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Environmental Factor, March 2012

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Review calls for effective communication in evolutionary genomics studies

By Jeffrey Stumpf

Sarah Tishkoff, Ph.D., in her lab

Tishkoff is careful about how she communicates study findings to participants, as well as to colleagues and the general public. (Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)

A new review article co-authored by NIEHS grantee Sarah Tishkoff, Ph.D., underscores the importance of making sure that ethical evaluation keeps pace with advances in research strategies.

Writing in the journal Trends in Genetics, the team of scientists working in the fields of evolutionary genomics and bioethics — first author Joseph Vitti of Harvard University; Mildred Cho, Ph.D., of Stanford University; Tishkoff; and lead researcher Pardis Sabeti, M.D., D.Phil., also of Harvard — argues that researchers need to think carefully about the social and political implications of their evolutionary and genetic findings. According to the authors, researchers have an obligation to communicate their research on natural selection to the public as precisely as possible and within a context that will discourage misinterpretation or misuse of their data.

Like her co-authors, Tishkoff, an NIH Pioneer Awardee, studies populations in Africa (see related story), the continent where human life first began, for insights into evolution, natural selection, and adaptations related to human health. As she uses genomic data to advance knowledge about human evolution, Tishkoff is mindful of the sensitivity of her field.

“Researchers investigating natural selection in the human genome need to be aware of the dark history surrounding these topics and of the acute social sensitivity that still exists,” Tishkoff and her colleagues wrote.

Prior mistakes foreshadow future controversies

Evolutionary genomics studies cover two potentially controversial topics — evolution and genetics. Tishkoff and co-authors warn that ignorance of the key concepts and intentional misrepresentation of results are at the root of the controversies. “Regrettably, advances in understanding of these topics have historically been misapplied to provide justification for unethical practices,” the authors argue. “Even today, scientific advancements are too easily warped to fit prejudicial agendas.”

Evolution is controversial because it is viewed as a purposeful process that causes a better result. The article notes that the phrase, survival of the fittest, implies the preservation of favored races in the struggle of life. Such interpretation has resulted in intolerable practices, such as eugenics, in the suppression of policies that aid the disadvantaged, and in the racially motivated charge that some populations are less evolved than others.

Genetic studies can justify fatalistic ideas that people cannot exceed the expectations of their genetic blueprint. The oversimplified importance given to genetics instead of environmental factors, the authors explain, led to dismantling of educational programs that serve low-income families, because of the mistaken idea that some people are hardwired to be unsuccessful.

Message to scientists: Be vigilant

The message from the researchers was clear — high impact research requires the highest self-assessment of the methodology and the conclusions. The authors note that the manner in which the discoveries are communicated is equally important. “Researchers should be vigilant in the dissemination of results, both through scholarly and lay media, and in their role steering public discourse about science.”

Communicating results to the lay media can put scientists in an uncomfortable position. While the scientific report may be written cautiously, journalists can change the tone and meaning of the discovery. The authors suggest the need to be proactive in working with journalists to maintain the integrity of high impact results.

In studies in evolutionary genomics, the authors warn that common biological terms, such as fitness, ancestry, and mutation, have been assigned values in the public vernacular. In her field of human evolution, Tishkoff explains how the theory that modern humans originated from Africa caused the racially charged belief that Africans are more closely tied to their ancestry, when in reality all human populations had the same time to adapt.

Much of the misplaced value on biological terminology is rooted in the lack of public understanding of evolution and genomics. Thus, Tishkoff and her colleagues remind scientists of their obligation to participate in science education and address misconceptions head on.

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)

Citation: Vitti JJ, Cho MK, Tishkoff SA, Sabeti PC. 2012. Human evolutionary genomics: ethical and interpretive issues. Trends Genet; doi 10.1016/j.tig.2011.12.001 [Online 20 January 2012].

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