Meet the Israeli scientist exploring ancient DNA

Through painstakingly extracting DNA from cave sediment and dating it, researchers can learn more than ever before about these ancient hominids.

The secret to healing what ails you lies within your own DNA (photo credit: DREAMSTIME)
The secret to healing what ails you lies within your own DNA
(photo credit: DREAMSTIME)
The keynote speaker at the ScienceAbroad Life Sciences Symposium Online Meeting that will take place on December 1 will be Dr. Viviane Slon, a senior lecturer in the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology and the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at Tel Aviv University, who is eager to discuss her latest research on ancient DNA.
It’s the first keynote for the young Israeli scientist, who is working on extracting the DNA of ancient hominids, particularly Neanderthals and Denisovans, from sediment found in caves. The prestigious science magazine Nature included Slon in its list of the top 10 researchers who most influenced science in 2018. She was also a recipient of the Dan David Prize in 2017.
ScienceAbroad is an Israel-based nonprofit organization that connects Israeli scientists living abroad. The network advances scientific achievements, tries to bolster the Israeli identity of scientists living overseas and helps facilitate the return of these scientists to Israel.
It was started in 2006 and has more than 4,000 members across 300 campuses and has established 31 branches worldwide run by scientists who volunteer their time. More than 1,200 ScienceAbroad members have returned to Israel. Slon, who recently completed her post-doc at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and returned to Israel, is just the kind of scientist that ScienceAbroad is interested in working with.
Facing the COVID-19 crisis, ScienceAbroad is extending its activities this year and reaching out to scientists around the world and across disciplines with its global Israeli Science Symposium Series, which is starting with the December 1 event. The symposium, which will open with remarks by Prof. Rivka Carmi, is open to all researchers, in both academia and the biotech industry. The event will be held live on Zoom and will also be broadcast on Facebook Live.
Slon is looking forward to speaking about new ways of working with ancient DNA.
“As you go back further in history, the odds of finding skeletal remains get smaller and smaller. In the past, DNA studies of ancient hominids were limited by the fossil record,” she said. “But DNA can be preserved in sediment for thousands of years.”
Through painstakingly extracting DNA from cave sediment and dating it, researchers can learn more than ever before about these ancient hominids. “We can see who was alive even tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. I believe this technique has a great deal of potential,” said Slon.
She is researching Denisovans, an extinct species of archaic humans believed to be similar to Neanderthals, that apparently interbred with early humans. The first Denisovan remains were discovered in a cave in Siberia where researchers found remains that were dated to about 15,000 years ago and some of which, researchers now believe, were actually from nearly 200,000 years ago. The name Denisovan comes from Denis, a hermit who reportedly lived in the cave in the 18th century.
Last month, an article on Denisovan remains found in Tibet on which Slon was one of the authors was published in the journal Science. Scientists have believed for years that Denisovans lived in east Eurasia, Slon said, but this is the first time they have been able to sequence DNA from sediment outside Siberia and prove that there were Denisovans there.
Slon is currently setting up a lab at TAU that will enable researchers to study ancient DNA in depth. Handling and studying ancient DNA is much trickier than testing more recent DNA and the lab must be set up according to exact specifications.
“We have to take specific measures not needed when working on modern DNA, with both skeletal remains and sediments,” she said. “DNA is degraded by time and exposure to the elements.” Heat is particularly detrimental to DNA, she added, citing the fact that the oldest DNA that has been dated comes from a 700,000-year-old horse found in Yukon permafrost in Alaska, while the oldest DNA discovered in Africa is a relatively recent 15,000 years old.
Continuing her work during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for Slon, who said that some of her field work in Europe has been postponed due to the crisis. But there are upsides as well.
“You end up working more online and you meet a lot of people you wouldn’t have been in contact with otherwise,” she said.
Discussing her upcoming research, she said she has “come up with some surprises, but they are not published yet, so I can’t talk about them.”
Dr. Yael Marantz, head of Nonclinical Development at Teva Pharmaceuticals, which sponsors ScienceAbroad and the conference, said: “Teva is happy to continue, especially this year, its cooperation with the ScienceAbroad organization in order to bring minds back to Israel.
This is a first-rate national mission to bring back to Israel the talented scientists and researchers who have accumulated knowledge and experience in some of the world’s leading academic institutions in order to improve and advance the Israeli industry, which is in one of its most challenging periods in the face of the corona outbreak.
In the days when the whole world must be resourceful, [ScienceAbroad] promotes collaboration, and develops and promotes innovation. In order to adapt to the new reality, we in Israel must continue to excel and lead, and to that end we must mobilize the best minds by our side.”
A link to the online conference can be found at: