Page URL:

Microbiome 'fingerprints' could identify individuals

18 May 2015
Appeared in BioNews 802

The communities of microbes living in and on the human body - known as the microbiome - differ enough between people that researchers can use them to tell one person from another in a population of hundreds.

By looking at the microbial DNA in samples from the skin, mouth, gut and vagina, scientists were able to generate unique codes for each person. The gut microbiome codes proved remarkably stable over time: 86 percent of people were identifiable nearly a year later.

'Linking a human DNA sample to a database of human DNA "fingerprints" is the basis for forensic genetics, which is now a decades-old field. We've shown that the same sort of linking is possible using DNA sequences from microbes inhabiting the human body - no human DNA required,' said author Dr Eric Franzosa, lead author of the study and research fellow at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Massachusetts, USA.

To generate the microbial fingerprints, the researchers developed a computer algorithm similar to ones that transmit information over the internet. The team applied their algorithm to a publicly available database produced from the Human Microbiome Project (HMP). The HMP took multiple samples from 242 people over a period ranging from 30 days up to one year.

Although the gut microbiome produced the strongest signatures, samples taken from other parts of the body still identified one third of people. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also found that false matches were rare.

The team predicts that their identifying codes would only be unique in populations of around 700 people. 

A person's microbial features were, on the whole, worse at identifying people compared with using their cellular DNA. However, the ability to identify people by their microbiomes could raise concerns for people enrolled in microbiome research projects.

'This opens the door to connecting human microbiome samples between databases, which has the potential to expose sensitive subject information - for example, a sexually transmitted infection, detectable from the microbiome sample itself,' said Dr Franzosa.

Professor Curtis Huttenhower, senior author of the study, cautioned against undue worry, telling Nature it would be 'exceptionally challenging to do anything with the microbiome data in a single study'. Dr Amy McGuire, a bioethicist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas also told the journal, 'I don’t think there should be premature panic over this.'

Identifying personal microbiomes using metagenomic codes
PNAS |  11 May 2015
Microbial DNA in Human Body Can Be Used to Identify Individuals
Scientific American |  13 May 2015
Microbiome Fingerprints
The Scientist |  11 May 2015
Microbiomes raise privacy concerns
Nature |  11 May 2015
Personal microbiomes shown to contain unique 'fingerprints'
Eurekalert (press release) |  11 May 2015
16 March 2020 - by Dr Jay Stone 
Different types and stages of cancer may cause unique microbial DNA signatures that can be detected in the blood, according to new research published in Nature...
3 February 2020 - by Dr Nicoletta Charolidi 
RNA sequencing has been used for the characterisation of pathogens in human sperm, giving the potential to be used as a new diagnostic tool for infertility investigations...
15 January 2018 - by Purvi Shah 
New research has shown a connection between the potential role of gut bacteria having an active role in gene expression and in turn reducing the risk of cancer...
30 March 2015 - by Professor Nils Hoppe 
One of the legally and ethically problematic issues regularly debated in the context of biobanks and tissue repositories is that of its potential for forensic use. When Anna Lindh (the Swedish foreign minister) was murdered in 2003, her killer was subsequently identified by way of matching DNA traces found at the crime scene with data contained on the killer's Guthrie card...
10 November 2014 - by Dr Charlotte Warren-Gash 
Our genetic make-up influences the type of bacteria that live in our gut, which in turn influences how likely we are to be overweight, a twin study has found...
24 March 2014 - by Chris Hardy 
A new technique allows scientists to make guesses about what a person's face looks like, by examining just 20 genes in their DNA...
17 September 2012 - by Daryl Ramai 
Five genes that determine a person’s facial shape have been identified, in a study of almost 10,000 Europeans...
18 June 2012 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
The most extensive catalogue of the trillions of microbes that live in and on humans - called the human microbiome - has been published by an international team of scientists...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.