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Sample Ethics

Chilean researchers have protested that the genome sequencing study of the Atacama skeleton was unethical, the New York Times reports. It adds that the Chilean government has begun an investigation into whether the remains were illegally exhumed and sent out of the country.

"It's offensive for the girl, for her family, and for the heritage of Chile," Francisca Santana-Sagredo, a biological anthropologist at the University of Antofagasta and the University of Oxford, tells the Times.

The paper, published in Genome Research, reported that the Atacama skeleton, which had at times been thought to be an alien, was actually a girl who had genetic mutations associated with a number of skeletal phenotypes, such as scoliosis dwarfism, and osteochondrodysplasia, that could account for her unusual appearance. An ancestral analysis also indicated that she was related to Chilean Chilote population.

The paper's senior authors, the University of California, San Francisco's Atul Butte and Stanford University's Garry Nolan, write at Genome Research that there are varying accounts as to how the skeleton was found and sold, and that they were not involved in that process. They add that they only handled a small bone sample given to them for analysis by a member of the crew of the Sirius documentary, which was highlighting the remains. They further note that when their analysis began, there were questions surrounding the sample's age and even species.

In a statement, Genome Research adds that as the sample was of uncertain origin, it didn't fall under human subjects research as defined by the Federal Office of Human Research Protections.

Still, both the senior authors and the journal say that the ethical concerns do need to be considered. Butte and Nolan note that their recent discussions with Chilean and other researchers have emphasized to them the "need to incorporate cultural, historical, and political perspectives when studying ancient (or non-ancient) human DNA." Additionally, Genome Research calls for discussions of and the development of publishing guidelines for studies involving historical and ancient DNA samples.

"We hope her remains are treated with respect and have called for those remains to be returned to her native country," Butte and Nolan say of the Atacama skeleton. "We also join in a call for renewed emphasis on educating genomics researchers and other investigators about the sensitive and ethical treatment of human remains."