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If you want to know the future, study the past. Confucius said it. Anne Stone embodies it.
One part Indiana Jones; one part Charles Darwin; one part Jane Goodall: Stone has unearthed the secrets of a prehistoric Native American community, conducted the first analysis of Neanderthal DNA and revealed the surprising level of genetic diversity among chimpanzees.
Most recently, she was bestowed the highest faculty honor at Arizona State University when she was selected as a Regents’ Professor for these and other breakthroughs in anthropological genetics, which combines elements of archaeology, biology and anthropology.
The honor comes on the heels of her May 2016 election to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s most prestigious organizations of scholars whose members have included Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.
“Dr. Stone’s research is energetic and important,” said Alexandra Brewis Slade, former director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “It is tackling some of the most concerning re-emerging infectious diseases, like leprosy and tuberculosis. Its brilliance is in the ways it creatively integrates a wide array of genetic data from past and present human societies, and other mammal species, to tell the story of not only where we and our diseases come from, but also where things are headed next.”
Stone uses anthropological genetics as the basis for interdisciplinary research that seeks to understand how humans and the great apes have adapted to their environments over time, with a particular interest in the genetics of infectious diseases.
Her work has three main strands: Native American population history, understanding the co-evolutionary history of mycobacteria with human and non-human primates, and the evolutionary history of the great apes.
“A lot of what I do is basic science,” Stone said, “but there are a lot of benefits to basic science. … If you’re going to understand why humans get certain diseases, or why we have certain traits and what their origins are, we have to understand our evolutionary history.”
She became interested in the field after double majoring in biology and archaeology at the University of Virginia. During graduate school, Stone was drawn to the study of ancient DNA, solidifying her pursuit of anthropological genetics.
For her doctoral dissertation, she conducted one of the largest genetic analyses of a prehistoric community ever before attempted, allowing her to trace the migration patterns and settlement history of the original inhabitants of the Americas and to observe how they were affected by colonization. She is now considered the primary expert in the population history of North and South America.
Throughout her student academic career, she also contributed to the first analysis of Neanderthal DNA and research involving the origins of the Tyrolean Iceman.
As one of the key developers of techniques for extraction of DNA from ancient remains, Stone has been able to reconstruct the genetic histories of species, examine relationships between species and understand how past adaptations are linked to modern humans and apes.
Currently, Stone teaches courses such as Peopling of the World in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and works closely with students in her Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology. There, students receive invaluable guidance and hands-on learning opportunities on a variety of projects, including research into the evolutionary history of tuberculosis and chimpanzee population history.
Maria Nieves Colon, an anthropology doctoral student who has worked with Stone in her lab, called her “an amazing mentor and role model.”
In relation to tuberculosis, Stone has collaborated with paleogeneticist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History to uncover evidence that the disease was first transmitted to people in the Americas by seals, and that the jump into humans came more recently than previously thought — 3,000 to 6,000 years ago. The findings are significant as they determined that tuberculosis can “jump species.”
Her work with chimpanzees has revealed that the species is, surprisingly, much more genetically diverse than humans. Presently, she is collaborating with a primatologist at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania — where Jane Goodall famously studied — to extract genetic material that she hopes will build on her earlier findings.
In addition, Stone is the senior editor for the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, recently served as the president of the American Association of Anthropological Geneticists, is a member of the Executive Committee of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and is a member of the Scientific Executive Committee of the Leakey Foundation.
She has been a Fulbright fellow, a Kavli Scholar and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her interdisciplinary approach to research is evident by publications outside of anthropogony journals, including Cell, Nature and Science.
“I really enjoy it,” Stone said of her work. “I can’t imagine doing something different. … I see myself doing this for a while.”
Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now