Collaborative Research: Standard Grant: The Ethics of Studying Indigenous North American Ancient DNA: Moving from Theories to Practices

  • Colwell, Chip (PI)
  • Malhi, Ripan S. (CoPI)
  • Weyrich, Laura (CoPI)
  • Bardill, Jessica J. (CoPI)
  • Kolopenuk, Jessica J. (CoPI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


Over the last decade, the study of DNA from Indigenous North Americans who lived long ago has provided exciting insights into the evolution of diseases, migration to the Americas, population dynamics, the impacts of colonization, and much more. Yet, the study of ancient DNA extracted from Indigenous ancestors has grown so rapidly that discussions about ethical responsibilities have not kept pace with the science. The rights of living Native Americans are too often ignored in the study of ancient DNA, even though this expanding area of research has profound social, political, psychological, and legal implications for Indigenous communities. This has led to numerous controversies and problematic studies, resulting in distrust of researchers, increasing skepticism of clinical health studies in Native American communities, and a looming ethical crisis for ancient DNA studies. At the same time, other ancient DNA initiatives based on collaboration with Indigenous peoples have answered important scientific and historical questions while building mutually beneficial relationships. This study surveys and analyzes the current ethical landscape of ancient DNA research and develops resources for stakeholders to enable more equitable and informed decision making and knowledge sharing. The project will also integrate diverse voices, experiences, and expertise into scientific practice and the creation of new or expanded bioethical frameworks.

This project assembles and develops resources regarding the ethics of ancient DNA research to support more equitable and informed decision making and responsible knowledge sharing amongst stakeholders. To do so, the project: (1) investigates the current attitudes, values, and practices of Indigenous peoples and scientific communities around the ethics of ancient DNA research, and (2) collaboratively develops a set of principles to guide good research practices. This project contributes to our understanding of collaborative methods in the study of DNA, the ethics of managing ancestral human remains and other biological materials in museums, intellectual property issues surrounding the knowledge produced through genomics, and the human rights of Indigenous peoples in relation to their genomic heritage. The outcomes of this project include a series of workshops bringing together scientific and Indigenous leaders, public lectures, academic and popular publications, postdoctoral researcher mentorship, and the website, which will present 'good practices' and online resource kits that can be used across university classrooms, museums, ethics review committees, Indigenous cultural preservation offices, journals, labs, and beyond.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date10/1/199/30/20


  • National Science Foundation: $148,888.00


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