Proceeding with Caution

First global guidelines proposed for ancient DNA research

Person in a full-body clean suit and masked hood leans over a lit display in a dark room
A scientist extracts DNA from ancient human remains and prepares it for analysis. Dozens of scholars have proposed a set of ethical guidelines that could be used worldwide for conducting genetic research on ancient individuals. Image: Kayana Szymczak

As ancient DNA research sweeps the globe, ballooning from zero genomes sequenced as of 2009 to more than 6,000 as of 2021, those involved in and affected by the genetic analysis of human remains have pressed with ever greater urgency for ethical standards that can be applied wherever such research is carried out.

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Researchers studying the DNA of humans who lived hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years ago have tried to determine the best ways to conduct their work so that it consistently respects the remains as well as those who have a stake in the research.

Such stakeholders can include people and groups who feel connected to the ancient individuals, those who consider themselves stewards or guardians of the remains, and scholars in fields such as archaeology and anthropology.

Taking a step forward in articulating a set of globally applicable guidelines, dozens of archaeologists, anthropologists, museum curators, and geneticists from every continent barring Antarctica convened online in November 2020 for a meeting on ethical issues in ancient DNA research.

Researchers from the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School helped organize the meeting and subsequent discussions, supported in part by a grant intended to spur interdisciplinary collaboration and tackle challenges in the field of ancient DNA.

The results—authored by 64 scholars representing more than 30 countries and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds—were published online Oct. 20 in Nature.

Harvard Medicine News spoke to two of the paper’s co-corresponding authors about the endeavor: Jakob Sedig, HMS research fellow in genetics and an ethics and outreach officer in the lab of genetics professor David Reich, and Kendra Sirak, HMS research associate and a senior staff scientist in the Reich lab.