Conversations with: Professor Greger Larson

Today’s guest is Professor Greger Larson, Director of the Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network (Palaeo BARN) and Professor of Archaeology at the University of Oxford! Greger completed his BA in Environment, Economics and Politics at Claremont McKenna College, California in 1996. He then went on to study at the University of Oxford and the University of Colorado before receiving his PhD in Zoology in 2006. Greger’s research interests include evolutionary genomics, ancient DNA, domestication, human and animal dispersals and phylogenetics. He has published widely in high-impact journals such as Nature and Science, and his group’s research is often featured in the popular media.

Professor Greger Larson

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I’m a big fan of large scale change. My lab looks primarily, but not exclusively, into domestication as a model of large-scale evolutionary and cultural change that’s had a massive impact on our species. And, now, every other species on earth.

A picture (taken by coauthor and colleague David Meltzer) taken in November 2018 of Greger next to his whiteboard covered in human archaeological detail in blue and the dog record in orange, with northeast Asia on the left and North America on the right.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?

TV! First a series of programs by James Burke called ‘The Day the Universe Changed’ and ‘Connections’, and then a TV program about the origin of dogs which essentially said, we know nothing!  

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? How did you find your PhD experience?

My PhD used ancient DNA to investigate animal domestication. I completed it at the University of Oxford and my PhD supervisor was Alan Cooper. For the most part my PhD was as highly enjoyable and rewarding experience. I learned how much I love research and how amazing the people who do this for a living are.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I was an EMBO Postdoctoral Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden for two years, then an RCUK Fellow in Durham for 6 years, and I’m now a Professor at Oxford and the Director of the ancient DNA labs.

What current projects are you working on?

Lots of animals and ancient DNA. Dogs, pigs, chickens, rabbits, hares, rats and others besides. Plus, some pathogens and lots of additional projects that explore time and change and human relationships with other taxa.

Where do you hope these go in the future?

Answers! We want answers! And we’re keen to develop multidisciplinary perspectives on the history of our species and how we got to where we are now.

An illustration by Ettore Mazza for David Ian Howe’s Ethnocynology website (https://www.davidianhowe.com/ethnocynology) depicting Howe’s dog, Strider, with a human as the last ice age waned.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

That’s a tough question. I am proud of so many of them for different reasons, many of which are about the people and progression of the data and analysis and publication. We published a paper last year about how a mitochondrial locus can be used to assess the likelihood that any two species can hybridise and produce fertile offspring. It was a crazy idea and it took nearly 7 years from the initial idea to the published paper. It’s simple and counterintuitive and powerful. And a lot of great friendships and collaborations have been borne of the process.

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?

The ubiquity of gene flow between just about everything. Species are often pretty constrained phenotypically, but man, that’s clearly not stopping tons of individuals from having sex with lots of individuals beyond those species constraints. 

What would you be if you were not a scientist?

A stand up comic who is assured of his own superiority, but who has yet to convince a single other person.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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