World gene-mapping project hitting snags
An effort to use indigenous people's DNA to determine ancient migrations has met opposition in Alaska, where some say the research could challenge cultural traditions or threaten tribal rights.
The New York Times
SOUTH NAKNEK, Alaska — The National Geographic Society's multimillion-dollar project to collect DNA from indigenous groups around the world in the hopes of reconstructing humanity's ancient migrations has come to a standstill on its home turf in North America.
Billed as the "moon shot of anthropology," the Genographic Project intends to collect 100,000 indigenous DNA samples. But for four months, the project has been on hold in Alaska as it scrambles to address questions raised by a group that oversees research involving Alaska natives.
At issue is whether scientists who need DNA from aboriginal populations to fashion a window on the past are underselling the risks to present-day donors.
Geographic-origin stories told by DNA can clash with long-held beliefs, threatening a world view some indigenous leaders see as vital to preserving their culture.
They argue that genetic ancestry data could jeopardize land rights and other benefits based on the notion that their people have lived in a place since the beginning of time.
"What if it turns out you're really Siberian and then, oops, your health care is gone?" said Dr. David Barrett, a co-chairman of the Alaska Area Institutional Review Board, which is sponsored by the Indian Health Service, a federal agency. "Did anyone explain that to them?"
Such situations have not come up, and officials with the Genographic Project discount them as unlikely. Spencer Wells, the population geneticist who directs the project, says it is paternalistic to imply that indigenous groups need to be kept from the knowledge that genetics might offer.
"I don't think humans at their core are ostriches," Wells said. "Everyone has an interest in where they came from, and indigenous people have more of an interest in their ancestry because it is so important to them."
But indigenous leaders contend scientific evidence that American Indians or other aboriginal groups came from elsewhere could undermine their moral basis for sovereignty and chip away at their collective legal claims.
"It's a benefit to science, probably," said Dr. Mic LaRoque, the Alaska board's other co-chairman and a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe of North Dakota. "But I'm not convinced it's a benefit to the tribes."
Who went where?
The pursuit of indigenous DNA is driven by a desire to shed light on questions for which the archaeological evidence is scant. How did descendants of the hunter-gatherers who first left humanity's birthplace in East Africa some 65,000 years ago come to inhabit every corner of the Earth? What routes did they take? Who got where, and when?
As early humans went in different directions, distinct mutations accumulated in the DNA of each population. Like bread crumbs, these genetic markers, passed on intact for millennia, can reveal the trail of the original pioneers. All non-Africans share a mutation that arose in the ancestors of the first people to leave the continent, for instance. But the descendants of those who headed north and lingered in the Middle East carry a different marker from those who went southeast toward Asia.
Most of the world's 6 billion people, however, are too far removed from wherever their ancestors originally put down roots to be useful to population geneticists.
The Genographic Project is focusing on DNA from people still living in their ancestral homelands because they provide the crucial geographic link between genetic markers found today and routes traveled long ago.
In its first 18 months, the project's scientists have had considerable success, persuading more than 18,000 people in off-the-grid places such as the east African island of Pemba and the Tibesti Mountains of Chad and Libya to donate their DNA.
When the North American team arrived in southwestern Alaska, it found volunteers offering cheek swabs and family histories for all sorts of reasons.
The council members of the Native Village of Georgetown, for instance, thought the project could bolster a sense of cultural pride.
Glenn Fredericks, president of the Georgetown tribe, was eager for proof of an ancient unity between his people and American Indians that might create greater political power. "They practice the same stuff, the Lower-48 natives, as we do," Fredericks said. "Did we exchange people? It would be good to know."
Others said the test would force an acknowledgment that they were in Alaska first, undermining those who see the government as having "given" them their land.
For many nonindigenous Americans, the project has also struck a chord: Nearly 150,000 have scraped cells from their cheek and sent them to the society with about $100 to learn what scientists know so far about how and where their individual forebears lived beyond the mists of prehistory.
By giving the broader public a way to participate, the project has created an unusual set of stakeholders.
More details, the project explains in the ancestral sketches it gives individuals, will come only with more indigenous DNA.
Unlike the earlier Human Genome Diversity Project, condemned by some groups as "biocolonialism" because scientists may have profited from genetic data that could have been used to develop drugs, the Genographic Project promises to patent nothing and to avoid collecting medical information.
The project has designated half the proceeds from the sale of kits to the public for programs designed to preserve traditional cultures and language.
The project's geneticists are finding every region has its challenges; in many instances, they must first navigate an unfamiliar tangle of political, religious and personal misgivings.
Pierre Zalloua, project director in the Middle East, faces suspicion that he is an emissary of an opposing camp trying to prove their lineages are not important. Himla Soodyall, the project's South African director, finds herself trying to explain to people who worship their ancestors what more her research could add. In Australia, some aboriginal groups have refused to cooperate.
But among the 10 geneticists the society has given the task of collecting 10,000 samples each by spring 2010, Theodore Schurr, the project's North American director, is in last place. Fewer than 100 vials of DNA occupy a small plastic box in his laboratory's freezer at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an assistant professor of anthropology.
At the request of the Alaska review board, he has sent back the 50 or so samples he collected in Alaska to be stored in a specimen bank under its care until he can satisfy their concerns.
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