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Researchers to sequence 10,000-year-old DNA to decode the evolution of mental health issues

The scientists aim to shed light on the evolution of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia

A team of international scientists will analyse the DNA of thousands of ancient human remains to map the genetic origins of neuropsychiatric diseases.

Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and his team of international researchers will build one of the largest genomic datasets ever created by sequencing the DNA from bones and teeth with some of the materials dating back 10,000-years.


The multi-disciplinary team of scientists, which include specialists in ancient genomics, neuro-genetics, population genetics, archaeology, linguistics, and experts in brain health, will focus on creating two unique subsets of genomic data in a bid to shed light on the evolution of neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

The first panel is a 5,000 ancient human genomes panel. The second panel will consist of ancient pathogen DNA that is associated with human diseases. Both panels, which will be made publicly available, will together advance understanding of the evolution of disease variance and its interaction with the human genome and pathogen pressure. The project will generate and analyse one of the largest sets of ancient human and pathogen genome panels ever created.

The world class team will use the NovaSeq Sequencing System from Illumina to map the interaction between DNA and diseases – the advanced new technology is capable of sequencing 20 billion ancient DNA fragments every two days.

Professor Willerslev, who is Prince Philip Professor at the University of Cambridge and Lundbeck Foundation Professor at the University of Copenhagen, said: “Over the past 10,000 years, humankind has experienced some of the greatest lifestyle changes in the history of our species. Our diet changed as we developed from hunter-gatherers into farmers, our settlement patterns changed, and there have been changes in pressure of infection from the pathogenic micro-organisms 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 neuropsychiatric diseases, so there is every reason to believe that the analyses of DNA from this period will show significant trends, giving us the ability to create new, publicly available reference sets to enhance both the scientific and healthcare communities’ understanding of disease evolution.”

Ultimately, it is hoped the project may provide a new approach to the development of medicines and other treatments to treat mental and neurological conditions.

Paula Dowdy, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Illumina, said: “It will be extremely valuable, if by going back 10,000 years, we can acquire new information about when, and under which environmental conditions, a brain disorder may have been introduced into human DNA.

“This project has the potential to influence future product developments in genetics and precision medicine by providing invaluable insights to those affected by mental health issues.”