CNN — The fast-expanding field of ancient DNA, formally known as paleogenetics, came of age in 2022, earning its pioneering scientist Svante Pääbo a Nobel prize for medicine and physiology.
Pääbo, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, developed methods to recover, sequence and analyze ancient DNA from fossils — a feat that took decades. Researchers are using the techniques today to answer fundamental questions about human history and the planet’s deep past
Many of the discoveries upend assumptions about prehistoric times. When Pääbo’s lab in Leipzig sequenced the first Neanderthal genome in 2010, many were startled to learn that our own species Homo sapiens encountered and had babies with Neanderthals.
Paleogenetics has continued to tease out astonishing secrets from DNA hidden in bones, teeth — even dirt. Here are seven things we learned in this fascinating and emerging field in 2022.
[SIZE=6]The Black Death’s origins and legacy[/SIZE]
The Black Death, the world’s most devastating plague outbreak, killed half of medieval Europe’s population in the space of seven years in the 14th century, shifting the course of human history.
But research published in October suggested it was more than luck that determined who lived and who died. Analysis of centuries-old DNA from both victims and survivors of the Black Death identified key genetic differences that helped people survive the plague, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
That genetic legacy continues to shape the human immune system today, with genes that once conferred protection against the plague now linked to a greater vulnerability to autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s and rheumatoid arthritis. Science magazine named the discovery one of its top breakthroughs of 2022.
Ancient DNA also shed light on the origins of the plague outbreak that caused the Black Death — work detailed in a study published in June.
Genetic material extracted from skeletons buried in a graveyard in Kyrgyzstan, where tombstones referred to a mysterious pestilence, revealed the DNA of the plague bacterium — which scientists call Yersinia pestis — in three people who died in 1338, several years before the disease entered Europe in 1347.
Medieval well mystery
Construction workers breaking ground in 2004 on a shopping mall in Norwich, England, discovered 17 bodies at the bottom of an 800-year-old well.
To understand more about how the six adults and 11 children whose remains were found there died, scientists were recently able to extract detailed genetic material preserved in the bones thanks to advances in ancient DNA sequencing.
The genomes of six of the individuals showed that four of them were related — including three sisters, the youngest of whom was 5 to 10 years old. Further analysis of the genetic material suggested that all six were “almost certainly” Ashkenazi Jews.
Judaism is primarily a shared religious and cultural identity, but as a result of a long-standing practice of marrying within the community, Ashkenazi Jewish groups often carry a distinctive genetic ancestry that includes markers for some rare genetic disorders.
The researchers believe they all died during antisemitic violence that wracked the city — most likely a February 1190 riot related to the Third Crusade, one of a series of religious wars supported by the Catholic church.