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April 12, 2005

Spencer Wells' Next Project

Spencer Wells, working with The National Geographic Society, has bold ambitions to resurrect the ill-fated Human Genome Diversity Project with plans to sample 100,000 blood samples from indigenous populations from around the world. Nicholas Wade reports in the New York Times:

The program is an effort to accomplish the goals of the Human Genome Diversity Project, an initiative that was proposed by population geneticists in 1991.

That project ran into a political furor that prevented it from receiving substantial government support. It was denounced by some cultural anthropologists, who said that looking for genetic differences among populations was tantamount to racism. And advocates for indigenous peoples portrayed it as a "vampire project" for extracting valuable medical information from the blood of endangered tribes while giving nothing in return.

The proponents viewed their plan as complementing the Human Genome Project, then getting under way, because it would show how the sequence of DNA units in the human genome varied from one population to another. The project did proceed on a more modest basis, eventually collecting blood samples from 52 populations that were converted into 1,000 cell lines. The first major analysis, published in 2002, showed that the subjects' genomes fell into five major clusters corresponding to their continent of origin and, in effect, to their race.

Of course, the critics are already staking their ground.

But Dr. Kenneth Kidd, a population geneticist at Yale University, expressed reservations about the plan to preserve the blood samples as raw DNA. Because the DNA is finite, it cannot be shared with every scientist who may ask for some. In the Human Genome Diversity Project, by contrast, white blood cells from a sample were made essentially immortal before storage. Though it would cost an additional $200 to $300 to immortalize each sample, the cells last forever and the supply is inexhaustible.

Dr. Kidd you may recall co-authored a paper with Dr. Robert Sternberg in the American Psychological Association's last attempt at obscurantism on the question of whether race is more than a folk taxonomy.

My personal hope is that the power of the cultural anthropologists has waned from their heydey a decade ago, especially in light of the remarkable advances in genetic sciences, and that the same forces that killed the Human Genome Diversity Project a decade ago can't today marshall the forces to take on the celebrity of Dr. Spencer Wells, the intense public fascination with this type of research and the reach and respected brand of the National Geographic Society.

Addendum from Razib: Check out The Genographic Project over at National Geographic. Spencer Wells is a maverick scientist without an academic affiliation, and The National Geographic Society is not a traditional "Ivory Tower." The results aren't always pretty, but as Craig Venter showed, those who work outsides the "establishment" channels can shake things up and affect more change on the dynamics of The System from the outside than from within. Spencer Wells might very well be the monster that Richard Lewontin birthed....

Update from Razib: Radio interview with the lead researcher on the project (not Spencer Wells, some British dude).

Posted by TangoMan at 09:09 PM