Sequencing effort provides a model for future studies of museum samples.
En route from Sydney to Perth, Australia, in the early 1920s, British ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon acquired a tuft of human hair from a young Aboriginal man. He added it to his sizeable collection of hair from people living around the world.
Ninety years later, those locks have yielded the first complete genome sequence of an Aboriginal Australian, and provided clues about the timing of human migrations from Africa to Asia1 (see ‘Early human explorers charted a bold course’). The work has also underscored the bioethical dilemmas involved in plumbing the genomes of indigenous populations — especially when the DNA comes from an archived specimen such as Haddon’s. “To be sequencing DNA from the hair of a deceased indigenous person is uncharted ethical territory,” says Emma Kowal, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Melbourne.
The genome project, led by Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen, received approval for the work from a group that represents Aboriginals in the region in which the man probably lived. But some scientists are jittery about how others in the Aboriginal community might receive the project, and worry that it could set back efforts to engage Aboriginals in genetic research. “In a sense, every Aboriginal Australian has had something about themselves revealed to the world without their consent,” says Hank Greely, who directs the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University in California.