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Profile of Mark Stoneking
Friday, 2021/02/26 | 08:25:08

Jennifer Viegas; PNAS February 23, 2021 118 (8) e2101332118


Molecular anthropologist Mark Stoneking’s contributions to the field of human evolution began in the mid-1980s. As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Stoneking helped to identify the first genetic evidence supporting the African origin of modern humans. Since then, Stoneking, now a Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has used innovative genetic methods to investigate human migrations, demographic histories, genetic introgression from archaic to modern humans, human cultural practices, and more. For his Inaugural Article (1), Stoneking, who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, analyzed DNA from human skeletons found at a 2,200-year-old site in Guam. The findings of Stoneking and his colleagues suggest that Guam’s first colonists originated in the Philippines from an ancestral group linked to the Mariana Islands and Polynesia.


Figure: Mark Stoneking. Image credit: Brigitte Pakendorf (photographer).

Protein Variation Analysis

Stoneking’s advisor, Charlie Hoff, allowed him to take advanced graduate courses on human population genetics and established a private weekly tutorial. One memorable discussion concerned a 1975 paper coauthored by biochemists Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson (2). It proposed that changes in gene regulation were more important to the evolution of humans than were structural changes in proteins.


Hoff advised Stoneking to pursue a Master’s degree in genetics at his alma mater, Pennsylvania State University. Upon earning his Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 1977, Stoneking followed Hoff’s advice and worked with doctorate student Bernie May in the laboratory of James Wright, Jr., on the evolutionary genetics of salmonid fishes to learn starch gel electrophoresis of protein variation. He explains, “At that time, before we had methods for analyzing DNA, analyzing protein variation was the state-of-the-art for evolutionary genetic studies.” Their work shed light on genetic variation and inheritance in brook trout and other salmonid ray-finned fish

Envisioning the Future of Evolutionary Genetics

Advances during the mid to late 1970s in restriction enzyme analysis, a method for cleaving DNA at specific sites, facilitated the creation of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) maps of several species, including Homo sapiens. Stoneking saw the potential of mtDNA research. “It seemed to me that was where the future of evolutionary genetics was headed, so I was determined to go to a lab where I could learn about mtDNA,” he says.


After earning a Master’s degree in 1979, Stoneking attended University of California, Berkeley for his doctorate in genetics. His advisor was Wilson, who was juggling multiple projects involving mtDNA variation. Stoneking chose to work with University of California, Berkeley postdoctorate Rebecca Cann. Since the late 1970s, Cann had been collecting human mtDNA samples from various parts of the world. The experience, including Wilson’s mentoring, led to Stoneking’s decision to become a molecular anthropologist.

Forensic Applications of mtDNA

Stoneking’s work with geneticist Henry Erlich at the Cetus Corporation, where the PCR was invented, introduced him to the forensic DNA community. He maintained these ties while at Pennsylvania State University and helped the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory to establish mtDNA laboratories. He says, “We also did some casework, which in turn got us involved in some historical identifications.”


Two of the most notable projects involved mtDNA studies of remains purported to respectively belong to the American outlaw Jesse James and to the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova. Stoneking and colleagues’ mtDNA analysis of remains exhumed in Kearney, Nebraska, suggested that they belonged to James (9). Genetic analysis of a hair sample supposedly from Anna Anderson Manahan, who claimed to be Romanova, revealed that her assertions were false (10). For these and other investigations, in 1998 Stoneking received the FBI Award for Service to the Forensic DNA Community.


Stoneking also plans to join the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Biometry and Evolutionary Biology Laboratory next year. With retirement from the Max Planck Institute looming, he expresses gratitude for his team and collaborators. Stoneking also says, “What has made all of this work possible is the Max Planck Society, which has the vision of identifying scientists who can do good work and giving them what they need to carry out the research.”



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