What can the DNA in your poop teach us about ethics?S

A scientist has posted the results of DNA analysis of his poop online. It's literally the shittiest dataset ever released to the public domain! But it's also a wellspring for serious discussion about new areas of biological research — and the weird new ethical considerations that go along with them.

Manuel Corpas is a scientist on a mission. To better understand the results of personal genomic tests conducted by him and his family, he's opted to crowdsource their analysis, releasing the results from each test to the public domain. The latest dataset to be posted? DNA sequences from his fecal sample.

Write Corpas, who specializes in genome analysis:

The DNA from my personal fecal sample is finally available for public download. The data are released under a public domain license (CC0 1.0). This means that you can copy, modify, distribute and work on it, even for commercial purposes, without asking permission.

All DNA contained in my faeces can be used to create a metagenomics analysis. This includes the identification of every bacteria, virus and every other living organism present in my poo. At the end of this process I hope to be able to complement my metagenomics analysis results with those from my personal genome and the genomes of my family.

People have already started analyzing the data. Within a day of posting his results, Corpas received a response from one Willy Valdivia, who claimed to have charted the percentage of DNA for the top 25 organisms in Corpas' fecal sample:

What can the DNA in your poop teach us about ethics?S

Corpas' very public mission is certainly bound to trigger more than a few snickers, but it's playing out at the intersection of multiple spheres of cutting-edge biology, social phenomena, technology and research.

Personal genomic analysis and internet crowdsourcing, nascent platforms though each may be, could complement one another in surprising and significant ways – though some fear they could do so at the expense of privacy. Carl Zimmer recently explored the overlap between property, justice and biology in a NYT piece about the microbiome (the "microbiome" being the ecosystems of microscopic organisms that live in and on our bodies):

IMAGINE a scientist gently swabs your left nostril with a Q-tip and finds that your nose contains hundreds of species of bacteria. That in itself is no surprise; each of us is home to some 100 trillion microbes. But then she makes an interesting discovery: in your nose is a previously unknown species that produces a powerful new antibiotic. Her university licenses it to a pharmaceutical company; it hits the market and earns hundreds of millions of dollars. Do you deserve a cut of the profits?

For bioethicists, one of the most important questions is what our microbes can reveal about ourselves. Studies have revealed, for example, that people who are sick with certain diseases tend to have distinctive collections of microbes. Someday we may get important clues to people’s health from a survey of their microbes. Professor Rhodes argues that this sort of information will deserve the same protection as information about our own genes. Your germs are your own business, in other words.

Incidentally, microbiome analysis is another burgeoning field of biological research related to Corpas' latest dataset. Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, the organism with the most abundant DNA in the above chart, is a commensal bacterium that is typically abundant in the gut microbiome of humans. Research suggests that a deficiency in this beneficial microoganism could contribute to Crohn's disease. It's not difficult to imagine how the study of F. prausnitzii, other gut microbiota, and their relative distributions could lead to more effective treatments of Crohn's and other intestinal ailments. Neither is it hard to envision how making individual microbiome data publicly available could expedite this research process.

But big bioethical questions loom: What role does intellectual property play at the meeting of personal medicine and public research? What about anonymous participation – is a de-identified release of genomic data to the public even a feasible option anymore? (Recent investigations suggest it is not.) Can non-scientists ever truly understand what it means to grant full consent to someone else to make use of their genomic data – if not, could a project like Corpas' ever be implemented, realistically, on a broad scale?

Corpas, for his part, argues that "no one’s consent is ever perfect in personal genomics tests" – not even trained scientists – "because one never knows what s/he is going to find."

"Acceptance of personal genomic risks is more a question of attitude," he says, "rather than being informed."

Additional Reading
More about "The Corpas Genome" here. Read Carl Zimmer's piece on "the confusing new frontier" of bioethics here.

Top image via Shutterstock