Illumina to sequence 10,000-year-old DNA to find how brain disorders began

sunrise sunset (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)
To power the mammoth project, Illumina aims to use its NovaSeq 6000 system to sequence up to 20 billion ancient DNA fragments every two days. (Mike Dano)

Illumina, taking a deep dive into the genetics of human history, plans to help map individual DNA fragments spanning thousands of years in a hunt for clues into today’s mental health issues and neurological conditions.

As part of a collaboration with the Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, the project aims to understand the evolutionary history of neuropsychiatric diseases, as well as any infectious pathogens or microbes, with the ultimate goal of finding new approaches for drugs and precision treatments.

By completely mapping the DNA from thousands of ancient Eurasian human remains—with data gathered from bones and teeth as old as 100 centuries—the researchers hope to build a large dataset into the genesis of illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.


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“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,” Paula Dowdy, Illumina’s general manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said in a statement.

When complete, the publicly available dataset will be split into two subsets of genomic data: a panel of 5,000 ancient human genomes, and a panel of ancient DNA from pathogens or microbes associated with human diseases.

“Over the past 10,000 years, mankind has experienced some of the greatest lifestyle changes in the history of our species,” said team leader Eske Willerslev, the Prince Philip Professor at the University of Cambridge and the Lundbeck Foundation Professor at the University of Copenhagen.

“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,” Willerslev said.

“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,” he added.

To power the project, Illumina brings its most powerful system, the NovaSeq 6000, with the goal of sequencing up to 20 billion ancient DNA fragments every two days.

“While we conceived this project to explore the evolutionary origins of genetic disorders years ago, it was simply impossible to realize before Illumina’s NovaSeq System came on the market,” Willerslev said.

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