Sequencing Sitting Bull-Frivolous Funding or Good PR

According to a report in ScienceNews, the famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull may be joining the small but growing number of people who have had their DNA sequenced. In reporting this story, GenomeWeb quoted Blaine Bettinger at The Genetic Genealogist who named Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Ötzi and Juanita the Peruvian Ice Maiden (a 600-year-old mummy) as other famous personalities whose DNA should also be sequenced as a memento of the past.

What intrigued me most about this story was not the “wow” factor associated with sequencing a famous person’s DNA, nor was it the ethical issue of sequencing someone’s genome without their permission as proposed by The Genetic Genealogist. What got me thinking about this story was a comment by S. Pelech on GenomeWeb where s/he laments that despite the decreasing costs associated with whole genome sequencing, money spent on sequencing the genomes of long-dead celebrities would be better spent on research initiatives that would be of more benefit to human health.

In general, I agree with S. Pelech that “trimming the fat” from the system and concentrating our resources on more practical research projects would be a prudent use of scare research funds. In siding with S. Pelech, I am assuming that his beef is with the use of public grant funds for what I like to call “extracurricular” research. I do not believe that we should be dictating how private funds are used in any research environment.

On the other hand, the glitz and glamor associated with sequencing Albert Einstein or Sitting Bull’s genome will likely increase public awareness of genome sequencing projects (or at least keep the field in the forefront of the public consciousness) and may ultimately lead to more public support for other genomic project and increased funding down the road. After all, government funding of science is generally determined by public perception. If the public is in support of increasing research funding then the government will be more likely to follow suit (especially with campaign promises during election season).

So to summarize my thoughts, I believe that although we should focus our dollars of funding “practical” research projects, there is room for supporting “eye candy” research if it helps keep the public focused on scientific research.

What are your thoughts?

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