Nobel in Medicine goes to the man who brought us the Neanderthal genome

On Monday, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology's Svante Pbo received the prize. The work of Pbo, who was the driving force behind the completion of the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes, will be familiar to readers of this page. There is more to this than a casual glance would suggest.

Despite the long history of controversy surrounding who gets acknowledged, Pbo's central role in this story is likely to allow widespread acceptance of his sole-recipient status. Pbo was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when a revolution in DNA Sequencing technology gave him the capabilities he needed.

I met Pbo in the 90s when we worked at Berkeley. Allan Wilson ran one of the best labs for old DNA and he was interested in it. Wilson's lab was pushing the limits of the technique as a way of obtaining very old DNA that was a rare component of a sample that might have been in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years.

It took a week of setting up thin gels about the size of a small desk and days of exposure to X-ray film to get the sequence from that DNA. The people had done the math and knew that we needed a new technology to complete large genomes.

If it weren't for the work of countless people who developed new generations of DNA Sequencing machines, Pbo and his team wouldn't have accomplished what they did. If it weren't for the completion of the human genome, he wouldn't have been able to find what he was looking for. That's not to say that he and his team didn't make improvements to their methods. Some of the technical hurdles that prevented progress were on the verge of being overcome for other reasons.

There is a lot of accomplishments by Pbo. The first picture of the Neanderthals as a population was created by his work, which provided a sense of how many existed and where they migrated. He followed that up with the Neanderthals' nuclear genome, showing how different they were from us.