Hugo Zeberg

Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2023


Dr Hugo Zeberg
Karolinska Institutet and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

How does Neanderthal ancestry affect the risk of disease? 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that our prehistoric inheritance affects us. About one in three people who were hospitalized carried a gene variant derived from the Neanderthals. Wallenberg Academy Fellow Hugo Zeberg will now investigate how other gene variants from prehistoric humans affect our health. 

In 2010, when researchers succeeded in mapping Neanderthals genes, they discovered that part of their genome lives on in us. Since then, studies have shown that Neanderthal gene variants appear to play a role in our immune systems - they increase the risk of severe COVID-19, but also provide protection against HIV.  

Dr Hugo Zeberg, Karolinska Institutet and the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, will now systematically study how our genetic inheritance from both Neanderthals and their East Asian relatives, the Denisovans, influences our health. He will look for new gene variants and utilize medical databases in Europe and Asia to find links to diseases. As a next step, he will investigate the impact of the different gene variants on our cells, to see whether he can prove a causal molecular link to specific diseases. 

Another aim of the project is to map how gene variants that affect our immune system have changed throughout history and, for example, the impact that epidemics have had on them. The hope is that this new approach to disease risk will provide surprising knowledge that can be used to develop new treatments.  

Photo Patrik Lundin