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Anyone who has watched a crime drama knows that a stray hair or drop of blood contains enough DNA to convict a suspect. But did you know you can also leave your DNA behind with every breath and step you take?

Genetic sequencing technology is now advanced enough to be able to extract identifiable information about your gender, genetic ancestry and health risks from trace samples exposed to the elements and mixed in with other species. It can even be pulled straight from the air.

Ecologists and marine biologists Jenny Whilde and Jessica Alice Farrell of the University of Florida collect environmental DNA, or eDNA – genetic material organisms shed into the environment – to study endangered sea turtles. While they knew they were likely collecting DNA from other species as well, including humans, they didn’t know just how informative that DNA could be.

“Identifiable information can be extracted from eDNA, and accessing this level of detail about individuals or populations comes with responsibilities relating to consent and confidentiality,” they write. “We’re calling for deeper discussion about how to ethically handle human environmental DNA.”

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Yesterday’s editor’s note misspelled the name of scholar Boaz Dvir. We regret the error.

Vivian Lam

Associate Health and Biomedicine Editor

A casual stroll on the beach can leave enough intact DNA behind to extract identifiable information. Comezora/Moment via Getty Images

You shed DNA everywhere you go – trace samples in the water, sand and air are enough to identify who you are, raising ethical questions about privacy

Jenny Whilde, University of Florida; Jessica Alice Farrell, University of Florida

Environmental DNA provides a wealth of information for conservationists, archaeologists and forensic scientists. But the unintentional pickup of human genetic information raises ethical questions.

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