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Footprints on the beach. In a crowded room, air is breathed. Ocean water.
Scientists are now able to collect detailed genetic data on human DNA in all of these locations, which raises ethical questions regarding consent, privacy, and security with regards to our biological information.
Researchers from the University of Florida used environmental DNA found in the sand as a tool to study endangered sea tortoises. The DNA was of high quality, allowing the scientists to identify mutations linked with diseases and determine the genetic heritage of nearby populations.
The researchers were able to match the genetic information of individual participants that had volunteered for their DNA to be recovered. This research was published on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
David Duffy is a professor of Wildlife Disease Genomics at the University of Florida. He said, "All of this personal, ancestral, and health-related data is available and floating in the air."
The techniques have been used to track and protect endangered species by obtaining environmental DNA from air, soils, sediments, water, permafrost and snow cores.
The study found that human DNA in waste water could be used for a variety of purposes, including finding missing people, assisting in forensic investigations, locating sites of archaeological significance, and monitoring health.
They added that the ability to extract human DNA from an environment could lead to a variety of unintended effects, both malicious and inadvertent. Privacy breaches, location tracking and data harvesting were among the many unintended consequences. This could create ethical issues for wildlife studies.
Matthias Wienroth is a senior fellow at the University of Northumbria, UK. He studies social and ethical aspects of the genetics used in forensics and surveillance, and in human health.
It is crucial to protect human autonomy, dignity, and the right to make decisions about personal data. It is hard to do this if you cannot ask the people whose DNA might be collected from the environment for permission, because it's unlikely that there will ever be a way to prevent DNA being lost to the environment through skin, hair and breath.
He stressed the importance of developing and deploying foresight to genetics and genome research. 'An important issue is that these incidental eDNA discoveries may find their way into databases which can then be compared with other user data in genetics databases. This could undermine informed consent and even client confidentiality.
Water, sand and air contain human DNA
When the team at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, Sea Turtle Hospital was using environmental DNA (recovered from turtle tracks on sand) to study endangered green turtles and viral cancers that they are susceptible to when they noticed they were also picking human DNA up from the sand as well as the oceans and rivers around the lab.
The researchers decided to investigate the phenomenon more closely and called this information "human genetic bycatch".
Duffy also tested the Avoca River, a temperate Irish river in County Wicklow, and found human DNA in the water flowing through the town Arklow. However, the river's uppermost reach, where no humans lived, did not contain any human DNA.
The team also recovered DNA from the footprints left in sand made by four volunteers. They were able, with permission, to sequence a part of each participant's genome. The researchers then took air samples from a room of 280 square feet in an animal clinic, where six people were working as part of their daily routines. The team found DNA from staff volunteers, animals patients and common animal virus.
The genetic data collected by the scientists allowed them to identify genetic variations that are associated with Europeans and Latinos, as well as variants associated with disorders and diseases like autism, diabetes and eye diseases.
Duffy said at a press briefing that 'these sequences recovered both nuclear and mitochondrial areas of the human genome. This means we can easily tell if someone was male or female, walking in the sunlight, or in a particular room, depending on whether we sequenced the (X) or (Y) chromosome.
"Using the mitochondrial DNA, we were also able to determine the genetic ancestry for our samples."
Yves Moreau is a professor of artificial intelligence and genetics at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He has shed light on China's sampling of Tibetans and Uyghurs.
We need to have a discussion on the expectations of privacy, especially in relation to DNA. Email said Moreau who wasn't involved in this research.
"We shouldn't panic. I'm always worried about precautions that could halt research. Finding the right balance is difficult.