11 December 2006

DNA testing concerns may hurt studies

Amy Harmon, who reports on DNA matters for the New York Times, had a recent front-page story, "DNA Gatherers Hit a Snag: The Tribes Don’t Trust Them."

Amy, whom I was very happy to meet at August's 26th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in New York, focuses this time on concerns voiced by Native Americans concerning DNA testing.

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 information could also jeopardize land rights and other benefits that are 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?”

Population geneticist Dr. Spencer Wells, who directs the National Geographic's Genographic Project, is quoted:

“I don’t think humans at their core are ostriches,” Dr. 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.”

An interesting take on the ramifications of testing. This topic was also discussed at the Third International Conference on Genetic Genealogy, hosted by Family Tree DNA in Houston.

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