Eske Willerslev

Motivation for awarding The Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize 2021

Where do we come from as humans and what has been our trajectory up to the present day? What diseases have followed us over the millennia? When, and for what reasons, did we migrate from continent to continent? These are big, basic human questions, and evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev has been using cutting-edge scientific methods to answer them. He was the first person to sequence and analyse an ancient human genome, and the first to sequence and analyse an aboriginal Australian genome.

Eske Willerslev is a Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Copenhagen and holds the Prince Philip Chair in Ecology and Evolution at Cambridge University. He is not only one of the best-known scientists in Denmark, but also acclaimed globally for his exciting research in ancient genetics.

Professor Willerslev has in many ways transformed not only his own research field of ancient genetics and evolutionary biology, but science as a whole. Twenty years ago, he demonstrated how to extract ancient DNA from fossils to elucidate the genetics of animals of the past. Furthermore, he was able to extract DNA from ancient sediment samples, thereby creating, and subsequently expanding, the field of environmental DNA. This opened up a new avenue of evolutionary ecology – from microbacteria to plants and mammals – in both modern and ancient sediments, freshwater and marine environments. The findings resonated in the international scientific community and led to both new insights and new methods.

In his research group, Professor Willerslev has successfully fused archaeology, ecology, medicine, genetics and biology. This unique combination enables him to enter crucial current debates on the environment, biodiversity and the climate by contributing a long-term perspective from his laboratory findings and precise interpretations.

Professor Willerslev’s unique scholarly profile is founded on his systematic collection and analysis of fossils, ancient coprolites, sediments and environmental samples to detect ancient DNA using next-generation sequencing methods. Genetic sequencing 20 years ago was both experimental and expensive. During the current pandemic, we have witnessed how sequencing has become so reliable and accessible that Denmark now employs it for all positive COVID tests. But a generation ago, Professor Willerslev was one of the first Danes to use these techniques and improve their use in science and society.

Professor Willerslev has trained numerous younger scholars from all over the world, who seek his scholarly guidance and inspirational mentorship. Many of his students are now accomplished research leaders in their fields, solidifying his great legacy in science. He is at ease both in the laboratory and on expeditions in Greenland, Canada and Siberia, and as such is a role model for a new generation of scholars with multiple skills. Respect and care for nature and for indigenous peoples have led Professor Willerslev on an activist path towards involving local populations more closely in research projects and respecting their agendas.

In recent years, Professor Willerslev’s transdisciplinary outlook and the wealth of data generated have given his research group opportunities to rewrite the history of humankind by tracing global migrations. His research on the evolution of pathogens has enabled him to explain the spread of diseases such as the plague, hepatitis B and smallpox across time and space. This again illustrates how Professor Willerslev’s research is always highly relevant.

Professor Willerslev is therefore awarded the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize 2021.

Read a profile of Eske Willerslev and watch a film about his research


The Prize Committee

Chair:

The President of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters

Marie Louise Nosch, Professor, SAXO Institute - Archaeology, Ethnology, Greek & Latin, History, University of Copenhagen

Members:

International members within humanities and social sciences:

• Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History, University of Leicester

• Heinrich Detering, Professor of Modern German Literature and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Göttingen

International members within the natural sciences:

• Carol Robinson, Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford

• Susanne Renner, Professor of Biology, Department of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis

Previous winners of the Carlsberg Foundation Research prize:

• Mette Birkedal Bruun (2017), Professor, Section of Church History, University of Copenhagen

• Andreas Roepstorff (2015), Professor, Director of the Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University

• Poul Nissen (2018), Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University

• Karl Anker Jørgensen (2017), Professor, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University