Researchers call the unintended recovery of human DNA from environmental samples “bycatch of human genetics” and call for a deeper discussion about how to ethically manage human eDNA.

Human environmental DNA can lead to significant improvements for research in various fields such as natural resource conservation, epidemiology, forensic medicine, and agriculture. When used correctly, human eDNA can help archaeologists track undiscovered ancient human settlements, enable biologists to monitor cancer mutations in a specific population, or provide useful forensic information to law enforcement.

However, there are also countless ethical implications associated with the accidental or intentional collection and analysis of human eDNA. Identifiable information can be extracted from eDNA, and access to this level of detail about individuals or populations carries with it responsibilities for consent and confidentiality.

The researchers say their institutional review board ensured that their study of subjects followed ethical guidelines; But there is no guarantee that all researchers will adhere to these rules.

Many questions are raised about human environmental DNA. For example, who should have access to human eDNA sequences? Should this information be made available to the public? Is it necessary to obtain someone’s consent before sampling human environmental DNA? Should researchers remove human genetic information from samples originally collected to identify other species?

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