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From Agence France-Presse
Miami, US – A person’s gut bacteria and colony of microbes in the body and on the skin may be a unique identifier, much like a fingerprint, researchers say.
The study led by Harvard University is the first to investigate how identifiable people are based on their bacteria, which vary substantially based on age, diet, geographic location and health.
“Linking a human DNA sample to a database of human DNA ‘fingerprints’ is the basis for forensic genetics,” said lead author Dr Eric Franzosa, research fellow in the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard.
“We’ve shown the same sort of linking is possible using DNA sequences from microbes inhabiting the body – no human DNA required.”
Stool samples were particularly reliable. Up to 86% of people could be identified by their gut bacteria after one year. Skin samples were less reliable, said the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Even if the samples could not be matched, there were few false positives. In most cases, either a match was made or not, but rarely was the wrong person identified.
The study was based on a pool of 120 people, among 242 who donated stool, saliva and skin samples to the Human Microbiome Project, which maintains a research public database. A computer science algorithm established individual codes based on donors’ micro biomes, and compared to the same people’s samples collected during follow-up visits, and to a pool of strangers.
Researchers said their study shows it is possible to match human microbiome samples across databases.
This raises ethical issues: it could expose sensitive information such as sexually transmitted infection detected from the microbiome without the subject’s DNA or consent.
The potential for data privacy concerns is low but theoretically possible, said senior author Dr Curtis Huttenhower, associate professor of computational biology and bioinformatics at Harvard. – Agence France-Presse