Eske Willerslev

Recipient of the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Prize 2021

What is your research field?

I carry out research on DNA from ancient plants, animals, microorganisms and humans; their evolution and interaction in time and place.

What are the challenges of your research and what are your perspectives?

Understanding the past is the best foundation we have for understanding our present time – and for coming up with informed conjecture about the future. This applies to pressing topics such as the global climate challenge and its environmental consequences, and human migration. In this way, science is similar to the financial world, with which I have become familiar during my current MBA studies. 

Here, you make use of financial statements from firms to assess their current and future value for investing. A firm’s financial statements are not, however, a direct indication of either the current or future value of that firm, but rather an indication of the firm’s value in the past. Neither a scientific nor a financial understanding of the past is therefore a perfect tool for understanding the present or the future, but this is the best tool available to us.

How did you become interested in this research field?

When I was young, I spent a lot of time in the Siberian wilderness as an explorer and trapper. Here I met indigenous peoples who lived differently and spoke different languages. I found bones and teeth from extinct animals such as mammoths and steppe bison. I asked myself: How did all these different peoples end up here? What is their relationship with indigenous Americans? And why did many of the large Ice Age animals go extinct? 

These questions encompass far deeper questions, such as: How have humans become who we are today – with our differences and similarities all over the world? Why do species die out and new ones emerge? What drives these processes? These are absolutely fundamental questions for understanding what it means to be human and for the existence of life on our planet.

What are the most important realisations or discoveries you have made so far?

The three biggest discoveries I have made are the following:

Showing that we can reconstruct the present and past biological ecosystems of animals and plants from a lump of earth the size of a sugar cube. This discovery kick-started the research field that is now known as environmental DNA and used in numerous contexts i.a. to monitor animal and plant populations in seas, lakes and rivers, and on land.

Mapping the first genome from an ancient human. This has meant that I and others have been able to rewrite large parts of human history across the world and increase our understanding of why we humans became who we are today.

Discovering that pathogenic diseases driven by viruses and bacteria from the past are preserved in ancient human teeth, even if the skeletons show no signs of disease. This has meant that we have been able to investigate the development and spread of infectious diseases such as the plague, hepatitis B and smallpox in time and place. Many diseases have evolved very differently than was believed, and the discovery has laid the groundwork for us to now build up a catalogue of genetic modifications that these diseases will likely undergo in the future.

What does it mean to you to receive the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Prize?

I am extremely proud and honoured to be awarded the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Prize. It is a huge accolade both for me and my research centre. Access to free research funds that are not earmarked for a specific purpose is limited. So in purely practical terms this also means that we in my research centre can test the potential of some new laboratory analyses that we would not otherwise have been able to test. I am delighted about that and I hope it will pave the way for new, exciting findings concerning the interplay between genetics (heredity) and environment.

Background

I grew up in Hellerup north of Copenhagen and spent my academic career at the University of Oxford, the University of California, Berkeley and MD Anderson in Texas. For some time now, I have worked as a professor at the University of Copenhagen, first in the Niels Bohr Institute, later in the Department of Biology and the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and most recently at the GLOBE Institute in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. However, I will be moving to the University of Cambridge in England, where I am the Prince Philip Professor and now wish to focus my time.


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