante Pääbo of “something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal”.

“The prize gives recognition to the field of evolutionary genetics,” says Hugo Zeberg. “Many people are interested in these cosmic questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? You can compare it to the fascination people have for space. Even though they’re questions that many people ask, they perhaps haven’t been given the same kind of scientific weight, but now we have a prize that rewards the field and that feels great!”

Connection to Sweden and KI

Svante Pääbo was born in 1955 in Stockholm. He earned his PhD in 1986 from Uppsala University and went on to do his postdoc research at Zürich University and then at the University of California, Berkeley. He was appointed professor at Munich University in 1990. In 1999, he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, where he is still active. Since 2020, he has also been engaged as an adjunct professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan.

Svante Pääbo is the son of Karolinska Institutet’s former president Sune Bergström, who was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Svante Pääbo is also an honorary doctor at Karolinska Institutet.