Presenting... Anthropologist Victoria Oberreiter

The ancient DNA under our feet

Traces of human life are not only found in fossils but also in sediments. In the video, doctoral candidate Victoria Oberreiter explains how she develops new methods to retrieve ancient DNA from "dirt" to get a better insight into our past.
The time machine of human DNA: Watch the video to find out more about Victoria Oberreiter's research project. © Benjamin Furtlehner

"Most people would probably associate sediments with the dirt underneath their feet. But what if I tell you that with my research, we are able to extract traces of human life from exactly that source?" Victoria Oberreiter, PhD candidate at the Vienna Doctoral School of Ecology and Evolution, says. Her research, which is part of the University’s research platform MINERVA, focuses on extracting ancient DNA from mineralogical sources. 

Ancient DNA is commonly retrieved from skeletal material and teeth. "But as you might know, fossils are very rare and this is where my research comes into play," the PhD candidate explains. Therefore, her research project sets out to develop cutting-edge methods for extracting human DNA from alternative sources such as Palaeolithic cave sediments, speleothems (mineral deposits in natural caves) and whatever deposits ancient humans left for us to find.

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Archaeological sediments are a much more abundant resource and are easily accessible even at excavation sites where no skeletal remains have been uncovered. "This new approach to anthropological deposits allows us to answer a broad range of questions in our field," the anthropologist says: "Such as about human ancestry, human behaviour, dietary composition and so much more."

More than human DNA

In addition to ancient human genomes, sediment DNA also yields the genomes of ancient mammals. "This allows us to draw conclusions about the palaeoclimate," Oberreiter says. Feather sediments can preserve the genetic material of ancient pathogens. "This gives us information about the co-evolution of these pathogens and humans. These two topics have become increasingly important to our society; especially so during the last couple of years," the young scientist explains. 

Teamwork in the lab

Going abroad on excavations, bringing the samples home to the dedicated clean rooms, processing the samples and bioinformatically analysing the sequencing data: The work of Victoria Oberreiter covers a wide range of tasks. "But fortunately, I am supported by my team of two young and ambitious female scientists who spend their days in the lab extracting DNA from our samples," says the researcher happily.

"The University of Vienna was a great choice"

When Oberreiter first joined the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Vienna she immediately felt welcome: "I was given the chance to develop and flourish as a young scientist. And our new Doctoral School of Ecology and Evolution adds another layer to this by encouraging us PhD students to network and to present our research to the scientific community. All in all, the University of Vienna was and continues to be a great choice for conducting my research." 

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Victoria Oberreiter is a PhD candidate at the Vienna Doctoral School of Ecology and Evolution. As part of the University's research platform MINERVA, she is working on her PhD project which focuses on extracting ancient DNA from mineralogical sources.