Privacy concerns surrounding the human microbiome
At a time of NSA surveillance, GCHQ scandals and the arrest of Edward Snowden, privacy issues have never been so pertinent. It may therefore be of concern that the DNA of bacteria that inhabit the human body, the “human microbiome”, can actually be used to uniquely identify someone.
The human microbiome has been a hot topic in scientific research the past few years, with scientists keen to discover the role the bacteria that colonize our bodies may have on how we live. It is difficult to comprehend that we carry ten times more bacteria than our own cells, 100 trillion infact. This population, the microbiome, has an impact on our digestive system, immune system and in fact our overall health. Everything we do can change the bacteria that live inside us – what we eat, if we fall ill, even how we are born.
We are constantly depositing these bacteria everywhere through our skin, as well as our own DNA. It was never clear whether an individuals unique microbiome, populated with different numbers and species of bacteria compared to anyone else, would be permanent enough to actually identify someone.
However, new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has suggested that a person can be identified even through an anonymous study of their microbiome, and can reveal lifestyle and health details. Another study, published in Genome Research last month, also suggests that a microbiome database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health, already contains information that makes study participants identifiable.
Study lead Curtis Huttenhower, of the Harvard School of Public Health said, “If you deposit microbes, you’re probably depositing your DNA too and DNA forensics is so well developed.” However, he also added, “Right now, it’s a little bit of a Wild West as far as microbiome data management goes. As the field develops, we need to make sure there’s a realisation that our microbiomes are highly unique.”
Huttenhower and his team looked at the Human Microbiome Project, using an algorithm that took data from each volunteers visit. By analysing patterns, and looking for the presence of distinct species or strains of bacteria, the team could create a code that was consistent over time for each individual. They could identify the right person in a third of cases, even after a visit several months later.
Although the accuracy of the algorithm was low, the issue is that it will easily be improved upon and people will be recognisable from the bacteria they leave behind. This adds to the biological data privacy concerns that have been an issue for many years, with groups showing that databases can be penetrated when cross-referenced with others. One group in 2013 could name five people who took part in an “anonymous” genome project.
“This isn’t an issue now and it’s not a high-risk issue, but it’s still important for us to consider. No one study has any danger of releasing private information but due to uniqueness, the ability to link across studies becomes possible,” says Huttenhower.