EcoMeme: Is Your DNA a Public Concern?


The privacy watchdogs have been barking hard this season. In case you’ve been off-the-grid, here’s the controversy from the world of social media that preceded one perhaps even larger about DNA research…

This week, Facebook automatically gave its users’ personal information to sites like Yelp and Pandora. Now, you and your FB friends can see each others’ bitchiest restaurant reviews, and worst, one-hit-wonder indulgences whether or not you ever intended to reveal these to one another.

Last month, Google raised privacy concerns when it automatically revealed its email users’ closest contacts to the Gmail public, through the launch of its Google Buzz product. Google Buzz was supposed to have taken over Digg, Twitter, and everything else social media by now but hasn’t, quite partly due to public backlash.

Now, imagine it’s not your social map, preferred menu or your pop cultural sensibilities being scrutinized and seen by the public. This time, it’s your actual hereditary material! We’re talking public, deoxyribonucleic acid blues.

One Native American tribe, the Havasupai, sued and won their legal battle against researchers from the University of Arizona who were using their DNA to run tests for things the tribe never authorized.

According to several legal news sites, the Havasupai initially donated DNA samples agreeing to a project that was supposed to focus on their tribe’s high incidence of diabetes. But the samples kept getting tested. Other matters, besides diabetes vulnerability, became a question subject to the scientists’ inquiries including the tribe’s supposed geographical origins, and their collective mental health.

The environmental implications regarding how a specimen gets used are as staggering as the ethical and legal ones.

Fishing rigs in Japan, for example, may state and are authorized to fish for whales in order to study whale population changes and marine health, or to hunt whales within a quota. But they sometimes sell the whales they “accidentally” catch, or catch for “scientific study,” as whale meat on the black market.

Should they be allowed to re-sell the grand creatures they kill for food if the intent was scientific study? Isn’t it wasting them, not to eat them if they’ve already been hunted?

Or does a scientific and accidental allowance create a black market and culinary demand, as well as disrespect for endangered species?

Finally, if you gave your DNA up for one study, why not the other?

Use the links and resources below to get informed, and talk to us about how much intent matters when it comes to science and knowledge gains for the greater public. Comment below or holler on Twitter @ecosalon.

Basic Reading:

– “The geneticist responsible for the research has said that she had obtained permission for wider-ranging genetic studies. Acknowledging a desire to ‘remedy…wrong that was done,” the university’s Board of Regents agreed to pay $700,000 to 41 of the tribe’s members, return the blood samples and provide other forms of assistance to the [tribe]. Legal experts said [the settlement] was significant because it implied that the rights of research subjects can be violated when they are not fully informed about how their DNA might be used.” – Indian Tribe Wins Fight to Limit Research of Its DNA, a New York Times news feature

– A Discover magazine blog post asking what will happen to DNA samples that were gathered before the idea of consent was formalized in regards to DNA research, now that this case was won.

– “The vast majority of the world’s countries are against the killing of endangered animals in but Japan issues itself a “scientific whaling” permit using a loophole in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) bylaws to continue commercial whaling. Every year since the moratorium they escalate the “takes” or kills in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary to include more and more protected and endangered animals.” – A HuffingtonPost blog entry by Louie Psihoyos

Further Resources:

A privacy-focused blog that takes a strong side with the Havasupai tribe

Researchers’ perspectives on the matter of consent and DNA samples, via Swiss DNA Bank

Clashes between environmentalists and the whaling industry continue in New Zealand, a news feature at the New Zealand Herald

Image: micahb37

This is the latest installment of EcoMeme, a column featuring eco news, tech and trends by EcoSalon writer and columnist Lora Kolodny.