The University of Florida said in a statement that the collection of air samples at a veterinary hospital revealed DNA matching both crew members and animal viruses.
Tracking people by analyzing the genetic fingerprint they planted in the environment will become possible one day, according to scientists who announced the detection of human DNA in sand, water and even air, but they warned that this development could be exploited for malicious purposes.
This discovery could lead to applications in medicine, the environment, or forensic science. But it poses an ethical problem, given the ease with which traces of human life were collected, according to what the authors of the study, whose results were published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, warned. They were surprised by the results of their work, and called for “guarantees” that prevent the possibility of using this discovery. with the aim of infringing on privacy.
Environmental DNA technology has recently been developed to track wild species and better understand biodiversity. It is based on taking samples from the natural environments of animals that leave genetic traces in their surroundings through cells (in skin, hair, scales…) and lose them permanently.
Humans are no exception to this rule, as they spread the DNA that carries the genetic information of each individual wherever they go, whether during a walk on the beach, or a shower, or a cough, or a spray in the air, or when flushing the toilet …
These effects are usually hidden, and scientists did not expect to capture them on such a large scale, according to the study.
This “accidental human genome” approach began at the University of Florida’s Whitney Marine Biodiversity Laboratory, using swabs of sand to study the environmental DNA of sea turtles.
The researchers were already expecting to find some human DNA in the samples, which often come from people who come in contact with them. But they did not expect it to be in such a large quantity, and of a quality “nearly equivalent to that of a sample drawn from a person,” according to David Duffy, a specialist in genetic diseases in wild animals at the University of Florida, who supervised the study.
In the field, Duffy and his team have found human genetic signatures almost everywhere: in the oceans and rivers around the lab, near urban centers and in less populated places, on the sands of isolated beaches…
Professor Duffy tested this technique in the cooler climate of Ireland, his native country, and found samples of human DNA by going upstream, except upstream, far from any civilization.
The University of Florida said in a statement that the collection of air samples at a veterinary hospital revealed the presence of DNA identical to crew members and animal viruses.
Mark McCauley, one of the study’s lead authors, said the DNA sequences collected were long enough to be “readable”, making it possible to identify mutations linked to diseases such as diabetes and to determine genetic ancestry.
The researchers were even able to sequence parts of the genome of volunteer participants who agreed to take DNA samples from their footprints in the sand.
“For ethical reasons, we have not reviewed the sequences in our possession in a way that would enable us to identify certain individuals. But it is certain that this step will happen one day. The only question is when that will happen,” Marc Marcoli commented during a press conference.
In the future, collecting human environmental DNA could “benefit society,” for example by helping to detect cancerous mutations in wastewater, or identifying a suspect in a crime who left no physical traces such as saliva or blood, according to this report. Researcher in the Whitney Lab.
But as hopeful as it is, this development raises “strong concerns associated with protecting genetic privacy and the limits of policing,” said Natalie Ram, a law professor at the University of Maryland, in a commentary accompanying the study, pointing to the danger of “perpetual genetic surveillance.”
The study’s authors shared these concerns, expressing their fear that the technology could be misused in particular to “track individuals or target specific ethnic minorities.” There is also a problem with consent to collect data that “floats freely in the air”, as Mark McCauley asserts.
“This is why we are now alerting scientists and the community to look at our findings and develop rules for overseeing research into human DNA,” stresses Professor Duffy.