September 21, 2023

Privacy Concerns Raised as DNA Can now be Extracted from Ambient Air

As a proof of concept in one of their experiments, the researchers scooped up a soda-can-size sample of water from a creek in St. Augustine, Fla. They then fed the genetic material from the sample through a nanopore sequencer, which allows researchers to read longer stretches of DNA. The one they used cost about $1000, is the size of a cigarette lighter and plugs into a laptop like a flash drive.From the samples, the team recovered much more legible human DNA than they had anticipated. And as knowledge expands about human genetics, analysis of even limited samples can reveal a wealth of information.The researchers recovered enough mitochondrial DNA — passed directly from mother to child for thousands of generations — to generate a snapshot of the genetic ancestry of the population around the creek, which roughly aligns with the racial makeup reported in the latest census data for the area (although the researchers note that racial identity is a poor proxy for genetic ancestry). One mitochondrial sample was even complete enough to meet the requirements for the federal missing persons database.They also found key mutations shown to carry a higher risk of diabetes, cardiac issues or several eye diseases. According to their data, someone whose genetic material turned up in the sample had a mutation that could lead to a rare disease that causes progressive neurological impairment and is often fatal. The illness is hereditary and may not emerge until a patient’s 40s. Dr. Duffy couldn’t help but wonder — does that person know? Does the person’s family? Does the person’s insurance company?

Anna Lewis, a Harvard researcher who studies the ethical, legal and social implications of genetics research, said that environmental DNA hadn’t been widely discussed by experts in bioethics. But after the findings from Dr. Duffy and his colleagues, it will be.Technology focused on eDNA, she said, could be used for surveillance of certain kinds of people — for example, people with a specific ancestral background or with particular medical conditions or disabilities.The implications of such uses, researchers agree, depend on who is using the technology and why. While pooled eDNA samples could help public health researchers determine the incidence of a mutation that causes a disease in a community, that same eDNA sample could equally be used to find and persecute ethnic minorities.

Your DNA Can Now Be Pulled From Thin Air. Privacy Experts Are Worried.

DNA technology has come a long way, from fingerprinting to forensics. Now, scientists can pull DNA information from the air you breathe. The idea of someone getting hold of your DNA data without your consent is worrisome, and privacy experts have raised concerns about the implications.

How is It Possible to Get DNA from Thin Air?

The technique of ‘air capture’ involves collecting micro-particles such as skin cells that we shed constantly; this includes DNA that we leave behind when we exhale. Scientists are using ‘DNA mimic’, a lab-created tool that mimics DNA sequences, to capture genetic information from the air.

What are the Privacy Concerns?

With this newfound capability, it is now possible for third parties to collect your DNA data secretly without your knowledge or consent. Although the impact of this technology on our privacy is yet to be established, there’s no telling the lengths that unscrupulous parties might go to get hold of people’s DNA samples.

What are the Implications?

With DNA information, people can be identified, and this information can be used against them. For instance, insurance companies and employers could use it to deny benefits or jobs. Hackers could also use it to blackmail people. This technology also raises the possibility of the misuse of DNA data by law enforcement agencies.

In conclusion, scientists’ capability to obtain DNA samples from thin air has raised privacy concerns. While this technology has many potential uses, it also has negative implications for personal privacy. It is essential to establish clear regulations to protect people’s genetic information and prevent it from being misused.
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