Researchers from the University of Florida said a new accidental discovery could help solve criminal activity or find missing persons after learning investigators could collect human DNA samples from the air.
According to Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers learned the potential source for fighting crime while studying endangered sea turtles and analyzing sand samples at a beach where the reptiles lay eggs.
“We cough, spit, shed and flush our DNA into all of these places and countless more,” the university’s team said in a news release.
David Duffy, the UF professor of wildlife disease genomics who led the project, said the discovery of gathering genetic information from a scoop of sand, a vial of water, or a person’s breath presents ethical dilemmas that scientists and regulators could face about privacy and surveillance to data ownership.
“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.”
Researchers said they collected human DNA everywhere they looked, except isolated islands and remote national parks. The team found samples near ocean and river waters surrounding the university’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience and Sea Turtle Hospital. Duffy said even as far as his native land of Ireland.
“It’s standard in science to make these 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.”
Now that human DNA could be found and readily sampled, Duffy urged lawmakers and the scientific communities to push for consent and privacy measures.
“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 policy makers and society have time to develop regulations.”