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Breakthrough made in DNA capture; France still top EU collector of genetic profiles

Breakthrough made in DNA capture; France still top EU collector of genetic profiles

United States researchers have demonstrated that they can capture human genetic data, including medical and ancestry information, from tiny fragments of DNA from the environment using environmental DNA (eDNA) techniques.

The work has raised privacy, legal and ethics questions because captured data could be used relatively efficiently to surveil people of specific ancestral backgrounds or with particular medical conditions or disabilities.

It is also possible that eDNA technology could increase the urgency to enact comprehensive genetic privacy regulations, the New York Times reports.

The research was published this week in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution by a team led by an assistant professor at University of Florida, David Duffy.

Environmental DNA detects traces of genetic material that all living things leave behind. The technology has been improved by scientists who use the method to track wildlife and monitor pathogens in wastewater systems. Environmental DNA can even capture genetic material from the air inside a building.

The U.S. researchers reportedly proved they can recover enough mitochondrial DNA from a small amount of water in a creek to generate a snapshot of the genetic ancestry of the population around the creek. One mitochondrial sample was even complete enough to meet the requirements for the federal missing persons database.

The research opens the possibility that law enforcement could use it to incriminate people. However, wildlife ecologists who developed the techniques say the science is not that mature.

France collects most DNA profiles in EU for police

France tops the list of EU countries collecting DNA for police use — 6.5 million profiles — followed by Germany with 1.2 million, Spain with 477,000 and the Netherlands with 417,000. The profiles are a part of the Prüm framework, which permits the automated exchange of data, such as fingerprints and vehicle registrations, among EU law enforcement agencies.

The figures were revealed in an internal EU document dated May 4 and obtained by the EU Observer.

France was also the leader in DNA data collection last year when it amassed 6 million profiles. The country has been spearheading the creation of a central computer router within the Prüm framework that would manage connections between nations’ databases in the EU. The router would allow for mass DNA searches.

A planned overhaul of the framework would give access to EU’s police agency Europol and integrating police facial recognition database, a move that has been criticized by digital rights groups that see it as steering the project towards a mass biometric surveillance system.

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