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5 October 2022
UWC computational biologist collaborated with Nobel Prize winner
Biologist and University of the Western Cape (UWC) graduate Janet Kelso worked side-by-side with the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine recipient, Svante Pääbo.

Kelso is currently the Group leader of The Minerva Research Group for Bioinformatics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

She is a world-renowned computational biologist and has done groundbreaking research comparing DNA from previous humans with those of the present. 

Kelso worked with Nobel Prize recipient Pääbo on key pieces of research, including the genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia and the complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains.

In awarding Pääbo the Nobel Prize, The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska noted that: “Through his pioneering research, Svante Pääbo accomplished something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans.

“He also made the sensational discovery of a previously unknown hominin, Denisova. Importantly, Pääbo also found that gene transfer had occurred from these now extinct hominins to Homo sapiens following the migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago. This ancient flow of genes to present-day humans has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune system reacts to infections.”

UWC was an integral part of Kelso’s academic journey which led her to work with Pääbo. She did her PhD in bioinformatics at the South African Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI), one of UWC’s flagship institutes. In 2004, Kelso was a Postdoctoral Researcher at UWC.

Dean of Natural Sciences, Professor Burtram Fielding, said they are proud of Kelso and her achievements. “UWC has a long and proud history of training graduates who have made major contributions to the sciences. Janet working in the laboratory of a Nobel Laureate is testament to that. I am sure that Janet will continue to make UWC proud, and we look forward to celebrating her achievements as a leading scholar."

Kelso told The Scientist publication that Pääbo is a “generous mentor and friend” and added: “We are, of course all absolutely delighted at the news and the recognition that this award provides of Svante’s foundational innovations in the field of ancient DNA, and of the insights, his work has provided into Neandertals, Denisovans, and the complex history of modern humans…His efforts laid the groundwork for what is now a flourishing field with many contributors worldwide.”

Photo credits: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology