Svante Pääbo spoke on what Neanderthal DNA can reveal about their relationship to modern humans. Photo: Knut & Alice Wallnebreg Foundation/Magnus Bergström
Svante Pääbo spoke on what Neanderthal DNA can reveal about their relationship to modern humans. Photo: Knut & Alice Wallenberg Foundation/Magnus Bergström

Since its start in 1917, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (KAW) has given a total of 24 billion SEK (3 billion USD) to Swedish research. In 2016, it awarded 1.8 billion SEK (226 million USD). This makes it the largest private research-funding organisation in Europe. To celebrate the foundation's first 100 years, six scientific symposia are being held around Sweden. The one at Stockholm University's Aula Magna was held 15 September centred on molecular life sciences. Stockholm's three universities are strong in this field, thanks in part to the collaboration in SciLifeLab, which has KAW as its largest financer.

Four world-leading scientists and KAW-funded junior scholars presented their research. They came from Stockholm, Karolina Institutet, the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and Uppsala University (which are part of the SciLifeLab collaboration).

Gamers advance science

The morning featured proteins and structural biology. Carol Robinson, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, spoke about her studies of membrane proteins and lipids. Using mass spectrometry, she has pioneered the discovery of protein structures and how energy transfer works within cells.

Emma Lundberg from KTH spoke about her work mapping proteins as part of the Human Protein Atlas project. The project's researchers have assembled over 13 million images of different proteins in situ which require analysis. The images are analysed in a number of ways. The researchers can check the pictures themselves or computers can be taught to recognise and interpret the images. A third way is citizen research. In this case, there is a partnership with video game companies to incorporate image analysis into the games - there's even a character called "Professor Lundberg".

World-class microscopy in Stockholm

Nobel Laureate Rod MacKinnon
Nobel Laureate Rod MacKinnon

Rod MacKinnon, Nobel laureate and professor at Rockefeller University, talked about ion channels. They are a protein found in places like the membranes of nerve cells and make it possible for nerve impulses to travel throughout the body. These kinds of data and results require a cryo-electron microscope. Since the spring, the SciLifeLab in Solna has had two of them. Rod Mackinnon said that he was deeply impressed that Stockholm and KAW have started up so quickly.

"Stockholm is beating some top American Universities like Stanford and Harvard in this initiative."

The KAW researcher who spoke on this topic was David Drew at Stockholm University. His presentation was about the proteins that manage the transport of substances like sugar across cell walls.

Mosquitos: the world's most dangerous animals

Leslie Vosshall spoke on mosquitoes.
Leslie Vosshall spoke on mosquitoes.

The next subject was neurobiology. Leslie Vosshall, Professor of Neurogenetics and Behavior at Rockefeller University, spoke about the neurobiology of the world's deadliest animal, the mosquito, which spreads diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus.  Among other discoveries, she has identified carbon dioxide receptors in insects, which enable mosquitos to identify their proximity to humans and quickly find a victim. Her research is now aimed at how to make mosquitos and ticks uninterested in humans and to slow their rate of reproduction. So why do mosquitos bite some people more than others? It's about how they smell. Some people are just more "valuable" from a mosquito's perspective.

Marie Carlén from Karolinska Institute discussed her research into brain function through optogenetics, which uses light pulses to activate different brain areas. The research is focused on what is happening in brains with various psychiatric illnesses so that treatments can be targeted to the correct areas, and more generally to enhance our understanding of how the brain works.

Neanderthal DNA reveals our origins

Human origins was the day's last subject. Svante Pääbo, Professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and presumed favourite for the Nobel Prize, spoke about what Neanderthal DNA can reveal about their relationship to modern humans and the development of different genetic traits. Through his research he has developed techniques to analyse very small quantities of DNA from archaeological finds that are thousands of years old. Svante Pääbo's research proves that traces of Neanderthal genetics persist in today's Asian and European populations, making it certain that Neanderthal and humans coexisted in those areas at some time.

Mattias Jakobsson from Uppsala University spoke about how genetic studies of skeletal remains can illuminate how Scandinavia was populated during the Stone Age. Analysis of bones from Gotland, southern Norway, and other sites shows that there were two separate groups with different origins that populated Sweden - one from the west and one from the east.

"It was really cool to meet so many of the world's top scientists all in one day at Aula Magna. It's not just Sweden who wants to celebrate KAW's centenary", says Gunnar von Heijne, Professor in Theoretical Chemistry at Stockholm University and scientific director for the symposium.