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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


SBU professor will track ancient European tribes through DNA analysis

The Life Sciences building, right, located next to the Institute for Advanced Computational Science. Assistant professor Krishna Veeramah, a population geneticist in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, will be sequencing the genomes of an ancient European tribe. EMMA HARRIS/STATESMAN FILE

Stony Brook University assistant professor Krishna Veeramah, a population geneticist, will be sequencing the genomes of an ancient European tribe in order to track their migration and how it affected medieval Europe.

In October, the Institute for Advanced Study received a 10 million euro grant from the European Research Council for their genome sequencing study, HistoGene. The project will attempt to further develop theories about the migration of people who lived in the Carpathian Basin, or modern day Hungary, from 400-900 C.E.

Over the next two years, the six scholars involved will analyze the DNA found in medieval European cemeteries to see how the migration of the Avars tribes affected the general population of Europe. 

“The study that my colleagues and I are conducting will show people the limits of what we can tell about past people,” Veeramah said. “If we have information from history, from archaeology, and genetics, what inferences can we make?”

Four researchers in Europe with a variety of backgrounds will be analyzing more than six thousand graves in order to determine how the Avars migrated across medieval Europe. The team consists of Patrick Geary, a medieval historian from the Institute for Advanced Study; Johannes Krause, a biochemist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany; Walter Pohl, a historian from the Austrian Academy of Sciences; and Tivadar Vida, an archaeologist from the Eötvös Loránd University. 

Veeramah collaborated with Geary on a 2018 study on the migration of the Lombards, a tribe that emerged in Central Asia in about 500 C.E., around the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. They sequenced DNA and examined Lombard archaeological remains to track the tribe’s migration from China to Europe.

The pilot study received early support from the European Research Council, an organization in Europe that funds research across the continent, which inspired them to offer Geary and his team the funds to conduct the HistoGene study, based on their previous success.

“The size of the grant will make possible an extraordinary advance in both our understanding of Europe’s population during a crucial historical period as well as in developing new procedures to integrate natural scientific and humanistic scholarship in a common effort,” Geary said.

The HistoGene study, according to Veeramah, will take the same framework of the pilot study and incorporate it on a larger scale. 

“We saw that the pilot study worked and it revealed many interesting things,” he said regarding the revolutionary methods used to sequence the DNA. 

Deven Vyas, Veeramah’s postdoctoral assistant at Stony Brook, believes that the HistoGene study will increase the understanding of the Avars — the tribe that will be the main focus of the HistoGene study. 

Vyas said that the study will help the team “understand how many people moved, how much movement there was [and] what lasting impact it had. It’s important to know the long term implications of these migrations.”

According to Veeramah, researchers in Hungary will collect samples and researchers in Germany will extract the DNA. After the DNA is extracted, Veeramah and his research team will sequence and analyze the data.

“The six-year study is in its early stages, so it is going to be a while before any DNA gets sequenced,” Veeramah said. 

Veeramah will not be involved until the second year of the study. He said that after receiving the grant, the next step will be for the European team to start collecting samples and extracting DNA from archaeological sites. 

“The Stony Brook research team is going to be here preparing [to receive] the data, developing methods and things like that,” Veeramah said. 

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