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“We Are All Africans”--Presidential Symposium on Origin of Human Species Electrifies Record 9,000 Attendees at ASHG Annual Meeting

(BY MICHAEL A. GOLDMAN, PhD, Professor, Former Chairman of Biology, San Francisco State University). The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) Presidential Symposium, titled “Origins of Our Species: Advances in Our Understanding of Ancient Humans in Africa,” began in late afternoon Thursday October 18, and was open to all of the meeting’s ~9,000 attendees (an ASHG meeting attendance record). This symposium featured stimulating presentations by three prominent evolutionary geneticists, followed by a brief panel discussion amongst the three speakers, which was moderated by Dr. Charles N. Rotimi, of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland, and Dr. Sarah Tishkoff, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Rotimi is a Senior Investigator at NIH, and Dr. Tishkoff is David and Lyn Silfen University Professor, Departments of Genetics and Biology, Perelman School of Medicine and School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania. The essence of being human, according to first presenter paleoanthropologist Dr. John D. Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a process, rather than a specific thing. We share a common heritage, and we will make a common future, he said. We are all part of that process whether we share particular traits that are thought to be characteristic of humans, such as speech and walking upright, or not. This simple observation belies the extraordinarily complex and controversial story of human origins featured in the President's Symposium. In a field where each new fossil discovery seems to add yet another gap to the record, Dr. Hawks admits that we still have much to learn, and that we will be continuously surprised, as now is as exciting as any time in the study of human evolution. Dr. Hawks believes there was no single, simple origin of modern humans, but that we originated across a span of about 250,000 years, with Africa as the cradle of humanity and of human variation. "The mysteries of our origins," he explained, "are African mysteries." As for the Neanderthals, who always capture the imagination of audiences today, Dr. Hawks says that for just about every variant gene found in Neanderthals, someone alive today carries the same variant. And Neanderthals are, in an important way, more successful today than they ever were before. With approximately 6 billion people carrying an average of 2% Neanderthal genes, that’s the equivalent of 120,000,000 Neanderthal genomes — and there were never 120 million Neanderthal, even in their heyday.

Second speaker geneticist Dr. Himla Soodyall, of the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa) greeted the audience as "fellow Africans," stressing again the African origins of humanity. Based on her studies, she considers South Africa a good contender for “ground zero” in human evolution. But she had an even stronger message about conducting research in Africa. She emphasized that the societal impact of science is important. The San Code of Research Ethics (http://trust-project.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/San-Code-of-RESEARCH-...), takes into account issues like informed consent, community engagement, local permits to conduct work, respect, honesty, justice and fairness, and care for the community. The occurrence of genetic disease, she said, provides a beneficial context for studies of human evolution in Africa.

Third speaker physician-scientist Dr. Dr. Ambroise Wonkam, of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, spoke on "Genetic Medicine Research in Africa: Problems, Promise, Prospects." Africa, he said, has 15% of the world population, but just 5% of the gross domestic product and only 1.3% of research and development investment. To understand human origins and human disease in a broader context, we all need to invest in African science, he said.

Dr. Wonkam told the story of a rural village in Cameroon. In that village, he said "Chief K killed a mentally delayed individual, and that this man cursed Chief K and his descendants. Thereafter, all 20 wives of Chief K gave birth to at least one grandchild with mental retardation." (Editor’s Note: This quote was taken from the web-- http://grantome.com/grant/NIH/U54-HG009790-01-8084--rather than trying to paraphrase Dr, Wonkam’s similar comments during the Presidential Symposium). We now know from molecular genetics that Chief K was an unaffected male who transmitted the Fragile X mutation, and not the victim of a curse, showing the interaction between science and traditional legend, Dr. Wonkam said.

Dr. Wonkam also mentioned diseases like sickle cell anemia, other developmental disorders, and hearing impairment. "When we answer questions about African disease," he says, "we answer questions for everyone, as we are all Africans."

Dr. Rotimi closed the Symposium by saying, “By studying African genomes, we understand ourselves much better.”

[ASHG Presidential Symposium: Origins of Our Species: Advances in Our Understanding of Ancient Humans in Africa] [ASHG Annual Meeting 2018]