West Conshohocken, PA – The John Templeton Foundation has awarded a $15.5 million grant to Harvard Medical School to study the dynamics of ancient human evolution. Dubbed the Ancient DNA Atlas of Humanity, the initiative, led by Professor David Reich, will multiply by more than five-fold the number of published ancient-human genomes, enabling a better understanding of the origins of disease. In the process, it will create a DNA database of 10,000 individuals from around the world over the last 50,000 years.
“David Reich is a global leader in paleogenomics, and we expect that this watershed project will produce profound insights into humanity’s capacity to adapt in the face of changing environmental conditions, modeling how genetic diversity and the environment contribute to disease susceptibility,” said Kevin Arnold, Senior Program Officer at the John Templeton Foundation.
“The ancient DNA database is designed to uphold the highest standards of transparency, including best practices in open materials and open access, so that the project will be a democratizing force that brings lasting benefit to scholars and researchers in a range of fields,” he added. Towards this end, the Foundation grant includes funding of $500,000 to convene forums to discuss new and emerging challenges that the field of ancient DNA is facing, with a goal of publishing a series of white-papers focused on best practices, including best ethical practices.
“This extraordinary investment from the John Templeton Foundation will enable something that would not have been possible to create by other means,” said David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. “It is a grand bet on the power of genome-wide studies of ancient human DNA to enhance and deepen our understanding of who we are. I am particularly excited about the resources that the Foundation has earmarked for holding a series of meetings that will allow us to think through key issues our field has to contend with as it becomes more mature. These issues include how to handle ancient remains in a respectful and ethical way that preserves material for the future while recognizing the perspectives of multiple stakeholders. We will place particular emphasis on fostering studies where geneticists work with archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians, and molecular biologists in fully equal partnerships — this is the future of this field.”
“We believe that this project will provide unprecedented detail into the evolution of the human genome,” said Matthew Walhout, Vice President of Natural Sciences at the John Templeton Foundation. “It will also help to fill in the gaps for regions that have been relatively understudied, shedding light on how our past has shaped humanity’s present and future.”
In addition to the John Templeton Foundation’s $15.5 million award, the initiative will receive funding from other organizations, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School, the Broad Institute, the Paul Allen Foundation, and the National Geographic Society.
About the John Templeton Foundation
Founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation supports efforts to advance human well-being through rigorous scientific research and field-leading scholarship across the sciences, theology, and philosophy. Its founding benefactor, the late Sir John Templeton, held the conviction that scientific research could reveal ever-deeper truths about the universe and humanity’s place within it.
With $3.4 billion in assets and annual grants of $129 million in 2017, it ranks among the 25 largest grantmaking foundations in the United States. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, PA, the Foundation’s philanthropic activities have engaged all major faith traditions and extend to 35 countries around the world.
From probing gravitational waves and updating the modern evolutionary synthesis to taking the first picture of a black hole, the Foundation’s grantees have contributed to major discoveries, and have opened critical new topics to scientific investigation, including awe, gratitude, and imagination.