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4th November 2022

Stealing Our Thunder: Does Biology Deserve its Own Nobel Prize?

Biologist Svante Pääbo won a 2022 Nobel Prize for his sequencing of the neanderthal genome – so why did is the category Physiology or Medicine?
Stealing Our Thunder: Does Biology Deserve its Own Nobel Prize?
Photo: Mathew Schwartz @ Unsplash

In early October, the Nobel Prizes of 2022 were announced. Half of the six prizes are awarded for contributions to science. Two categories are awarded in pure scientific disciplines: Physics and Chemistry. The third science category is not for Biology, as you may expect, but for Physiology or Medicine.

This does not mean, however, that biologists do not carry out Nobel Prize-winning research, as this year’s honourees demonstrate. This year’s Physiology or Medicine Prize winner is Svante Pääbo, for his work on human evolution, palaeogenetics and palaeogenomics (studying the DNA of ancient humans). Noticeably, this is not strictly physiology or medicine.

Why is there not a Nobel Prize for Biology?

The prizes were created by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor from Stockholm. His will specified that the small fortune generated from his success should be offered as prizes. Since 1901, prizes have been awarded in five specified fields: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace.

Nobel did not dictate for a prize in Biology to be made in his will. However, a sixth prize category for Economics was first added in 1968, showing that, theoretically, a new science category could be added to award biological scientists.

It is certainly not the case that Svante Pääbo is the first biologist to be rewarded with a Nobel Prize. For example, the development of CRISPR biotechnology for gene editing was awarded the Chemistry Prize in 2020.

Biological research is still rewarded, but with a prize from an alternate science category – which seems an imperfect fit.

Why do people win Nobel Prizes?

Nobel Prizes are awarded ‘for the greatest benefit to humankind’. This year’s Physiology or Medicine Prize rewarded what has mostly been a contribution to fundamental biological knowledge. The possible medical applications are still theoretical at this stage.

It makes sense that many biology-based prizes reward practical-based research, like discovering a new medical technique or biotechnology. These have more immediately obvious benefits to humanity.

Nevertheless, the Nobel committee deemed that Pääbo’s research has also been highly beneficial. This raises the question: why is it important to study fundamental science in the first place?

Why Pääbo deserved his Nobel

On a practical level, uncovering basic biological facts and knowledge – whether that is in species evolution, genetics, or ecology – is handy. It can be used later for practical applications. This has already been the case with Pääbo’s research, during the coronavirus pandemic.

Svante’s first major research achievement was in developing techniques that allowed the first Neanderthal genome (their whole set of DNA) to be reconstructed from ancient DNA. Whilst most of the world looked to scientists designing vaccines and trying to predict the future course of the virus, other biologists instead looked to the past – at Neanderthal DNA.

Different DNA variants inherited by individuals from Neanderthals can cause both decreased and increased susceptibility to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. This offers some explanation as to why some people were unaffected and some were hospitalised by the virus.

Such knowledge potentially allows biologists to predict how an individual will react upon contracting a virus, simply by looking at their DNA. Therefore, individualised treatment plans with better health outcomes could be produced. Such approaches are increasingly used in the emerging field of personalised healthcare, which has the potential to greatly benefit humankind through improved healthcare. From a more societal perspective, palaeogenetics helps us to understand who we are as a species.

Neanderthal genetic variants in our own DNA resulted from interbreeding between our own species (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals about 60,000 years ago. This is only known from comparing genomes – whole copies of our individual sets of DNA – of modern humans to the Neanderthal genome decoded by Pääbo and his team.

Pääbo also discovered another extinct species of ancient human, the Denisovans, by sequencing ancient DNA found in a tiny finger bone. DNA comparison revealed that Denisovans interbred with modern humans, and also with Neanderthals.

We can now better understand how we are related to other ancient human species by constructing family-style trees based on genetic similarity. Even though all human species except our own are now extinct, parts of them remain preserved in our own DNA.

Like creating a family tree, revealing these relations of our species through paleogenomics provides better self-understanding. Thanks to Pääbo’s research, we now have a clearer view of who humans are in the context of evolution, and natural and social history. Our own may be the only remaining human species, but since interbreeding occurred with others, we must have had close interactions with them in the past.

So, is a ‘Biology’ Nobel Prize necessary?

The science Nobel Prize categories – Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine – at first seem well-defined. But, past winners seem to indicate instead that research efforts are rewarded based largely on the overarching criteria of ‘the greatest benefit to humankind’.

The addition of a fourth science Nobel Prize in Biology, I think, would therefore be somewhat redundant. Valuable scientific research is still recognised and rewarded, regardless of which field it mostly aligns with or whether it has immediately obvious benefits, so the prizes still fulfil the purpose they were created for.

This and past years’ prize winners exemplify how the pure scientific subjects overlap. Their applications can be expanded from fundamental principles and used practically to have beneficial uses for humans. If anything, the regular awarding of scientific Nobel Prizes to scientists of other disciplines only goes to show that disciplinary boundaries are not as defined as Instagram memes might suggest.

As a biologist, I believe the other disciplines would have the most to gain from an extra category – to stop us from stealing the limelight from everyone else!

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