Uncovering 5,000 years of genetic evolution: from the Stone Age to the 21st century

Pontus Skoglund.

Pontus Skoglund

The Crick’s Pontus Skoglund has been awarded a £1.7m Wellcome Trust grant to unearth new insights into human evolution and disease. 

The Investigator Award is funding research into how the genetics of people in Britain changed over thousands of years including in response to events like infectious disease, changes in diet and urbanisation. 

By identifying what genetic changes took place and matching these changes against key moments in history, the study will uncover new insights into the evolution of humans and disease. 

It is only by looking back through history that we’re able to fully understand how we evolve, and why.
Pontus Skoglund

Over five years, researchers will sequence the whole-genomes of more than 1,000 ancient British people, using skeletal samples from the last 5,000 years. Together with world-leading data linking genes and disease traits that exists for British populations, they will build a highly-detailed picture about the genetics of people who have lived in Britain. Additional information about gender, family connections and disease from a further 2,000 individuals will also help to answer questions about archaeology and history.

“It is only by looking back through history that we’re able to fully understand how we evolve, and why,” says Pontus Skoglund, group leader in the Ancient Genomics Laboratory. “Integrated with data from the present, the record of human genetic evolution in Britain will be the most fine-scale of any place in the world, helping everyone around the world learn how evolution responds to changes in society and in the environment around us and how our genes are impacted.” 

The research will use the latest methods in sequencing and analysing DNA from ancient samples. Much of this work will take place in a specially-built ancient DNA facility at the Crick which will prevent contamination from the present-day reaching the historic samples. It will also draw on experts from a wide range of fields including archaeology, history and epidemiology.  

Thomas Booth, Senior Laboratory Research Scientist and the Crick’s only bioarchaeologist by training says: “Working with skeletal material from so many time periods, more than any project like this before, is so exciting. In a way, it’ll allow us to travel back in time to see how events like the Roman conquest, the Black Death or the Industrial Revolution changed the biology of people who lived in Britain.” 

Audrey Duncanson, Genetics and Molecular Sciences Portfolio Manager at Wellcome, says: "This area of research by the Crick's Ancient Genomics Laboratory is incredibly exciting. The analysis will truly illuminate how human evolution and our health have been linked in Britain for thousands of years."

All ancient genomic data gathered throughout the project will be made publicly available, providing a valuable resource for studying short-term human evolution. 

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