Our DNA is in the air: the serious concerns of scientists

By | May 17, 2023

It sounds more than alarming, but perhaps the time has come when it can be done: Privacy violations, tracking of the location we visit, the collection of our data and even genetic surveillance of individuals or groups, can be carried out with a simple download. of DNA from the … air of the areas we visited.

Scientists at the University of Florida have managed to collect and analyze detailed genetic data on human DNA from places we couldn’t even imagine.

An accidental discovery?

It all started when a team from the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Biosciences and the University of Florida Sea Turtle Hospital used environmental DNA, recovered from turtle tracks in the sand, to study endangered green sea turtles and viral cancers through those who are susceptible.

However, they noticed that they were also collecting human DNA from the sand, ocean, and rivers surrounding their lab. They called this information “human genetic bycatch” and decided to study the phenomenon further.

As Katie Hunt reports on CNN, in research published in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the DNA of the turtles they collected from the sand was of such high quality that they could identify disease-related mutations and determine the genetic origin of populations. who lived. near these sites.

They were also able to match people’s genetic information with individual research volunteers to retrieve their DNA as part of the research. That is, the volunteers would pass through the area in question and then the scientists would collect their biological traces.

“All of this very personal and ancient health-related data is freely available in the environment and it’s just floating around right now,” said David Duffy, a professor of wildlife disease genomics at the University of Florida.

Environmental DNA has been taken from air, soil, sediment, water, permafrost, snow, and ice cores, and the techniques are used primarily to help monitor and protect threatened or endangered species.

We could find missing persons

According to scientists, human DNA that has entered the environment through our saliva, skin, sweat and blood could be used to help find missing persons, forensics to solve crimes, locate sites of archaeological importance and in monitoring the health through DNA found in wastewater.

potential risks

However, thorny ethical questions are raised about consent, privacy, and the security of our biological information. The ability to obtain human DNA from the environment could have a number of unintended consequences, both unwanted and malicious.

These included privacy violations, location tracking, data collection, and genetic surveillance of individuals or groups. It could lead to ethical barriers to the approval of wildlife studies.

Matthias Wienroth, a senior researcher studying the social and ethical aspects of genetics in criminology, surveillance and human health at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom, said the scientists involved in the study had taken seriously the “ethical aspects of job”. They identified some key issues that are likely to arise with their findings.’

“It is important to preserve human autonomy, dignity and the right to self-determination of personal data. “This is difficult unless scientists can ask permission from those whose DNA they may be collecting in the environment, because there is probably no way to prevent DNA from being lost to the environment through skin, hair, and hair.” breath,” Wienroth said.

He stressed the need to develop prediction in genetic and genomics research: “A key issue is that such incidental eDNA findings can enter databases that can be compared with user data in other genetic databases, undermining informed consent and even the confidentiality of the data”. “.

it’s a delicate balance

Yves Moreau, a professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium who studies artificial intelligence and genetics and has shed light on China’s DNA sampling of Tibetan and Uyghur minorities, said that while it was possible to imagine a scenario where “a mafia or a dictatorship will track down a protected witness or a political refugee” using sewage, was still “a bit of an exaggeration.

“We need a political conversation about privacy expectations in the public space, particularly about DNA. We cannot avoid spilling DNA in the public space,” Moreau told CNN.

“However, we should not panic and I am always afraid of the precautions that would stop the investigation. It’s a delicate balance to find.”

genetic variations of the past

In addition to the Florida samples, Duffy took water samples from the Avoca River in County Wicklow, in Ireland’s temperate zone, and found human DNA as it flowed through the town of Arklow. She also recovered DNA from footprints made in the sand by four volunteers, who gave the scientists permission to sequence part of their genome.

The researchers then took air samples from a 26-square-meter room. in an animal clinic where six people worked on a schedule in which they normally worked. The team recovered DNA that matched staff volunteers, sick animals, and common animal viruses.

From the genetic information the scientists collected, they were able to identify genetic variants in European and Latino populations associated with a variety of disorders and diseases including autism, diabetes, eye disease, cancer, and heart disease.

“These sequences uncovered the nuclear and mitochondrial regions of the human genome, which means we can easily tell whether a man or woman was walking in the sun or their presence in a room, depending on whether or not we sequenced the X or Y chromosome.” . Duffy explained.

“Using the mitochondrial genome, we were able to investigate the genetic origins of our samples.”

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