Scientists discover that they can find out a lot about someone from just 13 snippets of DNA held by the FBI

Scientists have discovered a way of identifying a people contained in distinct, theoretically anonymous databases from just 13 tiny snippets of DNA.

Being able to infer so much on the basis of so little information raises privacy concerns as scientists from Stanford University found that by starting with just 13 genetic markers they could infer hundreds of thousands more and potentially reveal a wealth of genetic information.

Scientists started with just 13 genetic markers because until recently 13 was the number of genetic markers the FBI needed for its Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database.

In 2013, the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruled in the case of Maryland v. King that the state of Maryland could retain DNA from anyone who’d been arrested there.

Since the genetic markers used to compile the nationwide CODIS database could not be used to infer private health data or other traits, the state argued the benefits of recording DNA from anyone even suspected of a crime outweighed those suspects’ privacy concerns.

The discovery, to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  contradicts that and scientists said when the same person is included in more than one genetic database, it may be possible to infer genetic traits from CODIS data or to find matches across different sets of DNA markers.

Scientists reached their conclusion by analysing two sets of genetic data from 872 human genomes.

The first set comprised just 13 markers, while the second contained a much broader dataset of 642,563 genetic markers that did not overlap with the first set.

Noah Rosenberg, a professor of biology and the paper’s senior author, and his team found there were strong enough patterns in the DNA that they could match upward of 90% of the records.

The team also noted that if they added in 17 more forensic markers, bringing the total to 30, they could match more than 99% of the records in the two datasets, so with the right combination of databases, it may be possible to infer a wealth of genetic information based on a very small set of markers.

However, the team also said that the discovery could aid the police by allowing them to improve the forensic marker system while maintaining backward compatibility.

With just 13 or even 20 genetic markers, authorities face a substantial risk of false positive matches.

Using larger and more modern marker sets would reduce false positive rates, but would introduce another problem: it might not be possible to check for matches against decades of profiles collected with the 13 markers that have been used to date.

The new results, Rosenberg said, give a proof of principle that it may be possible to develop a forensic genetic system with new marker sets and still be able to test for matches against databases assembled with the earlier 13 CODIS markers.

Iron Gran: First fall-preventing exoskeleton for elderly paves way for boom in senior wearables

An exoskeleton prototype has been built that counteracts a loss of balance to prevent the elderly from falling. A first in wearable machines, usually directed towards assisting regular movement, the exoskeleton is light-weight and easy-to-personalise.

Developed by researchers in at Scuola Sant’Anna in Italy and EPFL in Switzerland, and tested at the Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi Rehabilitation Center in Florence, the prototype is principally directed at protecting elderly patients from falls.

However, while it is primarily designed to combat the high rate of fall-induced deaths among the elderly – seniors are involved in 40% of fatal injuries related to falling in Europe – the exoskeleton could also be used as an aid for the physically impaired, amputees and those suffering from neurological disorders.

Worn from the waist down, the current prototype takes just a few minutes to adapt to a patient, adjusting the size for a particular user and learning the user’s gait. Equipped with motors at the hip and braces made out of carbon fibre, it may not yet be fit for discrete wear outside of a laboratory, but the functionality is impressive.

By detecting the particulars of how a user walks, establishing the pattern of their stride as a baseline, the exoskeleton’s system algorithm is able to detect any deviations from this baseline. Such a deviation could well be the onset of a fall, and the system responds by pushing down on both thighs with the motors, re-establishing stability at the hip.

The work shows that it is entirely possible to develop wearable robotics that can effectively assist with reactive motor responses. The principle challenge faced for the field, and one already partly dealt with by this exoskeleton’s personalisation, is the variable nature of human activity. Any wearable robotic may work off general principles but will have to be customisable to unique behaviours.

Images courtesy of EPFL

With this acting as merely the first prototype, it may not be long before we see entire retirement communities powered by various wearable robotics. Expanding from there, anything in a similar vein that can help the disabled or simply contribute to easing physical activity is likely to produce a range of assistive robotics.

The next step for the system will involve the adjustment of the exoskeleton to be more discrete and portable for use outside of a lab. Researchers will additionally be looking to test its usability with potential patients in real-life environments.

“This work paves the way for imagining a completely new generation of exoskeletons that will actually be effective outside of research laboratories thanks to their ability to augment users’ movement and make their mobility more stable and safe,” said Professor Nicola Vitiello, an expert in exoskeleton development from Scuola Sant’Anna.

“To reach these goals, exoskeletons must be endowed with features, like the one proved in this study, that really take into account what users can experience in real-life unstructured environments.”