DNAnthropology

Science News has a story by Robert Service and Elizabeth Pennisi on the latest breakthrough in DNA sequencing technology, nanopore sequencing. The technology is quite amazing:

Since then scientists have figured out how to drive DNA through proteins with tiny pores embedded in a film using an electrical charge. As DNA’s bases pass through the pore, they change the electrical charge. Sensitive electronics detect these changes and identify the bases.

The story itself is prompted by a new paper by Jens Gundlach (U. Washington, Seattle) and colleagues in Nature Biotechnology. The implication of these new findings are that the cost of DNA sequencing might drop even faster and sooner than previously thought.

The advance might drop the cost of sequencing a complete human genome below $1000, which is expected to revolutionize personalized medicine and help usher in a new era of genetic-based diagnostics and medicines.

The data revolution of genetics is already well underway, but its implications are not yet fully appreciated. We are very close to a time when personal genetic data will be widespread, if not ubiquitous. In just the past decade, publications within the biological sciences have gone from reporting on progress in sequencing a single genome to the common appearance of metagenomic and population genomics studies. This has been a revolution in data acquisition, however, not a revolution in knowledge. We have access to an awful lot of genetic information that previously was unavailable, but we do not immediately know a huge amount more about how the genome works, personal genomic implications, and genomic diversity. Certainly there are many many people working on these issues, but data does not equal knowledge. For us to turn this information into knowledge, we have to incorporate these troves of new data into a theoretical framework encompassing broad aspects of genomics, population ecology and evolution, as well as human culture. Which is where anthropologists need to serve a role.

Biological anthropologists work across a vast array of sub-fields and topics, but if we are not engaging seriously with new findings from human genomic studies we are doing something wrong. The sheer amount of information being produced with relevance for evolutionary history, contemporary human biology and health, population relationships and personal identification will very likely overwhelm other kinds of information and studies. My primary training may have focused on examining the detailed morphological variation preserved in fossilized skeletal remains, but I would be a poor anthropologist (or paleoanthropologist) if I did not maintain an active awareness and interest in the products of human genetics as well as think critically about how my work intersects with such research. And the intersections are many. Anthropologists are well poised to examine the demographic background in which human evolutionary change takes place, the specific environments genetic expression occurs in, the population histories through which contemporary patterns of genetic similarity and dissimilarity have been established.

This is not an opportunity only for biological anthropologists, either. The dissemination of genetic information, and hence the production of knowledge from that information, will be is a social phenomenon, mediated by access to existing resources and technological infrastructure. What this information will mean for questions of social justice, public health, and the basic question of what it means to be an individual at the center of a personal a web of relatedness are anthropological questions.

A few years ago I had an excellent undergraduate student, but one who really struggled to simultaneously put together the dual realities of social construction and biological difference. I eventually asked her to write an essay on whether or not personal genetic/genomic information could be or should be a part of Geertz’s notion of “thick description,” which finally brought the concepts together for her. DNA is not a deterministic reality, and because of that, anthropologists must actively engage with it rather than ignore it or condemn it. We are biological creatures in a highly complex social ecology. If, as anthropologists, we fail to fully accept that reality in our work, we will fail to be relevant.

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1. Manrao, E. A., I. M. Derrington, et al. (2012). “Reading DNA at single-nucleotide resolution with a mutant MspA nanopore and phi29 DNA polymerase.” Nat Biotech advance online publication. doi:10.1038/nbt.2171

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About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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