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Profile of Danish researcher tackles the ethics of studying ancient DNA

I read with interest today this fantastic profile of Danish researcher Eske Willerslev, PhD, by the always-awesome Carl Zimmer in today’s New York Times. I recognized Willsersley’s name because he’s been a collaborator with Stanford geneticist Carlos Bustamante, PhD, in the past. I’ve written often about Bustamante’s work, most recently about the genomic study of Kennewick Man, whose 9,000 year-old-remains were discovered in Eastern Washington state in 1996.

In that study, Bustamante, Willerslev and other colleagues showed that the ancient skeleton was more closely related to Native American groups that to any other population in the world. The finding was important because the skeleton’s provenance had been hotly contested by Native American groups in the region, some of whom felt the remains should be returned to them for burial rather than kept for further study.

I was particularly interested to read in the article not just about the arc of Willerslev’s career, but also about the evolution that occurred in his thinking about the ethics of studying ancient human DNA from different ethnic groups. This was illustrated by events surrounding Willerslev’s study of an ancient human hair sample from a long-dead aboriginal Australian. One of the co-authors of that study felt that the researchers should have sought the consent of living aboriginal Australians before conducting the analysis.

Zimmer writes:

At first, Dr. Willerslev didn’t understand the fuss. “My view was that human history belongs to all of us because we’re all connected, and no people have a right to stop our understanding of human history,” he said.

But Dr. Willerslev decided to travel to Australia to meet with aboriginal representatives. He was shaken to learn of the unethical history of scientific research on aboriginal Australians.

Victorian anatomists plundered burial grounds, for example, and carried off bones to put in museums. Years of such exploitation had left many aboriginal Australians suspicious of scientists.

Today, geneticists who want to study aboriginal DNA need to obtain consent not just from donors, but from community organizations. And in many cases, there are limits on how widely scientific results can be shared.

“Paying attention now, I could see why they had this skepticism and resistance,” Dr. Willerslev said. “In retrospect, I should have definitely approached those people before undertaking the study. Just because it’s legally right doesn’t make it ethically right.”

The whole article is worth a read if you’re into studies of ancient human DNA, or just like to read good science profiles.

Previously: Kennewick Man’s origins revealed by genetic study
Photo in thumbnail, of bust showing how Kennewick Man may have looked, by Brittany Tatchell/Smithsonian