Two broad and interrelated concerns currently motivate ECDI Research Fellow Ray Tobler’s research. One is an interest in historical questions around the evolution and movement of people in Island Southeast Asia, Australia and New Guinea — and how this history informs our understanding of the region’s immense diversity. The other is applying knowledge of human genetic history to help us understand, for example, how humans react to viruses — and therefore how to treat them.
Ray began his academic career in experimental evolution, studying how fruit flies adapt to manipulated environments to generate “a general picture of genetic architecture of adaptation”. He later joined the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, where he worked alongside João Teixeira, exploring the migration and arrival of ancient groups of humans to Indonesia, Australia and New Guinea.
Now at ECDI, Ray’s curiosity about “when people got here, what happened along the way and what’s happened since” is driving a collaboration with linguists and archaeologists to explore the roots of cultural diversity in Southern Papua New Guinea. At least five distinct language families exist in the region, signalling a unique evolutionary history.
Ray’s contribution to this research will be to analyse some of the first genomic samples of people from Southern PNG. However, he points out that genomic information is so vast, it can be difficult to know what to look for. The knowledge gained by working alongside other disciplines will help to frame his hypotheses, give context to the analysis and inform how to interpret the data.
Some of these questions about the evolution, movement and diversity of human groups have been asked before; but at the heart of Ray’s collaboration with Nick Evans and other ECDI Researchers — and central to the broader Initiative — is an epistemological interest around providing more holistic, nuanced and satisfying answers to these questions. Ray notes that it’s not just about interdisciplinary collaboration — it’s about learning how to do this effectively, as it remains unclear how to best combine data and insights from between fields of research.
“Population geneticists like myself tend to use sociocultural data as a secondary information source that can help interpret genetic patterns – however we stand to uncover a much richer understanding of human history by directly combining these datasets into quantitative models of human bio-cultural evolution,” says Ray. “This is an inherently interdisciplinary challenge that I look forward to tackling with my ECDI colleagues in the coming years.”
He also highlights that it is vital to consider not only these historical questions, and the knowledge they give us about the current state of culture, society, diversity and human evolution, but to also explore useful applications of this information. This is where Ray’s interest in evolutionary medicine stems from.
By focusing on how evolutionary processes have left humans susceptible to different illnesses and health issues, evolutionary medicine seeks to find new ways of targeting disease. From a genetics perspective, this involves conducting large scale analyses of genetic material to identify variants that correspond with susceptibility, severity of reaction or adaptation.
Ray was recently involved in a study exploring signs of adaptation to coronaviruses like COVID-19 in the genes of 26 contemporary human populations. The study identified traces of viral interacting proteins — fingerprints left by viruses after they infect a cell — in five of these populations, suggesting their ancestors may have battled coronavirus outbreak as long as 25,000 years ago.
Research like this excites Ray because it can lead to the development of medicines that more precisely target the proteins that viruses interact with in the human body. Some of these proteins overlap with other diseases, signalling the potential to adapt existing treatments for novel viruses.
This research can also open opportunities for rectifying imbalances in genomics and medical research. Most of the material used in genetic studies comes from Europe and the United States, meaning the results of these studies are only truly accurate for the genomes of people from these regions. As the coronavirus study revealed, unique genetic evolution across different populations can result in different adaptations that may impact susceptibility or severity of reaction to diseases. If everyone’s individual genetic history plays a part in how they react to an illness, medicine could be made more effective by factoring in genetic differences.
But to factor in these differences, researchers need genetic material to study. This is the overlap between Ray’s two areas of interest. In his investigation of the genetic histories of the region, Ray will be working with communities not only to gather some of the first genomic samples from these people, but to establish standards around who controls the resulting data and how to gather samples ethically. Ray points to the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics at ANU, and also the Indonesian Genome Diversity Project run by his collaborators at the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta, as pioneering modern standards for ethical human genomic research that seeks to “rebalance the narrative” by delivering outcomes that directly benefit Indigenous communities.