Your DNA Can Now Be Collected From Thin Air Raising Privacy Alarm Bells

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Environmental DNA (eDNA) research may not be a field many are familiar with, but one that everyone might want to start paying attention to. A new study shows that while it's intended to track wildlife, it can also be used to collect high-quality human eDNA from something as mundane as a footprint on the beach.

It all began with scientists attempting to collect and analyze environmental DNA to study endangered sea turtles in Florida. The researchers from the University of Florida indicated that the DNA collected was so good that they could identify mutations associated with disease and even determine the genetic ancestry of the populations being studied. What they also found, however, was the ability to match genetic information to human volunteers as well.

The ability to recover minute fragments of human DNA from the environment is not a new idea. Scientists have long known it could be done, but they believed the samples to be too small to do anything with, until now.

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Researchers coined the term for the phenomenon as human genetic bycatch (HGB). The study says high-quality human eDNA can be intentionally recovered from environmental substrates, such as water, sand, and even air. While this might be valuable for medical, forensic, and environmental purposes, it also raises ethical questions.

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

The study shows scientists can recover medical and ancestry information from extremely small fragments of human eDNA. Erin Murphy, a law professor at the New York University School of Law, pointed out in an interview with the New York Times that new DNA collecting techniques are "like catnip" for law enforcement, and this one will more than likely be no different.

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While there are legitimate ethical concerns surrounding eDNA technology being used to study humans, there are many areas it can be of great benefit. Some of those are helping find missing persons, helping solve crimes, locating sites of archaeological importance, and supporting health monitoring through DNA found in wastewater, the study remarked.

Through the genetic information scientists were able to collect during the study, they were able to identify genetic variants associated with European and Latino populations, as well as identify a range of disorders such as autism, diabetes, eye diseases, cancer, and heart diseases. Duffy also said they were able to easily determine if the subject was a male or female who was walking in the sun or in a room.

"We need a political discussion of expectations of privacy in the public space, in particular for DNA. We cannot avoid shedding DNA in the public space," Yves Moureau, a professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium told CNN in an email. He added, "We should however not panic, and I am always afraid of precautions that would make research grind to a halt. It is a delicate balance to find."