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Ancient DNA Studied for Mental Health Clues

Eske Willerslev

Eske Willerslev (Illumina Inc.)

26 Mar. 2019. A lab studying DNA from past civilizations and the genomics technology company Illumina are investigating remains of ancient peoples for insights into today’s neurological disorders. The collaboration brings Illumina Inc., in San Diego, together with the GeoGenetics Centre at University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

A team led by evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev, director for Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics at University of Copenhagen, is seeking better insights into development of today’s mental and neurological conditions from changes in DNA over the centuries. Willerslev’s lab studies the genetics of ancient peoples and their environment, including extinct cultures and animal life. His work includes reports on the DNA of prehistoric people found in Greenland, as well as the woolly mammoth.

In the collaboration with Illumina, Willerslev and colleagues plan to map the genetic origins and evolution of mental health conditions. Their investigation will establish 2 panels of genomic data going back 10,000 years. The first collection will contain DNA data from 5,000 humans, sequenced from remains maintained by the university and its affiliated natural history museum. The second panel will have DNA from pathogens associated with human communities during those periods. Experts from a range of disciplines will analyze and correlate data from the 2 data sets, looking for associations and interactions that help explain changes in human genomes through those eras.

“Our diet changed as we developed from hunter-gatherers into farmers,” says Willerslev in an Illumina statement, “our settlement patterns changed, and there have been changes in pressure of infection from the pathogenic microorganisms to which we were exposed due to altered living conditions. We also know that chronic viral, bacterial, and fungal infections might be causative factors in neuro-psychiatric diseases, so there is every reason to believe that the analyses of DNA from this period will show significant trends, ….”

Illumina is providing access to its NovaSeq 6000 Sequencing System, which the company says is its most powerful system, to conduct the DNA analysis. The company says the high-throughput sequencing system contains modules to prepare specimen libraries, generate the DNA sequencing, conduct the data analysis, and interpret the results, as well as manage the end-to-end workflow. The NovaSeq 6000 is expected to sequence up to 20 billion ancient DNA fragments every 2 days.

The GeoGenetics Centre and Illumina plan to make available data from their analysis publicly available, expected to be among the largest sets of ancient human and pathogen genome panels ever created. “By making these genetic reference panels available to the scientific community,” says Willerslev in an Illumina feature story, “I’m sure there will be outputs that I can’t even think about today.”

Willerslev tells more about the project in the following video.

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