The Human Factor
LEIPZIG, GERMANY--Svante Paabo lopes through the Leipzig Zoo, his long legs carrying him swiftly to the new ape house. "These are the orangutans," he says, reaching toward the glass to mirror the hand that a shaggy orange ape has extended on the other side. "They really like to go up to people. The gorillas ignore humans; they can kill each other. And the bonobos [pygmy chimps] have no violence, ever, and lots of sex." This visit isn't just a walk in the park. The ape house is also a laboratory, part of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which Paabo directs here in the former East Germany. It's here to help answer a question he's been chasing for the past 25 years: What makes humans human?
For answers, Paabo, 47, is looking at DNA--from humans, from a long-extinct human relative, and from chimpanzees and gorillas like those at the zoo. He's even sought clues in 2,000-year-old human feces from a Texas cave. His finds have shed new light on how we became so different from our closest ape relatives and are offering tantalizing clues to great mysteries that remain, such as the origin of language. "Svante is going to be the first anthropologist to win a Nobel Prize," says Richard Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford University. "He just comes out with one paper after another that seems to be a breakthrough in human evolution."
Paabo first gained wide public notice in 1997, when he and Matthias Krings, a fellow researcher at the University of Munich, sequenced DNA from a 40,000-year-old piece of Neanderthal bone. The DNA was so different from that of modern Europeans that it quashed long-held theories that Neanderthals, the heavy-boned inhabitants of ice-age Europe, were our ancestors. Neanderthals apparently did not even interbreed with the humans who arrived in their territory 40,000 years ago.
Teamwork. That same year, Paabo got a chance to go after bigger questions when he was named director of the new Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. It's an unusual effort, not only because it brings together DNA experts like Paabo with linguists, primatologists, and psychologists but also because of its lavish resources--a $9.4 million annual budget, $17 million for the ape center, and a $37 million new headquarters, set to open February 12. The cash comes as part of Germany's ongoing reunification efforts, but the interdisciplinary collaboration, many say, comes as a result of Svante Paabo.
As a boy growing up in Stockholm, Paabo dreamed of sailing south to explore the tombs of ancient Egypt. But when he started studying Egyptology at the University of Uppsala in the late 1970s, he was crushed to learn that it demanded not expeditions to the pyramids but memorizing hieroglyphic verb forms. "It wasn't cool." So he started studying medicine, his father's profession, and molecular virology.
Then he realized that Egyptian mummies and modern patients had something in common--DNA. Mummy DNA was cool. His old Egyptology professor helped him gather samples from museums. Working secretly, nights and weekends, he became the first to isolate ancient human DNA. In 1985, still a graduate student, he published a paper on his feat in Nature and sent proofs to Allan Wilson, a pioneer in molecular genetics at the University of California-Berkeley. "I got this message: `Dear Professor Paabo, can I come do a seminar in your lab?' " Paabo, floored, wrote back: "I'm not a professor, I'm not a doctor, I don't have a lab, but can I come to you?"