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Science Policy Around the Web – July 6, 2018

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By: Kelly Tomins, BSc

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source: pixabay

Genetic privacy

Could DNA Testing Reunite Immigrant Families? Get the Facts.

Since the enactment of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, over 2300 children have been separated from their families at the border. The policy caused widespread outrage throughout the US, and over 400,000 people protested the policy at the “Families Belong Together” march last week. Although the policy has since been redacted, the government has shown little transparency on how they plan to reunite families. Could DNA testing be a solution?

DNA testing companies, MyHeritage and 23andMe, seem to think so. They have offered thousands of testing kits to help reunite migrant children to their families. Scientifically, these tests are very reliable, and can detect direct relations by 99.9% accuracy. However, the science is the least complicated aspect of this situation.

Consent and privacy are several of the most troubling aspects of the use of these tests. Due to medical privacy rules, children would need a designated legal guardian or representative to have their DNA tested, which is clearly a problem. In addition, adults likely cannot give informed consent, especially since they are in distressing conditions and many do not speak English. Migrants may feel pressured to have the sequencing done if they believe it is the only way to be reunited with their children. DNA sequencing reveals private information about health and paternity, and sequencing data stored in databases has been used to genetically track criminals. It is difficult to imagine that detainees would be given enough information about DNA sequencing and its’ implications to make an informed decision.

Despite these concerns, according to an unnamed federal official, DNA testing has already begun. Jennifer K. Falcon, communications director for RAICES, a nonprofit in Texas that offers free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, is extremely against DNA testing in this context. In addition to her concerns regarding consent, she argues that the government will have access to extremely personal data that could be used for future surveillance. Although 23andMe and MyHeritage have assured that the genetic data will only be used for reunification, it is unclear what will happen to the DNA samples and data afterwards.

Beyond the ethical and logistical hurdles in this case, DNA sequencing is not a quick fix. 23andMe state on their website that sample processing takes 6-8 weeks. It would also be a logistical nightmare to obtain and match DNA samples from all the detainees currently in custody, especially when matching results from two different genetic testing companies. Critics point out that registering the identity and locations of migrant parents and children would have circumvented the need for such invasive testing. Although genetic tests are cheaper and more accessible than ever, they require unique consideration to address issues of privacy and consent.

(Maya Wei-Haas, National Geographic)

Endangered species

Rhino Embryos Made in Lab to Save Nearly Extinct Subspecies

Thousands of northern white rhinos once inhabited the grasslands of east and central Africa, but habitat loss and poaching led to the population’s swift demise. All hope for the survival of the rhino subspecies seemed lost when the its’ last remaining male, Sudan, died earlier this year.  There are now only two surviving individuals of the subspecies, a mother-daughter pair named Najin and Fatu, both of whom are infertile. Remarkably, a new breakthrough in reproductive technology has reignited the possibility of saving this subspecies.

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, Dr. Thomas Hildebrant, a wildlife reproductive biologist, and his team show for the first time that rhino embryos can be created using in vitro fertilization (IVF). Although there are no remaining living males of the subspecies, there are four samples of frozen sperm that could potentially be used for reproduction. The research group created four hybrid embryos by combining frozen northern white rhino sperm and eggs from southern white rhinos. The scientists plan on implanting these hybrid embryos into surrogates, to see if they survive to birth. If that is successful, the scientists aim to extract eggs from the remaining female northern white rhinos and create pure-blood northern white rhinos in the lab.

Since there is a limited supply of northern white rhino gametes (only four sperm samples and two egg samples), Hildebrant and his team are also pursuing a technology called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). iPSC are a type of stem cell that can be created from adult cells, such as skin or blood. These iPSC can then be reprogrammed into various cell types. iPSC have already been created from northern white rhinos, and scientists are now figuring out how to convert them to sperm and eggs. Since the San Diego zoo has skin cells from 12 northern white rhinos, the future conversion of these cells into gametes could provide more genetic diversity to any future population.

While many conservation scientists applaud the use of technology to save the subspecies, many wonder whether the resources should rather be spent protecting habitats for remaining rhinos on-the-ground. In a study in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists show that de-extinction efforts can lead to a net biodiversity loss, since resources could be spent on endangered species. As Dr. Bennett, a conservation scientist at Carleton University, puts it “if the person is couching de-extinction in terms of conservation, then she or he needs to have a very sober look at what one could do with those millions of dollars with living species — there’s already plenty to do.”

(Steph Yin, New York Times)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 6, 2018 at 3:11 pm

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