The earth is abundantly covered with human DNA and no one likes what scientists can do with it

Dmitry IvancheskulLife
Even a footprint in the sand can tell a lot about the person who left it

DNA sequencing technology has evolved to the point where a sample can be found in virtually any environment - water, ice, sand, soil or even air. This greatly simplifies the work of researchers studying wildlife populations, but jeopardizes people's right to privacy.

The discovery was reported in a study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Scientists looking for green turtle DNA didn't find exactly what they expected, and that worried them.

So-called environmental DNA (eDNA) allows scientists to conduct noninvasive studies of wild animals, studying their diseases and how these animals are affected by their environment. However, it turns out that eDNA samples can contain significant amounts of human genes. In some cases, traces of DNA were enough to determine the sex as well as the probable origin of the person.

This was because each skin flake, hair follicle, eyelash, or droplet of saliva is actually a "blueprint" of a human, written in its unique chemical code.

Jessica Farrell, David Duffy and their colleagues at the University of Florida used eDNA to study herpes virus infections that cause tumors in sea turtles. They used a particularly powerful sequencing method to identify DNA in sand samples from turtle nesting sites, as well as in water from tidal estuaries and reservoirs at the University Sea Turtle Hospital. To their surprise, they were able to detect not only the virus and turtle DNA, but also long stretches of human DNA. They were intact enough that the instruments could easily identify the X and Y chromosomes.

"Throughout the project, we were continually amazed at how much human DNA we found, as well as the quality of that DNA. In most cases, the quality is almost the same as if you took a sample from a human," Duffy said.

After receiving such an unexpected result, they applied to the ethics commission for permission to search for human DNA in various other media. The following studies showed that human DNA was present in a sample from a river in Ireland, seawater off the coast of Florida (USA), sand from a footprint and the air in the room where people worked.

And the samples had so much genetic material that it can be used to determine a person's sex and probable origin, as well as to find out what diseases threaten that person.

As University of Maryland law and bioethics researcher Natalie Rahm explained, the presence of the human genome in the eDNA samples is of concern because it could lead to abuse by police or other government agencies, data collection by commercial companies or even mass genetic surveillance.

The researchers note that if forensic scientists obtain DNA from crime scenes in this way, that's fine, but the problem is making sure such analysis doesn't lead to erroneous convictions.

"Solving crimes is fine. But using genetic information that we unwittingly lose for investigative purposes risks putting us all under perpetual genetic surveillance," Ram explained.

In addition, whoever has access to public or private DNA databases that have been collected with people's permission will be able to compare that data with the data obtained from eDNA samples and identify anyone. And this would already become very similar to the plot of any police state movie.

Scientists believe that before unscrupulous people get access to sequencing technology and start hunting for other people's DNA, the world community should develop rules prohibiting or restricting the use of eDNA samples to collect data on other people.

OBOZREVATEL previously told how the first ever photo of DNA looked and who took it.

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