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Swabbing DNA on Phones Reveals Mysteries of Microbial World Around Us

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Ask someone “What’s on your phone?” and he or she might respond with some combination of photos, music, contacts, and mobile apps. But a series of interactive experiments co-led by a prominent geneticist are answering the question in a different way, by swabbing the surface of smartphones and telling their owners what bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other plant and animal matter are detected.

Chris Mason, a genomics professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, was the keynote speaker at the Wisconsin BioHealth Summit, an event held Tuesday in Madison, WI, and organized by BioForward, the state’s flagship life sciences advocacy group. Attendees were encouraged to have the DNA on their phones swabbed and analyzed on site.

“It’s all the DNA from any species,” says Mason, who also helps lead an initiative called MetaSUB that’s aimed at aggregating information on microbes from samples collected around the world. “However it got there is your story, and what it is is our story—to put the sequence together.”

Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), a large life sciences research technology company based in San Diego that’s sponsoring the experiment, will sequence the DNA collected. The experiment’s organizers will then perform analysis, which Mason says might involve cross-referencing data on microbes found on participants’ phones with information they provided about where they were before traveling to the event, for example. Illumina and others involved with the experiment could also map the human DNA found on phones to the human genome in order to predict someone’s ancestry, Mason says.

Mason, who received a bachelor degree in genetics and biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is perhaps best known as the senior investigator on a study Weill Cornell researchers released in 2015 analyzing microbial samples taken from the New York subway system. More than 48 percent of the DNA from these samples didn’t match any known organism—Mason says he doubts they came from extraterrestrial life forms—and both anthrax fragments and samples associated with bubonic plague reportedly turned up in the subway study.

The study’s findings were part of what inspired Mason and other scientists to launch MetaSUB. The goal of the initiative is to map the metagenome—“all the kingdoms of life,” as he describes it—in cities across the globe, as the Weill Cornell team did with New York’s subway network. By collecting samples in public transit systems and other highly trafficked places, MetaSUB’s organizers are hoping to gain insight into how microbes live, move, and pass from one human to another.

Mason says a project like MetaSUB and more lighthearted sequencing experiments like the phone swabs offered at the event this week are more feasible than in past years because the cost of sequencing a human genome continues to decrease.

Services such as 23andMe, which tells consumers about their ancestors’ likely places of origin based on DNA from a saliva sample, have increased enthusiasm around genetic data and understanding what people’s DNA can tell them, Mason says.

“More than ever before, people have a sense of agency about their own genetic data, their own ability to interrogate the molecules in their own bodies,” he says.

The future appears to be bright for the genetic testing market, which, according to a recent estimate, is expected to become a $22 billion-plus industry by 2024. Still, Mason says he and some other geneticists remain concerned about discrimination based on someone’s genetic information, or that of a relative. He points to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The law, which was passed in 2008, forbids employers and health insurers from discriminating against prospective workers and patients based on their DNA.

Mason says he supports the law, but thinks it doesn’t go far enough. He points out that it does not protect consumers from discrimination when shopping for some other forms of insurance—life, disability, and long-term care, for example.

Insurers now have information from more sources than ever, including social networks, at their disposal. That could end up hurting consumers, says Mason, who supports adding protections against genetic discrimination for more types of insurance and other services that require advance screening.

“It’s legal to discriminate based on genetic code—yours, or anyone in your family,” Mason says. An insurer can “say, ‘Oh, did you want to get life insurance? I saw on Facebook that your brother posted he has [a] high-risk Alzheimer’s gene. … I’m going to give you a three-times higher rate for life insurance.’ The biggest injustice [is] when someone discriminates against your DNA. You have no choice of your DNA.”