Alan Cooper received an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship award in 2004 that allowed him to move from Oxford University (where he was Director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre) to Adelaide in 2005 to establish the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. He specialises in using ancient DNA to record and study evolutionary processes in real time, especially those associated with environmental change. His work ranges over timescales of hundreds to thousands of years. His research uses multi-disciplinary approaches, combining information from such areas as geology, archaeology, anthropology and even forensics to provide novel views of evolution, population genetics and palaeoecology.
Recent highlights from Professor’s Cooper’s research include the use of Ice Age mammal populations to record the effects of environmental change; the first complete mitochondrial genome sequences of any extinct species (two New Zealand moas); and the study of how evolutionary rates change over time.
Professor Cooper’s current research features studies of Australian megafaunal species, permafrost preserved material from the Arctic and Antarctic, ancient human DNA (modern human, Neanderthals and Flores hominids), and DNA from sedimentary deposits (marine, terrestrial and freshwater). He is also heavily involved in developing new molecular biology techniques to both improve the ability to recover DNA from the past (nuclear genomes, mass sequencing approaches), and to analyse the authenticity of DNA data. This involves recording how DNA is damaged over time, and the effects on retrieved sequence information (which is relevant for forensics work).
Current fieldwork areas include Australia, Beringia and North America, South America, South Africa, China and New Zealand.
The Australian Centre for Ancient DNA is an international standard research facility formally opened by the Premier, Mike Rann, in August 2006. It provides the specialist equipment and ultra-sterile working environment required for the study of minute traces of preserved genetic material.
The centre has been designed as a focal point of evolutionary research in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly around the impacts and timing of environmental change (e.g. climate, humans) on animals, plants and microbes. It measures the genetic records preserved in bones, teeth, leaves and seeds, faeces, and other remains from caves, museums and even sediment cores taken from lakes, rivers and marine sites.
Another major research focus is the use of molecular clocks to estimate the timing of past evolutionary events. Recent work with ancient DNA data suggests that evolutionary rates may change according to the time period over which they are measured. This has major implications for our ability to date recent evolutionary events.