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Who Needs DNA?

A new study published online in Nature Genetics by Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Eric Schadt and Ke Hao shows you don't always need DNA to identify someone, says Popular Science's Rebecca Boyle. DNA databases certainly contain the most detailed information needed to find a person, but RNA databases can be just as valuable, the study shows. "[Schadt and Hao] figured out how to infer a person's DNA using RNA data," Boyle says. They analyzed RNA levels in liver tissue samples and looked for expression quantitative trait loci. "They used algorithms that matched these eQTL patterns to variations in DNA bases, extrapolating the DNA sequences," Boyle adds. Schadt says that it's like "hearing a symphony and deducing which instruments are in the orchestra, essentially unwinding the developmental process to trace tissue samples back to RNA and the gene that instructed it." Using this method, a person's RNA could be used to match that person to an independently obtained DNA sample.

But the findings are also raising questions about genomic privacy, Boyle says. "If you have stomach-shrinking surgery, and you've never donated DNA to a crime database, should the authorities really be able to track you down via your medical history?" she says. But in a Mount Sinai news release, Schadt says everyone would be better served by a society that accepts that these new kinds of "high-dimensional data."

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