Friday 8 November 2013

Personal Genome Project UK and Dr Evil’s frame-up

-->George Church started something great back in 2005, now Stephan Beck at the UCL Cancer Centre has kicked off the UK’s own Personal Genome Project. The idea has always been a simple one, get data from willing participants, make genome sequencing free and make the data available on a free-to-access model. The PGP has always aimed to be clear that there is little in direct benefit to participants; except of course the warm and fuzzy feeling that only your genome being sequenced can give you!

Dr Evil is back: The PGP website lists some of the benefits to science, I won’t well on those here. They also talk about some of the risks and one in particular caught my attention; that data might allow someone to “make synthetic DNA corresponding to the participant and plant it at a crime scene”.

I covered this possibility in a post last year that discussed using a PCR amplified STR control sample as a molecular disguise to hide your DNA fingerprint at a crime scene. I’d be thinking more about this and it should be entire possible to infer microsatellite length from genome data (PGP, ICGC, or any other) and to create a mix of alleles from synthetic DNA that can be easily amplified.

Genomes are easily available nowadays, as are exomes, RNA-seq, ChIP-seq and many other data sets (Dr Evil's been thinking about that too). So getting hold of the data is free, analysis is tough but not impossible and the costs of making a DNA-disguise are perhaps just a couple of thousand dollars.

What does this mean in court: How long before someone demonstrates this, and when they do does this mean DNA evidence takes a knock in court? At some point in the future we will have to move away from microsatellite fingerprints to SNP-based, WGS-based or ideally methylation-based identification. At least a methylation signature can’t be easily amplified; yet! I hope someone in the law enforcement community is giving this a bit of thought.

Back to PGP-UK: How quickly will people sign up, how quickly will sequencing be done? I'm going to be talking to my family over the weekend to see about signing up and see if we can get uncles and aunts in the project too. I'm a strong believer in that this data is going to make a difference to future generation and the benefits outweigh the risks.

Unless of course someone picks my genome as the one to sell to the crooks, the ultimate in identity theft!

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