25 October 2017

The history of a scientific revolution

About Svante Peabo's book "The Neanderthal"

Alexander Sokolov, XX2 century

Svante Peabo is a personality whose fame extends far beyond the pages of specialized scientific journals. "A future Nobel laureate," as one respected academic lady put it. This energetic Swede actually managed to create a whole new direction in science – paleogenetics and revolutionize the study of human evolution. The methods developed by the Peabo team made it possible to read such pages of ancient history that seemed to have been lost forever. Now we know what color the eyes of the Neanderthals were, and what mushrooms they ate, with whom and how many times the ancestors of the Melanesians interbred, how many people the ice man Ezi shot with his bow, what animals his clothes were made of, who gave the Tibetans their ability to live in the highlands – and all thanks to ancient DNA.

Svante Peabo. Neanderthal. In search of missing genomes.
Translated from English by Elena Naimark.

The Corpus publishing house is preparing for publication the book of Peabo "Neanderthal". This work was actually written in 2013 and, given the rapid development of paleogenetics, someone will say that the information is already a little stale… But, firstly, at the end of the book there is a detailed afterword by Elena Naimark with an overview of the latest achievements in this field. Secondly, Peabo's work is not a detached and abstruse story about nucleotides and chromosomes, but a fascinating, sometimes very emotional first–hand narrative about how the formation of a new science took place. This, I would say, is a historical document that will be interesting to readers even 100 years later.

And the book "Neanderthal" is personal, even too personal. From it, the reader learns, for example, about the bisexual tendencies of Peabo, or about how the author drank vodka with academician Anatoly Derevyanko in Novosibirsk.

A cliched phrase comes to mind: "This man has an amazing fate." Imagine a guy who studied Egyptology and Russian, defended his thesis on immunology, and eventually began to extract genes from ancient people.

It all started in 1981 as a secret hobby, in the form of experiments on fried veal liver, the tissues of which, as the young experimenter believed, resemble the tissues of ancient mummies. Then – experiments on real Egyptian mummies ... first publications ... Then – genetics of extinct animals: marsupial wolf, zebra-quagga, mammoth, cave bear and, finally, Neanderthal.

The narrative is long, there are a lot of technical details that may tire someone. And it seems to me that this is a good thing – this is how the author managed to convey an idea that often escapes in the literature about scientists: science is a long, hard, routine work, sometimes fruitless. From the first experiments on Egyptian mummies to the publication of the Neanderthal nuclear genome, 25 years have passed, and all these years have been under the banner of the fight against contamination of samples, the fight for purity. In this struggle, Peabo shows downright manic pedantry. Otherwise, nothing would have happened! Reading the description of the precautions taken when working in the so–called "clean room" (the holy of holies, where the experiments themselves were carried out on ancient samples), you understand why paleogenetics is the lot of only a few laboratories in the world. When even one molecule can distort the results of an experiment, every little thing is important.

The life path of Peabo and his colleagues is a perfect illustration of the fact that in the XXI century scientific breakthroughs are not achieved by brilliant individuals, but by well-organized creative teams. Peabo, who managed to create and grow such a team, is a brilliant manager, he knows how to find the right people, motivate them, and – if necessary – part with the interfering frame ... The description of the publication in Science about the decoding of the Neanderthal genome is wonderful: the appendix to the article took 174 pages and consisted of 19 parts, each of which was prepared by its own division of the Peabo team. It is obvious that such a grandiose work is beyond the power of one person.

What else was especially interesting for me personally:

– Peabo paints a picture of the start of a new science in bright colors, with the enthusiasm characteristic of such a stage ... alas, sometimes also with inflated expectations, unfulfilled forecasts and failures. Peabo, probably like no one else, understood the extreme technical complexity of the task and how great the risk of error was. Therefore, he writes with obvious chagrin about precocious sensations, published with pomp even in reputable scientific journals: DNA from plants aged 17 million years… DNA from ancient amber or even from dinosaur bones. All these sensational results later turned out to be unreliable: what experts took for traces of ancient genomes was modern pollution. The enthusiasm has subsided, cautious professionals and expensive methods of detecting contamination have replaced the upstarts.

– The author pays attention, probably, to the most "cursed" issue of paleogenetics – the search for suitable samples. In order for DNA to be preserved in ancient remains, special conditions are needed. Cold dry caves, quick burial and some other circumstances are ideal (Peabo believes that even... cannibalism contributes to the preservation of genetics. When the bones are quickly cleaned of flesh, there are fewer opportunities for the reproduction of bacteria, the destroyers of any organic matter). Bones from the Croatian Vindija cave turned out to be especially promising, rich in "endogenous" DNA, and the Peabo team had to show miracles of diplomacy to get unique samples. Not in vain! It was the bone from Vindia that gave the world both the first mitochondrial and the first nuclear Neanderthal genome.

– Envy and admiration is caused by the story about how in the 90s of the last century in East Germany, in Leipzig, the Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology was created. With his help, the Max Planck Society for Scientific Research wanted to revive German anthropology, which was in decline after the Second World War. Peabo was made a co-founder director of the institute, and paleogenetics was one of the leading areas of research. The founders managed impressive funds, which allowed them to create the institute the way they wanted – to invite leading scientists from the USA, Great Britain, Switzerland, recruit a staff of 400 employees, create exemplary laboratories ... allocate special places for tennis tables and table football, install a 10-meter climbing wall at the entrance and even a sauna on the roof. Eh! Maybe someday we will create something similar in Russia…

After the praises – a little criticism. Peabo is a medical doctor by education, and judging by what he writes, he entered anthropology, as they say, "from the back door." And the scientist sometimes breaks out a certain snobbery in relation to classical paleoanthropologists (the author simply calls them "paleontologists"). These old men, without the help of geneticists, "could not even agree among themselves how to separate one archaic group from another." And the fact that anthropology is not a leading discipline for Peabo is felt. So, more than once or twice in the book there was a mention of the "Chinese race" (what kind of anthropological news?), and the expression "Neanderthals And people" wanders from page to page. For brevity, it's probably possible, but ... it hurts the ear. Aren't Neanderthals human?

Personally, I often have to communicate with paleoanthropologists, from whom you can sometimes hear grumbling, or even jealous attacks towards paleogenetics. Probably, this position does not contribute to building bridges between related sciences. It would be worthwhile for both of them to drop their swagger and listen to each other more.

And finally, what kind of author of a popular science book who came to Russia will not please the reader with at least a small dose of "cranberries about the country of bears"! And so, from the book of Peabo, we learn that in Novosibirsk, where scientists arrived for negotiations with Russian archaeologists, it is -41 degrees Celsius outside. Well, maybe in January. Peabo even indicates the date and time: January 17, 2010, the time is 6 am. Forgive me for my meticulousness, but I got into the Novosibirsk weather archive: at 6 am the thermometer showed -29 degrees. Fear has big eyes!

But then our heroes come to the hotel, and there, thanks to well-functioning batteries, the temperature is ... +40! But this is hard to believe. However, I perceive it as an artistic exaggeration, and this is unlikely to overshadow the reader's joy that the last chapters of the book relate to the fruitful cooperation of paleogeneticists with Russian scientists.

Paabo ends the book with a story about the impressive discovery of the Denisov man. And in the afterword by Elena Naimark we see the ladder of discoveries of the next few years:

– read the DNA of the oldest sapiens from Siberia (Ust-Ishim);

– the mitochondrial genome was decoded, and then parts of the nuclear genome of the Heidelberg man from Sima de los Huesos, aged 430 thousand years;

– a series of genetic data was obtained from ancient sapiens: Zhoukoudian, Malta, Mount Athos;

– the harm and benefits of the Neanderthal heritage in our DNA began to become clear;

– and going back to where paleogenetics began 30 years ago, work has been done to read the mitochondrial genome of 90 Egyptian mummies.

Well, the question that an outstanding Swedish scientist has been looking for the answer to for the last 30 years is what makes a person human? – it has remained open so far.

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