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Your Genetic Secrets May Not Be as Safe as You Think
Date:1/18/2013

By Lisa Esposito
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Jan. 17 (HealthDay News) -- When people submit personal genetic material for scientific research they expect to remain anonymous, but a new study demonstrates that the privacy of male volunteers in particular could be breached.

In a report that appears in the Jan. 18 issue of the journal Science, researchers say they were able to determine the identities of nearly 50 people who had undergone genome sequencing. Only males could be directly identified because the scientists used information found only on the Y chromosome.

The first step was going online and pulling up the anonymous but unique information.

"Right now in genomics, we have databases that are publicly available and they contain thousands of genomes -- but without explicit identifiers, without the name and the surname of the person," explained study author Yaniv Erlich. "What we've shown is that you can take a genome from this publicly available database for research, and analyze the Y chromosome in this genome if this is a male."

That may be possible for Erlich -- a distinguished fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research -- but what about someone without specialized knowledge?

"You need some skills to do that," he said. "There are available tools that you can use, but you need to know what to do. It's not like a layperson can start tomorrow doing this research. Surely there is some learning curve."

But, he added, "You don't need a lab, just a computer with Internet connection."

The next step involved genetic genealogy sites -- such as Family Tree DNA -- that allow people to search for their ancestors.

"So we analyze the Y chromosome, and then you can take this data and go to a different database of recreational genetic genealogy," Erlich said. "And some of these databases, they have a search engine where you can plug these Y chromosome markers in searc
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