Advancing the ethics of paleogenomics

Featured Journal Content – Heritage Stewardship

27 April 2018 Vol 360, Issue 6387
Policy Forum
Advancing the ethics of paleogenomics
By Jessica Bardill, Alyssa C. Bader, Nanibaa’ A. Garrison, Deborah A. Bolnick, Jennifer A. Raff, Alexa Walker, Ripan S. Malhi, the Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) Consortium
Science27 Apr 2018 : 384-385 Full Access
Recent scientific developments have drawn renewed attention to the complex relationships among Indigenous peoples, the scientific community, settler colonial governments, and ancient human remains (1, 2). Increasingly, DNA testing of ancestral remains uncovered in the America s is being used in disputes over these remains (3). However, articulations of ethical principles and practices in paleogenomics have not kept pace (4), even as results of these studies can have negative consequences, undermining or complicating community claims in treaty, repatriation, territorial, or other legal cases. Paleogenomic narratives may also misconstrue or contradict community histories, potentially harming community or individual identities. Paleogenomic data can reveal information about descendant communities that may be stigmatizing, such as genetic susceptibilities to disease. Given the potential consequences for Indigenous communities, it is critical that paleogenomic researchers consider their ethical obligations more carefully than in the past.

Recent technological advances have also enabled paleogenomic studies of DNA from dental calculus, hair, coprolites, and even soil, providing alternatives to destructive analysis of the bones and teeth of ancestors. However, community engagement is still needed in these contexts. Indigenous perspectives on the sacredness of materials from the body and earth should be considered, and paleogenomic studies of these materials can have social, political, and legal consequences for Indigenous communities.

To aid the process of community engagement, we offer these guiding questions for paleogenomic researchers to consider:
:: In the absence of known descendant or culturally affiliated communities, which Indigenous peoples, tied to land where ancestors were buried, will be consulted?
:: Who is the appropriate community body (e.g., tribal council, tribal IRB, elders) or representative (e.g., tribal president, historic preservation officer) to initiate discussions with about paleogenomic analyses?
:: What are potential ethical pitfalls of this research or harms that could affect the community? What cultural concerns of the community, such as destruction of ancestral remains, need to be considered?
:: How will the community benefit from the paleogenomic research?
:: How will the community provide input on study design and interpretation of results? How frequently does the community wish to be contacted during the project?
:: When community members participate directly in the project (e.g., as advisers or laboratory technicians), will they coauthor research publications and presentations? How do communities and individuals wish to be recognized in research products?
:: What happens after the project ends? Who will have access to the data generated? How will remaining samples from ancestors be handled, stored, returned, or reburied?

Because Indigenous communities have diverse practices and views on genomics, the nature and structure of engagement will vary. Although it may not always be obvious how to proceed if different potentially linked communities hold differing views, we believe engaging with Indigenous communities should be as integral to the research process as hypothesis development…