Earlier this year, 23andMe also announced the Global Genetics Project to give free tests to people who can trace all four grandparents to one of 61 underrepresented countries. That, in turn, is an expansion of the African Genetics Project, which did the same for certain African countries, specifically chosen for being areas from where slaves and recent immigrants to the United States came.
Africa is also of particular interest to many academic researchers. The continent is famously the cradle of humanity, and it holds more genetic diversity than any other. But this interest has also caused a backlash among African scientists, who feel left behind as American and European scientists reap the benefit of the work. Last week, a consortium of heredity and health researchers called the H3Africa Initiative released ethical guidelines to counter “helicopter” research by foreign scientists. Collecting DNA for not just academic but commercial reasons, as 23andMe would like to do, could make ethics even tricker.
When I sent the description of 23andMe’s Populations Collaborations Program to Jantina de Vries, a bioethicist at University of Cape Town who coauthored the H3Africa guidelines, she flipped the scenario around: “Imagine an African company gets African researchers to collect 1,000 DNA samples of Americans just because they want to. People would not like that at all.”
Joanna Mountain, the senior director of research at 23andMe, has done fieldwork in Africa before, and says she understands the challenges of gaining trust for this kind of work. Before joining 23andMe, she was a professor at Stanford, and she has collected DNA samples among hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. It takes a lot of time and effort. That’s why 23andMe wants to collaborate with researchers with existing relationships. “They know the ethnic groups and the languages. They know all the background, which is really critical,” says Mountain. She says 23andMe considered sending their own teams out to collect DNA, but they quickly realized the company doesn’t have the right expertise.
De Vries says the key question is what’s in it for the people giving up their DNA. 23andMe does plan to evaluate applications based on how people sampled can benefit from the research. For example, Mountain says, could the research ultimately reveal insights about a group’s history or genetic predispositions to disease? And more directly, the company may offer a grant of up to $10,000 to cover fieldwork, which could go toward projects helping the local community by funding education or infrastructure or even food.
In one of its previous collaborations, 23andMe provided free DNA analysis for Nathan Nunn, an economist at Harvard who is studying the Kuba Kingdom in what is the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. His research group sponsored research assistants to come to the United States to continue their education. They have also given lectures about their research to the local community in an effort to give something back to the people who have participated. “We are very cognizant of that,” he says.