The $500,000 prize, which recognizes groundbreaking contributions in genetics research, including genetic function, regulation, transmission, and variation, was awarded to Svante Pääbo, director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Considered the founder of molecular paleontology — the application of genetics to the study of prehistoric life — Pääbo previously conducted research at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Munich.
Since demonstrating in 1985 that DNA was preserved in the 2,400-year-old mummified remains of an infant boy, Pääbo has played a leading role in developing the technology that has made it possible to isolate and sequence ancient DNA. In 1997, he announced the successful sequencing of mitochondrial Neanderthal DNA from a 40,000-year-old fossil, demonstrating that Neanderthals and humans were distinctly different groups. In 2010, Pääbo and his colleagues at the Planck Institute published the draft sequence of that genome, along with the startling finding that Neanderthals have contributed up to 4 percent of the genetic material in modern humans. The team also reported that DNA analysis of a finger bone found in 2008 showed that it had belonged to a previously unknown form of hominins — the first time an extinct hominin group had been identified by genetic analysis alone.
Pääbo also is recognized as a leader in the field of human molecular evolution and has identified the function of genes that are critically important in the evolution of the human species, including a gene associated with language development. His discovery in 2008 that Neanderthals have an identical gene raises the possibility that they may have had language capabilities.
"Pääbo's bold and exciting research has changed the way we understand human evolution and is providing insight into genes that are critical in the evolution of the human species," said Huda Zoghbi, chair of the selection advisory board and recipient of the 2011 Gruber Neuroscience Prize.