May 18, 2023 from Smithsonian Magazine
In our daily lives, we unknowingly leave behind traces of ourselves through the shedding of DNA. Whether it’s in the form of sweat, saliva, blood, or skin cells, these microscopic fragments find their way into the environment, scattered across the Earth. Researchers at the University of Florida have recently made a groundbreaking discovery: they can effortlessly extract high-quality human DNA from the air we breathe, the sand beneath our feet, and even the water we encounter. However, this breakthrough has ignited an ethical debate, raising crucial questions regarding privacy and consent.
According to David Duffy, the lead researcher and a zoologist specializing in wildlife disease genomics at the University of Florida, a treasure trove of highly personal, ancestral, and health-related data is currently circulating freely in our surroundings. In a conversation with CNN’s Katie Hunt, Duffy stated that “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”.
In their initial research endeavor, David Duffy and his colleagues embarked on a mission to gather environmental DNA (eDNA) from sea turtle tracks in order to study viral tumors that pose a threat to these creatures. While their primary focus was on sea turtles, they were curious about the potential genetic information they might discover from other species, including humans.
To unravel this mystery, the team ventured to various locations in Florida, collecting genetic fragments from oceans, rivers, and sand. They also visited a remote island seldom frequented by humans, where they gathered samples from the sand. Jenny Whilde and Jessica Alice Farrell, researchers at the University of Florida and co-authors of the study, share in the Conversation, that the team found high-quality human DNA suitable for analysis and sequencing in all the locations except the remote island. The remarkable findings were published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Surprisingly, even these minuscule genetic fragments provided the researchers with an abundance of information about the individuals they originated from. The team uncovered mutations associated with conditions such as autism, diabetes, eye diseases, and cardiac diseases. In one instance, the eDNA of a person revealed a mutation linked to a disease that can cause neurological impairment and, in some cases, death. Elizabeth Anne Brown reports for the New York Times that the demographic information extracted from the samples closely aligned with the local population in the respective areas where the eDNA was collected. Additionally, the researchers were able to determine the genetic ancestry of the individuals through their analysis.
To further validate their technique, the team collected water samples from an Irish river, detecting human DNA at every site except for the remote tributary where the river originates. They also gathered air samples from a sea turtle hospital in Florida, where six volunteer workers were present. By comparing the eDNA bits to the staff members, animal patients, and common animal viruses, the researchers successfully matched the genetic material to the respective sources. As part of their experiment, four known participants walked on the sand, and the eDNA extracted from their footprints even revealed fragments of their sex chromosomes.
eDNA has revolutionized scientific research, providing a non-invasive method for collecting crucial data on animals while minimizing disruption. Its applications are vast, enabling biologists to monitor disease-causing pathogens and biodiversity in elusive or endangered species, and aiding public health officials in tracking diseases like Covid-19 in wastewater. However, as this technology has rapidly advanced in the past decade, concerns have emerged regarding its potential for misuse, particularly in surveilling minority groups or individuals with genetically driven disabilities.
“This gives a powerful new tool to authorities,” warns Anna Lewis, an ethical researcher at Harvard University. “There’s internationally plenty of reason, I think, to be concerned.” The fears stem from instances in China, where genetic tracking has been conducted on ethnic minorities, including Tibetans and Uyghurs, leading to global backlash from the scientific community. Experts caution that eDNA could further advance these invasive techniques or reveal genetic information from populations without their consent.
The use of DNA found at crime scenes to generate predictive images of suspects also raises the possibility that eDNA could be employed to implicate individuals in crimes. The Times reports that scientists are still grappling with a limited understanding of how eDNA functions, moves, and degrades. In response, David Duffy emphasizes the need for policymakers to engage in discussions and establish regulations around this emerging technology.
“We need a political discussion of expectations of privacy in the public space, particularly for DNA. We cannot avoid shedding DNA in the public space,” asserts Yves Moreau, a computational biologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium. While he advocates for caution, Moreau also expresses concern about overreactions that could stifle research progress. Striking a delicate balance between privacy protection and scientific advancement will be crucial moving forward.
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