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New Danish Center Integrates Ancient Genetics, Geosciences

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Centre for Geogenetics opened its doors today at the University of Copenhagen, with the goal of integrating Danish expertise in ancient genetics and geosciences to study longstanding questions in Pleistocene palaeontology, anthropology, and palaeoclimate.

Located within the Danish Natural History Museum, the new center said it will focus on five subjects: Human colonization of the Americas; causes of the late Quarternary megafungal extinctions, human migrations into the Arctic northern extremes; climate changes and reconstruction of past environments and habits; and fundamental behavior of ancient DNA as obtained from sediments.

"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," Eske Willerslev, the center's director and a professor of molecular biology, said in a statement.

One research project has the center using novel aDNA techniques on a number of Danish human remains from the Mesolithic period, from the transition period and from the Neolithic period, to learn whether culture or migration best explains the transition of humans from hunter-gatherers during the Mesolithic period into farmers in the Neolithic period. Another project applies special non-destructive DNA extraction protocols to retrieve DNA from older museum insect specimens, and investigates the possibility of retrieving mitochondrial DNA from insect specimens up to 200 years old.

"This has many applications in population genetic studies combing genetic information from new populations and old/extinct populations. Hence, the species' former effective population size, meta-population structure, etc., could be estimated," according to the center.

Earlier this year, Willerslev and his PhD student Morten Rasmussen led an international research team that reported it had sequenced an ancient human genome using DNA isolated from preserved hair samples found in Greenland's permafrost.

The Centre for Geogenetics said in the statement that its staff of 55 includes DNA researchers, geologists, archeologists, and scientists with expertise in physics, chemistry, and paleontology.

The center features two laboratories dedicated to manipulation of sources of degraded DNA. Each lab contains several internal sub-laboratories, and is equipped with facilities for sample storage, DNA extraction in dedicated laminar flow hoods, and PCR set-up in dedicated isolated rooms. The center also has a suite of labs for extraction and post-PCR analysis of modern DNA; as well as separate laboratories where sources of high-concentration DNA are stored, maintained at positive air pressure, and sourced with HEPA-filtered air.

The center has access at the National High-Throughput DNA Sequencing Centre to two Roche FLX and two Illumina GAII sequencing platforms and the laboratory equipment required to build different sequencing libraries; as well as computers dedicated to the analysis of data generated on the sequencing platforms.

The center has received DKK 50 million (about $8.6 million) from the Danish National Research Foundation, as well as additional funds from numerous foundations and institutions.

To mark its opening, the center has organized the three-day Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology, a Sept. 8-10 international conference set to be attended by some 250 researchers from the US, Asia, Europe, and several Latin American nations.

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