DNA Samples Bank Proposed
For Future Investigations
A strand of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) speaks
volumes to biologists, physical anthropologists, and other natural scientists.
Collecting the double helixes gives scientists a way to learn about organisms'
evolution and the genetic variation within species (e.g., white and purple
violets are variations in one species).
But no one knows what genetic questions will be most important 20 years from
now when the samples are no longer available. A solution? Create a DNA bank.
The suggestion comes from scientists interested in the Human Genome Diversity
Project (HGDP), whose goal is to study human genetic variation throughout the
world. The project is being evaluated by the National Academy of Sciences. If
approved, funding would be provided by both NSF and NIH. The HGDP scientists
would not only do current field sampling, but would create a DNA bank to store
"A DNA bank must accommodate all types of samples--recent and archival, living
and nonliving--and it must be generic enough to accommodate as-yet-unthought
questions that will dominate science in coming decades," says Penn State University
anthropologist Ken Weiss, a lead organizer of the HGDP.
While the HGDP bank would focus on the human genome, the techniques being developed
for the project "have a much broader application," says NSF's Lisa Brooks, program
director of population biology. "You could use it on earthworms-or anything."
Brooks participated in Weiss' recent workshop on DNA analysis and storage. NSF
uses such workshops as a way to direct funding towards the most effective technologies.
In the DNA workshop, participants evaluated the four major systems being used
Their conclusion: Whenever possible, DNA should be transformed into cell lines.
Cell lines allow DNA samples to be studied almost indefinitely.
However, cell line transformation works only on recent samples of DNA, says NSF's
Mark Weiss (no relation to Ken Weiss), program director of physical anthropology
and a workshop participant. Other advances in technology are needed for archival
DNA. "For instance, there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of samples sitting
in refrigerators around the world. If one could harvest DNA out of those samples,
it would reduce the need to actually go out and get new samples."
While the workshop's focus was on technology, Brooks and Mark Weiss say it also
brought together a disparate group of scientists, ranging from anthropologists
"Initially it wasn't apparent what they had in common," says Brooks. "Yet once
they got going, it was quite exciting."