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Ancient DNA studies have begun to explore the possibility of identifying identical DNA segments shared between historical and living people. This research requires access to large genetic datasets to maximize the likelihood of identifying previously unknown, close genetic connections. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies, such as 23andMe, Inc., manage by far the largest and most diverse genetic databases that can be used for this purpose. It is therefore important to think carefully about guidelines for carrying out collaborations between researchers and such companies. Such collaborations require consideration of ethical issues, including policies for sharing ancient DNA datasets, and ensuring reproducibility of research findings when access to privately controlled genetic datasets is limited. At the same time, they introduce unique possibilities for returning results to the research participants whose data are analyzed, including those who are identified as close genetic relatives of historical individuals, thereby enabling ancient DNA research to contribute to the restoration of information about ancestral connections that were lost over time, which can be particularly meaningful for families and groups where such history has not been well documented. We explore these issues by describing our experience designing and carrying out a study searching for genetic connections between 18th- and 19th-century enslaved and free African Americans who labored at Catoctin Furnace, Maryland, and 23andMe research participants. We share our experience in the hope of helping future researchers navigate similar ethical considerations, recognizing that our perspective is part of a larger conversation about best ethical practices. Copyright © 2023 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Éadaoin Harney, Kendra Sirak, Jakob Sedig, Steven Micheletti, Roslyn Curry, Samantha Ancona Esselmann, David Reich. Ethical considerations when co-analyzing ancient DNA and data from private genetic databases. American journal of human genetics. 2023 Sep 07;110(9):1447-1453

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PMID: 37541241

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