The finding, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 11 May, suggests that it might be possible to identify a participant in an anonymous study of the body’s microbial denizens — its microbiome — and to reveal details about that person’s health, diet or ethnicity. A publicly available trove of microbiome DNA maintained by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), meanwhile, already contains potentially identifiable human DNA, according to a study published in Genome Research on 29 April.
The papers do not name individuals on the basis of their microbiomes — and predict that it would be difficult to do so currently — but they do suggest that those conducting microbiome research should take note.
“Right now, it’s a little bit of a Wild West as far as microbiome data management goes,” says Curtis Huttenhower, a computational biologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, who led the latest study1. “As the field develops, we need to make sure there’s a realization that our microbiomes are highly unique.”
Human-genomics researchers have grappled with privacy concerns for years. In 2013, scientists showed that they could name five people who had taken part anonymously in the international 1,000 Genomes project, by cross-referencing their DNA with a genealogy database that also contained ages, locations and surnames. (Read more from “Microbiomes Raise Privacy Concerns and Here’s Why” HERE)