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Saturday, 10 December 2022 07:40 GMT

What's Next For Ancient DNA Studies After Nobel Prize Honors Groundbreaking Field Of Paleogenomics


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(MENAFN- The Conversation)

For the first time, a Nobel Prize recognized the field of anthropology, the study of humanity. Svante Pääbo, a pioneer in the study of ancient DNA, or aDNA, was awarded the 2022 for his breathtaking achievements sequencing DNA extracted from ancient skeletal remains and reconstructing early humans' genomes – that is, all the genetic information contained in one organism.

His accomplishment was once only the stuff of Jurassic Park-style science fiction. But Pääbo and many colleagues, working in large multidisciplinary teams, of our distant cousins, the famous Neanderthals and the more elusive Denisovans, whose existence was not even known until their from a tiny pinky bone of a child . Thanks to interbreeding with these early humans, their genetic traces , shaping our bodies and our disease vulnerabilities – for example, to .

The world has learned a startling amount about in the last dozen years since Pääbo and teammates' groundbreaking discoveries. And the field of paleogenomics has rapidly expanded. Scientists have now sequenced . Ancient DNA has addressed questions ranging from the origins of the to the domestication of and , the spread of and our bodies' adaptations – or lack thereof – to . Ancient DNA can even shed light on of marriage, kinship and mobility. Researchers can now sequence DNA not only from the remains of ancient humans, animals and plants, but even from their .

Alongside this growth in research, people have been grappling with with which skeletal collections around the world have been sampled for aDNA, leading to broader conversations about . Who should conduct it? Who may benefit from or be harmed by it, and who gives consent? And how can the field become more equitable? As an who partners with geneticists to study , I see both challenges and opportunities ahead.

Building a better discipline

One positive sign: Interdisciplinary researchers are working to establish for research design and conduct.

In North America, scholars have worked to address inequities by designing programs that . These are now expanding to other historically underrepresented communities in the world. In museums, are being put into place. They aim to minimize destruction to ancestral remains, while gleaning the most new information possible.

But there is a long way to go to develop and enforce community consultation, ethical sampling and data sharing policies, especially in more resource-constrained parts of the world. The divide is especially stark when looking at where , funding and research publications are concentrated. It leaves fewer opportunities for scholars from parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas to be trained in the field and lead research.

The field faces structural challenges, such as the relative lack of funding for archaeology and cultural heritage protection in lower income countries, worsened by a and looming . These issues strengthen the regional bias in paleogenomics, which helps explain why some parts of the world – such as Europe – are so well-studied, while Africa – the and the – is relatively understudied, with shortfalls in , and .

Making public education a priority

How paleogenomic findings are interpreted and communicated to the public . Consumers are regularly bombarded with advertisements for personal ancestry testing, . But lived experiences and decades of scholarship show that biological ancestry and socially defined identities .

I'd argue that scholars studying aDNA have a responsibility to work with educational institutions, like schools and museums, to communicate the meaning of their research to the public. This is particularly important because people with political agendas – – .

For example, white supremacists have . It's a falsehood that would be laughable to many livestock herders from Africa, one of the multiple for genetic traits enabling people to digest milk.


The 2010 excavation in the East Gallery of Denisova Cave, where the ancient hominin species known as the Denisovans was discovered. Bence Viola. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Toronto, Leaning in at the interdisciplinary table

Finally, there's a discussion to be had about how .

Ancient DNA research has grown rapidly, sometimes without sufficient conversations happening beyond the genetics labs. This oversight has provoked a from archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and linguists. Their disciplines have generated decades or even centuries of research that shape ancient DNA interpretations, and their labor makes paleogenomic studies possible.

As an archaeologist, I see the aDNA“revolution” as usefully disrupting our practice. It prompts the archaeological community to reevaluate . It challenges us to publish archaeological data that is sometimes only revealed for the first time in the supplements of paleogenomics papers. It urges us to grab a seat at the table and help drive projects from their inception. We can design research grounded in archaeological knowledge, and may have longer-term and stronger ties to museums and to local communities, whose partnership is key to doing research right.

If archaeologists embrace this moment that Pääbo's Nobel Prize is spotlighting, and lean in to the sea changes rocking our field, it can change for the better.


The Conversation

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