Eske Willerslev

Eske Willerslev



Eske Willerslev holds a Lundbeck Foundation Professorship at University of Copenhagen and is the director for Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics. He also holds the Prince Philip Chair in Ecology and Evolution at the University of Cambridge, UK. Additionally, Willerslev is a research associate the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Willerslev is an evolutionary geneticist. He is particularly known for sequencing the first ancient human genome and establishing the field of environmental DNA, where modern and ancient DNA from higher plants and animals are obtained directly from environmental samples. Willerslev was born in Denmark in 1971. After spending his youth as explorer and fur trapper in Siberia, he established the first ancient DNA laboratory in Denmark and obtained his DSc at University of Copenhagen in 2004. At the age of 33, Willerslev became Full Professor at University of Copenhagen - the youngest in Denmark at the time. Willerslev has been visiting researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Research Centre in Austin, Texas, independent Welcome Trust Fellow at Oxford, have been Visiting Professor at Oxford University, and a Miller Visiting Professor at UC Berkeley. Willerslev is a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences (US), member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, horary doctor at University of Oslo Norway, and University of Tartu, Estonia and holds the Order of the Dannebrog (issued by her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark).



Willerslev has broad research interest in the fields of ecology and evolution. He started out as an environmental microbiologist, then moved into the field of invertebrate systematics, and later into mammalian population genetics and community ecology. Over the past seven years Willerslev has focused major parts of his research in understanding processes forming contemporary human genetic diversity, distribution, and disease load. In his research, Willerslev is known for his multidisciplinary approach collaborating with researchers from many different fields such as archaeology, anthropology, palaeontology, chemistry, physics, statistics, and mathematics, but also philosophy. However, his primary experimental approach is ancient DNA: He was the first to establish the field of Ice Core Genetics (PNAS 1999), the field of ancient and modern Environmental DNA (Science 2003), and Ancient Human Genomics (Nature 2010), large-scale past population genetics/genomics (Nature 2011; Science 2014; Nature 2015), and large-scale past disease population genomics (Cell 2015).He has more than 200-peer-reviewed papers (first publication 1999), of which 50 are in the journals Nature and Science (3 in press, 31 as first or last author). He has supervised more than 60 students and post docs. He has communicated his scientific work to the public through multiple films, popular books. Among his scientific achievements are:


  • Establishing the field of ‘Ice Core Genetics’ - today a widely recognized and active research field
  • (PNAS 1999).
  • Establishing the field of ‘Environmental DNA’. Today widely recognized field (Science 2003).
  • Heading the team establishing a new theory of insect origins (Science 2006).
  • Heading team showing forested Greenland 400 thousand years ago from environmental DNA and showing survival of the Greenland ice sheet through the last interglacial opposite common beliefs at the time (Science 2007).
  • Heading the team finding oldest reproducible evidence of viable cells (bacteria) dating back ½ million years (PNAS 2007).
  • Heading team sequencing the first ancient human mitochondrial genome (Science 2008).
  • Heading team finding oldest evidence of human presence in North America – more than 14
  • thousand years ago, thereby establishing pre-Clovis occupation in North America (Science 2008).
  • Heading team sequencing the first ancient human nuclear genome, kick starting the field of ancient human genomics (Nature 2010).
  • Heading team sequencing first Aboriginal Australian genome revealing divergence of Aboriginal Australians 20-30 thousand years prior to the split of Europeans and Asians (Science 2011).
  • Heading the team conducting the first large-scale past population genetic study revealing that Late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions was largely driven by climatic changes rather than human overkill (Nature 2011).
  • Heading team finding evidence of trees in glaciated Scandinavia, contradicting common views that contemporary flora in Scandinavia derives from migrating species only that settled in Scandinavia after the last glaciation (Science 2012).
  • Heading the team (with Dennis Jenkins) finding evidence for multiple early cultures and pre-Clovis human DNA evidence in North America (Science 2012).
  • Heading team (with Ludovic Orlando) sequencing the oldest genome to date from a c. 700-thousand-year old horse pushing back long-term DNA survival more than 8-fold and revealing survival of full blooded wild Pavelski horses (Nature, 2013).
  • Heading the team establishing evidence of natural lateral gene transfer in bacteria of degraded and ancient DNA establishing that bacteria can regain ancient genetic profiles previously lost in evolution (PNAS, 2013).
  • Heading team discovering a dual origin for Native Americans showing a genetic connection between Western Eurasians and Native Americans (Nature, 2014).
  • Heading team establishing the first large-scale environmental DNA study revealing severe vegetational changes in the northern hemisphere over the past 50,000 years including loss of herbs associated with the extinction of the ice age megafauna (Nature, 2014).
  • Heading team sequencing the ancient Clovis genome showing contemporary Native Americans to derive directly from Paleo Americans and rejecting the Solutrian Hypothesis clamming Clovis to derive from Europeans (Nature, 2014).
  • Heading team establishing ancient genetic structure in Europe and establishing the divergence of Europeans and Asians to take place prior to 36,000 years ago (Science, 2014).
  • Heading team conducing the first large-scale population genomic study of the New World Arctic establishing two distinct migration waves into the New World Arctic (Science, 2014).
  • Heading team conducting the first true ancient population genomic study (Eurasia) (< 100 ancient genome sequences) revealing the Bronze Age Yamnaya expansion into northern Europe and Central Asia followed by a Late Bronze Age expansion from Europe into Asia, and timing the establishment of various phenotypic traits (Nature, 2015).
  • Heading team sequencing the genome of Kennewick Man showing him to be closely related to contemporary Native Americans and not Ainu or Polynesians as claimed, and resulting in President Obama signing document giving the remains back to the 5 Native American tribes that have claimed the remains for the past 20 years (Nature, 2015).
  • Heading team conducting the first large-scale genome study on peopling of the Americas showing divergence dates between Native Americans to date back 23 thousand years and basal split among Native American groups to happen south of the north American ice caps some 14 thousand years ago (Science, 2015).
  • Heading team finding the oldest direct evidence of plaque revealing plaque epidemics dating back at least 3 millennia years before commonly thought, but only acquired the genetic changes making it a highly virulent, flea-borne bubonic strain 3,000 years ago (Cell, 2015).
  • Heading team conducting the first metagenomics study on ancient sediments showing the succession history of Americas ice free corridor and excluding as route for the earliest Americans (Nature, 2016).
  • Heading first population genomic study of Aboriginal Australians revealing population structure dating back more than 30 thousand years (Nature, 2016).
  • Heading team conducting first study of sexual behaviour among early modern humans using genomics showing active avoiding of inbreeding among hunter gathers 34 thousand years ago (Science 2017) 

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