Eske Willerslev

Eske Willerslev

Monday, 19 November 2012, 16:00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Eske Willerslev, University of Copenhagen

Hunting our Molecular Past with Ancient DNA


In the past two decades, ancient DNA research has progressed from the retrieval of small fragments of mitochondrial DNA from a few specimens to large-scale studies of ancient populations, reconstructions of past environments, and whole genome sequencing. Increasingly, ancient genetic information is providing a unique means to directly test theories in archaeology, palaeontology, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Initial results have changed the way we look at long debated topics such as the massive extinction of ice age mammals, early peopling of the Americas and early spread of modern humans outside Africa.


Eske Willerslev is director for Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics and the National CryoBank and Sequencing Facility, situated at the National History Museum and the Biological Institute, University of Copenhagen. The centre currently facilitates 50 people.

During his PhD, Eske established the first ancient DNA facility in Denmark, which, despite its small size, rapidly became internationally recognized for, among other things, establishing the fields of ancient sedimentary and ice core genetics, which have since become world-wide scientific disciplines. After finishing his PhD studentship, Eske obtained a prestigious Wellcome Trust Fellowship to join the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, UK – a world-leading institution in many fields of research, including ancient DNA. Recently, at the age of 33, Eske was called back to the University of Copenhagen to commence the position of a Full Professor, first at the Niels Bohr Institute and later at the National History Museum and Biological Institute. In addition, he has been awarded the prestigious position of Visiting Professor by Oxford University.

Eske Willerslev is an internationally recognised researcher in the fields of ancient DNA, DNA degradation, and evolutionary biology. He has 20 publications in Science and Nature, and 139 publications in other high profile peer review journals such as The Lancet; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); Current Biology; American Journal of Human Genetics; Systematic Biology; Molecular Biology and Evolution; TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution; TRENDS in Microbiology; PloS Biology; Genetics; Genome Research; Geology; Nucleic Acid Research; and Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. His research interests include: palaeoecology, palaeontology, archaeology, domestication, climatology, ancient microbial biology, DNA degradation and repair, exobiology, phylogenetics, molecular evolution, barcoding, and genomics.

Eske Willerslev has served as a reviewer for various grant agencies and journals including the NSF (US), Nature; Science; and PNAS. He is an invited member of the International Mars Cyroscout drilling team (NASA), and scientific organiser for the 3rd and 4th Mars Polar Conferences (NASA). He has been an keynote or invited speaker at more than 70 international conferences and meetings, has successfully applied for and been awarded more than 50 large research grants and academic prizes in Denmark, UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and the EU, and has supervised more than 50 MSc students, PhD students, and post doctoral associates.

Eske Willerslev has strong collaborations with world leading scientists in Europe, US, Canada, and Russia, and participated in 12 international polar expeditions, 5 of which he led. He has communicated his work to the public through documentary films, books, popular articles, museum exhibitions and numerous national and international TV, newspaper, and magazine interviews.

Recent publications

1. Parducci L, et al. and Willerslev E. Glacial Survival of Boreal Trees in Northern Scandinavia. Science 335, 1083-1086 (2012).

2. Rasmussen M, et al. and Willerslev E. An Aboriginal Australian genome reveals separate human dispersals into Asia. Science 334, 94-98 (2011).

3. Waters MR, et al. and Willerslev E. Pre-Clovis Mastodon Hunting 13,800 Years Ago at the Manis Site, Washington Science 334, 351-353 (2011).

4. Lorenzen DE, et al. and Willerslev E. Individualistic species responses to climate and humans determine Late Quaternary megafaunal extinction and survival Nature 479, 359–364 (2011).

5. Funder S, et al. and Willerslev E. A 10,000-year record of Arctic Ocean sea ice variability – View from the beach Science 333, 747-750 (2011).

6. Rasmussen M, et al. and Willerslev E. Ancient genome sequence of an extinct palaeo-eskimo. Nature 463, 757–762 (2010).

7. Gilbert MT, et al. and Willerslev E. Paleo-Eskimo mtDNA Genome Reveals Matrilineal Discontinuity in Greenland. Science 320, 1787-1789 (2008).

8. Gilbert MT, et al. and Willerslev E. DNA from Pre-Clovis Human Coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science 320, 786-789 (2008).

9. Willerslev E, et al. Ancient Biomolecules from Deep Ice Cores Reveal a Forested Southern Greenland. Science 317, 111-114 (2007).

10. Glenner H et al. and Willerslev E. The origin of insects Science 314, 1183-1184 (2006).