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A note of admiration for Svante Pääbo

Two very interesting people have given the quality of my life a little tick upward. Svante Pääbo and Anthony Bourdain. Pääbo here. Bourdain in the next post.

Svante Pääbo (no, I don’t know how to pronounce it either; I think the ä is flat like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’ or ‘shat’ and there’s probably a subtle hiccup between them), one of the world’s leading geneticists, recently published a truly wonderful book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. It’s the tale of his struggle to decode the genome of our long-extinct cousins, the Neanderthals. Pääbo’s writing is direct and uncluttered. His prose is sharp and clean as he relates this three-decade long search.

He is also remarkably forthcoming about his own life. He drops a couple of revelations about his family, his sexuality and a life-threatening illness along the way and does so in a matter-of-fact way that feels like he was telling you about the time he wondered just how much he liked licorice. Let’s cover the personal stuff first. From my perspective, it’s nowhere nearly as fascinating as the science but, for those who like gossip, here goes:

Pääbo is from a rather unusual family with a solid scientific pedigree. His father, Sune Bergström (who died in 2005), was a Nobel Prize winning Swedish physiologist whom Svante rarely saw other than short visits apparently confined to Saturday afternoons. His mother is an Estonian chemist and Pääbo was the result of their affair which is why he uses his mother’s name. Pääbo has a half-brother, Ririk Bergström, a successful Swedish businessman who didn’t realize that he had a half-brother until after the publication of the Neanderthal genome and Pääbo became one of the world’s most recognizable scientists. Interestingly, they were born in the same month. Even more interestingly, they’ve become friends.

Pääbo also drops little tidbits about his long-standing attraction to men. in fact, he tells us that he always assumed he was gay until a young geneticist named Linda Vigilant arrived, on a motorcycle, at the Berkeley lab where he was doing research as a post-doctoral fellow. It took some time including Vigilant marrying another geneticist who just happened to be a friend and collaborator of Pääbo’s, an affair with Vigilant, a child, a divorce, a renewed friendship with Vigilant’s cuckolded ex, a marriage, another child and what I can only assume is and will continue to be a happy little clutch of Pääbo-Vigilants.

Pääbo also drops other little bombs like relating how some hours after being discharged from hospital after a bout of pneumonia he is summoned back with great urgency. Upon examining the X-rays of his chest the doctors discovered a cluster of several blood clots in his lungs. Had these pulmonary obstructions, he tells us with the even tone of someone concluding that he does, in fact, not like licorice, arrived as one large clot he would almost certainly have died. He is put on heparin to clear the clots and discovers, to his surprise, that his father had done much of the critical early work on the prostaglandins that play an important role in anti-coagulants like heparin. There are other personal tidbits but for me the real joy of this book is that it is about science for as he tells us after the clots clear, he’s not ready to die. He has much work to do.

It is the best book about how science is actually done I have ever read. In some ways it reminded me of James Watson’s Double Helix in that it traces step-by-step the process of discovery. But it is so much better than Watson’s rather snippy book with its negative asides when the mistakes of others like Linus Pauling who wandered down a scientific garden-path give Watson a thrill down his leg.

Pääbo traces for us an extended effort to unravel, as in the title, lost genomes, most pointedly that of extinct hominids which finally happens when, in 2010, his research group publishes the full sequencing of the Neanderthal nuclear DNA. The Guardian had two very nice pieces outlining what this discovery means. One is an interview with Pääbo. You can find it here. The other reviews the book and can be found here.

There’s a good bit of science in the book. Genetics has become, in the last half-century, a deeply complex and rich field. It is not an area for the quantitatively challenged. Pääbo does his best to tone it down for that elusive critter, “the intelligent layman” (layperson?), but for those who know little or nothing about genetics, just skip the details. It’s the story that counts and the wonderful descriptions of how real discoveries are made in modern science. If you’re a creationist, read this book. It will cure you of your disorder.

I spent much of my life running a lab studying human cognition, examining such topics as the origin of consciousness, language acquisition in infants, unconscious cognitive functions, intuition and how implicit or tacit knowledge functions in everyday tasks. I know the pains and joys of the life of a researcher. I know all too much about the ups and downs, the idea that felt so brilliant when you first cooked it up late last night only to watch it swept away like morning mist by the only god we worship: the data!

If you like this kind of thing you will love this book. Pääbo goes into delicious detail about how the lab was run, how deeply committed he was to a democratic atmosphere where everyone, including first-year graduate students had equal voice. Ideas and theories, methods and techniques, data analyses and interpretations were valued on their merits and not on who offered them — though there were one or two times when Pääbo finally, though reluctantly, puts his foot down (he is, after all, the Director of one of the world’s leading genetics laboratories at Leipzig’s Max Plank Institute).

He details the intensity of the research, the struggle with problems that erupt seemingly on a daily basis. Samples are contaminated. What was first thought to be ancient DNA turns out to be the result of bacterial action or an inadvertent touch by another person who left modern DNA behind. He builds a “clean” room that is free from contamination. No one other than the scientists working on samples that day may enter. Technical difficulties swarm around them all. Sequencing is so slow that it seems like the job will never be done. Then, miraculously, a company contacts him with novel procedures they’ve developed that allow for high speed replications of the base material extracted from samples. They agree to collaborate.

And, yes, there is competition among scientists, often intense and always passionate. A once-promising relationship with geneticist Ed Green goes sour when Pääbo becomes convinced that the technique Green is using won’t work. Green refuses to change and Pääbo, reluctantly, breaks the collaboration. Green emails him a provocative note saying he will get there first and that he is on his way to “get more bones!” Later Pääbo, just ready to get his hands on a highly desirable Neanderthal bone, discovers that this precious fragment has just been sent “to your friend Eddy Green.” Pääbo’s people double-down worried that Green will publish first.

Then the media and the journalists get involved. As Pääbo and his group feel like they’re almost there they announce at a major meeting that they will have the full Neanderthal genome sequenced by next year. As the clock runs the tension builds. They’re close but problems pop up, data are messy, sequences have contaminants. Pääbo has days of anticipation, days of disappointment and worry, days of progress and, of course, days of palpable regret where he really wishes he hadn’t made that announcement. It’s bloody good fun.

When they complete the full sequence it is as spectacular a finding as they anticipated. Suddenly an whole new area of research opens. In a recent TED talk Pääbo outlines some of these. Insights into the origins of our species, a deeper understanding of the manner in which we migrated from Northern Africa to spread across the planet, a grasp of the nature of our interactions with other hominids that left Africa before us … all become clearer. And, yes, in case you’re curious, our ancestors did have sex with Neanderthals. Between 1% and 2.5% of the genome of everyone (except those from sub-Saharan Africa) is the unambiguous residue of early homo sapiens’ matings with Neanderthals. And, just to make things even more intriguing, natives of wide areas of Southeast Asia including Papua New Guinea and Australia also carry DNA from another hominid discovered just recently, the so-called Denisovans who lived in the Altai mountain areas of Siberia. And, yes, they mated with Neanderthals too.

If you want to get a feel for how science is really done, not the pablum that Hollywood dumps on us, not the closer but still misleading scenarios from shows like NCIS and CSI, but the real thing done by real people who love what they do, pursue it with passion and vigor, search for truth and understanding and, importantly, really want to get that truth and understanding before someone else does and reaps the rewards, the accolades and the grants, read this book.

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