ASHG Issues New Professional Guidance on Ethical and Legal Considerations for Ancient DNA Genetics and Genomics Research

Published: Thursday, August 6, 12:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time

Media Contact: Kara Flynn, 202.257.8424

ROCKVILLE, MD — The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) today published a new Guidance on ancient DNA (aDNA) research to help scientists understand and integrate important ethical, legal and social considerations for this important research area. Appearing in today’s issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, this new resource was developed by an ASHG Responsible Ancient DNA Research Working Group, comprised of members of the ASHG Professional Practice and Social Implications Committee (PPSI) and others with subject expertise. It was approved by the ASHG Board of Directors for publication in April 2020.

“Ancient DNA research offers opportunities to understand our world and human evolution in exciting ways,” said ASHG President Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD. “Yet we know it is important for researchers to understand and integrate ethical, legal, and social factors into their professional practices when using ancient DNA for such studies.”

Wynshaw-Boris said new technologies and techniques for studying aDNA have refined—and, in some cases, drastically altered—our understanding of the human story. “Ancient DNA has helped illuminate the genetic underpinnings of disease, ancient migration patterns, the impacts of European colonization, and much more. However, the knowledge gained through the study of aDNA raises questions regarding the ethical use of human genetic material from the past. I thank the committee for its time and engagement and urge ASHG members exploring this area to learn from and apply the important responsibilities outlined by the committee in this article.”

The Guidance draws on and distills extensive formative research, direct experience and community expertise on aDNA research, to articulate five key points that all geneticists should anticipate and follow. It also stresses that anticipating and addressing the social implications of scientific work is a fundamental responsibility of all researchers conducting this work. Major responsibilities include:

  • Formally consulting with communities;
  • Addressing cultural and ethical considerations;
  • Engaging the community and supporting capacity building;
  • Developing plans to report results and manage data;
  • Developing plans for long-term responsibility and stewardship.

Further, the Guidance stresses the importance of understanding the politics and local laws, including indigenous community regulations, of the country in which they are working. With the guidance, ASHG seeks to advance an ethical framework that encourages positive, collaborative relationships between scientists and indigenous communities worldwide.

The ancient DNA Guidance is the first in a series of resources ASHG will develop in its role as the world’s largest professional society of human genetics and genomics researchers. ASHG and the broader community is dedicated to advancing research for everyone to realize the benefits of genetics and genomics knowledge, and believes strongly that doing so requires its responsible application.

Researchers do not always have formal training on specific ethical or social implications and ASHG sees the creation of each Guidance as a tangible and constructive way to connect these goals. The next Guidance will explore the opportunities, limitations and applications of polygenic risk scores, another emerging and promising research tool that could help advance science and health while also raising meaningful ethical questions that must be considered with its use.

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About the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG)

Founded in 1948, the American Society of Human Genetics is the primary professional membership organization for human genetics specialists worldwide. Its nearly 8,000 members include researchers, academicians, clinicians, laboratory practice professionals, genetic counselors, nurses, and others with an interest in human genetics. The Society serves scientists, health professionals, and the public by providing forums to: (1) share research results through the ASHG Annual Meeting and in The American Journal of Human Genetics; (2) advance genetic research by advocating for research support; (3) educate current and future genetics professionals, health care providers, advocates, policymakers, educators, students, and the public about all aspects of human genetics; and (4) promote genetic services and support responsible social and scientific policies. For more information, visit:

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