Anthropology meets genetics to tell our collective story

ASU Regents' Professor Anne Stone talks about the the latest research in DNA and where it’s going in the future

April 23, 2019

We know that our DNA can tell us a lot about ourselves, from susceptibility to certain cancer types to biological relationships. With services like 23andMe growing in popularity, it seems we are also increasingly interested in what our genes can tell us about our past.

“People enjoy learning more about where they came from, and these kits are one way to do that,” said Anne Stone, a Regents’ Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.  photo of Stone in her lab Regents' Professor Anne Stone in her lab. Photo courtesy of ASU Now

But unlike mail-in kits that only give insight into the individual, Stone, an anthropological geneticist, sees DNA’s larger potential for societal and historical revelations.

At her ASU-based Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology, she and her students examine a wide range of topics, from the population history of Peru and the Caribbean, to the microbes that live in the mouths of chimpanzees, humans and other primates.

In 2016, her work in health and populations earned her a place in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Below, she answers questions about the latest research in her field and where it’s going in the future.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is anthropological genetics?

Answer: Basically, we are using genetic analyses to address questions related to human or primate population history, adaptation or even community relationships. This gives us further insight into human variation and our fascinating past.

Q: How is the field not just answering questions about the past, but also helping make our lives better today and tomorrow?

A: There are several different projects currently in my laboratory that my graduate students and postdocs are working on — genetics is a team effort! — which could have implications for the future.

For example, we are analyzing ancient DNA to learn about the evolutionary history of M. tuberculosis (the pathogen causing tuberculosis) before and after the “Age of Discovery/Colonization.”

This helps us see how the pathogen changes over time and in different hosts, which can help us understand how this pathogen evolves even as it jumps from one host to another. This can provide insight into better ways to design drugs that don’t evolve resistant pathogens. It could also help assess how much of a threat pathogens in other organisms might be.

Another project is testing new forensic methods to extract and analyze DNA from degraded bones, which may lead to new methods to improve our ability to identify victims of forest fires or other disasters.

Q: What are some of the opportunities you see for future research in the field?

A: I think that the biggest changes are likely to be in terms of improving bioinformatics methods to analyze genomic data, which will help us understand more about the complex demographic history of humans and how we have adapted to different environments.

The strength of an anthropological approach is the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspective that we typically have. I am always inspired by my students; former undergraduate and graduate students from my lab are now working on a range of interesting projects, including growing bone stem cell “organoids” to understand how bone cells work and influence morphological traits, studying adaptation in tropical hunter-gatherers and comparing how the microbiomes among rural and urban populations differ to see how this might influence health.

More stories on the future of DNA

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU grants 'MiniMasters' to Chemonics employees at global graduation

Arizona State University holds classroom doors open for its students, for the public and for the world

April 23, 2019

In the spirit of educational access for all, Arizona State University has awarded MiniMasters certificates in global supply chain management to over 350 Chemonics International employees in 25 developing countries across the globe, with the intent of empowering the world’s next generation of international development professionals. 

The pilot program was launched in August 2018 by ASU and Chemonics International, an international development company working in 75 countries around the globe. The program provided a unique opportunity for Chemonics’ global employees to pursue accredited, accessible continual learning.  group of people posing on steps of Old Main making pitchfork sign with hands Students, faculty and administrators from Chemonics and ASU pose in front of Old Main after the graduation ceremony. Download Full Image

“Education is the only path to global peace, harmony and prosperity,” said Amy Hillman, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU, during her remarks at the MiniMasters graduation ceremony on April 8. “The more we understand about one another, the more we understand about each other’s motives, cultures, political constraints, etc. This joint effort in education from ASU and Chemonics is helping develop a deeper understanding of cultures around the world and serves as an example of how innovative organizations are capable of helping individuals with different backgrounds work together and overcome differences.”

According to Stephen Feinson, associate vice president of ASU International Development, the MiniMasters certificate program was created out of discussions with Chemonics about their goal of providing affordable, world-class continual learning opportunities to their 5,000 employees worldwide.

“ASU is pioneering new ways to connect international development issues across many disciplines through research and lifelong access to learning,” Feinson said. “This program combines ASU’s forward-thinking approach to international development with our expertise in breaking down boundaries in education and research. It engages international development professionals across the world while utilizing education technologies to increase access.”

man speaking at lectern to a group

Stephen Feinson speaks at the MiniMasters graduation ceremony at Old Main on April 8, 2019. Photo by Laura Segall

“I came from Afghanistan where educational resources are limited for females,” said Wadia Waheed, an accounts payable associate at Chemonics’ headquarters office in Washington, D.C., who attended the graduation ceremony. “Being a mom of four kids with a full-time job made it hard for me to pursue further education. The MiniMasters degree was very valuable for me because it was a way to pursue continual education, be a working mom and not take on a financial burden for my family. We need opportunities like this.”

“Continual learning is an integral part of Chemonics’ culture and we constantly encourage our staff to learn new technical areas and grow as development professionals,” added Susi Mudge, president and CEO of Chemonics. “I’m thrilled this program with ASU exposed our global workforce to new areas in which they can have global impact.”

According to Jamey Butcher, executive vice president of Chemonics, ASU was a natural choice for partnership as the university's mission is closely aligned with Chemonics’ mission to promote meaningful change around the world to help people live healthier, more productive and more independent lives.

Classes in the program were taught by ASU faculty within the W. P. Carey School of Business and utilized innovative online learning platforms such as Canvas and Yellowdig to connect students to their faculty and to each other. 

“The class brought everyone together and we all worked as a team,” said Kelechi Enweruzo-Amaefule, a state strategic engagement manager working with the Chemonics-implemented USAID Global Health Supply Chain Program - Procurement and Supply Management project in Nigeria. “It helped us integrate our work, both within the project in Nigeria and also learn from other employees' ideas and experiences globally. I now have a greater understanding of others’ jobs, for example procurement processes and quantification and distribution, and can better contribute to and complement what they do. The program has increased our capacity and encouraged this integrated approach.”

Before the program, Waheed felt as if she executed financial tasks solely because it was required of her, without understanding all of its complexities.

“Now I know the rationale and importance as to why I am doing things a certain way,” Waheed said. “(The MiniMasters program) has given us the confidence to better understand what we do and why. It’s given us the tools to deliver this knowledge to others as well.”

woman talking in microphone

Wadia Waheed speaks at the MiniMasters graduation ceremony at Old Main on April 8, 2019. Photo by Laura Segall

According to Mudge, Chemonics hopes to continue offering the program, while exploring additional needs of Chemonics’ global workforce and expanding their continual learning offerings with ASU. 

The MiniMasters program was not only a test of success for ASU and Chemonics, but also a global test for how to engage people around the world.

“This was a pilot program to explore how we can educate international development professionals,” Feinson said. “Now we want to see how this program scales to impact more people.”

Aside from this program, ASU International Development and Chemonics are working together to bring innovation to other industries including supply chain management, monitoring, evaluation, learning, conservation and biodiversity. 

ASU International Development is also involved with rule of law projects in South America, education projects in Pakistan, and other projects around the world. For the future, ASU International Development is focused on perfecting university design models that will work in the developing world. 

Written by Maya Shrikant