Pontus did his PhD at Uppsala University, Sweden, in evolutionary genetics, where he worked on the genomic analysis of Neolithic Europe. This was followed by a postdoctoral research fellowship in David Reich's lab at the Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, where he studied the population history and historical admixture in the Americas, South Pacific, and Africa.
He now leads the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Crick. But what is ancient genomics? And why is the Crick interested in it?
Pontus describes the field as ‘one of the most interdisciplinary that there is right now’ — not merely in the Crick, but in science as a whole.
It brings together research from a diverse and wide range of fields, including anthropology, archaeology, history, evolution, biochemistry, statistics and computational genomics, in order to understand our evolutionary past through materials (DNA fragments) available to us now.
"You can think of ancient genomics as a kind of time-travel. We examine the human genome through time and space, which helps us to understand the processes that have shaped our biology and that are still shaping our biology today.
"For example, through ancient DNA we are able to investigate the transition in human societies from hunting and foraging to agriculture. Furthermore, we can investigate the impact and effects of this transition on human diet and human biology.
"I’m particularly excited about the possibility of studying genetic variants that changed very rapidly, or at least rapidly on evolutionary timescales."
Pontus argues that ancient genomics has brought about a revolution in our understanding of human evolution, analogous to the radiocarbon dating revolution that took place in ancient history, anthropology, archaeology and geology.
Coming to the Crick
"The Crick’s mission to understand the biology underlying human health and disease fits perfectly with my research. Contemporary human biology is a direct product of evolution and ancient genomics is the best way to study human evolution directly.
"I didn’t really know what to expect from the Crick when I applied. I saw the call for application online, but I had mainly been looking in the US. The location and the strategy were both attractive, not only to me, but also because I thought it would also be attractive to others, and so would help me recruit the best people for my lab.
"The culture and the vibe of the place was amazing when I came to visit. Although I’m Swedish, I felt much more like a typical American tourist in London!"
Getting off the ground
Since joining the Crick, Pontus’ main priorities have been recruitment, establishing relationships with key STPs and getting his special ‘clean room’ up-and-running. Things have been progressing well on all fronts.
He has successfully recruited PhD students from Imperial College London and LSHTM, as well as postdocs from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and the Sanger Institute.
Working in the lab's ‘clean room’ involves wearing a full suit, visor and double gloves to handle the ‘forensic’ amounts of DNA within ancient human and animal skeletal samples, the raw materials of their research.
"Often when scientists use this kind of set-up it’s intended to stop harmful stuff getting out. For us, it’s about not letting non-harmful stuff in! We have to make sure no external DNA gets in and contaminates our samples."