DNA Researchers Call on Bone Hoarders to Share Bone Access


Human remains from archaeological digs can contain valuable genetic material. The authors of a letter in the journal Nature have called for more openness and access for research. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Human remains from archaeological digs can contain valuable genetic material. The authors of a letter in the journal Nature have called for more openness and access for research. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

HEY YOU! You, with all the fossilized bones of ancient humans and animals in your closet. You know who you are. It's time to cough them up.

So say some frustrated scientists, anyway. Three researchers wrote in to the journal Nature suggesting that anyone with a secret stash of ancient human bones — especially the petrous bone of the inner ear — should make them available to the scientific community at large for study.

The journal Nature is among the most significant scientific publications in the world. So, if you need to tell all the scientists in the world something, a good way of doing it is to send a letter in to Nature's "Correspondence" section — it'll be seen by the science community, guaranteed. It was kind of like putting a big sign on the office refrigerator that reads "PLEASE STOP EATING OTHER PEOPLE'S YOGURT, BRAD." You can bet the supposed bone hoarders in question got the message one way or another.

But why all the urgency to get access now to bones that've been around for thousands of years? Because we can do so much more with bones these days than we ever could before. Since a 4,000-year-old tuft of ancient Eskimo hair was successfully sequenced less than a decade ago, deciphering ancient genomes has gotten faster and easier each year.

"It's an interesting time, because the technology is moving faster than our ability to ask questions of it," Greger Larson, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Oxford who studies ancient dogs and wolves, told Nature in June. "Let's just sequence everything and ask questions later."

But that's easier said than done. According to the authors of the Nature letter, only a few genetic laboratories in the world control much of the skeletal material that could be sequenced by researchers. Those researchers are eager to answer questions about how the ancients lived — from their diets to their diseases – and how that might affect our understanding of modern humanity. The authors specifically asked their colleagues to make available the inner ear petrous bones because they're especially rich in prehistoric genetic material. For the past few years, hundreds of these bones have been collected from archaeological sites all over the world, and groundbreaking genomics papers have been published using these samples. But again, access to these bones is only available to a limited number of researchers, which leaves others to pound the pavement, asking museums for access to their collections.

The letter authors suggest that petrous bones be stored in an equal-opportunity holding facility in Israel that was established earlier this year. Reception to this idea has been mixed, but in this fast-moving field, the letter-writers argue it would help preserve specimens while leveling the playing field for everyone studying ancient genomics to do their research.