Vol. 126 June 15, 2015 New Ways to Identify Individuals

hub“Getting to know you,
“Getting to know all about you …”

– Anna, from The King and I

Our concern about “privacy” springs from the awareness of the many ways that new technology can let other people learn about us and identify us; gleaning info from the net, monitoring phone activity, screening videos from ubiquitous security cameras, or even being photographed by a drone. It is not like we need to read about another technology people can use “to get to know us”, to identify us, whether we like it or not. Well, read on dear reader.

Individuals can now be identified by their intestinal microbes, their bacteria, like they can be identified by their fingerprints. The pattern of types and amounts of microbes in feces apparently varies by individual, and researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health were able to correctly identify which stool sample came from which person 80% of the time. We all have our own specific, consistent microbial “stool print” that remains fixed over months and even a year. No one is certain whether it is genetics, or diet, or just happenstance, but our gut flora, our intestinal microbe community, remains fairly consistent and is different for each individual. These “microbial fingerprints”, if known in the 1920’s, sure would have added another meaning to the name “Bugs Moran”.

Stool microbial fingerprints are not as reliable as DNA match-ups, and we will learn much more about that when the case of the “devious defecator” goes to trial this month in Atlanta, Georgia. The case is a result of the mysterious periodic appearances of human feces in a retail food warehouse. Laborious, traditional detective work by the employer narrowed the suspects down to two men. Each was asked for, and consented to, a mouth swab for DNA to compare with the DNA in the feces piles. Neither man was a match, so no action was taken, BUT a judge has decided that the men’s suit against the employer can go forward to a jury trial on damages ( “ridicule, embarrassment, and humiliation” ) under GINA.

GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act)  was passed seven years ago to prevent employers and insurers from using genetic information to avoid hiring people who have genes that increase the risk of them developing a costly disease. Under this law the employer cannot ask for or buy genetic information. Even though no information on disease risk was sought or obtained in this case, the judge ruled that “a genetic test is a genetic test is a genetic test”, and the case could go to trial. In other words, “Any genetic test done to embarrass or harm an individual violates federal law”. (1).  So, “s**t happens”, and now they can tell that it’s your s**t, but your employer may not be able to do anything about it.

Meanwhile back in Boston, Harvard researchers have developed a $25, single-drop-of- blood test that can identify which of 1000 strains of 206 viruses an individual has contracted in his or her lifetime. People from different countries (U.S., South Africa, Thailand, and Peru) had different “viral fingerprints”, presumably from different exposures. If the researchers can identify your country by a viral pattern, one can only wonder how precise an identification tool this might become with 1000 x 206 data points. The test takes months to complete and is available now only as a research tool, but the patent is pending. (Virscan)

So, as we watch technology advance from fingerprint identification to bacterial, viral, and DNA “prints” as new ways for others “ to get to know us”, it is natural to ask, “Can ‘energy prints’ be far behind?”

1. NY Times June 2,2015, D6

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