Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Fifteen Year Old Boy uses Genome to Locate Birth Father
The take home is that it is possible to identify a person from his genome and soon to be cheaply available. The good news is that it is not a gold mine. The bad news is that genetic anonymity has ended when a fifteen year old boy can nail it and it starts been good enough for half the targets.
Our society can and will recognize parenthood only on the basis of the genome. This allows imposing child care obligations exclusively on the biological parents and to do this unilaterally. It may not be fair, but the alternative is also not fair. One can foresee mothers collecting contributing birth fathers just to spread the financial load.
One more delightful change in the social contract now coming up!
This also tells us that criminal behavior just became even more risky. If most DNA can be traced back to a surname with ease, it is as good as hot pursuit. It is almost impossible to not leave traces even in a simple robbery just in a fingerprint. Thus cheap DNA testing combined with huge databases will run most down.
Scientists Discover How to Identify People From ‘Anonymous’ Genomes
BY GREG MILLER
Most people participate in genomic research because they hope the DNA they offer up will help scientists uncover the roots of human diversity and disease. They generally expect to remain anonymous. But they may not be.
Researchers armed with little more than an internet connection identified nearly 50 people who participated in a large genomic study based on some of the participants’ genomes and other publicly accessible information.
The researchers do not name these individuals, and they insist their intentions were good. “We are not trying to start a panic,” said Yaniv Erlich of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, who led the new study. “We are trying to illuminate some of the gaps in privacy we have right now and initiate a public discussion.”
Scientists and research subjects aren’t the only ones who have a stake in that conversation, says genomics pioneer George Church, of Harvard Medical School. Today, a genome can be sequenced for a few thousand dollars, and the cost continues to drop.
“Soon you’ll be sequencing yourself and your dog and your plants,” Church said.
The new study shows that those sequences can sometimes be traced back to the individuals they came from.
Erlich and his team started with the observation that Y-chromosomes and surnames tend to go together. That’s because sons always inherit their father’s Y-chromosome and typically inherit his surname.
Certain genetic stutters on the Y-chromosome, in which the letters of the genetic code repeat over and over, vary widely in the general population but tend to be shared by closely related men.
In a few highly publicized cases, people have exploited this to find their sperm donor father. In 2005, for example, a 15-year old boy reportedly found his biological father after having his own Y-chromosome tested and combing a commercial genealogy website for close matches. These matches pointed to a potential surname, which the boy combined with other clues — including the sperm donor’s birth place and date — to track him down.
What Erlich’s team did is conceptually similar, but far more technically sophisticated. Instead of starting with a DNA sample, they started with 10 entire genomes publicly available as part of the international 1000 Genomes Project. An algorithm the researchers developed mined these genomes, all from men, for telltale variations in the Y chromosome. Then they searched two commercial genealogy databases for close matches and identified potential surnames. Finally, using additional details from the research records, such as the participants’ age and state of residence, as well as obituaries and other public documents, the team identified five of the 10 research participants and their entire families, which were also part of the genome research project, they report today in Science.
“It’s the first I’m aware of that individuals have been identified from research data without any other DNA sample,” said Laura Lyman Rodriguez, who directs the Division of Policy, Communications, and Education at the National Human Genome Research Institute (a branch of the NIH). “The chances of this happening for most people are very small, but they’re not zero,” Rodriguez said.
In a separate analysis, Erlich and colleagues estimated that their approach could be used to identify the surname of roughly 12 percent of Caucasian males in the United States from their genomes. For that 12 percent, additional public records searches could narrow the identity of each individual down to about 12 people. In other words, Erlich says, it’s not like any given person could be identified from their genome. But a sizable minority could.
That minority might be even bigger in European countries that historically have experienced less immigration than the U.S. has, says Mark Jobling, a human geneticist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. Jobling notes that waves of immigration and the legacy of slavery in the U.S. would tend to weaken the association between Y-chromosome sequences and surnames, because many slaves were forced to take on the names of their owners, for example, and many immigrants Anglicized their names to avoid standing out.
“Anonymity is a myth if you’ve got richly detailed genetic information and access to a variety of databases,” said Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford University who specializes in the ethical and legal implications of emerging biotechnology. Researchers need to ensure informed consent from participants, Greely says, even if that means telling them it may not be possible to protect their privacy.
Rodriguez says the National Institutes of Health have already taken steps in response to the study, which Science’s editors made available to them prior to its publication. For example, participants’ ages have been stripped from the open access webpages of several large genomic studies and will be made available only to researchers who request them and agree not to try to discover the participants’ identities.
“Probably that’s not going to work,” Church said. Rather than making it harder to access data, researchers should be telling people who get their genomes sequenced that there’s a strong possibility they could be identified, and informing them of the possible consequences. Consent forms for the Personal Genome Project, an effort run by Church that aims to sequence the genomes of 100,000 people from the general population, informs prospective participants that if their genetic information ends up in the wrong hands it could result in anything from discrimination by unscrupulous employers or insurance companies to their DNA being synthesized and planted at a crime scene. They also have to take a test to prove they understand all this.
Despite these disclosures, few people are scared off, Church says. “Plenty of people with a variety of medical conditions are willing to participate, and many of these seem very proud of passing the test and the other rites of passage,” he said.