Genomics of African American remains — limits must not compound inequity
Students at Howard University in Washington DC survey a former African American cemetery.Credit: Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post via Getty
We agree that African American skeletal remains must be treated with dignity and diligence (see J. Dunnavant et al. Nature 593, 337–340; 2021). But we caution against any stifling of high-quality, ethical, quantitative genomic inquiry that might be imposed by an African American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (AAGPRA). Restrictions must not compound existing disadvantages in health and education. DNA studies can support oral histories; they can provide the strongest objective case for reparations for past offences of enslavement and institutionalized racism; and they can increase opportunities for precision medicine.
Rather than being constrained, researchers working with the consent of and on behalf of African American communities should feel empowered to use DNA analysis to take charge of hypothesis testing and define the resulting interpretative narrative. Such analyses do not always require the destruction of skeletal remains. In an unpublished investigation of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New York African Burial Ground, we detected human-associated bacteria in 69 soil samples; we generated human microbiome profiles for each individual and identified pathogenic bacteria in some cases. This information creates a form of identity for the buried person and helps us to learn more about their living conditions and possible cause of death.
Furthermore, such ethical genomic enquiry helps to close the representation gap for people of African descent in genomic databases. This gap denies access to gene therapy and precision medicine (G. Sirugo et al. Cell 177, 26–31; 2019).
Therefore, we propose that the AAGPRA be explicitly crafted to do several things in addition to those Dunnavant et al. propose. It should: require the recruitment and training of Black and brown forensic scientists in each of the facilities currently curating remains (see go.nature.com/36qcks7); increase genetic ancestry studies among African Americans and continental Africans (see go.nature.com/3f10izf); develop publicly available databases on African-American biological histories to increase interdisciplinary research on this population; and drive the identification of disease biomarkers in African American skeletal remains that inform medicine relevant to the descendant population.
Crucially, the AAGPRA should also mandate the development of standard operating protocols for future discoveries of remains, delineating the appropriate curation and research applications of data. These protocols must be guided by the priorities of both the descendant community and the engaged scientific community. Nothing must magnify the dearth of knowledge that limits African Americans’ opportunities now and in the future.