Studying the Ethics of Ancient DNA

One male and two female scientists working in the lab.
Participants and faculty collaborate at the 2019 Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) workshop at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. (Photo by Fred Zwicky)

In recent years, the study of ancient DNA, also known as aDNA, has rapidly advanced, providing important insights into a range of biological, historical, and social questions.

The study of aDNA has helped illuminate the evolution of diseases, ancient migration patterns, the impacts of European colonization and much more. However, the new knowledge gained through the study of aDNA hasn’t come without costs and controversies — particularly regarding the ethical use of human genetic material from the past.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $350,882 collaborative grant to the University of Connecticut, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and partners across the United States, Canada, and Europe to analyze the current ethical landscape of ancient DNA research. The team will also develop resources to enable more equitable and informed decision making for researchers and Indigenous communities in North America.

“In many cases, aDNA studies continue to fall in a gray area of ethical oversight, despite greater awareness by researchers of the potential pitfalls,” says Deborah Bolnick, associate professor of anthropology at UConn. “With this project, we will include Indigenous leaders in the conversation alongside researchers to attempt to build an ethical framework that encourages positive, collaborative relationships between scientists and Indigenous communities.”

The rights determined for living “human subjects” are often not applied in aDNA studies.  The looming ethical crisis has led to increasing skepticism of clinical health studies in Indigenous communities and distrust of researchers. This poses a problem since the expanding area of aDNA research could unlock countless questions and also has profound social, political, psychological, and legal implications for Indigenous communities in North America today.

The NSF-funded project will involve public lectures and workshops to bring together scientific and Indigenous leaders, publishing articles in academic and popular publications, mentoring a postdoctoral researcher and a digital platform with online resource kits for university classrooms, museums, ethics boards, Indigenous cultural preservation offices, journals, labs, and other stakeholders.

“This is a tremendously exciting project because it will both improve our understanding of the ethics of genomics and lead to practical, on-the-ground solutions for Indigenous communities and practitioners,” said Chip Colwell, Ph.D., senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and one of the principal investigators on the project.

Along with Colwell, the two-year project is under the direction of Deborah Bolnick (University of Connecticut), Jessica Bardill (Concordia University), Ripan S. Malhi (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Jessica Kolopenuk (University of Alberta), George Nicholas (Simon Fraser University) and Laura S. Weyrich (The Pennsylvania State University).

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