If recent history were to repeat itself, the largest effort yet to study human genetic material may be dubbed as 'the return of the vampire'. An international team of scientists announced earlier this month a plan to collect blood samples and extract DNA from some 100,000 people around the world, including 10,000 in India. The study, they claim, will help people worldwide understand their own origins better.
The new Genographic Project, supported by the National Geographic Society, IBM, and a private US-based foundation, is aimed at detecting the patterns of ancient human migration and the origins of population groups around the world. Scientists will use the DNA to piece together in fine detail the migratory routes that humans had taken many thousands of years ago as they trudged out of Africa ' where modern humans originated ' and began to populate the world. India, some researchers believe, was among their earliest ports of call.
But the new plan has raised concerns in some circles that it's a revival of a similar research proposal that had been killed in the mid-1990s. The Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), aimed at studying DNA from indigenous tribes and other communities from around the world, had failed to take off because, scientists say, 'imaginary fears' generated a groundswell of opinion against it.
Back then, members of indigenous groups and experts in bioethics had voiced concerns that the HGDP could be abused for commercial gains, stigmatisation of communities, and even biowarfare. The scientists who had conceived the HGDP were surprised to find their proposal branded as 'the vampire project,' or 'legalised theft,' or plain 'immoral'. No organisation was prepared to fund it.
The scientists spearheading the Genographic Project, however, say the new effort is significantly different from the HGDP. According to them, the world today is far better prepared for such an exercise than it was during the 1990s and the data collected from indigenous people will be analysed for historical and anthropological information only.
'We want to use genetics to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of human history,' says Dr Spencer Wells, a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project. 'We hope to discover new things about our origins, migration routes, and explanations for the current patterns of diversity.' Wells has spent more than a decade trying to rewrite human history through genes.
But indigenous communities have expressed concern at the launch of the new project. 'This is a recurrent nightmare. It's essentially the same project we defeated years ago,' says Debra Harry, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, a US-based organisation involved in the protection of indigenous culture and human rights. The Council is against projects that treat indigenous people as 'scientific curiosities'.
The debate stems from the potential of human DNA to be a repository of important information. Genetic affinities between population groups can tell scientists something about their past. Genetic similarities between two communities mean they are close to each other on the human family tree. And the further away that two groups are, the greater their genetic differences.
Comparing genetic material across communities has thus emerged a new way of finding the genetic connections between communities and reconstructing the patterns of migration of their ancestors. That is what Wells and his colleagues ' 10 principal investigators and their teams across Asia, Australia, Europe and North America ' want to do.
But DNA may also be mined for medical information.
The concerns over the HGDP project were primarily over the abuse of DNA data for commercial gains. In the 1990s, the language of genetic anthropology was alien to most scientists. And some researchers had hinted that indigenous people might contain specific genes that could help understand certain diseases better. Unlocking such genetic secrets associated with illnesses could be used to develop novel diagnostic techniques or new drugs.
This created widespread scare that genetic information from indigenous communities would lead to patents and profits from pharmaceutical products. The World Congress of Indigenous Peoples in 1993 called the HGDP the 'vampire project.' The Central Australian Aborigines Congress branded it 'legalised theft.'
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To steer clear of such criticism again, Genographic Project scientists have emphasised that they will not patent any genetic data coming from the project. All the information will belong to the global community and will be in the public domain. The focus will be entirely on public education, the scientists claim.
'There is absolutely no medical research of any kind in the Genographic Project,' Wells told KnowHOW when he came to New Delhi recently. 'The only goal is genetic anthropology to understand details of the human journey ' how we are all related and how we got to where we are today,' according to a Genographic Project document.
According to the scientists, there are plenty of safeguards to prevent the abuse of the genetic data. One of IBM's roles in the project will be to create 'the highest level of data security available.' There will also be multiple checks to ensure that the participating institutions follow the code of ethics.
Highlighting differences between the HGDP and Genographic Project, the scientists assert that the latter is a 'true collaboration with indigenous populations' and a 'not-for-profit initiative committed to giving back tangible assets to the indigenous populations to help preserve their culture and meet their educational needs.' The HGDP, they add, had made no attempts to help indigenous populations, but was focused on medical applications and making profits.
However, an Indian population geneticist who was among the international team that had lobbied for the HGDP, said the goals of the two projects almost overlap. According to him, it is unfair to project HGDP as a profit-making initiative. 'They make it appear as if in the HGDP, we were going to descend from our helicopters, collect blood samples from indigenous tribes, and vanish,' says Prof. Partha P. Mazumdar at the anthropology unit, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta.
Mazumdar says the HGDP died because of 'imaginary fears' and some truly preposterous suggestions. He recalls one comment during the HGDP debate that genetic data generated through it could be 'misused for biowarfare.' A lot of people, including some members of indigenous communities, were concerned that the HGDP data would fall into wrong hands, he adds.
According to Mazumdar, the HGDP had also pledged to release all data into the public domain and to not patent any genetic information that emerged from the project. "The HGDP ran into rough weather, the issues snowballed, and the project was killed. I would wholeheartedly support the Genographic Project. But to avoid a similar snowball, it is wrong to portray a downright false picture of the HGDP," Mazumdar said.
Opposition to the Genographic Project appears to be brewing already. Prof. Jonathan Marks, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, says the HGDP was terminated because of intractable issues in bioethics and it is not clear whether those issues have been remedied in the new project.
Wells concedes that getting government permissions to work among indigenous people will be among the greatest challenges the new project will face. Mr Ramasamy Pitchappan, his principal investigator in India, says he plans to collect 10,000 samples from indigenous communities and from the general population in India. 'We haven't finalised the identity of the groups yet,' he adds.
Four years ago, Pitchappan had collaborated with Wells to study DNA samples from population groups in Tamil Nadu and and substantiated a theory that humans moved from Africa to Australia 50,000 years ago via the coastline of India. A community called the Piramalai Kalar in Tamil Nadu have genetic sequences similar to those in the aborigines of Australia. This suggests that modern humans passed through India on their way to Australia.
The study in Tamil Nadu was a small component of an earlier effort by Wells to analyse some 10,000 DNA samples from around the world to piece together a rough guide to human migration over the past tens of thousands of years. The most significant finding of the study was that all the people alive today descended from a small group of modern humans who lived in Africa just 60,000 years ago.
'The earlier study was based on a small sample ' just enough to give us a glimpse of our history,' Wells said. The Genographic Project will use 10 times as many samples, investigate migratory routes in greater detail, and focus on the past 15,000 years of human history.
But members of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism have expressed concern that the project may advance new theories that contradict indigenous peoples' beliefs about their own origins. The Council's executive director also says that even if the Genographic Project does not pursue commercial development of genetic material, others with access to the knowledge may do so in the future.