Charting an Equitable Future for DNA and Ancient DNA Research in Africa

Today, the American Journal of Human Genetics published a perspective piece on the need for an equitable and inclusive future for DNA and ancient DNA (aDNA) research in Africa. The paper, coauthored by an international team of 36 scientists from Africa, North America, Asia, Australia, and Europe, was led by Dr. Elizabeth (Ebeth) Sawchuk of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Dr. Kendra Sirak of Harvard University.

DNA from ancient and living African peoples is critical for researchers studying our species’ evolution and population history. Africa is home to the greatest human genetic diversity on the planet, and only a fraction of that diversity has been studied to date. However, with scientific advances over the past decade, the situation is changing rapidly. More genomic data from ancient and living African people are published every year, and African DNA and aDNA research is poised to dramatically increase in the next decade. Yet, despite growing international research interest in Africa, African scientists remain starkly underrepresented on research teams and in the process of planning and executing scientific projects.

“Step one is to discuss African research in Africa,” says Dr. Sawchuk, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Associate Curator of Human Evolution. “Many African scholars face major barriers to attending genetics conferences held in North America and Europe, limiting their ability to lead and partner in DNA and aDNA research. Holding conversations in Africa allows voices and perspectives that have been historically sidelined to be heard.”

Group shot from the DNAirobi Conference

This new paper is one outcome of the groundbreaking “DNAirobi” workshop held at the National Museums of Kenya in May 2023 and co-organized by scientists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, National Museums of Kenya, Harvard University, and Rice University. DNAirobi brought together geneticists, archaeologists, and educators from across Africa and around the world to discuss the future of population history-focused DNA and aDNA research on the continent. The article captures the results of these conversations and presents a bold vision for what the research landscape should look like in ten years’ time.

“This study involved researchers from both the Global North and the Global South and underscores the potential DNA and ancient DNA hold for understanding ancient and modern human populations” said Dr. Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, Director of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments for the National Museums of Kenya. “It amplifies the need to train more African scholars, particularly in studies related to ancient DNA.”

The article also acknowledges and addresses the challenges associated with DNA and aDNA research in Africa and beyond. Studying genetic sequences, whether modern or ancient, requires great care because such research can impact both the living and the dead. Scholars widely agree that such work should be the product of equitable partnerships, engage diverse audiences (including communities relevant to research), encompass a range of perspectives, and create opportunities for capacity building. A growing number of papers over the past decade have focused on the ethics of genetics research, yet it remains difficult to adapt general

best practice recommendations to specific geographic contexts. Developing a roadmap for ethical DNA and aDNA research in Africa is particularly challenging because fewer studies have been done on the continent and guidelines developed in other parts of the world are not always a good fit.

However, the new paper goes beyond creating an Africa-specific set of guidelines for genomic research. “We all want to carry out research that is equitable, engaged, and inclusive,” said Dr. Sirak, Research Associate in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. “Our paper examines some of the structural barriers that currently stand in the way of creating a research ecosystem that facilitates this type of research—for example, a lack of accessible training opportunities, ineffective communication between scientists and the interested public, and a history of exploitative research practices on the African continent. We attempt to articulate how we as researchers can encourage the continued growth of ethical genomics research in Africa with high-level structural changes to the way that science is designed and supported, that we know must ultimately take place.”

Ultimately, there is no singular path forward for DNA and aDNA research in Africa. Instead, as research landscapes evolve alongside science and society, scholars will need to remain flexible and adapt to new challenges and opportunities. To help with this process, the paper’s authors identify several “landmarks” to guide teams toward an equitable and inclusive future for genomics research. These include changing how and with whom we communicate results, reimagining what equitable partnerships look like, and focusing on improving scientific literacy for all. Effectively implementing best practices for ethical DNA and aDNA research requires addressing deep imbalances in power and resources.

“We seek to build a dynamic research ecosystem in which African scholars can effectively lead and partner in genomics research, and access the collaborators, labs, and funding they need to achieve their goals” said Dr. Christine Ogola, Head of Archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya. “The solution is not to immediately build population history-focused DNA and aDNA labs on the continent, which would be unrealistic at present to staff and maintain. Instead, we need to focus on building capacity and infrastructure in ways that sustainably support research leadership.”

The authors conclude the article with a call to action for labs and funding bodies to commit more resources to African scholars, either directly or in cooperation with institutions that provide training and capacity building opportunities. There is a fundamental tension between fast genomics research driven by labs that must generate and publish results to secure funding, and the slow work of meaningfully engaging communities to build trust and equitable partnerships. Until there is infrastructural support to create the desired equitable research ecosystem, it will remain challenging to implement best practices for African DNA and aDNA research.

“Africans are the primary knowledge holders of African samples, data, and historical contexts. We want more access to DNA and aDNA research and the resources and training to support more African-led studies in the future” says Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema, Head of Earth Sciences for the National Museums of Kenya. “An ethical and equitable future for African genomics research requires investing in entire societies and the next generation of scholars, work that will take decades and have impacts that go far beyond genetics research.”

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