Looking Back to the Future

$15.5 million grant galvanizes ancient DNA research, collaboration

Three brown skulls against a dark background
Ancient bones, such as these skulls from a site in what is now the Czech Republic, provide genetic material that enriches our understanding of human evolution. Images © Martin Frouz and Jiří Svoboda

Ancient DNA research has exploded onto the scene in the last decade, churning out insights into the human past—from Neanderthal ancestry to the identification of “ghost” populations to genetic shifts that accompanied the transition from hunting and gathering to farming—that both enrich and challenge what we know from established fields such as archaeology and linguistics.

The work has raised a host of new questions regarding what ancient DNA can tell us not only about our past and present but also our future, as well as how the field itself can evolve in the most effective and ethical manner.

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Now, Harvard Medical School has received a $15.5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation—one of the largest awards in the foundation’s history—to lead the ancient DNA community in exploring these questions.

The Ancient DNA Atlas of Humanity, led by David Reich, professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, will quintuple the number of published ancient human genome sequences, creating a database of 10,000 individuals spanning 50,000 years.

Such a database “would not have been possible to create by other means,” said Reich.

He added that the grant is “a grand bet” on the power of ancient genomics “to enhance and deepen our understanding of who we are and how we’re related to one another.”

The main goal of the initiative is to expand the study of human evolution and the origins of disease, including how genetic changes in the past have shaped present-day disease susceptibility.

Initiative leaders also hope the results will illuminate “humanity’s capacity to adapt in the face of changing environmental conditions” such as climate change, said Kevin Arnold, senior program officer at the foundation.

The effort will leverage funding from additional organizations, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Paul Allen Foundation and the National Geographic Society. While largely based at HMS, it will also support work in the Human Evolutionary Biology Department in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Finding the best way forward

Of the grant money, $500,000 is earmarked for efforts to ensure widespread access to ancient DNA data, foster productive conversations with related fields and tackle some of the thorny issues geneticists have been wrestling with.

For example, although some studies have been conducted in areas such as Africa, Southeast Asia, Austronesia and the Americas, most ancient DNA analyses have concentrated on Europe. How can research be spread more evenly across the globe?

The initiative intends to “help fill in the gaps for regions that have been relatively understudied,” said Matthew Walhout, vice president of natural sciences at the foundation.

Researchers are also struggling to find a balance between protecting ancient human remains and analyzing as many samples as they can in order to build large data sets that yield greater insights into past and present human populations.

“We want to handle ancient remains in a respectful and ethical way that preserves material for the future while also recognizing that these unique treasures won’t be around to analyze forever, as the fire at the Brazil National Museum tragically reminded us,” said Reich. “One place we can learn from is archaeology, which has developed methods to excavate sites while leaving parts untouched for future research questions and techniques.”

We want to handle ancient remains in a respectful and ethical way that preserves material for the future while also recognizing that these unique treasures won’t be around to analyze forever.

David Reich

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Science Matters with David Reich
Contributing to the chronicle of human history