Professor Svante Pääbo
Jun 09 2015 Posted: 16:05 IST

Professor Svante Pääbo, the first person to sequence the DNA of Neanderthal people

NUI Galway’s School of Natural Sciences will hold two special Neanderthal-related events organised on the eve of NUI Galway awarding an Honorary Degree to Professor Svante Pääbo, Director at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and the first person to sequence the DNA of Neanderthal people.

The first event by Professor Pääbo is a lecture on Archaic Genomics, which will take place on Thursday, 11 June at 4pm in the McMunn Theatre, Arts/Science Building at NUI Galway.

Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo is a founder in the field of palaeogenomics, the study of ancient DNA preserved in fossils. He first began this work studying ancient Egyptian mummies, before progressing to much older extinct mammals. In 2010 his research team made scientific history when they published the first draft genome sequence for Neanderthals. This was followed up with the discovery of a completely new, and hitherto unknown group of humans (Denisovans) based on DNA extracted from a c.41,000 year old fossil finger bone found in a cave in Siberia.

Professor Pääbo has received numerous prizes and awards for his work and his research has captured the wider public imagination. In 2007, Time magazine included him in their list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

On Thursday, 11 June at 6pm, NUI Galway will launch a new museum display, William King and the Naming of Neanderthal People. The display will commemorate former NUI Galway Professor of Geology William King’s achievement and also tell the story of our closest evolutionary relatives, the Neanderthals.

The study of human evolution began in earnest in 1863 when William King, Professor of Geology at Queens College Galway, proposed the name Homo neanderthalensis for fossil human remains discovered in the Neander Valley of Germany. His suggestion was both extraordinary and revolutionary for its time. To his lasting credit, King remains the first scientist to name a new and extinct species of human. The launch will take place in the James Mitchell Geology Museum in the Quadrangle on campus.

To coincide with these events in NUI Galway, the Irish Journal of Earth Sciences, through the Royal Irish Academy, has published a paper by event organiser Dr John Murray and his colleagues highlighting William King's contribution to the early study of human evolution. It has been made freely available online at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3318/IJES.2015.33.1.

Dr Murray said: “William King's suggestion that Neanderthal people represented a separate species from ourselves sparked one of the longest standing debates in human evolutionary studies: how precisely are Neanderthals related to modern humans? Professor Pääbo has done more than any other scientist in the modern era to tackle that question head-on.”

Professor Svante Pääbo will be conferred with a Degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa) on Friday, 12 June.

-Ends-

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