For ‘ancient DNA’ researchers, ethics never go extinct


Every human being deserves respect – even humans who walked the Earth 10,000 years ago.

So says an international assemblage of modern-day scientists – more than 60 scholars from 31 countries – who have created a set of “ethical guidelines” determining best practices for collecting and analyzing ancient DNA specimens.

The guidelines – published Wednesday in the British scientific journal Nature – establish a set of global standards for field and laboratory researchers. Such rules have taken on a sense of urgency in recent years, as the technology of aDNA research has quickly advanced, with unavoidable societal and political side effects.

The authors – among them Elizabeth Sawchuk, a research assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Anthropology – include archeologists, anthropologists, geneticists and other scientists who came together in a virtual November 2020 workshop specifically to tackle the touchy issue.

Elizabeth Sawchuk: Accountable anthropologist.

For starters, the five dozen experts agreed that recommendations regarding research on human remains unearthed in North America “are not always generalizable worldwide,” according to their published paper – there are simply too many local customs, too many international laws, too many taboos.

From that starting point, the team conceived “five globally applicable guidelines” designed to respect regional conventions, satisfy scientific curiosities and remember, always, that the fossilized remains were once actual people, with certain human rights that don’t simply vanish over time.

The guidelines state that local regulations must be followed to the letter; that researchers must prepare a “detailed plan” before beginning a field study; that damage to uncovered remains must be minimized; that all aDNA data must be made available to other scientists (post-publication) “to allow critical re-examination of scientific findings”; and that researchers must “engage with other stakeholders from the beginning of a study” and ensure their concerns are addressed.

Sawchuk – who is also a research associate of the Turkana Basin Institute, which conducts scientific studies in Northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana Basin – said the creation of global standards for aDNA research marks a major turning point for the rapidly evolving, somewhat intrusive science.

“Since the first fully sequenced ancient human genome was published in 2010, we have been operating in what some have characterized as a rather chaotic ancient DNA revolution,” Sawchuk noted. “After years of public outcry to establish clear universal guidelines for ethical research in this field, our paper attempts to do just that.”

Can you dig it: Sawchuk, at work in the Lake Turkana Basin.

Since that first ancient human genome – revealing the DNA sequence of an extinct Paleo-Eskimo from Greenland, recovered from 4,000-year-old permafrost-preserved hair – was published in 2010, genomic data from some 6,000 ancient humans has been recovered. This rapid expansion has provided a treasure trove of information about past human populations, everything from genetic adaptations to migration patterns.

It’s also opened a Pandora’s Box of ethical questions, and with most of the answers to date based on North American cultural standards, the need to formalize a set of global standards – including conferences with indigenous populations, museum curators and others with connections to ancient peoples – became clear.

With the new guidelines in place, a “high ethical standard in DNA research on human remains” will reset the tone of the entire scientific field, according to Sawchuk and her colleagues.

“As our only direct link to people who experienced life in the past, human remains must be respected and carefully conserved,” the Stony Brook scientist noted. “We must balance the potential benefits of aDNA research with the impacts on skeletal collections, and always remember that we are studying other human beings.

“I think our guidelines will fundamentally shift the way the field operates,” Sawchuk added, “and will have a long-lasting impact.”


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