Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Indigenous Peruvian Tribe Blocks DNA Sampling by National Geographic

Complaints by indigenous leaders and local officials have blocked a plan by geneticists with the National Geographic Society to collect DNA from the remote Q'eros tribe in Peru as part of the Genographic Project, which seeks molecular clues to humankind's migrations over the globe. Population geneticist Spencer Wells, head of the Genographic Project, along with other expedition members, had planned to collect DNA in the Q'eros communities tomorrow, 7 May, as part of the ongoing project to use DNA collected from hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

Now the expedition appears to have run afoul of local biodiversity campaigners. In a flurry of letters released this week, indigenous leaders charge that scientists working with National Geographic's Genographic Project planned to collect DNA samples without following local regulations and obtaining proper consents. Officials met Wednesday in Cusco, Peru, to discuss the project and to grill a local guide and anthropologist hired by National Geographic.

In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, Wells said that his team had verbal permission from leaders of two Q'eros communities to visit, and that the complaints apparently originated with a third community. "We have cancelled our visit to the Q'eros until we find out exactly what happened," he said.

Officials with Cusco's regional government say the expedition violated a local ordinance on biological diversity that requires scientists to provide notarized evidence of "free and informed prior consent," among other documents, prior to collecting DNA. "There are various requirements that National Geographic has to meet, and they haven't done so," said Ninoska Rozas Palma, regional director for natural resources in Cusco in a telephone interview.

A copy of a letter to National Geographic from the president of the regional government, in Spanish, was posted by Asociación para la Naturaleza y el Desarrollo Sostenible (Asociación ANDES), a Cusco nonprofit that has campaigned against "biopiracy" in the region. National Geographic spokesperson Lucie McNeil said the organization had not received the letters and that it does not collect DNA without proper consents. The project follows a detailed ethical framework that includes policies against patenting DNA information or using it for medical research, as well as the creation of a fund to help indigenous peoples.

Asociación ANDES also released a letter it says is from National Geographic's guide to community members alerting them to the pending visit by the research team. The letter explains the study's goal of understanding ethnic roots, and promises a "fun" slide show with "a projector and pretty pictures!" Although the letter doesn't state explicitly that the goal is to collect DNA, it does say that the study is based on "written history combined with DNA (a chemical which we all have in our body which scientifically shows us our origins and family connections from centuries ago)."

"Our concern is that this is the way they asked for informed consent, because it goes against all the basic principles of collecting DNA," charges Alejandro Argumedo, research director of Asociación ANDES. His group detailed their concerns here.

In an e-mail message, Wells said the complaints had come as a surprise and that he hasn't been directly contacted by officials. Wells said the project has been collecting DNA in Peru since 2007 and that "our reception has almost uniformly been positive." He said his practice is to first get permission from local leaders to present the project, and then after the presentation, follow up with individual explanations and consents, before taking oral DNA samples. "It is only after all of these steps are taken that cheek swabbing would take place," he said.

Maria Luisa Guevara, a biologist at the Institute for Genetics and Molecular Biology at the University of San Martin de Porres whose laboratory collaborates with Wells, says activists have been "spreading lies" about the research project. "There has been a reaction by the local population, because we were going to take DNA but the activists have turned it into something totally diabolical, like we planned on taking liters of blood. It's just a buccal swab."

Guevara said this expedition was considered important. "What we know from the literature and oral tradition is that this group is very isolated, more homogeneous genetically. But if they don't want to have samples collected, then they won't, period."

Argumedo says the Q'eros believe that they are descended from the first Inca: "This kind of research, as well-intentioned scientifically as it might be, could have psychological implications for the Q'eros profound Incan identity. If the results of the genealogical study tells them they are really from the North of the Amazon, that they are not who they think they are, the implications could be very profound."

The trouble appears to have begun with a complaint about the National Geographic study, detailed in a separate letter, by the president of the Q'eros community of Hatun Q'eros, Benito Machacca Apaza. The letter adds that "the Q'ero Nation knows its history, its past, present and future is our Inca culture and we don't need any so-called genetic study to know who we are. We are Incas, we always have been and always will be!"