New technology has made it possible to use DNA for various things from solving crimes to tracking down relatives.
David Reich, a professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, is using DNA from ancient human remains to explore how groups of people are related to each other, to what extent changes evident in the archaeological record were propelled by movements and mixtures of people, and how adaptation of human populations occurred over time. He notes that being able to generate genome-scale data from ancient DNA has the potential to challenge previous assumptions and change our understanding of the world.
Reich is recipient of Indiana University Bloomington's Hermann J. Muller Award for Contributions to Our Understanding of Genes and Society. The award was established to honor Professor Hermann Joseph Muller—renowned geneticist, Nobel Laureate, social activist, and esteemed IU Bloomington faculty member (1945-67). It recognizes luminary international geneticists whose discoveries, like Muller's, have made or are making a significant impact on the field of genetics and society.
"The committee selected Dr. Reich from among many candidates because of his groundbreaking analyses of ancient and modern human genomes," said Thom Kaufman, Distinguished Professor of Biology. "His work has provided multiple insights into our species' history and the relationships of different groups. This work is very much in line with Professor Muller’s interest in what genetics and genomics can tell us about ourselves and our history—making Dr. Reich eminently well qualified for the Muller Medal."
Reich will attend an award ceremony and give a presentation about his research on Friday, March 6, at 6:30 p.m. in Jordan Hall Room 124. The title of his talk is "Toward a new history and geography of human genes informed by ancient DNA." The ceremony and lecture are free and open to the public.
Reich will discuss evidence that modern humans today are a mixture of multiple highly differentiated populations that co-existed more than 50,000 years ago—including an archaic group, the "Denisovans," which was unknown prior to analysis of ancient DNA. He will show that "white people" are a mixture of at least four diverse populations from 10,000 years ago. Reich will also discuss how studying ancient DNA has revealed impacts on populations from large scale movements of people 5,000-3,500 years ago.
"The application of ancient DNA technology in many regions of the world," Reich says, "is beginning to open up new avenues for dialogue between the sciences and the humanities."
He will close his talk by sharing the (still unrealized) promise of ancient DNA studies to reveal as much about the nature of biological adaptation as it has revealed about history.
Reich and his research team are known for providing evidence of a gradual genetic split between chimpanzee and human lineages. They made significant contributions to the discovery that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Reich's lab was in the news after locating a genetic marker linked to an increased chance of developing prostate cancer. And, Reich was co-leader of a team of genetic researchers that made the most complete human genetic map known at that time (2011).
Reich's recent accolades include the Darwin-Wallace Medal (2019), the NAS Award in Molecular Biology (2019), and the Dan David Prize (2017). He was listed for his contributions to science in 2015 as one of Nature's 10—the ten "people who matter" in science produced by the prestigious journal Nature.
In 2018 Reich published the book Who We Are and How We Got Here, describing innovative findings made by his research group and others, based on analysis and comparison of ancient and modern DNA from human populations around the world.
The IU Hermann J. Muller Award for Contributions to Our Understanding of Genes and Society and lecture series is funded by Indiana University Bloomington, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Biology.