What we can learn from ancient DNA

Professor Eske Willerslev, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen will present the Faculty of Science Visiting Researcher Special Seminar, with a talk entitled, "What can we learn from ancient DNA?"

Next generation DNA sequencing has had a large influence on many aspects of genetic research,
but arguably one of the most profound impacts has been in the field of ancient DNA. From the retrieval of
just a few fragmented sequences of mitochondrial DNA, it is now feasible to sequence entire nuclear
genomes from the past. Likewise, while ancient DNA retrieval directly from environmental samples was
restricted by the practicalities of cloning it is now possible to conduct exhaustive surveys of past animal
and plant diversity using in depth sequencing of tagged amplicons. In this talk, I present some of the recent
technical breakthroughs and challenges in my groups work with ancient genomics and environmental DNA.
The presentation will showcase our recent sequencing of the first ancient human genome (a 4000 year old
Paleo-Eskimo), the genome of an historical Aboriginal Australian, the oldest genome sequenced to date (a
700,000 year old horse) using the 3rd generation Helicos platform, the Clovis genome from the Americas
(from a 12,600 year old human), the oldest human genome published to date (from a 24,000 year old child
from southern central Siberia). Analyses of these genomes have changed our view of human migration and
admixture in the past. I will also present some environmental DNA data, which includes evidence of the
earliest humans in North America, refugia of spruce in ice covered Scandinavia, and vegetation changes in
the northern hemisphere over the past 50 thousand years and its impact on the extinction of the ice age

Eske Willerslev holds a Lundbeck Foundation Professorship at University of Copenhagen and is the director for the Centre of
Excellence in GeoGenetics. He also holds the Prince Philip Chair in Ecology and Evolution, Department of Zoology, University
of Cambridge, and is a Sanger associated researcher. An evolutionary geneticist recognized for his studies on human
evolution and prehistory, megafaunal extinctions, and paleoecology, he is best known for establishing the fields of ancient
human genomics and environmental DNA, where modern and ancient DNA from organisms such as higher plants and animals
are obtained directly from environmental samples such as sediments, ice and water. Willerslev was born in Denmark in 1971.
After spending his youth as explorer and fur trapper in Siberia, he established the first ancient DNA laboratory in Denmark
and obtained his DSc at University of Copenhagen in 2004. At the age of 33, Willerslev became Full Professor at University of
Copenhagen - the youngest in Denmark at the time. Willerslev has been a visiting researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer
Research Centre in Austin, Texas and an independent Welcome Trust Fellow at Oxford. He is a foreign associate of the
National Academy of Sciences, member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, honorary doctor at University
of Oslo, and has been a Visiting Professor at Oxford University and a Miller Visiting Professor at UC Berkeley. He has authored
more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, including 43 papers published in the journals Nature and Science

Monday, March 14, 2016 - 13:00

John Day Lecture Theatre 1, Upper Campus, UCT