Human DNA is surprisingly easy to find in the environment

Human DNA is easy to find in the environment, with samples of such good quality it can identify individual people. That's both a boon and a burden for researchers.
John Loeffler
A DNA strand
A DNA strand


A new study out of the University of Florida has found that human DNA samples, some of extremely high quality, are easily found in the environment wherever researchers looked, offering both a bounty for scientific research but also an ethical dillema not easily solved.

In a paper published this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the researchers from the University of Florida's (UF) Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience and Sea Turtle Hospital took environmental DNA (eDNA) samples from water, soil, and air collections in its ongoing study of viral cancers among sea turtles, and looked for human DNA among the turtle DNA the team had already been collecting.

They found that not only was the human eDNA present, but it was in abundance, and that it was of such good quality that they were able to identify genetic mutations and even the genetic ancestry of local populations, according to a UF statement.

“We’ve been consistently surprised throughout this project at how much human DNA we find and the quality of that DNA,” David Duffy, the UF professor of wildlife disease genomics heading up the research, said. “In most cases, the quality is almost equivalent to if you took a sample from a person.”

This of course is great for researchers who use DNA samples in their studies, like archeologists or anthropologists, but it also brings all kinds of moral implications with it, especially around consent and civil liberties.

“It’s standard in science to make these [DNA] sequences publicly available," Duffy said. "But that also means if you don’t screen out human information, anyone can come along and harvest this information. That raises issues around consent. Do you need to get consent to take those samples? Or institute some controls to remove human information?”

Another possible implication is in criminal investigations, where eDNA could provide investigators clues to the identity of a perpetrator of a crime, but the potential for abuse and misidentification are highly problematic, especially since eDNA could have found its way into a crime scene from any number of innocent means unrelated to the crime.

“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.”

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