You shed DNA everywhere you go – trace samples in the water, sand and air are enough to identify who you are, raising ethical questions about privacy
Published: May 15, 2023 11.01am EDT
Jenny Whilde — Adjunct Research Scientist in Marine Bioscience, University of Florida
Jessica Alice Farrell — Postdoctoral associate, University of Florida
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Ethical implications of collecting human eDNA
Our team dubs inadvertent retrieval of human DNA from environmental samples “human genetic bycatch.” We’re calling for deeper discussion about how to ethically handle human environmental DNA.
Human eDNA could present significant advances to research in fields as diverse as conservation, epidemiology, forensics and farming. If handled correctly, human eDNA could help archaeologists track down undiscovered ancient human settlements, allow biologists to monitor cancer mutations in a given population or provide law enforcement agencies useful forensic information.
However, there are also myriad ethical implications relating to the inadvertent or deliberate collection and analysis of human genetic bycatch. Identifiable information can be extracted from eDNA, and accessing this level of detail about individuals or populations comes with responsibilities relating to consent and confidentiality.
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Some one I know LOVES “crime” shows. Often, DNA can “hang” a crime on a criminal several decades after the event. Recently, we have been seeing some “solved” by “forensic genealogy”. The DNA from a crime scene can be linked to a family and, by diligent police work, the criminal is identified, tried, and convicted.
Some SciFi shows have said that forensic evidence can be tampered with — even DNA.
Now with this article, maybe the air, dirt, or whatever at a crime scene can be captured and cataloged.
One of the crime shows had the police trailing a suspect to get his DNA from a discarded cigarette butt or a water bottle. Maybe now, just test the air in the interrogation room might be all that is needed.
Shades of 1984.