Ancient DNA Is ‘New Machine’ for Peering into Human Past

Harvard’s Dr. David Reich discusses ancient DNA at opening WALS lecture.
Harvard’s Dr. David Reich discusses ancient DNA at opening WALS lecture.

“When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun...,” begins a verse of Amazing Grace. According to Harvard geneticist Dr. David Reich, who opened the 2016-2017 Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series on Sept. 21, that’s just about the time that ancient human DNA begins to loosen its tongue in order to testify to human origins and diaspora.

Reich’s lab is taking samples mostly of European human remains dating back between 4,000 and 7,000 years and, using DNA sequencing machines that have gotten faster and cheaper over time, begun to learn the recipe for making a modern European.

“I work on human bones, mostly,” said Reich, who called the ability to analyze ancient DNA “a new scientific instrument, developed in the last 5 or 6 years.”

Combined with sophisticated mathematical analysis (including such tools as “statistical reconstruction” and “principal component analysis”), the industrial-strength sequencing technology used to study about 1,000 samples a year is yielding insights into how three main groups of humans—farmers, hunter-gatherers and ancient north Eurasians—intermingled to form a borderless biological identity.

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DEATH OVER DINNER
Have You Had ‘The Talk?’

Writer Ellen Goodman at NIH
Writer Ellen Goodman at NIH

Nobody wants to think about it, much less talk about it. Death is a scary subject; many people delay or avoid discussing their endof- life wishes and concerns with loved ones. It can be daunting just figuring out how to begin.

“For many of us, talking about death feels suspiciously and superstitiously like letting death into the room,” said Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and co-founder and director of The Conversation Project. Speaking at the NINR Director’s Lecture Sept. 13 in Lipsett Amphitheater, she made an impassioned plea for all of us to contemplate and frankly discuss end-of-life wishes with our families and doctors, before it’s too late. NINR is NIH’s lead institute on end-of-life and palliative care research.

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