Tom Gilbert writing for OpenQuaternary
October 6th, 2014
This post of Tom Gilbert's, writing for the blog OpenQuaternary, was written back in October. I have to say that Tom's post concisely summarizes my growing ambivalence about the recent continuous stream of ancient DNA media articles, especially in the New York Times. Here are two key paragraphs from his post:
"The first problem is cost. At the core of most leading ancient DNA studies these days is palaeogenomics – that is the recovery of not just snapshots of DNA, but the majority of the genome within any specimen. Genomes, from modern specimens, are not cheap, falling in the range of thousands of dollars. Genomes from ancient specimens are even more expensive since the DNA is highly degraded, mixed with microbial DNA, and so on. Study costs can easily get into the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars per genome."
"Secondly, there is simply a lack of material to work on. Either samples simply don’t exist (the Denisovan fingerbone was the only bone at that time discovered), or if they do, they don’t contain DNA due to age or poor preservation (e.g. the Flores hominids). Those samples that do exist are often (rightly or wrongly) buried under too much red tape to enable the destructive sampling required to exploit them. And thus, we come to my central point. Small sample sizes, when covered with wide press coverage looking for a sensationalist angle are dangerous. Yes, single samples can provide incredible, news-worthy insights. But a key question is, how much can we actually extrapolate from these findings? This is not just a problem in palaeogenomics – many other disciplines face the challenge of reconstructing scenarios based on limited data. But not all disciplines routinely get quite as much press, and as thus find their implications spreading rapidly into secondary educational resources such as blogs, text books and popular science articles, without the primary literature being consulted."
I would add that some of the recent ancient DNA findings are overstated and premature. "Conclusions" are based on data sets with very poor sampling coverage. Furthermore, the medical relevance of these ancient genome studies is often exaggerated. Given that these studies are frequently financed in part with medical research dollars, I especially have to wonder about the process of this prematurely published, overstated and oversold research. Shouldn't research financed with medical researth dollars be held to a high standard? Shouldn't we try to do our best to provide information to the public that does not make predictions beyond the sampling coverage of limited ancient DNA datasets? It seems to me to be obvious that this is not too much to ask of researchers.
So . . ."Paleogenomes – are they influencing us a bit too much?"
In my opinion, based on some of the ancient DNA publications of the last few months, yes, paleogenomic publications and media coverage are currently influencing us too much, and more than a bit.