23 January 2020

Professor receives award for research in human evolution

Research Award

Professor Rasmus Nielsen from University of Copenhagen reveals humanity's past and evolution through patterns in genomes. He receives the Villum Kann Rasmussen Annual Award of DKK 5 million for his research in evolution.

Image of professor Rasmus Nielsen.

Professor Rasmus Nielsen's research is transcontinental in scope, and he has built the statistical models behind many of the biggest research results in evolutionary biology.

He is a professor at Globe Institute, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, and the University of California, Berkeley, where he heads the Nielsen Lab in the Department of Integrative Biology.

Rasmus Nielsen receives this year’s Villum Kann Rasmussen Annual Award of DKK 5 million for his significant contribution to science and technology research, which is helping to boost Denmark as a research nation.

"Rasmus Nielsen's research has helped us to view human evolution in an entirely new way. By developing cutting-edge statistical methods to investigate how human genes have changed over time, he is helping to write history within evolutionary science. VILLUM FONDEN is proud to offer him the Villum Kann Rasmussen Annual Award in recognition of his outstanding research,” says Jens Kann-Rasmussen, chair of VILLUM FONDEN.

Rewriting the history of evolution

As an evolutionary biologist, Rasmus Nielsen works at the interface between biology, statistics, mathematics and computer science. He develops statistical models, calculation methods and programs that can handle genome data.

The genome can tell a story of large-scale migrations, of meetings with other human species and of population growth and decline. Mutations show how we have adapted to our habitats and living conditions, and it is even possible to see when they originated – and sometimes who they originate from.

The statistical methods developed by Rasmus Nielsen have been used to uncover the fact that the human genome contains DNA from Neanderthal and other human-like species.

"We humans and our various ancestors have exchanged DNA. And this is not something unique to us, the same is seen in many animal species. It is probably the most important finding we have made in my time. It has fundamentally changed evolutionary biology. Our evolution should not be drawn as a tree with branches, but as a network,” says Rasmus Nielsen.

Through the exchange of DNA, humanity has inherited adaptations that developed in closely related human species. And Rasmus Nielsen's research indicates that this may have been crucial to the spread and survival of humanity.

The award is given out on January 23, which is the birthday of the late Villum Kann Rasmussen. The Award of DKK 5 million, of which DKK 500,000 is a personal honorarium, is given out once a year. Read more about the Annual Award and previous recipients.


Professor Rasmus Nielsen, +15102065715, r.nielsen@sund.ku.dk