Is It Possible to Predict Your Face, Voice, and Skin Color from Your DNA?
Renowned genetics pioneer Dr. J Craig Venter is no stranger to controversy.
Back in 2000, he famously raced the public Human Genome Project to decode all three billion letters of the human genome for the first time. A decade later, he ignited a new debate when his team created a bacterial cell with a synthesized genome.
Most recently, he's jumped back into the fray with a study in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the predictive potential of genomic data to identify individual traits such as voice, facial structure and skin color.
The new study raises significant questions about the privacy of genetic data.
His study applied whole-genome sequencing and statistical modeling to predict traits in 1,061 people of diverse ancestry. His approach aimed to reconstruct a person's physical characteristics based on DNA, and 74 percent of the time, his algorithm could correctly identify the individual in a random lineup of 10 people from his company's database.
While critics have been quick to cast doubt on the plausibility of his claims, the ability to discern people's observable traits, or phenotypes, from their genomes may grow more precise as technology improves, raising significant questions about the privacy and usage of genetic information in the long term.
J. Craig Venter showing slides from his recent study on facial prediction at the Summit Conference in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 2017.
(Courtesy of Kira Peikoff)
Critics: Study Was Incomplete, Problematic
Before even redressing these potential legal and ethical considerations, some scientists simply said the study's main result was invalid. They pointed out that the methodology worked much better in distinguishing between people of different ethnicities than those of the same ethnicity. One of the most outspoken critics, Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist at Columbia University, said, "The method doesn't work. The results were like, 'If you have a lineup of ten people, you can predict eight."
Erlich, who reviewed Venter's paper for Science, where it was rejected, said that he came up with the same results—correctly predicting eight of ten people—by just looking at demographic factors such as age, gender and ethnicity. He added that Venter's recent rebuttal to his criticism was that 'Once we have thousands of phenotypes, it might work better.' But that, Erlich argued, would be "a major breach of privacy. Nobody has thousands of phenotypes for people."
Other critics suggested that the study's results discourage the sharing of genetic data, which is becoming increasingly important for medical research. They go one step further and imply that people's possible hesitation to share their genetic information in public databases may actually play into Venter's hands.
Venter's own company, Human Longevity Inc., aims to build the world's most comprehensive private database on human genotypes and phenotypes. The vastness of this information stands to improve the accuracy of whole genome and microbiome sequencing for individuals—analyses that come at a hefty price tag. Today, Human Longevity Inc. will sequence your genome and perform a battery of other health-related tests at an entry cost of $4900, going up to $25,000. Venter initially agreed to comment for this article, but then could not be reached.
"The bigger issue is how do we understand and use genetic information and avoid harming people."
Opens Up Pandora's Box of Ethical Issues
Whether Venter's study is valid may not be as important as the Pandora's box of potential ethical and legal issues that it raises for future consideration. "I think this story is one along a continuum of stories we've had on the issue of identifiability based on genomic information in the past decade," said Amy McGuire, a biomedical ethics professor at Baylor College of Medicine. "It does raise really interesting and important questions about privacy, and socially, how we respond to these types of scientific advancements. A lot of our focus from a policy and ethics perspective is to protect privacy."
McGuire, who is also the Director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor, added that while protecting privacy is very important, "the bigger issue is how do we understand and use genetic information and avoid harming people." While we've taken "baby steps," she said, towards enacting laws in the U.S. that fight genetic determinism—such as the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on genetic information in health insurance and employment—some areas remain unprotected, such as for life insurance and disability.
J. Craig Venter showing slides from his recent study on facial prediction at the Summit Conference in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 2017.
(Courtesy of Kira Peikoff)
Physical reconstructions like those in Venter's study could also be inappropriately used by law enforcement, said Leslie Francis, a law and philosophy professor at the University of Utah, who has written about the ethical and legal issues related to sharing genomic data.
"If [Venter's] findings, or findings like them, hold up, the implications would be significant," Francis said. Law enforcement is increasingly using DNA identification from genetic material left at crime scenes to weed out innocent and guilty suspects, she explained. This adds another potentially complicating layer.
"There is a shift here, from using DNA sequencing techniques to match other DNA samples—as when semen obtained from a rape victim is then matched (or not) with a cheek swab from a suspect—to using DNA sequencing results to predict observable characteristics," Francis said. She added that while the former necessitates having an actual DNA sample for a match, the latter can use DNA to pre-emptively (and perhaps inaccurately) narrow down suspects.
"My worry is that if this [the study's methodology] turns out to be sort-of accurate, people will think it is better than what it is," said Francis. "If law enforcement comes to rely on it, there will be a host of false positives and false negatives. And we'll face new questions, [such as] 'Which is worse? Picking an innocent as guilty, or failing to identify someone who is guilty?'"
Risking Privacy Involves a Tradeoff
When people voluntarily risk their own privacy, that involves a tradeoff, McGuire said. A 2014 study that she conducted among people who were very sick, or whose children were very sick, found that more than half were willing to share their health information, despite concerns about privacy, because they saw a big benefit in advancing research on their conditions.
"We've focused a lot of our policy attention on restricting access, but we don't have a system of accountability when there's a breach."
"To make leaps and bounds in medicine and genomics, we need to create a database of millions of people signing on to share their genetic and health information in order to improve research and clinical care," McGuire said. "They are going to risk their privacy, and we have a social obligation to protect them."
That also means "punishing bad actors," she continued. "We've focused a lot of our policy attention on restricting access, but we don't have a system of accountability when there's a breach."
Even though most people using genetic information have good intentions, the consequences if not are troubling. "All you need is one bad actor who decimates the trust in the system, and it has catastrophic consequences," she warned. That hasn't happened on a massive scale yet, and even if it did, some experts argue that obtaining the data is not the real risk; what is more concerning is hacking individuals' genetic information to be used against them, such as to prove someone is unfit for a particular job because of a genetic condition like Alzheimer's, or that a parent is unfit for custody because of a genetic disposition to mental illness.
Venter, in fact, told an audience at the recent Summit conference in Los Angeles that his new study's approach could not only predict someone's physical appearance from their DNA, but also some of their psychological traits, such as the propensity for an addictive personality. In the future, he said, it will be possible to predict even more about mental health from the genome.
What is most at risk on a massive scale, however, is not so much genetic information as demographic identifiers included in medical records, such as birth dates and social security numbers, said Francis, the law and philosophy professor. "The much more interesting and lucrative security breaches typically involve not people interested in genetic information per se, but people interested in the information in health records that you can't change."
Hospitals have been hacked for this kind of information, including an incident at the Veterans Administration in 2006, in which the laptop and external hard drive of an agency employee that contained unencrypted information on 26.5 million patients were stolen from the employee's house.
So, what can people do to protect themselves? "Don't share anything you wouldn't want the world to see," Francis said. "And don't click 'I agree' without actually reading privacy policies or terms and conditions. They may surprise you."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”