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07 September 2010

A new centre is attracting researchers worldwide

Geogenetics

On 7 September 2010 internationally acclaimed DNA researcher Professor Eske Willerslev and his team open the doors of their new Centre for Geogenetics, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The centre is part of the Danish Natural History Museum at University of Copenhagen. Even prior to its opening the centre has attracted great attention in scientific circles, not least because it will consolidate the Danish lead in DNA research in connection with the mapping of human migration, extinct and lost human races and fauna, and in particular our understanding of climate and environmental changes in the past. This may be of huge importance to the future of climate research and contribute to tackling some of the huge problems we face today.

Willerslev and Rasmussen in the laboratory.

Willerslev and Rasmussen in the laboratory.

Less than a year ago Professor Willerslev and his colleague Morten Rasmussen were able to announce a worldwide sensation by reconstructing and mapping the genome of a human being from a long-extinct culture lost in the distant past.

A National Geographic film unit is currently working with the National Geographic television station in Copenhagen on a major feature about the two researchers. The unit went to Greenland on a field trip with Professor Willerslev and has now returned to Copenhagen to tell the story of Inuk, the "reconstructed" but long-dead Greenlander. He was among the first humans to settle in Greenland 5000 years ago. They failed to thrive, and the harshness of their habitat led to their disappearance.

Professor Willerslev has been the centre of international scientific attention before: he obtained genetic proof that the first people to inhabit North America were the forbears of today's Indians; a delicate issue because the right to land in many locations in the US has been hugely controversial.

The 39-year old Danish professor says in connection with the opening of the Centre for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen today:

- "DNA research began in the 1980s and attracted great attention in the 1990s. Today it has exploded thanks to new techniques and analytical methods. I have no doubt that over the next five years we will achieve historic breakthroughs on a number of points because we are now able to delve more precisely into the past: points such as our self-perception and our similarities and differences as human beings, or to put it another way, are we all descended from the same prehistoric human beings on this earth, or do we modern humans differ?"

The subjects the centre will be studying include:

  • Human colonization of the Americas.
  • Causes of the Late Quarternary megafaunal extinctions.
  • Human migrations into the Arctic northern extremes
  • Climate changes and reconstructing past environments and habitats
  • Fundamental behaviour of ancient DNA obtained from sediments.

- "In lay terms you might say the new techniques yield much better understanding of the way we human beings have moved around the globe and ended up where we are today. We can also use analyses of the climate in the past to tell us about today's problems with more powerful storms, temperature increases and more rain. In this connection we can also look at what happened to the now red-listed polar bear 8000 years ago when the temperature rose by three degrees. And I am convinced that there will be a huge number of side benefits from our research, including the treatment of diseases such as cancer and sclerosis, and genetically more accurate analyses of unfamiliar viruses and bacteria in connection with various types of infection or the way the body reacts to diseases like Ebola or bird flu", Professor Willerslev emphasizes.

Globally Unique

The Centre for Geogenetics is the only one of its kind and the first ever. Indeed, "geogenetics" is a term invented to cover it. You won't find the word in scientific dictionaries.

- "The centre is unique because it builds a bridge between the natural sciences and the humanities. My fifty-five staffs include DNA researchers, geologists, archeologists, and scientists who know about physics, chemistry and paleontology, and we have close contacts with people from the world of medicine. All in all the result is greater scientific dynamism compared to other places where researchers work in seclusion and isolation from each other", says Professor Willerslev.

The Centre for Geogenetics has received DKK 50 million from the Danish National Research Foundation and funding from a range of other foundations and institutions, which have also provided large sums. Eske Willerslev continues:

- "There are three things that must be in order if we are to maintain our leading position globally:

  1. The organizational framework and facilities must be in order
  2. We have to be able to attract the right researchers from Denmark and abroad
  3. Our funding has to be in order because the competition in our field is so intense internationally. Or we will lag behind.

If these conditions are met I am convinced that Copenhagen will be a magnet to many top researchers involved in understanding the past and the present, and thereby calculating "the future" more accurately, Professor Willerslev concludes.

In connection with the opening of the new centre there will be a three-day international conference in Copenhagen attended by 250 researchers from the US, latin America, Asia and Europe.

Contact:

Professsor Eske Willerslev (tel +45 2875 1309) or Journalist Svend Thaning (+45 2875 4281)