An alert angler noticed a sea turtle struggling in the Intracoastal Waterway Friday morning and alerted authorities. The fisherman told authorities that the sea turtle was unable to dive under the water.

Analyzing Sea Turtle Sickness, UF Researchers Discover They Can Pull Human DNA From Thin Air

University of Florida researchers claim they may have stumbled across a new tool for fighting crime and aiding other pursuits with the ability to collect DNA samples from the air.
Source: FWC

University of Florida researchers claim they may have stumbled across a new tool for fighting crime and aiding other pursuits with the ability to collect DNA samples from the air.

An article published on Monday in the academic journal Nature Ecology & Evolution said the “inadvertent” capture of DNA samples, recovered during research of sea turtles could significantly advance “underutilized and underconsidered” human applications of environmental DNA, or eDNA.

“High-quality human eDNA could be intentionally recovered from environmental substrates (water, sand and air), holding promise for beneficial medical, forensic and environmental applications,” the authors noted. They called the phenomenon “human genetic bycatch,” or HGB.

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In a press release accompanying the article, UF researchers noted, “On the beach. In the ocean. Traveling along riverways. In muggy Florida and chilly Ireland. Even floating through the air. We cough, spit, shed and flush our DNA into all of these places and countless more.”

“Signs of human life can be found nearly everywhere, short of isolated islands and remote mountaintops,” the release added.

Yet, “That ubiquity is both a scientific boon and an ethical dilemma.”

While crime-drama fans know DNA can be recovered from almost any substance we touch, UF researchers who sequenced the samples in the study found it was “of such high quality that the scientists could identify mutations associated with disease and determine the genetic ancestry of nearby populations. They could even match genetic information to individual participants who had volunteered to have their errant DNA recovered.”

“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 who led the research, said in the release. “In most cases the quality is almost equivalent to if you took a sample from a person.”

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Duffy, a professor of wildlife disease genomics, said “ethically handled” eDNA samples could benefit areas as diverse as medicine, environmental science, archaeology, and criminal forensics.

Researchers could, for instance, track cancer mutations from wastewater or find previously undiscovered archaeological sites by checking for nearby DNA. Detectives could even identify suspects simply by catching DNA floating in the air near a crime scene.

Researchers uncovered the human DNA in the tracks sea turtles made on the beach. They expected to discover some DNA in such samples.

But the discovery led them to expand their search. Thus, with permission, scientists collected DNA from the staff at a veterinary hospital simply by taking air samples.

That, however, leads researchers to call for legal guidelines about handling, using and disposing of such results.

“Because of the ability to potentially identify individuals, the researchers say that ethical guardrails are necessary for this kind of research,” UF’s press release noted.

“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?” Duffy said in the release.

“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. These are issues we are trying to raise early so policymakers and society have time to develop regulations.”

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