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Genome Hacking at The New Scientist

Journalists Peter Aldhous and Michael Reilly write about using DNA obtained from a drinking glass and other sources to “hack” someone’s genome.

In “Special investigation: How my genome was hacked,” the authors use a variety of consumer-available DNA services to prepare and amplify genomic DNA in order to send it away for analysis by deCODEme.  They used deCODEme, it appears, because 23andMe and Navigenics use saliva collection, and “it would be hard to convert [the] amplified DNA sample into a form that closely mimicked saliva.”  They did use 23andMe, however, as a control.  Interestingly, the cost of the entire process was about $1,700 for lab services (preparation and amplification) and $985 for deCODEme’s service.

From the article:

Intimate secrets hidden in your DNA could be stolen without you even realizing. By taking a glass from which you have drunk, a “genome hacker” could obtain a comprehensive scan of your genome, revealing DNA variants that help determine your susceptibility to a wide range of diseases, from a common form of blindness to Alzheimer’s disease.

This could, the authors argue, suggest that similar services could be used to obtain genetic information about anyone:

For people who are not politicians or celebrities, the most obvious threat comes from unscrupulous employers or insurers – and many countries have already restricted their use of genetic information. But private citizens may also have motives to pry into one another’s DNA. A newly engaged person might want to know whether their future spouse carries genes making them vulnerable to dementia, for example. Or a childless couple could simply wipe a dribbling baby’s mouth to investigate the child’s genetic heritage and traits before deciding whether to adopt.

They also go into the different interpretations they received from each company, but there’s nothing new there; by now we know that there are different ways to interpret genetic probabilities in the current stage of knowledge.

What are your thoughts?

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

4 Comments

  1. There are companies that already market tests aimed at analyzing someone else’s DNA without their knowledge. Known as “infidelity tests”, these tests may provide the same end result as hiring a private investigator would, but for significantly less money.
    But let’s say that someone at a federal level decides legislation should be enacted to protect us from having our genomes hacked. How will it be enforced? What will the penalties be? Who will bear the cost of prosecution? Currently, there are federal and state level penalties for computer hacking. But take it from someone who has had their computer hacked by someone in another state, the FBI won’t touch it unless there is significant financial loss. All the laws on the books didn’t protect me from computer hacking and certainly didn’t penalize the hacker, so how will legislation be able to protect us from genome hacking? And what exactly would we be ‘protected’ from? The DNA tests the authors used are ones that indicate a potential predisposition to a genetic trait, not whether one actually has that genetic condition or trait. For example, some of the tests predict eye color and are sometimes wrong. Can legislation be written to protect us from others illicitly obtaining our DNA and finding out that we may or may not have a certain genetic predisposition? Would we have to suffer a significant financial loss for authorities to prosecute? Or would I have to sue someone for learning from a genetic test that my genes say I have blue eyes but which my mirror and drivers license say are green?

  2. My guess in Europe is that this would be taken up under 95/46/EC – the Data Protection Act. If such a story actually happened and the person took his case to certain media outlets, it would get taken up immediately and would probably make the national press.

    Difficult then to know the outcome – but it could lead to legislation in a matter of months. There are already laws in France to prevent things like this happening (I think).

  3. Youre right but not only in France. I think in Germany are the same laws.

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