Bad guys beware: Your DNA is in the air.
Scientists have discovered that human DNA can be easily found — allowing it to later be sequenced — virtually anywhere, from furniture to footprints and even open air.
Researchers gathered and analyzed environmental samples from the US and Ireland, finding that high-quality human DNA can be readily detected and matched to an individual.
The study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, showed that so-called environmental DNA is enough to determine the genetic ancestry of nearby populations as well as help to determine how diseases mutate in the area. It also showed that eDNA could open doors for scientific advancements in medicine and forensics.
David Duffy, an assistant professor of wildlife disease genomics, led the study with his team from the University of Florida, securing samples both near and far — with permission from all participants who volunteered their DNA for the study.
Their samples included human bare footprints from the beach, water samples in oceans and rivers, sand from virgin shores and air captured at various sites.
With the exception of isolated islands and a remote national park, the team found signs of human life almost everywhere they tested.
Air samples collected from a veterinary hospital also found eDNA, with scientists identifying DNA that matched the staff, animal patients and common animal viruses.
According to a press release, researchers say that eDNA could help track cancer and other disease mutations, uncover hidden archaeological sites or help nail suspects via the air at crime scenes.
“We’ve been consistently surprised throughout this project at how much human DNA we find and the quality of that DNA,” Duffy said. “In most cases, the quality is almost equivalent to if you took a sample from a person.”
However, the groundbreaking finding raises ethical concerns and could pose a threat to personal privacy, as such handy DNA collection could facilitate efforts to harvest genetic information without an individual’s express consent.
“Any time we make a technological advance, there are beneficial things that the technology can be used for and concerning things that the technology can be used for. It’s no different here,” Duffy said. “These are issues we are trying to raise early so policymakers and society have time to develop regulations.”