"There must be some factors that make human beings special. It may not be possible in my lifetime, but it is my dream to unravel them.
" Dr. Svante Pääbo, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
As a visiting professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), he encourages research projects in Okinawa.
As a child, he had a strong interest in ancient Egypt, and along the way, he almost took a different path, but he established a technique for analyzing the genetic information of extinct humans and unraveled an important step in human evolution. .
Minoru Aoi, anchor of "News Watch 9," listened to Dr. Pääbo, who visited Japan for the first time after winning the Nobel Prize, about what he has valued in continuing his research, and about his message to Japanese researchers and young people. I was.
(The interview was conducted on January 31st.)
Nobel Laureate ``It's a serious joke,'' he said.
Q. Please tell us how you received the Nobel Prize.
A. I'm still a little overwhelmed, but I'm slowly getting used to it.
I never thought I would win a Nobel Prize, and I didn't even know it would be announced that day.
When I got the call, I thought it was a prank.
After about 20 seconds, I thought it was serious for a joke.
DNA from extinct human bones reveals evolution
Dr. Pääbo is 67 years old from Sweden.
While he is affiliated with the Max Planck Institute in Germany, he is a visiting professor at OIST = Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University and leads a research group.
Dr. Pääbo established a technology to analyze the genetic information of extinct humans from the remaining bones.
In fact, the DNA of the bones of extinct humans was broken and mixed with the DNA of other animals of the new age, so we could not analyze them well.
Therefore, Dr. Pääbo focuses on the DNA of multiple mitochondria in cells, not the DNA in the nucleus of cells, and examines in detail the genetic information remaining in the bones of Neanderthals who lived 40,000 years ago. was successful.
As a result, we found that we, "Homo sapiens," inherited part of the genetic information of Neanderthals, and revealed the possibility that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred.
He also analyzed bones found in the Denisovan cave in Siberia and discovered another, previously unknown, extinct human species known as the Denisovans.
Success in the last 30 years of research
Q. Please tell us about the significance of the research that led to your award.
A. Over the past 30 years, we have developed techniques for recovering DNA from old bones such as those of Neanderthals.
It opens up the possibility of going back in time and studying the DNA of animals that have gone extinct and no longer exist.
For example, another team is using this technology to study the history of pathogens.
They study how disease-causing bacteria have changed over time, and how larger systems have changed over time.
We believe that we have made a significant contribution.
Neanderthals are interesting because they are the closest relatives of modern humans (Homo sapiens).
From a genetic and biological standpoint, it is the Neanderthals that we should compare ourselves to to determine who we are.
Q. How has your research progressed over the last 30 years?
A.Research has been improved little by little, and we have been progressing with success.
It's not like we've been successful for 30 years without success.
Techniques for retrieving small pieces (DNA) have been successful and applied to extinct animals such as mammals and extinct sloths.
In 1997, we were able to obtain a small fragment containing the Neanderthal genome, and in 2010, we sequenced the entire genome.
By then, I had some successes and some disappointments.
I think it's only natural that it takes this long.
It always seems easy when you start, but it's an illusion and it's harder than you think.
Still, I thought that continuing would lead to success, so I continued.
After overcoming one challenge, you will find the next one.
It's like a continuous process of improving things.
And we continue to improve our technology.
When studying ancient humans, contamination (sample contamination), such as DNA from modern humans, can become a problem.
At that time, I almost gave up, thinking that maybe only mammoths could be researched using old samples.
I was interested in the evolution of mankind, so I was a little depressed.
But then I managed to move forward with my work with ancient human DNA.
A team that can bring and present ideas for research
Q.What is important in advancing your research?
A. First and foremost, it is important to have a team with a culture that allows everyone to bring their own ideas.
Because teams are smarter than any individual.
We need a culture where everyone is bold enough to showcase their ideas and is not afraid to be wrong.
And, of course, to find yourself in a scientific environment, institute or university where you can work with groups that provide the necessary expertise and experience.
Q.In that sense, is OIST attractive?
A. I think it is a very dynamic and young organization.
Although it has only been established for about 10 years, it has attracted extremely talented scientists not only from Japan but from all over the world.
In addition, and very unusually, there is an environment in which small research groups can work together with other groups across different disciplines.
I think it is a very good example in terms of creating an environment for excellent scientific research.
From my research perspective, I find the neurobiology team at OIST particularly attractive, and there are several groups we can work with.
I am satisfied.
I was frustrated because I couldn't actually meet at OIST due to the new coronavirus.
Now I can actually visit several times a year and enjoy it.
Basic research driven by curiosity
Q.What do you think about support for scientific research?
A.You can't do research without funding.
Research requires long-term, stable funding.
That way, you won't have to constantly hit deadlines to prove that the support you got last year was justified.
I don't know the overall situation in Japan, but I have heard from many people that the government's science budget has not increased in years.
Many countries and regions, including Germany, but also China and Taiwan, for example, have significantly increased funding for scientific research, so it's not a very good situation.
I think that there is a possibility that it will be disadvantageous for Japan in the future.
Q.I think it is difficult to understand the necessity of basic research.
A. Various studies are required.
We need “applied research” that takes in knowledge, applies it, immediately knows the results, and can be used by industries and start-up companies.
At the same time, we need “basic research” driven by curiosity.
Materials that form the basis of applied research are created through basic research.
After all, basic research is important, and it is just as important as applied research.
Our research is a classic example of curiosity-driven basic research.
It has been driven by the desire to study the genomes of Neanderthals and other extinct animals.
There may not be many examples of applications, but research that finds traces of DNA can be useful, for example, in criminal investigation research and environmental research that analyzes microorganisms in soil.
From doctor to researcher, fascinated by Egypt
Q. When Dr. Pääbo was young, I heard that he repeatedly conducted experiments to find the DNA of Egyptian mummies.
Why was it a mummy?
A. I was fascinated by ancient Egypt and archeology.
When I was a kid, I wanted to excavate something from the Stone Age in Sweden.
My mother took me to Egypt.
I was about 14 years old at the time, and there were so many ancient things that I was shocked.
I was so fascinated by Egypt that I started studying at university.
But, as romantic thoughts tend to be, they weren't as appealing as I had imagined as a child.
I got disillusioned and wanted to find something else to do, but didn't know what to do, so I started studying medicine.
I thought I would get a job.
After that, I learned that DNA could be analyzed very efficiently, and I came up with the idea of applying that technology to ancient Egyptian mummies.
It is important to have a university where students can do both ancient Egyptian and medical studies and combine different themes.
It's quite difficult to study just one thing and become the best Egyptologist in the world because everyone is so talented.
However, it is extremely rare to find someone who would combine molecular biology with Egyptian research.
That way, you don't have to be so smart to contribute.
Q. Did you hesitate to continue on to the path of medicine?
A.Actually, there was a time when I didn't know what to do.
I entered the medical field because I wanted to study medicine, but when I met a patient at a hospital, I realized that the job was more rewarding than I thought, so I became a clinical doctor.
After that, I got my PhD and thought I could always come back and see patients, but I still haven't gone back to being a doctor.
After all, the research was really exciting.
You have freedom, you can pursue your interests, and you have the freedom to manage your time.
If you want to sleep late in the morning and work late at night, so be it.
Doctors would be in trouble if they weren't at the hospital at 7am.
What I'm interested in What's important to me
Q. What should young people do to keep their interest?
A.I think it's up to the students themselves to find a place such as a university where they can pursue their interests.
It could be your local university, it could be somewhere else, but you have to find it yourself.
The ideal place is one that is open to the interests of students and one that listens to what students have to say.
I think the best driving force must be something that comes from within.
No one will do it for you.
My belief is that if you join a good group and do good research, you can truly learn.
Q. Do you have a message for young researchers?
A. It's a very difficult question, but the only thing that comes to mind is that you should do what you are interested in, what you think is important to you.
It's rare and difficult to be able to enjoy what you're not good at, but if you like what you do, you can enjoy the process no matter what the outcome is.
Of course, research is not an easy task, and I think there are times when I get frustrated.
But if it's a subject that interests me, I'll continue.
At some point, you may realize that what you're working on may not be possible and you'd be better off working on something else.
At that time, it is important to have some kind of judgment and advice from those around you.
I want to understand what makes human beings special
Q. What motivates Dr. Pääbo?
I want to find out what is in the background.
Maybe I'll get tired and retire eventually, but it's still a long way off.
Most children are very curious and get excited about things.
Maybe I'm still a child inside without growing up.
Q. Please tell us your next goal.
A. I am currently working on using Neanderthal and Denisovan data to identify the genetic changes that have occurred since we split from the Neanderthals about 500,000 years ago. am.
It's a genetic change that we humans have today, and it doesn't exist in Neanderthals.
Most of these changes may have resulted in important functions of being modern humans.
The modern human race is very special in that it has grown to billions.
Other primates cannot multiply so much.
Our human activities affect the entire space in which living things live.
There must be a special factor that made that possible.
The discovery of the Neanderthal genome raises new questions.
My goal is to understand what makes modern humans so special compared to other extinct humans.
It may not be possible in my lifetime, but there must be some factors.
My dream is to figure it out.