New Scientist - 02.18.2020

(C. Jardin) #1

12 | New Scientist | 8 February 2020

THE privacy of people who add
their DNA to research databases
may be vulnerable to hackers,
who could exploit the
information published in
genome studies to identify
an individual’s genetic code.
Genetics researchers are
inadvertently publishing
information that can theoretically
be pieced together to identify
someone’s DNA held in a research
or commercial database, say
Daphne Ezer at the Alan Turing
Institute in London and her
colleagues. Her team simulated
how attackers could identify
a person’s genetic code, and
used this method to find a
single dog’s genetic material
in a DNA database.
Genome-wide association
studies (GWAS) identify genes
that are associated with personal
traits or disease. Researchers use
large databases containing the
DNA of hundreds of thousands
of people to conduct these studies
and detect subtle DNA differences
between participants.
Ezer’s team showed how, under
some circumstances, a hacker

could use the information about
an individual’s traits published
in GWAS to recover that person’s
genetic information – known
as a reconstruction attack.
“You might even be able to
identify an individual with just
two studies performed on the
same database, if a small number
of people are included in one
study but not another,” says
Ezer. This could happen if, for

example, some participants
skip a survey question or join
one study later than the other,
which Ezer’s team describe as
a “potentially common” scenario.
In these cases, attackers can
use algorithms to predict the
genetic details of an individual in
one of the studies by combining
information from both. The team
showed this is possible by finding
the genetic information of a single
dog in the Cornell Dog Genome
database (bioRxiv,
To protect volunteers’ genetic
privacy when publishing the

results of a study, the team
suggests that researchers try
scrambling the data to make
it noisier, or conceal some
identifiable information.
Because the study involved
dogs, we don’t know if a similar
attack would identify people
from their genetic information.
But if used with the technique that
exposed a potential vulnerability
in the genealogy testing website
GEDMatch in October 2019,
“it could potentially be used
to reveal the identities of
individual participants”, says
David Baranger, a neurogenetics
researcher at the University
of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
The UK Biobank, which
holds 500,000 genomes in
its database, says researchers
are prohibited from trying to
identify a participant in this way.
“We are not aware of any such
incident where this has occurred,”
says a spokesperson.
“Researchers treat the privacy
of participants in projects such
as the UK Biobank very seriously,”
says David Curtis at University
College London. ❚


Becca Muir







Blood samples are
analysed to produce DNA
data for genome studies


The seabed is slowly
sinking but it won’t
stop sea level rise

THE weight of water from melting
ice caps is causing the seabed to
sink about 0.1 millimetres a year.
“Greenland and Antarctica are
melting much faster [than they
were previously], so we can expect
much higher ocean deformation
in the future,” says Bramha Dutt
Vishwakarma at the University
of Bristol in the UK.
He and his colleagues calculated
how much the extra mass in the

ocean is pushing down the sea
floor, and what this means for sea
levels. They found that it will have
only a tiny effect on future sea level
rise because the oceans are rising
about 3 millimetres per year – far
faster than the seabed is sinking
(Geophysical Research Letters,
doi. org/dkvv).
Sea level rise is due to climate
change, which is in turn driven
by our greenhouse gas emissions.
Forecasts for 21st-century sea level
rise vary between 1 and 2 metres.
As the climate warms, so does
seawater, and when water warms
it expands, causing the sea to rise.

In the 20th century, this thermal
expansion was the main driver of
sea level rise, says Jonathan Bamber
at the University of Bristol, who
collaborated on the work. As a
result, the mass of the oceans
stayed about the same, even as
their volume grew.

Now, a warmer climate is
melting the ice in glaciers and
the great ice caps, causing more
water to flow into the sea. That
is steadily increasing the mass
of the oceans and pressing the
seabed downwards.
Both Vishwakarma and Bamber
emphasise that the finding will
make no meaningful difference
to future sea level rise. While the
sinking seabed will slow sea level
rise, the effect is too small to be
meaningful because the seabed is
sinking about 30 times more slowly
than sea levels are rising. ❚
Michael Marshall

Sea levels
are forecast
to rise between
1 and 2 metres
this century






Privacy of genetic research

volunteers may be at risk

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