New research programme on human evolution

4 June 2018

: The newly built “ancient DNA” lab is specially equipped to enable researchers to work with degraded DNA.

Since the beginning of February, the University’s research on human evolution has been brought together in a new research programme. The aim is to strengthen the research environment to make it possible to take on larger and more challenging questions.

Portrait of Mattias Jakobsson, Uppsala University
Mattias Jakobsson is responsible for the newly
initiated programme. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“There is a clear difference when research teams with different strengths, but with a common goal, are brought together under one umbrella,” says Mattias Jakobsson, Professor of Organismal Biology and Programme Coordinator.

It is hoped that the formalisation of a research programme will make it easier to expand and recruit staff. It also guarantees greater stability and a more long-term perspective.

“We pair the programme with doctoral education, which enables us to identify this as a subject and create an environment for creative thinking that brings together different skill-sets.”

Getting the new programme up and running has been a lengthy process that began several years ago.

“New programmes are established very rarely. Sure, it would have been good if it had gone a little faster, but at the same time I understand that there has to be a process in which many people are involved to ensure that this is the right way to go,” says Jakobsson.

Growing research domain

Human evolution as a research domain has been around for a long time at the University, but it has become increasingly robust and has been very successful in recent years, with several major publications and an annual turnover of between SEK 15 and 20 million per year. Today there are about 30 researchers working towards the goal of better understanding human prehistory and evolution.

“It can be done in various ways, such as by looking at bones as osteologists do. But what has happened during the last few years, which has led to a dramatic change for the subject field, is that we can extract lots of DNA from people who lived many thousands of years ago. It gives us completely new possibilities for examining human evolution and prehistory with an innovative approach,” Jakobsson explains.

Some of the research has mainly focused on prehistoric DNA with strong interdisciplinary links with other research programmes at the University, such as archaeology.

“The core is genetics, but here you will also find engineers who have studied computer science, bioinformaticians, archaeologists and osteologists.”

Specially equipped laboratory

An important part of the work is the new laboratory, which opened in March last year. It is specially equipped to enable researchers to work with degraded DNA.

“Half of the lab is our research lab. When we built it, we learned that SciLifeLab wanted to invest in what is known as an ancient DNA facility, so we then built that part into the lab.”

Personnel are currently being recruited, and the idea is that the facility can be used by researchers in various fields.

“They will be able to benefit greatly from our research because we know the methodology, but in a somewhat longer perspective, this will become a research service for everyone who works with degraded DNA,” says Jakobsson.