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About Allan Wilson at Otago

Allan Wilson at Otago is a University of Otago Research Theme which explores the health and histories of New Zealand populations. Using evolutionary genomics we study humans, plants and animals.

We seek to answer:

  • What are the health implications of our biologically diverse human population, can our approaches to health be improved?
  • What shaped our unique flora and fauna, and how might we protect them?
  • What are the social implications of genetic technologies, past, present and future?
  • How does our ethnic diversity influence our sense of identity as New Zealanders?

Allan Wilson's legacy

Professor Allan Wilson
Professor Allan Wilson (1934-1991).

The late Allan Wilson was one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th Century, and one of the principal founders of the subdiscipline of Molecular Evolution.

A graduate of the University of Otago, Wilson unravelled the origins and relationships among modern humans with an approach to research characterized by the development and application of new techniques. Using protein and DNA sequences, Wilson revealed first that the human divergence from our common ancestor with chimpanzees was more recent than ever imagined, and second that all modern humans shared a common and recent African ancestry.

These two major findings gained widespread public attention. Wilson also pioneered the idea that human variability could not be readily explained by variation in protein coding genes, and that regulation of gene expression was likely at the heart of much of that variability—prescient thinking that is now central to disease susceptibility.

View George Andrews' 2008 documentary, Allan Wilson: Evolutionary at the NZ On Screen website

New frontiers for disease susceptibility

Allan Wilson at Otago will carry on the legacy of the late Allan Wilson by reconstructing the biological, linguistic and cultural history of humans using cutting edge tools and technologies in genomics and bioinformatics.

We focus on understanding recent human evolution and migration, the similarities among all humans, as well as the genetic differences that emerge among groups as they have dispersed. This includes their interactions with the natural environments, the resulting epigenetic changes and adaptations that have taken place along the way, and the potential roles these may have on the susceptibility or resistance to particular diseases.

London group provide DNA swabs
New Zealand expats gather in London to contribute DNA swabs.

Our work has a strong New Zealand focus, but will tie into internationally significant programmes such as National Geographic’s Genographic Project and the UK’s Biobank project.

Steering Committee

Mr Gary Wilson
Mr Gary Wilson, family representative.

The Steering Committee guides the research direction of Allan Wilson at Otago.

We are delighted to have Mr Gary Wilson, Allan's brother, as a Wilson family representative.

Visit Our people for more information about our researchers