Thousands of blood samples taken from Australia’s indigenous people lie in institutional freezers of the global North, the legacy of a half-century of scientific research. Since those collections were assembled, standards of ethical research practice have changed dramatically, leaving some samples in a state of dormancy. While some European and American collections are still actively used for genetic research, this practice is viewed as unethical by most Australian genetic researchers, who have closer relationships with indigenous Australians and postcolonial politics. For collections to be used ethically, they require a ‘guardian’ who has an ongoing and documented relationship with the donors, so that consent to further studies on samples can be negotiated. This affective and bureaucratic network generates ‘ethical biovalue’ such that a research project can satisfy Australian ethical review. I propose in this article that without ethical biovalue, collections become ‘orphan’ DNA, divorced from a guardian and often difficult to trace to their sources. Such samples are both orphaned and functionally sterile, unable to produce data, scientific articles, knowledge or prestige. This article draws on an ethnographic study of genetic researchers who are working in indigenous communities across Australia. I present tales of researchers’ efforts to generate ethical biovalue and their fears for succession; fears that extend to threats to destroy samples rather than see them orphaned, or worse, fall into the wrong hands. Within these material and affective networks, indigenous DNA morphs from biological sample to sacred object to political time bomb.
Field of Research
160102 Biological (Physical) Anthropology
Socio Economic Objective
920302 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health - Health Status and Outcomes
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