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Ancient-DNA Researchers Set Ethical Guidelines for Their Work

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In 2017, a team of scientists successfully extracted the DNA of members of a Pueblo community who were buried starting around 1,300 years ago in what is now Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The DNA suggested that these people had lived in a matrilineal society, with power passed down through generations of mothers.

The paper was a powerful example of how ancient DNA could illuminate the lives of people who died long ago.

It was also a case study in poor ethics, some researchers contended at the time. They alleged that the scientists had failed to consult with local tribes and used culturally insensitive terms, such as referring to a tribal ancestor as “cranium 14.”

Such criticisms have grown more numerous in the past decade as the practice of extracting DNA from ancient human remains has become more widespread, thanks to advances in genetic-sequencing technologies.

On Wednesday, an international group of researchers who work on ancient DNA articulated a set of ethical guidelines to ensure that their work does no harm, either to the once-living people they study or to the modern communities who have a stake in the matter. Their perspective, published in the journal Nature and translated into more than 20 languages, listed 64 authors from 31 countries, and represented every continent except for Antarctica.

The group met virtually starting in November 2020 to hash out the guidelines.

“This paper sets the steps toward new policies in aDNA research,” Hiba Babiker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, and an author on the paper, wrote in a message.

The researchers hope the guidelines “will be taken up by the wider community engaged in ancient DNA research,” Rodrigo Nores, a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina and an author on the paper, wrote in an email.

The paper specifies five general guidelines for ancient DNA researchers: that they follow local regulations, prepare a detailed plan before any study, minimize damage to human bones, make data available for re-examination and, to ensure respect and sensitivity, engage with all stakeholders before starting any study.

Many scientists who were not involved in the virtual meeting expressed support for the guidelines.

“I will say that it’s encouraging to see a group of scientists like this say we have talked about this standard of behavior and we’re willing to agree to it,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was not involved with the paper. “It’s a step forward for them to say at least we’re going to follow the law.”

But some researchers criticized the past actions of some authors of the guidelines, including several who worked on the Chaco Canyon paper.

“If I look at the five principles they’ve come up with,” said Maui Hudson, an associate professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, “they seem like they’re stating what they should be doing anyway and not really pushing toward the place where Indigenous communities would like them to be.”

Some outside researchers found the guidelines vague. “We need to be as sophisticated in our applications and understandings of bioethics and decolonial practice as we are with ancient DNA,” said Rick W.A. Smith, a biocultural anthropologist at George Mason University, who was not involved with the research.

Still other scientists, many of them Indigenous, who have written extensively about ethics in ancient DNA research, wondered why they were not asked to be involved.

A technician in the lab of David Reich, a paleogeneticist at Harvard, sandblasting a bone several thousand years old to isolate and extract DNA.Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

“I was a bit surprised that a meeting like this happened and that I was not invited,” said Nanibaa’ Garrison, a bioethicist and geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who works on the project aDNA Ethics, which is focused on the ethics of studying North American ancient DNA. “They talk about community engagement but fail to engage the community of researchers who have been involved in that space, too.”

Krystal Tsosie, a genetics researcher at Vanderbilt University, wrote in an email, “I feel like this entire paper is really geared toward excusing paleogenomicists’ extraction of data without the consent of communities.”

The authors of the new paper intentionally chose to invite only active practitioners of ancient DNA research, according to Kendra Sirak, a paleogeneticist at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors. They also emphasize that these guidelines come from a particular group of scholars in the ancient DNA community.

“We realized that what’s lacking in this field is a statement from a group of practitioners from all over the world, so that’s what we wanted to contribute here,” said Dr. Sirak, who works in the lab of David Reich, one of the leading experts in ancient DNA.

The new paper is not the first published set of ethical guidelines on the issue. In 2018, a group of scientists based in North America published guidelines for ancient DNA research — the first recommendations approved by a professional organization, the American Society of Human Genetics.

But concerns arose during the virtual workshop that the guidelines of that paper could not be extended worldwide, the authors said. “Our lab is global, and we heard from a lot of our collaborators who said those guidelines are good steppingstones but not universally applicable,” said Jakob Sedig, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Reich’s lab.

The task of creating globally applicable guidelines for ancient DNA research is daunting, as historical and cultural context and regulations vary widely across the world, the authors noted in the new paper. In the United States and Hawaii, where Indigenous peoples were historically displaced by white settlers, “it is critical to center Indigenous perspectives,” said Nathan Nakatsuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and an author on the paper. Elsewhere in the world, the authors contend that consulting with communities who live in the vicinity of a site or profess ties to it does not always make sense.

The fourth recommendation in the new paper, on making data available after publication to check the scientific findings, garnered much debate. The guidelines call making data fully open a “best practice,” but would require only that other researchers be allowed to confirm the accuracy of the original study.

Many authors made the case for fully open data, Dr. Sirak said; restricted data access could tilt the availability of such data to larger, well-funded labs, they argued. “But we saw instances where we could possibly justify limiting data if there were concerns,” Dr. Sirak said.

If any researcher can gain access to ancient DNA for new purposes, Mr. Hudson said, related communities would lose the opportunity to determine how the data is used.

Dr. Hawks suggested that ancient DNA could offer an unethical shortcut to modern DNA. “If you’re working on skeletal remains from a region of the world that we know historically was occupied by ancestors or relatives of an Indigenous group today, that’s an avenue to capitalize on information from an Indigenous group while circumventing these research ethics,” Dr. Hawks said.

The final guideline asks that researchers engage with stakeholders to ensure the research is conducted with respect and sensitivity to all people involved, living and dead.

Some outside researchers felt this guidelines siloed researchers and stakeholders. “Most of these guidelines seem to be about ancient DNA researchers working in isolation of communities and not with communities,” said Ripan Malhi, a genetic anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was not involved with the paper.

The authors on the new paper say they hope to continue the conversation around the ethics of ancient DNA. “I think every single one of us is open to having discussions now with a wider group of people,” Dr. Sirak said.

Dr. Malhi said: “I do like the conversation. But I guess I would want to see the conversation not erasing guidelines and topics and people that have been talking about ethics for a long time on genetics in the past.”

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