The Environment is Someone’s Home: Matilda Handsley-Davis on the Ethics of Environmental DNA Research

All living things leave traces of their DNA, the genetic instructions they carry, in the places they live. This DNA, called environmental DNA (eDNA), is increasingly used by researchers to understand our present and past. We could collect a bottle of water from Lake Union and detect many of the fish, crabs, and bacteria currently living in the lake that have left their DNA behind. Environmental DNA also provides clues about Earth’s history; sediments from Siberia and Aotearoa/New Zealand were found to contain traces of DNA from extinct animals, such as the woolly mammoth and moa birds. But emergent technologies require emergent ethical standards, and as yet, it’s not clear what the ethical boundaries of this new set of technologies might be.

Environmental DNA can reveal information about humans and their interactions with other species. However, many environmental samples are legally collected to analyze environmental DNA without thorough consideration of how the findings may affect Indigenous traditional knowledge holders.

With a background in history, politics, and microbiology, Matilda Handsley-Davis, a PhD student from the University of Adelaide in Australia, is uniquely suited to tell us about the necessary ethical guidelines associated with environmental DNA research, especially on Indigenous lands. Inspired after reading her recent publication, “Researchers using environmental DNA must engage ethically with Indigenous communities,” I reached out to her to learn about her work.

Matilda Handsley-Davis is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide in southern Australia, studying microbiomes, Indigenous health, and bioethics. (Photo credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis)


Your research crosses disciplines in such unique ways. Tell me a little about yourself!

I’ll start by acknowledging the Kaurna people as the traditional owners of the Adelaide plains, which are the lands on which I live and work. I live in Adelaide in South Australia, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Adelaide. The Kaurna people have lived on and cared for this country for tens of thousands of years and still maintain those connections and responsibilities to country today. I count myself very lucky to have grown up and live on this land, and I acknowledge and express my gratitude and respect to the Kaurna people and their ancestors.

In my PhD, I study oral microbial communities and oral health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of microbiome and metagenomic research for Indigenous peoples. I would call myself a multidisciplinary rather than an interdisciplinary researcher, because I do have separate scientific and ELSI projects, but working across these fields does impact the way I think about each project! I’m also a member of the organizing committee for the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING) Australia, where we try to engage and support First Nations, Native, or Indigenous peoples in discussions about genomics. We’re trying to help the next generation of Indigenous scientists and bioethicists who can drive the field of genomics in a more ethical direction.

You led a recent publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution that was a timely call to action for researchers using environmental DNA, and I found your example about birthing trees to be very powerful. Can you talk a little more about that?

Before I start talking about it, I would like to acknowledge that the birthing trees are considered women’s business. For a lot of Aboriginal groups in Australia, certain knowledge or practices are classified as men’s or women’s business, and it’s inappropriate for men to hear about women’s business or vice versa. I’m just noting this in case that might affect anyone who might be reading this.

Traditionally, Aboriginal women in southeastern Australia use birthing trees to assist with labor and childbirth. They have practices, songs, and ceremonies surrounding the labor and birth that involve the trees and the landscape surrounding them; things like pain relief and helping support positions of the body. These practices are described in a paper by Karen Adams and colleagues who investigated these traditions using archival material. There’s also been a growing movement among some Aboriginal women to reclaim these practices that have been lost or prevented as a result of European colonization.

Gum trees are often integrated into Aboriginal Australian knowledge and practice, holding profound cultural and spiritual significance. (Photo credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis)


Several birthing trees and other culturally significant trees for Djab Wurrung Aboriginal people in the state of Victoria were slated for removal in 2018 as part of a highway development. One birthing tree was thought to be 800 years old and the site of about 10,000 births of Aboriginal children. This was about the same time as the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was on fire; the cathedral is about the same age. I remember there was a lot of commentary at the time about how people were really upset about the Notre Dame fire, which of course was terrible, but at the same time, there was something of equal spiritual, historical, and cultural significance in Australia that wasn’t being shown the same respect within our country by our government.

After more than a year of protesting by traditional owners, the particular 800-year-old ancient birthing tree was granted protection, and they changed the route of the road a bit. But there are still other culturally significant trees in that area not yet protected. One of the authors on our publication, laureate professor Lynette Russell from the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, was approached by a group of Aboriginal women who wanted to know how DNA could potentially be used to learn about birthing trees or to make claims for protection of birthing trees or other important sites. I worked on the publication with Lynette and two of my PhD advisors, associate professor Laura Weyrich and professor Emma Kowal.

Environmental DNA extracted from the soil and sediment around birthing trees and caves can be used to gather information about how they were being used in the past. There are specific ceremonies associated with childbirth sites that would lead people to expect to find human DNA in the soil, and we were thinking how that information might be used to confirm a known birthing tree or to support or reject claims for protection from destruction. However, this type of evidence has ethical issues in itself: Would this approach privilege Western science like DNA evidence over traditional knowledge of which trees are culturally important? There is also a risk of getting stigmatizing or unexpected results, and there are risks of hype and overpromising of the potential of new research techniques to communities. The failure of new techniques can lead to feelings of betrayal and distrust, like if you say, “Yeah, we can use this DNA research to help you,” and then it turns out not to work for technical reasons.

As we were working on the publication, we found in our discussions that there was an even broader conversation to be had about environmental DNA analysis as a field and its ethical implications. Many researchers collecting soil, sediment, or water samples don’t really have engagement with Indigenous communities at the top of their minds. At least in Australia, anywhere you might be working is Indigenous land, and it has traditional owners who are connected to that land and who are responsible for it. We wanted to get the general message out there that, as Laura has said, even environmental samples count as someone’s home. And everyone needs to think about that when they’re doing research.

Taungurung Country (Victoria, Australia) – Handsley-Davis conducts field research in a “Working on Country: Indigenous community engagement in a field setting” masterclass with the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre. As part of the class, she was shown around archaeological sites by Taungurung representatives. This photo shows stone tool grinding grooves next to the creek. (Photo credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis)


You also talk in that publication about how existing frameworks for human research ethics can be used to guide environmental DNA research. Can these frameworks be insufficient in Indigenous contexts?

Of course, there’s an argument for having formalized ethical guidelines and structures because they’re very helpful for people. But you also don’t want to be overly prescriptive because every project is different, and every Indigenous group is different and will have different concerns or priorities. It’s hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach. I don’t think researchers should solely rely on a formal ethical review or ethical tick box structure and consider their due diligence done. There are always emerging technologies and emerging ethical issues that accompany them, so we need to stay on our toes.

For example, existing human research ethics frameworks were mostly developed in a Western cultural context, which clearly distinguishes between human and non-human research and holds human research to more stringent ethical requirements and review. I would say the average scientist who has grown up in a society and institutions that share these values wouldn’t immediately think of eDNA research as requiring ethical review, because it’s “just” environmental research, right? To us, it doesn’t seem to pose immediate, tangible risks of harm to people or animals. In many systems it would be considered exempt from ethical review.

However, as Indigenous scholars have highlighted, not all cultures subscribe to this same divide. Plants, animals, landscapes, natural phenomena like wind or rainbows, can all have profound cultural significance that non-Indigenous people may not be aware of. That’s why we argue in the paper that relying on Western human research ethics frameworks probably isn’t sufficient for truly ethical engagement with Indigenous communities when it comes to eDNA research. I think, overall, we should try to approach research with an open mind and lots of community input.

Data sovereignty typically refers to the idea that data are subject to the laws and governance structures within the nation it is collected. How can data science be Indigenized?

I will recommend a book called Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda edited by Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor. In the introduction, Kukutai and Taylor describe data sovereignty as the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ “inherent and inalienable rights relating to the collection, ownership and application of data about their people, lifeways, and territories.” Data sovereignty refers to putting the control and ability to manage data about Indigenous peoples and their territories and ways of life into the hands of Indigenous peoples.**

From a research perspective, this generally would translate into acknowledging and respecting Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests in data that not only relate to them, but also to their land or to their culture. It’s about allowing Indigenous peoples a level of control as to who can access those data and for what purposes, and on the other hand enabling Indigenous communities access to data that are relevant to them in an appropriate format. There are several Indigenous scholars working to Indigenize data science or data sovereignty in general, such as Kalinda Griffiths and Raymond Lovett in Australia, Maui Hudson in Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Krystal Tsosie, Keolu Fox, and the Native BioData Consortium in North America.

Deakin University, Wadawurrung Country (Geelong, Victoria, Australia) – Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING) Australia aims to build capacity for Indigenous peoples and facilitate expression of Indigenous voices and perspectives on genomic research. A group of faculty and participants met at a 2019 workshop. (Photo credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis)


How can non-Indigenous researchers support and advance Indigenous sovereignty in an academic context?

I’d like to answer by sharing advice given to me by two Aboriginal Australian scientists when I asked a similar question! Djarra Delaney is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne and studies climate planning in remote or rural coastal communities. Kirsten Banks is a PhD student in astrophysics and an amazing science communicator—check out her Twitter and TikTok accounts.

For non-Indigenous researchers who want to advance Indigenous sovereignty, Djarra and Kirsten recommend accepting Indigenous knowledge, recognizing your privilege, and using it to amplify the platform and voices of Indigenous people, rather than speaking for them, which is kind of what I’m trying to do here. They recommend getting involved and getting to know your local Indigenous communities to learn whose land you’re on, attend events, meet people, try to learn and build your cultural competency, and build relationships and partnerships. That was the advice that they gave, and I’d like to continue amplifying that and hopefully it’s helpful for other people as well.

** Editor’s note: Conversation surrounding ownership and protection of information represents a critical incongruence between Western and Indigenous ideologies, and this incongruence is important when considering data sovereignty. The dominant culture of many Western societies views facts as not subject to ownership. For example, intellectual property is a type of property that includes intangible creations of human intellect, like patents and trade secrets. However, intellectual property in Western contexts often can never be truly private. An invention can be patented, but even then, the facts of the invention and how it works are public information and must be published as part of the patent bargain. A trade secret, like the recipe to Coca-Cola, can be leaked, and after this leakage, the trade secret’s legal protection ends.

Claims of protection for Indigenous knowledge therefore must contend with a dominant system where facts are not ownable or protectable. When discussing birthing trees, Handsley-Davis makes the disclaimer above about “women’s business,” which suggests a partitioning of information within a society. Indigenizing data science faces a challenge where special ownership of knowledge is not customary within the dominant Western legal and cultural context.

Contact Currents’ Editor-in-Chief for access to:

Handsley-Davis, M., Kowal, E., Russell, L., & Weyrich, L.S. (2021). Researchers using environmental DNA must engage ethically with Indigenous communities. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 5, 146-148. doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-01351-6

Adams, K., Faulkhead, S., Standfield, R., & Atkinson, P. (2018). Challenging the colonisation of birth: Koori women’s birthing knowledge and practice. Women and Birth, 31(2), 81-88. doi: 10.1016/j.wombi.2017.07.014